School Closure

This past week has been a really difficult one for my small town of Middlebury, Vermont. My heart goes out to all of my friends at Middlebury College as they grapple with a complex and hurtful situation. I know that what they are dealing with has far greater implications than what I’ve been working on this week.

I also believe that the arc of local democracy is important. I’ve been deeply engaged with civic affairs for a good portion of my time here, so the local government events in our town this week mattered to me deeply. I started this blog to find “moments of meaning in small town Vermont.” For me, this week has had many of those moments. I write about a few below. Thank you for reading.


This week was Town Meeting Day in Vermont, with the weeks leading up to it filled with local campaigns, budget hearings, candidate and resolution petitions, and lots of local government meetings. I know it sounds mundane to many, but I love this time of year. It’s pure democracy in action, and those who show up get to decide.

On Monday night I presented our new school district’s budget at our Town Meeting. Born out of my time as a school finance analyst for the Wisconsin legislature, I LOVE to make budget presentations to a crowd. I’m eager to explain formulas and answer tough questions, always searching for both clarity and diplomacy. The syrup on the evening’s waffle was a tweet by a friend who called me our town’s Leslie Knope. In my book, there is almost no higher compliment.

The day before, was the final annual meeting of our old school district, the one I’ve chaired for the past four years. We had cake (not waffles). I talked a bit about the history of the Middlebury ID#4 Prudential Committee, recent people important to the District, our transition to a new governance structure, and the Board’s role in nurturing women’s civic leadership in our town.

During my time as Chair, the Board has accomplished a lot, including promotion of principal, construction of a playground, creation of a Spanish language program, improvements to science education, and expansion of student support services and intervention programs. We’ve also worked with our neighboring boards to hire a new superintendent, create and implement a strategic plan, and completely remake our local school governance model.  And this doesn’t even include all of the “regular” stuff we did related to personnel, student discipline, community outreach, budget preparation, and policy development.

Yes, there have been challenging times, some of which I’ve written about on this blog. We’ve had to deal with navigating our role in a controversial town project, a petition to change our annual meeting time, and resistance to some of our proposals. But, we’ve weathered the storm as a smart, deliberative, supportive board, and I’m proud of that.

The ID#4 District coming to an end was sad. It’s meant a lot to me, and many others, over the years. As I talked at the annual meeting, I had to work really hard not to cry.

And, I was also happy. I played a significant role in delivering my school district to its closure because I knew it was the right thing to do for education in our community. I’m sad the school district I’ve loved, nurtured, and led for much of my time here is closing, and I’m happy a new district for which I agonized, advocated, and analyzed is beginning.

After reading my comments in a newspaper article in which I expressed my bittersweet feelings, a friend reminded me, ” Things can be more than one thing at once, and so few people know how to grapple with that. It is the right thing, and it is a sad loss.”

Endings can also be beginnings, closings can be openings. As we move forward with a unified school district, there will almost certainly be more endings. I hope my new school board colleagues recognize that this can be the right thing, even if it is also a sad loss. A transition or event can be complex, and more than “one thing” at the same time. It’s how we grapple with it that matters.

This final school district meeting, at which we ate cake, was satisfying closure for me. I like closure, although it’s an elusive goal. I’ll take it when I can. I’ll have my cake and eat it too.

If you care to, you can read below my remarks at the final annual meeting of the ID#4 School District in Middlebury, Vermont. And, you can watch the meeting here. Thanks to our moderator, Jim Douglas, for giving me the honor of making the motion to close the final meeting of the District. It’s now one for the history books.


Good afternoon and thank you for being here. My name is Ruth Hardy, and I am the Chair of the Middlebury ID#4 Prudential Committee, the Mary Hogan School Board.

This is the final annual meeting of the Middlebury ID#4 School District. One hundred fifty-one years* after its establishment under Act 89 of the laws of 1866, what is now commonly known as the Mary Hogan School District, has merged with the six other elementary and one secondary school district in the Addison Central Supervisory Union. The ID#4 Board and District will cease to exist after December 31, 2017.

While members of this Board and the Middlebury community were overwhelmingly supportive of the merger approved in March 2016, it is not without sadness that we bid farewell to a Middlebury institution that has served the children, families, and citizens of Middlebury so well for over one-and-a-half centuries.

As the final members of the Middlebury ID#4 Prudential Committee, we are honored to share in the rich history of civic engagement, educational leadership, and community enrichment that has been a hallmark of this Board and School District.

While the District’s history has not been without challenges, brought on by the evolution of town demographics, education policy, and financial realities, we are proud to be a part of a body that has always endeavored to do right by the students and community members of Middlebury.

Like all institutions and leaders, the ID#4 Board did not do its work alone. The board has been fortunate to have the guidance of several strong principals and superintendents over the years, including our current principal Tom Buzzell and recent past principal Bonnie Bourne, and current superintendent Peter Burrows.

