BRAAAAINS.

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Well, this blog has been dark for a bit because I have been fussed about my kid. This is nothing new. I am often fussed about my kids. I am a born fusser.

Two weeks ago, my daughter was downhill skiing – the last run at the end of a long day down a not-so-difficult slope. And she decided to jump on some kind of box or obstacle or whatever, because she felt like being a hot shot. It was a trick she’d done a hundred times. And she face planted on the ice. Hard. She was wearing a helmet, thank goodness, but brains are delicate. Ridiculously so.

My husband brought her home, gash-lipped and swollen-cheeked. The side of her face had swelled to the size of a softball. The cut across her lip was not infected, but it would be soon. And she had a concussion. And I went bananas. Like, I was so anguished at the injuries on my offspring, that I could hardly even see straight. Or think straight. Or even walk straight. I am only just recovering.

The brain is a funny thing – all mush and squish and water. The consistency of tofu. The color of porridge. And yet. It organizes the mechanization of the the organism – powering motion and control, balance and awareness, analysis, planning and synthesis. How is it that something that fragile is responsible for the miracle of thinking, wondering and imagination? How is it that it only takes three pounds of delicate goo to create Calculus? Or write the Divine Comedy? Or design the Forbidden City?

My kids are smart. Way smarter than I am or was. And their brains are precious to me. My daughter – math genius, painter, voracious reader, novel writer, aspiring engineer/comic book artist, opera singer – is at this moment in her life when her intelligence and talents are revealing themselves to her. Where she is seeing for the first time what her brain can do and where her brain can take her. Where she is taking ownership of all that she is. And the thought – the very thought – of a disruption in that was, frankly, frightening to me.

So I started learning about brains.

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Did you know, for example, that the brain is 70% water? Our thoughts are fish, I think. They are bright schools of flashing fin and scale and eye. They crowd the waves and plunge in the depths and strike out on their own. They have teeth. They have speed and agility. And sometimes they are sharks.

Did you know that the first sense that we develop in utero is not smell, as I have so very often erroneously told my students, but touch? We develop our sense of touch at eight weeks gestation, and the first place we experience touch is on our lips and on our cheeks. A kiss, I think. We are ready to kiss before we can kiss, we are ready to be kissed before we ever see another face. The first thing we kiss is water – just as our thoughts live in water. Our first moment of love and thought is experienced alone.

When awake, the human brain uses about the same amount of energy to power a light bulb. We don’t actually have to be particularly bright in order to do this. Dull and tiresome people are just as shiny. This is good to remember. Water and light, particle and wave. We are many things at once. 

When we learn something new, the structure of our brains changes. This change is visible on scans. We are flux. We are change. We are the tides of the ocean and the wandering river. We are water droplets in the air, dispersing and gathering and dispersing again. We are a gathering storm.

When a person is deprived of food, their neurons begin to eat themselves. This can happen very quickly. This is the reason why we become foggy and stupid when we accidentally miss lunch, and why it is a terrible idea to ever go on a diet. We are cannibals. We are insatiable. We are the Worm Ouroboros, devouring ourselves forever. 

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When I took my daughter to the doctor, he did his tests and pronounced a concussion. He gave her a serious look. “Concussions are no joke,” he said. “You need to let yourself turn off for a little while. No school. No homework. No reading. No screens. Just you and a dark room and your eyes on the wall, kiddo. You need to let that brain heal.” He explained what a concussion was and how they worked – how she had two bruises on her brain and not just one – a bruise on the front, and a bruise on the back. He explained that, just like a sprained ankle, the brain heals best in a state of rest.

“Brain rest,” he said. “That’s what they call it. And I’m not going to lie to you: it’s really, really boring. You just have to let yourself do nothing. All day.” She stared at him as though he had asked her to swallow a truck full of sand.

“Can’t I just get a new one?” she asked. “A brain, I mean. Surely you have extra brains in jars, sitting around somewhere.”

The doctor assured her that he did not, but Ella was skeptical. “What’s the point of science if we can’t put our brains in jars and swap them out when we feel like it?”

(She denies saying this, by the way. I assure you that she did. Plus she is an unreliable narrator of her life, currently, because of the concussion. Or, at least she was then. And anyway, this is my blog. So.)

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Fortunately, her teachers take concussions seriously, and were extremely amenable to flexibility. They like her brain, too, and were happy to have her stay home and rest. “Better to have her rest at home for an extra day,” one teacher said, “than to send her to school before she’s ready, and have her feel so lousy that she has to go home anyway.”

And so we did. But still I worry. I found out yesterday that she has been carrying her stuff around all week because she couldn’t remember her locker combination. And I notice that she is tired a lot more. I don’t want to foist my worries on her – she’s got enough worries of her own. And so I bite my tongue and fuss.

About three years ago, I was out for a run and slipped on the ice, knocking myself unconscious. I don’t think I was out for very long – in fact I know I was not, given that it was incredibly cold, and I hadn’t frozen yet. But it didn’t even occur to me to get myself checked out, nor did it occur to me that I might have a concussion. But I was super tired for weeks after. And I had atrocious headaches, the likes of which I had never experienced before or since. And I did find myself forgetting stuff. And three months later, I fell into one of the worst depressions of my life – and I’m only just now finding my feet.

Did I have a concussion? Did that concussion make me more prone to outsized sadness and anxious thinking? Would I have avoided later complications had I given myself space and time to heal when it was necessary to heal? Perhaps. All I know is that I will take no such risks with my child.

My daughter is now at her rehearsal at Project Opera (the youth training program at Minnesota Opera – a wondrous organization), and things are getting back to normal. I’m still encouraging her to limit her screen time, and to try to maximize her sleep every day. And she is very good at noticing that she is more tired than usual. She lays down for a little bit when she gets home from school. She turns in early. She is giving herself permission to relax. This is a good thing.

I hate it when my kids get hurt. I hate it. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to protect that beautiful brain. It is ever so precious to me. Of course it is.

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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.

Anyway.

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.

Yes.