Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Poor Kids

"We were poor, but we had love." - Loretta Lynn

"Poor kids just learn differently, you know?"

No, I did not know. Not at all.

The educator speaking to me was a nice person. We'd talked all through dinner at this event where talented, dedicated, obsessive teachers gathered to talk about pedagogical practices. I knew she was a good person. I knew her intentions were benevolent. I knew she was perplexed by how to reach a certain population of kids. But I was not happy with her choice of words.

I grew up a poor kid. OK, maybe not consistently. Because Dad was a professional gambler, we had years where he made decent bank. Those were the years we went to Disney World and Dad drove a Cadillac. We also had years where he was in jail or losing every wager. Those were the years we ate government cheese and paid for the beans and cornbread we always seemed to eat with the pretty, colorful paper that Mom didn't want anybody to see.

Even when we had money, we were poor. Both my parents grew up poor themselves. When we got some money, my father especially felt compelled to spend it instantly, a trait that is often associated with poverty, because you're worried you'll never have money again, might never get to know the luxury of eating at that fancy restaurant or staying in a hotel suite again, so you might as well live it up now and not worry about the future.

Neither of my parents went to college; my siblings and I were the first in our family to get there. We didn't have nice china. We didn't use top sheets underneath the handmaid quilts on our bed. We poured the leftover lard from frying potatoes into a plastic container to reuse another day.

I'm not going to pretend like I was terribly disadvantaged, though. My mother was dedicated to our education. She enforced homework strictly, monitored grades like a hawk, and spoke of college as an absolute certainty, albeit one we'd have to pay for ourselves through scholarships earned by making the highest of grades. Research shows that having a parent who is devoted to education absolutely helps set kids up for success.

And success is what we achieved. Speaking only for myself (although my siblings' accomplishments are equally impressive), I made straight A's all through school. I was the Salutatorian at my High School. I received a great scholarship to Centre College, an elite liberal arts school in Kentucky. I went on to earn a master's degree in education and am now a National Board Certified Teacher.

That's why now, when people look at me, they don't assume I grew up poor. I don't fit their stereotype. I seem like a middle class woman.

And I guess I am.

But in my heart, I still feel compelled to spend money when I get it, fearful that I'll never again know what it's like to drink the expensive wine. I still feel like the other shoe will drop, anxiety constantly knocking at my door, a reminder of days when things were constantly going wrong. I still feel inferior to people who grew up with money, convinced they know something I don't.

But I did NOT learn differently. It's just that when I went home, I had to do my homework on my bed while my dad screamed and threw things in the other room. It's just that when it was time to do my final paper, I didn't have my own personal computer from which to type. It's just that when Science Fair time came around, we couldn't afford $30 in supplies to make my board the fanciest at the entire event.

And the poor kids I teach do not learn differently, either. They are bright and curious. They are passionate about the world, about social change, about the ideas that stir in their heads when they read Langston Hughes or Shirley Jackson.

Yes, when they go home, they may find out that they need to pack all their stuff up to go to their aunt's house for a few weeks because they've been evicted. They may have to move from their current homeless shelter into another. They may need to make dinner for their little brother because Dad's shift doesn't end until 2am and Mom is sick. They may endure screaming in the other room because their parents are stressed out and unhappy and juggling medical bills they can't afford. They may have a parent who died (I can't tell you how many of my impoverished students have lost their parents way too soon) and they are drowning in sorrow. They may desperately want the new shoes everyone else seems to have, but their parents can't even afford to reliably feed them dinner.

No, they don't learn differently, but they do need different things. They need teachers like me who share our experiences, who speak of our own poverty openly and without shame. They need to see that being poor does not make you inferior or stupid. They need to see how much we love and value our families, value the lessons poverty can teach you, even if we're relieved to no longer have to struggle the same way we once did.

They need after-school programs to support them. They need homework help and clubs that give them time away from home and sports that help them channel their energy into something healthy.

They need a school that gives them pencil and paper - no questions asked - so they can learn without being shamed. They need a school that doesn't punish them for their tardies or absences, but rather asks their parents what support they need to get their kids to school on time and on a regular basis. They need healthy school lunches and breakfasts that don't just shove cheap carbs down their throats, but nourish them with fruits and vegetables and proteins so they can concentrate in class.

But most of all they need teachers who believe in them. Teachers who expect incredible work, and support them every step of the way until they achieve it. Teachers who do not view them as "different" from other kids, but as unique, each in his or her own way. Teachers who find materials that motivate them, that inspire them. Teachers that create tasks that are so exciting that kids WANT to learn, rather than having to complete something to get a good grade.