The board has also had the incredible honor of working with a talented and dedicated group of teaching professionals at the Mary Hogan School. Our teachers are second to none, and their overall professionalism and dedication to our students has made our job easier. We’ve also had great support from staff and parents, and, in particular, one staff/parent who has been involved with our school for nearly 40 years – Mary Longey.

Mary retired last year, after serving our school as a parent volunteer, founder/leader of the Middlebury Elementary School Association (MESA) – the parent organization at Mary Hogan School, and then as the school manager for 34 years. Mary organized ID#4 meetings, took minutes at every annual meeting (except this one!) since the early 1980s, and kept our school running smoothly. Thank you, Mary!

The ID#4 Board has also had the great privilege of having the support of our community. We don’t often have crowds of people at our meetings, and in large part, I think that’s because our voters trust our work and judgement. And, it’s also because we are fortunate to have the skill and dedication of MCTV’s services at each of our meetings. No matter how mundane our discussion, heated our debate, or silly our comments, MCTV has captured them all on camera for our community to watch.

The man behind the camera for most of the past 25 years has been Dick Thodal. Dick has been at almost every meeting of the ID#4, UD#3, and ASCU boards over the last 2 ½ decades (and that’s A LOT of meetings!). Dick is professional and knowledgeable and gracious and patient, so very patient. Our Board and community owe Dick an enormous amount of gratitude for his work to support public education, local government, and to nurture democracy through an engaged and informed citizenry, and an honest and transparent local government. Thank you, Dick!

Guests of honor – Dick Thodal, Mary Longey, & Carol Eckels

Finally, as the last chair of the ID#4 Board, I am particularly grateful for the role this board has played in supporting and promoting women’s civic leadership over the past several decades. During a period when our Town’s other public boards have not embraced women’s leadership, this board has been led by a woman more often than not over the past 35 years.

Several of these women have served as role models and mentors to me. I served under two chairs – Lucy Schumer and Karen Lefkoe. Lucy’s leadership modeled the importance of hard work, good listening and collaboration, and Karen’s leadership was gracious and good-hearted, yet probing when appropriate. I am grateful to both of them for their service and leadership.

Finally, the woman who led the ID#4 Board longer than any other is Carol Eckles. She was chair throughout most of the 1980s-90s, and school district moderator until last year. She has been a teacher, school principal, professor of education, and is the mother of five children. When it comes to kids and education in Vermont, Carol has seen almost everything.

Early in my time as a school board member, she reached out to me to talk about the importance of our District’s history and culture. Despite her experience as a school administrator, or perhaps because of it, she emphasized that the Board is here to serve the community, not the administrators. She underscored that as chair, sometimes you have to make tough decisions and stand up for what is right for the school district, regardless of outside pressures.

Carol embodies a quality that is more important for women leaders today than ever – persistence.  Since my first cup of coffee with Carol at Rosie’s Diner nearly seven years ago, she has been my school board mentor and role model. My grit is in part, born out of hers. Thank you Carol, for helping clear a path for strong women’s leadership in Middlebury!

Some members, past & present, of the ID#4 Prudential Committee

The ID#4 Board is excited for the opportunities that the new merged Addison Central School District can bring, and eager to work with our neighbors in Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham, and Weybridge. Yet, we will always have a fondness for our singular role as school board members for the Mary Hogan School and Middlebury children.

Thank you for the many years of support of this board, school, and community. We are honored to have had your trust with our town’s most important resource – our school children.

Moderator Jim Douglas and me

* The ID#4 School District may in fact be older than 151 years. After my remarks, local historian, Jim Douglas, did some homework and discovered this document apparently in the archives of the New York Public Library. It’s the law from 1866 that I thought had created the district, but in fact appears to have expanded its powers. In any case, ID#4 has been around for a long time.

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Civics Lesson

For two days during the week before the election, I spent several hours talking to middle-schoolers about elections, campaigns, and democratic engagement. My daughter, Anya, was studying the Constitution, elections, and political parties in her 7th grade social studies class. I asked her if it would be alright if I came in to talk about campaigns, political engagement, and voting.

After all, during this year I’ve been an elected leader in a successful local campaign to restructure our school governance system, led an organization that’s trained and coached dozens of women to run for state and local office, attended the Democratic state and national conventions, and worked as a volunteer on various political campaigns. I wanted to share my knowledge, and even more so, my enthusiasm for this work, with students.

I was worried that the vile presidential campaign was turning them off to political engagement at a crucial stage in their development. I wanted to help them understand that what they were seeing with Clinton vs. Trump was not normal, that political engagement was fun and energizing and important to our democracy, not mean-spirited, vapid, and vulgar.

