Monday, May 31, 2004

Return of the Ring - an essay on the decline of moral conscience

In the spring of '95 I was an expectant teacher. I was also expecting my first child. Quite unexpectedly, at a routine pre-natal check up I was found to have "high blood pressure" As I look back, it is hard to imagine how any expectant 36 week gestation female could have done what I did and not have " all the symptoms of pre-eclampsia" The result of this was that I was hospitalised and was therefore unable to return to my job and not least, my students. I missed my farewell parties and the opportunity to say good-bye.

Some weeks later some students came to call. They asked me if I would teach them. They needed preparation for their GCSE examinations in Science. They missed me and were not so doing well with my replacement. A total of six old pupils re-united to form one of what became four teaching groups. My own tutoring business was born.

I had realised two lifetime ambitions: to be a parent and to work for myself. I was earning half my salary for four hours work a week.

In order to teach I had to organise baby-sitters. I had no shortage of offers from students. Reliable good people, with great testimonials.... my own. What a memorable time. With hindsight the Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter of '95 were worthy of celebration. No time since has been so sweet.

Then came the Spring of '96. I had been teaching my classes regularly and effectively and enjoying my work. I was free from bureaucratic, governmental interference and more especially, free from the directives of Senior Management.
I was relieved to be free. I had seen the decline in the character of the average high school student over a long time frame. I would not say the ability; just the character. I remember commenting to my brother at one time that I was concerned about how well this current cohort of individuals would be equipped to work. They were part of the "I want it now" generation. They had been cradled to believe that they could do anything, achieve anything and they actually believed they deserved it. It was a time when everything was possible and the tide of rationality was low. No-one was ever told they just hadn't quite made the grade. The absurdity of it all became all too visible when examination results staggered through letterboxes in mid August. This was a generation of entitlement. The let down would be great.

I always laugh when I think back. My brother told me that I shouldn't worry. He said "imagine them working with each other and take comfort in that". After the high school intake of '82 something started to change. My instincts made me feel uneasy.

Tuesday evening at four o'clock six students appeared at my door. They always brought extra file paper for me. They boldly told me they had taken it from the English department. They thought I'd be grateful. I wasn't. "You know, what you did is tantamount to stealing. The paper isn't yours to give". The drill commenced.

After the class Karen asked me if I would allow her to study Andrew and work with him in order for her to complete a child-care assignment. I asked her what she needed. Naturally I was willing to help. We planned for her to start the following week. She was to bath and play with Andrew and make notes on his favourite toys, the words he was using and specifically what puzzles he could solve.

The fateful day arrived. I had a new baby-sitter. I considered myself lucky to have found her. As a result of events that evening, aspersions would be cast and I would doubt myself.

At 5.00 pm. the students left. Karen stayed as planned. We fed Andrew and discussed the dietary requirements of infants. We proceeded to bath time. Always expect the unexpected. Andrew did an enormous whopper in the bath and I had to get him out of there! I was distracted, apologetic and disoriented. Karen was behind me, quiet and practically invisible. I remember feeling relieved that she hadn't overreacted and was particularly grateful that she took it so well.

A little after 7.00 pm. we said goodnight.

In the morning I went into the bathroom to put on my mascara. Something was wrong. Something was missing. My Garrards 18-carat gold diamond encrusted elephant band ring, a gift from my mother, was missing from the shelf. I searched on the floor. I called to Kevin and asked him if he'd moved it. He hadn't. I knew in an instant Karen had taken it.

I called the school and asked for Karen's timetable. I asked Kevin to stay home for an hour while I went to the school. I got all the information I needed easily. No questions asked.
I went to the school and found the class. Ironically it was a child development class taught by my friend Fiona. She was delighted to see me. It wasn't a social visit.

I glanced at Karen who was totally unaware of my presence. I approached her. I saw my ring on her finger. I claimed it as my own. Her face contorted. She was pleased to see me. She was shocked to see me. She was caught red handed. Someone unplugged her circulatory system. I did that. She turned white and then grey. I'd never seen this shade of grey before.

We left the classroom. I asked her why she had taken it. She said that she had found it in her bag when she had returned home. Then why had she kept it? Why was she wearing something which was not hers? She never admitted to stealing it. She saw it and liked it and wanted it. She took it.

