I was nervous about going back into classrooms this year. Though I taught for a year fresh out college and substituted for two seasons after that, I had flashbacks to that anxious first year of teaching, which was more stressful that almost anything I’ve done since. Even though I knew that most of the problems I had were because of my inexperience and youth, both of which I have left behind. Inexperience with young people, or at least managing so many in one room, inexperience with aboriginal culture, teen culture, interpersonal communication. Inexperience with using curriculum, creating and organizing systems of lessons, sorting out educational priorities, with professional collaboration, community relations, and handling conflicts both outer and inner. My B.Ed. program prepared me as well as could be expected, but actual teaching was still boot camp. I would get there an hour early, get through the day somehow, take a short lunch, stay after school for hours, load my bike with work to take home, stay up late, work on weekends, and rarely feel on top of things. I worked sick sometimes because I didn’t have the wherewithal to create good lessons for subs. I came up with most of my curriculum myself, patching together pieces of the old books in the cabinets and the new materials that came in the mail for French, and whatever I could pull together for science. There were no department meetings, no list of mandated materials or skills to master. Grades, report cards, all new territory. It really didn’t need to be as difficult as it was, I see now–I tried to be original and go it on my own too much, didn’t delegate some of the classroom flow operations to students. But I had a supportive principal, who encouraged and mentored me, colleagues who treated me as an equal, sympathized with me in my struggles, and applauded my successes, and a supportive church home group. I also got away to visit with my fiance and his family many weekends, who let me talk out my trauma and gave good advice.

I go in with confidence now each morning, no longer with a knot in my gut hoping my breakfast would stay in my body the right amount of time, no longer feeling the need to mentally prepare for the worst by talking it out aloud in the car on the way there, rehearsing opening lines, girding up my loins for the battle. I’m surprised with how natural it feels to be teaching now, talking with, listening to seventh and eighth graders, how relaxed I feel, more and more in touch with the creativity that could enable me to be a great teacher beyond just getting the work done. Doesn’t phase me anymore when kids switch seats and get into fits of giggling, bumping desks and dropping pencils, or when teen girls in groups of three give me “the look”. I used to get distressed and offended by so many things and tried at times to crack down, become an enforcer, count up the warnings and dock the points and refer offenders to the office, and at others to appeal to students’ better nature, reason with them, get them to sympathize and get on my side.

At dinner, a rare restaurant date, I shared with my husband how nice it felt to find out I could be good at this teaching thing, and how this confidence was energizing, and transferred to dealing with my kids at home. To no longer be intimidated and stressed at things that go on in a middle school classroom, like “the look”–that now, I could just deal with it, and with all those natural teen behaviors that before would put me in a tizzy, even offend me, despite resolving not to take any of it personally. Now instead of trying to keep kids from talking, connecting, moving around, being cool and putting on a show, I try to fit in into the program, and just keep things moving along. Or stop and change things up, whatever it takes, including letting myself make mistakes. And really, truly, not take things personally. Also shared that when I’d start to feel confident, cool, on top of things with the students, I would start acting out of some place other than my center–ego or something, and start being stupid, and have to re-center, which felt like a kind of detachment.

One of the great advantages I have as an aspiring classroom teacher is that every day I listen to feedback from my four children about their teachers; what they do well, what not, what works, what they appreciate or can’t stand. What they wished the teachers knew. Priceless inside information. They also listen to my school stories, what happened and how I responded, funny stories, observations. My daughters have also deemed it appropriate to express their confidence in me as teacher, with the caveat that I mustn’t sign up to sub in their classroom.