I also wanted to show them that Democrats and Republicans, women and men, could talk about politics, disagree, and still be friends. So, I asked my Republican friend Jim if he’d come to talk to the kids with me. He’s a local government colleague of mine. He gives me good advice over coffee at McDonald’s every so often. He’s our Town Moderator, and also a former legislator, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, and yes, Governor.

Jim Douglas was immediately game to come in to talk with the classes, and the two veteran teachers were really excited to have us (especially to have Governor Douglas, I think, but that’s OK).

I created a presentation with photos from the National Constitution Center, the Democratic National Convention, our Middlebury Town Meeting, and various campaigns. I brought in lawn and rally signs. I made a chart of various voting methods. I made a list of what kids can do to be engaged:


I’m only a kid? How can I be involved?

  • Encourage your parents to vote! Talk to them about who they are voting for & why.
  • Attend a political rally or event about an issue or candidate you care about.
  • Run for office! Run for student council. Be involved with decisions at MUMS.
  • Learn about issues that affect you, your family, your friends, and community.
  • Write letters to your elected officials (they love to hear from kids!).
  • Apply for the Legislative Page program for 8th graders.
  • Volunteer for a campaign or an organization you care about.
  • Be informed, be engaged, be awesome!

I talked about the importance of girls getting involved and someday running for office, giving a shout-out to my work with Emerge Vermont. I was so enthusiastic and optimistic, it almost seems a bit embarrassing now.

Governor Douglas was a good counter to my extroverted energy. Not that he’s not enthusiastic for political engagement. One look at his resume and you know he clearly gives a damn. But, he’s dry and old-school. He asked the kids tough questions about elected offices, told great stories, and shared historical anecdotes of the sort that only my brother with a PhD in history might know.

He was patient with me showing off my Democratic propaganda, amused when I insisted that the Republicans have the same stuff, it’s just that “I’m a Democrat!” He joked with me that my “Michelle” sign from the Convention was really for “Bachmann” not “Obama.”

At the urging of the teachers, we each talked 2016-11-02-10-51-55about why we held the political beliefs we did. We talked about our families and mentors, and our beliefs about the varying role of government (a debate that I reminded students has been going on since the founding of our country). I said that growing up in a family with a Democratic activist mother and a Republican lawyer father meant that these arguments were often discussed around our dinner table.

We also both talked about the importance of compromise and understanding the other side of an issue. I explained that my first job was as a non-partisan analyst for a state legislature, so I had to be neutral and really informed for my work. He talked about having regular lunches with his colleagues on the other side of the aisle when he was in the legislature. And we both talked about what we agreed on – many local government issues, informed political discourse, the value of diversity of opinions, and a respect for our government institutions.

I stressed that even “regular” people like me, and Jim, and the kids’ parents can affect government change. Our town is tiny, so many of the kids in these classes have parents who are themselves elected officials, like me. And one of the kids was Governor Douglas’ nephew. We all kinda know each other here, making our local government, especially, but even our state government, an actual government of the people.

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I think we did well with our talk. The kids asked some good questions. I got them to brainstorm things they cared about, and how being politically engaged was important if you care about education, the environment, animal rights, poverty, and even the pursuit of happiness. The Jim and Ruth Show seemed to accomplish my goals. Even Anya said I did a good job, only embarrassing her a bit with one too many references to “Hamilton the Musical.”

I left feeling pretty good, with promises for a post-election breakfast meet-up at McDonald’s with the former Governor. I figured I’d be excited about the results. The next day was Election Day. We were finally going to elect a woman as president. Oh, how wrong I was…


The day after the election, puffy-eyed and depressed, I spent hours on the phone with other women, trying to figure out what we do now, in the wake of such a huge loss. It was hard for me to think about the future; I could barely focus on the moment.

I consoled my heartbroken daughter, candidates who also lost their own elections, colleagues who have worked so hard to elect women, friends who wanted answers.

I made pancakes and pie. I ate. I cried. A lot.

I talked to my old friend Katie, hoarse from crying like me. A former teacher and current lawyer, her mind was on civics education. How can we better teach people about how our government works, and that they have a responsibility as citizens for informed engagement? I am a school board member and education policy wonk. Perhaps we could work on it together. I promised her I’d think about it, once I could think straight again.

Since the election, I have seen many lists of what we should do now: protest, keep vigilant, stay off social media, read more, write poetry, write legislators, join groups, demand action, give hugs, move abroad, raise hell, raise money, run for office, do yoga. I’m overwhelmed by the lists, and the groups, and the protests.

Overwhelmed by the awakening of people who didn’t give a damn before November 8th.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled that more people have woken up, gotten involved, joined groups, made lists. I love lists, and crossing things off when I’ve done them. But these new lists have overwhelmed me because my old lists contained the same things, and I crossed them off, which means I did them all (except not enough yoga). And still here we are. Why didn’t it all work?