Poor kids have challenges that kids with money will never understand. But they can achieve great things. And maybe if we start treating them with respect and give them the resources they need to achieve their potential, they'll actually create a world where poverty no longer exists.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Pep Talk to Myself

One last stroll with Mom before I become a mom myself.

Oh, hey there Randi from 8 years ago. I was hoping I'd catch you now - 8:30pm, April 13th. You just had your first contraction, right? Right there in the middle of the fantastic pizza restaurant down the street from your Brooklyn apartment, slouched in the booth while your mom and husband chatted, absolutely oblivious to your terror.

It's OK - sneak a sip of that wine. Ignore the woman shooting you daggers; she doesn't know your midwife suggested a half a glass of wine here and there, ever since you called her on your due date and all ten days since then, convinced you were in labor.

But you weren't in labor, were you?

Nope. Now that you know what it really feels like, that all seems so silly now.

But listen. I'm not here to scare you. In fact, I'm here for the opposite reason.

There are going to come some low moments in the next 11 hours. Times when you experience actual tunnel vision, the pain tearing through your soul, making you question what the hell you're doing. There will be times you swear you are dying. Times you can't even breathe - even though everyone is begging you to. Times you can't look anyone in the eye because of the loathing you feel for them, the jealousy of their bodies' comfort.

During those moments, you will be afraid. Afraid that you can't survive the pain getting any worse, even though you know the pain is supposed to get worse and worse and worse. But also fear of this baby. Who is he or she? Is this baby going to be healthy? Will it survive?

But more than that - will you be worthy of this baby? Will you be a terrible mother? Will you have no idea what you're doing? Will you worry that bringing a baby into this world as a flawed and messed up human being was a terrible mistake?

Take a sip of that wine. Take a bite of that delicious pizza. No really. For me. I miss that pizza.

It's going to be OK. It's going to be more than OK.

I hate to ruin the surprise, but that baby is a girl. You're going to name her Stella, and she will rip open your heart and multiply its capacity by infinity. She is going to teach you things about this world - about how wonderful it is, about how lovable all its creatures - yes all of them - are. She's going to create art that is simultaneously sophisticated and innocent. She's going to need your support and encouragement and so much love, and then she's going to give it back triple fold. She's going to be just like you one minute and your polar opposite the next.

Tomorrow morning, she'll burst forth and you'll hold her in your arms.

And tomorrow morning, I'll sneak in on my way out to work and tell my 8 year old daughter "happy birthday."

This age - right now - is a miracle. She's so tall, people often assume she's 9 or 10. And then she opens her mouth and the most child-like, sweet words come out - devoid of sarcasm or any jadedness.

The other night, she said, "Mommy, I love my legs so much! They are strong and they take me lots of places and they let me jump and dance!" She has received not even one message from the world that she's supposed to hate her legs - not one! She doesn't look at herself to find flaws, she marvels at herself - as well she should.

She wants us to come to her school, she shows us off to her friends. She sits on our laps and hugs us unabashedly. She writes books about characters she created - The Friskies - part cat, part girl, a band of friends who fight to make the world a better place. She plays with her two year old brother with great care and affection, never complaining that he's too little or that the play is boring. She sits and reads for hours in her room, absorbed in other worlds, her little legs criss-cross applesauce.

She wears her slippers every single night in the 5 minutes after she gets into her PJ's and before she gets tucked in.

She still wants a story before bed. She likes a little honey in her cereal. She giggles fanatically if the cat or dog decides to sit in her lap.

She can talk for hours on topics as little as paint colors and as huge as God. Sometimes, before bed, she'll cradle my head into her arm, as if she is the mother and I am the child.

She is magical.

Oops. I guess I ruined the surprise. But I figured a glimpse into a peaceful, calm, pain-free, wonderful future might help you out a bit.

Take one more sip of wine. You're going to love motherhood.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Pregnant with Anxiety

Late March/Early April: Everyone assured me my baby would be here any moment, due to the size of this belly. But it got bigger, my friends. Much, much bigger.

Eight years ago today, I was two days past my estimated due date. I'd done my research; I knew that due dates were guesses at best, and I knew better than to pin too many hopes and dreams on mine.

But that's exactly what I had done. It didn't help that, for the past month or so, everyone around me assured me I would "pop at any moment," and kept asking me if they were planning to induce. Working as a teacher has its perks; the enormous number of well-meaning busybodies surrounding you is not one of them.

It also didn't help that I had no clue how rough the discomfort of the last 6 weeks could be. All the books and my midwives spoke of increased "pressure" as the day of labor approached. Pressure is not how I would describe the constant, stabbing pain that made me feel like baby could fall out at any moment.

But what helped least of all was my mounting anxiety, making each moment leading up to the birth exponentially more excruciating.

