Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

I’m Right, I Presume

Yesterday, an intriguing social media post – a link to an article – offered me the opportunity to adjust my opinion several times in a row. Back and forth, back and forth.

[Ed. note: Curiously, even as I have been writing this post, several of my online friends have been linking to the same article. And most of these people, whom I dearly love, appear to be coming to the conclusion that I didn’t. This sets up opportunity for a glorious and entirely civil debate, I bet.]

The article first showed a photograph of a letter from the principal of an elementary school in Pennsylvania to the father of two of the school’s students. The principal was addressing the student’s three-school-day absence, earlier this month. She wrote:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. [Surname]:

I understand that your family recently took a family vacation. I want you to be aware that the [Town] School District does not recognize family trips as an excused absence, regardless of the activities involved in the trip. The school district is not in the position of overseeing family vacations or evaluating the educational nature of a family trip. The dates that your children were absent were recorded as unexcused. An accumulation of unexcused absences can result in a referral to our attendance officer and a subsequent notice of a violation of the compulsory school attendance law.

Please contact me if you have any questions. Thank you.

Sincerely,

[the principal’s name]”

The letter was probably boilerplate. Not big on the warm milk of human kindness, but it did cover the basics: we do have a policy about this sort of thing, and it’s enough work for us to assess what’s going on inside our own building … without having to figure out whether your family vacation could survive an educational audit, on top of it.

The second thing the article showed was the text of the letter that the students’ father wrote in response to the principal’s – making his case for why he felt the school should make an exception and mark the absences as excused. He had posted the letter on his Facebook page … because that’s what you do nowadays … and had prefaced the post with “So we received this letter from the kids’ school today. Here’s my response. What do you think?”:

Dear Madam Principal,

While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school.

Our children had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that can’t be duplicated in a classroom or read in a book.

In the 3 days of school they missed (which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time) they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history, culinary arts and physical education.

They watched their father overcome, injury, bad weather, the death of a loved one and many other obstacles to achieve an important personal goal.

They also experienced first-hand the love and support of thousands of others cheering on people with a common goal.

At the marathon, they watched blind runners, runners with prosthetic limbs and debilitating diseases and people running to raise money for great causes run in the most prestigious and historic marathon in the world.

They also paid tribute to the victims of a senseless act of terrorism and learned that no matter what evil may occur, terrorists can not deter the American spirit.

These are things they won’t ever truly learn in the classroom.

In addition our children walked the Freedom Trail, visited the site of the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre and the graves of several signers of the Declaration of Independence.

These are things they WILL learn in school a year or more from now. So in actuality our children are ahead of the game.

They also visited an aquarium, sampled great cuisine and spent many hours of physical activity walking and swimming.

We appreciate the efforts of the wonderful teachers and staff and cherish the education they are receiving at [the name of the] Elementary School. We truly love our school.

But I wouldn’t hesitate to pull them out of school again for an experience like the one they had this past week.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

[the father’s name]”

I admit I had to go back and read it again to grasp that in essence, this Boston trip’s main purpose was so the kids could see their father run the Boston Marathon.

Well, so, okay, a big deal. Yes.

But as so often is the case … well, the problem with us educational types is, we’re always wondering “is there something we could have done, in that situation, to make things work better, more smoothly?”

According to reporting by Philadelphia Magazine, there’s a meeting between the principal and this father scheduled for tomorrow morning. So, we wonder again, what could have been done to make that meeting a little less … chilly … and perhaps a little more cordial, and likely to result in a resolution that everyone could live with?

 

As a feller who’s spent a little time in the education racket, I appreciate parental involvement and encourage parental communication, and I recognize that there are parents and then there are parents.

For every parent that you would like to strangle, there’s one you’d like to honor with a statue on the town green. For every parent that you wish would just once check in with you about how their kid is doing, there’s one that can be described by the relatively new adjective “helicopter”. By and large, we would rather hear from them than not.

