Sukkot is here and my guests are on the way. Like Chagall’s lovers they fly over the silver moon; their white gauzy clothing double as wings. I greet them in the sukkah – a makeshift structure akin to a hut that we build from a kit. The sukkah also has a roof with slats generously spaced to see the sun and the moon and the stars.
The company I’m talking about stargazing with is called ushpizin – the Hebrew term for mystical guests who will grace sukkot (plural of sukkah) all over the world on each of the seven nights of the holiday. This is my kind of celebration. When I was a kid I loved reenactments of historical events. The old sitcom Bewitched tickled me because someone like Columbus or Shakespeare came alive for me.
To that end, I have a wish list of historical figures I’ve always wanted to meet. Moses and Leah top my list. No one is more associated with the Torah than Moses. In my mind, he’s an inspiration because so much of his leadership was marked by doubt. As a parent in the 21st century, I take solace in the fact that even with God’s direct intervention, Moses still had a difficult time leading the Israelites out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Leah is my role model as a mother. Every parent has been a Leah at some point – taken for granted, ignored, but still triumphant in ordinary yet miraculous ways.
The Rachel that I want to meet was Rabbi Akiva’s wife. I like her rebelliousness. She was from a prosperous family but followed her heart and married the illiterate Akiva against her family’s wishes. To complete the fairytale, she recognized Akiva’s natural genius and encouraged him to learn to read when he was 40. Forty! Akiva excelled in his studies beyond their wildest dreams. Rachel was alone for years as he studied and taught in the greatest Jewish academies.
In his absence, Rachel coped with grace and fortitude. I want to ask her how she did it. I want to know if she was as disoriented as I am when my husband is only away for a week on a business trip. I want to know how she controlled herself when her husband finally came home and his students, protective of their beloved teacher, did not let her through the throng to greet him. When Akiva realized what was happening, he ordered his students to let Rachel pass immediately. He told them that she single-handedly was responsible for everything that he and his students had attained. I want to know if witnessing her husband’s success was worth sacrificing his company all those years.
I want to introduce my daughter Anna to Sara Schenirer. Hunched over her sewing machine, she had a revelation. Or was it a moment of despair that gave way to lucidity? She dared to imagine girls in their own schools studying Torah. It was a radical idea in the late 19th century. Although nowhere near egalitarian, the fact that girls had a classroom of their own to be formally educated was inspiring and enduring and just. I want Anna to know that she is the direct beneficiary of Sara Schenirer’s prescience.
I love spirits. I buy into the notion that there are other times during the year for formal visitation from phantasmagoric souls. There are the seven days of shiva or mourning. The week during which the sheva b’rachot – the seven blessings following a marriage – are celebrated. We boldly mingle with our ancestors on Passover when Elijah joins us and Miriam remembers us with a shake of her timbrel.
But it’s on Sukkot that I reflect on people I would give almost anything to see again. I close my eyes and see my father healthy and strong. I remember my father-in-law’s mega-watt smile and can-do optimism. I feel the presence of Anna’s namesake – a grandmother whom I adored. I miss my friend Miriam so much that I ache. My sukkah is a space painted in a full spectrum of memories and emotional colors.
It makes sense that a holiday that welcomes ghosts to the dinner table would end with Yizkor – the service to memorialize the dead. Yom Kippur and the three harvest festivals – Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot – are the four times a year there is time and space to mingle with loved ones who have died.
What comforts me most about remembering my dead on Sukkot is that I can walk out of my fragile sukkah into the sturdy structure of community where, I believe, a lot of people understand that otherworldly visitors frequently stop by throughout the year.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs.
Albie, our half yellow Lab, half Golden Retriever rescue dog, has been with us almost three months now. Many have said that a rescue dog's personality reveals itself over time as he becomes accustomed to and comfortable in his new home, and this seems to be so.