I didn't know I had anxiety. I had no clue that was the word to describe the constant, intrusive thoughts that took my breath away and woke me up at night. Nightmare visions of a stillbirth or a baby with life-threatening abnormalities (we'd declined genetic testing) or a perfectly healthy baby that died in a horrible car wreck during the 5 minute drive from the hospital to the apartment, all due to an improperly-installed car seat.

I didn't know anxiety could cause me to snap at everyone around me - from the clerk at the store who dared comment on my Nutella consumption to Dave's family when they inquired about my health or poor Dave himself, when he so much as breathed funny.

I didn't know my anxiety and perfectionism were first cousins, encouraging each other to torture me in new and unusual ways. I desperately wanted a perfect, unmedicated birth - just like the ones I'd seen in the countless birth videos I'd watched. But it went beyond making a birth plan and taking the proper classes and finding good music and meditations and coping mechanisms to see me through; I was terrified that I'd mess it up. That I'd grimace, rather than appear calm. That I'd forget to shift positions and the baby wouldn't descend and that I'd have to have an emergency c-section. That this baby would stay comfortably put so long that my midwives would schedule my induction - an induction that would cause a lot more pain than unmedicated contractions - leading to a cascade of interventions. Not to mention the overwhelming fear that I just would not be able to withstand the pain at all - a valid fear considering I'm an absolute wimp about any kind of physical pain. And don't get me started on the crushing fear that I wouldn't be able to breastfeed. That would take its own, very long, entry.

This anxiety got worse and worse, and I can honestly say that the time leading up to Stella's birth was miserable. I walked and walked and walked the streets of Park Slope Brooklyn, waddling so desperately that passers-by often commented along the lines of "poor woman!" I ate dishes guaranteed to induce labor - pounds of pineapple and homemade eggplant parmigiana - that managed only to induce my raging heartburn. I woke up every night at 3am, starving for a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with whole milk, despite the fact that all those well-meaning busybodies kept telling me to "sleep now while you can." I danced aggressively at night, imagining my baby's head descending further into my pelvis. And I tried so hard to calm my racing heart, to stifle those terrifying images, to reassure myself that I'd do my best to get the birth I wanted, but that I'd accept reality, come what may.

I wish I could go back and tell myself to get help - stat. I wish I could warn past Randi that this anxiety - this condition that I didn't know was my condition - was only going to get worse after the baby arrived, climaxing in a terrifying mental health crisis that nearly took me from this planet. I wish I could say, "Stop worrying about how well you're going to give birth, stop obsessing over breastfeeding, and take care of yourself, woman! You're going to be this baby's mother, and you can't do this if you're not healthy!"

But I can't. I can only read my Timehop updates helplessly: increasingly desperate words stating how hard I was working to get this baby here, irritably warning people to stop asking about her arrival, moaning about how little sleep I was getting during my final, baby-free days.

Stella arrived 11 days past her due date. I was scheduled for an induction that morning, but the night before, not long after my mom arrived from Kentucky, the labor began on its own. It was fast and healthy - around 10 hours - and I got everything I wanted. On paper. No interventions, no medication, breastfeeding that lasted well over a year, with just a few text-book issues peppered here and there.

But that birth shook me to my core - the earth-shattering, poorly managed pain opening a Pandora's box of repressed memories and terrifying symptoms that lasted for about 16 more months, and have taken these past 8 years and many more to come, I'm sure, to remedy.

Stella is my incredible daughter. While the end of the pregnancy and the birth were hard, and while my anxiety and postpartum mood disorder remain a dark period of my life, her entry into my world was profound and beautiful. As her 8th birthday approaches, I'll celebrate the wonderful young lady she has become, the beautiful soul she has that makes this world better day by day. But for now, I mourn for the woman who suffered so badly, so unnecessarily, and I remain dedicated to spreading the world to make sure no other women suffer the way I did.

If something doesn't feel right while pregnant or after giving birth, it isn't right. Don't listen to people when they say pregnant women are "moody" or that it's normal for a new mother to have "baby blues." You know  yourself. If it's intrusive, if it's scary, then it's abnormal, and it can be helped. Postpartum Progress is a wonderful website with tons of resources, but if it's serious, calling 911 or the suicide hotline - 1 (800) 273-8255 - is the best bet.

I'm lucky that I had an incredible partner in Dave. He continually urged me to get help, even when I actively pushed him away. I'm so grateful for that. Please do that for yourself if your partner isn't as supportive or informed.

And one more thing - if you want to hear me talk about this candidly, with some dark humor, you should watch my Moth performance. But be warned, it contains some triggering and even vulgar language. Mental health disorders aren't pretty.