The dance we do

After years of wondering, dreaming and longing, I recently started to take vocal jazz lessons. I love to sing and do all the time–much to my kids’ consternation–but I’d not taken formal voice lessons in over two decades. Why now? Hard to say. All the obstacles were still there–money, time, logistics, and underlying insecurity. I guess, simply put, I was ready. I was ready to finally forgive VPR host George Thomas for ending his decade-long run on his evening jazz show. I was ready to pardon my higher power for giving Dianne Reeves the voice, and Ella Fitzgerald the phrasing talents clearly intended for me. I was ready to do the work to make my own jazz.

After five weeks of lessons, I am still consciously incompetent. I need to think about so many things at once: my body position, my breathing, my mouth, my phrasing–and of course, my tone and pitch! I am working hard to breathe from the “bottom up” as I try to fill my diaphragm, push my resonance into the spot between my eyes, and allow the tone to rise up the back of my head into the crown. As I strive to create new pathways of learning and understanding, I wait impatiently for that time when it all comes together, and I don’t exhaust myself with incessant thoughts about what I am getting wrong.

In singing, as with so many other creative and athletic endeavors, practice does enable you to tap into “muscle memory”; you eventually glide into being unconsciously competent. Not so when it comes to our efforts at conquering our own biases. We wrestle with judgments and bias constantly. It is how we order our complex worlds, although certainly bias sometimes veers from harmless sorting to dangerous prejudice. When we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that we will dance with our bias our whole lives; it is never fully conquered. We keep some of our prejudgments in check only to find that we have bias in other areas.

It is an unfortunate aspect of the human experience; we miss the mark sometimes, and by doing so we miss out on some wonderful connections. Our biases can and do prevent us from seeing beyond our rough initial sorting of people. And the thing is, we make mistakes in our immediate judgments and assessments all the time.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied stresses this in her memorable TED talk. She stands before us in a headscarf and traditional dress that signals to the audience that she is a practicing Muslim. She invites us to size up our reactions and assumptions about her identity and her story. Then she strips off the outer layer of clothing to reveal her work clothes. Abdel-Magied is a mechanical engineer who works on oil and gas rigs off the coast of Australia. In her thought provoking and disarming talk, this young woman gives us permission to be flawed, to be human. We all have bias. No exceptions. So, how do we prevent snap judgments from becoming oppressive boxes?

Abdel-Magied acknowledges that we each seek out folks who are similar to us. There is often undeniable comfort in being with “our people”. But she implores us to sometimes resist that urge and spend time connecting with others who are different. And then, she says, take the next crucial step: actively mentor those who are culturally, racially or socioeconomically different from us. Embrace the fun and improvisation that arises from difference.

We will feel consciously incompetent at first as we learn to dance more effectively with our inherent biases. But, as jazz great John Coltrane said, “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.”

Teachable moments

During my first session in the Senate, I asked a colleague for advice about constituent services. I love my work in the Vermont Senate, and I truly enjoy meeting with constituents to hear their concerns and help them find solutions to their problems. But I’d heard some horror stories about constituents screaming on the phone or sending rude emails, and I wanted his take on how to approach these situations. He said, “Remember, each email, phone call or conversation is an opportunity to educate. You were a teacher, right? Look at each of these interactions as an invitation to both learn and inform.” I certainly used his advice throughout the session when it came to discussing the particulars of a bill. But I did not anticipate the extent to which I would need to educate voters about the structure of American democracy or the role of state government.

Twenty years ago, an engaged citizen active on a particular issue, might receive a phone call or letter from a particular advocacy group urging her to contact her representatives about a particular bill or issue. Now activists receive numerous email alerts from organizations exhorting them to email their elected representatives. They provide the email text and the addresses. A voter simply needs to point and click. Although at first glance it appears to be a massive democratization of the political process, it feels quite different from the receiving end.

In the last week and a half, my inbox has been flooded with emails regarding federal legislation that I cannot act on in my role as state senator. I have been entreated to stop arctic drilling, tighten up federal gun laws, and to pass HR 1599–a federal bill regarding GMO labelling. The emails are often identical and have clearly been generated by an advocacy website. But they do contain the name and physical addresses of voters so that I can ascertain quickly if they do in fact live in my district.

