In which some Cub Scouts take me down a notch or two.

Last night, I had my career, my integrity, my professional efficacy – nay, my very Self – called into question by a bunch of rowdy, eight-year-old Scouts.

Usually, my darling husband (eagle scout, voyageur, jack of all trades and man for all seasons) is in charge of taking my son to Cub Scouts, but last night he was doing his duty as a Princeton alum and was interviewing a young, bright-eyed, starry-futured applicant, and I, therefore, was in charge of The Boy.

So, with his neckerchief and his badges and his belt loops, his official uniform shirt and Wolf Cub seed hat, we set off into the slushy wasteland of Winter Minnesota and walked into the chaos of a Scout meeting. The boys were running around, jumping on chairs, wrestling, hitting balloons in the air, play fighting, engaging in fart contests, taking flying leaps across tables,  and so forth, when my son suddenly said to a group of boys, “That’s my mom. She’s an author.”

The boys were not impressed.

“A real one,” Leo clarified. “She writes books. Lots of ’em.”

Now, I wrote about this a couple months ago when my kids expressed their very strong aversion to allowing anyone (and, specifically teachery anyones) to know that I wrote books for a living. Because it’s embarrassing, apparently. And it makes teachers assume things about them (wrong things, my kids said). Fine. So you can imagine my surprise at my son’s sudden blabbing about my chosen carrer.

The boys stopped their playing and regarded me.

“Is that true?” one boy said. He had very tall, very curly brown hair.

“Yep,” I said.

“Real books?” another boy said. His hair had been shaven close to his head, what was left was as dense as moss. “Like with words and pictures.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Some have only words. Others have words and a few pictures. Others have  words and mostly pictures. It’s a mix.”

“Like what?” another boy said. This one had glasses.

“What pictures?” I said.

“No,” said the big boy with the short, dense hair. “What books?”

“Well,” I said. “I wrote The Mostly True Story of Jack.”

The boys gave me a blank look. “I’ve never heard of it,” said the boy with tall hair.

“Well,” I said. “You’re pretty young. It’s mostly fourth and fifth graders who read that.”

The boys all crossed their arms and gave me a look that said, yeah. tell me another one.

I changed the subject. “Did you guys have a fun time at Winter Camp?”

“Did you write The Magic Tree House?” asked boy-in-glasses.

“No,” I said. “But I wrote a book called Iron Hearted Violet.

“That one has a dragon in it.” Leo said.

“OH!” said the boy with mossy hair. “Is it How to Train your Dragon?” his eyes were wide and bright. He glowed.

“No,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, crumpling, his face sinking into a skeptical expression.

“Did you write Goosebumps?”

“Alas, no,” I said.

Dr. Seuss?”

“No,” I said.


I sighed. “No.”

There was a long pause. The boys looked – well, not mad; just disappointed.

“You’re not a real writer, are you?”

I gazed at the ceiling. Because, you know? It’s not like I didn’t agree. This thing about legitimacy verses fraudulence, this assumption of the fakery and poseury? This is a thing that I fight every day. It eats me up sometimes. And I’m not alone. Hell, it might be eating you up. Right now. Every day we have to fight against it in order to return to the page. And, for my part, I’m not always successful.

“I think I’m probably not,” I admitted. Leo, I could see, was disappointed. I didn’t blame him. I was not nearly as impressive as he though I would be. I’m sorry, I mouthed at my son, but he wouldn’t meet my eye. “Let’s go make cupcakes,” I said to the boys. And so we did.

And it was wonderful. I got milk on my shoes and flour on my butt and egg in my hair and batter up my nose and a large chunk of frosting in my purse (that part remains a mystery; my purse wasn’t even in the kitchen; the boys have assured me they are blameless; they told me with wide eyes and angelic expressions. Little stinkers.). Later, after the boys ostensibly washed their dishes, some of the parents stayed behind to re-wash the dishes while the rest of the parents and Scouts went upstairs to the scout room to discuss the upcoming pinewood derby.

Twenty minutes later, the Scouts came thundering down the stairs.