For the first few days Albie was with us we couldn’t coax him upstairs. Maybe, we thought, he’s never lived anywhere with stairs. Then again, maybe he did but was punished whenever he tried to go up them. We had no idea. Now, every night, he sleeps under our bed and when he thinks we’ve overslept (in his opinion) he’ll jump right up and start licking any face he can find not buried in a pillow.
For the first week or so, we weren’t even sure he could bark. Now, we know. He can bark all right, though it’s mainly reserved, mercifully, for moments when he’s playing enthusiastically with another dog. His brief period of barking at guests – when he decided the house was his responsibility to defend – seems to have passed with a few exceptions (my apologies to Tim, our plumber).
But it’s not just Albie who’s changing. Unsure at the beginning whether life with a dog might prove limiting, I now can’t imagine being without him. Our daily walks in the woods have become a cherished time (check with me on that in February), and I find everything about him, from the little tear on his ear to the smell of the pads on his feet, endearing.
On a recent weekend away, I came home a day early because I missed seeing his big nose under mine whenever I tried to put on my shoes. I missed having him follow me from room to room and up and down the stairs. And I missed his ever-changing expressive face, comical one minute, wistful the next. I am hopelessly in love with a creature who cannot talk to me, but whose capacity for love and trust seems to have no bounds.
Before Albie I was always a bit wary of people who treated their dogs as if they were children, and in some ways I still am. Children are more complex, the challenges of raising them far tougher and the stakes higher.
And yet, as I’m finding, the bonds with a dog can be intense, and the love very, very sweet.
To be greeted every day, or, to be more precise, several times a day, as if you just delivered a Publisher’s Clearinghouse million dollar check to the lucky winner is endlessly gratifying. To be able to completely satisfy by patting a head and rubbing a belly is reassuring. (Though, truth be told, I would probably be completely satisfied if someone did the same for me.) And to see a creature whose idea of a great time is an hour chasing a $1 tennis ball, instead of playing a first person-shooter video game that requires major electronic components and an Internet connection, is a welcome reminder that the best things in life really are almost free.
Here, parents, is a teachable moment for your kids:
The president focused pretty equally on labor and sex trafficking, and announced a number of new US efforts to combat what he called “the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name – modern slavery.”
Somewhat predictably, though, the most vocal response here to the speech has come from those involved in the anti-sex-trafficking movement. “Sex trafficking” is a subset of human trafficking, one that has gotten a lot of domestic attention recently, from politicians to nonprofit organizations, celebrities to church groups. The stories that these groups tell of victims are horrific – of young girls, many of whom are American, being kidnapped or tricked, and the subjected to all varieties of violence and cruelties while pimps sell them for sex.
But ... it turns out to be a more complicated story. I wrote a cover story about this a few weeks back for the CSMonitor Weekly magazine. What seems at first glance to be a simple good-versus-evil issue is actually filled with all sorts of debates, confusions, and ambiguities.
You can read the full story, but the gist is that critics say that many anti-sex-trafficking advocates conflate trafficking with other forms of prostitution. And they say this domestic focus on sex has shifted attention – and resources – away from the other (and arguably far more common, if you’re including all sorts of forced labor) types of trafficking that Mr. Obama noted in his speech.
Advocates, meanwhile, say that this criticism is absurd. While certainly all human trafficking deserves attention, they say, there’s no reason not to focus on the exploitation of young girls, many of whom are American.
Which brings me to why I’m writing about this in a parenting forum.
Although this was not necessarily clear from the president’s speech this week, when we talk about sex trafficking in the US, we’re primarily talking about girls under 18 involved in prostitution. It doesn’t matter whether these girls are beaten and burned and kidnapped, as many of the stories go, or whether they seek out a pimp because they want extra cash. Under US federal law, there’s an argument that if a girl is under 18 and working with a pimp, she’s a sex-trafficking victim.
Now, the numbers on this are incredibly squishy and hard to pin down. (I’m telling you, I spent months trying to figure out how organizations came up with the numbers they throw around, and most of the time there’s no good answer.) But it’s pretty clear that a good number of young American girls are sold for sex (or sell themselves for sex), and it’s also pretty clear that this is – in the vast, vast majority of cases – not healthy or happy for these teens.
