New Meaning to Trashy Literature

Renowned Civil War historian Shelby Foote once quipped, “A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.” One could say a similar thing about a town and its library.  My morning routine often takes me past the library, and this column came to me several weeks ago as I brought my household compost to the Project COW compost bin at the WSWM recycling facility on Ferry Road.

The Brooks Memorial Library is an essential conduit for information and vital services to all sectors of our town’s population. But more than that, it’s an intellectual, emotional and psychological haven for many. Like the inscription over the door at the ancient library at Thebes, it is the “medicine of the soul.” Without fail, a crowd gathers in front of the library waiting for it to open each day. They are college students doing research, moms with their children, people using the computers for job searches, and elderly folks keeping up with the news in five different papers. I see the line form each morning and am reminded of something Lady Bird Johnson once said. “Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only requirement is interest.”

A majority of our town’s residents use the services of the library.  According to statistics recorded at the Vermont Department of Libraries, over 62% of our community is registered as borrowers, compared with just over 33% in Burlington. Brooks Memorial welcomed over 10,000 people to its special library programs last year, and it is the busiest public interlibrary loan location in the state. Per year, the staff estimates that up to 7,500 patrons receive training on the library PCs, and 700 people use electronic resources at the library each week.  People rely on the library—not merely for edification but for survival in an increasingly competitive world.  (In the interest of full disclosure, my spouse is on the board of trustees of the library. But my love affair with our library pre-dates my marriage and my children.)

These statistics prove what we all know: our library is a cherished institution in our community. But its critical services come with a price. Select board member Christopher Chapman has recently made several impassioned pleas about the rising costs of tipping fees and our need to reduce waste. His public pitches have illuminated an irony:  we appear to be more committed to throwing stuff out than to preserving vital services in our town. We paid trash haulers nearly $300,000 in tipping fees last year, and those costs are expected to rise significantly in the future. In order to have money for important services, we have to start taking advantage of programs like Project COW.

I am not a star gardener who understands all the ins and out of composting. All my pumpkin plants died last year, and I’ve not had a decent tomato year since, well—honestly—ever. But I do understand one basic thing about compost: our family produces waste that should not go in the trash. Food scraps, fat and bones from Saturday night’s roast chicken, and the moldering refuse from the far corners of the ‘fridge need to be composted. All this stuff breaks down naturally.  There’s no need to put it in the landfill, and it is very expensive to throw out.  We collect ours and dump it either in the bin on Fairgrounds Road or Old Ferry Road. And soon the town will be piloting curbside compost pickup for 150 households.

The 5-gallon bucket that we use for our Project COW compost originally held joint compound, but you can buy a new bucket and lid at the hardware store for just a few bucks.  Line it with either newspaper or paper bags. That way the waste slides out easily, and you can toss the sodden paper in the bin. Although it’s true that homeowners tend to have more room than renters, most folks can find room enough under the kitchen sink for one bucket.

Like every town in this country, Brattleboro has limited funds. This means we must make better choices about how we spend our money—choices that serve our values. I value our library tremendously and would like to see its full Thursday and Saturday hours restored. You may be eyeing a new road grader or you might like to spend money on safer crosswalks. We don’t need to agree now on how “found” money would be better spent. The first step—before we get to that marvelous democratic tradition of advocating, cajoling and convincing—is to get the money back.

We Vermonters have shown this past year that we are very good at the grand gesture. We emptied our pockets for those left homeless from the Brooks House fire and for the thousands impacted by Tropical Storm Irene. Project COW composting is decidedly not sexy and you’ll never see a special license plate in its honor. But it goes to the heart of who we are as Vermonters: community-minded and irrepressibly thrifty.

And if you have trouble locating Project COW compost information, you can always go to the library for help.


The Kids Are Watching

The parent grabbed me after basketball practice one day during my first year of teaching. “Hey, can I talk to you for a few minutes?” she asked. She used that tone of voice that gives all new teachers angina.  My first thought was, “Oh geez, someone ratted me out about our re-creation of the battle of Fredericksburg.” (This was complete with four-filled sock cannon balls and yes, there had been some minor bruising.)  I attempted a breezy “Sure!” and followed the parent down the hall to my classroom.

