The Dirt

6 Feb

I have a little secret. Okay, maybe it’s not a secret. I am not a Southern gal. I wasn’t raised to say, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” I wasn’t raised to cross my legs and keep my elbows off the table. And I had no idea until my mid-20s that some women match their bras and panties on a daily basis. This is probably not a shock to anyone who knows me.

I was born in the north, to northern parents, and my mother had a rather hands-off approach to parenting.

While we moved to Texas when I was 5, I wasn’t raised the same as many of my peers. I still remember the day in second grade when my teacher scolded me for having dirt under my fingernails. “Little girls don’t dig in the dirt,” she told me. “And if they do, they clean their nails before going out.”

I was dumbfounded. First of all, no teacher had ever reprimanded me. I was always the teacher’s pet. And secondly, why the hell couldn’t I dig in the dirt?

So began my rebellion.

When I was told “little girls” don’t do that, you can bet your ass that I did it. My mother’s second husband had a mother who loved to explain to me all the ways I wasn’t lady-like. It was exhausting but also educating. From her, I learned my list of the things that I had to do.

By early college I came to despise the term “lady.” I always told people not to call me that. “It’s a man’s definition of what a woman should be,” I would reply.

Maybe I was a bit of a feminist, but mostly I saw girls and boys equal. I didn’t think we needed two different sets of rules because we were different genders. I am not sure that is particularly radical or groundbreaking.

I don’t expect a man to hold a door open for me (I do thank them if they do). I don’t expect a man to let me enter a room first. I don’t expect …  hell, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect.

So here’s the problem. I am raising boys. Two of them. In the south. In Texas.

Sure, I live in Austin, but that doesn’t mean the rules are different here.

When my boys first entered school, I had to explain to the teachers that they didn’t learn to say, “Yes, ma’am” or “No, sir.” We don’t use those terms in my house. Honestly, I never thought to teach them that when they were little. They are respectful. They say “thank you” and “please,” but then they follow that with a period.

What I have taught my boys is that women are smart, strong and equal to them — which hasn’t been easy. Luckily, I have a husband who believes the same.

Now here’s the sticky part. My boys are getting older. They are interacting with girls more — or at least one of them is. They see girls as equals. Sounds great, right?

Maybe not.

Last week, JoJo told me that girls were hitting him on the playground. They were chasing him and then hitting him. It was a game, but he didn’t like it.

I reminded him that under no circumstances does he hit back. None.

“They probably like you, and it’s their way of flirting,” I said. “Tell them you don’t like them hitting you, and you want it to stop.”

JoJo thought my solution was laughable, but he said he would try. It didn’t work.

I suggested many other solutions — talking with the teacher, staying far away from the girls, standing near a teacher, etc.

None of them suited him.

“Why can’t boys hit back,” he asked.

“Because you’re stronger,” I said. “You could hurt them.”

Ugh. I said it. And it’s true. JoJo is incredibly strong. He’s nickname on his soccer team is The Hulk. When kids run into him, they bounce off. Seriously, I am not kidding. One kid tried to rush him while he was playing goalie, and the kid literally bounced off JoJo and fell the ground.

JoJo regularly works out with my husband and can do more pull-ups in a day than I could do in a lifetime. He’s strong, and he’s fit.

Regardless, I didn’t like telling him that he was stronger than those girls.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he told me over and over again. His logic was that someone is always stronger in a battle. And I guess they are.

“Boys just don’t hit girls,” I said. “Period. You would get in serious trouble. That’s the rules. Never hit a girl.”

“Those rules are stupid,” he said. “Why don’t they get in trouble for hitting me?”

At this point, I tried to talk about domestic violence and how men usually have more muscle strength and a tendency to be more violent. Probably too much for an 11-year-old.

But again — it’s the truth.

Eventually he relented and promised he would never hit a girl.

Here’s the thing, I don’t worry that my sweet boy would ever hit a girl or boy — especially out of anger. He’s the protector. The only time I fear he would hit someone would be to stop them from attacking someone else.

He simply wanted an equal playing field. If he would get in serious trouble for hitting a girl, then the girls should get in serious trouble for hitting him. And they probably should. Or they should at least be told to stop.

