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Category Archives: Parenting

American Gothic

A blog post by a High Toned Christian Mom (“HTCM”) has ignited some heated discussion in the social media milieu. The gist of HTCM’s post was: “My teenage sons have been your friends since you were trudging around in your ‘Dora’ shirt and now your nipples are featured on Facebook. Put some freaking clothes on and read a book!”

(Okay, I added the “read a book” part, because I always add “Read a Book!!” when I’m chastising young folk. It’s super effective. They always run off to the library immediately.)

I pretty much agreed with HTCM’s basic thesis statement. Her tone and word choice would not necessarily be my word choice. “Praiseworthy” is not in my lingo. My family is not Christian, but we really like a lot of Christians. Last night, in fact, we were around a lot of Christian friends at a funeral and we bowed our heads with them and prayed to the Heavenly Father and celebrated the life of a great, giving man who happened to be a devout Christian. We’re fine with it. I don’t think the Heavenly Father got all confused when he received our prayers. When He pulled up our file and saw “Buddhist” stamped in red on the cover, I don’t think he turned to St. Peter and said, “So what? Did they convert all of a sudden? Again, can you PLEASE ‘cc’ me on these things?”

I am a Buddhist Feminist and I agreed with the High Toned Christian Mom. A lot of other people didn’t. Many people saw her post as “slut shaming”.

But what if it wasn’t?

What if she is just a parent raising kids who are lovely to be around, morally upright, giving and sincere?

What if her next blog is about (hypothetical) guy friends posting beer guzzling, pot-smoking, sexually-offensive-to-women images on their sites and reminding those boys that “nosy” parents like her are lurking (and might even tell on them…)? Maybe, in her NEXT post, she says to one hypothetical boy:

“Hey, Little Johnny from Little League, you look like a First String Asshole and I know you’re not! I used to drink wine with your mom while you pushed around Thomas and Percy in your footsie pajamas, chanting ‘Choo! choo, I’m a train!!’ Yes, I’ve known you for a long time and you are NOT a First String A-Hole. Stop acting like one! And read a book!!”

Maybe she truly wants all the young folk to pan back for a moment and check out the wide-angle shot of their lives. I hope that’s what she wants, because her tone does get creepily invasive and specific. You can see for yourself here: http://givenbreath.com/2013/09/03/fyi-if-youre-a-teenage-girl/

Scarlet Letter

I REALLY hope she wasn’t directing the blog at real-life friends of her sons and I REALLY hope she doesn’t sit at the dinner table with her family and “judge” which women are virtuous enough for her blue-eyed, tow-headed, praiseworthy-thought-thinkin’ boys.

Some vehement critics of HTCM’s post believe (or pretend to….) that there’s no difference between an image of a young girl posed provocatively on her bed and an image of a young man at the beach in his swim trunks. One rebuttal insinuates that if HTCM has a problem with a teenage girl posing in her bedroom, back-arched, braless, then she’d better be sure there are no family-vacation-at-the-beach pictures hanging around her FB page, lest lecherous girls think impure thoughts about her sons.

“There’s no way we women can “unsee” that,” the critic snarked.

See where this rhetorical train goes? Next stop: Lameville. Choo! choo!

What I hope she’s trying to say is: grown-ups need to reserve the right to say, “Hey, Kaitlyn from Gymboree! Put some clothes on and stop looking at me like you’re looking for something unseemly (from me and your 987 FB friends), (and read a book!)” without being politically-corrected into quaint obsolescence.

Kids need to be reminded that they’re kids—and that we, the FAR-too-mature to post skin-saturated shots of ourselves to garner “Oooooh, you are soooooo beautiful!” confirmation from women and veiled double-entendres from married men—are still at the helm. We’re still, collectively, a stronger influence than YouTube and The Kardashians, and, as long as we butt in and (gently or strongly) re-direct, we may forestall the mutiny.

Meryl and Hilbad selfie

(Some selfies ARE better than others, btw…)

I’m thankful for the HTCM. Her piece struck a nerve on both sides of the abyss, and, think about it: take away the engaging discussion of politics, religion, culture and education, and what are we left with?