She even had the audacity to suggest the baby sitter had put it in the bag. There was zero chance of that. It made me wonder at the possibility though.

I kept waiting for an admission of guilt and an apology. I consulted with the parents. They were not totally convinced of her guilt. She had "found it in her bag" after all. That was what she had said. Some parents are blind to the faults of their offspring. This is only to the detriment of the child in the long term. A trait of the society at that time was to find someone else to blame. No-one accepted responsibility for anything. If something happened you didn't like, then it was easier to find another party to blame than to accept the fault as your own.

While Andrew was covered in crap and I was wrestling with shit, she had blatantly stolen it from behind my back. She never admitted her guilt and I believe I didn't serve her well.

With hindsight I should have involved the police. I should have had her interrogated. I should have facilitated her therapy and maybe have done some good. Instead, I was concerned that she would have a criminal record. I didn't go to the police. I waited in vain for an apology. I even kept teaching her, thinking she would tell the truth eventually. She never did. This memory reminds me that when I left the teaching profession I was relieved to go. I saw signs that filled me with unease. Forget about being taught the academics- the children weren't being taught the difference between right and wrong anymore. A moral conscience is not inherited it is learned.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Will termination be as hard?

To quickly summarize: It took nearly four months for us as a family to secure health coverage by Kaiser Permanente. We applied for family coverage: two adults and two children. I was rejected because I had seen a doctor too many times in one year and had minor height weight variation. My husband's application was lost in the system but the children were put on a policy. The youngest aged 6 at the time was the policy holder and was responsible for the bills.

I had to challenge my rejection which took two months. I had not seen a doctor for four years until I wisely (or so I thought at the time) decided to have a "well woman" check up. My doctor did some tests and wanted to do more tests and so the referrals kept coming. I won't say any more, other than all the tests came back OK except for one... a slightly borderline high glucose result from which I got an erroneous type 2 diabetes diagnosis. All my other tests showed that the diagnosis was incorrect. An Hb test which tracks the amount of glucose attached to the red cells gave me a very very low score and my tri-glycerides which were about as low as they could be. A type two diabetic has very high readings of both these values. Stress had caused my elevated glucose. It was easier to diagnose the obvious than to look at the whole picture. I had convinced Kaiser Permanente that I was not a high risk health liability. They liked that. I'd shown I was interested in preventative medicine.

Over the course of the next couple of months we received four "Kaiser Permanente "Welcome" boxes. We received eight "How to choose a doctor" brochures. Myself and the children were billed separately. My husband's application was lost in the system. He had to reapply. He did and was accepted. We then had to cancel the other policies. How easy do you think that was? The bills were astronomical. We tried to pay using on-line banking. The money left our account but was not acknowledged by Kaiser.

It seemed to me that the system was designed to fail the members. They just got everything wrong. I think that you have to try very hard to get everything wrong. I don't think it happens accidentally. Are people worried about losing their jobs so errors are built into the system?

A week or so ago I heard that Kaiser Permanente had recently cremated a man by mistake. They didn't know who he was, although he had full ID. They said the body was unclaimed. They could have looked him up in their computer and seen his Kaiser Permanente account number and contacted his family.

As soon as I read this story I knew cancellation of the coverage was imminent. I was waiting for the new company benefits package to kick in. For a brief moment in time we would enjoy "double coverage" Imagine the wrangling over who would pay for what in the event of anyone actually being ill.

Today we tried to cancel. I had made enquiries earlier in the week about how to do it. A fax had to be sent to a specific number with all the information and signed by all parties covered. Wouldn't you know it - they gave me the wrong fax number. My husband noticed by chance that the fax log registered the fax as undeliverable. Luckily, he managed to get some on-line help at 4.30 pm on a Friday before Memorial Day Weekend. He was given another number with three different digits. No no no! I did not write the original number down wrong and make three mistakes. Its not something I do a lot.... make mistakes that is!

Bearing in mind we had to cancel the policy by June 1st to save nearly $700, we were cutting it fine. Today is May 28th 2004 and Monday is Memorial Day. Tuesday is June 1st.

