Thursday, January 30, 2014

We're the Hungry Ones

So today forty kids at an elementary school had their food stolen. You can read about it here if you like child-free articles about children. This article from the Salt Lake Tribune starts off with this paragraph:

Up to 40 kids at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City picked up their lunches Tuesday, then watched as the meals were taken and thrown away because of outstanding balances on their accounts — a move that shocked and angered parents.

Oh, did it now? I thought a move like that would shocked and anger the kids. The ones eating it. A parent and spokesperson were interviewed in this article but no children. I'm glad that they bothered to write an article concerning children, but when you do that, it should be about children. Yes, it's the parents' fault for not paying the lunch money. Yes, it's the child nutrition manager's fault for deciding to confiscate them. Yes, it's the lunch workers' fault for carrying out the order. But children are the only ones affected here. If we're important enough to eat we're important enough to speak too.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ageism in School

It's my first day of fifth grade. I walk in and recognize about half the faces. These are the people I've shared lunch tables and playgrounds with since kindergarten. The others are half-familiar. I've walked by them on the way to the bus, sat in front of them in assemblies, but never actually interacted with them. The sixth graders.
We're the only classroom of our kind in the school. A mixed class of fifth and sixth graders. Ms. Rogers, a teacher some of them have had before, tries to explain this elaborate seating chart she's cooked up. We're arranged alphabetically and by gender. Sounds complicated.
"Can't you just organize us as fifth graders and sixth graders?" asks one of the older girls. Jacqueline, once I get to know her.
"We're not fifth and sixth graders in here."
Somehow, she made it work. Not just the seating chart but everything else. We lived in the best of both worlds. The sixth graders got to repeat field trips that should've been a once in a lifetime opportunity. We all went to fifth grade lunch but didn't come in from recess until the sixth grade whistle blew. There was absolutely no segregation. We learned out of the same textbooks, which is odd now that I look back on it. Shouldn't the sixth graders have been more intelligent, more educated, more capable than us? They weren't, we learned.
We should've been in different classes, different hallways, different lunches, different lives. If we lived back east we would've gone to different schools. But we learned to forgot those differences. And moreimportantly, we built friendships.
When I went into middle school I already had friends to guide me around. That helped. Because as a brand new seventh grader, I was no longer queen of the hill like the year before. And I wasn't the equal student I'd been in Ms. Rogers' class.
I learned to keep my head down. I learned not to mention my age. I learned to sit on my backpack to look taller. I learned that if an eighth grader cheated in math class, I should ignore it, because I was only a sevvie and didn't know any better.
What hurt me most wasn't the bullying. It was that next year, I watched ex-sevvies turn around and do it to the new students. Or they outright ignore them. People walk past their camp friends, their neighborhood friends, their dance friends without making eye contact. School isn't the place for that.
It was in eighth grade that I really started to think about ageism. That I realized there's something wrong about looking down on someone just because they were born a few months later than you. That people feel so beaten down by the bullying and ostracizing that they feel the need to pick on someone for not being the same size. I spent my first year of middle school just waiting to become an eighth grader so I wouldn't feel inferior. So I wouldn't be inferior.
But when the new school year rolled around, I was no different. There would always be people older and there would always be someone behind me. That it was my decision to let age impact the way I viewed other people. The way I viewed myself.
School is where ageism begins. Where we develop the need to be bigger, stronger, older. Where we learn to look down on others to feel better about ourselves. This is why, later on, adults believe teenagers are inferior. They learned to think this way when they were teenagers themselves.
Don't ever let yourself believe that you are inferior. To older grades, to high school graduates, to adults. Age will always change. You can't stop that. But you choose what it means to you.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


There are 77,600,000 girls around the world who can't attend school.
But that won't stop these girls in Jakatra from trying. I guess I'm not allowed to complain about my eight minute commute from home to school now. Seriously, someone fix that bridge.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Let's Talk