And here’s another thing: While most prostituted teenagers started out as vulnerable teenagers – they were homeless, say, or had drug addictions – there are a number of cases around the US of more mainstream girls ending up as victims.
In Northern Virginia, for instance, prosecutors earlier this year broke up a gang-related sex trafficking ring in which a number of high school girls – at least a few of whom lived at home, with parents – were recruited by other girls into a prostitution business. In Georgia, there has reportedly been a prostitution ring (again, managed in large part by other girls), run out of an Atlanta area high school.
Now, is the takeaway from this to lock up your daughter, or start panicking because classmates are just waiting for a chance to lure her into prostitution?
No. Rather, the president’s speech, and the growing movement around sex trafficking, is a chance to talk about sexual exploitation – whether called trafficking or something else. (It’s a good moment to think seriously about your own prejudices and perspectives on this, also). It’s a chance to talk about exploitation overall, actually, and about how easy it is for us to look away from those whose suffering is uncomfortable or inconvenient to us; whether that’s the young prostitute you try to ignore as you drive through your city at night, or the impoverished worker a world away who is making your next iPhone.
It’s also a good chance to talk about hype, and about looking for facts underneath rhetoric.
The day starts with my son asking for the empty toilet paper roll as I take it off of the holder. I hand it to him, and he climbs up on the closed lid of the toilet and peers through one end of the cardboard tube.
"Arrgh," he says. "Mommy, I a pirate!" He bends at the knees, leaning forward in his T-shirt and Spiderman underwear while surveying the imaginary seas around us.
Three-year-olds have great imaginations, but they have no sense of time – at least not our time. Later that morning, my pirate makes us late for an appointment by taking forever to put on his own jacket, and refusing my help. I have learned from experience that trying to help a preschooler when they want to do something on their own will most certainly lead to a teary tantrum – and more delay. So I take deep breaths while tapping my foot.
That afternoon, a 10-minute walk to the park turns into 30 as he stops to examine the cracks in the sidewalk, an interesting rock and a flower. I just want to get there, but my son sees some ants and squats to get a closer look. Knowing that he won't budge, I bend and watch the tiny creatures with him.
The ants march on, and so do we, eventually getting to the park. After playing on the equipment, my son runs around in the grass and picks dandelions, handing me a sticky bouquet.
I notice that other families are leaving and realize with a start that it's five o'clock. I tell him that it's time to go home. Of course, he wants to stay. He plants his bottom on the ground, stubbornly refusing to move. I sigh and look again at my watch, mentally reviewing the night's schedule.
My older children are at sports practice, and my husband won't be home for a while. But I need to get dinner started. My thoughts are interrupted by my son, squealing in delight as he watches a squirrel racing up a tree. Soon he'll be off at his own activities, I think to myself. This is the last time I'll have a three-year-old.
I decide that we can have sandwiches for dinner, and I sit down beside him on the grass. He points out an airplane, fascinated by its twin contrails stretching across the sky, and shows me a cloud that looks like a lion. He wants to know why the birds fly in a triangle, and we laugh as crows and squirrels gobble the goldfish crackers we throw onto the ground for them.
Not until the sun begins to sink and the air begins to cool do we start back. He slips his small hand into mine, and we make our way slowly home, on three-year-old time.
It was not until the morning that I awoke in Soledad Zambrano's home in the central state of Guanajuato, watching her carry a giant blue bucket of corn kernels behind her house, that I realized: As a new mother priding herself on feeding her baby only “homemade” food, I could never compete with the mothers of rural Mexico.
I followed her back to the covered shack where an old corn grinder was manually started by her husband, who had to use his body weight to get the wheel turning. Soledad carefully poured the corn into the contraption – dating back to the 1970s – to make dough, that she then pressed into disks and then cooked over a stone comal in her kitchen.
