For the four very busy people raising teenagers in Piedmont who didn’t see Frank Bruni’s Op Ed The Real Campus Scourge this Sunday, stop reading this immediately and correct your oversight. For the rest of us, there’s nothing to say beyond that quintessential teenage commentary: I know, right?
The only adage Piedmont parents of kids a certain age hear as often as “we’re all here for the schools” is “Piedmont kids have a tough time going off to college.” Back when I was still a Havens/preschool mom, a friend with a beautiful, athletic, popular daughter in her first semester at a giant out-of-state football powerhouse shared her cautionary tale. Her daughter was feeling unhappy enough to go see a counselor. Before she could even get through her tears to the second sentence of her speech – that maybe she was in the wrong place, maybe college wasn’t even for her, maybe – the counselor put up a hand to stop her. “Let me guess,” he interrupted, “you grew up in a really small town, you had a serious boyfriend, and you were in the ‘in’ crowd for all of high school, right?” After listening sympathetically for the rest of the appointment, he sent her on her way with an admonishment to get involved in activities, put herself out there, and leave her phone in a drawer for the bulk of the day.
I was feverishly writing something about Charlottesville and the impossible realization that the President of the United States is unwilling to put Nazis and white supremacists on a different ‘moral plane’ than the people who were protesting those groups’ hideous actions. But then I read Jeff Bleich’s phenomenal Medium piece and decided he had said what I feel far better than I ever could. And so, reminded by Kathleen Winters’s eloquent post about the season of saying goodbye, I thought I’d dust this one off for friends sending their first, or maybe last, precious child off to college this month. In case you’re interested, my Year Two update: I can’t say I’ve found that fantastic new book to read, but I’ve tried out a few and this year’s departures are definitely far less brutal than last year’s. So if this is your first time, have faith. It’s what we were working towards all these years, right?
Amid the avalanche of articles and blogs and well-meaning advice I’ve consumed about surviving my oldest child leaving for college, the most helpful was something Amanda Docter offered at a PPN meeting last spring. She said she’s come to think of her kids’ departures as the end of a really good book. A book she’s enjoyed immensely, one she had a hard time putting down while she was reading it, but one she can no longer deny she’s finished. By turning the last page and placing it in an honored spot on her very favorite bookshelf, she gets to choose a new, exciting book to read next.
If you were at the nation’s finest 4thof July Parade (Piedmont’s – duh!), I hope you noticed the most adorable little float ever: the Kelleher/Olcott/Pochop/Maxwell’s tribute to Hamilton. Besides presenting a unique opportunity for Chad to dance wildly in a Colonial-era wig, it was the most fun our crew has ever had in a joint float-building tradition that dates back to the Olcott-Pochop’s second day in Piedmont, circa 2003.
I love Hamilton for all the reasons everyone else does. The sensational music, the gorgeously diverse and outrageously talented cast, the fascinating history lesson. The awe-inspiring creative leap it took to envision a hip-hop story within the drama of our country’s founding. The sheer fact that it was written by a living genius, a product of New York public schools and a son of a Puerto Rican immigrant who became obsessed with Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography. The beautiful and profound connection the show had with the first African American First Family. Well, perhaps everyone doesn’t share that last one. In fact, I know they don’t. Because as we were building our float, a friend who I both love and respect told me he was ‘boycotting’ Hamilton because of the way ‘it’ treated Mike Pence. More on that later.
This 4th of July, I realized that beyond the many well-documented reasons to adore the show, I also love it for a more obscure quality. In dramatizing a critical turning point in our nation’s history, Hamilton telegraphs an important message to our current polarized, shrill and unyielding political climate. If only we can listen.
Before seeing Hamilton, the only thing I remembered from American History class about A. Ham was his infamous duel with Aaron Burr. Many people admit to a similar limitation. Through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s teaching, we’ve all been reminded of the historical context of the infamous duel, which is, in brief:
Hamilton and Burr were both from the same political party – the Federalists. Hamilton was a fierce advocate for the Federalist point of view. He wrote, spoke, and argued exhaustively for the party’s values. Burr was more of an opportunist, testing the winds before taking positions and switching them when it was politically expedient. The central philosophical divide of the day revolved around the size and role of central government. (Is this sounding familiar?) Opposing the Federalists were the Democratic-Republicans, anchored by Thomas Jefferson, the original populist. Jefferson’s vision of a ‘common man’s’ agrarian utopia depended upon strong states’ rights, and the mostly Southern Democratic-Republicans were loathe to assume other states’ debts. To make a long and fascinating story short, in the Presidential election of 1800, Hamilton endorsed Jefferson and essentially handed the victory to his opposing party.
