A Walk to the Lake

Kavi and I walked to the lake the first evening and just hung out there for a while. I asked her if she’d still hang out with her mom in a few years, or if she would be too cool for that. Kavi said I was pretty cool, so she didn’t think she’d ever be too cool to hang out with me. We’ll see what she thinks when she’s sixteen. 🙂 Still, it’s nice to know my teen thinks I’m cool.

I slept terribly the whole time I was at the camp, which was the only downside. I’m honestly not sure what to do about that — the cabin is air-conditioned, we stacked up the thin mattresses to make them thicker, I don’t think I was physically uncomfortable, I just couldn’t seem to get to sleep either night. Slept maybe 3 hours each, even though I’d been pretty physically exerted, which is terrible; I was kind of a wreck on Friday as a result. Maybe it was just a fluke; hope so.

Still, glad we went. One funny bit was that I had a board meeting on Thursday, so I closed myself into the small room (there are two rooms in the large cabins at Camp Bullfrog), hot-spotted my laptop to a phone, and attended the meeting.

Technically, apparently, you’re not allowed to attend board meetings remotely while you’re on vacation, but it’s allowed if you’re doing work travel. I actually did quite a bit of work earlier that day (e-mail, reading, writing), and I’m not sure I really know how to be ‘on vacation’ anymore without working. I work all the time.

I think the government needs to change their guidelines on whether you’re allowed to remotely participate in board meetings to fit the new era, especially post-COVID, now that remote work is so much more of a thing.

The board meeting was four hours, and somewhat frustrating in how it went, which I’ll post about another day; I don’t want to make myself annoyed again on my birthday. That might have contributed to the lack of sleep the second night, to be honest.

Maybe next time I go camping, I’ll try harder to completely unplug for a few days. Maybe.

We Owe Them

When COVID hit, a lot of us started referring to healthcare workers as heroes. I think some of that has gotten lost a little, in the year-and-a-half we’ve all collectively endured. We’re all tired, I know, but we can’t forget this. We owe them.

I have a lot of healthcare folks in my immediate family and close friends, and one aspect that I’d like to highlight is that healthcare isn’t the military — they didn’t actually sign up to be sent into a situation where they’d be putting themselves at daily risk of their actual lives. They didn’t sign up to put their families’ lives at risk either.

Every single healthcare worker — and every essential worker on the front lines — who *didn’t quit* when they absolutely could have, is a hero. They became heroes when they decided to stay, and when they reaffirmed that choice, day after weary and frightening day. And those who found it was breaking them, who had to step away after a time — they’re heroes too. Sometimes the battle breaks you; we should honor them as well.

I’m quite sure we’re going to see (are already seeing) a massive surge of healthcare and other essential workers (food service in particular, which I believe is the sector that’s had the most COVID deaths) leaving their professions in the next year, because it was just too much for them. Your doctor is quitting their job, or moving to a much smaller practice with fewer hours? That’s why. They got us through the crisis, and now they’re falling down.

And I know that in a lot of places, hospitals that were financially hard hit (some to the verge of closing) are now loading people up with more work, longer shifts, even cutting pay, which is surely adding terrible insult to heart-and-soul injury. These people deserve hero pay for those days worked, and access to serious trauma counseling for as long as they need afterwards. So many of them aren’t going to get that.

Here’s my ask — if you’re in a position to help build public support for essential workers and trauma recovery treatment, please do. Maybe that means speaking up at a community listening session. Maybe that means figuring out which elected officials are going to support that funding, and write them letters letting them know it’s a priority for you.

Maybe it just means being appreciative when you finally go to the doctor for that long-overdue check-up, and letting them know that you see them, you see what they did. Bring them some homemade cookies. Say thank you.

They took care of us; now they need us to take care of them.

*****

In addition, if you can — and I’ll note that I was in tears for a good segment of this, so I understand if it’s too much or too close right now — I’d like to ask you to watch this documentary, “The Surge at Mount Sinai.” It’s a little over an hour.

It features my sister, Dr. Mirna Mohanraj (Mir Mo Ga), a pulmonary/critical care doctor who was working in New York throughout the worst of this. She speaks so brilliantly and eloquently throughout this, she takes such tremendous care of her people, both staff and patients, I’m pretty much bursting with pride; my little sister has grown up to be one of the people I most admire in the world.

(Our youngest sister, Dr. Sharmila Mohanraj, isn’t in the documentary, but she is also amazing, an infectious disease doc in D.C. Props to her too! And while I’m doing shout-outs, props to our immigrant parents, Dr. Navaratnasingam Mohanraj and Jacintha Mohanraj, who apparently raised three daughters with overdeveloped senses of community service.)