By the time we sat down for a lunch of cactus soup with dried shrimp fritters, an Easter specialty, with our requisite pile of tortillas, she had dedicated half the day to her family's basic consumption (this count excludes the labor of sons, husbands, horses, and donkeys planting and harvesting the corn in the first place).
Mexicans consume unfathomable quantities of corn tortillas. For them, it is the bread of Europeans or rice of the Chinese or Vietnamese. I used to marvel at the stacks placed in front of me at restaurants: I would barely make a dent, while Mexican colleagues would make it the whole way through.
For the poorest Mexicans, tortillas provide about half of a family's daily caloric intake, and when corn prices rise there are riots. I used to hear these statistics with a certain amount of pity.
But that's until I had a baby, and until I walked into Soledad's kitchen.
I am an avid, some might say obsessive, follower of the book “Super Baby Food,” which advocates homemade purees in lieu of commercial jars and recommends sprinkling dessicated liver powder on food or mixing yogurt and kale as a treat. I myself add wheat germ and flaxseed to breakfast most days.
But the book, which is dogeared in so many places that the markers are practically useless, has no references to corn tortillas (excluding as well other healthy grains in this part of the world, like amaranth or quinoa).
We like sandwiches in my house, but a favorite is quesadillas, with avocado, beans, and cheese (and sometimes an added topping of wheat germ). A delicious “homemade” meal in a matter of seconds that baby loves.
But she is not so fortunate as to dine on Soledad's version.
Soledad's family in rural Guanajuato state, of course, complains: beans and tortillas, beans and tortillas, that's all we ever have, griped one daughter-in-law as I was leaning, awed, over the piping staple. They were, quite simply, the best tortillas I have ever had (except for perhaps the next day, when yesterday's tortillas were cut into strips and fried, and then topped with beans and cheese, for a hearty Mexican breakfast).
Soledad, who still has a daughter in elementary school, has to worry about there being enough food, not what kind of variety she can offer. Everything her family eats is vulnerable to rains and pests.
But when it comes to homemade and locally grown, she puts us “Super Baby Food” devotees to shame.
Our two daughters headed back to school recently, and the experience of sending them off to fend for themselves at the elementary school up the street has been, for me, emotional, amusing, and problematic.
On the morning of the BIG DAY, Grace was awake by 6 a.m., buzzing with anticipation. We had everything in the “go” position: Her outfit was ready, the backpack had been strategically checked multiple times, and we knew what we had to do to get Madeleine ready. Little sister had had trouble getting up in the morning for most of the summer – lazing around in the bed was her specialty. But, to our surprise, we spotted her wandering around squinty-eyed in the hallway at 6:45, trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.
Grace helped her to get dressed, and I got the breakfast ready. As they were eating their yogurt, I made a big production of making their bag lunches for school. We had gone the extra mile and bought Madeleine a new Hello Kitty lunch bag that had caught her fancy. I never understood the attraction of the bespangled patent leather tote in the shape of a cat’s head. Grace took the more understated route and decided to reprise last year’s classic Land’s End lunch sack.
I made Madeleine her summer favorite: ham sandwich on a hamburger bun plus little carrots and a couple of cookies. Oh yes, and a small bottle of Sunny D which, if you read the label carefully, admits that it contains only 5 percent real juice.
In the final drill, Grace and I reviewed once again how she would go to the cafeteria with her classmates and eat her nice lunch. Well, that was the hope.
I took the girls over to the bus stop while Laurent stayed behind in an effort to delimit the chances of boo-hooing once the bus came. There was general excitement among the parents and siblings gathered for this important letting-go moment. Instead of just waving to the kids and sniffling, almost every parent had some sort of tech device with which to capture this fundamental rite of passage: Cell phones were jabbed out into the air for picture taking; someone had a laptop and was making a short movie of the departure.
I took the old-school route and waved and tried to swallow down the lump in my throat. All I could think about was calling my mother and telling her all about it. She passed on two weeks after we returned from China and never got to meet her new, much-anticipated granddaughter.