Ten days after the election, I found myself in a giant room full of women who get shit done, at the New England Women’s Policy Conference. One of the keynote speakers was Mary Frances Berry, who served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission during four presidencies – Carter through Clinton. Reagan tried to fire her, but she sued him and won. She’s a warrior, the kind who gathers people around her kitchen table and makes lists and assigns duties, and quietly ushers in enormous societal change.

Berry talked about the myriad of things we could all do, this room full of activist women. Of the things she told us, the one that resonated with me most was her permission to “stay in our lane” and keep doing what we’re doing. Because most of us in that room are already doing such good work – advocacy, research, activism, organizing, serving, leading.

Berry stressed that it was important that this huge set-back not make us think that the work we have been doing all along isn’t important and effective. Don’t let it steer you from your course or doubt that you can still do good. Perhaps we double-down, refocus, bring in reinforcements, but we don’t abandon ship, or hope. We must keep working through our lists (and do more yoga).

I promised, at some point over the past few weeks, to share what I was going to do in this new post-election political reality. My new action list. But, I’m going to stay in my lane and keep doing what I’ve been doing. On some days that’s having coffee with my understated Republican friend and talking about local issues, and bipartisan compromise, and government service. On other days that’s drinking wine with my women friends (including a different former governor) and planning a new feminist revolution.

On every day, it’s doing my best to be a good mother and friend, and always speaking truth to power.

I have yet to have the post-election coffee date with Governor Douglas, but over email he told me, “Keep the faith…things don’t always go our way.”

I’ll keep the faith and stay in my lane. I’ll work on the things that I can, and that will be enough. The newly awakened can join me and the many others whose lists have always included meaningful political engagement.

And, I will work on civics education, and I’ll also celebrate what we already do. Maybe one day, one of the 7th grade girls I talked to will be our president, but by then, I will have already crossed “elect a woman president” off my list.

girls-for-prez

Her Candidacy Begins Today!

 

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Introducing Senator Leahy

2016-10-07-18-43-16Jason and I had the pleasure of co-hosting a house party for Sue Minter last night, a gorgeous evening for politics in Vermont. Sue is running for Governor of Vermont, one of only two women in the entire country running for governor this year. She’s smart, energetic, committed, and a truly good person. I’ve gotten to know her over the past year, and I can’t wait for her to be our governor!

In addition to Sue, our senior US Senator, Patrick Leahy, was at the event and I was honored to have the opportunity to introduce him. Below are my remarks.


Thank you Robin and Ted for hosting this lovely gathering for Sue Minter tonight. It is especially exciting for me to be here because for the past year I have led an organization called Emerge Vermont, which recruits, trains, and inspires Democratic women to run for public office.

Sue is on our advisory council and has been an incredible advocate and mentor for so many of the Emerge women, here in Vermont and nationally, who are also running for office. After only three years, we have trained nearly 50 women, with 11 currently holding office and nine now running for state legislative seats. We hope very much that these women are joined in Montpelier by our second woman governor.

Now, it is an honor and a pleasure to introduce to you Vermont’s senior Senator, Patrick Leahy. Senator Leahy has been a dedicated public servant for over four decades. When I was contemplating Kindergarten, he was contemplating Congress. And over all of these years of incredible work for our state, Senator Leahy has consistently worked to make the lives of all Vermonters better.

As an advocate for women’s equality, I am especially grateful for his work for women in our state. And I want to highlight just a few of his efforts that have touched me or others close to me over the past few months.

In June, Senator Leahy’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference celebrated its 20th anniversary. The conference offers women the opportunity to explore new careers, network, and learn about professional and financial resources. Through my work at Emerge, I have collaborated with an effort to improve women’s economic equality called Change the Story Vermont, and Senator Leahy’s conference has been doing just that for two decades.

This year’s keynote speaker, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, noted that the “(conference) has empowered (women) to take risks, to follow their passions and to fight for their rightful seat at the table. And in doing so, it has created jobs, grown businesses and helped strengthen the economy not only of this great state, but of the entire nation. That’s because the prosperity and well-being of America is increasingly tied to the prosperity and well-being of American women.”

Earlier this summer, I was grateful for Senator Leahy’s efforts to promote the voice of a young Vermonter, named Ella Staats. Ella has family here in Middlebury and is an acquaintance of my daughter Greta through both the Governor’s Institute on the Arts and Young Writer’s Project. Ella wrote a piece for Young Writer’s Project which was an open letter to Senator Leahy and Congress pleading with them to change our gun laws after the Orlando massacre. Senator Leahy read Ella’s letter on the Senate Chamber during the sit-in on the House Floor lead by Representative John Lewis and supported by Senator Leahy.  All eyes were on this issue and our Congress, and by reading Ella’s letter and responding so publicly and genuinely, Senator Leahy gave a Vermont girl national voice on an incredibly important topic.

