Parenting a Child Far From the Family Tree by Judy Bolton-Fasman

“Parenting is no sport for perfectionists,” writes Andrew Solomon in his rich tome, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. Solomon’s 700-plus- page book—an 11-year undertaking—is a vivid portrayal of children who are born or grow up in ways that their parents never expected. The book is also a memorable catalogue of how parenting can be one long mystery tour that often mixes utter desperation with boundless joy.

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Consider the heart-breaking example of the mother of an autistic child who, Solomon reports, has only spoken four times in her life. But each time her response was “appropriate to the situation.” Given that brief glimpse into her daughter’s psyche, the mother frets that her child’s soul is trapped in her body. How many of us have felt that way when a child has lost his way or becomes a stranger to us?  How many of us have turned to our partner after we brought home our new baby and said, “Now what?”

What to Expect When You’re Expecting always struck me as an ironic title for an advice book for pregnant women. There is no primer for what happens when the doctor sees an abnormality on the twenty week sonogram and your child may be a dwarf. Or amniocentesis shows an extra copy of chromosome twenty-one and your child has Down Syndrome. Maybe your baby is closing in on turning a year old and doesn’t look you in the eye. He hasn’t uttered a word yet. That happened with Adam. We were lucky parents. It turns out that he was severely far-sighted. At ten months he wore his first pair of glasses and a few days later he crawled on his own.

But parenting isn’t just about happy endings. It’s often about the little victories within the bigger battles. Solomon is intimately acquainted with what happens when a child doesn’t meet parents’ expectations. He was dyslexic as a child and came out of the closet as a teenager. Far From the Tree grew out of a 1994 article that he wrote about deafness for the New York Times magazine. In the course of researching and reporting, he realized that issues surrounding deafness were not unlike the challenges that he faced as a gay man. A few years later, he saw the same pattern after watching a documentary on dwarfism. He eventually expanded his theory on identity and outsider status to include Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, children conceived during rape, and children who become criminals.

While this may seem like a hodgepodge of various conditions and situations, Solomon unites them by distinguishing between vertical and horizontal identities. Vertical identity is handed down through the generations such as religion or racial identity. If a child’s parents identify as black in all likelihood so will that child. Horizontal identity arises from a break between the reality of a child’s life and the parents’ experiences. For example, a deaf child navigates the world very differently than her hearing parents. I found it fascinating that Solomon included prodigies alongside conditions that have otherwise been stigmatized throughout the centuries. The mother of a child who entered college at the age of nine was as bewildered as the parents of a disabled child.

Solomon explores family dynamics, seeking common ground among families who find themselves with children they never expected. Most of the parents were grateful to have the children they had. What might have been initially frightening or insurmountable for these parents had been transformed into a deep, bedrock love for their children.  In a recent interview on Salon.com, Solomon noted:

“I found that there is so much that [these family’s] experiences have in common—that process of accommodating, accepting, loving, even celebrating a group. It didn’t matter whether we were looking at what the child did, as we were in the crime chapter; or how the child was born, in the Down Syndrome chapter. That was consistent. And it had a lot in common, in my view with the experience I had negotiated as the gay child of straight parents. And so I think that sense of difference is actually something that almost everyone has in common, rather than something that isolates people.”

In Solomon’s view reproduction is an imprecise term. On the very first page of the book he talks about having children as an act of “production.” We just don’t know who or what we’ll produce as parents. And if we have toss aside perfectionism for imagination and acceptance, the one thing we’ll get in return is realizing that love for a child is like no other love in the world.

You Are Not a Test Score: Some Advice for the College Applicant

With much anticipation and a shot of dread, it’s time for some families of high school juniors and seniors to enter the college sweepstakes. Once a kid is knee-deep into her junior year of high school, the mostly self-imposed requirements to apply to colleges come fast and furious: SATs, SAT tutoring, subject test tutoring. AP classes, exams – midterms and finals. Everything is magnified in search of the Holy Grail at the end of sending out college applications—acceptance to a school you actually want to attend or bragging rights to the kinds of schools that accepted you.

Applying to college in rarefied circles—solid to upper middle class—is a virtual blood sport. The grueling psychological competition is explicitly and humorously laid out in a book I really liked called Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. The author, Andrew Ferguson, is a self-deprecating realist who manages to poke fun at, as well as take seriously, the business of shepherding your child to the threshold of his college dorm.