You’ll also briefly meet Mirna’s husband, Gian Gandhi — and they don’t mention this in the documentary, but I have to shout out that Gian’s a healthcare economist at the U.N. and through the whole time Mirna was going in for direct patient care, he was working frantic long hours putting together funding to get millions upon millions of vaccines to developing nations around the world, which not incidentally, will help to stave off more variants like Delta developing. Gian’s kind of Superman, folks; he did more to save the entire planet than anyone else I know.

You’ll also meet my niece, Savreen, who was an adorable preschooler through all of this. She’s going to put a big smile on your face, because she is the cutest, and I am not biased about that at all.

It’s not a downer of a documentary, amazingly — the filmmakers chose to focus on stories of hope and survival, along with stories from ICU nurses, patient transporters, and all the vast healthcare team that came together in this battle. I recommend it to you all.

If you don’t have Discovery+, you can sign up for a free trial to watch this: https://www.discoveryplus.com/…/the-surge-at-mount…

Three Committees

School board meeting tonight; among other things, I’ve been assigned to (volunteered for) three committees in addition to regularly bimonthly meetings:

• Instruction
• Facilities (a new committee)
• Tradition of Excellence (honoring alumni who have been exceptionally successful in their fields)

I’m looking forward to digging in on instruction and facilities — both of which I have a strong interest in. Instruction, obviously, is a lot of my life. Facilities — between the gut renovation we did on our own 1885 Victorian, and the way in which function often follows form, paying close attention to facilities seems pretty critical in shaping what can be done in terms of instruction.

One project I’d worked on at the library was a facilities master plan — we’d just started that process when COVID hit, and we had to put it on hold. I’m hoping the new library board can get back to it soon; it’s something that really needs to be redone every decade or so, I suspect, as institutions and communities change their shapes and priorities.

An Increased Sense of Responsibility

It is so strange — ever since running for office and being elected, I feel this increased sense of responsibility. So when a tornado warning went off tonight, yes, I went to go check on the kids and decide with Kevin whether we needed to wake them and head to the basement…

…but I also felt like I had to go online and post to all the community forums I administer, spreading the word about the tornado watch, and then answering people’s questions and relaying info from the news sites.

I’m pretty sure being elected to the library board, or even to the school board, doesn’t actually make me responsible for making sure the community of 63,000 souls (52,000 in Oak Park and 11,000 in River Forest) is as safe as it can be during a tornado watch….but tell that to my subconscious.

(And after all, if not your elected officials, then who? It’s not as if we have a tornado czar around here.)

But the warning’s past, and now, I really have to wind down and get my subconscious to let me go to sleep. Everyone is fine, and tucked up in their beds. Nothing else needs to be managed and worried over tonight…

I Lost a Vote

So at the last board meeting, I lost a vote. This is the first time that’s happened to me while serving on a board — at the library, our votes were nearly always unanimous; I can only remember one time when one person voted against the rest (and he later said that he’d thought about it more, and decided we were right). School board is not going to be like that, I think.

I’m going to talk this out a little in the interests of transparency, and the hope that it helps clarify some things for both locals and others struggling with educational policy in the midst of a pandemic. This will be a little long.

I speak only for myself, not the Board as a whole or any other board members.

*****

The issue in question was brought to the table by ROYAL, the high school’s Black student activist group (https://www.facebook.com/royalOakPark/); they were pushing for a no-fail policy for this past year, along with various other things. Let me pause here and just say that I admire the students greatly for their efforts and activism, and I hope that they continue to speak their truths and advocate for change.

*****

TIMING NOTE: The timing was unfortunate. We were close to the end of the year when ROYAL raised the issue, which was also not long after the new board members (myself, Kebreab Henry, and returning (after a gap of a few years) board member Fred Arkin) were seated. We had less than a week to make this decision before seniors would be graduating; final grades for seniors had just been given, and we didn’t yet have final grades for the rest of the school.

Obviously, it would have been better to raise this issue much earlier in the process — I would say March / April 2020 for that semester, with similar considerations decided over the summer of 2020 for the academic year of 2020-2021.

That way, administration, teachers, students would all have known what to expect and been able to plan; one real problem with doing it now was that with it being so last-minute, a lot of people (teachers, admin, and at least some of the students) clearly felt blindsided.

*****

THE ISSUES ON THE TABLE: Regardless, administration brought this to the board table, and in the original agenda, raised three possibilities:

1) give no F’s (I think it was something along these lines, but I’m not positive of the specifics, because this item was pulled from the agenda after consulting with legal — there were some issues with it)

2) waive summer school tuition fees (either just for students engaged in credit recovery classes (whereby they can do the work to turn an F into a higher grade), or for all classes

3) waive the additional required classes for graduation that OPRF typically imposes (we can’t waive all of them because some core classes are required at the state level legally)

The administration’s recommendation was to not do 2 or 3. 1 had been pulled.