One of them held – I swear to god – The Wee Book of Pee.

“Did you write this?” tall-haired-boy said.

“Yes,” I said.

“I TOLD YOU,” Leo said. “DIDN’T I TELL YOU?”

The boy looked at the book, examined the name and pursed his lips together. “I like that book.”

“We have that book in my school,” glasses boy said.

“So do we,” moss-hair said.

“WE GO TO THE SAME SCHOOL,” glasses said.

“I don’t” said tall hair, “but we have it too. In the library.”

“It’s part of a series,” Leo said. He was beaming. He was sparkly. He could hardly stay in his shoes. I was astonished. “But it’s the best one. I told you she was a real writer.”

“Are all of your books about pee?” another boy said. He was shorter than the others, with very large, brown, solemn eyes.

“No,” I said.

“Well,” he said, his voice very serious, “they probably should be.”

The Art of the Talisman

rocksIt happens sometimes, that a book grinds to a halt. In my experience, this is the rule and not the exception. I will be, for months and months, on firm ground and with a clear path. I will be surefooted, bright-eyed, brave. The story stands around me like an unshakable fortress, a cunning edifice, a cozy den.

And then it collapses. And I am struggling with falling beams and crumbling plaster and illogical plans. Without tools. Without power. In the absolute dark.

This is where I am currently. I have been here before. I have erased and recomposed and erased this book more times than I can count (it is a method of writing that I do not recommend). I have promised the manuscript to my agent, to my writer’s group, to everyone. But it is in pieces, and I am heartsick.

(As I said, I’ve been in this place before. I reach in the darkness and brace a joist to a stud. It holds. I check the footings. They are sound. I move forward. Slowly, slowly.)

It helps me to have something physical that I can hold on to. Something that I can touch, hold in one hand, and then the other. When I was writing The Mostly True Story of Jack, I had a map of the town of Hazlewood that I kept in my back pocket. It was a rough thing (I suck at drawing, after all), scribbled on lined paper. I drew stick figures and inane symbols. A church here. A college there. And look! A park. And look! Clive and Mable’s house. And Frankie’s house. And the place where Wendy beat up Clayton. And the Grain Exchange. And Mr. Avery’s house. And the place where the sinister members of the Knitting League knotted their wicked plans. (Those ladies did not make it into the book, alas. They will show up eventually.) Every day, I would take my map out of my pocket and flatten it out on my desk. I would scribble and erase, scribble and erase. Then fold, and slide the thing back into my pocket.

And it helped. Through all the erasing and fretting and re-doing and undoing. It helped to have something to hold onto.

In Iron Hearted VioletI had a leather bound book. To start out with, it had the first draft of the book in there. I would carry it from the park to the doctor’s office to the creek behind my house. I wrote the entire first draft longhand (it was considerably shorter than the final version), and, since I wrote much of it during the summertime, and my kids were home, it meant that it had to come with me as I hauled them from program to program, and it had to come with me as we were camping for six nights deep in the belly of the Boundary Waters, and it had to come with me when we went to movies, or when I was getting my oil changed or sitting at the DMV or whatever. I scribbled on that thing constantly.

When I got to the end, and began piecing the story back together on the computer, I used the remaining pages to write notes and to draw sketches about the history, physiology and psychology of dragons. I drew organs and bones. I drew timelines and diagrams. I wrote speculations and lectures and bits of history. When I ran out of pages, I used notecards.

And again, it was something to hold. Something to ground me.

The book I’m writing now is called The Boy Who Loved Birds, and I like it very much. This is how it begins:

When she arrived at the Dough Lady’s house, Mara carried three heavy stones in her left hand pocket. She’d throw them if she had to.

The stones – all from Lake Superior, near Mara’s home – were smooth and oval and cold. They curved into the heat of her hand, cooling her down. If she brought them to her nose, they would smell of iron and storm and smoke.  If she brought them to her lips, they would taste like the sky. The weight of each stone felt as precious as breathing.

And so I have stones.

