The Benefit of Being Fair

A dozen years ago, before motherhood and after a calculated career change, I taught elementary school. Teaching consumed one hundred percent of my being. Working in a classroom with young people was all I cared to know.

For me, the first few days of the new school year were critical. They were my chance to set a tone with students and lay the foundation for an inclusive community. During the lead up to Back to School, I lost sleep mulling over Hi-lited lesson plans and rehashing ways to nip issues that come up with children in the bud.

One common cry in elementary school land was, “Not fair!” It was a catchy phrase that seemed to multiply when exposed to air. I liked to deal with the fairness struggle up front. And so, my week one repertoire included a story borrowed from a colleague about shoes.

A lot of times I hear students say, “It’s not fair!” So let’s talk about fairness. Say I was going to provide shoes for the entire class. Each person in the class wears a different size. If one student wears a size 10, I would get him a size 10. But I wouldn’t automatically get the others a size 10. I would make sure each child got the shoe size he needed.

My job as your teacher is to give you the pair of shoes with the best fit. Being fair is not about providing the same to all, it’s about giving each person what he needs so he can reach his personal best. In this class, I won’t always be equal – but I will always be fair.

I’m no longer teaching elementary school. Now, I’m on the receiving end of backpacks, homework folders and projects. My younger son, Skootch has academic needs which make him eligible for an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). He is taught in a small group, modified setting for reading, writing and math, receives help with speech and language and works with therapists during the school day to strengthen his hands, stamina and core.

Because G-d took a hole punch to the memory files in Skootch’s brain, concepts take longer to stick than for a typical 2nd grader. At 8 ½ years old, he’s still learning how to read and writing is a beleaguered task.

But these challenges have never deterred his thinking, attention to detail and capacity to be curious. As soon as Skootch figured out how to say words, he didn’t stop talking, questioning and trying to understand the world even when no one could understand him.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when he came home from school eager to enter a play writing contest for grades K-2 organized by the local community theater. The contest was the culmination of a series of workshops taught by the teachers and theater’s educational staff. Selected scripts would be brought to life on the stage by real actors. Each winning playwright would even be awarded with a certificate from the mayor.

Before I had a chance to pull the entry form out of the folder, Skootch was fantasizing about giving the mayor his autograph. I didn’t want to discourage such enthusiasm, but I didn’t encourage it either.

I was worried for the guy.

For Skootch to endure the process of transferring ideas from his brain to the page after having worked seven hours at school and having tackled homework would be physically draining and emotionally demoralizing. I presumed these contests were for rock star students who read chapter books with ease, wrote fluent paragraphs AND have a hardy imagination. Skootch only checked off one of the boxes.

I was also worried for me.

What would the other parents think? Would they say Skootch cheated if I got involved? And although it’s never been my personal experience with the community, I couldn’t help but anticipate murmurs of disgust at school pick up. My child wrote a play without any help. All the kids should be held to the same standard. That’s not fair.

I folded up the flyer and approached the garbage. But there was Skootch standing in front of me, shaking his composition notebook. “Mom. Did you hear me? I want to write a play! I started it at school. It’s called The Robbers and the Security Guards.”

I took one look at his sunshine smile and remembered the shoes.

Screw it, I thought. He deserves to feel proud.

“Let me see.” Inside the notebook, I saw that a grown up’s handwriting had scribbled down his thoughts. “You have four days. You’ll have to work on it a little each day before or after homework. You tell me what to say and I’ll type. Okay?”

I sat down at the computer. Skootch bounced, skipped, tumbled and talked around the living room. He relayed character names, outlined the plot and explained the story arc. The boy had the whole thing planned in his head. He gave me the words. I typed, asked questions for clarification and typed some more. Every few sentences, he’d ask me to read back the lines.

For the rest of the week, when Skootch came home from school I asked, “What first? Homework or the play?”

Each time he responded, “My play.”

In the end, he submitted a 4 page, 5 act typed play to a slush pile 80 scripts deep. After a several week review process, the theater’s selection committee chose about 20 to perform. The Robbers and the Security Guards made the final cut!

Upon hearing the news, Skootch pretended to faint. The proud playwright counted his sleeps until opening night of The Vision and Voices Playwriting Festival. When the evening arrived, our boy marched his size 4 shoes the two block walk from our house to the theater with a smile wider than usual.

Together with my husband and a packed house of young writers, moms, dads and teachers, we watched twenty children’s words come to life. Our son, who on paper, was never expected to realize such a Language Arts feat showed me what determination, hard work, talented teachers, a little faith and a side of help can achieve. As Skootch climbed on stage and smacked the mayor’s hand, I could tell he was very proud. We all were.

The festival was a magical reminder of how funny, thoughtful and astute very young children can be when given a forum and the freedom to express their voice. The experience was a reminder that under each surface, big ideas loom large. Imaginations are always racing, even when fingers and mouth muscles can’t keep up.

For us moms and teachers who share their lives with children who need a reassuring Yes you can, a typing hand or a custom shoe, don’t hesitate. After all, it’s only fair.

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What Really Happens Inside a CrossFit Gym

Courtesy: Lynda Shenkman

An excavator sits outside the ashen structure awaiting the command. A welcome sign still hangs above the door. The garage, once home to our local CrossFit gym, now a cement cavity of memories will soon be demolished, replaced by apartments.

On the last day of class, each attending member took a minute to reminisce during an icebreaker. I was absent, but watched the video on Instagram. The stories shared never highlighted the achievements of self. Members wanted to talk about their classmates; who made them smile, who broke through barriers, whose shirtless chest turned heads.

I replayed it a few times. With every rerun, my heart swelled. Change is bittersweet.

Nonmembers sometimes ask, What goes on inside those CrossFit gyms? I hear it’s a cult. I can assure the skeptics no one is fixing alters from barbells or sacrificing protein shakes to the fitness gods. Not yet, anyway. But a lot does happen.

Dreams happen

A man in his twenties left a budding corporate job to pursue a passion for training. He opened a CrossFit gym. Honed his skills. Built a team. Expanded a business. Stayed humble and kind. And in doing so, inspired clients to achieve little goals and big dreams.

Millennials quit secure careers to do what they loved. Young athletes competed alongside elites. A determined high schooler proved to her soccer coach she was good enough to make the team and an unsure peer found himself wrestling and winning. Many embraced healthy choices and most found their voice.

Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers learned to squat, clean and jerk. They climbed ropes for the first time, stood on their heads and jumped up on a box. They completed races, joined rock bands, sported bikinis, founded companies, sat for tattoos and concluded that age doesn’t define ability and intimidating does not mean impossible.

Love happens

As a new member, my friend was surprised at how fast she warmed up to people from the gym. “Is this normal?” she asked.

“Pretty much,” I told her.

Amid the pull up rigs, weight racks and wall balls, there’s no time to fear vulnerability. When the clock counts down, social norms go out the window. Strangers are thrown into a mental and physical predicament with a common goal; get it done and support a neighbor.

It started with fist pumps and cheers. Small talk came easy; CrossFit’s a built in conversation starter. Together, we rehashed workouts, movements, personal bests and rough spots until the non CrossFitting community told us to shut up.

In time, we stopped squawking about fitness, opened up and asked about a sick parent, a new job or a cranky toddler. And it didn’t take long before we were offering hugs, helping a teen find an internship, editing a college essay, buying from a buddy’s local business, sharing professional expertise, moving boxes, supporting a cause, hosting a dinner, celebrating a milestone or lending an ear.

We met for 4 years in the same space, during the same hour, several days a week. Friendships developed, spouses connected, siblings bonded, relationships bloomed, babies grew and grandchildren were born.

Fun happens

In an interview at Harvard Divinity School, CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman explained how CrossFit gyms emphasize camaraderie, which was once described to him as “agony coupled with laughter.”

I am inherently lazy. The first four decades of my life were spent avoiding exercise. But even when I’m feeling uninspired, CrossFit keeps me coming back because the people make it fun.

Beyond the crazy tights, silly tanks and occasional costume, our gym is a safe, happy escape. I can let curse words loose, chuckle at a double-entendre, lip sync to my heart’s content, whip out dance moves and laugh alongside friends who brighten my mood and let me be me.

Struggle happens

We failed lifts, lost to a workout, questioned our strength and ran out of gas. We agonized through divorce, mourned death, endured surgery and disease, emptied our nests and fought mental illness. But we did so side by side.

Perspective happens

We learned. To teach, coach and manage. About different cultural and spiritual traditions. To leave political divides at the door. To be students again. We learned about decency, respect and gratitude. That we are better as a team.

We strived. To find balance. To do our best. To try and to not be too tough on ourselves.

We recognized. The benefit of breathe, pace and letting it out of the tank. The value of stretching, the stupidity of sugar (even though we may indulge) and how, when done right, food is fuel.

We grew. To rethink Beauty, Age and Limits. To ignore scales and diets. To complain less and smile more. We grew to believe in ourselves. To know our bodies can generate power, that we can do anything for a minute and what it means to be a champion.

The closing doors were not a goodbye. The owner moved us into new, spiffy digs. Right up the block. With an open floor plan. Natural light. Fresh paint. Even showers. Just in time for the New Year.

The parking’s different. The entrance is different. The setup is different. But the faces gathered around the white board to receive the daily challenge are the same.

It’s during this accepted routine our surroundings seem to fade. As the coach speaks and we listen, one thing is clear – family happened.

These 5 Quotes Held My Hand in 2017. In 2018, There’s No Letting Go.

By December 31, 2017, I couldn’t wait to devour the cheese plate, suck down some champagne, watch Mariah redeem her lip sync and wave goodbye to what I found to be a distressing and draining year.

I’m not one for grand resolutions. In my experience, they tend to be over rated and short lived.

Instead, over time, particularly since I’ve started to write myself, I’ve found the words of others to be a reliable source. Words give me pause, hold me accountable and shape everyday decisions.

As I pray, hope and gear up to work for a better 2018, here are 5 quotations that summed up my mindset and kept me moving during 2017, and continue to offer inspiration as I brace for what’s next.

“This land was made for you and me.” Woodie Guthrie

Masses of pink hats sang this on the National Mall during the Women’s March in Washington DC.

“The words you speak become the house you live in.” – the Persian poet, Hafez.

My daily mantra for confronting CrossFit challenges, managing career expectations and dealing with general self-doubt.

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” – Lebanese artist, Kahlil Gibran

As my two boys continue to grow, Gibran’s words from his poem, On Children are a stab in the heart reminder to teach independence so when the time comes, Bubbe and Skootch can live life on their own terms. The poem also encourages me to do my part to leave our world a healthier place so they may have a fair shot at doing so.

“We the people of the United States” (we are a democratic republic, not a dictatorship) “in order to form a more perfect union” (we are a work in progress dedicated to a noble pursuit) “establish justice” (we revere justice as the cornerstone of our democracy) “insure domestic tranquility” (we prize unity and peace, not divisiveness and discord), “provide for the common defense” (we should never give any foreign adversary reason to question our solidarity) “promote the general welfare” (we care about one another; compassion and decency matter) “and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” (we have a responsibility to protect not just our own generation, but future ones as well).

The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution as dissected by Sally Yates, former Deputy Attorney General in her Op-Ed, “Who Are We As a Country? Time To Decide” was published just as the forces counting on me to feel complacent were winning. Seeing America’s core values written in simple terms was the jolt of stay woke I needed that day.

“Baby, I’m sorry (I’m not sorry).” – Demi Lovato

For any fellow human who at some point during his or her life, stood up, spoke up and refuses to go back.

“Use all your heart, all your might and everything will turn out right.” – Me (as far as I can tell)

The words heart and might may have come from the Jewish Shema or Deuteronomy 6:5 although that wasn’t my conscious intention. These are the words I say to my boys anytime they are in a position to learn, go out on the court, get nervous about peers or have to take on the world.

Perhaps during the next 365 days, I’ll try to heed my own words.

Consider it a small goal.

Welcome 2018.

Who My Son Saw at a CrossFit Competition

All photos courtesy of A. Osinoff

Little boy behind the barricade, who do you see?

A Competitor
Pressing alongside a Goliath. The playing field level. Shared load. Shared bench. Shared barbell. Same standards. Same reps. Same rest.

A Teammate
One who spots weight, tracks time and counts lifts. A partner who values the other’s emotional risk, ethic to prepare and commitment to try. A mate who listens to ideas, strategizes beforehand, encourages during and dances after.

A Woman
Eyes on the ceiling. Spread legs. Bare arms. Chiseled back. Flexed quads and seeping curves. A woman who trains her body as a machine, teaching it to breath, move and perform with power.

A Lady
Who is feminine, not despite but because she sweats, stinks, struggles and shakes. One who tapes her thumbs, wraps her wrists and grips the barbell with glitter, chartreuse nails. A person who considers sneakers, tanks, a weight belt and tights as fashion and is consumed by the task over her tousled hair, silver roots and exposed lines.

Your Mom
Who feels proud, accomplished, happy and hopeful that by watching me, her children are learning anything by anyone is possible.

Little boy, when you grow tall enough to see over the barricade, what will you do?

Be mesmerized no more.
Accept a person’s capacity, albeit female or male to be strong.
Expect equal partnership between genders as essential.
And assume that the only “it” any human ever asks for is respect.

A Moment of Weakness

In a moment of weakness, I stopped.
Stopped counting the cracks in the sidewalk
and tracking the tempo of my breath.

My ankle pulled at the shin,
shoulder blades burned from what came before.
Humidity stuck in my throat.

My feet slowed to a walk on the corner
near the jagged riser where the smell of diner grease sits in the air.
Our loop’s highest point.

Tension drained from my quads.
My breath found balance.
For a moment, relief.

Then a friend came up on the right.
“Let’s go.”

I readied my arms and returned to a trot.
Up the sidewalk
Past the Starbucks
Around the post office
And down the alley toward my starting point-

the orange bucket.

Questions.
Round the pail and greet the next lap?
Or skirt behind and slip inside?

Just two more loops to the finish.
Excuses creeped.
Heat. Age.
Doubt clouded.
Not a runner. Too tired.

The music in my buds drowned the voice in my head
that would have otherwise urged me to go.

And so
I quit.
For the first time,
the workout won.

I apologized to Coach, lowered my head
and mounted a stationary bike
until time was up.

When the crew trickled in
after the clock shut off
and fist pumps exchanged
they tried to help.
“Are you okay?”
“It’s not worth it.”
“You’re recovering.”
“I understand.”
“We’ve all been there.”

But I hadn’t.

Yes I was achy, but also able-bodied.
I wasn’t dialed in.
I need to be.
Every. Single. Time.
Especially at the end.
I’ve learned my body’s stronger than my mind.

Frustration festered during the accessory work.
As others emptied cubbies, I paced amid the cemented walls.
Pissed.

Through the doorway, baking in the sun stood the cylinder sentinel
who observes our effort and guards our egos.
I took note of her steady posture
and promised not to be beat again.

“Coach, are you locking up?” I asked.
“Not yet. Do what you have to do.”

Two laps.

I headed outside.
No music. No mates. Just me.
Gazed beyond my orange marker.
And ran.

5 Tips for Conference Attendees

Creating art is often a self-indulgent, solitary craft.

So each spring, I make a point to attend a 300 person conference hosted by SCBWI, a trade organization serving the KidLit community. For two days, writers, illustrators, literary agents and editors who are committed to making books for children and young adults hole up in a hotel to teach and take workshops, socialize and share.

Making the emotional transition from a solo gig to an environment packed with peers and prospective partners requires a hefty dose of vulnerability, grit and guts.

I’d rather tackle burpees over a barbell than participate in an event where it behooves me to talk to strangers, explain projects or pitch ideas. But year after year, I close my eyes, swallow the medicine and go.

When it’s over, some leave the conference motivated and alive. I always left, after my writing had been criticized and critiqued, feeling demoralized, dejected and done. Tired of clammy skin, frayed nerves and a cracked ego, in 2016 I took a break.

But without a conference lined up, I let life – parenting, work, presidential elections and Russian investigations get in the way. I wrote less KidLit. The more the dust bunnies nested, the more I missed the craft and writing community.

When the 2017 conference registration appeared in my email, I decided to try again knowing the only way to recharge my batteries was to change my approach.

These 5 things helped me to keep this spring’s experience in perspective.

Lowered expectations

In the past, I wheeled my bags into the hotel lobby filled with a binder of manuscripts, a personal agenda packed with scheduled critiques, printed copies of my story’s first page for a public reading, an elevator pitch for any peer or professional willing to listen and the expectation that my work would catch the eye of an agent or editor before the closing speaker’s remarks.

My preoccupation with an end goal only created stress which in turn, made it tough to stay engaged with attendees, pay attention during workshops and feel happy for others’ successes.

This time around, I opted out of critiques, avoided forums where my stories were read aloud and didn’t pitch ideas unless someone asked me. I also left manuscripts home and replaced the binder with a paper clip and a notebook. To get my money’s worth, I interacted with faculty during meals, workshops and in my capacity as a formal volunteer.

Lower expectations improved my mood and preserved my ego.

Took a risk

I signed up for a workshop billed for visual thinkers. The class seemed like the right fit for the way my brain works.

Upon arrival, I took a corner seat in the back row and noticed I was the only non-illustrator in the room. The teacher explained we were going to draw in an effort to generate ideas. He demonstrated and then told us to get ready to doodle. The artists pulled out their tools. I stared down at my pen.

“Draw a line,” he said.

I can handle that, I thought.

“Now switch with someone and turn the line into a living creature.”

My fingers froze. I was about to sneak out when a lady handed me a paper. I transformed her line into the best living creature I could.

“Switch again,” the instructor announced. “Add accessories.”

Oh for the love. A new sheet with someone else’s beautiful living creature came my way. I took a deep breath and sketched.

This activity went on until we had a developed character. The class concluded with each person speed drawing the character we started out with in different scenarios.

After it was over, I smiled. I remembered how much I loved to draw and felt proud to have gone out of my comfort zone.

At dinner that evening, I happened to sit next to the teacher. “Thank you,” I told him. “Your workshop was the most fun I’ve had at a conference.”

Stayed positive about the little things

At an event where there’s lots of new people, it can be easier to bond with them over the negative: room temperature, food quality, elevator speed, noise in the common area.

During the weekend, I did my best to heed the advice of my CrossFit coach. “Complaining is like a rocking chair; gives you something to do and gets you nowhere.”

In an arena where there’s a solid chance my creative endeavors will be sliced to smithereens, it made sense to harness as much positive energy as possible.

Took mental breaks

Conference days are 12 hour marathons. Whenever burn out set in, I skipped a workshop, took a walk outside or passed on the post dinner festivities.

And when I wanted to move the conversation away from KidLit without jeopardizing a chance to network, I chose a lighter topic like the 2 senior proms and the wedding party who shared the hotel with us.

Listened More

In the past, my mission during community meals was to secure facetime with the person who had the power either to sign me as a client or buy my story. This year, I vowed instead to listen more and lobby less.

At lunch, there were two women of color at our table; one was an industry professional, the other a writer new to the conference. I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but somewhere between soup and the entree, an organic, honest conversation blossomed about white privilege in publishing and in life.

Each woman described the heaviness they felt any time they left the safe space of their home and entered an environment, like a conference knowing their skin color, accent and culture would be judged and on display.

They shared their experiences as children, women and parents. Neither sought sympathy; only the acknowledgement that white people, particularly white men are not burdened with daily inquiries as to why they pronounce their words “funny”, won’t be called “an angry black woman” after voicing a strong opinion and never have to fear their son might be hurt or harassed during his travels because of the way he looks.