As a society, though, we overlook girls hitting boys. We explain it away with things like “they are flirting with you” or “they like you.” I did it. And maybe it’s true, but it’s not OK. It’s not healthy, and quite frankly, it makes my parenting harder.

For the last few days, I have worried that this experience will change JoJo’s opinion of girls. Does he think of them as weaker? Does he think boys are better than girls because they have more muscles, or that girls have it easier with a different set of rules.

I know it’s OK for him to know that girls and boys are different. I want him to know that. Each have different strengths, but different doesn’t mean better.

Ugh. Parenting is hard, and it’s getting harder. I thought waking up 10 times a night to console a crying baby was going to be the hardest part. Not even close.

Every day I question things I say and do when dealing with my boys. Do I need to teach them to open a door for girls now or pull out chair when a female friend is having dinner with us? Did I screw up by not teaching them to treat girls differently?

The only thing I know for sure is that my boys are sweet boys. They are kind boys. They truly believe we are here on this earth to make it better and help each other. And while they may not open a door for your daughter, they will play in the dirt with her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Finding the Light

24 Jan

On Saturday, I trudged down the Capitol with several of my girlfriends and marched in unity with my sisters and brothers. We chanted. We sang. We were peaceful and we were together.

The day gave me hope — something I needed. Since the election, I’ve been nursing my wounds – in a funk – just damn sad. But Saturday, marching with 50,000 women, men and children in Austin, Texas, renewed my hope.

It also helped me reframe this presidency. It is awful, and I am scared. But I am trying to find that light – that wee bit of sunshine in a crazy, dark situation.

Here’s the light I found. Donald Trump will make me a better parent.

Yes, I said it, and I am serious. On Sunday on my drive home from church, I had a revelation, an epiphany maybe — Donald Trump’s mom must be so sad. Seriously, that was my revelation. I know she’s dead, but still, I bet she’s still sad. If he were my son, I would be so disappointed. And that’s where he makes me a better parent. I don’t want my children to be anything like this man – not one little inkling.

Ever since my boys were tiny, I’ve tried to teach them that it’s OK to fail. I don’t let them win board games very often. I don’t tell them they are awesome in their sporting events when they aren’t. I don’t sprinkle sunshine when it’s truly raining. I know, I sound kind of like a bitch. Maybe I am, but I want my kids to know that it’s OK to lose. It’s OK not to be the best at something. It’s OK to fail because failure teaches us. We learn in defeat. We learn when we lose. Failure also makes the wins so much sweeter.

Here’s the catch. I’m not always great at this. I remember one of Joey’s soccer tournaments when his team lost the championship game by one point. The other team scored after time had elapsed, but the referee wasn’t watching the time closely. It sucked. My boy cried, and I allowed him to blame the ref. Not a great parenting moment. Sure, the ref missed the time, but if Joey had scored two more goals during the game, his team wouldn’t have lost. The ref didn’t lose the game for his team – it was a group effort. I didn’t do a good job pushing that truth (you know, the opposite of alternative facts).

For the next four years, though, I don’t think I will make that mistake again. I won’t allow my kids to play the blame game to deflect a loss or defeat. When they fail, we will not sugarcoat it and make it into something it’s not. That’s not to say I won’t comfort them and encourage them to try again or try something else.

The simple fact is, failure makes us stronger — but only when we admit it and accept it. It pushes us harder the next time. I don’t think the Big Don has ever admitted a failure, and for that he is a weak man. I don’t want to raise weak children. I want my children to recognize their errors, apologize (if needed) and fix them. I want them to be accountable to themselves and the world around them. Thank you, Don, for helping me clarify that — I promise I won’t forget it for the next four years. I feel certain your narcissism will remind me every day.

Also, Having Don as the president also will help me teach my children about civil disobedience and political action. They will learn how to protest and use their voice. If Hillary would have won, I seriously doubt if I would be going down this path. I would have been relatively happy with the administration and not concerned about losing rights and privileges.

For the Saturday march, I missed my son’s basketball game. I hated that. I hated not seeing my little guy play his first game of the season, but our nation needed my voice on Saturday. Luckily, my son agreed. He was proud of us for marching, and he desperately wanted to join us. When I showed him the pictures that night the first thing he said, “Man, you would have lost me in that crowd. I would have just been gone.” It’s true. He would have been gone — meeting people and sharing his story.