Most troubling are those emails that contain a combination of ignorance and self-righteousness. It is hard to be taken to task about federal legislation I had no hand in crafting and on which I will never vote.

But how to respond? Do I answer each email and explain to my constituents that I do not actually serve on the federal level? I always try to get back to constituents about specific problems and concerns. Yet it is impossible to respond to each robo email, and I confess I do sometimes get aggravated about the situation. Each minute spent responding to dozens of misinformed emails is precious time I could use assisting folks on state matters that are dear to me.

As a citizen legislature, Vermont representatives and senators are only paid during the January-May session or on days between sessions when we are reimbursed per diem for special committees or projects. Most of our work from mid May through December is unpaid. We also have no staff to assist with constituent services.

But the teacher in me has a difficult time walking away from a teachable moment. I did write back to a voter this week about her misunderstanding about the difference between federal and state legislation. She responded soon after. “Thank you very much for getting back to me. I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to better inform me.” Her brief email powered me for hours.

It helped me remember that voters understand that their email is one of thousands I receive, and the strident tone may simply be an attempt to be heard. We must engage whenever we can and not become jaded or let our frustration (or feelings of powerlessness) deter us from the teachable moment.

Meaning well but missing the mark

I still remember some of the campaign slogans from when I ran for student body president in middle school. There was “You need Anita!” and “Take a chance on Glantz!” One of mine included rhyming Balint with “talent”. I don’t recall any of our platforms or the pressing issues of the day. Even at 13 years old were critical of student elections as essentially popularity contests. But school elections were still important to us nonetheless. Whether it was about the snacks available in the lunchroom or the sports equipment offered at recess, we held that democratic desire to be part of the conversation. And we trusted that the adults would honor the outcome of the election.

But an interesting thing happened in a San Francisco middle school election earlier this month. It bubbled up at the intersection of diversity, fairness and democracy. The principal of Everett Middle School withheld the school’s election results because she felt that the slate of winning candidates was not diverse enough. Principal Lena Van Haren, herself caucasian, heads a school with a student body that is 80% students of color. Van Haren balked at the idea of her majority non-white student body being represented primarily by whites and Asian students. She would not release the tallies from the election for days afterwards.

This did not sit well with parents or students. And family members of the adolescent candidates decried that it was the exact wrong message to send to students about the electoral process. As a former social studies and civics teachers, I was thrilled to read the quotes from parents and students that spoke of elections in almost sacred terms. Students–indeed, all citizens–must have confidence that their votes matter and are accurately counted. Many parents pointed out that meaningful discussions about diversity and representative democracy should have happened in the lead up to the election and in the days after the victors were announced. But there should be no place for second guessing the wisdom of the voters–even ones who still earn an allowance.

In the end, the principal did release the vote count, but she said the school might increase the number of positions so that more students of color will serve in student government. It’s not clear how this might be achieved. Holding another election involving only candidates who identify as students of color? Will some students be appointed by teachers to serve instead of being elected by their peers? Neither solution sits well with me. Certainly, the staff must continue to educate about racism, diversity and fairness, as well as the process of running for office. And all interested students can be mentored before the election. But all who serve must have the support of the voting members of the student body.

We are an increasingly racially diverse citizenry in America. I snapped a picture at my kids’ All School Sing assembly the other day here in Brattleboro, and I was reminded that we are a great deal more diverse in our school than in many other corners of Vermont. We need to be both aware of these demographic shifts and be prepared to perhaps do some things differently as our school population changes. At a recent PTO meeting we discussed our school’s enrichment offerings and whether they meet the needs of our racially and culturally diverse student body. I am encouraged by conversations like this one. It signals a willingness by parents to acknowledge and embrace change without fear.

Our kids, it seems, have thankfully already done this.

Have U.S. women finally gained currency?

The GOP presidential candidates offer so much great material that an opinion writer can almost feel paralyzed by the daily options. Although it happened weeks ago, I keep recalling a cringe-worthy moment in the last Republican debate when candidates were asked, “Which American woman should be on the newly designed $10 bill?”

