Gone nuclear in the affluenza academic arms race

So the first offspring of the Trackball of Truth (Minnie Trackball?) has entered public school and as a result, Mrs. Trackball and I are getting one heck of an education. We knew we were in for it, but didn't realize how badly. Haughty teachers, check. Overly-protected kids, check. Uncommunicative bureaucracy, check. We had both gone through it as kids ourselves.

But academic doping? Insider trading for teachers? Selective disability advantages? Geographical high school selection considerations? Over-maturation strategies?

In areas of the country caught in the grip of a horrible ongoing affluenza outbreak, education status (as in my kid is smarter than yours) is a bigger deal than the car you drive or the clothes you wear. The rush to get your kid into a primo elementary, middle, high school, gifted and talented track and then college is a damn near obsession for many apparently mature adults, usually starting somewhere in the preschool years.

For those who grew up in less cosmopolitan areas of the country, like us Trackballs, where attending a good college was not a deeply desired parental goal, this can come as a big shock. As I'll detail later, "My Tatooine" was a place where college was either a ju-co or a 4-6 year kegger. Only the weird kids with AP credits went to brainy schools and they were few and far between (me and the Mrs.). And for K-12, parental involvement in the education substance stopped at the school bus door and maybe forcing you to opt out of sex ed for religious reasons.

So we ventured forth into the land to find a place where there were educated people who actually valued education, knowledge for knowledge sake and liked going to libraries and bookstores. We wanted the two of us and any children we had to grow up in an environment where learning and academic achievement were honored. And the schools in Affluenza are excellent and the kids are doing stuff at least two years ahead of what our schools expected 20 years ago.

What we found, however, was the other extreme. Once you're into the school system, you are in the loop on how it all works and the tips and tricks to get your kid to the next level.

Fasten your cap and gown, here we go.

The over-maturation manuever. Minnie was born right at the beginning of the school year calendar. So when to start kindergarten was an issue. For me, with a summer birthday, your age was always your grade + 5. Except here in the state of Affluenza, though, sending a 5 yr old to kindergarten is quickly becoming akin to child abuse. At first we thought it was because people wanted their kid to be the bigger, stronger, more mature kid on grade-specific sports teams.

No, no. Our school tracks kindergarteners academically and they believe that a child won't be down-shifted to a slower group. So if you get into the advanced track in kindergarten, she's good to go for the gifted and talented program (GT) through high school. And that is the good college track. So parents wait till the kid is 6 before packing him off. There's no max age for kindergarten. And when 'all' the parents are doing this, everyone else follows suit. Except the Trackballs.

But holding off on kindergarten till 6 is not enough. They do assessments on kids as they come in, so you better get junior all prepped to do double digit addition and read independently before they step into first grade. Preschool will only do so much, so you send the kid to private school kindergarten first when she is 5. Then have her repeat it at 6 in public school. For older grades, use academic summer camps to put your kid ahead of the others or just send them to Sylvan during the school year for extra prep. Just like the never-ending campaign in politics, cram time is now a year round thing and not the week before the SAT and finals.

Insider trading. But that may not be enough. All teachers are not created equal. You don't want Susie to essentially lose a year of math progress in K or 8th grade because the teacher is a dud. Like the NFL Draft, you have to do some scout work each year.

So you volunteer at the school (yeah, moms, drop those jobs or you won't even be allowed to chaperone on field trips, much less get the insider info). You volunteer a lot. Like several times a week. You become the teacher or administration's best friend.

And you find out about which teachers are good, okay and bad, which ones are getting the advanced kids, the on grade level kids and the remedial and special ed groups. Then you either directly or indirectly lobby to get your kid with the star teacher. If your school has been traumatized by over-involved parents demanding specific classroom assignments, like ours has, and has adopted a policy forbidding such requests and underhandedness, then you have to get all stealthy about it. More strategy has been pored into pulling this off than the entire anti-terrorism effort in the U.S., I can assure you.

Selective disability advantage. You don't think that after all that work that affluenzaed parents were going to let the kid make or break the education experience themselves, do you? You can't just get your kid into GT with a height/weight/age advantage and the best teacher and just hope for the best. There is an entire zero sum war for school resources to win. You can score extra resources for your GTer by getting them classified as learning disabled. They get an individual development plan, extra attention from teachers and possibly more time to take tests. Stigma? Watch the stigma get into Harvard.

Academic doping. Then there is the actual academic performance. It's student eat student out there and your kid needs that extra edge when it comes to filling in bubbles with a number two pencil. Yes, I mean having him or her take performance-enhancing drugs such as amphetamines. They are perfectly legal, there are no rules prohibiting them and they do help your kid think better. Apparently there are no long term consequences to the kids health, although I am doubtful. All you do is go to the pediatrician and claim the kid ADHD or ADD. Yeah, that kid sitting quietly in the exam room crunching quadratic equations needs a shot of speed.

Geographical high school selection considerations. So what is a parent to do? Compete in this environment? The problem is that having junior graduate from Affluenza High actually will hurt their chances of getting into a top-notch college. They only take so many over -achievers from the same place at a state flagship or the Ivys, no matter how good they are. You would be better off living in some less advanced place so you're kid can be the big fish in a redneck pond.

Of course, this alternative has its own problems. Namely, will your child resist the anti-education environment of such a place and still excel? The entire culture of East Lowskill may encourage them to maybe not even complete high school, or graduate with either a meth habit or a baby in tow. And will the dearth of AP and IB courses and meaningful activities (hanging out in the Burger King parking lot only goes so far on a college application) doom your child more certainly than not becoming a speed fiend? It's a tough call.