Last week I was at Costco with my mom when we ran into one of her old friends. After chatting for a while, he turned to me and asked, "Hi! How old are you?"
Not how are you. How old.
I asked him, "Why is that your first question? How old are you?"
"Forty nine yesterday."
"In that case, I'm seventeen."
He said it good naturedly but didn't bother talking to me after that. During the ride home, my mom asked why I'd been "snippy" and "easily offended." I don't think I was snippy. But I was certainly offended.
Trust me, I had plenty of snippy answers lined up. "I'm seventeen and female and white and I live above the poverty line. And I thought the census wasn't supposed to come around for a few more years." "I'm seventeen years old, five foot one, a hundred and twelve pounds, and I have brown hair.  "I prefer not to answer that." "541,209,600 seconds as of this morning." "Younger than you and that's all you care about."
Abilene and Mae Mobley from The Help
Two years ago I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. There's a scene where Abilene, Mae Mobley's nanny, teaches her to say "Mae Mobley three" instead of "Mae Mobley two." When you're little, she says, all anybody asks if how old you are and what your name is, so it's important to get it right.
As I read it I realized, guiltily, that I do this too. Three year olds don't have advanced linguistic skills. They're shy around strangers. They'll hold up three fingers to answer your question before ducking behind their mom's legs. And if they do want a conversation, what do you talk about? You don't go to school or work together. You don't like the same books and movies. Aside from being human beings on the same planet you have nothing else in common.
But people don't just do this with toddlers. I've caught myself asking eleven year olds this question. And adults use it as an ice breaker question only to abandon the conversation once they get an answer.
A few days ago I went to a party. The hostess's younger sister ran around and struck up conversations with the guests. One of them couldn't think of anything to say to her beyond, "How old are you, Naomi?" When she gave her answer, seven, the conversation dried up in a few seconds. It wasn't a good icebreaker question. It didn't teach her anything interesting about Naomi. It didn't open up a conversation. They had nothing else to say to each other.
I realized I could do better than that. I asked her what her favorite color was (blue) and her favorite movie (Frozen). She didn't mind answering my questions either-seven year olds don't find that sort of thing odd. Here I am having a decent conversation about Frozen's plot with a girl less than half my age.
You can have plenty of conversations with younger people if you make an effort. You can ask what school they go to, what they do for fun, if they've seen the latest big movie. When you actually care, you can always find something to talk about.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Secret Life of an Honors Student

It's 10:55 P.M. on a Sunday night. She knows better than to play music to keep herself awake. Her family will hear, and if they wake up, than means another lecture. She can't afford to waste that time. She's got an English essay due in eight hours, her science fair board isn't even started yet, and there's extra credit to do in math so she can bump her B+ up to something decent.
She sips her coke and sets it down atop her chemistry book, wary of how the papers are stacked. She spent three hours on that packet and can't afford to ruin it. Wait, was that due tomorrow? Or was it the science fair outline? She reaches for her phone to check but doesn't bother. All her friends are asleep at this hour. Asleep, or maybe curled up on the couch with a fuzzy blanket and the soft drone of the TV. She spies her jacket on the floor and wraps it around her legs. As if that will help.
She stares at the blinking cursor and tries to come up with an opening paragraph. When she looks again, it's 11:17. Eager for a distraction, she grabs the Tylenol from the first shelf of the medicine cabinet where she last left it. The bottle goes into her jacket pocket. She'll need it tomorrow in first period. You can't read the board with a migraine. On second thought, she'll take some now. And more coke.
Maybe they'll have a PowerPoint tomorrow in history, she thinks. She pulls her knees to her chest and lets the computer chair spin. That's a twenty minute nap. No, it's right before math. She needs that time to finish up problems seventeen through nineteen.
Math. Was that what she's working on? No, the essay first. Her eyes fall shut. The cursor blinks back.  She smashes her face into the keyboard in case that will help. Surprisingly, it doesn't. She raises her head and types a quick introduction sentence.
The coke is empty and her bladder is full. She takes her science folder into the bathroom and balances it on her knees. There. Four more electron diagrams dotted. She sets it on the counter and runs her hands under the water, barely noticing how hot it is. The water helps but doesn't do enough. She finds some nail scissors and runs the curved tip down her left wrist. She's careful not to draw blood. That would drip on the history packet. She simply needs a way to stay awake and there's no more coke.
Maybe she just needs motivation. She curls up on the tile with her head against the door. She thinks of those starving children in third world countries who make bricks to feed their families. Those children can't name the imports, exports, and demographic transition stage of their country. They don't have a quiz on Thursday. They'd swap places with her in an instant, she knows. She doesn't deserve to sulk like this, she knows. She should stop thinking and get back to working. She knows that.
What about her life? What's the worst thing that can happen to her? She goes to a mediocre college and doesn't graduate cum laude. She gets a job as a telemarketer or some other decent enough job instead of...what did she want to do again? Not law school, not medical school, not Yale or Harvard or Princeton. Just a nice expensive college so she has an excuse to apply for scholarships, keep her grades up, and study hard.
That's all she knows how to do.
Her phone chimes. Is that some valiant classmate texting her a homework reminder? Did she send that last text after all? No, it's her alarm. 6:03 A.M. Twenty seven minutes to finish her essay, run a comb through her hair, zip the jacket over her pajamas, and make it to the bus on time. Math. Yes, she can do math on the bus. She can do math anywhere.
Breakfast will come from the vending machine down the hall. Somewhere, somehow she'll find enough spare moments to finish everything. Then it's home on the bus again. Track until four, work until ten, and then her nocturnal day starts over again.
That's all she knows how to do.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