The fact is that 70% of high school seniors in the United States will go to college. Most of those seniors will not have cured cancer, written an opera or started a Fortune 500 business by the time they apply. They’ll be just like the zillion other candidates they’re up against at Fancy U. But bear in mind that 80% of college kids will happily matriculate at non-selective colleges—schools that offer automatic acceptance if you meet the minimum requirements. As my father used to say, “You can get a great education anywhere.”

The rest of us well-meaning parents will shell out thousands of dollars for at least one of the following: SAT tutoring, regular subject tutoring, college coaching and application preparation. Here’s how it works at one extreme: An application boot camp can cost $14,000 for four days of marathon essay writing and interviewing strategies. If you’re willing to empty out your 401K you can hire a private counseling service. The Cadillac of private college coaching can run up to $40,000.

SAT tutors in the Boston area can charge up to $200.00 an hour to prep a kid for “the test.” I’m glad I don’t live in the New York metropolitan area. SAT tutors in the Big Apple charge up to $425.00 an hour. In a New York Times article reporting on the fierce competition for perfect grades in high school, an anonymous parent at a tony private school in New York admitted to paying up to six figures in a given year for extra help in regular school subjects. That doesn’t count the steep tuition she already pays. I think my husband may be sitting on a pot of gold. Over the years he has saved us a bundle by tutoring our children in everything from calculus to biology.

Ferguson is at his wryest when he talks about the kitchen people—the folks who gather in the kitchen at a party to share war stories about their kids applying to college. In these clandestine conversations a parent would rather reveal the annual family income than her child’s SAT scores or GPA. Speaking of SATs—this is a test originally administered after the First World War to veterans with college aspirations. Somewhere along the line the SATs garnered the power to make or break a college career.

I could go on about the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. This is the list that admissions offices love to vilify yet secretly pray for a top 20 spot. There’s the college essay, which demands an epiphany so wise, so rare, that most 17-year olds simply don’t have the emotional maturity to have earned it.

Overwhelmed yet?

In the spring of junior year, usually with a guidance counselor and with grudging parental input, a student creates “the list” of schools to which she might apply. The list is usually a mix of colleges for which a kid is a leading candidate and schools that are designated as “a stretch.” As a parent you may look at up the admission statistics for your alma mater and shake your head in wonder at how you ever got into college.

At the core of every college application, job interview or personal relationship is the fear of vulnerability. Yet it’s vulnerability that gives us courage and compassion. Vulnerability begets connection; it keeps us honest. Vulnerability is important to show whether it be in the college essay or the alumni interview. Be human. You are multi-dimensional. And yes, you are not a test score.

I can remember Anna telling me that she didn’t need a campus full of valedictorians to feel academically fulfilled. During the process she was also also wise enough to demonstrate to her mother that lists, whether it the US News & World Report or the college lists she generated–should be used sparingly and mostly for things like groceries.

 

 

How Children Succeed: An Interview with Paul Tough

Parenting books – love ’em or leave ’em. Most times, I leave them after perusing the table of contents. I don’t like the one-size-fits-all approach that so many of them take. But Paul Tough’s excellent new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” rises to the top of the parenting book pile for its deep exploration of failure and the ways in which it builds character in our kids.

First a word about character. It’s as unique to each person as her DNA. Tough offers the revolutionary concept that character, unlike DNA, is not fixed or completely innate in a person. It is, in a word that recurs throughout “How Children Succeed,” malleable. I confess that I was initially very uncomfortable with the word malleable for its implication of weakness and undue influence. But read Tough’s book and you quickly learn that malleable is an asset.

Tough talked about character in a recent interview with [start ital.]The Advocate[end ital.], citing a chain of charter schools called KIPP and its dedicated founder David Levin. KIPP schools dole out report cards for academic performance and character assessment. “Dave is doing new and important work,” Tough said, adding:

“He has a new vision for character and it’s quite scientific in that he’s trying to figure out which character strengths make a difference in a kid’s success. And at the root of his research and thinking is the assertion that character is … a set of qualities that [enables] kids to change themselves and qualities that parents and teachers can instill.”