Hamilton’s fateful endorsement was no mere political betrayal. Despite the fact that it ended in a duel, it wasn’t personal, either. Historical records suggest that Hamilton detested both Burr and Jefferson. Instead, it was a deeply principled action that boils down to something I hope contemporary politicians who gush over Hamilton have noticed: country over party. After decades of close collaboration with Burr, Hamilton decided Burr’s ambition was so insatiable and his allegiances so malleable that his fellow Federalist posed more of a risk to the infant nation than the Federalists’ worst enemy: Thomas Jefferson. As Miranda has Hamilton sing in The Election of 1800, “I have never agreed with Jefferson once; We have fought on like seventy-five diff’rent fronts; But when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”
On the morning of the parade, in my flouncy purple Angelica Schuyler dress with “Helpless” blaring in the background, I sent a link to the Mike Pence/Hamilton incident to my boycotting friend. If you don’t believe me, watch it: despite whatever Fox News reported, Brandon Victor Dixon, who spoke directly to Vice President-elect Pence, displays nothing but respect. He even reprimands the audience for booing.
My friend wrote back that very morning to tell me he watched the clip and that he had revised his opinion. He still didn’t understand why the cast felt the need to urge Pence to work on behalf of all Americans, or to inform him that Trump’s campaign rhetoric had made many of them feel unsafe. But he was excited to see the show nonetheless and open to learning more.
I was so impressed by his willingness to revisit an opinion and consider newly discovered facts that I vowed not to retreat to the knee-jerk liberal response. I’m truly trying to understand his point and to internalize his belief that the Trump administration is being unfairly demonized in the press. I agree with my friend that we’ll never move forward if we all stay in our own corners, shouting into the wind about how right we are. In many ways, Alexander Hamilton lost his life in a commitment to value ideas over tribalism. We owe it to our Founding Fathers to do the same.
It’s never a good sign when news of racist incidents on a high school or college campus creates a tiny ripple of celebration. And yet I heard more than one Piedmonter admit to a sigh of relief recently, when the Bay Area focus switched from Piedmont’s troubles to more salacious incidents in Los Gatos. Which was followed shortly thereafter by Harvard’s Facebook atrocities, after which it was hard to even remember anything that happened in our little town.
I don’t mean to brag, but for several years in a row my first Piedmont friend (Kathy Kelleher) and I have been gaining international prominence at an emerging endurance sport. We’ve triumphed over teams whose combined age is far less than half of ours and whose training capacity, due to their lack of day jobs, is probably three times as intense. What I’m saying, and again, I hesitate to appear boastful but I swear it’s completely true, is that Kathy and I dominate unsuspecting teams of frat boys.
The sport in question is called ‘Corn Toss’ and it’s one of the rare athletic pursuits that participants (of legal drinking age, of course) can enjoy while holding a beer. You’re in luck, because Kathy and I are prepared to demonstrate how it’s done this Sunday. Just come out to Piedmont Park around noon with your game face on to take part in the 7th annual Bay Area Corn Toss Challenge. We’re taking on all comers and promise to be kind and welcoming to neophytes.
With fake news running roughshod throughout the media, one thing that people of all political stripes agree about is that it has become more difficult – and more critical – to separate what’s true from what is merely rumor. It’s an issue on the national front and even more so on the micro-local level. Piedmont’s recent high school assemblies and the resulting news coverage offered an illuminating example of how slippery ‘facts’ can be.
For anyone who has missed the shocking and disheartening story, PHS and Millennium both held assemblies a few weeks ago to address multiple incidents of racist and anti-Semitic behavior amongst students. Parents from both schools received multiple notifications, and a recent School Board meeting was dominated by questions and concerns from parents and students. The primary emotion expressed seemed to be: what exactly happened?
My birthday is fast approaching and I’m a little horrified by how many people might be made aware of it via Facebook. Remember when the only people who remembered your birthday were your mom and your really good friends? Whether welcomed or dreaded, birthdays are one more reason I love Piedmont. Even in the pre-Facebook Era, this town always provided me with a perfect birthday buddy.
My OG birthday buddy was the incomparable Royanne Gwynn. Royanne (yep – she’s the namesake of one of Mulberry’s most popular sandwiches) lived for birthdays. I’m not sure how she kept track of them, but whatever her system, it was a good one. We moved in down the street from her when our girls were five and two, and she never once let any of their birthdays (or Charlie’s, once he arrived, or Chad’s or mine for that matter) pass by without a bouquet of balloons and a silly candy gift. It took me years of receiving her unrequited bounty to realize that one of the reasons she always remembered my birthday was that it was the same day as hers. Once I finally clued in, I was able to reciprocate, but of course Royanne wasn’t in it for the quid pro quo.