I admit that as a substitute teacher I don’t have much pressure. I do what’s on the plan, don’t take work home, and if there are no openings or I don’t want to work, I don’t. But I have a plan. First, I’m meeting people, learning all I can, making connections and observations. How’s the classroom set up? Do things flow? What’s the culture? Would I want to work here, and in what capacity? How friendly and professional are the staff? What do they think of the school, the curriculum, the rules, their job? Not so much info available on those latter items, but as I become more familiar to the regular staff, I expect that will come. Second, I’m figuring out how to balance my home responsibilities with work, and training the kids to take over a reasonable amount of the chores and errands, preferably on their own initiative. Third, I’m planning on increasing my hours to get used to a more regular work week–it’s an adjustment to be on my feet all day, talk more, stay organized, keep my energy up, fit in exercise, writing, other projects, study. I’m taking a weekly Spanish class and reviewing my content areas, figuring out what other classes would bring me up to date. And I’m listening to teachers, trying to get a realistic perspective of the field, the changes and issues, and an angle of approach that will work for me.

This is about my difficulties today with fifth graders. Gentle difficulties which an experienced fifth grade teacher could avoid or surmount easily, but which tried my patience and reminded me that I have a lot to learn.

In introduction, this group of seventy-five or so kids felt like a different tribe from those a a different school last week, who listened, caught on, and had impulse control. Today at this school across town, many of the fifth graders in my classes couldn’t concentrate on an idea or remember what I had said or shown a few seconds after the fact. I would demonstrate a sample problem on the white board, check for understanding, not see any evidence of confusion, then say go ahead and do the rest of the problems, then find that all over the room were kids that had retained nothing and now wanted me to start at the beginning to explain to them individually. There was also a lack of understanding of when to speak out, and numerous times when I’d call for everyone’s attention and be in the middle of a few minutes of introduction, instruction, or a tale, there would be numerous, spontaneous, unnecessary interruptions. It was as if each of these children believed this was a one on one conversation and they could change the subject, tell a connecting story, or make a request at any time for any reason.

As one class was lining up at the door to move to another room, I asked the student at the front of the line, by way of conversation, “Do you think that when you’re a few years older, you’ll be able to remember what the teacher says a little longer and not forget right away?” He was looking at me, making eye contact. There was a pause while I waited for him to answer. Then he blinked, and said, “What did you say?”

I am not making this up.

In a lull during the next period I told this story to the next class, as written above. When I was done, I looked around, saw a few smiles of understanding, and then, up piped a boy: “What did she say?” And as those few students in the group grinned wider, yet another boy from the other side of the room, realizing something amusing had occurred, asked, “What was that? I didn’t hear.”

I worked in a fifth grade classroom last week in a sweet little dual language school, majority Latino, also majority low income. Did a bit of research beforehand, found that it was a “turnaround school” led by a state Principal of the Year. Same principal, I’m pretty sure, whom I met a few years ago at a different school and whose name I jotted down with the note: “principal I’d like to work for.” Because he actually noticed I was there and introduced himself to me, didn’t act like a self-important ass or sleazy auto salesman, and just seemed like a good fellow. That he managed to give that impression is something, given that I  cling to a prejudice about principals that maybe they became such because they were tired of the complexity of teaching and wanted to feel more important, have a nice office, and get a higher salary.

I parked, walked toward the nearest door, asked a staff member also headed that was if this was the right door. He said sure, any door will do, and that people would say good morning and be friendly no matter where I came in.

And so they did. Small Latino mothers escorting their small children to their classrooms–every one with a smile and greeting for me. Also teachers, staff, children. It was refreshingly lovely. There was a lightness, a warmth and community about the place. No ducking along anonymously feeling like an outsider and hoping for at least one welcome. Someone had been working at creating this culture.

And I had a good time with the kids–helped them practice multiplication and division, gave them a quiz, tried to help them when they got stuck or off track. The machines all worked, there were opportunities to give individual help, the students were sweet, I had some opportunities to connect with the other grade level teachers, and at the end of the day the girls out on the playground loved the game I taught them.

I didn’t come across the principal, until–I think it was him–the end of the day when he was rendezvousing with a child–his son?–to go home, I guess. He wasn’t dressed like a principal, but he looked like the news release photo, with his shaved head and wreaths of smile lines. He was talking with someone; I slipped on by to drop off my key rather than making a networking move. Already emailed him last week, just to connect as a newly available sub, with a bit of background.