Tough presents living examples of low-income kids who have had the opportunity through mentoring programs, family members or discerning teachers to pause and look inward to shape and reshape their character. Kewauna Lerma was such a student. On the fast track to derailing her life, Kewauna did an about-face during her junior year of high school. She still lived at the poverty level on the South Side of Chicago, picking fights at school and struggling academically. But a spark was lighted inside of Kewauna through a mentoring program and encouragement from her mother and great-grandmother.

“Kewauna,” explained Tough, “became motivated to be a different person. It was very telling that she changed in that it came from her clear vision that she had of herself. That vision was further clarified in the program she was in as well as by her family.”

There is no question that kids mired in poverty have it tougher than children of affluence. But Tough admirably teases apart the hazards of having it too good without falling into the “poor little rich kid” syndrome.

For wisdom on the challenges faced by kids who seemingly have it all he turned to Dominic Randolph, headmaster of the tony Riverdale School in Riverdale, N.Y. – a well-off section of the Bronx. Randolph was initially the subject of a [start ital.]New York Times Magazine[end ital.]article that Tough wrote last fall. In that article, Tough explored Randolph’s claim that failure and character lead to academic success.

Advocating for failure is a radical step for a head of school where the majority of the class goes on to Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges. But that’s exactly what Randolph did when he came to Riverdale in 2009. Tough noted:

“[T]here is this way that certain high-pressure academic environments can stress kids out. They are on this treadmill versus climbing a mountain. At KIPP kids are climbing a mountain and it’s a bigger challenge than staying on that familiar treadmill. I think that’s why KIPP kids get out of college with more success and character. It’s the way you get on a life path, not the actual life path you end up on, and that makes all the difference.”

Tough points to the documentary “The Race to Nowhere” as a prime of example of affluence undoing kids. Vicky Abeles, the mother of three kids who were scorched by the heat of extreme academic competition, framed her film as a cautionary tale. I’m not a fan of the film because I think it’s slanted toward sensationalism. Tough thinks it’s a helpful example of the importance of establishing a good relationship with failure. “Affluent kids,” he said, “are in suspended animation throughout college without every hitting road bumps. Then they hit an obstacle in their 20s and they don’t have resources to deal with it.”

I think that Tough is on to something big here. We talked about post-college choices that kids who have graduated competitive colleges have made. He asserts that ironically their fear of failure steers them toward investment banking and management consulting jobs.

I wonder if our adult kids’ pervasive fear of failure hasn’t returned them to their childhood bedrooms, dissatisfied and unemployed. Yes, it’s a tough economy out there, but have we made them afraid to take chances, to bypass meaningful engagement and social justice opportunities?

Which brings me back to where I started. Perhaps character is not destiny, that it’s malleable enough to forge the kind of future that can fulfill our kids.

The Race to Nowhere

Vicki Abeles means well. She is a mother who wanted to give her three children all the advantages she never had as a child. As a result, she and her children weathered long school days followed by a daily onslaught of extracurricular activities. Sound familiar? But somewhere along the way her best intentions went awry and she realized that she and her children were running in, what she descriptively calls a “race to nowhere.”

Out of frustration, Abeles picked up a camera and made a movie, her first, about the never-ending marathon in which we have inadvertently sponsored our children. The resulting film, The Race to Nowhere, alternates between a cautionary tale and an overreaction to what happens when kids and parents are trapped by their own ambitions.

When it came out two years ago, Abeles’ film was screened in various upscale locations followed by question and answer periods. The high-achieving Boston suburbs where I live are the perfect laboratories to test Abeles’ theories. In the question and answer period I attended, a group of educators in the audience said how unfair it was to adjust their lesson plans simply for the sake of delivering high MCAS scores. “It is,” said one of the women, “like putting the cart before the horse.”

There are no surprises in Abeles’ film. Dedicated teachers are thwarted by school boards. One exemplary English teacher felt so beleaguered by the Oakland, California school system that she left teaching altogether. The woman openly wept on camera about leaving her students to fend for themselves in a mediocre school system.

The camera pans to a Stanford University freshman confessing that he regurgitated information for tests in high school only to be woefully unprepared for his freshman year of college. Then there are the befuddled parents and students who have no idea how to get off this exhausting treadmill. Fewer activities, an adjusted academic schedule? If only it were that easy.