And earlier this week, my good friend, Kerri Duquette-Hoffman, the Director of
Womensafe
here in Middlebury, was at Senator Leahy’s side to announce a $9 million federal grant that will fund affordable housing projects in Vermont, including Womensafe’s transitional housing program for victims of domestic violence in our community. Womensafe’s work in our community is crucial to the security of hundreds of women and children, so Senator Leahy’s advocacy for such funding brings hope and safety to so many in our town.2016-10-07-18-11-35

So thank you Senator Leahy for these and all of your efforts as our senator to empower women and girls in Vermont. It is my honor to be with you here today and to introduce you during this historic campaign for women in Vermont and women America. I give you, our Senator, Patrick Leahy.

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Daughter of Poems

IMG_4600
I’ve had some time alone with my oldest daughter during these past few weeks, as she’s slowly settled into the quiet of summer before her action begins anew. Her siblings have been at camp or occupied with friends, her father away for work.

Greta and I have taken a road trip, gazed at stars and moons, lit campfires, eaten in peace, stacked wood, painted our toes, made finger food, listened to music, jumped in the dark. She will slip away from me soon. My brilliant independent girl. I miss her again already.

In these weeks, Greta has written a lot of poetry for the Young Writer’s Project Summer of Stories. With her permission, I share with you one of these poems, a story of our mother-daughter weeks of summer.

Summer
June 16, 2016

Is going to bed with hair
That smells like sky and river and smoke
Which we say we’ll wash tomorrow
But maybe we just like
The way it flows over our backs
Like the water that softened its strands.

Is long prickly legs
Scraped and bruised, but pleasantly so,
And bare feet filled with grass and mud
And possibly a tick
From the long wild grass that tickles our calves just right
While we chase the fireflies,
The only bugs that love to dance
More than us
And when
We snatch one in our outstretched hands,
Flickers on and off like a dying bulb.

Is the flames of a campfire,
Which take so long to catch
Before they flare up in enthusiasm
But then back down, hesitating,
Thinking, Is this really right?
Are we really yet free?
But they are, they should be.
Yes, one day they will be doused,
And their coals will send up smoke
In a silent cry for mercy
More poignant than any tears.
But for now, the flames can burn on.

 

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Worth It

It’s been an emotional few days, in my tiny world of mothering, filled with a combination of pride, sadness, shock, embarrassment, and exhaustion. This cocktail of motherhood madness is not unusual for the last week of school, when stress, anticipation and over-scheduling mix to drive parents and children a bit insane.

This year was especially intense however. At the beginning of the week, a friend convened a group of moms to discuss “Girls and Sex, Navigating the Complicated Landscape,” the latest book by Peggy Orenstein about the challenges of raising girls in a hyper-sexualized, media-drenched society.

We discussed how we should talk to our daughters about sexuality, fretting about how to balance messages of empowerment and protection. And what of our sons? How should we talk to them about sexuality and personal responsibility? We noted how much had changed, and how much had not, since we were teenage girls trying to navigate all this sex stuff.

The next day, I read the letter the victim in the Stanford rape case read to her attacker at his sentencing. My outrage and sense of urgency swelled. I emailed the group and suggested we round up our husbands and sons and make them talk about the book and victim’s statement and their role in preventing rape culture. How do we raise kids in this country, and protect and correct them simultaneously?

Two days later, one of my own brood was the target of a bizarre and cruel spat of adolescent bullying, leaving her confused and hurt the day before her elementary school graduation. Another was a participant in some run-of-the-mill, but all the same, inappropriate playground behavior.  My mothering prowess hit new highs and familiar lows as I reconciled the fallout of both, while trying hard not to relate either incident to the disturbing national news.

Between the mommy sex-talk book group and the last days of school drama, Hillary Clinton became the presumptive Democratic nominee for President of the United States. I can’t fully reconcile what this means to me yet. I have hoped for a woman president all my life. I have followed Hillary for 25 years, sometimes with frustration and disbelief, but usually with compassion and pride, and the recognition of how much harder she works than almost anyone else. Nobody has earned the presidential nomination like Hillary has.

Last night, however, after two days of phone calls with our school principal, of comforting and chastising my children, of thinking about the woes of women in our country, and of reading about Hillary’s victories and struggles, I broke down at dinner. I was tired and two glasses of wine into the night, and wanting my kids, or perhaps more importantly myself, to focus on some broader and more significant picture.

The first woman had just won the nomination for President. This is a step toward a moment I have dreamed about since girlhood. The President of the United States will be a woman.