Would I want to work here? A sweet school, a good principal, and mostly great co-workers (not including the one who was openly griping to a colleague as I passed her in the hall, both times), the challenge of making things better where the needs were high. Yet this school happened to be the only elementary school in the district with no seventh and eighth graders–they had apparently been shunted off to a non-struggling school–and I missed their presence. I like their dynamic, their complexity, their flux, their emerging ability to think more abstractly, to question, to challenge, to synthesize, to create. Some are positively crying out, Show me this is worth it! Why should I cooperate? When will I get to call the shots? And when the teacher-student dynamic works, when there’s mutual respect and work worth doing, they can be so receptive, so responsive, even fiercely supportive. The fifth graders were more compliant, sure–I could probably announce we were going to learn how to play Cat’s Cradle or take a ten minute nap, and they’d probably try their best to cooperate. But that’s not what energizes me, and I realized it again that day.

A few days later, I have some recent sub jobs  teaching 7th and 8th graders behind me. I come home tired and happy, thinking about this or that student–one who’s a slightly pimplier version of a successful college student–devoted to learning for his own purposes, a reader, running a course parallel and apart from the juvenile pastimes of watching silly online videos, swiping girls’ pencils, trying to sneak outside, or taking a pass on doing any work with a “make my day” attitude. Another who passes under my radar without speaking any English by making her way with a tablet for online translation and a helpful seat mate. One tall, confident girl with long, wavy, golden hair who is the only one to anticipate how to isolate a variable from its coefficient in a multi-term equation. A laughing girl with short cropped hair, dark framed glasses and a bow tie, not going with the current girl fashion fads. A boy who seems unable to see a reason to try at all, who had the ultimatum last week from a teacher–shape up or else–and seems to already count himself among the misfits, the hopeless cases. Yet when he lifts his drowsy head and shares with me some of his story, seems like he’s asking for help to do what he can’t. Thought about him a lot, and the possible things that might be going on to bring him low. Kicked out of a school, by one account, didn’t go to school at all, by his, says he might have a fall asleep disorder, or maybe isn’t challenged enough with this math level. Intellectual capacity not being a problem, I gather.

I had the chance to talk over the day with the teacher for whom I’d subbed, who is trying with this and another student in particular that I’d asked about, to make a connection, find the key…or at least avoid doing further harm. Found out that in the case of the second kid, backing off seemed to be the thing, but with sleepy boy, he would have to see, maybe talk to the school counselor. This boy, when he said he hadn’t gone to school the previous year, I asked what he had done instead, and he said Nothing, as in if a kid isn’t in school there’s no existence worth mentioning. Say this to a former homeschool mom, and I say, what? Nothing?

Is that what we’re teaching kids, that school is the only way, that there’s no other plan, that if you’re not there you must be hanging out on street corners asking for trouble or zoned out on video games in the basement or sent off to behavioral camp, and of course none of that’s worth mentioning unless there’s a professional, program, or intervention team involved? If I’d had more time, and more kids that were hating school all in one room, knowing they didn’t fit, and under that delusion that the only option was to hang around the margins or kick against the goads, hang around and live like dropout was some kind of identity in itself, as if rebellion and rejection of the mainstream was good enough, I’d have a few things to say, including maybe the word bullshit, some hard questions to ask, like are you going to make a plan? Not just to stay in school, get a diploma, but look farther, look inside, what’s your dream, and what are the steps? Or what do you want to try, to explore? In my imagination I have all the wisdom, all the preachy fire and I kindle the spark of a love for learning and a work ethic, no sweat.

In some ways I’d prefer to work exclusively with the gifted and talented set, who do all the homework and then ask for more, who surge ahead and go deep and are amazing. It would be fun trying to hang on for the ride, just facilitating, providing rich resources, helping them dream up new ways to challenge themselves, create, accomplish more than I ever could, and create a glow of brilliance I could bask in a little.

But on the other hand, I think it’s time I looked into the “alternative schools.” Maybe that’s where I belong.