Nothing but a bunch of butts, boobs and beer bongs.



When I was eight, something wonderful happened to me. September rolled around and I wound up in Mrs. Richardson’s class.

Virginia Richardson was one of those “once in a lifetime” kinds of teachers.

Inspiring, wise, committed, compassionate.

The kind of teacher you want your own children to have every year.


photo by (the amazing) Tim Pierce http://www.flickr.com/photos/qwrrty/5877465734


In Mrs. Richardson’s class, we all sang together every morning, loudly and proudly, off key or on:

“Take a moment when you wake up in the morning, to find a cheery word to say!”

And our teacher modeled exactly what we sang about.

I remember one time, in the middle of a class discussion of the dangers of smoking, one of my classmates blurted: “My dad smokes, but only once a year, I think!”

Guess what Mrs. Richardson did.

You might think she responded like this:

“Please raise your hand!”


“We don’t shout out!”


“Even once a year is too often for cigarettes!”

But here’s what she did.

She smiled. She laughed.

Then she said:

“Oh, and that cigarette must feel like eating a whole box of See’s Candies!”

My mom and grandma smoked, and her response let me know I didn’t have to feel ashamed about it. It wasn’t a good idea, but it didn’t make my mom and grandma–and my family–bad.

I remember how it felt when we would all huddle together on an upholstered mat in the corner and Mrs. Richardson would enthrall us with A Wrinkle in Time. My ears still hear how she said “Mrs. Whatsit,” emphasizing the cool sounds the letters made.

We put our growing arms around each other. We danced wildly to the soundtracks to “The Point” (“Me and my Arrrrrow….Takin’ the high road….”)

and “Free to Be…You and Me” (“Brothers and Sisters, sisters and brothers, each and every one…”)

It was 1976 and we celebrated the Bicentennial. We were all there together–in one place at that one moment in the vast expanse of time that came before us and after us. Happy.

Carmelita taught us some Spanish and how to make Mexican chocolate with the “Bate, bate” stick. Her mom brought in bunelos. I’ll never forget the lightness, the crunchiness, the sugary, cinnamony perfection of those impossibly perfect pinwheels.

Catherine was from Hawai’i, via the Philippines. She taught us “Pearly Shells” and we hula-ed without worrying about whether or not we were doing it right.

Romando, her cousin, was definitely gay. He hung out with the girls and he was the BEST dancer in the whole class. He taught us all how to shake our groove things. We all marveled at his agility and rhythm. The other boys thought it was so cool and tried  to get it right. When they didn’t, we all laughed together, and Romando remained the dance champ.

Some kids were really advanced and sharp, some struggled, some may have been stigmatized as “behavior problems” earlier or later in their school lives, but in Mrs. Richardson’s room, everyone was a gift. I never knew which students were her favorites, which ones may have elicited an inward eye-roll.  She loved us all: the one with the dirty fingernails, the one with the messy penmanship, the one who had a hard time with math, the one who was rich, but secretly suffering, the one with the pressure to be perfect. And because she did, we did.

There were no “behavior problems” in Mrs. Richardson’s class. Never. Stuff may have gone down on the playground, but within those walls, behind that door with the nondescript number “8”, we were a family. A functional, supportive family, not that other kind, the kind many returned to at 3:00 each day.

When we came in from recess, all jacked up on white bread and chocolate snack pack pudding, would she tell us to quiet down? Would she yell over us to sit still and get to work? Would she wait until every pair of eight-year-old hands were folded and we’d assumed a collective pose of dutiful submission? Of course not. She was Mrs. Richardson.

We would gather around one big table, or flop in a circle on the floor and she would whisper: “Close your eyes, children.” Her love would wash over us and she would guide us through a beautiful scene–walking down the beach, strolling through a quiet meadow, listening to waves or birds or the crunching of leaves–to welcome us back to the safety of her room, our home. In two minutes, max, we were calm and ready for the real learning she always had in store for us.