I don’t have any way of knowing whether this father had alerted the school to his family’s vacation plans ahead of time. Nor do I know whether he had included a description of all these theoretically educational experiences as part of such a proposal. I wish he had; it might have made a few things easier for all involved. The principal’s letter appears to suggest that the school was caught unawares.

As a feller who’s spent a little time in the education racket, I have experienced several different kinds of principals, too. A few were people you’d genuinely enjoy hanging out with, after hours; most were decent people in a very stressful job. Some were not overly endued with social graces, in print or in person. Hey, there are all kinds. You have to know who you’re dealing with. Writers are told, “know your audience” … and it’s a good plan for most everyone.

The principal’s letter to the family, if it wasn’t copied straight from a template, was at least pretty Vulcan. Just the facts, ma’am … which is odd, since elementary school principals are probably better at warmth and charm than most administrators. They have to deal with weeping six-year-olds, for heaven’s sake!

If it were me, I might have made brief note of what an exciting opportunity this was!, probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing (or nearly so). And then suggested that while this by itself mightn’t have made the absence excused, neither would I want to keep them from taking the trip. It’s a big family moment, and I have some respect for family matters.

But regardless of the tone, there wasn’t a single untrue statement in that letter. By the book, we are.

Out of curiosity, I went to the school website to see if there was actually a “book” to be “by” … and by George, there was a PDF available. The school handbook said this:

Regular school attendance is required of all students enrolled in the school during the days and hours that the school is in session. The School Board considers the following conditions to constitute reasonable cause for absence from school: … personal illness … quarantine of the individual or home … death in the immediate family … exceptional, urgent reasons (must pertain to student) … religious holiday … suspension from school … required court appearance … in the case of the exceptional student (Special Education), where absence is caused by or directly related to the student’s exceptionality … religious instruction (at the written request of a parent, students may be excused for up to 36 hours of religious instruction per year). … [I]f a student is absent three consecutive days or has absences exceeding 15% of the class time, the teacher will refer the student’s name to the office for further investigation. Following each absence, parents are to provide a written excuse note indicating the reason for the child’s absence.”

With the understanding that it’s possible for a parent to sign the “I read the school handbook” form without actually having done so … still, that rule is kinda there in black and white.

Again, I have no way of knowing whether the school had been alerted to the vacation in advance. If so, one would hope the school had followed up on it in a timely manner, if they had deep concerns. If not, then the family didn’t follow the rule which says, okay, but after the absence, can you write us a note?

And, happily, the school handbook did point out the reasoning for why we prefer to have kids in school where at all possible:

The district firmly believes that there is a high correlation between class attendance and student achievement. The majority of what is learned in school involves direct instruction by a teacher, the interaction between teacher and student, and the interaction among students. These activities occur in school and are missed by a student who is absent from school. What is missed cannot be made up through homework or extra assignments.”

Can’t argue with that.

 

Except that the father did just that, did you notice?

While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school. … Our children had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that can’t be duplicated in a classroom or read in a book. … [What they saw at the Marathon] are things they won’t ever truly learn in the classroom. … [Some of the vacation activities represent] things they WILL learn in school a year or more from now. So in actuality our children are ahead of the game.”

Where to start?

My gut would like to deal with the condescension first.

But perhaps it’s better to deal with content than delivery, just now.

First: boy, did the father play with fire: took a lot of opportunities to suggest that when it came to education, father knows best.

As educational as a lot of those activities might turn out to be, the description of their ability to supplant an actual curriculum came off, to me, a little like suggesting that going to see the movie “Star Trek Into Darkness” would pave the way for the kids to one day become astrophysicists. With as much suspicion as I view the expanding vistas of standardized testing … ya gotta be able to prove somehow that learning happened, don’t you?

I have no way of knowing whether the father himself was an education professional. I have no way of knowing what his life’s work is at all, beyond distance running. (Maybe he’s a creative writer.) But I didn’t get the impression that there was going to be an essay exam when the family got home. Or even a presentation when the kids returned to school.