So because of Don, my sons will see their mother protest, organize, go to meetings, use her voice. And when it’s appropriate, they will be on my side using their voice. This is a unique opportunity for them. They both were upset on election night — they both were ardent Hillary supporters. When I cried and said The Don was going to win, they wanted to know what would happen next. My only answer was, “This is America. We will use our voice. Your voice still matters.” My children are white, middle-class boys. America listens to them so I want to be sure what they say is accepting, loving, inclusive and just.

Am I happy about Don being president? No. Hell, no. I wake up every morning hoping this is just a bad dream. It’s not. It’s our reality so instead of letting the darkness win, I am going to try to focus on the light.

 

 

 

 

The Banshee

22 Apr

This is a hard one to write. And it will be even harder to post.

On the way home from a scholarship reception last night, my oldest son Charlie announced that he probably wouldn’t be going to the University of Texas at Austin, mine and my husband’s alma mater.

“It’s really hard to get into,” he said. “And I am not smart enough.”

I stopped. Literally. I pulled the car over and turned to face him.

“What do you mean you’re not smart enough?” I asked. “You are certainly smart enough.”

Charlie’s eyes grew wide as looked at me. “I am?” he said.

“Yes, you are,” I said matter-of-factly. “You really are.”

I didn’t lie. If he applies himself, Charlie is smart enough to get into UT.

 

But that conversation has me troubled. I don’t care if my son doesn’t go to UT, but I can’t get it out of my head that my kid, my own kid, doesn’t think he’s smart. He was shocked when I told him he was.

This morning I have replayed the conversation in my head too many times to count. I always thought I told my kids often enough that they were smart. I know I say it. I do. But for some reason it hasn’t stuck.

I think I am to blame for this.

I am a bit of a banshee when I check homework and look at schoolwork and grades. Perhaps, it’s better to describe me as a tiger mom (or at least, that makes me sound a little less crazy). I am demanding, and little mistakes frustrate me when they happen over and over again. I was such a perfectionist when I was a little kid. My kids are not. And that frustrates me. They are about all about speed — how fast can we complete the work, not how accurate.

This speed-first method tends to leave them with the wrong answer quite often. It’s not that they don’t understand the concepts. They can explain to you how to get the right answer – what they need to do. It’s the speed, that’s the problem. They will multiply a number wrong, forget a digit, leave a number out, misspell a word, forget a period. Little errors equal wrong answers. And this frustrates me.

So I yell. And I demand better. They always relent, after a little fighting, and they do it better. But I do not want to have to ask. Or demand. Shouldn’t it come naturally? Shouldn’t they want to get a 100 every time?

My sister says I should be grateful. My boys are rarely stressed — except when their banshee mother is yelling at them. They are okay with being okay. It’s a hard concept for me to grasp. I always wanted to be the best, and when I knew I couldn’t be the best, I was still going to give my best. Admittedly, it has caused stress in my life through the years. I can’t tell you how many all-nighters I pulled in high school just so I could pull out an A. I am shocked I didn’t have any ulcers when I graduated.

My boys are different. So very different from me. And that’s hard for me. I think all of my yelling, all of my questioning of why don’t they care more or try harder has left Charlie feeling not smart. I did that. Me.

My boys are not stupid. I am sure of that. But at least one of them feels that way. Or at least, he doesn’t feel “smart enough.”

My homework rants and grade rants have left him feeling “less than.” And that hurts. It’s not what I wanted. I wanted to raise brave, confident, caring young men. I wanted to raise boys who believed in themselves — independent problem-solvers and critical thinkers. I thought I was doing that. And with some things maybe I am, but not all the way, all the time. That’s what’s so hard about parenting – it’s all the time. Every minute. Every moment. It’s hard to be a good parent all of the time.

Charlie shouldn’t be shocked when I tell him he’s smart. It shouldn’t be a surprise. But it is. Or it was.

And honestly, I don’t think I can stop all of my rants. I want to push Charlie to be better. That’s my job, right? I know his potential – shouldn’t I at least tell him he can do more? But somehow, I have to figure out how to get him to do better without making him feel “less than.”