Warning: this is one of those weeks when I’m taking a break from my usually scheduled repertoire of liberal political commentary, vaguely self-righteous parenting treatises, and feel-good small town updates for a little public service potty talk. I completely understand if you choose to skip this one, and I promise to be back in regular form next time.
And yet. Not since the great Bathroom Incident of 2015 has a potty-oriented topic been so top of mind for me. For anyone who wasn’t yet in Piedmont or who floated (blissfully) above the fray, here’s what went down. In the summer of 2015 Mulberry’s made a major restroom-oriented transition. After eight and a half years of serving as Piedmont’s only public facility (save the sometimes-closed but much appreciated Piedmont Park outbuilding), we were forced to make the decision to restrict our bathroom to employees only.
Just got back from another glorious week in Tijuana (how often does that word combo come up?) and getting lots of questions about it. This is a repeat-of-a-repeat, but every year there’s a new crop of parents sending their kids on Piedmont’s greatest junket so I thought I’d throw it out there again. Thanks as always to Scott Kail, Julie Hofer, and the dozens of other folks who make this miraculous endeavor possible. My blingy-gold trucker’s hat is permanently tipped to you guys.
I’m not going to lie. The first time I heard about the PCC Mexico Spring Break trip, I rolled my eyes and quickly labeled it a “rich kid trip.” Growing up middle class (as in flyover zone five-figure, not Piedmont middle class) and attending college with the mainly affluent, I developed a cynicism (jealousy?) towards semesters in Nicaragua or winter breaks teaching paraplegics to ski.
Why couldn’t Piedmont kids focus on desperately poor families in Oakland or Richmond? Wouldn’t it be far more efficient for PHS to raise a chunk of money to send a skilled crew with a cement truck to build twice as many houses in Mexico?
What I’ve learned through a half dozen immensely satisfying yet hygiene-challenged weeks is that the Mexico Trip = Jenga. Each element is vital to the perilous, miraculous structure; you cannot achieve the whole without assembling all the pieces.
The most fundamental Jenga block? Teenagers. A PCC’er told me they’ve tried to replicate the trip with teams of adults and it doesn’t work. Accompanying those teenagers must be adult “leaders” with limited construction skills, driving rudimentary rental vans with single-disc CD players. Naturally, the aforementioned teenagers must devote a great deal of time and energy to producing CD’s that shock and/or repulse the adults.
The entire group must be bused from Piedmont to San Diego and back, and a minimum of one student per bus must vomit. Tijuana ‘accommodations’ must be spartan, with no electricity, running water, wifi or cell service. Families served must speak no English, and there cannot be an outside interpreter to smooth over the inevitable misunderstandings. There needs to be a lot of candy. Each night around a campfire, the lightly-showered girls need to groom one another like monkeys, comparing sunburns and braiding each others’ hair into ever more complicated designs. Around the same fire, a gifted spiritual leader named Scott Kail must skillfully nudge each participant to ponder the connection between the unadulterated joy flowing throughout the week and their own personal relationship with God.
Believe me, there are a couple of Jenga blocks I’d be happy to toss. But I believe in the whole enough to endure the parts that aren’t my favorite. And I see the logic of it all. If we built houses in West Oakland, building codes and union rules and a thousand other hurdles would ensure the PHS students did little more than paint a wall or two. If there were power tools and a cement mixer, there’d also be access to flat irons and Snapchat, and we all know where that would end up.
The last night of the Jenga tournament is the emotional payoff of the trip. That’s when what appear to be entitled, overconfident teens triumph – and often cry — over the elemental satisfaction of building someone a home. They also share their struggles with Big Stuff like substance abuse, losing a parent, terrifying suicidal thoughts. Then their Jenga teammates, who also appear to be entitled, overconfident teens, step forward and surround them with strength, acceptance and love.
On my first trip, I turned my phone on just over the border to learn that Isabel captured a local teen stealing aluminum foil on camera, and did I want to come in tonight or tomorrow morning to look at it? (BTW – who steals aluminum foil?) Another year, I came home to find the staff wrestling with students from PMS and Millennium who are stealing beer. Raising moral, compassionate, self-reliant children has always been a Herculean task, never more so than in this age of the Kardashians and Ask.fm. Lucky for the parents of the 250+ teenagers on PCC’s Jenga trip, we’re getting some serious help along the way. Which is nothing to roll your eyes at.
Having never been a New Yorker, the fact that most Big Apple residents pay mortgages, property taxes and co-op maintenance fees (which are sometimes the highest of all three!) has always been mysterious to me. But an enlightening feature titled Necessities or Frills? in this Sunday’s New York Times Real Estate section shed lots of light and brought the dynamics of the practice oh-so-close to home.