Photo on 2013-01-24 at 11.29I keep them in my pocket almost all the time now. Because even when the story is stuck, and even when I go in like a vengeful angel and smite text with sword and fire, even when I erase everything, the person of Mara remains. Her indomitable self. Her sadness. Her rage. Her mistakes. Her slow path to forgiveness.

I love her. She infuriates me, but I love her anyway. And I keep her stones in my pocket as a talisman, as a physical thing that connects me to her, her story to the world. And they keep me sane.

For those of you in creative work, what are the things of the world that you bring with you as you sally forth into the uncharted waters of the the imagination – the dark heart of the Unknown? And for those of you in any kind of work, what are the things that allow you to keep doing what you’re doing? What are your talismans?

The Winter Novelist’s Toolkit

Please note: Those in warm climates can ignore this. They can also keep their weather stories to themselves. I am currently wearing three pairs of wool socks and have situated myself as close to the fireplace as I dare to sit without fretting about the possibility of lighting my computer on fire. If you want to tell me about your writing desk’s proximity to a Mauian beach or the fact that the Gulf of Mexico breezes are currently drying the sweat between your toes or that your staff of slim-hipped cabana boys are, right now, handing you drinks with umbrellas in them and gently sponging the sweat from your unlined brow as you finish your chapter in your tank top and Bermuda shorts and contemplate if you want to eat your lunch while wading in the salt water or floating in the pool, then I will, very politely, tell you to can it.

I do not want to hear about warm places. Or even lukewarm places. I will pretend that you do not exist.

It is Minnesota here. And it is winter. And it is friggin’ cold.

Now, here’s the thing about sitting at a desk and writing – it is cold work. Despite the fact that I sit on a yoga ball (so bouncy!) and that I take hourly breaks to dance around my office or do push-ups (so gnarly!), I get incredibly cold when I write. Even on a warm day. Today, for example, I have abandoned my office in favor of my couch by the fire. The window next to my desk is old and leaky, and even though it got up to a balmy 15 degrees today, (yesterday, the high was -5. We’re improving!) I was still shivering.

Still, sometimes we are on deadline. And sometimes, we have a story itching in our fingers that wants to get out. And sometimes we promised our writing group a new set of chapters MONTHS ago, and they are still waiting. All of these might be true. So even though we shiver and shake, we still need to get the words written. Because no matter what we do, our books will not – and will not ever – write themselves.

(Because our books, let’s be honest, are jerks. And they are lazy. And they expect us to do all the work. Blasted books.)

Anyhoo. I have made a list of useful things to be able to suffer the cold long enough to get the words written.

1. Fingerless gloves.

gloves My mom got these for me a few years ago from Etsy. And they are magic. One of the problems with cold-weather writing is the fact that the knuckles get creaky. And once they are creaky, they are achy. And then they are hurty. And then it’s hard to write. Keeping the hands warm keeps the words going. And also, stripes. Stripes are magic. And so is wool.

2. Tea

My daughter asked me once what I would do if tea was outlawed.

“Crime,” I said. “The only option will be crime. Mass revolution, too, of course. But mostly crime.”

I told her that I would be forced to turn to the dark side of the law – a quick-fisted, heat-packing, fast-talking, tea-hustling skulker of dark alleys. I’d wear a trench coat and a fedora pulled low. “Hey, buddy,” I’d whisper to gents passing by. “Wanna buy some tea?” I’d build speakeasies for tea – illegal tea-rooms where I’d serve Assam topped with also-illegal raw milk. Because, why not? I’d become a Tea Kingpin, slowly building an empire of tea and corruption. I’d be a tea-drinking gunslinger, with a pack of minions willing to do my bidding. My soul would twist and burn. I would cease to be the Nice Mom Down The Block. I’d be like Mr. White in Breaking Bad.

Do not take my tea away, goddamnit.

Anyway. Tea. Warms the hands. Warms the mind. Keeps the words moving. It’s the only thing keeping me alive at present. Thank god.