*****

There followed a lot of board discussion, and I want to commend all of my fellow board members for how seriously they took this. We convened an emergency meeting that Tuesday to discuss this issue, and we already had an administrative meeting on Wednesday to orient new board members and help create an effective team, along with the regular board meeting on Thursday, and two graduation ceremonies on Saturday. I’d say that was close to 20 hours of unpaid service, plus the time to read the packet materials. So I hope the community understands that we did all take this very seriously.

*****

CONVERTING F’s to NO CREDIT: I raised the question of whether we could convert F’s to NC (no credit). I’d spent some time researching what other high schools, colleges, and universities had done, and there was no standard practice, with strong arguments for many different approaches, but this certainly seemed a viable possibility.

That led to some long discussion, in part because the high school has not previously had a NC option, so it would be a significant change to add it. (But one that is within the board’s power.)

I had a lot of learning to do — among other things, I learned that at OPRF, they have a FX option, in which if a student earns an F, they have the opportunity to do credit recovery work, and if successful, the F is X’d out and completely replaced with the new grade. I think a lot of our parents aren’t aware of this, based on what I’m seeing on message boards, so I think we could stand to do better communication on the option. I don’t know how aware students are, but they should be fully informed on it too, if they aren’t.

The administration was arguing that since we already had the FX option (I may not be notating that correctly, since I just heard it said, but I’m pretty sure I have the way it functions down now), there wasn’t much point to adding NC. I disagreed. My arguments were:

– an “F” on your record affects your GPA, and will drag it down pointwise, whereas a NC is null — it’s as if you’d never signed up for the class. At the college level, we see this with students who withdraw early; if a student is failing a class, their advisor will ask them to consider if they want to withdraw, avoiding the GPA penalty. There’s generally an end point on that, some date that’s the drop deadline. I honestly don’t know how important high school GPA is — I don’t know how much it gets factored into college admission decisions. But as someone who flunked calculcus freshman year of college (and should have withdrawn instead), I was very aware of how that dragged down my college GPA, making me less competitive for graduate school. So I do think it matters on a practical level.

– an “F” is also demoralizing. This is a fuzzier argument, but I think it’s absolutely true that F / failure is something that a lot of people are hit hard by, and that NC / no credit is much less emotionally difficult. In general, I question our grading system overall — I’d like to look into research on whether F’s are actually effective at motivating student performance (which I think is the general argument), or whether that’s an unfounded assumption.

But regardless, in the year of the pandemic, when everything academic was thrown topsy-turvy, with teachers across the world trying to learn how to teach remote in the midst of all the other stress and trauma, it feels ridiculous to me to not acknowledge that, and to pretend everything was business-as-usual.

Teachers did their very best, many of them exhausting themselves trying to take care of their students, but there is really only so much that can be done when the entire system is so stressed. We don’t blame doctors when their patients’ lungs fail from COVID. We shouldn’t blame teachers when decades of teaching experience prove to be insufficient to the needs of students during a global pandemic.

*****

The board agreed to put the F-to-NC up for a vote, and to vote on the other two points separately. At the board meeting itself, we heard from both the faculty senate and the student council, who spoke with conviction that they were strongly against changing F’s to NC. Both groups (for perhaps slightly different reasons) felt it was disrespectful of all the work they’d put in over the last year.

Disrespect was certainly not my intent, and speaking as a teacher myself, I don’t think it’s disrespecting the faculty’s expertise or efforts to acknowledge that this was an unprecedented global disaster, which might require administrative intervention beyond what can be accomplished in the classroom.

I hope this doesn’t start me off in a rocky relationship with the OPRF faculty, because while I’m new to the school and don’t yet know the teachers individually, I’m sure they have generally done an extraordinary job in unprecedented circumstances. I would not normally override their recommendation on academic matters, and I certainly didn’t recommend doing so lightly in this case.

*****

For the students, their argument seemed to be that many of them had worked really hard to bring their grades up, and so it was disrespectful of their efforts to allow others who hadn’t worked as hard ‘off the hook’? I’m not sure if I’m representing that correctly, so apologies if not.

But if that’s what they meant, then I disagree — your efforts are your own, and your hard work and earned grade are not diminished by someone else getting the tiniest of easings of their difficult road.

I would argue that this is something of a pathology in the American character — we have such a pull-yourself-up-by-your-boostraps mentality, that many Americans are reflexively against anyone ‘getting a break.’ I think it feels like cheating to them. This is part of what fuels resistance to things like cancelling student debt, or switching to universal healthcare.

I would ask students to think seriously about this issue as they continue in their academic and career pursuits. It will continue to matter, probably for the rest of your lives. Your success is not diminished by someone else getting a helping hand.