Jeb Bush’s answer–Margaret Thatcher–received the most media play because the Right Honourable Baroness Thatcher, was not–despite her affections for Ronald Reagan–a Yankee. But many of the other answers were also utter nonsense. Thatcher was not the only non American woman suggested. Ohio governor John Kasich nominated Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa was truly an incredible woman who dedicated her entire adult life to serving vulnerable populations. But she was a nun. And took a vow of poverty. And was Macedonian. (Take a moment to remind yourself where Macedonia is on a map. Go ahead. I had to.)

GOP candidates and talking heads routinely disparage folks on the Left for looking to Europe for any policy ideas or legal grounding, and yet do not seem to have any compunction when it comes to placing a foreigner on our money. While this is indeed irksome, I find it more disturbing that governors Bush and Kasich couldn’t come up with a single qualified American woman to put on a greenback.

But at least they actually came up with a name of a woman not related to them. Ben Carson said his mom should be on the bill. Mike Huckabee nominated his wife. Donald Trump said his daughter Ivanka deserved the honor. These three jokers have all mastered combining narcissism with paternalism.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz get points for naming an actual American woman not related to them and a genuine American hero, at that–Rosa Parks. Rand Paul named suffragist Susan B. Anthony, but that was kind of a cop out. Anthony already appeared on American currency in the form of the dollar coin introduced 1979. The mint did the same thing to Sacagawea. And both she and Anthony were constantly mistaken for quarters.

Scott Walker named Clara Barton. Although he gets credit for being able to name an actual American woman, his answer leaves the impression that his knowledge of American women’s history never got beyond fifth grade.

But kudos to Carly Fiorina for calling out the question’s tokenism.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s answer impressed me most. He named Abigail Adams. If you’ve never read David McCullough’s “John Adams”, put it on your to-do list. Through their letters, you will discover a remarkable relationship between John Adams and Abigail–his political and intellectual equal, some say his superior. Adams often sought Abigail’s advice and counsel, and she freely gave her opinions. In some circles in Washington she was known as “Mrs. President”. And if you are prone to mom or wife fixations like some in the Republican field, you will be happy that she was the wife of one president and mother to another.

But Democratic candidates, take note, in case you are asked. There were so many others to choose from–Eleanor Roosevelt, Shirley Chisholm (first African American woman to serve in Congress), Jeannette Rankin (first woman elected to Congress), Frances Perkins (longest serving Secretary of Labor and first woman to hold a cabinet position), Jane Addams (first American woman to earn the Nobel Peace Prize) and so many more. And then there’s my spouse’s favorite–Nellie Tayloe Ross. Go look her up and then send this cheat sheet to Bernie, Hillary and O’Malley.

Circus Arts: The heart of the matter

Last month a friend ran her first half marathon. As we stood at the starting line with hundreds of other runners, she remarked on the incredible variety of runners milling around us. There were elite runners who looked like wiry Weimaraners, eager teens bounding around like Springer spaniels and the rest of us a kennel club made up short legged Corgis, determined Bulldogs and a sea of mutts. All are welcome in this community, regardless of talent or pedigree–or even style.

I told her about an elderly runner at a race I ran with my spouse a decade ago. The aging marathoner ran the entire race in the Wyoming high desert in red knee socks and suspenders. We now joke, “Don’t ever set your sights on passing any runner wearing knee socks.” They are invariably mightily tenacious.

I love the way running sharpens my mind, opens my heart, and tones my muscles. But I cherish the vast community of runners even more. My spouse feels the same way about the community at the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA). An attorney by day, she has taken evening aerial fabric classes at NECCA for 2 1/2 years–the world class circus school right in our neighborhood in Brattleboro. I asked her recently what she thought was at the center of NECCA’s success and why it is transformational for so many people. “Heart,” she said. “At NECCA they truly believe that each performer has something unique to say. That means their work must have depth and meaning, rather than just teaching a series of tricks.”