3. Wool socks.

As I said: three pairs, currently. And I’m next to the fire. Remember in Harry Potter when  Harry asks Dumbledore what his true heart’s desire is, and Dumbledore says “Really nice wool socks,” and Harry thinks he’s kidding? Well, that castle was drafty. And damp. And in England. And made of stone. Wool socks were exactly what Dumbledore needed. Dark Lord? Forget it. Warm toes – that’s what it’s all about.

4. Very Loud Music

Not when I’m writing, of course. I’m a silent writer. But once an hour, I need to stand up. I’ll do jumping jacks or push-ups (which are very warming) or I’ll run in place. Sometimes. But usually, I’ll get up and dance. The Lillingtons. James Brown. Iggy Pop. Sleater-Kinney. The Roots. Whatever. Nothing battles the freeze of stillness with the insistence of movement.

6. Chocolate

‘Nuff said.

It’s funny, I’m working on two books, one of which is set in Minnesota bog country in the middle of summer. And it is hot and humid and sticky. And wonderful. The other is in a world that is not our own, and it is hot as well. And I notice that the writing now is very slow. And deliberate. Because winter is coming. And the cold is waiting. And, even though it is imaginary, I want to hang out with my characters in an extended summer. Where I may leave my wool socks on the ground and let my toes sink in the muck. Where I may shove my fingerless gloves into the back pocket of my cut-offs and feed sugar to a grasshopper in the hollow of my hand. Where I may go with my computer to sit outside, with the sound of birds and birds and birds.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a novel to write. Slowly.

Sometimes, a book saves us.

We had a rough day in Barnhill-Land yesterday. My son – good-natured, enthusiastic, vigorously naughty, and incredibly creative – pulled out all the stops in the carpool. He and the neighborhood miscreants (all wonderful, beloved boys; all prone to lapses in judgement; we grow, we stumble, we fall, we grow some more), in the back seat of the minivan, started in on a whirlpool of naughty talk.  It was like they were all competing for the Jerk-of-the-Year award – and it’s only January. Bad words. Inappropriate jokes. Bathroom talk. Penis jokes. Pretending to flip off the driver (my neighbor; 250-pound ex-farmer; bad move, boys). And then actually flipping him off.

And it descended.

And they got mean.

And they got nasty.

At one point my neighbor turned the car around and started back for home. At the possibility of facing their mothers and generally being ratted out, they changed their tune instantly.

The thing is, I remember this from childhood. Bad energy. Bad air. And how it felt bad too, and kind of sick, and yet, upsettingly, vaguely exciting as well. Like violence on television – you don’t really like it, but you watch it again and again. And it grosses you out, but you can’t look away. And I remember how it fed on itself. And how, once it started, it couldn’t stop. The fights with siblings. The way my classmates and I would raise our hackles and turn on Substitute Teachers (the kid who could make a Sub cry was always held in high regard). Neighborhood squabbles. Playground nastiness. Mean girl stuff. Group divisions, carefully laying down who was in and who was out. I remember feeling the air change – how it would get heavy and thick, like the sky was pressing down – and either being the target of the nastiness, or standing by and saying nothing, too fearful to step up.

I know that sometimes kids will be aware of themselves behaving badly, but once it starts, they feel powerless to stop it.

They aren’t powerless, of course. They have all the power in the world. They just need to be taught. And that’s our job.

There was, yesterday, a flurry of emails between the parents. Yesterday afternoon, it was my turn to drive. I re-arranged the seating order, I got all the kids buckled, and then I pulled the car over. And rained fire.

“The adults who love you,” I told them, “are able to see your Best Selves. When you show your Worst Selves, it hurts us very much. Jeff loves you, and each of you hurt him today – either by your words, or by not standing up to your friends and telling them to knock it off. It hurt me, and it hurt the rest of the adults too. And it hurt you too. And you know it. Each of you was hurting this morning.”

When we got home, I had Leo own up to what he had done, and I had him write a letter of apology to our neighbor and deliver it in person. He didn’t want to do it. We talked about manning up.