We received confirmation that the fax had been sent. I mailed an original today dated 5/28/04 to the billing address which cost $13.95 for next day delivery. We think we have cancelled our coverage. We would like to know that the coverage has been cancelled. We expect to be billed for June and receive threatening letters for non-payment of the same.

On June 1st I will fax a copy of the fax confirmation along with the receipt of postage and a copy of the on-line delivery confirmation. I will keep sending the same until someone rings me up!

We have not seen a doctor or used a service in the eight month coverage period. We have spent nearly $5,000.

Monday, May 24, 2004

One man's bully is another man's friend

Anika was nearly thirteen years old when I met her for the first time. I taught her for nearly two years and at age 14 she displayed the characteristic self-consciousness of her age. I had always been impressed with her vivacious personality and her curious approach to her science work. In recent weeks I had observed a withdrawn shyness and reticence. She was reluctant to participate in lessons. On this Friday afternoon as she entered the science laboratory I was struck by her appearance. She had dark circles beneath her eyes and displayed a world-weary lethargy. She sat alone, which struck me as unusual. In her isolation I observed a thin fragile figure who seemed only to vaguely resemble her former self. Her weight loss over recent weeks I had put down to her age. Many girls around 14 lose ‘puppy fat’. With hindsight I realise that Anika hadn’t had any ‘puppy fat’ to lose.

The lesson began and the practical details were conveyed to the class. We were prepared for the investigation; one last detail needed to be attended to. Who would work with whom? There was no reason on this day to allocate groups; these children knew each other and I thought no more of my decision to let them work in friendship groups.
When the indication was given to begin, I mingled with the children, guiding them to the various pieces of equipment and materials they would need, counting out objects when and where necessary.

Amidst the the bustle of the practical session I caught sight of Anika sitting alone with a puddle of tears on the bench, her hands covering her face as if to make her invisible. I delegated my rôle to a student and approached Anika.
I had little idea of the consequences of my question “Is anything the matter?” A very quiet defeated voice replied “No-one wants to work with me.” For a moment I surveyed the room, unable to take in the fact that the rest of the class were unaware of Anika’s anguish and misery. Or were they? This was 9CS. I had taught them for nearly two years. They were a favourite class. I thought I knew them well, I liked them.

I realised something was going on which I was not privy to, and it was my responsibility to find out what it was and find a resolution. In an instant I gave the instruction to put away the equipment. This Friday afternoon science lesson was postponed. I had not prepared for this eventuality. I had no notes to refer to. For this lesson there were no lesson plans.

I rearranged the students’ seating slightly. I separated them out, giving each a little space from one another, and introduced the subject. “Something has occurred to me just now which I think needs our attention.”
I asked the class if anyone had ever been bullied or ‘picked on’. Many hands were thrust in the air. It was obvious that there were people here who had stories to tell. I asked the most eager students if they would describe their experiences. What had happened? How did it make them feel? Did anyone help them? I was surprised at the number of children who felt they had at one time or another been bullied. Everyone seemed to understand the word. No-one asked what I meant by ‘bullying’. Throughout it all, Anika remained silent.
I then went on to ask the question “Are any of you bullies?” No hands went up. I had a class of victims and no perpetrators. “How strange” I said. “Research shows that some people who are bullies have been bullied themselves.”

I then asked the class if anyone had taken any notice of Anika recently. I relayed my observations about weight loss and exhaustion, and specifically how her ability to work had been undermined.
“Every one of you who comes to my class has a right, an equal opportunity to learn. Unfortunately it appears that some of you in this class think you have the right to make Anika’s life so miserable that she is not fit to fully participate in lessons. Today I observed that no-one would partner her.”
“Would anyone like to be Anika’s partner?” I asked.

There was a silence, and then two girls put their hands up, and said very sincerely “Anika can work with us.” I answered that it was a kind offer which I’m sure would be appreciated.
I then asked the class if any of them considered themselves cowards. Naturally no-one did.
I said that there was a very strong correlation between bullies and cowards, and that it was very likely that there were bullies and cowards in the class, based on my observations of Anika.

In a very determined tone, I asked for the people who had been making her life a misery to own up. After a silence I followed the question with an observation that we really did have cowards in the class, and what was more the whole class was behaving in a cowardly fashion.
After some moments, three hands went up. These boys had succumbed to the peer pressure and were admitting their parts.