We are so fortunate that twin sisters–and gifted circus performers–Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion decided to found their circus school here in southern Vermont. NECCA has grown by leaps and bounds and is now arguably the best professional circus and training school in the United States. When I speak with Vermont legislators who are from outside of southern Vermont, they’re amazed that little Brattleboro has a world class circus school. Like Jacob’s Pillow for dance or Tanglewood for classical music, NECCA sets the standard for its artform. It is now a clear leader in its field, which is why it is currently in the midst of a capital campaign to build a state of the art facility on Putney Road in Brattleboro.

The school has outgrown its rented spaces around town, and some NECCA classes require higher ceilings. Understandably, students can’t study flying trapeze or hone their skills on the thrilling teeterboard if they’re worried about bashing their heads mid-flight.

From my home on South Main Street, I watch circus students and instructors walk to and from the school each day. (You can generally tell circus students and teachers by their excellent posture.) NECCA brings young people to our area from all over the country–and the world–to study and to teacher here. At a time when Vermont is desperate for young families, NECCA makes our area more attractive to young people not just through its offerings, but through the spirit and dynamism it adds to our region’s economy and sense of place.

But all can find a home at NECCA, regardless of age or body type. I recently saw a circus performance that included a retiree who was wild about circus. From her perch on the trapeze, she told us how circus feeds her body and her spirit–and how it has helped her to battle cancer. As I watched her tenacity and strength, coupled with beauty and serenity, I couldn’t help think about the marathoner in the red knee socks. I don’t think it’s coincidental that a lot of circus students and instructors wear knee socks, too.

Underground astronauts in the Rising Star Cave

Neanderthals and early hominids have been on my mind a great deal lately. Some of the characters in the 2016 race to the White House do indeed bring to mind humanlike creatures who are not yet fully formed. But I’m ruminating about our complicated family tree because of a remarkable discovery that has captivated me for weeks. In 2013 two cavers found a trove of prehistoric bones in a dolomite cave system called Rising Star in South Africa, and this month we’ve heard the tantalizing details.

University of Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Lee Berger placed an ad on social media to locate cavers with a background in either paleontology or archeology who would be willing to drop everything and fly to South Africa for the Rising Star Excavation. They could not be prone to claustrophobia, and they had to be able to fit through a rock chute that narrowed to just 18 centimeters (less than 8 inches). Berger thought he might find one or two folks who fit the bill, but 5 dozen scientists applied. Of this group, six lucky explorers got the job–all of them small, slender women. Berger dubbed them “underground astronauts”.

“Looking down into the chute,” said anthropologist Marina Elliott, “I wasn’t sure I’d be OK. It was like looking into a shark’s mouth. There were fingers and tongues and teeth of rock.” Once she and the others slithered through the chute, they dropped down into a chamber littered with bones. Over three weeks, the women excavated and removed 1,200 bones. No other human ancestor site in Africa has ever offered up such volume of remains. A later, shorter expedition at Rising Star, unearthed another 300 bones. These scientists brought an unprecedented variety of ancient bones–literally–into the light of day. There are skulls, jaws, ribs, feet, hands–some of them containing nearly every single bone. Incredible.

As a small, slender woman myself–and one who began my college career convinced I would pursue archaeology or anthropology–I am utterly entranced by this expedition. Aspects of these astounding remains look advanced enough to place these hominids somewhere in the Homo line, but others are as primitive as the 3.2 million year old australopithecine Lucy. Duke paleontologist Steve Churchill describes the mystery, “You could almost draw a line through the hips–primitive above, modern below.”

And then there is the puzzle of the fascinating cranium. The braincases of these creatures are advanced enough to be called Homo, but they are less than half the size of our own. Paleoanthropologist Fred Grine describes them as “Tiny little brains stuck on these bodies that weren’t tiny. Weird as hell.”

Dubbed Homo naledi–in the local Sotho language naledi means “star”–this hominid seems to belong to a new species. It is more modern than Homo erectus but has different enough traits that it merits its own individual strand of the twisted rope that is human evolution.

Watching John Boehner finally throw in the towel after several years of incessant pummeling by his party’s extreme right flank, and then witnessing the subsequent rejoicing by the likes of the self-important Marco Rubio at the “Value Voters Summit”, I am grateful to be able to reflect on and revel in the long view that Homo naledi offers. You, too, can take a break from pathetically shallow political discourse and watch, instead, online videos of the Rising Star Expedition. The sheer unadulterated positivism radiating from these petite explorers will surely remind you that we’ve come so very far but our journey is, thankfully, not done.