Argh. Parenting is hard. It’s really hard. It’s both my favorite job and the one I like the least. Sometimes I just want to take a pass. I am out for this turn. Maybe someone else can step in and fix my mess. I’ll be back when everyone feels better — including me.

But alas, there is no pass. So I am going to have to dig deep and try harder. Be better. Less Tiger. Less Banshee. I want Charlie to know he’s smart. I want him to feel it and believe it.

Maybe it’s time I back off. Tell him he’s smart, and he can do it. Just leave it at that.

 

My Super Star

13 Jan

JoJo is Star of the Week this week. Every third grader gets to be Star for one week. It’s a pretty neat week for JoJo. He gets to share pictures, show off favorite items from his room and read his favorite books to his class. He also gets a letter from his parents.

When Charlie was in third grade, I wrote him a story instead of a letter. It made him cry and not in the good way. This time, I just stuck with a letter (mostly because writer’s block won).

Here’s his letter:

Dear Joseph Douglas Shanks,

Or maybe I should start this letter with Joey or JoJo or Joe. Your nicknames don’t stop there: Josey Posey. Pumpkin Pie. Joe-Noser. Scoop-a-loop. Spike. And the list goes on …

We have so many names for you — too many to put in this letter. But no matter what we call you – you will be always be our special guy.

And it’s not the names that make you special. It’s you. Just you.

I tried my very hardest to write a story that would capture you, but I couldn’t. None of my characters captured all that you are. I couldn’t create a character as amazing as you — even when I gave it superpowers.

The truth is, I didn’t need to create a boy with superpowers. You already have superpowers. And your superpowers are better than anything Superman or Batman or even Spiderman could ever do.

You are:

Bold and Brave – You don’t care what others think of you. For your sixth birthday, you wanted pink cupcakes because pink was your favorite color at that time. I told you some of the boys in the class might laugh at you, but you shrugged and said it didn’t matter. You liked pink. That boldness, that braveness will carry you far in life. It’s a special superpower that every superhero needs.

Joyful – Almost everything makes you happy. Heck, you even found joy in the boxes that your Christmas presents came in. You don’t need elaborate video games or fancy toys to make you happy. You find joy in the simple things — your dog Rudy, spending time with family and friends and riding your bike. You wake up each morning with a huge smile on your face, and you end almost every day with that same smile. Every superhero needs a good smile.

Athletic – No matter what we give you — a soccer ball, a football, a bicycle — you push yourself to be your best. And at times, you may get a little extra competitive on the soccer field, but you are always striving to get better. Every superhero needs to be athletic, and you definitely have that down.

Intuitive – This is a big word for a third grader, but it’s one of your best superpowers. You understand people. You can look at a person and know if they are happy or sad, if they need a hug or smile. The other day when I told you about your aunt having a bad day, you asked to call her. You knew you could cheer her up (and you did). And for just a few minutes, that smile you gave her eased her pain. Knowing when someone is sad and knowing how to help that person is a super-duper superpower.

Colorful and Funny – This might be my favorite superpower that you have. From waking up in the morning and screaming, “Here’s JoJo” to spending 15 minutes gelling your hair, you bring light and laughter to everyone around you. Whether you know it or not, you are a Facebook star. Your quips and sayings make hundreds of people smile every day. Laughter is the best medicine, and you have a lot of this superpower to give.

Kind-hearted and Selfless – You understand our purpose on earth better than anyone I know. “We are here to help each other and love each other.” You demonstrate this on a daily basis. Love drives you. Every time our car approaches a corner with a homeless person, you’re first reaction is, “Mom, what can we give them. How can we help?” When you see a friend who has been bullied or hurt by another, you rush to their aid, reassuring them that they will be okay, and you will always be their friend. So many times, especially this year, you put others before yourself. Just yesterday, I received another email from a teacher praising you for your kindness. Your heart grows bigger every day, and we are so proud to be your parents. This superpower blows all others away.

JoJo, we could go on. You have many more superpowers. You are a leader. You are creative. You are passionate. You are dramatic. You are unique and definitely one-of-a-kind.

