Reducing my work hours to part time has freed me up to pursue activities I used to only dream about.  One, in particular, that I really enjoy is gardening.  I have several gardens around the yard, my two favorite being the native perrenial garden and the kitchen garden. 

While I fully admit to being lazy and that, among other things chiefly spurred my move to simple living, I have to admit the kitchen garden wasn’t so simple to establish.  My husband jokes about my first attempt and my $50 tomato.  The first year, after staking off the bed, digging soil, lugging more organic garden soil to replace the stuff I dug out and planting my first plants, I harvest exactly 1 tomato.  Not easily discouraged, I tried again because it wasn’t about the plants any more.  There is something truly holy about working with the earth, planting seeds, nurturing the tender shoots into maturity and harvesting fruit and vegetables at the end.  I soon found that I meditate while gardening, I exercise while gardening and I just commune with whatever may be lurking.  I love my kitchen garden so much that I am always sad at the end of each growing season when I have to ruthlessly pull and dispose of plants that I have tended since their ‘birth’.   

I feel like the luckiest woman alive.  Not only do I have a wonderful family but we live in, almost inarguably, the most beautiful area of the continental United States.   We have warm temperate seasons and very little winter to speak of (except summer that isn’t temperate at all) and two extended peek growing seasons plus a winter growing season which means there is always something growing and harvesting out of my garden. 

All through the winter I harvested butter head lettuce, green and red leaf lettuce, swiss chard and wild spring greens.  Early in the summer, my son and his friends picked and ate strawberries right out of the back yard and I made my family sick of green beans by serving freshly harvested green beans with nearly every meal. Now we are eating the plethora of vine ripened sunkissed grape and roma tomatoes, often mixed with the fresh garlic harvested June, onions harvested as needed and fresh basil and parsley picked from the herb pot. 

I am eagerly anticipating the fall growing season, which officially begins this month, when we will hopefully have cantalope, black eyed peas and more tomatoes from the babies I am planting this afternoon.   My son’s friends helped prepare the soil and plant the peas.  They never fail to check the plants’ progress when they play in the backyard. 

Above all else, I love this garden because it allows me to serve my family wonderful, tasty dishes created with fresh ingredients harvest right out of the backyard where I control the soil and know, without a doubt, that these beauties are free from chemicals.  But it also gives me something else; a connection with a love lost.  Three years ago, I lost my grandfather after he lived a long 94 years on this earth.  As is typical, I grew distant from my grandfather as I reached my teens and his memory began fading in my twenties, making it impossible to reconnect.  But I share a vital connection with this man, a love of growing things.  As a child, I was as often as not, following him through his huge backyard garden.  He never complained of the fruit and veggies I would pick and eat as I wandered through the rows behind this man who was more a father to me than my own biological father. 

I am glad I took the time to slow down.  At the end of my life, I don’t want to count how many briefs I have written, how many laws I have changed and how many millions of dollars I have saved various companies.  What I want to count, at the end of my life, is the influence I have had on my family and friends and I hope that my own son will fondly remember the days with his mother pulling the few weeds and tenderly staking tomato plants or better yet, enjoying the bountiful harvest provided by the earth.  It is the closest this avowed agnostic can get to admitting that there may be something…..more…. out there to create these little packages of perfection. 


Protecting the Gift

February 21, 2007

I am shamelessly stealing the title from one of my favorite parenting books Gavin de Becker’s Protecting the Gift.  It  fits because I am on my soap box today.   I ask to you to bear with me while I digress from my regularly scheduled program.  But then, maybe this does tie into my quest to live simple, healthy lives.  

This week is high stakes testing in schools around my state and now, thanks to George W. Bush, around the nation.   This week, young children of 8 and 9 are being asked to shoulder the burden that teachers and administrators should have, saving the schools they attend.  No, correction they aren’t being asked.  They are being forced.   They have no choice, especially since parents are complicit in this situation.