Fences, walls, and a new dam

We broke the cardinal rule of homebuying when we bought our home in Brattleboro. We fell in love with the house. But we held no fondness for its aging chain link fence. Rusty in some patches and saggy in others, it was not exactly an eyesore, although it certainly added no charm to our lot. Fences are expensive, however. So seven years later, we still had that decrepit fence. Thankfully, last year’s old-fashioned New England winter finally finished it off, and we had to take it down.

Halfway through dismantling it, we lost our steam.The chain link bundles and metal posts sat on our lawn. And sat. The half-fenced in lawn looked rather ridiculous, but our lives got busy. Fence removal fell to the bottom of the to-do list.

A young man inquired if he could have the fence to prevent his newly adopted dog from running away. We said he was welcome to it, although we sheepishly admitted that we did not know when we’d get around to taking the rest down. A few weeks later he showed up with a team of helpers who quickly took it down and carted it away. He was thrilled to have the fence, and we were overjoyed that it was gone to new use by a grateful pet owner. A friend of mine said later, it was a real Vermont feel good story all around.

We’ve heard a lot about actual fences and walls lately from both the GOP presidential field and European leaders struggling to address the mass migration of refugees. But there have also been plenty of metaphorical walls erected. Donald Trump seems hell bent on alienating women, Latinos, immigrants, and all deep thinkers. And now Ben Carson, a highly respected neurosurgeon, appears to be courting the anti-Muslim vote. From Mike Huckabee to Bobby Jindal to Ted Cruz, this crew is eager to pit us against one another. It’s critical that we don’t let them.

Many of these jokers are unabashed obstructionists, and the ones who aren’t–think Ohio Gov. John Kasich–have yet to gain much traction.The Donald Trump histrionics threaten to bleed into the cross-party dynamics at home. Big out-of-state GOP PACS are poised to spend a lot of money on our governor’s race, whether our Republican candidates want them to or not. Past performance has shown that the influx of this outside money can backfire for Vermont GOP politicians, but worries about this dynamic are likely to be ignored by those who don’t understand Vermont politics.

Last week I attended a wonderful event at Sweet Pond State Park in Guilford to celebrate the state’s commitment to rebuild the dam. I sit on one of the committees that approved this expenditure. As I talked about my belief that these kinds of projects are vital for our communities and are therefore important to all Vermont politicians, regardless of party, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. Rutland Republican Senator Flory, had arrived at the Sweet Pond Dam BBQ. The chair of Senate Institutions, Senator Flory, “Peg” hardly ever attends these kinds of events anymore, but she felt a special connection to the Sweet Pond project. She was impressed that Guilford residents had raised $10,000 for the project, and she was swayed by the pitch that both Representative Mike Hebert and I gave for the project. This was fully a bipartisan effort in the statehouse to make it happen.

Like fences, dams can surely sometimes be obstructions. But in this instance the dam represented the edge of a giant bowl that would soon hold the sweet remembrances, hopes and aspirations for that little town.

An ending well lived

I generally only watch uplifting major motion pictures. I am often immersed in non-fiction that tends towards the serious and depressing–history, current events, opinion pieces, and policy analysis. I need to carve out space that is less brooding and more positive. Because I have two small children, I almost never go to the movies anymore, so my “positive” rule has spilled over into my nighttime reading. When I was given “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande–a book essentially on dying–I didn’t think I could embrace it as evening reading fare.

But it is a beautiful book. And despite its topic, Gawande–a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a professor at both Harvard’s Medical School and School of Public Health–writes with such tenderness and compassion that I eagerly picked it up each night.

Subtitled “Medicine and What Matters in the End”, Gawande’s book draws on his experiences as a surgeon, and as a man with aging parents, to unflinchingly examine the tension he lives in his work each day with terminally ill patients. Through our great faith in scientific advances, we seem to have forgotten that, despite any and all interventions–and sometimes because of them–we each will die. His essential question is this–Why not make those last few days, weeks or months what you really want them to be?

