Don’t use lies to motivate kids


Picasso's Don Quixote
Picasso’s Don Quixote

A teacher and neighbor of mine, Janusz Maciuba, has written a thought-provoking piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution warning would-be mentors: Be careful what you tell kids, because some of the high-sounding rhetoric that gets dished out can actually be counterproductive:

In the service of instilling self-esteem in students, teachers and other cheerleaders of scholastic and personal achievement have promoted slogans that are potentially dangerous if taken at face value by students. In fact, some of these motivational mottoes can actually encourage students to drop out of school. I base my observations on teaching 7th and 9th graders and from reading thousands of GED essays, some of which explained why students left school before graduation and what their dreams for the future were.

Here are some of the motivational phrases that can backfire:

  • You can be anything you want to be (not true).
  • Never back down (leads to unnecessary conflict).
  • Be a leader not a follower (promotes anarchy).

As Janusz points out, if you can’t spell “pediatrician,” you’re not likely to become one.  Better to “Know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em.”

And please don’t tell kids “to give 110 percent.”

I don’t agree with his take on Tupac Shakur’s upbringing, but the piece is well worth reading for anyone who wants to keep their life–and their counsel–rooted in reality.

Read the entire column at Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled blog.


NY Times piece on low-income students includes Emory horror story

This article is a must read for high-school counselors, parents, and students. Angelica Gonzales’s horror story involving Emory Financial Aid is something all students should avoid at all costs. The problems of navigating college admissions and financial aid offices–especially for lower-income kids who don’t get parental support or extensive counseling–can be insurmountable. As a consequence, Angelica has no degree and is now $61,000 in debt.

Emory doesn’t come out looking completely villainous (at least not to me), but it doesn’t look especially good, either. While the school’s financial aid can be very generous, The Emory Advantage—designed to help low- and middle-income families—isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Please read this story and pass it along to parents, students, and counselors.

(Disclosure: My son is a student at Oxford/Emory)

A Chain Gang Christmas

CHAIN GANG ELEMENTARY eBOOK ON SALE FOR ONLY $2.99! The recent news about Deck the Halls reminded me of the horrible holiday mishap (another case of Christmas Gone Pagan) contained in my novel, Chain Gang Elementary. The act of criminal sabotage at Malliford Elementary School set the wheels in motion for the series of unfortunate events to follow.  Hey, it could happen. I’ve posted the passage below for your reading enjoyment.  (Or, if you just want to go ahead and buy the book, go here.)

From Chapter Four of Chain Gang Elementary:

Thursday, December 16, brought a cold snap, stirring Malliford Elementary School students’  hopes for a white Christmas. That night, Richard Gray sat through the Malliford PTO’s general meeting expecting to hear President Barbara Hodge’s battle report in the Apartment War.

Wouldn’t it be precious if the Parents Who Count used the meeting to showcase their unchristian attitude toward minority students? Suffer the children to come unto us. NOT!

However, redistricting wasn’t on the agenda, and Barbara didn’t mention the issue. He was surprised; it was as if they’d given a war and nobody came. After adjournment, she introduced “our esteemed principal.”

To polite applause, Miz Rutherford took the podium. She spoke briefly about Malliford’s wonderfulness, wished everyone season’s greetings, and then introduced Holiday for Ducks. The curtain rose to reveal red-shirted second- and third-graders. In the middle of them stood Nick Gray, looking splendid in his turtleneck.

The music teacher, Mrs. Spinelli, stepped forward, baton in hand, red elf hat on head. “One and two and three and four—” The children sang as Mrs. Leland played piano. Voices teetered on high notes, fell off and cracked, amusing and charming parents. The night’s theme was twisted around humanity’s undying need to sing another song. The Kwanzaa Karaoke Chorus sang about fruit juice and family as the loudspeaker—stuck in the beak of the huge painted Malliford Duck on the back wall—belted out the backbeat. Then came songs long on Santa and short on Jesus, courtesy of the fourth- and fifth-graders.

