Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Towheaded Child

I have five children, two with Meg, three from a previous marriage. They’ve gone to all kinds of schools, public and private. The common denominator among the schools is that they have all been pretty good.

I have a bias in favor of public schools. Not only are they cheaper, I find their egalitarianism to be healthy and hopeful. But during those times when, in moving here and there, my kids ended up in bad public-school districts, they went to private schools. I could afford that, and egalitarianism wouldn’t have helped them get into college.

Cord and the three other Everett McCord Claytons
When my youngest, Cord, was starting kindergarten, I wasn’t thinking much about whether he was getting a better start than some other kid I didn’t know in some neighborhood I had never visited. It didn’t surprise me that all his schoolmates were little towheads like him, even though this wasn’t some swanky private school, just a little run-of-the mill public school in a Leave-it-to-Beaver suburb not far from the runways of the Los Angeles airport.

I don’t remember any Hispanics in Cord’s first school. I’m sure there were no African Americans. Our next-door neighbor was Jewish. That was about as diverse as it got. It reminded me of the South, where I grew up; or it would have if I had thought about it at the time. To me, not that much more than a boy myself, it just looked like the schools I had always known (except for having outside hallways, which struck me as a little too flip-flops-and-tie-dye to be serious).

But you can’t live in California long without noticing that the world is not all towheads. And what I have seen, as I have opened my eyes and really started paying attention, is that, when it comes to education, minorities today have as raw a deal as blacks did in the Jim Crow South of my youth.

A half-century after Brown v. Board was supposed to have leveled the education playing field, most of our public schools have re-segregated. Researchers at Harvard University have found that most minority students in the country go to heavily segregated public schools in poor neighborhoods, where the education provided is substandard and leads to significantly less opportunity in the job market.  Poor schools, poor jobs, poor neighborhoods. The cycle is relentless and merciless.

Nowhere is this inequality in education opportunity more striking than here in California, where Hispanics will soon be not a minority but a majority. A recent ACLU report said that in California “there is a dramatically unfair concentration of the worst conditions in schools attended primarily by low income children, African-American and Latino children, and English Language Learners.”

Meg and I live in Palo Alto now, a mile from Stanford University. We moved here eight years ago because the public schools are among the best in the state. Palo Alto’s students are predominantly white and Asian, and their families are wealthy. What the state doesn’t supply in education funding, the parents chip in. 

Right next door, a stone’s throw from where the folks at Google aspire to bring all the world’s information to everyone, the Ravenswood City school district serves the community of East Palo Alto. The student body there is ninety-eight percent Hispanic, African-American and Pacific Islander. Ninety-four percent of the children are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged.

California has a school rating system called the Academic Performance Index. In one number, the API tells you whether a school is a good one or a bad one. The API scale is 200 to 1,000, with a state target for schools of 800. In 2010, Palo Alto’s schools scored an average of 925; East Palo Alto’s scored 688. The average teacher in Palo Alto makes sixty percent more than his or her counterpart in East Palo Alto.

Segregation and poverty are stubborn. It can be easy to think of the achievement gap between rich and poor children as some kind of tragic inevitability. But new research is showing that low achievement is not a genetic curse, it is a symptom of poverty. A symptom of living with a single parent who works two jobs. A symptom of being expected to work or take care of younger siblings. Of the pull of the street. Of a culture of failure.

Poverty nurtures brutal, self-perpetuating conditions. Nevertheless, there are things we can do to give poor kids a better chance. A recent study at Johns Hopkins, for instance, found that the achievement gap in the early grades in Baltimore was primarily the result of summer education programs that were available to affluent children and not to poor children. Making those programs available to poor children would make a big difference.

When you look at it that way, when you start ticking off the education advantages affluent children have and thinking about ways to provide comparable advantages to poor children, you can get pretty excited about the possibilities: Why not set up more after-school tutoring programs? How about more day care for toddlers to take the load off their brothers and sisters? And more and better preschools? What if we could roll out parent education programs to show how important parental involvement is for their child’s education success?