Of course, there are numerous obstacles to experiencing end of life with dignity, agency and actual fulfillment. Many of them are daunting indeed. Doctors, nurses, hospital staff, family, spouses and patients usually focus primarily on prolonging life–eking out a few more months or years. This focus shifts the attention away from a critical question. How can your last days be meaningful and (hopefully) even pleasurable? More is not necessarily better. But we don’t quite believe that.

Sociologist Nicholas Christakis headed a study in which doctors of nearly five hundred terminally ill patients were asked to estimate how long they thought their patients would survive. Christakis discovered that 63% of doctors overestimated the survival time, and the average estimate was much too high–530% higher than reality. And the better they knew their patients, the more likely the doctors were to overestimate. According to Gawande, surveys also show that oncologists sometimes offer treatment they think is unlikely to work because of the underlying societal value that “the customer is always right”.

Gawande also identifies a persistent disconnection between what the doctor is attempting and what the patient expects. A doctor who has treated terminally ill lung cancer patients for 20 years explained the situation to Gawande. He said, “I’m thinking, can I get them a pretty good year or two out of this? They’re thinking ten to twenty years…And I’d be the same way if I were in their shoes.”

Helping his own father navigate a terminal illness pushes Gawande to become a better doctor to his patients facing certain death. He comes to understand that doctors, nurses, and family members must get better about asking the right questions of patients–those questions that hospice workers ask so adeptly. What are your biggest fears and concerns? What goals are most important to you? What trade-offs will you make? What are you unwilling to endure?

One of Gawande’s last stories is about the death of his daughter’s beloved piano teacher. While in the hospital, she could not imagine doing anything at all. She was spent, beaten, hopeless. But after 48 hours in hospice care, she realized she wanted to spend her last few months teaching piano again. She still had key lessons she wanted to impart to her dear students.

After her students’ final recital, she took some private time with each student. This ritual was a gift to both teacher and student. The teacher got her dying wish, and the students now carry their teacher’s beautiful legacy with them.

Playing to the bottom

The optics were terrible: Frightened, bedraggled families herded into holding areas by heavily armed guards. Officials wrote identification numbers in indelible ink on their arms, and told them the trains went to Austria. Many weeks into harrowing journeys from war torn regions of Iraq and Syria, these weary souls were delivered instead to “holding” camps. Surrounded by razor wire and guarded by police and dogs, refugees were thrown food over fences like they were unloved animals in a cut-rate zoo.

You would be pardoned for confusing Budapest of 2015 with Budapest circa 1943.

As word filtered out about the situation at the Keleti train station–and the Hungarian government’s bungled handling of the crisis–I kept muttering, “What are they thinking? Do they know how bad this looks in the eyes of the world?” I mistakenly assumed that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban played his part for a global audience. Wrong. He’s playing to the groundlings, his country’s own Jobbik Party.

Viktor Orban–dubbed “The Viktator” by his detractors–is himself a right-wing firebrand who now fears being outflanked by the far-right, the Washington Post recently asserted. The name Jobbik is an abbreviation of the benign sounding “Movement for a Better Hungary” and is a play on words–jobb meaning “better” but also “right”. Founded as a political party in 2003, Jobbik has its roots in the “Right-Wing Youth Association” created by university students a year earlier. Although it rejects the labels, scholars have called Jobbik fascist, anti-semitic, neo-Nazi, extremist, racist and homophobic. In the last parliamentary election in Hungary, the supposedly fringe Jobbik took 3rd place–garnering over 20% of the votes.

Not to be outdone, Orban’s party sponsored billboards warning refugees not to take Hungarian jobs–no matter that the desperate throngs wanted only to pass through Hungary to find opportunities in more welcoming EU countries. This plays to the 2/3 of Hungarian voters who believe that refugees “pose a danger”. A recent poll conducted by the Hungarian Republikon Institute found that 66% of respondents wanted the refugees stopped. Only 20% believed that Hungary had a moral obligation to help.