We might just be the luckiest parents on earth. After all, how many parents can say they have a real-life SUPERHERO for a son?

Lots of love and big super hugs,

Mom and Dad

The helicopter roars

11 Jul

Life would be easier if I just parented like my mom.

No rules. Very little supervision. A general free-for-all.

Instead, I choose to parent as a low-roaring, ever-present helicopter. Although “choice” may not be the best verb.

I am not sure who would choose this anxiety-ridden, overbearing path, but it’s mine. So I will own it and push forward.

And push is exactly what I had to do for the last 24 hours.

Four days ago, our neighbor invited JoJo to go to his lake house for the night. It was an innocent request. A thoughtful one. A mini-vacation for my youngest.

For most moms, this would be a no-brainer. Let the kid go and enjoy himself. We know our neighbors well. They are great people and fine parents.

For me, the decision was exhausting. I had a thousand reasons to say no. Let’s list the issues (and please try not to snicker until you get to the end):

  1. The one and a half hour car ride there. Dangerous.
  2. Snakes. Lakes have snakes. Dangerous.
  3. JoJo’s food allergies. Dangerous.
  4. Drowning. Two kids died in a local lake two days ago. Dangerous.
  5. Brain-eating bacteria lives in lakes. Dangerous.

I could list five more, but for the sake of brevity, we will stick with the five big ones.

Crazy. I know. I admit it.

But remember, I am in therapy. Lots of therapy. Years of therapy.

It’s making a bit of dent, though. After voicing my fears to my poor husband who has grown used to my helicopter roar and much begging from my super excited little dude, I did concede and allow JoJo to go.

Of course, the warnings list and rule list for JoJo was long. I barked the rules at JoJo: “You must ride in your booster seat. You have to take your own cereal and epipen. You need to wear your mask in the water at all times …” and on I went.

JoJo looked at me in total exacerbation. “Mom, I got this. It’s just one night.”

One long night.

He was right, though. He could do it. It was me I was worried about.

To help ease my anxiety, I called my sister minutes after JoJo hopped into the car for his one-night adventure.

Deb assured me that it was okay to let JoJo go.

“The dad has taken other kids to the lake before and brought them home alive, right?” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Then, there’s proof he can do it,” she assured me. “He’s got a good track record.”

That helped a little. The family did have three kids, and they were all still alive. Yes, I know, this is some crazy-ass reasoning, but it did make me feel better.

Shortly after they arrived at the lake house, the dad texted me a photo of JoJo and the other two boys getting ready to jump into the lake.

Anxiety heightened.

I started my chant: “Everything is okay in this moment.” I took deep breaths and said a few prayers.

At this point in my story, I am certain “normal” moms think I am totally bonkers. They may be right, but bonkers or not, I had to talk myself through this anxiety.

Later that night when the dad sent me a text asking if JoJo could have popcorn for the movie, I was elated. I called my sister, “They are out of the lake. I can sleep for the night.”

Popcorn and my anxiety dropped.

Deb asked if I was going to be okay now.

“Until the morning,” I responded. “Still have to get through one more swim in the lake and then the drive home.” And a few more other worries that I was too embarrassed to mention to my sister.

The good news is, I survived and so did JoJo.

He had an incredible time playing king of raft in the lake, snuggling up in his sleeping bag and watching Bolt and giggling with the other boys on the drive home. One more step to independence and growing up.

I know these are important moments for him. He needs experiences outside of me. I can’t protect him and hover over him for his entire life.

I do want a boy who is independent, who knows how to problem-solve and who can think for himself. I want that. But it’s hard. My helicopter engines don’t turn off so quickly or easily.

I have mastered hovering. I am good at it.

It’s not such a great thing.

I need to master letting go and letting him grow. But God, that’s hard.

I am hard-wired to worry. Those are not easy wires to cut, but I am working at it. And JoJo is helping. He understands a little.

After our first big squishy hug when he returned, he started telling me about his trip.

“I saw a snake, mom, — in the water,” he said.

My heart dropped. “Oh my God, what did you do? Were you in the water? What kind was it?” I peppered him with questions.

A little smile crept across his face as he said, “Relax, mom. I was kidding.”

Yeah, I have to try that.