The house seemed unusually quiet and empty when I got back inside, but I had a lot of work to do so the time passed relatively quickly – though I must admit I wondered a time or two about the homemade lunches with notes tucked inside.
There was a good bit of excitement in the afternoon when the bus was due back at 3. The dog and I took up our position at the intersection and were ready when the big yellow bus appeared on our street.
I could see Grace waving from the darkened window. Then here they came, hand in hand across the street, and Grace looked vexed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked tentatively.
Grace sighed, “Well, I don’t know how this happened, but she didn’t eat her lunch. She went through the line and got a hamburger instead!”
How was this possible? She didn’t have any money with her, I thought stupidly. But the obsession with hamburgers is strong with Madeleine, and when she smells a grilled patty, even of the institutional variety, she has to act.
Grace, of course, was appalled by the impropriety of it all. We got inside and I tried to explain to Madeleine that she was to eat the Hello Kitty lunch, and please not to get into the line again. I tried to show her the school menu and explain that when there was another hamburger day, she could buy her lunch.
In return, I got a stone-faced expression, then a nod yes with the head, then eyes bright with tears.
I felt like a garden variety ogre.
Grace was full of happy chat about fifth grade, how it felt good to have a “mature schedule” where you change from teacher to teacher for the various subjects. Even lunch went well for her, and social aspects can be a challenge due to some embedded cliques among the 10-year-olds.
As for Madeleine, we tried to ask her what she did in her Sheltered English Immersion classroom but we got very little response. Lately it has been particularly frustrating for me to try so hard to speak reasonable Chinese to her and not to get much in return. At times, it can feel as though we are living our lives in parallel linguistic universes.
Day 2 went fine. I sent in $2 to the teacher so she could pay the cafeteria for the hamburger. After school, we did manage to learn that Madeleine had colored a picture of a dog during the day. There had also been some discussion of the numbers five and six. OK, so that’s progress.
By the end of the first half week, everything seemed to have settled into a nice routine. But when the bus arrived in the afternoon, Grace reported gruffly, “Well, she did it again. She got in line for the stuffed crust pizza!”
This time, I must admit I felt a little put out.
If understanding the daily lunch routine in her new American school seemed overwhelming to Madeleine, what hope was there that she’d grasp addition and subtraction taught in English?
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs.
Silly Mommy. How 2010 of you. Today, baby showers are the least of it.
Or so I learned the other week, lying on that super comfy ultrasound bed for one of the more interesting pre-natal checkups; the one that not only determines whether your baby-to-be has all his/her fingers and toes, but also what sex organs he/she happens to boast.
“Do you want to know what you’re having?” the friendly ultrasound technician asked.
"Heck yeah," I answered. My husband and I were expecting this question, and, not exactly the patient types, already knew our answer. (Check out our post from earlier this year about the stats on who “finds out” and who doesn’t.)
And then she asked: “Do you want me to tell you now or write it down? You know, for your gender reveal?”
(Actually, I thought she said “gender unveil,” but that might have been an accent issue. We’re not from Massachusetts.)
Yes, the “gender reveal,” she explained. It’s all the rage these days. You have a party where your family and friends are dragged once again to pay homage to the bump (OK, she just said “come to celebrate”) and at the best dramatic moment, you open the envelop (or look in the cake, or lift a curtain, or whatever) and discover whether to paint the nursery pink or blue.
Husband and I exchanged looks.
“Really?” I asked.
It was all I could muster.
“I know, I know,” she said.
Like any professional researcher, when I got home I turned immediately to Google. Sure enough, authoritative mommy sites from WhatToExpect.com to BabyCenter.com to Pinterest have lists of Gender Reveal ideas and party tips. There are entire websites and books devoted to this.
“Expecting a new baby is a very exciting time for a couple,” writes www.genderreveal.net. “One of the most thrilling parts of pregnancy is revealing the gender of your beautiful little bundle. Don’t announce it just by making a phone call to your family and friends. Make your baby gender reveal party a big, wonderful, landmark event in your life by holding a well-planned baby gender reveal party. Celebrate the arrival of the newest addition in your family with all your friends and loved ones.”