Orban has been called Hungary’s Donald Trump by some in the Western press because his defenders say, “He tells it like it is.” He gives voice to xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiments. He would have his supporters believe that complex geo-political and economic problems can be solved with simple solutions like building a wall. Although the rise of Jobbik terrifies me, I am also troubled that Trump’s in your-face, disrespectful and simpleton brand of politics is getting so much purchase here.

Although many pundits have asserted that the GOP brought Trump on themselves with their far from inclusive style of politics, we must face the reality that Trump’s easy, bombastic answers appeal to voters of all stripes. A recent caller to an NPR national talk show marvelled at (and bemoaned) the fact that his longtime Democratic-voting mom was taken with Trump’s style. We must all watch for those tendencies within ourselves to seek uncomplicated answers to thorny problems, which is the reason I choose to call the people at the heart of this column refugees and not migrants. To be sure, many of these travelers seek work in safe areas. But are you truly simply a migrant laborer when gathering your family to flee from ISIS or the brutal Bashar al-Assad?

A day after my darkest despair about the current situation in Hungary, groups of compassionate Hungarians turned out with food, water and clothing for the refugees. And in Germany, an anti-Nazi song rose to the top of the charts. We can learn from the past, but only if we move beyond simplistic responses, and acknowledge that humans create complex political dilemmas that require nuanced, thoughtful answers.

Reading the signs

The sign language interpreters tag-teamed as they translated for a researcher at the PEW Charitable Trusts. Lively panel discussions required quick work, and the concepts were complicated. Captivated by how a lengthy explanation could be summed up by one apt sign, I took every opportunity to speak with the PEW researcher and her two interpreters throughout the conference. Their insights gave me much to ponder as we in Vermont wrestle with the fallout from the closing of the Austine School.

When Austine closed after years of financial troubles, it was part of a national phenomenon–declining enrollment at schools dedicated to the education of deaf children as these students are “mainstreamed” into public schools. The hope was that student learning and opportunities would improve and deaf students would be better equipped to live and work in a hearing world. And the assumption was that deaf students learned in the same way as hearing students. Research at Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) indicates this is not true.

Prof. Marc Marschark at NTID’s Center for Research Partnerships asserts there are marked differences in the way that deaf students learn in comparison to hearing students. “You can’t teach deaf kids as though they are hearing kids who can’t hear,” he says. Marschark’s team interviewed thousands of deaf and hard-of-hearing students at the RIT site and at other locations in the Netherlands, England, Scotland and Australia, to determine, according to Marschark, “how they acquire new knowledge and how that knowledge is organized, understood, and communicated to others.”

The researchers tracked eye movements, had the students perform memory tasks, and observed the students in classes taught by both hearing and deaf teachers. It’s clear from NTID research that deaf students, even those using assistive technologies, have different strengths and challenges than hearing students and so, not surprisingly, need different things for a successful education. For example, deaf students tend to have better visual-spatial memories than hearing students but often struggle with sequential memory. Arranging information visually and sequentially for deaf students will increase the likelihood that these students will successfully retain information.

It’s critical that we figure this out. According to NTID, half of all deaf and hard of hearing students in the U.S. graduate from high school reading at or below a 4th grade reading level. And 86% of deaf and hard of hearing students in the U.S. are now mainstreamed in public schools, where they are often the only deaf student in the building. This can be emotionally and psychologically isolating for these students, but there are educational costs as well. Hearing students constantly receive information from ambient sources–background conversations, TV, and radio. Deaf students need the same opportunity to gather together to share contextual and cultural information on current events and community happenings. Our current system (unintentionally) isolates these students, making it very difficult for deaf and hard of hearing students to have critical opportunities to interact with each other.

Vermont Senate Bill 66–sponsored by Senators Pollina, White, and myself among others–sought to create a special task force that would assess the current needs of the deaf community throughout Vermont and make recommendations for addressing those needs. Although it passed unanimously in the Senate, it is stalled in the House. While we in the legislature continue to push this bill forward, there is no time to waste. One important step would be for districts and schools to employ ubiquitous technology (Facetime, Google Chat, Skype) to bring isolated students together and facilitate connections with other ASL-adept students and teachers. In this age of communication–an age wholeheartedly embraced by deaf students, I understand–there is no reason they should learn in isolation.