In the middle of all this angst is a heart-breaking interview with a mother whose 13 year-old daughter Devon committed suicide after getting a bad grade on a math test. I think back to a column I wrote about Amy Chua, the original tiger mom, wouldn’t accept anything less than an A from her daughters. The Tiger Mother roars and her cubs fall into line. And yet I have to believe that it was more than poor test results that tragically sent Devon over the edge.

I worry about my children and the academic loads they carry. Anna was a three-season athlete in high school and often didn’t get to her homework until after dinner. Nothing annoyed her more than when I ask her how the homework situation is. She’d tell me the work is there and she would get through it no matter how long it took. Most nights I didn’t think she had an unreasonable amount of homework for a student as committed as she was. Yet I still fret about sleep-deprivation and the onslaught of emotional challenges she’s beginning to face as a college studentl.

Adam is no stranger to buckets of homework. His school prides itself on creating young men of character and discipline. Part of cultivating that persona is a full curriculum. For example, most nights he’ll be assigned up to 25 math problems. Although I hate homework as much as the next parent, I don’t think his assignments are busy work or aimed at “survival of the fittest.”

Sara Bennett is among those advocating education reform in Abeles’ film. She co-wrote a treatise with the self-explanatory title: The Case Against Homework. Like Abeles, she was a concerned parent who saw her children struggling against the overwhelming tide of worksheets and reading assignments in middle school.

According to Bennett’s research, a child needs to do only 5 math problems to catch on to a concept. Tell that to Amy Chua whose older daughter was once bested in a math competition. Chua’s solution was to have her daughter complete 200 (no there is not an extra zero) math problems a night for 10 days. That’s 2000 problems. That’s a lot of math. That’s a long race.

I wasn’t surprised to see Wendy Mogel make a cameo appearance to warn about the myriad ways our kids are stressed out. For Abeles and company, Mogel’s latest parenting book, The Blessings of a B-, is an island of calm in the madness of running after perfect SAT scores and padding resumes to resemble the CV of a Nobel prize-winner.

As parents we all too often walk that tenuous line between encouraging our children to be their best and demanding perfection from them. What goes loudly unsaid throughout the film is that entrants in the “race to nowhere” are more often than not socioeconomically privileged. All I can say in the face of these tense times is to hug your kids often. Set a realistic course that takes them towards a fulfilling, healthy future because the alternatives are too upsetting to contemplate.

Swimming in the Sea of Parenthood

There are a few universities and colleges in this country from which I could never hope to graduate. These schools require matriculated students to pass a swimming test. I do not know how to swim. And I am terrified of making my way into water in which I cannot stand with my head above the surface.

Before World War II, passing a swimming test was part of the curriculum in many US universities and colleges. But by 1982, passing a swimming test was mandatory in less than 10 percent of them. Anna is matriculating at one of the holdout schools. Not a problem for her. I made sure that both of my children learned to swim at a very young age.

And, yes I’m aware that in the old-fashion parlance of the Talmud, a father is required to teach his son three things: The Torah, a trade and how to swim. That’s as great a blueprint for success as I could have hoped to devise. It presents a child with opportunities for spiritual fulfillment, financial security and self-protection.

My girl has to swim a few laps and then off she dives into her college career. I can remember the first time she put her face in a pool. She was 4, and my husband wisely said it was time for her to learn to swim. Off went my little girl to summer camp, where she’d have proper lessons. I never went to summer camp, and we all know the consequences of that missing link in my life.

I wasn’t so sure I wanted my little girl to go to a big-kid camp. But it was a camp that had a prekindergarten division with the sweet name of Owls’ Nest. Within days, she was proficient in the survivor’s float (known as the dead man’s float until someone wised up). Soon enough, she flipped over and floated on her back. I was amazed. I was relieved. My kid could swim. Almost.

The next summer my daughter graduated to two hours a day of instructional swim. Rain or shine – minus thunder and lightning – she was in the pool learning the breaststroke and the crawl. This was one way I measured that my girl was getting bigger and stronger. But then one day she got in the car and expressed my worst nightmare: “Today my counselor jumped into the pool with his clothes on to save me.” Then she asked me something mundane like what was for dinner that night.

When I got home, I found a message from the camp. Anna was never in danger. Her counselor saw that she had ventured into the deep end and scooped her up before she was literally in over her head. The word “save” was not mentioned. Later in the evening, my girl started grumbling that she didn’t want to go back to camp, and she certainly didn’t want to swim. I, the nonswimmer, knew she had to get back in that pool.