This Is What A Hero Looks Like

Three days ago, fifteen hundred people did not die. A school did not go up in flames. Thousands of families got to see their loved ones again. And it's all because of a guy called Aitazaz Hassan Bangash. He's fourteen years old, dead, and a hero. 
He went to Ibrahimzai School in Hangu, Pakistan. On Monday, most of the students were in a morning assembly, but Aitazaz couldn't go because he'd broken some rule or another. He was hanging out by the school gates with two friends when a man showed up and asked where the school was.
Aitazaz knew something was wrong. Maybe because the guy was wearing a school uniform. Maybe because he looked too old to be a student. Maybe because the school was right there and he still needed directions.
Then he saw the detonator.
His friends ran away. But Aitazaz stayed behind. They later told reporters they saw Aitazaz throwing rocks at the wannabe suicide bomber. When that didn't work, Aitazaz tackled him. The bomber panicked and set off his vest.
One boy dead. But because of him, an entire school gets to live. Wait another week or two and some other tragedy will dominate the news-a bombing, an earthquake, a disease outbreak-the kind of thing that makes you hang your head and wonder how there can be so much suffering in the world. But it doesn't always have to be like that. Sometimes all it takes is one ninth grader to stop a tragedy.
 Aitazaz is my favorite kind of hero. He's not a soldier. He's not a politician. He didn't do this because he's supposed to. He's the kind of guy who steps up because he's the only one who can save everyone. No matter the cost.
I can only wish I would be able to do the same thing if the situation called for it.
I can only wish we all would.

You can follow updates on twitter with #aitazaz or #onemillion aitazaz.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Youngest Victims

Jessica Ridgeway is dead.

Wondering why? I don't feel like talking about this. Here's your link. All I'm going to say here is that her killer struggled for several years with pornography addiction. And now Jessica is dead because of it.
Even if adults were the only people who could access pornography, it still affects the young. We're the rape victims. The corpses in remote mountain ditches. And sometimes we're the models and actors.
Or we're the addicts. Even when porn only portrays women and men, even if anti-porn software keeps out most of the hardcore videos, even if you have decent parents, you can still stumble across porn. And once you're hooked it's hard to pull back.
It's one thing to resist temptation when you believe you're fighting against something evil. Murder, for instance, is wrong no matter how old you are. But when you're told something's only bad for you, and only for a few years until you cross a birthday, something like beer or sex or cigarettes, it's hard to believe there's anything wrong with it. Why not do it now? 
Back to the victims now. Statistics are hard to come by, but I found one article that estimates number of underage prostitutes in the United States as 15,000. Now, let's do some math. If there are that many they can't all be passing as adults. There must be a market for juvenile sex. But how much of a market? Let's assume each of those girls (and boys) gets at least one new customer a week. 52 in a year, 15,000 of them, that means 780,000 pedophiles are walking around. Even if that number is half its say, that's still too many.
I've mentioned before on this blog that I hate the word adult. How can a word that means responsible also mean dirty? Why do we use it as a happy little euphemism for porn? Adult videos. Adult programming. Adult content.
This "adult" stuff can ruin the lives of young people from both sides. Sure, not every porn addict ends up raping and dismembering neighborhood girls. But it's one step in that direction. And a step we need to stop taking.
As research for this post, I got on the school computers and spent a few minutes googling things I knew would lead to soft pornographic photos. You'd be surprised what you can find in simple wikipedia links. It disgusts me that a system that blocks facebook and stupid little game sites can't keep away the things that really harm people. Better software is not the answer. Parental restrictions are not the answer. You can always find a way around those.
What we need is raised awareness about the affect porn has on people of all ages. It's not just an issue for horny old men. Porn damages everyone, no matter what your age or role in its consumption is.
And until we realize that, there will always be girls like Jessica.