There are plenty of ideas out there for a rockin’ Gender Reveal. One is to give the secret envelop to the party’s cake maker, who then brings out either a pink or blue cake at just the right moment in the party.
There’s the balloon approach, where the Keeper-Of-The-Ultrasound-Envelope orders a huge box of either pink or blue balloons, to be opened by the parents-to-be in front of guests.
I also saw some people advocating a piñata approach. Apparently guests (or mom and dad) can bash through one of those paper animals – sometimes with a question mark drawn on its side – to reveal a cascade of either pink or blue candy. (Am I the only one to find that one a little disturbing? Especially as my own form begins to increasingly resemble that of one of those piñata donkeys... I mean, really, folks.)
A lot of party planners will encourage parents-to-be to have their guest pick sides, or vote, or otherwise get into the Gender Reveal spirit. You know, pink buttons for Team Girl, blue for Team Boy.
And most importantly – all of this looks really good on Facebook.
Ok. So parents-to-be out there who have embraced the Gender Reveal party, you’ve got to help me out with this. Because honestly, I don’t quite get it.
Sure, finding out the sex of your baby is cool – either at 20 weeks pregnant or on the child’s birth day. But hard as this might be to believe before it happens, it’s a piece of info that way pales in comparison to the actual existence of the kid. (Which is why some people who decide to wait to find out the child’s sex at birth realize later that they never even asked or thought about it in the moment.)
And here’s another thing:
While this little nugget of he/she info is pretty important to parents-to-be (how else to know how to decorate the nursery for Pinterest?), your friends – I promise you – do not care. I mean, they’re interested, sure, just in the same way that they’ll be interested in your first baby pictures and the name you pick and all of that good stuff. They care about the you, and the baby. But for 99.9 percent of the folks in your life, it matters not at all whether the upcoming bundle is a boy or a girl. Even if balloons are involved.
So maybe this is just an excuse for a party. And that’s cool. There have been far sketchier reasons for get-togethers.
But I can’t help feeling (I know, I know, grinch over here) that there’s something just a wee bit narcissistic about the Gender Reveal. We somehow think that our boy-girl moment is something other people should celebrate. It’s an Everybody Gets a Trophy kind of party. (I differentiate this, albeit with scant logic, from the general baby shower, or baby party. Because all babies are worth celebrating. Even if there are lots of them born every day.)
Moreover, there seems to be a growing sense that incredible moments are only truly special if they are photo-ready, admired by others and, preferably, color coordinated. Put it in the same category as the professional birth photographers. But with more decorating potential.
But, I guess it’s whatever floats your boat. If the Gender Reveal brings joy, who am I to question it?
Over here, our Gender Reveal happened in the ultrasound room, when the technician asked whether Husband could identify the sex from our baby’s little parts, displayed on the fuzzy, black and white screen. He got the answer wrong. The technician corrected him. And then we went home, happily, to where there was no cake, and to where we could enjoy imagining our future with Baby Two To Be.
It has always been said – kids are cruel. As time goes by, bullying continues to reach new heights, as Whitney Kropp can unfortunately attest. She was the target of the cruelest of pranks, when her high school nominated her as the sophomore representative for their Homecoming Court.
At first, she was shocked and excited by the homecoming vote, until she learned the cruel reality – the students in her school thought it would be funny if an unpopular student won. They wasted no time and began pointing and laughing at her in the hallways and posting about it on her Facebook page.
And the popular football player who was voted to escort her? He withdrew his name because he didn’t want to be linked with her.
“I thought I wasn’t worthy,” said Kropp, 16. “I was this big old joke.” Whitney was devastated and wanted to withdraw, herself. However, at the urging of her grandmother, mother and sister, she planned to attend the game, to hold her head high and not give the bullies that satisfaction.