Once we got to the other side of that, we talked about consequences. I’m a big believer in having kids take responsibility for their own behavior – and part of that is taking an active role in their consequences. Leo’s consequences are much harsher than I would have levied. But they are authentic to him. And they matter to him. And, what’s more, he knows what he did wrong, he doesn’t want to do it again, and he wanted to make amends.

By suppertime, we were emotionally exhausted, and spent.

“What if I stay bad?”  Leo asked.

“You won’t darling. You will make choices. Some will be good and some will be mistakes. You’ll do your best to fix your mistakes. You’ll try to heal the things you break. Just like everyone else.”

“But what if I break?”

“Then you will fix you. Just like everyone. Everyone you see is broken. Everyone you know has mended cracks and parts that will never work right again. It doesn’t stop us from learning and loving. We mend, we heal, and we love the broken places. I have lots of broken places. But I still have a responsibility to work and love and build. And so do you.”

He was, last night, a shadow of himself. He was crumpled paper and shattered glass. The reality of being such a jerk to a person he loves and respects had devastated him. I hugged him, and he started to cry.

So I built a fire in the fireplace. I canceled my plans for the evening. I sent him upstairs to brush his teeth and told him to bring Treasure Island back down to me. We sat, he and I, under his Batman blanket next to the fire, stories of misplaced loyalties and loudmouthed squires and bloodthirsty pirates and the creaking hull of the Hispaniola spinning around us. And Jim, the cabin boy – brave, trusting, fatherless, full of big plans and adventuring. And John, the cook – broken, beaten, scheming, and yet, in the end, redeemable, and capable of that One Good Thing.

We read and read until he fell asleep on my shoulder, his little arms wrapped around my waist. My broken, brilliant, beautiful boy.

We are all mended cracks and creaky gears. We are broken smiles, broken hearts, broken minds and broken lives. We are hack-jobs and cast-offs and wobbly legs and gouged surfaces. We are soft edges, scuffed corners, ungleaming and unvarnished, but pleasant to hold and comforting to touch.

And we are lovely, and loving, and loved.


Regarding my 1,000-year-old dog.

This is my dog.

IMG_6877Her name is Harper, and she is very old. Decades. Centuries. A cool millenium. You might not believe me that she is actually 1,000 years old, and you might try to convince me otherwise, but I would like to point out that you have no proof. And she’s my dog. So.

She has been in our family since 1998, back when my husband and I were two shacked-up quasi-Communist, vaguely Anarchist ne’re-do-wells, stomping around Stumptown in our government-issued firefighter boots and quoting Saul Alinsky at whoever stood still long enough to listen. We lived in a house with a bunch of other twentysomethings and their various friends, partners and hangers-on – artists, puppeteers, Wobblies, graduate students, people who used to work for ACORN, and so on. I would make huge vats of beans and rice and someone would bring beer and we would play cards and eat and argue until early in the morning. My couch often had some guy sleeping on it. Some guy in need of a shower.

And then this dog showed up at our friend’s house.

In retrospect, I understand that the dog was a prophecy of sorts. A sooth-sayer. A sign.

Your life will change, the dog told us. Indeed, it is changing already. 

She was in awful shape – hungry, filthy, cold. She had only just had puppies. She was still lactating and her womb was all busted out. She had the shakes. When you pet her, your hands turned black. She was frightened. If you moved your hands too quickly, should would cower and whine. She had a tender spot on her head that she didn’t want you to touch. She was wary, wounded. And I loved her. Instantly.

We weren’t going to keep her, not right away. We wanted her with a family. We had housemates with allergies, and couldn’t keep her indoors. She deserved parents and kids and teenagers. Someone to snuggle with next to a fire. Road trips. Hikes in the forest. A little child to dress her in a cape and a facemask and call her SuperDog.

These are the things we said. These are the things we believed. We didn’t know we were predicting our future.

It is happening already. 

We brought her to the Humane Society, and then had to move heaven and earth to get her out and back home with us before they put her down (they had a policy not to keep mixed breed dogs alive, or even to make them available for adoption;  they did not tell us this policy when we brought her in and told them explicitly that if they couldn’t place her with a family that we would take her, joyfully; there were, then, very tense words, uttered by me, with swearing; we got our dog in the end). I’ll tell you what, nothing bonds you to an animal more than saving her from certain death. Nothing at all.