I had read the Gail Collins column about who Hillary would most like to share this moment with:  Her mother.

I told the kids Hillary had won California, that she would be the nominee. I started to cry. I told them she wanted to see her mama again, and tell her the news. Mrs. Rodham, know that Hillary will likely be President, and she is awesome. Please know too that all of your stress and sacrifices were worth it. Your comforting and chastising, your hard work of mothering was worth it, even during the weeks when everything seemed to fall apart.

I told my kids that no matter what they accomplish or struggles they have, I hope they always want to tell their mother. That will make this all worth it. They will grow up and do great, or make mistakes and need help, and they will want me to know. I hope this is true.

Thanks Dorothy. Thanks Hillary. For reminding me that this really tough job is worth it.

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Geo Bee

I spent April Fools’ Day in a hot college classroom filled with stressed-out middle-graders and their anxious parents. The kids sat nervously, wiping sweaty palms on their knees, waiting for a moderator to stumble through questions about the location of national parks, bodies of water, natural disasters, and photogenic animals.  A giant screen behind them tallied the results of their answers, so we parents could follow along, rooting for our kids and resisting the urge to hope another kids messes up.

P1100948April 1st was the day each state ran its section of the National Geographic Bee to determine the 50+ kids who will converge on Washington DC for the national competition. I attended the Vermont competition, quietly cheering on my twelve-year-old daughter, Anya.

Anya found out that she would represent her school in the competition nearly two months ago when she won the Mary Hogan Elementary School geography bee. She came home describing her win as a fluke, because, she emphasized, “I am not good at geography. It was just luck. I’m surprised someone else didn’t win.”

Anya is a very smart girl and just about every academic subject comes easily to her. She’s a talented musician; strong scientist and mathematician; great writer and artist. She’s spent most of sixth grade frustrated by the slow pace of school and the lack of almost any intellectual challenge. And yet, when she wins an academic competition, she comes home thinking it must be a mistake.

Anya’s disbelief in her geographic abilities lasted for weeks, fueled by her little brother’s insistence that he was better at geography than her, and that if he could be in the competition, he would beat her. And to be fair to Walter, he is really good at geography. He memorizes maps, “weird but true” factoids, and geographic traits of all kinds. He’s done this for years, and his knowledge is both broad and unbelievably detailed. So Walter’s confidence, combined with Anya’s insecurities, led to her forget the answers to easy questions.

I’m familiar with the female imposter syndrome, which rears its ugly head for many women after a big accomplishment, like landing a new job, winning an election, having a baby, getting into graduate school. Not only have I been there myself, but I’ve coached lots of women out of this hole: “You are good enough to deserve this accomplishment, you work hard, you are worthy, and you will do great. Stop listening to the (male) voices in your head that tell you that you’re not good. Work hard and believe in yourself.” Usually easier said than done.

So after a couple weeks of empathetic reassurances that fell on insecure ears, I sat Anya down and told her if she was worried she wasn’t good at geography, the only way to get better was to study. I told her to make lists, memorize maps, read geography books, and place a globe by her bed so the last thing she saw before falling asleep was a map of the world. I told her there is no way around hard work.

Because school comes easily for Anya, and in recent years most teachers have provided few academic challenges for her, Anya has not really learned to study. She knows how to work hard, she’s been studying violin since before kindergarten and can play her way around a tough Bach violin suite. She knows that her violin prowess is not born from luck, but rather lots and lots of practicing. But unlike her big sister Greta, who learned to study academic subjects during her fifth grade year spent in a rigorous German school, Anya’s elementary years have not provided her with the same intellectual challenges.

So along with learning geography, Anya had to learn how to study with the same focus she brings to violin practice. She followed my advice and made lists and studied maps and read books. The whole family got involved with asking her the lists of questions from previous Bees. Even Walter helped her study, despite his continued assertions of his own expertise.

As the day of competition neared, I emphasized to Anya that it wasn’t important that she win, it was important that she feel good about what she’d learned and how she performed. I wanted her to know that she deserved to be there, and that her hard work would pay off with a good performance. She should know, violin or geography, the ingredients for success are much the same.

On the day of the competition, I didn’t quiz her. I learned from personal experience as an adolescent competitive horseback rider that last minute maternal pressure is almost always unwanted. We ate breakfast together after her siblings left for school. She read on its sticker that her banana had come from Honduras. Not remembering precisely where it was, she looked the country up on a map. And then we were off.

She reviewed the rules in the car on the way down to Castleton University. Knowing that she had 15 seconds in which to answer a question, I reminded her to take her time. And to focus on the question, rather than getting tripped up by the extraneous information often embedded in a narrative.