Good ideas, you say, but the problem is money. These folks are poor, so who is going to pay for it all? The answer, if we’re smart, is the rest of us. Not just because it is the right thing to do, although that would be reason enough, but because it is in our own economic self-interest.

Over the long term, every dollar invested today to educate a poor child has a many-fold return in lower costs for health care, welfare, and prisons. And it’s not just about reducing the costs associated with poverty. Educated citizens contribute dramatically more to the nation’s gross domestic product and tax revenue. Education is the best economic stimulus program there is.

If we can bankroll GM to save jobs, we can invest in poor communities to reduce the high-school dropout rate. Let’s take some of that leftover TARP money, or some like it, and make no-interest loans to local entrepreneurs who want to set up summer schools for underprivileged kids. Let’s make equity investments in small neighborhood day-care facilities to help them expand. Let’s partner with a local community leader to build a community center with after-school and summer programs.

Micro finance works in African villages. A slightly less micro version, targeted toward improving education support, can work in American neighborhoods. It wouldn’t be welfare, it would be partnerships. Local entrepreneurs would make money (raising the economic standards in the community), kids would have better education opportunities, parents would have access to affordable services for their children, and the cost to taxpayers would be a fraction of the long-term cost of doing nothing.

The former towhead with Emma and Tim and "Pops"
My son Cord grew up and married his college sweetheart, Yvonne. Yvonne’s parents are Korean. Cord’s children, my grandchildren, Tim and Emma, aren’t towheads like their dad was all those years ago; they have their mom’s beautiful dark hair. They live in Philadelphia, right in the city. Cord and Yvonne are both partners in their law firms. They walk the kids to school every morning on the way to work. Tim and Emma have been going to a private school run by Quakers. It’s expensive, and a sacrifice for Cord and Yvonne, even as partners in law firms. Except on scholarship, it is financially out of reach for the many families in the city who are less well-off.

This year Tim tested for and was accepted into the nearby public magnet school. It is open to every bright kid in the city, rich or poor. The ones who make it there are highly motivated and typically come from families that aggressively support their children’s hunger for education.

There are many more bright children in Philadelphia than there are magnet schools. Like the schools out here in East Palo Alto, most of the public schools in Philly are not that great. And many of the families of children who attend those schools are too overwhelmed just trying to get by to give their children adequate support in school. Most of their kids aren’t towheads, but neither are Tim and Emma. For all our sakes, we need to give those children a better chance to break poverty's ruthless grip.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Going to a Meeting

“Hello, my name is Mac, and I’m a Bossy Dad”

I need a twelve-step program for Bossy Dads. I realize now that it’s not something you ever get over. It’s one day at a time, with slips and recriminations along the way. Even on the days when you bite your tongue and agree that you’ve always dreamed of body piercings or backpacking in Pakistan’s SWAT Valley, you never lose the longing. If I could just find the right way to tell him, you think, he’d see the wisdom of my advice and avoid the mistakes I made, or the new ones he’s dreamed up that I didn’t have the imagination to make.

It’s hard to admit you have a problem. I only nag socially, you say to yourself. But then you notice that your children stop meeting your gaze when you come into the room. You ask them how they are and the most you ever get is “fine.”

Okay, they are your children, and they love you and know you love them, so it never gets too bad. They rarely call the police or try to have you committed. But the damage is there. And it can be more long-lasting than you think.

Conversations get shorter, even when they are going well. Hey, this is great, Dad, you can hear them thinking, Why don’t we quit before you start giving me advice. Those trips to the tennis court or the golf range become a little less frequent, as they hit their limit for swing-improvement instruction.

Or, gulp, they go away to college and realize they are free to be themselves and don’t seem to want to come home as often as you were hoping.