I asked them in turn “Why?” They couldn't articulate why. They didn’t know why.
“Are you sorry?” I asked. A resounding “Yes” came back. It had started as a ‘bit of fun’. These boys decided to exclude her from activities, encouraging others to do the same. If anyone had thought not to it was certainly easier to go along with the game. Not one of them had any real notion of the consequence of their actions.

“Sometimes,” I said, “children are made to feel so desperate that they kill themselves.” I referred to cases of schoolboy and girl hangings due to bullying. I wasn’t being dramatic; I felt the seriousness of what was happening in their own midst had to be seen for what it was. They were all responsible for it in some way. People who ignored it were as guilty.
The lesson was drawing to a close. I faced each of the perpetrators and asked if they were ready to apologise to Anika. To my amazement they were truly sorry. One boy even cried as he saw Anika’s face. A wave of relief spread across her face.

The bell rang; the lesson ended. It was time to leave. After all, it was the weekend. However, no-one was in a hurry to leave. The stools went on bench tops, and slowly the pupils advanced towards the door. Individual groups approached the bench wanting to explain what had happened and exonerate themselves. Some offered to have Anika in their group, even though they had not really been close to her. They wanted to help. They were sorry they hadn’t noticed. Some were sorry they had gone along with it and were relieved it wasn’t them. Monday came and a new rejuvenated Anika thanked me. Her hair was clean and her eyes had sparkle. She said I had changed her life.

This learning experience was one of the most memorable ones in my fifteen year career. I learnt that some situations require spontaneity and a flexible approach. It also reinforced my belief that a good mentor knows her students. The successful resolution of this situation came about because the students cared for and respected me. I always endeavour to understand my pupils, and I work with them to forge good relationships and respect. I pay attention to detail and I care passionately about the welfare and well-being of my students and through my work I impart values of decency and trust, and the value of human relationships. I never underestimate the importance of the learning environment and the impact classroom dynamics have on students’ ability to learn. Providing the students with outstanding curriculum material presented and taught in an accomplished way is sometimes not enough.

The Emperor's New Jewels

It struck me to ponder and wonder on the question "What the new currency will be for those among us that are "Sneetches on the Beaches"? Diamonds are at bargain basement prices. Anyway, here you have it ... not news to those who create and market, but to the rest of us pundits... the PEARL IS THE NEW DIAMOND!! Or Clear and sparkling is er... the new white/cream/black/pink! (Black is not brown or grey and never will be!) Interestingly, diamonds like pearls, have similar colours.

Tiffanys opening all those pearl stores has to be a giveaway... Pearls can be graded just like diamonds...
Two draw backs.. (i) pearls are very fragile.. the body secretions of acids in sweat affect them, they hate perfume and lotions... and (ii) they have no industrial commercial value like diamonds have. Let's see who falls for the marketing. When I sold jewelry to a discerning clientele, pearls were not popular. Like opals, people were superstitious about them. "Pearls for tears" is what I remember! Let's see how the media campaign can change our perceptions.

Watch and Learn

Today when I was watching Larry King Live, I had an epiphany..... Frasier (aka Kelsey Grammer) built a career on the life and work of Tony Randall. Frasier talks like Tony Randall, acts like Tony Randall and even incorporates Tony Randall, the real person into the "Frasier" character. Tony was an opera fan in real life.... Tony Randall, died on May 23rd 2004. He was aged 84. Old enough for no-one to really remember him, but good enough to be copied. I wonder if the TV station just wanted a copy act or whether Kelsey saw an opportunity to be "popular" and styled himself on the man. I'm interested in watching re-runs of "The Odd Couple" just to make comparisons. "This old heart of mine" was a hit for the Isley Brothers and I heard it on the radio the other day by a "newie". The time frame fits......... 60's, 70's and "naughties"...... 30 year gap. I thought Rod Stewart was great until I heard the Isley Brothers... Anyway all this time I thought Frasier was unique and brilliant, only to realise he was just a "cover"

* "This old Heart of Mine" by Rod Stewart was the first and last single I ever bought twice!! I lost the first one in Boots the Chemist in Middlesbrough in 1975. It was released on the album "Atlantic Crossing" .... er did that in '98