Since my son entered public school three years ago, I have witnessed unimaginable horrors inflicted on children in the name of “education”.  I have seen children as young as eight diagnosed with ulcers, spend time with psychologists and therapists, and cry daily upon going to school.   I have seen children as young as 5 labeled as behavioral problems for simply being children.  I have seen those who are brighter than average dampened with daily forced memorization of worthless facts because it will be on the test.  Why?  So a school can keep its federal monies.    I watched my own son turn from a naturally inquisitive child who sailed ahead of his peers in anything related to learning into a grumpy, sullen kid labeled as a “behavior problem” who hates doing anything remotely connected with learning.   This is not right.   This is not natural.   No child should face what my son faced in the name of education. 

One of Gavin de Becker’s theories, presented in his book Protecting the Gift, is that we humans have an innate knowledge of when something is right or wrong.  We have an intuition that we MUST listen to in order to effectively protect our children, the gift.  That inner voice that tells you something doesn’t seem right.   That voice has warned me, inexplicably, to be cautious about certain people that I meet or certain situations in which I find myself.  I listen to that voice.  I always have.

Any time I walk into or near an elementary school, that voice starts nagging. I can’t put my finger on it but something about school, in general, does not feel right to me.  The closest I can come to describing how I feel is prison.  However this feeling was never so profound as when I walked into the school that our son was slated to attend for the first time.   Over the next few years, I had anxiety attacks after visiting this school.  My intuition was trying very hard to tell me something and I wasn’t listening.   We eventually pulled our son after a protracted battle with his teacher and principal in the 2nd grade, but not before they beat the love of learning out of him.  Not before they broke him at the ripe old age of 7 – in the name of the test. 

Two months into this 2nd grade year, we had had enough and our son was nearing a nervous break down.  They wanted us to push him to read more and more, even though he reads at an upper elementary level.  They wanted us to prohibit him from counting on his fingers, even though if he is counting, you know that he knows how to solve the problem.  They told us he was behind in math even though he understands high level mathematics such as multiplication and division and the teacher had to stop him counting at 1000 because she was tired of listening to him.   They wanted him to sit still for 7 hours a day with limited movement, limited restrooms, limited water, limited food.  When he didn’t comply they withheld the only opportunity at movement he had, a shoddy 20 minute recess.  

But I cannot lay the blame totally at their feet.  We, our son’s parents, are as much responsible for this as the teachers and administrators were for not standing up sooner on his behalf.  For two years we accepted what they told us about our son thinking silently that this isn’t the child we know.  When we finally gathered the courage to speak out about the inconsistency, we were assured they knew him much more than we did and therefore our perceptions were incorrect.  For two years, we assumed that we had to do things their way.  Until the 2nd grade.  By 2nd grade I was growing tired of the “tsk tsking” when we objected to their conferences about our son and I was spending entire days defending him against these people.

Thankfully, now he is in another school that does not focus as much on high-stakes testing.  Right now he is safe.  Right now he is happy.  But next year might be different.  He will be in 3rd grade – the grade that holds the entire school system on those tiny little shoulders.   After a long thoughtful process and many hours of meditation and debate, my husband and I are reworking our entire lives to bring him home.  To educate him in safety and in the standard that we see fit, not what some bureaucrat believes to be the right thing for him to learn when the bureaucrat thinks he should learn it.  

When I ask parents, who have told me their own horror stories leading up to and especially in 3rd grade, why they haven’t fought back with the principal or the teacher responsible for sending their eight year old to therapy, they respond that “they have to learn to live in the real world.” So they keep their children in these unimaginable situations that not even they, the parents, are subjected to  – in the name of education.  I suspect it has less to do with teaching children to live in the real world and more to do with a fear of challenging authority and a fear of not being liked.  As humans, we are naturally social creatures and we want to belong, to fit in.  But we are doing it at the expense of our children. 

Another thing about that “real world” argument is that by wit if you challenge authority to protect your child, you are shielding them and and sheltering them from those hard lessons that will enable them to live in the “real world”. You are making them soft.  Posh, I say.