The discussions I’ve had with Nick about this are the freshest in my memory. He’s still young and feisty and likes to go toe to toe with me, meeting point with counter-point. I’m usually the one to say “uncle,” sometimes because he outlasts me, but as often because I realize he is right.
Nick and his sister, Ashley.

Over the years, in an effort to establish my loving bona fides, I must have reminded him a million times that his mom and I have been protecting him all his life, and even though we can see that he is nearly grown now, that he is a young man who must make his own decisions, it is hard nevertheless to stifle the reflex to keep him from playing in traffic. In one pitiful moment---I don’t think tears were actually streaming down my cheeks, but it was nearly that pathetic---I asked him why he always did what his mom suggests, while taking my ideas as the setup for a debating contest.

“Mom is more unalterable than you are,” he said.

Oh. What the heck does that mean? That I am reasonable and subject to being swayed by sound argument, while she is merely stubborn? No, I’m afraid not. It means she picks her shots. So that when she does weigh in, he knows she’s serious and not likely to be sweet-talked or filibustered out of her position.

Picking your shots (“nagging light,” I might call it) is tolerated better, apparently. Indeed, the implication was that guidance meted out so judiciously might even be appreciated in the long run.

I never saw myself as too bossy, but after all, who ever thinks he’s a drunk? So, I’m going to a meeting. I hope the other dads there won’t be jerks, because I’d hate to think of myself that way. I’ll bet most of them will be like me, fathers who took up telling their children what to do to keep them safe and never learned how to stop.

McCord Clayton

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Teach Your Children Well

Before he left for college, I tried to buy Nick a new pair of shoes. Nothing fancy, just some leather loafers to wear when his ratty running shoes didn’t seem appropriate (which, as near as I can tell, is rarely). He said he didn’t need any. Then I tried to buy him hiking boots to wear in the Michigan snow and slush. Same answer.

When pressed, though, it turned out he wasn’t making a bohemian fashion statement: he’s a vegetarian and he doesn’t want to wear leather any more than he wants to eat hamburger. Ah, I see. Honestly, I’m so used to the way things are that that never even occurred to me.

We found some synthetic hiking boots and he took an old pair of dressy-enough shoes that we already owned (so he wasn’t adding to the problem by buying new ones), but the experience got me thinking. How much should any of us be willing to give up to stand up for what we believe in?

Flash forward to Monday’s New York Times. Page two, where the quote of the day is laid out next to baubles from Chanel and Tiffany. Here’s the quote:

“Please—do something! We don’t want to die of hunger and also we want to send our children to school. I give glory to God that I am still alive—but I would like to stay that way.” (From a front-page story on a Haitian tent city.)

Here’s the bauble:

“Coco Platform” tweed bootie, $1,275, from Chanel. (A tweed bootie is a shoe, in case you’re wondering, not BeyoncĂ© or J Lo at a Highland Fling.)

It’s enough to make you nuts, isn’t it?

I’d be a communist if I thought that would work. Nick and I used to debate the limits of socialism--the crossover point at which welfare for all drags down the economy for all. I don’t know where it is. Somewhere between the U.S and France, I would guess. Nick thinks the Scandinavian countries are a good mix of GDP and social welfare, and he’s right, but they are small and homogeneous societies where people are comfortable making the social covenant to look after one another. What they have doesn’t seem to scale up very well.

For some, the world is a better place than when we were born. For many more, however, it is not. Never mind the odd hurricane or earthquake, just wait for the broader effects of global warming, which may not be as far off as we would like to think. We won’t be able to click the heels of our ruby slippers to leave those drought-stricken plains.

At some point, each generation realizes that it is going to have to leave it to the next to figure things out. I used to ask my grandfather if he didn’t want me to bring in someone to paint the house or update the kitchen. He always said, “We’ll leave that to the next occupant.”

And so we are.