We arrived and entered the chaos of pre-competition preparation and anxiety. There were photo ops and the general staking out of competitors. We both immediately noticed that the majority of competitors were boys. It turns out that about 40% of the kids in the Bee were girls, but Anya’s 15-kid section featured only her and one other girl. One of the boys was the big brother of a good friend, so it was fun to have other friends in the audience.

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Anya’s group of 15 at the mid-competition break

The competition is nerve-wracking, for kids and parents. Anya said it was OK that I be in the room, but instructed me to avoid direct eye contact. Tension was increased by a moderator who stumbled over pronouncing many of the more “exotic” words in questions, even words like “fjord” which he pronounced like the name of an American car company rather than a body of water in New Zealand (or Scandinavia). One would think that National Geographic would insist that their moderators be able to pronounce geographic vocabulary from around the world!

Anya performed nobly. With many of the boys blurting out answers as soon as possible, Anya’s secret weapon was her patience and ability to fully listen to a question. She dug deep for answers and almost always came up with the right one. In response to a question about natural disasters in a country between Guatemala and Nicaragua, Anya paused to conjure her breakfast banana and confidently answer: Honduras. I was proud and impressed.

Unfortunately she paused just a few seconds too long to answer a question about the music of the country that shares an island in the Caribbean with Haiti. Dominican Republic was on the tip of her tongue, but alas, not spoken soon enough. The hesitation put her in a large tie-breaker competition, which featured about 20% girls. Anya missed the first question to put her out of the running right away. Only one girl made it to the final round of ten, female percentages dwindling as competition increased.

Nevertheless, Anya was pleased with her performance and what she’d learned from intense studying.  She could visualize maps and locate countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America too obscure for most Americans to know. And she realized that so much of the competition is about the luck of the draw. Her question about world music focused on a country whose name she could not recall, while someone else got a question about the birthplace of Mozart (Salzburg, Austria), where she herself has visited. She admirably focused on her own questions and did not dwell on the impossibly easy or difficult questions for others.

We stayed to watch the final round, to root for her friend’s brother and the only girl who made the final cut. Both were knocked out mid-way through the intense competition. At the end, the two finalists were perfectly matched boys. When one was stumped, so was the other. When one was brilliant, so was the other. The stumbling moderator, ever worse with his inappropriate pronunciations, had to “call Washington” to get more questions, as these boys could not lose. Eventually one was victorious, and deservedly so.  Their confidence, and preparation, served them well.

Anya will have two more chances to make it to the state Geo Bee. Competition in the middle school will be tougher; her friend’s brother will be around next year too. And Walter is determined to win the elementary school competition that Anya won this year. So, she’ll have confident, competitive brothers on both sides. I wish the boys well, I really do. But perhaps a patient, thoughtful girl might yet prevail.

Regardless of the future, I couldn’t be prouder of my daughter for realizing that she deserved to be in the spot she’d earned. Girls’ success is not a mistake or the result of preferential treatment. They earn it, and they need to know that.2016-04-01 11.49.18

I don’t know what the national statistics for the National Geographic Bee are, but I would guess the gender imbalance in Vermont is not unique. Perhaps more could be done to make girls into geographers. A start could be to promote the women involved with the Vermont Bee into moderators. They sat deferentially to the side during the finals while the only male among them bumbled his important job. Role models matter, dear sisters. And, I bet all those women could pronounce “fjord.”

Here’s to smart girls and women, who stake their claim all over the map.

 

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All Politics is Local

I’m a democracy geek. So I was excited for the combination of Vermont Town Meeting and a big election day. I spent two full days immersed in the joy and anxiety of public discourse and the important vote that followed. All politics is local. Especially in Vermont. I’ve compiled a few highlights of those 48 hours.

Selfie Help

Douglas selfiesOur Town Moderator, former Governor Jim Douglas, helped me figure out how to use my phone so I could take a few selfies before we ran the annual school meeting together. Bernie also had to help me with my phone when I met him in the airport last November. I definitely gotta learn to use the damn thing before I run into Howard Dean or Patrick Leahy.

Unification Presentation

I love to explain education policy and finance to people, especially a crowd. The more complex the topic the better. I was in my element at our Annual School Meeting talking about our proposal to unify our eight local school districts. An audience, some power point slides, a microphone, charts & analysis. Policy wonk heaven. If you want to see my performance, you can check out the video here at minute 36ish. It’s super exciting! Really.

Trying Twitter

I just started my own Twitter account after a few months of running the Twitter feed for Emerge Vermont. So, I tried to “live tweet” some highlights of Town Meeting and the follow day’s voting. This was challenging because, as has already been established, I suck at using my phone. Also, only Chris Mason and about 12 other people follow me on Twitter, and only Chris seemed to care. But still, it was fun!