We took her to the vet. “This is the healthiest half-starved dog I’ve ever seen,” the vet said. “She’s made of barbed wire and duct tape and galvanized steel.” He gave her some shots and removed her uterus and guessed that she was somewhere between three and five. “Clearly full grown,” he said, “but young enough to still be a spaz.” (It is now 2013. She is still a total spaz.)

She was a tough mother. She’d go on ten-mile runs with me and wouldn’t even get winded. She ate entire packages of bakers chocolate and didn’t even get a stomach ache. She ate, digested and shat batteries, and didn’t blink an eye. She never got sick, never got hurt, never skipped a beat.

We took her with us everywhere. We went for long hikes. We took her to the coast and Forest Park and Columbia Gorge. We started eating outside and hanging out on the back porch, just to be near her more. And we changed. Ted and I noticed that our youthful resistance to life-long commitment started to ease, and our discomfort with aligning ourselves with institutional relationships drifted further and further away.

Family, we started to say. You’re my family.

You’re learning, said the dog. Good job.

We got pregnant. Got married. Moved. Bought houses. Sold houses. Started businesses. Wrote books. Had more children. We built. Expanded. Grew.

All the while, there was Harper the dog – babysitter, muse, helpmeet, protecter, janitor, exterminator, friend. She built us into a family.

Two summers ago, we brought her to the BWCA. She almost didn’t come back. Later that year, she developed a tumor on her leg that grew and grew and grew. It impeded her gait. It kept her from doing the things she loved to do. The vet counseled us not to do the surgery to remove it. “She’s so old,” the vet said. “She might not survive the surgery. And if she does, she will heal so slowly. She’ll hurt, she’ll infect, and she won’t know why.”

We did it anyway. Her tumor was three pounds – bigger than a puppy. She healed like a champ. The vet was amazed. “It’s one thing,” he said, “to have a dog the age of Methuselah. Lots of people have those. But to have an ancient dog heal as fast as a puppy? Either you’ve been replacing your dog with younger models of herself, or you have a dog who is virtually ageless. One or the other.”

And so I began to think that my dog is a thousand years old. I believed she would never die. I believed she would outlive me and my children and my children’s children. I believed that my dog was from Faerie, or Asgard, or Alpha Centauri.

Three weeks before Christmas, Harper suddenly started walking with a limp. A week before Christmas, she stopped putting any weight on her back left leg at all, preferring to move like an ambulatory three-legged-stool around the house and yard. And, all in all, she’s doing pretty well with it. She’s still eating, still drinking, still in high spirits, still chasing squirrels, still barking at the raccoons that hide between our garage and our neighbor’s fence. But she won’t let her leg touch the earth.

I took her to the vet.

He took a deep breath and sighed.

“Yep,” he said. “It’s weird.”

I hate weird.

She has, it seems, odd formations on her bone. It could be atypical bone spurs due to a weird manifestation of arthritis, or it could be bone cancer. In any case, due to her advanced age, we will treat it the same way – palliative care and lots of love until that doesn’t work anymore.

Which means that I am actually going to have to get used to the fact that my dog will not live for another thousand years, and that she is not immortal, and that she is not from Mount Olympus or the Isle of the Blessed. She is herself. Harper. My dog. And I will love her and love until I can’t and she will live until she doesn’t, and that will be that.

I have written this entire blog post with Harper sitting on my feet. I gave her a piece of beef jerky a little bit ago, and I know that she is waiting patiently until another piece appears in my hands like magic for me to give to her. She shifts her weight and groans a bit. Her leg hurts. My heart hurts. She rests her chin on my knee.

Your life will change, she says.

I didn’t ask it to, I say.

No one ever does. Your life will change. Indeed, it is changing already. She breathes deeply through her damp nose and closes her eyes. She is alive, she is alive, she is still alive. For now. As we all are. And sometimes, that’s enough.