Gotta say, that’s gutsy. I don’t know whether I’d write a letter to my doctor and tell him, no, I think I know more about doctorin’ than he does. Maybe it might be a fun experience to write to my lawyer and give her a few pointers on what evidence will fly in court and what won’t. Probably not though, at least not in the first letter I send. Because I’m a music teacher … and while I’ve gone to the doctor and consulted with a lawyer, medicine and the law are not my areas of expertise.

And about that particular tone of voice?

While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, …”

Yeah, because strangely enough, that’s the principal’s job.

Breathtaking.

 

Instead, in this father’s shoes, I think I may have written something like:

Dear Dr. [Principal’s Last Name],

Thanks so much for your letter. I’m pleased that our children’s school maintains an awareness of the importance of being present in school. Your attendance policies are very clear to me from my reading of the handbook, and should apply to everyone equally, my children included.

By way of explanation: my spouse and I decided to bring our children with us to Boston to see me attempt to run the Boston Marathon, because it may the one time I try this, and they were interested in cheering for me at the finish line. They, and we, understand that those absences will be marked as unexcused, and we regret this; but some weeks ago we were in contact with all our children’s teachers, and made prior arrangements with them, so that our kids can make up homework and otherwise catch up on in-class material. We recognize that this is an inconvenience, and thank them for their extra work.

We certainly would not have pulled them out of classes if their attendance records were close to the limits beyond which disciplinary action would be warranted. It would be unfair for parents to do this to their children.”

We hope that you can understand our reasons for taking this trip in this way. If not, or if there are any questions that you have about any part of this, we would be more than happy to meet with you to have a further conversation.

At the very least, we look forward to seeing you at the music concert next month!”

Sincerely,

Me”

Y’know … diplomacy and a bit of compromise, as opposed to trying to score points. And I might err on the side of confidentiality, as distinct from putting a letter up on the Internets where, well, where random bloggers like me can read it and interpret it as somebody trying to score points.

Good Lord. A teacher, being all empathetic to the principal’s point of view. How ’bout that.

I gotta go sit down.

April 28, 2015 Posted by | education, Facebook, social media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Short Subject That Is Tangentially About Social Uprising, But Is Just As Much About Eloquence

I am struck, relatively often but particularly this week, as the city of Baltimore convulses with protests (and associated occasional violence), by the kind of friends I have.

Stick with me here. That was not your standard intelligible sentence.

Thanks to social media, I can read the expressed thoughts of several hundred people with whom I am connected. Many times, when the subjects are placid ones, like birthdays and commencements and anniversaries and successes (or disappointments, for that matter), I get to read well-expressed thoughts. “Thinkin’ about you, hon’” … “Hope your birthday is full of everything that makes you happy” … “You rock” … the subjects are not difficult to opine about, but nonetheless I got a bunch of Friends who write well.

In the last day, as rioting has sprung up in Baltimore in response to events that call up challenging larger topics like police behavior, race, poverty, and social protest, I’m pleased to be able to say that I have continued to read eloquent sentences and paragraphs that qualify as well-expressed thoughts. In the past, as certain current events with larger contexts have similarly arisen, my roster of Friends has not disappointed: I have gone to the Facebook machine wondering what I would read, and have been frankly thrilled to be associated with the people who have been inspired to write so wisely and compassionately and sometimes so incisively.

And in this case, today, I have noted one interesting detail. The two or three folks whose posts, whether of their own writing or of links to others’ writing, have so far caused me to pause, and think, and actually smile, have been former students of mine.

It would be monstrously hubristic to think that because *I* was their teacher, they turned out to be these fine humans who would write the kinds of things they have written. The absolute truth is: I was fortunate to have these people on my class roster. They were fine and eloquent and thoughtful and decent people before they ever hit my classroom. I’m not only comfortable with that … I was, and am still, frankly grateful. Their contributions to our school’s music community (whether deep or intensely silly … and there were myriad examples of each!) always made life better.