I’m reliving the arc of my child’s swimming story because it mirrors my feelings about my first child going to college. Once upon a time, swimming was completely new to her. It was a skill that challenged her and, at moments, frightened her. Ultimately she triumphed, and now, like the old cliché, she swims like a fish.

As for me, I still struggle mightily, learning to tread water in the shallow end. Right after Anna’s scare in the pool, I thought the camp was trying to cover up that she almost drowned. But soon after, I realized that she was never in danger. It just looked that way. So much parental worry stems from emotional perception.

Thirteen years later my little girl is going to a big school. I daresay she’ll pass her college swimming test. To say this is a time of transition for our family is a bit like thinking of Moby Dick as a big fish. But I have made sure she can swim. Take that as you will and apply it to other skills. I believe that my husband and I have invested in her academic success by supplying her with an education in which she has been challenged and has ultimately thrived. So, I suppose you could say that we’re well on our way to teaching her a trade by giving her a college education.

On the spiritual side of things, all we can do is hope that her Jewish day school career will emerge at various flashpoints during her college years. You can’t teach a child to be observant or to take the Torah into her heart. You can only instruct her in Torah so that she can make meaningful choices about her spiritual life.

And so it began with the doggy paddle in the shallow end of the pool at a preschool summer camp and ends with swimming laps in an Olympic-size pool in a large university. That’s as good a metaphor as any, about parenting a child who is leaving home.

Judy Bolton—A Mom Detective Who Kept Her Kids Safe in Cyberspace

I share my family name, as well as a penchant for snooping, with “Judy Bolton, Girl Detective,” Fictional Judy was the star of her own mid-twentieth century mystery book series. Judy lived smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania where, surprisingly enough, there was no shortage of mysteries to solve. In all thirty-eight of her books, her snooping was always for the good and welfare of her family and friends. When I became a mother, I snooped for the good and welfare of my children.

Now that they are older, I don’t snoop in my kids’ lives very much. And I have never snooped because I have an unsavory curiosity about other people’s lives. (Though I will sometimes eavesdrop at the table next to me in a restaurant to figure out if a couple is on a blind date). I snoop for interesting stories. I snoop for inspiration to write those stories. I snoop to unknot the mystery of other lives as well as my own. Snooping comes with the territory of being a writer.

While I had no qualms about rummaging around in my children’s lives, it occasionally got me into trouble. When my daughter was 12 she said that I worried over nothing and that I didn’t trust her. Shealso  said that I was nosy.

It’s true. I do worry over nothing until I have something about which to worry. She’s right that I didn’t trust her when she was the tender age of 12. But I didn’t trust because she was too young to understand how quickly the world can turn scary and dangerous.

I prefer to think of myself as curious. And once upon a time my curiosity mostly focused on my children’s computer activities or the dialed and received log on their cell phones. When my children were old enough to have screen names, I ran a benevolent dictatorship. This meant that I was not always right, but I was never wrong. Each month they were required to show me any on-line friends’ lists.

The first rule was that my kids had to know everyone personally—in the flesh—anyone with whom they had an on-line relationship. All the better if I knew them too, but I hadn’t met all of the sleep-away camp buddies. So for 12 and up, I trusted, but only just a little. Under 12, I had to know everyone on a list. No exceptions. This rule, in place like cement, was instituted to prevent my kids from coming into contact with someone they had never met. This rule, to use a word that we used early and often since the dawn of pre-school, was non-negotiable.

I also reserved the right to walk in at any time that my children were on the computer and ask with whom were they chatting on-line or what was new on Facebook. Speaking of Facebook, they had to friend me or do without it. If the spirit moved me, I would also ask what they had just typed. Did I mention that I ran a benevolent dictatorship?

All bets were off for a virtual chat room. This was expressly forbidden and would result in the revocation of computer privileges until the age of twenty-five.

Before they were freshmen in high school and old enough to have laptops, my kids had individual accounts on our family computer so they could access the Internet for homework and pre-approved game sites. Each of their accounts had a filter so that a typo would not send them to God knows where in cyberspace. I always knew the passwords to their accounts or to anything else in their lives. If they somehow managed to get on to a commerce site and try to buy something, the dictatorship was no longer benevolent. Luckily, this never happened.