Once the door was closed, I braced myself for a dressing down. What I got instead was a simple question, “What do you eat for lunch?” With raised eyebrows, I listed what was usually in my lunch. “Grapefruit or banana, nuts, water, a sandwich or yogurt with fruit or granola…” She started to nod.  “My daughter and all her friends have completely changed what they’re eating, and I wanted to figure out why.” I reassured her that I hadn’t spoken to her daughter about her diet, but she interrupted me, “Oh, I know that! They just all admire you and watch everything you do. They’ve been studying you. ”

I was fortunate to have had this conversation early in my teaching career. It taught me the remarkable influence a teacher can have—without even realizing it. We often talk about role modeling and mentoring students as a conscious set of acts or conversations. But role modeling happens each and every day. Children often do what we do and not what we say.

There is growing panic about our national obesity epidemic and an accompanying mad scramble to generate solutions. There are myriad factors that contribute to the obesity crisis: cheap available calories; food being omnipresent; supermarket aisles are laden with processed foods; we eat more and move our bodies less; the formidable might of agri-business and the advertising industry; the bloated and ineffective farm bill; the drastic increase in the consumption of sugary drinks; more screen time and less time outside; sedentary jobs; cultural and familial factors—not to mention the emotional and psychological reasons why people overeat.  Few of us have the energy to take arms against a sea of troubles, but most can focus on something small and attainable. Here’s something: role model healthy eating for the children in your life.

We have a dire imperative to take the lead on this. Childhood obesity rates have tripled in the last four decades. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine tested three ways to attain control over blood sugar in obese children with “adult-onset” Type 2 diabetes. None of the ways worked very well. Turns out Type 2 diabetes is harder to treat in youngsters than adults. This is incredibly bad news. Poorly controlled diabetes can lead to many serious health problems, including  heart disease, stroke, limb amputations, shorter life span, and kidney failure. We’re killing our kids, folks. And it’s a slow, painful, humiliating process.

A policy brief from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, using data from the 2005 California Health Interview Survey, indicates there is a strong correlation between what parents eat and drink and what their children consume. Parents who drink a lot of soda have kids who also do—regardless of income, race or class. Parents who eat more fruits and veggies have kids who do the same. This is not terribly shocking news; it confirms what we already know in our hearts. The kids are watching.

There are real economic reasons for our poor eating habits.  As Marion Nestle, a nutrition and public policy expert at NYU has argued, “the indexed price of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased 40% since 1980, whereas the indexed price of soda has declined by about 30%.” Huge subsidies support grain production but not fruit and vegetable farmers. For these reasons I don’t subscribe to the “No Excuses” mantra; it denies the witches’ brew of contributing factors. Instead I subscribe to the “Yes and…” refrain.  Yes, the obstacles are real and very challenging, and it is also true that we must do something. Our children need us to.

Role modeling for children can be tiring. But it’s disingenuous to ring our hands about the junk our kids eat while clutching our own snacks. The good news is that little changes, over time, can make a big difference.  A recent recommendation from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services –that would bring the childhood obesity rate down to 2002 levels—is for kids to consume 64 fewer calories a day.  Switching from sugary drinks to water and adding a brisk family walk after dinner could get you there. This is something we can all change immediately. Start today. After a few days of a new regimen you might find you have more energy to tackle the farm bill.






Obama’s Ronald Reagan Moment

A charismatic and experienced politician with a gift for soaring rhetoric stakes out a politically dangerous position on a hot button issue of the day: gay rights. He’s gearing up for a presidential election and knows he must rally his base while bringing swing voters and moderates to his side. Sound familiar? It was 1978 and the candidate was former California governor Ronald Reagan.