Bending in the Wind

11 Mar

The other day I was pulling feature stories to send to a local high school when I came across the feature I wrote about my friend Dinora.

It hit home. Yet again.

As I stood in my office reading the article again and staring at the photos of Dinora and her beautiful, beaming boys the tears started to come. Last year, cancer stole Dinora from her family and friends. It was a long six-year battle, and she was fierce in her fight. But eventually she lost.

And so did her boys. They lost an amazing mother who gave every breath to them.

As I wiped the tears away, my mind jumped to my own boys. Lord, have they pushed my buttons lately. It’s been a month of yelling and fighting. Joey has threatened to leave home more than once, and honestly, in the moment, I wasn’t too unhappy about his threat.

Then, the morning comes. Everyone is happy in the morning.

When I interviewed Dinora for the story so much of what she said stuck with me. But one thing in particular really hits home during weeks like this.

I asked Dinora, as a mom, how she managed with cancer. How she made it through each day? I couldn’t imagine the strength it took.

Dinora looked at me and smiled. She said it’s not all bad. Cancer helped her put things in perspective. When her son wanted to sit and talk about legos or a video game for hours, she didn’t mind. She stopped and listened. She enjoyed the conversation. She engaged and loved.

There’s a lesson there for me.

I don’t often stop and listen. I don’t always engage. I always love, but I don’t always show it.
Life with my boys seems to be roaring down the highway, and I am pushing the accelerator as hard as I can. At the end of the day, I am exhausted and done. I don’t want to talk about legos. I don’t want to hear about the latest video game. I want to get dinner made, homework completed and teeth brushed. We must get to bed on time.

The rush drives me crazy. It makes me agitated. It makes me a little more than robotic. Push through the night to get to another day. Then the ride begins again.

And then on mornings like today, I hear Dinora’s voice. I feel her presence. And I stop.

This past weekend when Charlie was so excited about a new video game, I told him I didn’t have time to listen. I was doing laundry. Yesterday when JoJo wanted to play a board game, I told him it would have to wait. I had dishes to do. It’s embarrassing to admit this – a little like Cat’s in the Cradle, but it’s the truth. (Damn, the song is stuck in my head. Come on, let’s all sing it now.)

It’s easy for me to push Dinora’s voice away. It’s easy for me to keep careening down the same path.
As this season of Lent begins, I am going to try to listen to Dinora more. I am going to try to let her voice in and let go of this rigid structure.

Any structure I had growing up was self-imposed. I hated that. I wanted structure for my kids. Everyone told me structure is so damn important. And it is. But this rigid structure is breaking me, and it might be breaking my kids.

I won’t throw the structure out the window, but I need to let my building bend in the wind. That won’t be easy for me. For almost a decade, this has been my course. My rigid course.

It’s okay if all of the dishes aren’t done every night. It’s okay if we have cereal for dinner every once in a while. It’s okay if we stay up past bedtime to read one more chapter of a favorite book.
It’s time to bend. It’s time to listen and engage.

Maybe my kids won’t push my buttons so much if I play one more board game, if I listen to one more story. Maybe if I just let go a little, the morning can come all day long.

My STAR (not STAAR) pupil

25 Nov

After the last day of school last year, I asked my son Charlie: “Aren’t you excited? It’s the first day of summer tomorrow.”

He hung his head low and mumbled something unintelligible.

“What?” I persisted.

“Now I will be in third grade,” he said with absolutely no enthusiasm. “I will have to take the STAAR test.”

And that was it.

That was the moment I decided my son’s summer wasn’t going to be ruined. He wasn’t going to define his advancement to third grade by the stress of a standardized test.
So I answered, “No, you don’t. If you don’t want to take the STAAR test, you don’t have to.”

Charlie, being the ultimate rule follower, looked at me in confusion. “Yes, I do. Every third grader has to take it.”

“Not you,” I said. “I am your parent, and I will decide.”

A tiny smile started to stretch across his face as he asked if I really could do that. I assured him I could, and the tiny smile grew wider and wider.

As a former teacher and a rule follower myself, this proclamation was a little scary for me. I meant it. Charlie would not take the STAAR test, but I was still nervous about following through.