As word of this quickly spread through her small town, her community rallied around her. Showering her with support, local businesses offered her everything; a new dress, new shoes and a tiara, as well as having her hair and nails done.The town also plans to pack the football stadium for the homecoming game this weekend, wearing Team Whitney shirts, so they can cheer for her when she is introduced at halftime.
Beyond her town, this story has spread online and a Facebook page called Support Whitney Kropp was created 11 days ago, so more people can show her their support. It already has over 46,000 likes.
This story both breaks and warms my heart.
What started out as a heartless and terrible prank on a 16 year-old-girl, has turned into such a positive story because of people willing to take a stand against bullying. I hate to even think about what Homecoming would have been like for Whitney, if her town didn’t rally behind her.
Would the students have further humiliated her by booing when her name was announced? Or would they have done something even worse? This story could have had a very different, very tragic outcome.
I am truly so moved by this town, for taking her by the hand and showing her that she is not a joke … and she is worthy. Good for them.
As for the bullies who calculated this disgusting act? The school district is conducting an investigation. I’m hoping this isn’t the end of the story – that there will be consequences for those involved.
If not, do you think the outpouring of support is enough to teach them a lesson?
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Lauren Parker-Gill blogs at Spill the Beans.
The accusations from California this week that players on a Los Angeles-area high school soccer team had sexually assaulted younger teammates as part of a hazing initiation has garnered a nationwide gasp.
Local families have protested, a lawsuit has been filed, and news commentators have spent the better part of the week wringing their hands and voicing outrage. How, goes the regular refrain, could such a thing happen?
And sure, the case from La Puente High School is extreme. According to the allegations, as many as 10 older students assaulted freshman players in a room next to the coach’s office. Some alleged victims even claim that the coach, who has been placed on administrative leave, helped lure the younger students to the hazing.
This level of abuse is perhaps unusual. But “hazing” overall – from the banal to the gross to the violent – is not.
In 2008, a National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention survey of 11,482 post-secondary students found that 47 percent experienced hazing before coming to college. Within college, researchers found, 55 percent of students involved in clubs, teams and organizations experience hazing. And these aren’t just jocks or freshmen rushing fraternities. Hazing takes place for students joining everything from the marching band to the young Republicans, researchers say.
And a good quarter of these initiations – which regularly involve some combination of alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep-deprivation and sex acts – take place in public space.
“Hazing is not the well-kept secret many believe it to be,” researchers wrote. “This study shows that hazing happens in view of adults in the school community.”
But ... then what?
Turns out that hazing, like bullying, is one of those squishy topics for school administrators, students, and parents.
Researchers with the 2008 study, which was led by professors from the University of Maine, have a slew of recommendations for schools and parents to reduce hazing, from differentiating “hazing” from “bullying” in school policies, to minimizing the extent that older students are privileged within the school environment, to making sure that incidents of hazing are dealt with firmly.
In a number of ways, anti-hazing advocates take a similar approach as the anti-bullying advocates, in broadening the definition of the offense, suggesting community education and requiring more official policies and reactions.
But perhaps even more so than bullying, the question of what’s “hazing” – and what’s a good old practical joke, or even team-building fun – can come down to perception.
At the extremes, this line isn’t necessarily hard to figure out. Forcing someone joining a group to drink until he passes out: clearly hazing, clearly problematic. (And super dangerous. Although numbers are contested, researchers point to numerous cases of alcohol-related deaths that were caused by hazing.)
Incidents such as the one that made the papers here in my little home town, where high school basketball players made younger members play a “game” that involved bodily fluids on a biscuit (eewwww); also clearly initiation rituals gone terribly wrong.
But the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention describes hazing as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.”
But who’s to say a behavior is “humiliating” instead of “silly?”
Anti-hazing advocates say that just doesn’t matter.
Still, the hazing “victims” themselves disagree.
That’s a pretty wacky statistic, if you think about it.
Does that mean that the students are unaware? Naive? Not recognizing that if you OK one set of initiation behaviors, the dangerous ones are sure to be accepted, too?