Is it not our job to protect our children from harm?  I agree that children need to learn to function in society but I challenge that it must happen at 8 or 9.  Instead, isn’t it our job to slowly introduce them to society so that by the time they leave the nest, they are ready to face the challenges of the world at large?  I challenge that we have to subject our children to horrifying events in order to teach them.  I challenge that children have to be subjected to bullies (either students or teachers) so they can learn to effectively resolve conflicts.  I challenge that children have to be publicly humilitated by moving clips for infractions in order to learn consequenses of their actions. I utterly reject the idea that we have to turn them over to someone who abuses their souls to make them conform in order to create productive citizens.  I challenge that allowing people to treat you in any manner they wish while you are powerless is anything akin to the real world.  I don’t live in that world. 

We don’t let our children get burned to teach them to stay away from fire.  We don’t send our children into the street to teach them busy streets are dangerous.  No, instead we hold their hands, protecting them, while explaining to them that streets and moving cars are dangerous or that fire can hurt.   They learn do they not?  And if we did teach our children about fire safety or street safety in this “the school of hard knocks” child protective services would rightly be knocking on our door questioning our parenting abilities. 

That is until our children turn the magic age of 5.  Suddenly at 5 children must grow up and learn to function in this society – which inexplicably means sitting in a room cramped full of children who happen to be in the same age group with limited adult supervision that leads to bullying behavior or being bullied by the teacher in the name of classroom management.  

I know, I know:  it is hard to fight authority, and that is how school presents itself….as the authority – another thing I challenge as I see schools as a tool and parents as the authority.  But I also know from my long career in public policy that no policy can stand if the people do not wish it.  If all parents who watched their children cry and worry and fret over that test stood up and shouted “NO”, took back their responsibility to protect their gift, then the government would be forced to change its harmful policy of levying the weight of the schools on the shoulders of our children.  If all parents who left their children in overcrowded rooms with too little adult supervision stood up and said “NO”, schools would be forced to change their structure to have fewer kids per class and more adults in the room.   But parents stay silent in this ever lasting fear that upsetting the balance is wrong or just down right frightening.   The few that do are punished and labeled as troublemakers or weird.  They are effectively bullied and ostracized – I know, because that is what happened to us.

While I am subjected to daily conflict through my career choice, I understand reluctance.  My husband doesn’t like conflict either.  He too felt that it would be easier just to keep our son at this school and not disrupt him since we were planning to home-school him next year.  But he trusted my instincts and he, of course, trusts me.  I didn’t particularly like being the “pot stirrer” myself.  Like everyone else, I want people to like me.  I want to belong.  I wanted to enjoy my son’s school and know we have made the correct choice.  But my gut said no and I was forced to listen.  I simply could not abdicate my responsibility, my duty, to protect our son.  It may not win me friends at school but I can face my son again.  I can look him in the eyes and tell him that I will keep the monsters at bay, he can be a kid and his parents are on the job.  I can tell him that he has another 10 years to learn how to function in the real world and I will do my job of showing him the way, guiding him into adulthood as he grows and becomes ready physically and emotionally. 

I challenge that through our protection we sheltered him from learning how to function in the “real world”.  In fact, I emphatically believe he learned several valuable lessons about the real world, at least the real world that I live in every day:

Lesson 1.  You stand up for what you know is right, even if you are standing alone.  We had many people asking us to please stop this and just accept that our son needed rigid discipline.  We disagreed.  We taught him not to back down from challenges when people don’t agree with you but you still know that what you are doing is right.  We taught him to not let people bully you into submission for the sake of harmony.   Today, our son is in the school we chose for him with a phenomenal teacher that we also chose for him and he is successful and happy.   He loves his teacher and we couldn’t have asked for a better guardian during the school day for our son.

Lesson 2.  If you push hard enough, change can happen.  Nothing in the real world is so inflexible that it cannot change.  We pushed so hard that we were given the ability to place our son in any school in the district.  We were able to do what parents should automatically have the right to do; shop for our son’s school rather than simply taking what is given to us and accepting it just because it is “policy”.

Lesson 3.  You can trust people who love you to help you; and you in turn, should help those you love.  He learned that we have a duty to protect our families and loved ones when they cannot do so themselves.   That is a responsibility that I do not take lightly. 

And I ask, what lesson about the real world is more important than that?