The moral angle. It's one thing to prepare your children to be competitive in school and the world in general. But almost all of these techniques are morally shady if not outright cheating. Schools need to crack down on this stuff. No amount of charter schools, vouchers or hot lunches is going to level the playing field for poor kids if the rich ones are dropping uppers on test day. There's also a nasty lesson for children here - do whatever it takes to get ahead, blow right past any ethical issues and grab everything in the school system that you can. What's next, room mothers knee-capping the other smart kids on test day? Or Harvard students who have run this rat race getting their cheated outed finally?

Wait that's already happened.

The Rites of Spring and its Wrongs

Easter is nearly here. I don't like Easter. Never have. It's not a coherent holiday of any sort. A christian religious holiday has tried to supplant pagan and Jewish springtime holidays and the result is a pastel-shaded mess of a broken chocolate egg on a horny rabbit's head.

For centuries, the rites of spring were celebrated by nearly every culture. These celebrations were nearly all centered around the spring equinox, the return of flora and fauna and fertility.

Yeah, that's right, sex. Spring is when mother nature gets it on. As any sufferer of pollen allergies can attest to, we're getting swamped by plant ejaculate. Most ancient rituals had to do with boosting or encouraging plant fertility to bring in a good harvest, which of course was key to survival. Somewhere deep in the memory banks I also remember reading that pagans in the U.K. also had orgies to celebrate the spring equinox, but I don't remember where I read this. Planting seeds, indeed.

When the christians came along with the Jesus crucifixation commemoration, they tried to hijack not only the rituals, but the stories. Fertility gods that were born of virgins and died and reborn annually were recast with Jesus in the central role. In the early days, christianity, like the pagan religions it was competing with, had to absorb and adopt to the popular myths of the time to appeal to a mass audience. Nothing wrong with that: just read Joseph Campbell if you don't believe me.

So the bunny is a sign of fertility, the chocolate is an aphrodiasiac, the egg signifies the ancient myth that an egg could balance on it's end at the equinox (and another fertility sign), and the baskets and pastel colors are just spring time foofery. And it's all been superficially sanitized of sexual meaning for kids. But it still creeps me out.

Plus it all hits a wrong chord. Sex, death, resurrection and pastel colors don't go together. Can't we keep the sex and (sanitized love for kids) on Valentine's Day and the wedding/prom season and the death and resurrection on Halloween and Cinco de Mayo? And rabbits are fuzzy little vermin that are the enemies of gardeners, plant life and farmers. Why are we celebrating them when trees and flowers are coming back?

If spring is mainly a celebration of life returning and plants growing, why not have a blooming flower as the main symbol instead? Give each other plants and flowers for Easter? Given that Earth Day is right around the corner and the green St. Patty's day is right behind us, wouldn't this make a perfect melding of seasonally appropriate traditions to have a green holiday focused on life's resurgence? The entire gardening industry could get into the thing.

Happy Spring!

When religion and morality collide

The hardball lobbying job underway by the Catholic Church to not extend the statute of limitations for bringing child sex abuse lawsuits in Maryland and other places has wheeled the Trackball around to the Gordian Knot that is religion and morality.

The Catholic Bishops are going all out to stop the flood of lawsuits by children molested by church officials over the last bunch of decades. Their record on this is as fragrant as that of Halliburton facing an overcharging scandal.

Except. This. Is. About. Protecting. Child. Sex. Offenders.

Who happen to wear clerical collars. And the organization that enabled their reign of terror.

Is there a shred of morality anywhere in their behavior on this issue? Countersuing the victims, accusing the parents of incompetence, questioning the legality of criminal prosecution, covering up the scandal, and pooh-poohing parents' concerns over their children's safety in the rectory.

Note the effect that the public morality has already had on the church. It is not insignificant that public outcry has wrenched the church to the position of: Yeah, yeah, we're sorry that it happened, blah blah blah, but we shouldn't have to lose money over the whole thing! This is a clear case of religion and morality in conflict.

Shouldn't morality stem from religious teachings, you say? Oh, that spin is far off from the truth. Religion, like patriotism, has been misused in the past and present to house blatantly immoral acts. The gentle and kind statements of various religious founders generally don't match the actions. Public morality often runs way ahead of the religious orthodoxy. Look at civil rights, where the majority of religious leaders in America were either on the sidelines or quoting the Bible about the virtues of segregation. So too with the abolition of slavery, the rise of democracy, women's equality, birth control, the spread of literacy and acceptance of homosexuals as equal citizens (still waiting on that one, by the way). A couple of right thinking and vocal ministers in a movement doesn't offset the silent majority.

Lest you think that I'm singling out the Catholic Church, every religion has these kind of moments. Hardly any are as hierarchical as the CC, so it's easier to use them as an example. However, the lack of outrage over Shiite/Sunni slaughter in Iraq is a good one for Islam, Israeli treatment of Palestinians, Hindu violence in India, white protestants on civil rights in the South, and Buddhism-fueled torture and trampling of human rights in Japan's history. And they all have lost the moral path when it comes to proper treatment of women, although the sins here are of varying degree.

Oh, wait, you guys, the secular humanists, the religious humanists, freethinkers, atheists and agnostics who are all smiling at one another, you have transgressions that need to be reversed too. You are the ones charged with protecting morality when the organized religions don't and you have been derelict in your duty. The biggest failure has been not being vocal enough about a morality that transcends any religious dogma. The kind which people of all faiths know and understand - that a person should not be harmed or humiliated, that he or she has a set of rights that dictate that he or she should be treated well and protected when defenseless.

Without that kind of defense, the others will try to tie morality completely to their gods, making it null and void when their day to day prophets find it advantageous to disregard it. Those day to day prophets are human too, and prone to err when their self interest collides with their advanced ethical training. When such a thing happens, people of all faiths should strike back and wrench the errant religion back on to the moral course, like has been done through the ages.