For all of you with dogs in your life: bless you. May your beloved animals live for a thousand years. May they change your life.




[**for an update on Harper’s status, her story continues here.**]

Follow-up to the “should-we-give-up-the-internet” question

I should add that for the rest of that day, my darling child was offering me “proofs” that the internet was both worthwhile, useful, and necessary for daily life.

Like for funniness, for example. “How can you live without funniness, Mom,” she asked. “I mean, have you met yourself?”

One bit of proof is this video. And you know what, she’s right. Having the internet in the home is worth it for the muppets. Ninety percent of my internet searching is muppet-related. This is a fact. Here are my two favorite things in one little video: classical music and Beaker. Enjoy.

On Our Visit to Roosevelt High School – expectation, transformation, and super awesome kids.

My oldest daughter – math wiz, artist, DIY crafty-manx fashionista, geek princess, treasure of my beleaguered heart – is in eighth grade, which means that we, as a family are looking into high schools. My baby is going to high school. This baby:

wee ellaLook at her! So tiny! Her foot is about the size of my dang thumb! High school? Really? It simply cannot be. This is the face I make every time I think about it.

In any case, we are now looking at schools. Now, this, alas, is tricky business. She used to go to Seward Montessori – a public, wonderful school in South Minneapolis, and we were very happy there. Unfortunately, in fifth grade, while Ella was busting at the seams of every standardized test that they handed to her, we found out that her school had simply decided to stop teaching her math. “Oh,” they said. “She’s so far ahead. And she loves helping the other students. And when she reads a novel, she’s just so quiet. And, really, she’s fine.”

Note to educators everywhere: Never tell the parents of your high-testing kids that they are “fine”. No matter where they are in the spectrum of learners, every child deserves to learn every day. Every child, wherever they are, deserves to have reasonable educational goals and a guided plan to help them achieve those goals. Just because they’ve topped out of your curriculum, does not mean that they no longer need to be taught.


So she’s gone to a G&T program in the Bloomington Public Schools called Dimensions Academy, which has been a good fit for her, learning-wise, even though we did have to haul her butt deep into the suburbs every dang day. Which has been a pain. And even though she has made wonderful, dear, and life-long friends, she has never felt entirely comfortable in a suburban setting. She misses the diversity of the Minneapolis Public Schools. She misses the dynamism. And frankly, so do I.

So. High School.

My inclination is to have her go to South High, which is where I went. And my sisters. And my brother. And a gaggle of my cousins, second-cousins and so forth. In fact, my first-cousin’s son is a freshman there now. It’s a wonderful school with six bands, a fantastic art program, an incredible theater program, good academics, a deeply-involved parent base and a wicked awesome choir.

The problem is that, while we are in South’s zone, it is not our neighborhood school. And Ella might not get in. Roosevelt is our neighborhood school. And that? Well it was problematic for me. I had….expectations about what I would see at Roosevelt. Biases. And they were not kind. (Nor, let’s be honest, were they fair. More on that in a minute.)

Now, here’s the thing about Roosevelt’s reputation: it’s not entirely undeserved. At least historically. It’s been one of those schools that has struggled and struggled, for years. And things just haven’t gone right. Bad planning, extenuating forces that they could not anticipate, poor decisions by the school board, disastrous decisions by the Federal government, shifting demographics, high needs, what have you. Roosevelt couldn’t catch a break. Heck, even when I was in high school, if a teacher said that their job was moving to Roosevelt, we’d hug them and sob as if they told us they had inoperable brain cancer. During my senior year, the school board (in its perpetual wisdom) decided to transfer our principal – Dr. Andre Lewis – to Roosevelt. The students walked out and the protests lasted for days.

Now, let me say here that while I loved my experience at South, it wasn’t perfect. There were massive behavior problems back then and ….well, let’s just say it was rough around the edges. There were fights in the halls. I once found my locker splattered with blood because some guy clocked another right in the nose (with splattering) and the kid face-planted right next to my padlock. My principal got hit over the head with a crowbar when he got in the middle of a gang altercation. A kid in my music theater class got shot.