Reagan weighed in on the Briggs Initiative, which aimed to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools.  Introduced by conservative state legislator John Briggs, the measure would have mandated the firing of gays and lesbians who worked as teachers, teacher’s aides, administrators or counselors. It also would have targeted anyone seen as “supporting” gay rights—even through “neutral” speech that did not explicitly condemn homosexuality. The Briggs measure was the first attempt to restrict gay and lesbian rights through a ballot measure, and it was an off-shoot of a highly successful campaign spearheaded by Anita Bryant.  Bryant—the top 40 singer, former Miss Oklahoma and spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission—founded Save Our Children, a movement that successfully repealed an ordinance in Dade County Florida that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Save Our Children spurred the repeal of anti-discrimination measures in Eugene, Oregon, St. Paul, Minnesota and Wichita, Kansas. Its highly polarized and much publicized campaign was based on the perceived threat that homosexuals would recruit children and molest them.  Bryant said at the time, “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore they must recruit our children.”  She vowed to supporters that she would “lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before.”  Her coalition defeated anti-discrimination laws across the country, and Bryant was certainly pleased when John Briggs introduced his far-reaching anti-gay initiative in California.

In early September of 1978, the Briggs Initiative looked as if it would pass easily. 61% of California voters supported it, while only 31% opposed it. A coalition of activists exhorted their gay friends and neighbors to “Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!”  Gays, lesbians, and their supporters went door to door in towns and cities across California to talk about what the initiative meant to them personally. Although it didn’t seem to sway voters at first, eventually this concerted effort started to pay off. Polls in late September showed 45% in favor and 43% opposed, but 12% of voters remained undecided.  The gay community braced for the worst.

Enter Ronald Reagan. Shortly before the election, Reagan sent a letter to a pro-Briggs group in which he strongly opposed the initiative; excerpts from this letter were reprinted in prominent California newspapers. Reagan also answered reporters’ questions about his stance. Some of his comments were geared towards his conservative base: the measure would be costly to implement; it was too intrusive; it would lead to false accusations.  But he went a step further when he argued that “…homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and a child’s teachers do not really influence this.” His outspoken opposition to the measure made all the difference. The Briggs Initiative was defeated by over a million votes. It did not even pass in Briggs’ home district—the very conservative Orange County.  As a girl I remember my relief. Then I could not have imagined a sitting President would ever affirm my right to marry the person I chose.

There are those who will say that Reagan’s stand on gay rights means little in light of his later record during the height of the AIDS epidemic. I don’t agree. He took a stand at a time when he had little to gain. As his biographer, Lou Cannon, has described, Reagan was “well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue,” but regardless of those pressures, he chose to stand by his convictions. And it meant a great deal to all the educators in California schools who feared the looming witch hunt.

Similarly, there are those who argue that President Obama only announced his support for same-sex marriage because of Vice President Biden’s outspoken avowal of his own unequivocal support. Others allege that Obama is simply courting the gay community because he needs its money for his re-election coffers. Frankly, I don’t care. The President of the United States supports same-sex marriage and put the weight of his office behind this equal rights issue.

In the era of openly gay movie stars and television personalities, it is tempting to feel like perhaps President Obama isn’t truly leading on this issue but following. But to couples all over this country who feel forced to choose between the love of their parents and the love of their spouse, it matters. It really matters. They are Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and political agnostics. Whether they voted for Obama or not, they understand that his support will shift the conversation and will ultimately make a difference in their lives.

I imagine that most people don’t remember much about the Briggs Initiative or the Save Our Children crusade. That’s the way history often is—we only remember the details when it is important to us personally. Thank you, President Obama, for your guts.  And thank you, President Reagan, for your nerve.


A Question of Fairness

Some years ago I found myself doing something I swore I’d never do: substitute teaching. I’ve always felt that subbing is akin to herding armed, rabid cats, and I promised myself I wouldn’t do it. But when we relocated for my spouse’s job out West, I was at home for weeks with nothing to do as I waited for a full-time teaching position to open up. Soon herding armed, rabid cats started to look pretty good.