My toes haven’t been in the dirt lately, as I’ve taken to wearing shoes when I go out there, but I do still have slightly dirty fingernails. Happily, for I’ve been holed up with a cold and have had to portion out my energy for only important and physically undemanding tasks–drives and pickups, answering emails, simple household tasks, working on job leads, sewing. But yesterday in the late afternoon I got out to pick tomatoes and peppers, pull up some blighted plants, and thin the Swiss chard and blanch and freeze the extra. Only my husband and I will eat it unless I layer it into lasagne–I’ve come to like it so much that I steam down a huge hank while I fry my morning eggs, potatoes and sausage, add salt and vinegar, and eat like a filet mignon–it’s that tender and nutritious.

While I was squatting to weed around the spinach, a red-breasted nuthatch and a chickadee landed on a nearby spray of sunflower heads to dine, retreating periodically to the neighbors’ willow border to pipe merry (or warning) tunes. I’ve been missing my hummingbird encounters, though not regretting the decline in cabbage butterfly sightings. Ebbs and flows, and this is the season of the slugs, who rasp away at strawberries, lettuce, and of course their regular wild plant fare.

I rarely get sick, not yet being so immersed in the throng of public life that I’m unable to regularly wash off the germs that come with it. I may seem a careless housekeeper and not get every last smudge of dirt from my elbows every time, but I’m diligent about getting rid of invisible smears of germs that might make people sick. This time I got careless and shared the family toothpaste tube even though someone had the sniffles, so I caught the cold too. I guess after all this time I was due for the full version, with fatigue, runny nose, aching head, hacking, and hot flashes. Though the reason for the latter is debatable.

Like the approach of labor in pregnancy, impending illness stimulates me to be extra productive–I don’t want to slump on a couch full of unsorted laundry or feverishly stare at bunny-sized dust bunnies by the base boards, after all, so I like to try to clear as much away as I can, and make sure there are a few easy meals on hand for the family. I corralled my reading materials, some research I wanted to do, and had no commitments to attend events, so that was all good; I would only give myself a few days to get through the worst. I upped my Wellness Formula herbal tablets dosage and finished up what work I could. Reading and writing, working on my daughter’s long-awaited horse quilt, and listening along with my son’s Librivox recording of Robinhood stories kept my mind off of my ailment between naps. The child of mine who lately has had the most difficulty being cooperative and sympathetic was the most attentive of all, and enjoyed “doting on me,” bringing me ginger tea, saying yes to my requests and not asking for the usual nightly back rub.

This is my last day for home sick leave, then it’s time for me to pick up what substitute teaching jobs I can, and/or get busy on more substantial projects. Would have liked to help in high school ceramics class posted last week. There’s not much else available for me yet, as teachers have established preferred sub lists from last year and I’m not on those yet. I sent out some emails to generate interest and hope that will bear fruit this week. I’m limited to one district this year, since  the others have taken the flexibility out of their HR system by adopting an online application system, one of the requirements for which, recent observation-based references, I have not been able to meet. The district that took me back waived that, so that’s my “in,” unless I can arrange volunteer teaching sessions closer to home and get three different staff to observe and fill out the forms. In some ways I like going out of my own district, where I’d feel less free to write about my experiences. Maybe I’ll keep a separate, private blog for that purpose when the time comes. Or find a way to keep that blog so anonymous, so professional in tone and my stories so impossible to track down as to players and settings, that it will be acceptable for public consumption. In the name of positive dialogue, creative tension, accountability, and that all-important, much touted in eduspeak, critical thinking. Living by example for students to follow, right? Show them we love to read, show them we really use math, and show them that we think and communicate toward the improvement of a democratic society and better public institutions, right? Who could argue with that?