I did for a brief moment think, maybe I should explain to Charlie that he would, indeed, pass the test. He shouldn’t stress about it. He already knew that our family thought the test was not meaningful or helpful for teachers or students. Maybe he should just take it and let it go.

That would have been easier for me.

But this wasn’t about me. It was about my son. It was and still is about protecting my son and fighting for him. Backing out was not option.

I started to read and I started to research. It wasn’t hard to find well-written articles by parents and educators that spoke about the uselessness and horrors of high-stakes testing. I heard a testimony on NPR from one dad, a college professor, who claimed religious reasons for opting his son out of the Pennsylvania standardized tests. He explained to the administrators that it was against his religion for his son to take the test. The family was Methodist, and they didn’t believe in torture.

It was brilliant. I thought I would give that angle a try. I failed. Apparently, Texas, a state deep in the Bible belt, doesn’t allow for religious exemptions from their almighty test.

So I read some more. I found a Facebook group “Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests.” More brilliance. On the site, parents who oppose high-stakes testing pose questions and talk strategy. The site even offers a thorough and thoughtful letter to give your administrators to explain why your child should not take the test.

My courage was building.

The final block in my courage wall was finding Diane Ravitch’s book, “Reign of Error.” To say that this woman is brilliant and passionate about educating children would be the understatement of the year. Every word she wrote spoke to me. Every word.
My courage was solid.

I emailed my son’s teacher to set up a parent/teacher conference with Charlie in attendance. Charlie’s teacher was confused. She said she was happy to meet but was clueless on what I wanted to meet about. She described Charlie as the “model student.”

When I arrived that morning with Charlie in tow, I was a bit nervous. Today, I was going to break a rule – a big rule.

As the teacher and I sat down at the table, I peppered her with questions. “Is Charlie reading on grade level? How are his math skills? Does he struggle in any area?”
And with every question, she assured me Charlie was doing great – reading at grade level and performing at or above grade level in all areas.

“That’s great,” I said. “I trust you; so Charlie isn’t going to take the STAAR test.”

She looked a bit confused so I explained further. “Somewhere in the late 1980s when the government published ‘A Nation at Risk,’ America stopped trusting teachers. The report instilled an unfounded fear of our of public schools. As a result, parents lost their confidence in teachers. I don’t feel that way. I trust my kids’ teachers. I don’t need a high-stakes standardized test to tell me where my kid is, and I don’t want my kid to be used as a pawn in this fear-mongering.”

I explained that Charlie would not be at school on test day. I wanted her to know that I believed in what she was doing every day in the classroom. I wanted her to know I trusted her.

As I explained this to his teacher, Charlie smiled. He trusted her, too. Third grade was going to be okay.

Last week I met with the principal to explain my position. Again, I was a bit nervous, but I believe in what I am doing. The principal, a little to my surprise, was as supportive as he could be. As a parent, I think he understood why I was opting my son out of the test. I know hundreds of educators, and not a single one thinks high-stakes testing improves education or helps students. These are the experts. These are the people who are with our children every day teaching them how to read, how to problem-solve, how to think critically. But no one is listening to them. Honestly, it’s not in their best interest (if they want to keep their jobs) to speak out against the test.

So it’s up to parents. Until we start speaking up, our kids are going to suffer, and our teachers are going to continue to be blamed and ignored. Last year, a group of high school parents convinced the Legislature to reduce the number of STAAR tests at the high school level from 15 to five. It was an incredible success.

But it’s not enough. Our youngest students shouldn’t have a marred experience in elementary school because of this test. They shouldn’t feel anxious or scared or nervous. But that is what the test is doing. My 9-year-old niece who loves to read cried for weeks last year before she had to take the test for the first time.

Our teachers shouldn’t be forced to spend their days preparing the kids for a test they know very little about — a test that cost taxpayers millions of dollars. They shouldn’t be told they are ineffective because their bright students are too anxious and too scared to do well on the test.

In my book, this high-stakes testing is almost criminal and definitely irresponsible.

So my boy will not join in the madness. He will not take the STAAR test. He will not spend hours sitting in a desk bubbling an answer sheet or writing a meaningless essay. He will spend those days at a museum, reading a good book or working on a cool project.

He will spend those days learning. Really learning.