One of my first assignments was to sub in a 5th grade classroom for students who were emotionally and behaviorally disabled. The classroom paraprofessionals reassured me that there was an isolation room at the back of the classroom that they’d use if things got “really out of hand.”  With my heart hammering and the blood hustling to my neck and face, I was so distracted that I missed my window for escape. The assistants’ distant voices discussed what my role would be that day. I heard, “English lesson. Syllables.  Sounding out.” Despite my grave misgivings, I gamely nodded and thought, “Well, I can certainly handle that.  And if not, well, there’s always that isolation room—for me.”

The assistants handed out work sheets for the students, and I explained how all words were made up of chunks of sounds or syllables. I showed them how they could figure out how many syllables are in a given word by clapping out the beats.  We sounded out the syllables and clapped out the chunks in Ta-ble and then in Lo-co-mo-tive. The students all caught on quickly, so we put them to work on their own.

It wasn’t long before a student called me over. He said, “It seems like some words only have one syllable. Like—‘desk.’ Does that only have one syllable?”  “Good work,” I said as I turned to assist another student with a similar question. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the paraprofessionals huddled, and before I knew what had happened, they had swooped down on the student I had just left. “Actually spoon has two syllables.” Now, these students had emotional issues, but they weren’t stupid. One looked at me with a look that said, “Are these ladies for real?” I raised my eyebrows as they continued, “Clap it out: Sp—oon!”

I thought the assistants were pulling my leg, so I smirked. I received no grin in return. They were already descending on another student puzzling over the word “Chimp.” “Clap it out and you’ll hear that there are clearly two syllables in Ch-imp.”  My ears started ringing at this point—and it wasn’t from all the clapping. I had to speak up. “I really think spoon has one syllable.”

One para grabbed a dictionary. “Here I’ll show you,” she told me.  “Oh, this dictionary says it only has one syllable, but this must be an old dictionary.” (Because over time words gain syllables?)  I silently flipped to the front and pointed out the publication date. Recent.  I assumed this would resolve the question, but they stood firm. “Well, you know, there are a lot of new syllable theories.” (There are?)

I’ve had years to reflect on this ridiculous and troubling incident. These paras were dedicated and well-meaning. They worked with some of the most troubled students in their building, and they approached their work with empathy and determination. But as Michael Giangreco, an Education professor at UVM has pointed out, often the least qualified staff members are asked to teach students with the most challenging learning characteristics. This situation is extremely unfair to the paraprofessionals who are asked to assume high levels of responsibility. They are undertrained and underpaid. And it is certainly unfair to the students.

I have had the pleasure of working with very talented and experienced paraprofessionals in my career—many of them in our local supervisory union. But nationwide this is all too often not the case. An unintended consequence of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is that across the nation many students who require highly skilled instruction are often primarily instructed by paraprofessionals.  These educators can and do provide invaluable input and creative strategies in their work with these students, but there has been little research done on the efficacy of this strategy.  As Giangreco writes, “Most teachers are far better trained to educate a student with a disability than are most paraprofessionals.”

How did we get here?  Much of it comes down to money, of course. It is cheaper to employ paraprofessionals than to hire certified professional staff.  Special educators and counselors—who are supposed to oversee paraprofessionals in their work with students on IEPs or 504 plans—are drowning in paperwork and extremely heavy case loads. Classroom teachers juggle multiple IEPs and 504 plans.

Talented paras can truly assist teachers in meeting the needs of all children in the classroom, but there is no body of evidence that suggests students with disabilities are best served when paras take the lead in their education. The entire educational team—parents, teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, special educators and, when appropriate, students—must have frank conversations about what is in the student’s best interest. We must not assume that paraprofessionals feels prepared or trained enough to take on the Herculean tasks we routinely thrust upon their shoulders. Too many schools fall into this trap. That’s “trap”—one syllable.