Ten-Year-Old Wisdom

As I left for the polls in the morning, I still hadn’t decided the Hillary vs. Bernie question. As a Vermonter the clear choice is Bernie. As someone who recruits, trains, and inspires women to run for public office (and is a smart, assertive elected woman herself!), Hillary is the obvious winner. I’ve studied, debated, and dug deep into my well of values to try to figure this one out. I didn’t know what to do. My kids asked what I’d decided, and I told them I didn’t know. My ten-year-old son, Walter, said, “I think you should vote for Hillary because it would be cool to have a woman president.” Role models matter. I voted for Hillary for Walter (and my daughters too). Bernie won Vermont in such a landslide that my vote didn’t matter, and I knew it wouldn’t. But, to me, it did.

Talking to Voters

A couple other dedicated school board members and I spent the entire day at the polls talking to voters and explaining the complicated ballot they would see when they voted on the unification proposal. We did not tell people how to vote. Generally we reminded them that the ballot was two-sided (so flip it over) and that they could vote for school board members from all towns. Almost everyone was really grateful we were there.

I loved being there all day to see the ebb and flow of people coming to vote. I saw a lot of friends I hadn’t seen in awhile so it was a great day to catch up with people. The day really challenged my inability to quickly recall names though. So, officially, I’m sorry if I couldn’t remember your name, or called you Dan when your name is Carl (and I’ve known you for a decade).

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School board buddy talking to first-time voter & his dad

I was most inspired by the first-time and very-experienced voters. Many first-timers came with a parent who showed them the ropes. I was super excited for these young folk, and took lots of photos for 18-year-olds on their phones (Oh, no…I hope I did it right!). And the experienced-folk shared many voting stories that illustrated their dedication to always going to the polls no matter what. For a democracy geek like me, I loved them all. I could have stayed there all day listening to their stories…oh, wait, I did!

My favorite voter was a young autistic man who galloped into the polling site with his mother, joyful at the prospect of making his picks and filling in some bubbles on a card. I explained the school ballot to him and he could hardly hold back his excitement. His mother told me that when he started voting a few years ago, he got instructions from our Town Clerk about what to do on election day. Now, he’s such a good voter, that our Clerk wants to use him to train others! I definitely think we should get this guy in front of a crowd. He could inspire everyone to vote, just by sharing his sheer joy about how much it means to him to be able to do it himself.

Ballot Counting

Clerks Collage

Shane, Ann, Mary – Clerks Extraordinaire!

As the last voters trickled in, the volunteer poll workers prepared for their tallies. When the Clerk shut the doors, everyone left seemed to know exactly what to do, and our Clerk was brilliant at organizing her troops. Our school budget was voted by paper/Australian ballot for the first time, so our school clerk enlisted some citizens to help him count, including my husband (OK, I enlisted him…). It was exciting to see all the ballots come out of the boxes to be sorted and counted. I stuck around for awhile to see how the sausage gets made, but then went to join my school board colleagues as we waited for the results, leaving strict instructions with my man on the inside to call as soon as he knew anything.

Old Town Gym

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Town Meeting in the Old Gym

This was our last Town Meeting in our historic town gym. Built in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration project, it’s slated to be torn down within the next few months. It was the gymnasium for the old high school and then the town gym, for decades. It’s special to me because of the time I spent trying to save it. It’s a beautiful old gymnasium, with a large stage and an impressive presence. It’s been neglected for years, but is in no way beyond repair. It was good to have a full day there before it falls. A small bit of closure.

As I talked to voters, more than a few told me stories about their memories of times inside that gym. One man, told me how he and his brothers played basketball there in high school, attended boy scout meetings in the basement, and cast many votes on election day. He teared up and said he wished he could take a piece of it home. So, in my brashness, I removed a brick from the crumbling steps and handed it to him. He accepted it graciously, as if I had the authority to give it to him, and walked away cradling it like a babe.

Victory!

2016-03-02 13.55.42Two years ago, I lamented the results of our Town Meeting Day voting. This time, I took pride in the passage of school board unification, an effort to which I have dedicated countless hours. I gathered with my school board colleagues until late at night as results from eight towns slowly rolled in, with margins of victory beyond what we could have hoped for. We won! Gotta start a new district…

As I waited for results, my friend Heather called me to tell me she’d been elected to our local selectboard. She lost two years ago, but this time won more votes than any other candidate. What a difference two years makes! For the first time in history, the Middlebury Selectboard has a majority of women in its ranks. My friends Susan, Laura, and Heather among them.

I will admit that the days following the election were a bit of a letdown. Sort of the Day-After-Christmas feeling, when we have things to box up and leftovers to eat, but no longer the frenzy of preparation and anticipation. But like a Christmas morning or Passover Seder, the election was worth the effort. Forty-eight hours of pure democracy couldn’t have been better.

 

 

Posted in community, Holidays, public policy, Schools & Education | 6 Comments