It was the early nineties in Minneapolis, the term “Murderapolis” hadn’t been coined yet, but we were on our way.

And as tough as it was, our understanding was that Roosevelt was tougher. Meaner. “Rougish” was the word we used. We didn’t know anyone who went there.

So, it was with not a little trepidation that I brought my child to Roosevelt for a visit.

And it was not without a little bit of skepticism. Sure, I had been told that they’ve been experiencing a turnaround. And sure, I had heard that they’ve got a big-ideas principal and a cadre of super-committed teachers. I had heard all of that. But I didn’t really believe it.

What I saw blew me away.

The high schools in my city in general are stronger now. They are cleaner. They are more orderly. The hallways are calm. The kids are smiling at each other.

But Roosevelt? Well, it’s something else. The kids loved each other. And they loved their teachers. Like, every kid I talked to. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We first had a meeting with Michael Bradley, the principal, who laid out for us where his school has been, how it has approached its restructuring, and what it’s plan for the future is. He talked about the middle schools in the area that have managed to turn themselves around (Sanford Middle School, for example, whose transformation is nothing short of a miracle) and what he is doing to replicate that for Roosevelt. He told us of his very personal goal to transform the school into an institution in which any student – be they high end or low end – would receive the tools and instruction they needed for a stellar education. He talked about the lasting damage of No Child Left Behind – the Bush Administration’s brilliant strategy of punishing schools into succeeding (may they rot in hell forever for the damage they did to our nation’s schools) – and how struggling schools were forced to abandon all programs except for baseline remediation. Gone went the music program. Gone went art. Gone went the choir. Gone went the debate team and the theater department and the math team. Gone went languages and upper-level math and creative writing.

“It was,” he said, “a system built to fail. And the people it hurt the most were the ones who deserved it least – the kids.”

I almost started crying.

“It’s not enough,” he said, “to put our efforts on remediation. Remediation outside of the context of a well-rounded and vigorous education – educating the whole person – is not going to work. It can’t be either/or. It has to be both/and.”

They implemented an IB program. They doubled their art program. They partnered with 3M to put in a writing center. They have a robotics program. They have a fantastic band teacher who is building an amazing band and orchestra program. They’re adding to their library.

But what’s more, they have a vigorous and deeply committed teaching staff that impressed the hell out of me. Our guide kept grabbing kids at random as we walked through the hallways, asking kids what they liked about their school.

“I really like my school a lot,” kid after kid after kid told us. “But I love my teachers.”

We grabbed another one. “The teachers here are the nicest in the world. If you’re lost, they will help you. If you are bored they will challenge you.”

And another: “The teachers here treat you like you’re one of their own. Like we belong to them.”

And another: “The teachers here are the best in the world.”

And another: “My teachers are either saving my butt or kicking my butt – sometimes in the same class period.”

And finally, we talked to a completely gorgeous senior girl – the first in her family to ever get into college. She is a singer, and had been accepted to the U of M, the conservatory at Lawrence University and NYU. And she said this: “I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for my teachers. They helped me and believed in me and made me believe in myself even when I wasn’t ready to do it. They’re the best.”

These kids at Roosevelt, they were happy, they were kind, they were silly, they were crude, they told dumb jokes, they were committed students, they played their guts out in band, they asked thoughtful questions in English, they built cool catapults in Physics and were building a robot that could play Ultimate Frisbee in Robotics. They were awesome, awesome kids.

I’m still not convinced that it is the best fit for Ella (the fact that there is no choir might be a dealbreaker for us). I do feel, though, in a way that I did not before, that if we do not get our first choice and are at Roosevelt, that Ella would be just fine. She’d make friends. She’d learn. She would really love her teachers. All of that is good.  But, mostly, as an educator and as a neighbor of the school, I found the experience profoundly thrilling. Because this is happening. This transformation. This growth. This change. It is happening right now. And it did my heart so much good to see an entire building cooperatively involved in their own transformation, and, as a community, committed to the idea that yes it is possible, and yes it is probable, and yes we can build it together.

Go Roosevelt.