Former controversial breastfeeder Bertie Malloy pranced around the stage in a red and white outfit, cotton beard wisping off his chin. His morhter Rita beamed. Eight antlered kids wore red suits that made them look like they’d been skinned. They fidgeted, waiting to perform “The Reindeer Cheer.” One of them, Candace Josey’s daughter Samantha, held her red bulb nose on her face with her hand.

When the big moment came, five reindeer advanced toward poster boards lying on the stage as their colleagues waved ersatz hooves over their heads and shouted encouragement. Antlers bumped and cameras flashed as the fourth-graders stooped to pick up cards. When they snapped up the boards in unison, audible gasps and bursts of high-pitched laughter rang throughout the room. The reindeer had spelled out S-A-T-A-N.

Mrs. Spinelli furiously duck-walked to the stage and tugged feet to correct the sacrilegious spelling. The reindeer stood cluelessly for a moment, and then the last A saw the problem. Grinning, he switched places with his neighbor, spelling SANAT. Mrs. Spinelli gestured furiously until they had SANTA. Shortly after that, Bertie’s beard fell off. ’Twas a program to remember.

Afterward, Richard gathered up his son. Funky Glasses, alone at the moment, approached them. Her tight red dress revealed a drop-dead figure.

“Hi Teresa,” Richard said, glad that he’d snooped around and learned her name from Rita.

Teresa sidled up to him, brushing her cleavage against his right arm. “Tell the truth,” she teased. “Did you switch the cards? Do you have it in for Santa?”

Anna Lee appeared at his side and elbowed him sharply. In a harsh whisper, his wife said, “Kids are here, remember. Ixnay on your heartwarming Anta-Say story,” ignoring the fact that Nick was more fluent in pig Latin than either of his parents.

“You have no idea,” he told Teresa with a pained smile. He was going to introduce Anna Lee, but his wife had turned away to greet a neighbor. “Well. Happy all-purpose holiday greeting, Teresa.”

“Happy all-purpose holidays to you, too, Richard.” Teresa gave him a mistletoe smile and retreated into the crowd. Scowling, Anna Lee turned back to Richard. “Who was that?”

“Teresa Keller,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant as he cast a wistful glance at the woman sashaying out into the hall.

“Sure is friendly,” Anna Lee said, narrowing her eyes.

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Liar. I saw the way she looked at you.”

“What way?”

Nick chose that moment to separate from his parents. Anna Lee chased him down. “We’re going to have to call the North Pole,” she warned, reaching into her purse for the cell phone. The ploy had worked so far, but Nick was showing signs of agnosticism, which his mother blamed on Richard.

On the way out of the cafetorium, Richard saw Miz Rutherford in animated conversation with Mrs. Spinelli. The principal looked furious. Could it be … Satan?

They walked home, and after Nick was tucked into bed, Anna Lee stuck her head in Richard’s office door, Forbes magazine in hand, and hissed, “You can’t wait to tell him about Santa and ruin everything, can you?”

“By the time I tell him, everything will already be ruined.”

“That’s a nasty way to look at it. Admit it. You loved it when the reindeer spelled Satan.”

“I can’t help it if I’m an emotional cripple with no real friends.”

She turned on her heel, leaving him to stare at the wall. Yes, he did have a story for Nick. After all, how many people could say they’d watched Santa die?

Wheels of justice(?): Forsyth County PTO edition

Update: Guilty of stealing $32,000 from PTO; 15 years’ probation and restitution. See story.

Rarely do I get hold of a story that fits both my blogs: Chain Gang Elementary and  Brambleman, but this one does. It’s a case of PTO embezzlement coming out of Forsyth County, Geeorgia—the setting of Brambleman.  One of my readers tipped me off to the case of Jamie Garfield, who is expected to plead guilty to charges of embezzling $8,000 from the Cumming Elementary School PTO, which she served (and I use that term loosely) as treasurer.

This case has been knocking around for a couple of years. According to the reports I’m hearing, other parents are outraged that she may not even have to serve out her probation if she makes sufficient restitution.  Rarely are PTA/PTO embezzlers sentenced to any jail time—which is too bad, since the prospect of  a prison sentence would be a powerful dissuader to would-be volunteer thieves.

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