My children never seriously abused their Internet privileges because they knew I meant business. As generous as I am with them, and believe me I am still generous to the point that it sometimes annoys my husband, they knew that I would not tolerate any infractions with regard to the Internet. Just ask my son about the time he hacked into my account and wrote an e-mail to his teacher to excuse him from an assignment. His third grade grammar gave him away and the teacher immediately notified me that he was e-mailing her under my name. What followed were not good days for my boy.

But I never fully warmed up to being a dictator—benevolent or otherwise. I took unique pride in saying that my children were spoiled, but not rotten. Yet, when it came to snooping for their wellbeing, I held my ground.

I think my parents, particularly my father, named me with the hope that I would develop a curiosity that was both intellectual and empathic. Building on my father’s dreams for me, I taught my children to be as curious and responsible as my fictional doppelganger.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Dear Teen Me:

When you were growing up in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was easy to have a skewed view of love, especially with all those pop love songs you listened to — and inevitably dreamed would come true. If only there had been a meeting for you like the one I went to last week, dedicated to healthy teenage relationships. If only the adults around you had understood what I know now: that some consider teen dating a public health issue.

Today, the Boston Public Health Commission has a program called [Start Strong](http://www.startstrongteens.org), currently the largest funded national initiative aimed at preventing relationship violence and abuse among young people by promoting healthy relationships. Start Strong’s mission is powerful in its simplicity: “Stop teen dating abuse before it starts by using older teens to educate pre-teens.” To emphasize that message, the Commission has sponsored a co-ed gathering of teens for three years running called *Break-Up Summit*. This year, the event took place at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, and focused on cheating as a catalyst to unhealthy relationships turning violent.

This kind of initiative didn’t exist when you were growing up — when boys were boys and girls were expected to be nicer than nice. My generation directly reaped the rewards of the Women’s Movement. Still, for many us, sexual liberation was steeped in guilt and bewilderment at how far we could go and, simultaneously, how badly a relationship could end.

At this year’s conference, teens attended workshops that helped them explore the landscape of healthy relationships, including “Breaking-Up In The Internet Age,” “The ‘What Are We?’ Conversation,” and “It’s Complicated.” In one breakout session, they debated what behavior constituted cheating and what behavior was perfectly innocent. Yes, they said, you can go out to a platonic dinner with a friend of the opposite sex. Actions that fell into a gray area were more difficult for them to agree on. “Flirting is a way of life, it’s healthy,” said one young man. “Dancing with a guy at a party even if your boyfriend’s there isn’t right,” said a young woman. Perhaps consensus is not the point. Teens need to build their own definitions of fidelity and respect.

But how often does that really happen? Today, teens are having sex at a younger age and with more partners. Their relationships are also driven by hormones and developing brains, which means they may not understand why they do what they do and feel what they feel. The drama, the moods, the end-of-the-world heartache — I wish you had known that they didn’t have to be standard issue for teenage relationships.

At the conference, I heard a lot of terms bandied about, like “hooking up,” “friends with benefits,” “just friends” and “full-blown dating.” It made me realize that while the language has changed, human nature hasn’t. One of the more potent metaphors a teenage girl used to describe cheating was a crumpled piece of paper. That’s what cheating does to a relationship, and though the deception may be followed by forgiveness, that sheet of paper will always have wrinkles.

When the program organizers displayed pictures of world-famous cheaters, some of the boys whooped when they saw Tiger Woods. And while there was not a single woman in the montage, the audience was abuzz discussing “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart’s [tearful apology](http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/25/kristen-stewart-apologizes-cheating-robert-pattinson_n_1702836.html?utm_hp_ref=entertainment&ir=Entertainment) for cheating on Robert Pattinson. Young women, in particular, seemed to admire Stewart for responding quickly by taking responsibility for her actions. Others were bitterly disappointed in her for cheating on Pattinson in the first place. As one girl wondered, aren’t women supposed to be above that?

Maybe it’s the characters she plays, but for me, Stewart embodies the notion of a fairy tale. The version of romance she projects isn’t real — just like the Top 40 songs that inspired and disappointed you, Teen Me, all those years ago. I know it’s confusing and upsetting to consider that fairy tales don’t exist, but in time you will understand that grappling with a strong, healthy relationship — with its inevitable peaks and valleys — is more romantic than an unattainable “happily ever after.”