I was, and am still, the lucky one in this little scene, I think.

So while I don’t look exactly forward to the moments of challenge in our world of current events and societal trends … I do look forward to seeing how these folks respond to them.

So thank you.

April 28, 2015 Posted by | current events, Facebook, news, social media, writing | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Short Subject That Might Be About Sports, Or About Politics, Or About Family Values, Or About Race, But Turns Out To Be Mostly About Laziness And A Desperate Need For Attention

[Ed. note: Sorry to give away the ending.]

Here’s the situation:

The New England Patriots earn a trip to the White House by winning the Super Bowl. A great many players attend the event in Washington, DC this past Thursday. Several players miss the trip, due to one thing and another, not least of which is that the trip could well have been set up on very short notice and their personal schedules may already have been set. (You hate to miss these things, but sometimes life intervenes.) The team stands in the Rose Garden with the President, who happens to be Barack Obama, and you would think this little detail would mean very little. How wrong, apparently, you would be.

One of the players who misses the trip is quarterback Tom Brady. A high-profile guy, his absence is described as a “family commitment” [one online sports website noted that Thursday was Brady’s parents’ anniversary], and neither the team nor the President publicly makes a big deal of it.

Here’s the predictable part:

The next day, Stephen A. Smith, commentator and former sports journalist (that’s as close as any biographical website gets to calling him an current actual journalist), climbs onto his daily radio program and supposes that the Brady absence was far less innocent than even the President of These Here United States let on:

Where the hell was Tom Brady? Inquiring minds want to know. Where the hell was Tom Brady? I really would like to know. When you won the Super Bowl in 2001 and George W. Bush was president, you were there. When you won back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 2003 and 2004, when George W. Bush was still president, you were there. How come you wasn’t [sic] there yesterday? When President Barack Obama was there. I don’t understand it. Is that a legitimate question?

I don’t want to speculate. Is he a Republican and he doesn’t want anyone to know?

But you got a family commitment. Not an emergency!”

In the space of a single paragraph, Smith, who appears to be suffering from lack of parental attention in his early life, seems to imply that either [1] Brady might have skipped the event because his political views don’t line up with those of the President who happened to be on duty when the Patriots won the Super Bowl … or [2] Brady might have skipped the event because his skin tone didn’t line up with that of the President who happened to be on duty when the Patriots won the Super Bowl.

Smith doesn’t actually say any of that outright. He doesn’t outright accuse Brady of skipping a White house visit because of his politics (although he could go interview Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas about that, because Thomas has actual documented experience with it). And he certainly doesn’t outright accuse Brady of being racist, certainly not by using those actual words (as if to then stand behind them).

But, you know, he’s just sayin’.

I don’t want to “speculate” about Stephen A. Smith either, but he’s making it tough.

I could “speculate” that, based on his history of self-expression in a couple of non-sports subject areas, if Tom Brady had missed all the White House visits hosted by Mr. Bush, and bailed out on his family event and attended this White House event, it’s possible that Mr. Smith might have “speculated” that he was a member of the stinkin’ radical left and skipped the White House visits because he disagreed with the President. Or Mr. Smith might have accused him of not setting a good example for his young fans or not having “family values” (whatever that really means) because he failed to honor a family commitment.

Because in that hypothetical case, based on my observation of the mass media lately … if he hadn’t, you can bet that someone, somewhere in the media establishment, would have done.

And I could “speculate” that neither Smith, nor that other hypothetical media someone, might even have bothered to pick up a phone and try to line up an actual interview to ask Tom Brady about it. Because it’s too easy and too click-bait-worthy and too hip ‘n’ cool to be just sayin’.

No, I take that back. It’s just plain lazy.

Cripes. Even the guy who won the Super Bowl can’t win.

April 25, 2015 Posted by | Famous Persons, media, news, sports | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment