I SAID WHAT?…My Letter to the Editor in The New York Times

Evan McGlinn for The New York Times

Evan McGlinn for The New York Times

I wrote to The New York Times after reading Vicki Abeles’s Sunday Review piece, “Is School Making our Children Ill?”  Today, The Times ran my response in the printed paper as well as online.

The link to today’s Letters page: Reducing the stress on students

Here’s what I had to say:

Kudos to the Irvington High School community in Fremont, Calif., for taking steps to rescue students from their high-stakes childhoods such as limiting homework requirements and implementing pass-fail grading in some classes.

As an early childhood educator and mother of elementary-school-age children, I think we parents of young learners also need to be brave, take ownership and embrace such efforts by curtailing after-school and evening extracurricular activities like sport travel teams, dance, music and STEM workshops in an effort to preserve the social, emotional and physical health of our children.

A multitude of these well-intended additions eats into down time, rest and unstructured play and creates stress for children and families. With a new year upon us, let’s resolve to take a step back and give children back their childhood.

JENNIFER REINHARZ

Pleasantville, N.Y.

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From Sidelines to Service

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

Veterans Day 2014 started out no differently than any other; with good intention and marginal action.

Each November 11th, I’d think about my grandfather Joe, a World War II Navy Veteran.

The thought was typically followed by an appreciative email or indebted Facebook post.  Some years I’d even make the old fashioned phone call.  Soon distracted by child rearing logistics and household priorities, I’d call it a day and opt out of making the 45 minute drive to pay a visit.

This time however, I had left Skootch’s red accordion at Joe’s house a few days before and much to the child’s dismay, had only the purple one at home.  So in an effort to temper a peppering five year old, the boys and I piled into the Outback and joined my grandfather for lunch.

Joe greeted his great-grandsons at the door, offered respective kisses, and held them on the landing.

“Did you see my American flag?” he asked.

It was no surprise and nice to see that despite having recently lost his wife of 65 years, Joe remembered to dress the pole he had raised between a patch of hedges adjacent to the front stoop to commemorate the holiday and a defining time in his life.

“Do you know how to do a soldier’s salute?”

My grandfather faced the flag, modeled the salute, and instructed the boys to pay the toll.  “Now you do it.”

Bubbe smiled shyly and gave it a go.  The Skootch puffed his chest, cupped his palm and looked at it.  Joe helped the effort along.  The group crossed the threshold and stopped in the front hall.

“Do you fly one at home?” he asked.  Joe didn’t wait for an answer.  “Here take these.”  He snatched a pair of parade flags from a collection stored in a nearby bucket.

The Skootch marched up to the second floor apartment, waving his new toy.  The parade was short lived.  Toddler sized penguins and a Santa Claus were performing center stage in the living room.  He dropped the flag.

My grandfather rescued it.  “No.  Never let it touch the ground.  Out of respect and honor, the American flag should always point toward the sky,” he explained.  “Let’s put it in a safe place.”  He tucked the base into a puffy coat curled up on a Captain’s chair.

Bubbe followed suit; partially to secure the flag but mostly to search for his great-grandpa’s Kindle Fire and Oreos in a nearby hutch.

On route to the cookies, he noticed a glass display case perched near the front of the hutch shelf.  It was filled with mounted, decorated ribbons laid out like a Holland tulip field.

“What are these?”  Bubbe wiped away the dust.

“Those are my war medals,” Joe said and went on to explain them one by one.

“American Campaign…

European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign…2 bronze stars

Asiatic, Pacific Campaign…2 bronze stars”

There were six in total.  He circled back to the top row.  “These are my dog tags.  I wore them around my neck the entire time I was away.  Do you know why soldiers wear two tags?”

“No,” Bubbe said.

“If a solider dies, one stays on the body; the other gets sent home.”

“Oh.  I get it.”

Eavesdropping from the kitchen I thought,

Will he ever really get it? 

When my children are grown, what will service, sacrifice, and country mean to them?

It is wonderful that we have a proud, willing veteran in our family to share experiences but unfortunately, I can count on one hand the number of service men and women we know.  Outside of my grandfather, Bubbe and The Skootch have had only the opportunity to interact with veterans or those in active duty during elementary and religious school programs.  And as Op-Ed columnist, Maureen Dowd recently noted, with “one percent of the population voluntarily enlisting in the service,” it is likely that in the future, my boys will be exposed more regularly to comic book heroes than to everyday ones.

Thankfully sacrifice, service, character, and citizenship are still being communicated in schools, through extra-curricular activities, at houses of worship and in our homes.  Still, teaching young people the value of contributing to the greater good feels piecemealed, fit in, and a vehicle for resume padding.

The potential for further disconnect in these formal settings seems imminent now that such lessons are being muscled from the spotlight by college, career readiness, English Language Arts requirements and STEM.  In my state, there is even a motion to de-emphasize Social Studies.

Israeli citizens get it.  Out of necessity, conscription exists for most of the country’s Jewish Israeli population.  Upon turning 18, men and women are obligated to serve in the military for three and two years, respectively.  As a result, my 65 year old friend can relate directly to the experiences of an active soldier as well as identify with the five year old who knows he will one day fill those shoes.  There, generations of citizens connect through collective responsibility and common experience.

In 2010, my husband Mac’s Letter to the Editor was published in The New York Times in response to the article, “The Way We Treat Our Troops” which in part offered support for a mandatory draft.  The guy was onto something.  He wrote:

“If the good problem arises where we have an abundance of young people in the military during peacetime, they could be deployed toward other national services like helping the elderly, the indigent and the disabled or for cleanup after national disasters, mentoring children and so on.  America is a terrific place to live; if young people gave something back and worked alongside other Americans from all walks of life, it would tie us closer together as a country.”

In February 2013, New York State Congressman Charles Rangel introduced a most recent version of the Universal National Service Act to the House of Representative’s Armed Services Committee.

The bill requires all persons between the ages of 18 and 25 living in the United States, citizen or otherwise to perform two years of national uniformed or civilian service.  Those choosing uniformed service may also be inducted during wartime, a national emergency, or a contingency operation.  This CrossFit junkie would add that prior to selecting a service type; able-bodied participants attend basic training in cohorts.  There is something to be said for intense, group exercise.  It fosters camaraderie, physical and emotional growth, and team pride.

To date, the bill has not moved in Congress.

Yes.  I realize the devil is in the details and that bigger government doesn’t necessarily translate into better outcomes.  Yes.  We do have a responsibility to teach our children in our families and community about service, sacrifice, and selfless giving.  And yes, I too wonder about the mandatory component of such a program in a free society.

Regardless, I think it is time to take meaningful action.

Perhaps a national service requirement will shift expectations for and alleviate pressure on high school students, change the way the college admissions process is managed, reduce some of the direct financial burden on families trying to pay for higher education, and offer guidance for college graduates looking to take the next step.

More importantly, perhaps it will build awareness and understanding for soldiers and veterans suffering trauma, make care and reentry a priority for when they return home, and simply bring us closer as a nation.

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women

in the service of our country can never be repaid.

They have earned our undying gratitude.

America will never forget their sacrifices.”

-President Harry S Truman

There is a way to repay veterans like Joe.

Poppie in the navy

Let us step away from the sideline to work in tandem with those on the front line in an effort to strengthen and preserve the solidarity of an already great nation.

Let us pay the toll.

The Loss of a Therapist

I used to tell people I would never see a therapist.  Then my young marriage to Mac began to crumble.

Having spent a lifetime immersed in family dysfunction, crumbling traveled with me; gaps in the sidewalk were the norm and I was a comfortable expert at skirting them.  It was only when Mac and I tried and failed to get pregnant, and the reality of possibly never adding Mother to my resume sank in that my feet got caught up in the cracks.

Still, I refused therapy.  “We don’t need a shrink,” I told my husband.  “We can deal with problems on our own.  It’s not anyone else’s business.”

Frustrated and tired, Mac took himself to see Amy; a well regarded and highly recommended social worker who conveniently had a home office across town.

“She wants to meet both of us,” he said afterward.  “You need to go to a session so Amy can understand how to help.”

We’d been down the counseling road before, but this was the first time Mac actually met with a person. His suggestion was Amy’s request and there was no talking my way out of it.  With her involved, ignoring Mac’s plea translated into losing him, our marriage, and the prospect of starting a family.  Backed into a corner, I made the appointment.

Amy’s home office was on the second floor of her well kept Tudor style home.  Up a small set of stairs adjacent to the living room, it was a guest bedroom, library, TV room and therapy space rolled into one.  One wall was filled with a pale, but inviting sofa adorned with embroidered pillows partnered with a cubed pouf.  I shoved myself into its corner, scratching my back against the pillow stitching.  The balls of my feet pressed against the base of the cube.  There I sat, stiff with pride ready to convince her that I didn’t need help from any therapist.

Amy settled into an over-sized swivel chair across the room, slid off her flats, and rested a tiny pair of feet on a nearby stool.  Behind her sat a narrow desk flanked by impressively organized wall length shelves.  Magazines, photographs, Judaica, and a sculpture of a molar gave me a glimpse into her private life.   I stared beyond the chair hoping my fascination with the decor might deflect attention from me.  But to no avail; there she sat, petite, blonde, plump, suntanned, manicured and ready to listen.

“Why don’t you tell me about your background; your upbringing,” Amy suggested.

That’s all it took.  As a logical thinker, model student and frugal realist, I knew on some level it made sense to embrace this chance and bank on Amy’s expertise.  The clock was ticking, the check was written, so it was time.  Out it came; the family secret I had harbored for twenty-five years.  When the session was over I knew it was going to be the first of many.  That conversation commenced our eight year relationship.

Whenever we met, Amy escorted me from the front door to the office where I took the customary position.

Because she worked from home, she made it a point to conduct our sessions with arm’s-length professionalism.  Still, Amy managed to convey a maternal sensibility rooted in spirituality and common sense.  I quickly learned that she was a little lady with a powerful presence, a strong sense of justice and an unwavering conviction to improve the lives of others.

Amy always said the right words, gave effective homework, and provided the necessary tools to help me treat wounds, shed skin, and grow up.  Some weeks her office was a welcomed respite; other times a dreaded box.  Regardless, I always felt safe.  Over time, I joined the sofa’s center and let my heels crawl up the back of the ottoman.  Together we worked through my list:

Childhood trauma, abandonment, reconciliation…

Self worth, family, love, intimacy, marriage, faith

Career, pregnancy, birth, motherhood, betrayal …

Initially once a week, then every other; sometimes with Mac, sometimes alone that office, the list, and Amy’s guidance during those first years were a constant.  Inside that space, the only variable was the magazine covers.  Consequently, on the outside I got healthier, my marriage began to mend, and our family grew.

Needless to say, Amy and I had a good thing going.

During year five, things changed.

At the end of one session Amy casually announced, “Tomorrow I’m having a medical procedure.  I will not be working for awhile.”  She confidently handed over contact information for her back up therapist and reassured me she’d return.

Several weeks later, Amy and I reconvened.  I immediately noticed a shift in the tenor of our conversations.  Her approach, albeit professional was more direct.  She also began to sprinkle my therapy with an occasional personal anecdote.

Treatments followed the medical procedure.  Amy shared very little information; only that as a result, she might need to change our schedule.

For months, I sat on the couch and watched her deteriorate; plump shrunk to thin, her blonde hair faded, and the suntanned skin grayed.  Amy seemed tired but determined to live her life.

When her color came back and hair grew thick, Mac and I breathed a sigh of relief.  She shared that whatever growth she had was smaller, but required ongoing medication.  Amy sounded stronger and had a renewed outlook.

Two years and she never used the word cancer, but Mac and I knew.

Then Amy took a downturn; more treatments, more medication.  Each time I saw her, it felt as if she was fighting less for normalcy and more for life.  But because I was her client, our time together was focused on me.  She wanted it that way.  I was deeply concerned about her health but I let her do her job.  Amy wasn’t giving up on me, so I refused to give up on her.

One evening session, her office phone rang several times.  Amy uncharacteristically picked it up.  I noticed her elevated legs were bloated and swollen.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I thought it was the doctor’s office.  Let’s continue…”

When time was up, Amy paused for a moment; long enough for me to believe she was debating her thoughts.  Then she asked the usual question, “Do you want to schedule an appointment now?”

“No, I’m going on vacation,” I reminded her.  “I’ll call you when I get back.”

She walked me down the stairs to the door.  “So we’ll plan to meet in two weeks?”

“Yes.”  Then I said something I got used to not saying, “Thank you, Amy.”

Two weeks later, I went back to her house.  This time, I let myself in; I didn’t go upstairs.  Instead, I joined a group of familiar faces on low, hard, black leather chairs.  I kept my feet firmly planted on the living room rug, hands clasped in my lap.  The faces were Amy’s family.  I was paying a Shiva call.

I listened to her adoring husband share his memories, watched her devoted son, daughter, and pregnant daughter-in-law keep busy, and smiled at her spirited grandchildren as they played on the stairs, disappearing into the office.  These people were no longer the characters in Amy’s anecdotes, the aging images in her photographs, and the fairies that left toy remnants on the rug.  They were real people who lost a cherished loved and I felt sad for their devastating loss.

But it was my loss too.  I was there to pay condolences, but needed some of my own.  Yes, my relationship with Amy was professional; it was also intimate and sacred.  Even though I needed to mourn the loss of my therapist, I resisted the urge.  “Amy was not family or friend,” I thought, “It’s not my place to grieve this woman.”  Surrounded by those closest to her, I felt guilty and unworthy of sympathy.

I soon realized that it was okay to grieve, just not right then.  I spent close to a decade healing in that house but now Amy’s home was no longer my therapy place, and her husband and children were not the ones to console me.  It was again time; to turn inward to my tools and outward to my loved ones.  My work with Amy was done.  I was ready.

As I left, Amy’s husband and I exchanged a knowing glance, smiled and said, “Stay well.”

It has been years since Amy passed away.  Larry and I sometimes talk about her when we have an issue, need to reflect, or feel sad she’s not here.

Recently, we were recalling Amy’s modestly attended funeral.  She was our rock star.  Her work changed my life and saved our marriage.  It will have an impact on us, our children, and family for generations.

“Why wasn’t there a line of mourners spilling from the sanctuary?” I asked.  “Where were all her other fans that day?”

Then Larry reminded me, “Amy was an ordinary lady who happened to do extraordinary work.  She was the best kind of person.”

He was right.  For that, I am grateful.