20140926-2951I’ve written before about how I feel my hands (and tongue) are tied as a parent when it comes to offering suggestions or constructive criticism to a school teacher or staff member. Because, of course I get my inside information from my children–it’s they who tell me when a teacher is insensitive to a student, when a kid is doing naughty things behind a teacher’s back, if someone is consistently a slacker in group work, or if a student genuinely needs extra support but hides this from the teacher. Any time I even hint that maybe I can take an issue up with a teacher or staff member, just to bring something to their attention so as to improve the classroom experience for students, my kids recoil in horror and threaten never to tell me anything again. For of course they don’t want anything to reflect poorly on them, or create any bad feeling between them and the teacher. Because, surprisingly, some teachers frown on students who are the offspring of people who want to have a say in what goes on at school, who challenge them–can you imagine? There’s the sense that someone has tattled on them, or maybe didn’t follow the protocol of going directly to the source. Kids feel that, and so they place that gag order on their parents. But really, what kid even up to high school is ready to show that kind of maturity, or shoulder the burden of being the critic, of rocking the boat, drawing attention to him or herself? A few, thank heaven–I rejoice when they turn up–they are ahead of their years, beyond the standard lessons we have taught them, expect a response better than what most of our kids have been led to expect.

But so that students’ valuable feedback might not be lost, I suggest we install a Suggestions Box in every school (or the electronic equivalent, but I’m skeptical about putting that kind of data out there to be hacked). For students, to be sure, but even for parents who feel they need to pass on their own or their students’ observations. Signing a name or tag, such as “Mom,” “Community Member,” “Seven parents of sixth graders” would be optional. Heck, you could put a whole anonymous petition in there if necessary, with code names. The rules (trust system) would be only that people try to be helpful. Or maybe a rubric could be created along the lines of, Is this comment true, kind, and necessary? Am I remaining anonymous only to protect others from negative repercussions? Here are some examples that have come into the range of my experience:

Dear teacher,

So-and-so is gaining a reputation among classmates for riding on the coattails of other group members during group project time.

Dear teacher,

My student has noticed that so-and-so is having trouble with reading at grade level, and is too embarrassed to get help.

Dear teacher,

I really, really need to be able to work independently more. I work better that way.

Dear principal,

I just wanted to let you know that both my graduated and presently attending child feel that Ms. So-and-so is the best teacher they ever had, because she treats students like intelligent beings and gives them autonomy when they can handle it, yet is good at a more “parental” approach with less mature students.

And now, what about the charge that people will abuse a suggestion box? Immature people who stuff obscenities and death threats in there, or colleagues who anonymously offer feedback they are too cowardly to say in person and too insensitive not to say at all? Administrators who intercept dirty classroom laundry, or deposit comments themselves? Or just the backfiring of good intentions, the potential for real hurt or creating an atmosphere of Big Brother is watching? All that’s a reason to keep things in the open, sure, but there area parallel set of problems with that (see above), so what is to be done? Do we just lend a sympathetic, lips-are-sealed ear to our kids’ tales, or if there’s a real problem, tell them to take it as it comes, suck it up, or handle it like so? “Yes, dear, maybe you should go to the teacher in confidence and…,” “Have you talked to that student and told her to speak more respectfully?” Or maybe the old-style, “Pinch him back–harder!” I haven’t had much success with that approach, though I still chalk it up to possible future utility in their lives. The discussions we have can lead to more understanding, more sensitivity, at least in the sense of my kids growing up to be aware of dynamics they can expect and how to anticipate or avoid them. Especially if any of them decide to be teachers.

And who gets to read what from the box? Does one address and seal notes, then someone distributes them? Is there a curator/screener?

Or, should the idea be piloted, perhaps permanently parked, within each classroom? Then things get to the right people, and everyone knows it. Issues that reach outside can go to the To Staff box.

Some folks are of the mind that no one should ever complain or say anything within a community that the recipient might find difficult to receive. Except we expect that from Other People in the Real World, for which we are preparing our children. Not that any of us wish to know these Other People in person or by name, except at a distance such as politicians critiquing one another. For us to actually participate in those Real World activities such as disagreeing, opposing, critiquing, or failing to support, is off the agenda. For example, a few times on our neighborhood website slightly critical or questioning comments have been posted. Invariably there is a backlash of outraged niceness from a certain neighbor and sometimes a string of others, who say things like, “I can’t BELIEVE ANYONE would complain/criticize/see things in such a light!!!!! (always lots of exclamation marks) SOME PEOPLE have no idea!!!!” Which of course has a chilling effect on further less than affirming comments, but does not prevent private agreement with the negative comments, which sometimes even have the desired corrective effect.