Or maybe it is an indication that it is problematic to regulate judgment, common sense, and kindness with rules and institutional policies.
Meanwhile, in California, four students have been arrested and detectives are investigating.
More than 90,000 tons of junk food are being sold in American schools every year, is more than the weight of the aircraft carrier Midway. And that, warns a new study released today by a group of America’s retired military leaders, is a threat to national security.
The group called on Congress to take immediate steps to support initiatives to remove junk food and high-calorie drinks from schools, denouncing the availability of high sugar, salt, and fat snack foods in schools as more to blame for obesity than lack of physical activity.
These former leaders now command the group Mission Readiness, a national security organization of more than 300 retired admirals and generals and other senior military leader, that has classified childhood obesity as “a threat to national security.”
According to the Army’s Accessions Command, responsible for recruiting and the initial training of new Army recruits, “over 27 percent of all Americans 17 to 24 years of age – over nine million young men and women – are too heavy to join the military if they want to do so.”
Whether or not you are interested in your child growing up to serve in a military branch, those are some astonishing numbers.
These former military leaders – including Richard Myers, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ,and James M. Loy, former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security – called today for school districts to limit the sale of junk food and for national legislation to enforce those limits and to fund better school lunch options that are more appealing while still being nutritious.
“This is not a spectator sport. It’s a team sport, a contact sport and we need parents on the team, but the reality is that kids are getting 40-50% of their calories in school daily,” Charles E. Milam, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy said at the organization’s release of the report in Washington today.
“We are working with the National PTA because removing the junk food from our schools should be part of comprehensive action, involving parents, school and communities, to help children make healthy food choices,” said David Carrier, spokesman for Mission Readiness.
This group takes the approach that lack of exercise is not the primary influence in childhood obesity, and the report cites a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Report: “It also turns out that lack of exercise is not the primary culprit. Although children and adults exercise less than they should, exercise patterns have not changed dramatically in recent decades while obesity patterns have. What has changed in recent years is the availability and lower prices of food products that are high in sugar, fat, and salt and the increased pressures on families’ time. Over the past two decades, Americans have increased their daily calorie intake by 250 to 300 calories, with approximately half of the additional calories coming from sugar-sweetened drinks.”
Mission: Readiness spent the past two years concentrating on the issue of how childhood obesity is affecting the military in its state of readiness to fight and the cost of medical insurance and preparedness initiatives that have had to be expanded to fit the needs of less fit military recruits.
According to today’s report by Mission Readiness: “Every year, the military discharges over 1,200 first-term enlistees before their contracts are up because of weight problems; the military must then recruit and train their replacements at a cost of $50,000 for each man or woman, thus spending more than $60 million a year.”
According to Mr. Carrier, the Department of Defense spends an estimated $1.1 billion per year for medical care associated with excess fat and obesity.
The report also maps the problem states; and my state, Virginia, is right up there in the mix. The report shows that over a 10-year period, the number of states with 40 percent or more of their young adults who were overweight or obese went from one to 39.
The National PTA, put out a flyer on how parents can get into the loop on school nutrition which suggests: Make sure you know how healthy your school’s environment is and what needs to be improved. Visit the school, talk to the principal, and work with your PTA, school administrators and food service directors to find out: What are kids eating when they’re at school? Is junk food readily available? How much time is provided for physical activity? What can be done to make your school environment healthier?
The flyer also tells parents to find out if there is an existing group working to address nutrition and/or physical activity issues. AND, While policies are being developed at the district level, it suggests working with your PTA to develop a wellness committee for your own school.
I am taking on the final piece of advice offered by the National PTA which is “Spread the Word.” While some might take offense at more people on the parenting dogpile, advising and telling us our kids are facing fit or fat choices, I think there is strength in numbers.
As Cartoonist William Rostler once said, “You won't find a solution by saying there is no problem.” Of course just saying it won’t go far if we don’t exercise and flex those parenting muscles at the same time. Only then will we be able to report that it's "mission accomplished."