The trouble is, the next occupants won’t be nameless people we don’t care about, they will be our children. Maybe they’ll be able to deal with some of the seemingly intractable problems like ruthless economic stratification--diamonds on the soles of our shoes. Maybe Nick’s technology can help. Or the economics his brother Chris is studying. Perhaps my older son Grant, a private equity investor, will back the next Norman Borlaug.

I have faith in our children, yours and mine. They are smart and energetic and idealistic. I wonder, though, why we are leaving them such tough problems to solve. And I wonder whether, in our time with them, when they are young, while they believe what we tell them, we are giving them a better moral lens through which to search for solutions.

McCord Clayton

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Dad App

My eighteen-year-old son Nicholas was walking through the house with a smart phone that was saying “Droid…Droid…Droid…” in an synthesized electronic voice that would have made George Lucas smile (“Roger Roger”). What’s that? I said. He looked up and grinned and said he’d found an app that reminded him of me.

With Nick in Prague
It was a deadline reminder program he was testing. It was telling him the project or test or term paper was due that day, and adding little text encouragements like “You’ll feel happier if you do this right away.” Took the words right out of my mouth.

As we stood talking, Nick tapped on his touch screen with perplexed determination while the electronic voice continued its reminders. He looked up and said the thing was exactly like me: even though he had already told it thanks for the reminder and please go away, it was still pestering him. Can’t you get it to stop? I asked. Only if I tell it I have completed the task, he said.

What a truly brilliant invention: one that not only takes over parental nagging but fosters life-like interaction--a little deception to get it off your back--between user and surrogate.

Nick has just left for the University of Michigan to study computer science. It’s his passion, and he’s good at it, so I know he’ll do well and be happy. Still I worry a little, like any parent. Will he eat well? Will he get enough rest? Will he remember his deadlines? Will he be careful when he’s having fun? All the usual stuff.

I wish I could be there to make him breakfast every morning, although I’m sure that would be his worst nightmare. He’s the last one out of the nest, and after having gone through this with his brothers and sister, I am a little surprised at how much I am already longing to find a way to stay close to him.

So, what’s up with that? Why do so many of us have such a hard time letting go of our children? It may be as simple as loss of comforting routine. It may be something of an identity crisis: If I’m not an active father, who am I? Or perhaps it is something more, something even more unsettling.

I remember once, late in my grandfather’s long life, visiting him in the small house to which he had retired after a distinguished career in academia. His two children, my mother and her brother, were themselves old by then. They had turned out well, and he had been, by all accounts, a doting father. That morning he was resting in bed in a quiet, dim room with a fan whispering on the dresser. He was looking a little wistful, and I asked him what he had been thinking about. As if ashamed of his thoughts, he didn’t look over at me when he answered. He said he had been lying there regretting every mean thing he had ever said to his children.

Children are hope. Hope for the future. And for a father who tried hard but could have done better, hope for redemption. When they leave home, gone with them is the daily absolution they offer so freely, so ungrudgingly, so unconditionally. There will be no more mad rushing to your arms when you come home, even (or especially) if you’ve been away too often. No more spontaneous ping-pong matches, with the easy joy that comes from playing a game you both want them to win. No more serving homemade sausage rolls for breakfast along with your apology for yelling at them the night before. 

Raising children is like gambling. You keep putting coins in the slot, knowing (or at least hoping) the next pull of the lever will bring a jackpot. Or maybe that’s not right. Maybe it’s not that chancy and random (and you certainly don’t think the odds favor the house). Maybe it’s more like investing in a generally rising market. There are some ups and downs, but the trend (barring really bad luck) is almost always up, even if you don’t do everything perfectly at each step, even if you screw up pretty badly once in a while. There’s always another day, another chance.

Until there’s not.

So why is it so hard to let go? For me, it is the fear that Nick’s leaving marks the end of the unique form of personal optimism that comes with being a parent. As my grandfather must have before me, I mourn the waning of second chances, the draining of that wellspring of optimism that I can be a better father, indeed a better person, that bubbles up every day in a house with children.

McCord Clayton
Palo Alto, CA