On the other hand, thank heaven for nice people. The genuine ones, I mean, who truly see the good and whose speech contains almost entirely affirming, encouraging, agreeable phrases. I know several of these people, and though sometimes I think that they have their head in the sand (can you tell I’m not one of them?), I know we need, need, need them to exist in every sector of our society. But I’m making a small, ineffectual plea for a medium by which people who see something that is not right can offer a corrective, take it or leave it.

I don’t know, maybe it would require a Training, or several. More teacher training, more student assemblies (Bully Proofing at the Suggestion Box?), maybe we could add testing too, and, well–anyone else have any better ideas?

Eldest son and I went over the mountains to Whitman College in Walla Walla the other day. Long drive through the Cascades to the rain shadow, rolling hills of wheat stubble, passing trucks carrying massive loads of baled hay. Wildflowers and gravelly rivers, irrigated pastures and vineyards, low profile towns with grain storage tanks rising up near the highway. Into the wine country, region of sweet onions and dry land farming. Away from the sea under sparsely clouded skies, wide skies.

We park on a side street, get first impressions as we head to the library for check in. Interesting range of emotions for me–this is an expensive private college, with beautiful grounds and facilities, what I can only assume are intelligent and gifted young people strolling around, and I’m feeling a little insecure, on behalf of my son or myself I don’t quite know. Then the embarrassment of finding out he forgot his sleeping gear for the overnight with a student host, my awkwardness at wanting to be involved without being overly involved, hear and see everything with him, ask great questions for his sake, maybe even clarify things he might not express as clearly as I would like. Sure it’s his experience, his time, his chance to learn whether this school would be a good fit and whether he should apply. But parents are mentors, as well as financial supporters, and college decisions have a family impact in more than one way. So I’m disappointed that in my parent packet is only general information about the college, a map and tips on accommodation, dining , and entertainment. I leave him to wait for his host, send off my best silent hopes that he’ll have a good time, learn lots of useful insights, get a sense of the nature of this place and its community in his conversations between now and the tour on the morrow. From the hotel I text him that I found a sleep sack in the car trunk and can borrow a pillow and towel from the aptly named Comfort Inn. He texts back, No worries, he’s worked it out with the host. So I settle in for some 3Rs–relaxation, reading, and writing. But my quiet hotel room doesn’t feel like a mini-vacation as I thought it would, just quiet and lonely, as I begin this process of releasing my firstborn and think about my other three coming to the same stage soon.

The next morning, on the advice of the desk staff, I drive over for a run around the reservoir. Sun is hanging large and red low in the east over low hills, the air is clear and cool. I find the driveway, a parking lot, lock the car and head up onto a sort of dike trail where I can get high enough to look around. The reservoir, the small lake on my left, surrounded by poplars and willows, summer dry but full of life–rustling in the bushes, soft flutterings, birdsong. At the highest point of the trail I’m facing a softly rounded hill, over the top of which rises the tips of small farm buildings, and the sound of a radio.

I run across the ridge, working out the stiffness in my hip, then follow another walker, man in his sixties or so in a brimmed hat, down into the path around the lake. So as not to be in continual pursuit, I speed up and he turns as I draw near. I apologize for following, explain that I don’t know the paths. He smiles and says, “You have a good attitude.” Was he alarmed? Does that instinctive fear of danger, as I had lying at the base of my uncertainty about this unknown trail in an unknown town, come into play for him when he hears quick steps behind? Even here? Once on the radio show about design solutions, the speaker described going places where, as a woman, she could experience risk, was full of solutions design. Choosing the route, the time, the safety techniques, speed, aura of strength and confidence to project when going out into the world. Whether to go alone, in a group, or with a dog. I am not naive (though I’ve been accused of such because of my actions at times), and being alone out here, my mind isn’t free of the thought of possible danger. This time I decide to lay them all aside and count on the positive odds today.