Again, I do acknowledge that many may simply have felt blindsided — that it felt unfair to have worked so hard to bring up their F’s (or help students do so), and then be told at the last minute, “Oh, you can have the NC option instead.” I agree the timing is terrible, but if it’s the right thing to do, doing it at the last minute seems better than not doing it at all.

Let us reduce harm as much as we can.

*****

All the students who managed to pull their grades up should feel very proud of their hard work. Not everyone was able to do that, for a host of reasons.

Disasters are not evenly distributed. I think that’s one of the hardest aspects of trying to make policy in the midst of all this, because we know our own experiences and often speak from them, but that may really not give us much insight into people who have had a very different experience.

My daughter’s grades crashed during the pandemic, going from A’s to D’s and potential F’s. She was able to pull them up over the last few months, which is great. But I’ll point out that she has two parents working from home, both educators, and we could take the time to sit with her, help her figure out all her missing assignments, help build some additional structure in her day to get the catch-up work done, actually sit and work beside her as a motivator for the hardest ones, even teach a little math and English if she got confused and stuck (perhaps because she’d had her attention slip during a remote learning class, which is so easy to do).

Many of our students don’t have access to that kind of parental help, for a host of reasons, and may be contending with many additional issues as well — needing to work to supplement family income because a parent lost a job, perhaps. Having a parent or grandparent who is sick, or who has died. (One of my students in April 2020 had already lost four relatives (in New Orleans) to COVID death.)

It’s understandable that students and parents and teachers who saw grades being pulled up dramatically this spring (generally with a lot of teacher support, of course), might assume that “hey, the kids are all right.” But the truth is that only some of the kids are all right.

I especially want to acknowledge and make clear that in America, Black and brown kids are more likely to be ‘not all right’ than others. Black students have been experiencing the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the police killings of Black people this past year as well — they were contending with twin pandemics this year, of both disease and police violence. (It is good that we’re addressing the police violence more vocally and openly now, but it is also surely traumatizing and intensifying trauma for Black folks in many ways.)

We can’t just look at the students who are making it through, who have somehow managed to survive and maybe even thrive in the midst of disaster. We have to turn to those who aren’t making it, and ask, what institutional barriers are in their way?

I don’t think the school board can fix generational poverty with a single vote. But for what’s within our power, we need to use the lens of asking “How is this policy affecting the most marginalized, the most disenfranchised students?”

If a policy is hurting them, we need to ask why it’s still there, and be willing to consider change. Humans are generally very resistant to change. ‘This is how we’ve always done it,’ is a powerful force.

Even the smallest changes often feel radical, but they are the ONLY way we progress.

*****

I’m getting off my soapbox now, to finish with a few facts.

The end result is that we voted to not charge for summer school at all this year (good), and we voted to waive the OPRF-specific graduation requirements. The F-to-NC vote failed, with Kebreab Henry and I in favor, and the rest of the board against.

The consequences of that particular vote are relatively small — we weren’t talking about changing F’s to credit, which would have allowed various students to graduate who couldn’t otherwise. The faculty and administration were very set against that, and I’m honestly not sure I’d be in favor of it either — I’d want to research more before deciding. There are certainly serious issues with ‘passing up’ a student into a higher-level of a course that they’re not ready for.

But changing F’s to NC would have eased the road a little for students who have had a very tough year, with no real downside that I can see, and in the end, I’m really disappointed that the board decided against.

I won’t try to speak for the rest of the board here — all of our meetings are broadcast and recorded, so if you’re interested, you can go and follow the discussion there: https://www.oprfhs.org/board-of-education

*****

Whew. Okay, that was a lot. I hope this was helpful in some way.

P.S. It may be disconcerting to other board members to see me writing this all out, and I hope they don’t see it as problematic, or something that will make their jobs harder. I certainly hope we can have a congenial, respectful, and productive board for the next four years.

Several thousand Oak Parkers voted for me, presumably knowing that I was a writer, and many of them knowing that I tend to write this kind of thing out in some detail. I think this is what they voted for, so I’m going to try to live up to that.

An Hour Between

I had an hour between graduation ceremonies (due to social distancing, they’ve divided the graduates into two groups), so I decided to come home and make a cup of tea and grab a cardigan for the evening and change into flats, because I am so unused to wearing even stacked heels that after an hour, my feet were hurting.

Sorry, graduates, I will be the very shortest board of education member, so not very imposing, but that doesn’t mean I’m not immensely proud of you all!

It was really lovely seeing all the joy after this hard year. They are all like my little cherry tomato, grown from seed and utterly beautiful.

Although I did fear for all the girls wearing spike heels as they went up and down the stairs, managing their gowns and diplomas and all! A few kids did trip a bit, but they all managed to catch themselves, whew.