We learned so much in her class, too. Times tables! Newberry-Award Winning novels! History! It was 1976, after all. We ate up  everything about the American Revolution and the thirteen colonies, because it was relevant and fun and real. Not because it was was mandated in the standardized scope-and-sequence. Mrs. Richardson was no spring chicken. She’d already been teaching for many years, but she never seemed tired, distracted or disengaged.

I’m 100% sure if the unbending strictures associated with “No Child Left Behind” had reared their head back then, she would have just laughed. After her laughter subsided, she’d have taken out her secret teacher wand and dissolved them right before our wide eyes.

“Not on my watch!” She would have said. Then she would have blown on her wand, turned to the stunned room full of eight-year-olds and said, “Now, shall we resume our learning?”

We learned everything we needed to know that year. Her lessons on nouns, verbs, conjunctions, metaphors and figurative language stuck. Did she hand us worksheets? Take a guess. She would play silly, catchy grammar songs on the little record player and we would dance. Sometimes, in the middle of reading a story, she would stop and say, breathlessly, “Listen! Listen to this beautiful sentence!” Then she would ask if we thought it sounded beautiful too. We DID think it sounded beautiful! She would get up from her cozy rocking chair, walk to the board, and show us exactly why it sounded that way. We wanted to try it! It was like a magic trick! It was sentence diagramming, but she was wise enough not utter that dead, clinical moniker. Learning was never painful, frightening or hard. It was always amazing. Real learning is always like that.

free to be

Even I was was a math whiz that year. You know why? Because, at the beginning of the school year, after observing me working out a few (manageable) problems, she told me I was.

“YOU are excellent at math!” she said.

I wasn’t.

I’m sure my previous year’s math scores were in my file, and she was well aware that math was an “area of concern,” but I certainly didn’t need to know that.

That year, I soared through every math unit. I loved math and it loved me back.

The following year, not so much.

Mrs. Z., my fourth grade teacher, was more concerned with re-applying her bright red lipstick than teaching her fourth graders….anything, really. She used a pre-packaged program called “Math Your Way”–the precursor, I’m sure, of the computer-based, one-size-fits-all, math programs so popular today. There was no math instruction. I fell behind. I was, along with the other strugglers and stragglers, shamed in front of other students. Other students were routinely singled out and lauded. We all knew who Mrs. Z’s “shining stars” were. They were the ones who didn’t need any extra help at all.

I hated, hated, HATED math forever after.

And so it went. The “smart kids” were separated from the “dumb kids”. They didn’t say that out loud, but from 4th grade to 12th grade, we all read it loud and clear. Ten. Four.

The clean kids, the ones with neat handwriting, the ones who gave the “right” answers, the ones from certain families, were the “shining stars”. The others, well, they knew who they were. Diversity–cultural or otherwise– was rarely celebrated (Never? I seriously can’t think of one example between 1978 and 1987).

The Mexican girls I met in middle school were tough. They wore black eyeliner and flannel shirts and chains. The teachers didn’t ask them to teach us Spanish or invite their parents in to class to “bate bate” or share a favorite family dish. The teachers averted their eyes when those girls passed in the halls.

Kids misbehaved in class. Badly. In Language Arts, I was the “shining star”, but it didn’t make me feel good. It made everyone else resent me and pick on me. It made them feel ashamed in Language Arts, just as I felt ashamed when I walked into math class.

But I carried Mrs. Richardson with me and her distant, boundless approval gave me the stamina to move through it all. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, with students of my own, I like to think of Virginia Richardson as a Patron Saint of sorts. Maybe she’s the Patron Saint of Lost Teachers, a beacon of reason, excellence and love in a too-often harrowing and disillusioning profession.

I summon her sprit whenever I’m about to cave in to something I know isn’t the right thing for my students. I ask myself: “WWVRD”? She never fails to steer me right back on course.

It’s that time again. Kids are heading back to class, heads full of ideas, excitement, fear, memories–good and bad, dreams and nightmares. I’m sending out a prayer that every student, everywhere, winds up in Mrs. Richardson’s class this year.