And so they come into play. I explore trails of sand and fine gravel, some of which end in fishing spots, some at benches, others in rabbit trails. Around several bends in the trail I spy single rabbit sentries. Each must have heard my approach, yet each lingers to catch a glimpse, get a better scent, interpret my movements, hear my soft greeting, then bounce off, white tail flashing. As I come up to one of the rabbit entrances, I see under the sparsely leafed trees a network of small paths, beaten by many feet and roofed by branches. It reminds me of a dry version of Yoda’s swamp. In a few months winter snow will define tunnels, archways and floors even more.

Along a path a few yards in from the lake stand smooth-limbed skeletons of a plant gone to seed–looks exactly like dill, except it is the color of ripe wheat. I remember carrot seed heads are the same, so this must be cow parsnip. A forest of it lines the path. Further along the dry gulch at the end of the reservoir, the trees thin and the path climbs the bank. The sand of the path here is imprinted with overlaid evidence of other travelers–human shoe soles, dog prints, small spayed hand-like paws, and the distinct long and short footfalls of rabbits.

On a parallel, unseen path above mine comes a whistler, singing a trilling, exuberant bird-like tune which is yet unmistakably human. My senses, both physical and cultural, tell me it is a man between the ages of  fifty and seventy years, intelligent, fit , cheerful, and from the area. Surprised by my confidence sight unseen, I consider what detail the birds can pick up about each other by ear.

On the way out the road to the car the quick movements of a quail, body gliding along above fast moving feet, head with black feather flag bobbing. It stops to hide behind a boulder at the edge of the road, and when I make the circuit, scurries into the shrubbery.

After breakfast, which, because I wasn’t watching the time,  I would have missed were it not for a kind attendant who found me some eggs and sausage after most had been put away, I head over to the campus for the tour. I’m too late, having misremembered the time and not having been given a schedule in my packet. Probably just as well–my son is being given a one-on-one tour. I wander around on my own through the academic buildings, the art gallery, across the grassy quad, to the student center, examine bulletin boards, gardens. Then back to admissions to see what I can learn. I ask the student at the desk about her story–a junior from a private school, the only one of her class that did not hire a private SAT tutor, believing that was not the point. She shares with me about internships and other opportunities, what she knows about student aid, a sense of the community at Whitman. Tells me the former head of admissions has gone to be a farmer.

In the info session with an admissions officer we hear about the values of Whitman–academic rigor, diversity of thought and experience, rich community, equipping students to make a contribution and move into a great career. Having chosen Pomona for reasons of accessibility and studied anthropology, the officer then came to work at Whitman because it had been his first choice college. Tells us about the first year Encounters class, in which students read a set list of books and are led in discussion and writing by professors from various disciplines, classes kept to about fifteen students each. Good information, with only a touch of gushing (the perfect balance of academics and community, “cross-fit for the mind”). The new assistant of admissions, a young black North Carolinian, observes the session, introduces himself to my son.

Then it’s time to go, long drive back over the mountains, but we decide to try our luck finding the swim and dive coach. She’s just getting out of a meeting and takes us to her office for a chat, invites in her interim assistant, a former student who recently won the national 100 butterfly title. He reminds me of my son–medium build, light hair, glasses, calm, intelligent demeanor. Coach Jennifer Blomme  asks my son about grades, previous training, best times, goals. She is a good listener,  and my son has a sense he’d enjoy training with her. She says he could come in at the level of a scoring member of the team, suggests he apply for early acceptance for the best shot, takes our contact info. Whitman is NCAA Division III, both men and women train together, and there is an off season, which my son thinks would be a good fit and allow him to pursue other interests–something that his previous club coach seemingly could not abide.