On Being Neighborly

This weekend is my birthday. It is also the anniversary of a more gruesome milestone. May 5, 1945 was the day Mauthausen concentration camp was liberated near Linz, Austria—the birthplace of Adolph Hitler. I know this date—and keep track of it—because my paternal grandfather, Leopold Bálint, (Leo to his friends and family) was murdered on a forced march from Mauthausen to the town of Gunskirchern in the waning days of the Third Reich.

On April 22nd, only two weeks away from the camp’s liberation, Leo stopped to assist another ailing prisoner. He knew, as they all did, that stopping along the march meant certain death, but he did what so many others—before and after him—have done. His humanity and empathy overpowered his fear. Leo wrapped this man’s arm about his shoulder, put his own around the weary man’s waist, and dragged him along for a short distance. His already low reserves were soon spent, and they fell dangerously behind the group. As eyewitnesses informed my grieving grandmother afterwards, both Leo and his comrade were summarily shot and their bodies heaved into the chilly waters of the Danube.

I know Leopold only from the family stories I have heard and from the memoir my father is working valiantly to finish. And yet, this story still gives me an ache in my chest whenever I allow myself the quiet space to think about it. My grandfather’s murder impacted so many lives and continues to do so. As Elie Weisel has written, “Time does not heal all wounds; there are those that remain painfully open.”

From my parents I get my sense of humor, my insatiable curiosity, and a deep love of history, but because we have also passed this pain from generation to generation, I am a latecomer to the belief that neighbors can be a force for good in the world. My father was always, and remains, hesitant about connecting with neighbors. I used to chalk it up to European manners, but in my adulthood I have come to realize it is actually a manifestation of the complex trauma of the Holocaust. Of course he doesn’t want the neighbors to know too much about him and his family. Neighbors can betray you; indeed they did betray him and his family.

There are stories my dad tells that reveal how his wariness of neighbors took root. There was the time my grandfather had a bathtub installed in their apartment building, and the neighbors all griped that “those dirty, stinking Jews are bathing too much.”  And the time my dad’s post-war neighbors in Germany (who knew his father had been killed by the Nazi) gave him parts of a Hitler Youth costume to wear for Fasching—a holiday similar to Mardi Gras. Or the worst story of all—the trusted teacher who gathered information from his young students about who had Jewish parents. One ongoing toll of the Holocaust—beyond the destruction of families, the loss of faith, and the enormous grief—is that we start to doubt our neighbors’ basic humanity. We come to believe it is safer to keep them at a distance because people can be so horribly callous.

How does one recover from the horror and absurdity? I really don’t know for certain, but I am trying my best to break this cycle. It helps that Vermont’s size makes it a state of neighbors. My dad has come to understand that my family and I love our town and feel safe here, but he still occasionally comments about his personal discomfort with small town life. He once exclaimed in horror, “Your letter carrier knows where you lived before you moved to this street?!”  One of the first things he asked when we bought our house in town was: How are the neighbors? Will they be kind to you? Will they accept your family?

Daniel Goldhagen argued in his controversial book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) that ordinary Germans were willing and eager to participate in the final solution because German culture and society had indoctrinated them in “eliminationist anti-semitism.” Many historians (Americans, Germans, and Israelis among them) excoriated the book, maintaining that his research was shoddy and that Goldhagen ignored any material that did not prove his thesis, but he still became something of a celebrity on his German book tour. Despite its academic shortcomings, his book resonated with many Germans who understood that Hitler’s ghastly plans were only set in motion because average people chose to look the other way.

When faced with stories of atrocity and bravery, we often ask ourselves: Would I have had the courage to stand up and to do the right thing? But most of us will never be faced with such a situation, so I think that this is perhaps the wrong question. The real question is: Do I have the courage, day in and day out, to show kindness to and concern for my neighbors? The small gestures do really matter. When I bake bread for a neighbor (even if our politics don’t match) or check on another when she’s sick (although she sometimes talks my ear off), I am asserting that there is still basic humanity in the world.  I do it for me, for my parents, for my children, and for their great-grandfather, Leopold Bálint who retained his humanity in the midst of the Shoah.