And so what I want to say most of all, Teen Me, is something I never knew at your age: It gets better, and until it does, there are resources out there. There are people who want to help you extricate yourself from a bad relationship. That is the biggest takeaway of the Break-up Summit. If only you had been guided to realize that love is not a Top 40 song, I would have been spared suffering that was neither noble nor useful.

Love,

(Much) Older Me

In Defense of Algebra and Other Difficult Subjects by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Last week a political science professor named Andrew Hacker published an article in the New York Times: “Is Algebra Necessary?” The title alone triggered my math phobia. Math is right up there with my fear of swimming. (More on my aquaphobia another time.)

In my unscientific poll, my math anxiety is pretty typical for a woman my age. The thought of a quadratic equation—whatever that is—sends me into a panic. It’s tempting to agree with Hacker to skip the whole ordeal and just concentrate on the subjects I’m good at.

I don’t doubt Hacker’s statistics that six million high school students and two million college freshmen are suffering under the weight of solving a simple equation like 5x+2 = 3x+10. But the truth is a high school graduate should be able to come up with four as the answer. I almost believed Hacker’s argument when he asserted that, “making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower.  I say this as a wrier and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from  a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.”

But then I realized that he is, in fact, asking students to sidestep subjects that are difficult for them. Isn’t the point of being a student to challenge oneself? I ought to know. Writers are perpetual students. There’s no way around the fact that you have to put in the hours researching, writing and rewriting. Having said all of this, I’ve never met a writer who didn’t think writing was the hardest undertaking in the world. I had a teacher who told me that he psyched himself in front of the blank computer screen with these words: Down, Down, In.

To make it to the desk is the first of many small victories. Then it’s time to confront the equation that has to be solved, the Latin paragraph that has to be translated, the essay to say what you intend to communicate. These intellectual conundrums don’t simply loom large, they haunt one. You have to do this work because it matters. Hacker, on the other hand, reinforces the ultimate phobic behavior in education: avoidance.

Down, down, in. That’s how you’ll find your subject, gather your emotional strength, and cultivate your creativity. Lightning bolt inspiration is as rare as getting struck by actual lightning.

I had a geometry teacher who was downright abusive. She assigned an open-ended art project that was supposed to incorporate principles of geometry. For the record, I am totally opposed to art projects after nursery school. My geometry project was a dismal failure. I cut out circles, squares and other shapes and tried to calculate the areas. She took me down in front of the whole class, pointing out I hadn’t done the project at all. She offered no guidance on how I might fix my project. Just withering criticism. Consequently, I break out into hives when I hear the word geometry.

But in my gut, I know that math is important in our increasingly tech-savvy world. I’ve made sure that my daughter knows that she can solve a quadratic equation as well as any boy in her class. Hacker points out that only 9% of men and 4% of women score over 700 on the math portion of the SAT. I’m not worried about that statistic’s discrepancy between girls and boys. I’m astounded by our country’s math illiteracy.

Math students, particularly girls, need both mentors and teachers to excel in the subject. In an article recently published in The American Scholar by Paula Marantz Cohen, an English professor, she points out the subtle but crucial differences between mentors and teachers. “A teacher,” she writes, “has greater knowledge than a student; a mentor has greater perspective.” Marantz Cohen is talking about the editor-writer relationship, but I think a similar relationship is very beneficial for girls in math. A teacher sits down and shows a student how to solve a quadratic equation. A mentor clears away the cobwebs of doubt for a student so that the learning can begin in earnest.

In our house Ken and I take on the roles of teacher and mentor respectively. As mentor, I try to expand my reach beyond that of cheerleader. After I read Hacker’s essay, I was spurred on to demystify algebra and asked Ken to teach me how to prove the quadratic equation Hacker offered in his piece: (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)².

“Show me how to do this for our daughter,” I said to my husband as I broke out in a cold sweat.

“She knows how to prove this equation.”

“Please,” I begged.

He proceeded to teach me a strategy called FOIL to tackle the equation. As soon as Anna heard the word in her room she called out incredulously,  “Are you doing algebra?” And then she came in and showed me how to solve the problem.

The right attitude, coupled with competent teaching, means that learning algebra doesn’t have to be a Sisyphean undertaking. Even for me.