The industry professional emphasized our need to do a better job of making room at the table while keeping everyone else there. As writers, illustrators, agents and editors, at the very least we owe this to the children for whom we write and for the ones we raise.

I’ve returned home to the quiet of my desk. As I type, the hum of talking heads in the background keeps me company. My outlook is fresh, creative process inspired and commitment to young people renewed.

Time to do a better job.

I Said What?…What’s Cute Got To Do With It?

“To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” – HRC

During one of Bubbe’s sports clinics, I pulled out my writing notebook while Skootch was distracted by a fidget spinner. Two mothers, with their young daughters playing underfoot chatted nearby.

Mom 1 took out her phone.

Mom 2 leaned in. “Is that a picture of your babysitter? Wow. She’s cute. You don’t want to hire cute girls. They won’t be available to babysit on a Saturday night.”

I stopped mid-doodle and glared. Oh no she didn’t.

But she did. This woman, my peer, implied with conviction in front of her young daughter that the “cute” girl’s time, however she defined the adjective, was more valuable. A “cute” girl has more friends and a full social calendar. It is she who is considered successful and worthy. The less “cute” ones are not as good.

Skootch flicked at his spinner. “You okay, Mom?”

I lied. “Yes, sweetie. I’m fine.”

Growing up, I saw myself as the less cute and therefore less worthy girl in the photograph. Like many females, I was the recipient of direct and indirect messages equating physical appearance with societal and individual value.

The matriarchs in my family dipped their toes in feminist ideology. My mother was first in her family to pursue a college degree and worked throughout my childhood. My grandmother managed the household finances. But what overshadowed their progress, and what I remember more were the comments from adults about boys liking girls with long hair, quips highlighting my big bones and feet and being called belligerent whenever I voiced a passionate opinion.

A worthy woman was thin, pretty and pleasing; her role was to find a husband, care for him and raise his family. Anything beyond such convention made for trouble.

I was a trouble maker.

A women’s value being tied to and limited by her appearance as defined by tradition or opinion made zero sense from the outset. Still, it took me decades to apply the theory to myself. Even now, during the “this is who I am” phase of life, I will default to a negative personal narrative especially at first glance in a mirror or of a photograph.

The self-deprecation reflex feels unsettling because I know it’s wrong. It also reminds that the unhealthy messages and experiences we absorb as children leave a perpetual stain on one’s spirit. No matter how hard we scrub, they never fully disappear.

Today, countless organizations, authors, artists, public figures, communities and families are taking deliberate steps to reframe the conversation and encourage a generation of girls to equate worth and beauty with strength, curiosity, passion and personality.

The young ladies with whom I interact in my community are proof the shift is taking hold. There’s the middle schooler who competes as an Olympic weightlifter, the high school junior who uses food as fuel to build strength and endurance and the 18 year-old who responded, “It’s not about how I look, it’s about how I feel” after I told her she looked great.

Their sense of self is rooted in power, emotion and idea. Such wisdom at an early age will only nourish their confidence and embolden them to demand future employers, colleagues, friends and lovers to judge females based on human, not physical qualities.

Kudos to the mothers and fathers who are raising these women. And shame on those who didn’t get or care to read the Smart Girl  Like a Girl  Strong is the New Pretty memo.

While I can’t control what garbage spews from a random mom on a sideline, I can learn from inspirational young ladies and curtail personal comments rooted in insecurity. And I can use language around boys and girls that emphasize character over cute.

We adults have many things to be mindful of these days. Being careful not to perpetuate the “cute girl” cycle is no less significant.

Update: TODAY Parent’s Choice Award

As some of you know, Red said what? was a finalist for the TODAY Parent’s Choice Award. Thank you so much to those who took the time to vote. While I didn’t win, I feel lucky and humbled to be included on the ballot. If you like parenting reads, the winner was Mom Babble Blog. My favorite finalist was Tara Wood. Enjoy!