On the way home I hear, in precis form, about my son’s time with students and on the tour. He was able to attend an Encounters class, in which he was disappointed at how the professor handled another student’s observations on interpreting the book of Genesis. The student had observed that if one had the view that Genesis was not divinely inspired, one could posit that it was written by man to give man authority over the Earth. Instead of taking that lead to discuss cultural norms handed down by the priesthood, she said, “But that would be blasphemous, so we don’t take that view.” Which surprised me, as i have come to expect the opposite bias in post modern academia. We talked about how rich a discussion it could have been, how we would hope the professor went home and realized she had not handled that very well and come back next day to refresh the discussion. I suggested my son write about that interchange in his entrance essay, which he though was a good idea.

And so the visit was successful in that Whitman is on my son’s short list. However, it’s a hard sell unless they would provide a substantial aid package. Also it looks like my son will be a hard sell for such a college, grades at this point being good but not great, second SAT and first ACT still to be tackled. Still, there may be hope that, since the college asserts that their goal is to build a diverse student body that will excel at Whitman, maybe some of my son’s unique qualities and experiences will offset his less than stellar numbers and white maleness. It will be a reach. My son’s assignment, write notes on his visit and look up the application essay requirements, start making notes.


First College Visit

Took a tour of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC with my son last week and we were pretty impressed. Lots of program options, three campuses within public transport distance, mountaintop location, renowned work coop program, encouragement to explore and cross disciplines. The only NCAA Division II college in Canada, with a swim team my son could make (according to current team records). And as a dual citizen there’s that only $5800.oo per year tuition price tag that seems to be a shockingly good bargain. But it’s a big school, and my instinct is that’s not a good thing for this particular young man. Undergrad classes of hundreds of students, impossibility of real connection with professors, just like I experienced in my undergrad years at Dalhousie U. The big campus favors the extrovert, the Type A, the confident, go-getting, early-blooming risk-taker, and of course we need those, and power to them for distinguishing themselves in this big world. But some people need a more nurturing environment, a community where you have a good chance of running into the same people now and then, becoming known, making connections in a natural way and in the course of special events for that purpose. Introverts have the right to have their needs met, too, to have help discovering their strengths and gaining new ones, to be mentored and encouraged. All those stresses of suddenly being away from family, friends, work colleagues, familiar places, plus new academic challenges and the leap into greater independence. Lots to digest, and you gotta have friends and wise people around to help, even to break in at times to the spiral of the introvert’s tendency to over think and turn inward further. Yeah, they’re deep, but they can sometimes get too far under.

So much good information available to inform oneself about U.S. universities–from lots of different angles–from stats to reviews to scores to alternative and unusual viewpoints. Not so much available on Canadian universities–at least I haven’t been able to track much down. Just MacLean’s Magazine rankings, and that system has its flaws. I’m looking at small colleges (there are some excellent big ones–U of Toronto, McGill, but see above). Two that come up often are Acadia U, where I did my teaching degree, and Mount Allison U.,  where two of my siblings studied. Pretty far away, but close to my parents and two siblings, which could be nice for all. It would be good to find out what those two and other similar small Canadian colleges are doing these days.

Meanwhile, we’ve also booked a tour at Whitman College in Walla Walla, the renowned private school that continually appears in our fantastic colleges books–Cool Colleges, Colleges That Change Lives, 140 Best Colleges, and lots more. But tuition is almost ten times that at SFU, and over seven times that of our local state university. The argument being that that’s what a really excellent education costs, and that a good liberal art education gives a person what they really need to think well, communicate well, have depth and breadth of understanding that equips them for whatever next steps they choose. And grad schools and the best HR folks know that and snap up those grads. Also, that if you’re the kind of student Whitman wants, they’ll pitch in big bucks in the way of scholarships and aid, so the average indebtedness might not be much over what a public college grad might incur. Anyway, it’s in our state, and should give us an idea of what these types of places are like. So we’re trying to be open minded.

One thing that struck me about our student tour guide was that she was very somber. Not just serious and grounded, which I appreciate when trying to gather accurate information, but almost sad. Not something about which I could ask, but I wondered if she was lonely at her big school.


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