View From Table 9

March 11, 2015

The Secret Life of Homework

Filed under: Uncategorized — table9 @ 2:38 pm
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Recently, a young man, my son’s age, left his home, walked maybe three or four hundred yards, and ended his life. Newspapers report that shortly before this happened, he had gotten an e-mail message about some late homework that, if not done, would result in a poor grade. This young man had all the advantages – parents clearly well off, father a successful businessman, top private school enrollment, and parents so desperate to find him that they made their search very public, sending messages through the media that he had the ‘ultimate free pass’, and that ‘all was forgiven, absolutely everything’, just please, please son, come home.

Because this search was so public, and probably also because this child had so many advantages in life, many have connected the pretty-obvious dots here and surmised that the high stakes, high pressure academic environment, combined with his parents’ likely intense desire for him to do well, were the main drivers behind this desperate act. There seemed to be no ‘mitigators’ – substance abuse, mental health issues, not even a love of violent video games – that would explain such a definitive response.

So how does a young man living a seemingly charmed life do this?  This has been the topic of many posts, blogs, articles, and even a petition to the President of the United States. Likewise, so many parents, likely terrified of what this could mean for their child and their parenting, have questioned whether we should put any pressure on our offspring to succeed, what the point of all this is. Make sure your child knows he is loved no matter what he does, good or bad, it doesn’t matter. Homework doesn’t matter. Grades don’t matter. Except when they do, because let’s face it, Harvard doesn’t accept the child who most clearly proclaims to the world that he is loved no matter what. Harvard wants the grades.

Suicides by teenagers are not a new phenomenon. Romeo and Juliet, after all, were teenagers. There are countless studies out there about the immature, impulsive, highly hormonally charged teenage brain. How we can’t fully access our executive functioning, decision making parts of our brain until we’re in our twenties. How teenagers will end their lives because they’re made fun of, or because they’re different, or because their hearts are broken by the end of a romance, or because of abuse by adults, or because of grades.

Academic pressure is not a new phenomenon either, nor is parenting pressure to succeed academically. Look at the 1985 movie “The Breakfast Club”. One of the students in detention is characterized as a ‘nerd’. Brian Johnson, portrayed by actor Anthony Michael Hall, is seen being dropped off by his mother who chastises him that he better study, and when told he wasn’t allowed to study, hears “you better figure out a way to, mister.” He belongs to the math club and the physics club. And, he reveals in the confession scene that he was in detention because he brought a gun to school with the plan to kill himself because a failing shop class grade would mess up his perfect GPA.

So, we’re aware of both of these phenomenon. The knee jerk is to ‘end bullying!’, ‘don’t put so much pressure on kids to succeed!’, ‘it gets better!’ Persevere, life is long. I think we know intrinsically, somewhere, that many these activities won’t really do much except make us feel we’re doing something.    In some cases, the messaging may help, such as when a child shunned for being different realizes that there is life beyond high school (thank God) and that it really does get better.  Not pressuring your progeny to do well in school/sports/whatever? Fat chance.   None of us wants our child living in our basement at age 35.  We want them to get good jobs and secure their own future. That means get a good education. Good education means good grades.

What we haven’t really examined is…why homework? There are likewise countless studies showing that homework is of little academic value. Kids hate it. Parents hate it. Teachers spend so much time grading it. It adds hours to the academic day with diminishing returns from that exhausted hormonal brain. Absolutely nothing being created contributes in any way to the world. Seriously, nobody cares about what you say in your worksheet on the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. What matters is that you did it, you did it correctly and it was reasonably understandable. So, why do we persist in expecting it, demanding it, assigning it? What value does it have anyway?

What is missed is that our education system isn’t designed just to educate, it’s also designed to produce future workers. Workers who have the knowledge needed to perform the work of industry. Workers who are used to sitting or standing for long periods because they’re told to. Workers who will generate the quarterly income and expenses report and 37 page PowerPoint discussion of market penetration and sit through the 2 hour grindingly dull meeting and will fill out the form in triplicate without question and mere grumbles of complaint. Homework, lectures, forms, standardized tests, these are all training tools for future employees. Be bright. Be good problem solvers. Be creative thinkers. Be able to do seemingly useless, pointless activities over and over again without complaint because that’s what the boss (teacher) demands for you to succeed. Sit still regardless of how dull the experience is, because that’s what the boss (teacher) requires of you. Change the world, except don’t challenge the meaningless parts of work. You have to do it to succeed. To make the grade.

We can’t eliminate homework unless we also are willing to eliminate the need for these activities in the workplace. We can’t insist on only unleashing potential unless we have no need for rote complicity and tolerance for that which we find personally pointless. This is not possible as our society is constructed. What I might find pointless someone else finds valuable. We are cogs, and that’s not a bad thing always, because we need cogs to turn wheels.

What I would suggest is that we all acknowledge this simple fact: Homework prepares you for real work. Yes, it is silly. No, it’s probably not helping you learn all that much. It’s also not. Because while you personally won’t always see the point, in modern workplaces, the point may not be seen by you. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Do it, because it’s asked. Care about doing it well, because that makes your time doing it well spent. Trust that we’re not putting you through this just because, that there is value beyond what you can see. Because I love you, because I want so much for you, I ask, require, insist, that you do things that are uncomfortable and seem pointless or stupid sometimes. Maybe understanding now the value later will help you get through it. I don’t know. Remember though that we’re playing a long game here. Believe in yourself and everything is possible.


November 18, 2008

Things Looking Bad? Try being a Wounded Veteran

Dear Wounded Vet,

Thank you for fighting for us in our ‘war on terror’. Thank you for sacrificing your time, your family, your health and your freedom so that we may enjoy ours.

Now we’re not going to give you a job, we’re going to fire your spouse for being with you while you’re wounded, we’re going to reposess your house and we’re not going to pay you anything for a really long time (if ever) for the injuries – physical and mental – you sustained for us.

When you complain, we’ll remind you that you ‘volunteered’ and that this was what you signed up for and besides, you’re probably faking your injury/illness so you can ‘live off the Government”.

By the way, those of us who made like $400 Million a year to run the economy into the ground, making things worse for you, get to keep all their money and don’t go to jail.


A Grateful Nation (not really).

Honestly, we should be ashamed….

November 18, 2008

New Veterans Hit Hard by Economic Crisis

After a mortar sent Andrew Spurlock hurtling off a roof in Iraq, ending his Army career in 2006, the seasoned infantryman set aside bitterness over his back injury and began to chart his life in storybook fashion: a new house, a job as a police officer and more children.

“We had a budget and a plan,” said Mr. Spurlock, 29, a father of three, who with his wife, Michelle, hoped to avoid the pitfalls of his transition from Ramadi, Iraq, to Apopka, Fla.

But the move proved treacherous, as it often does for veterans. The job with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office fell through after officials there told Mr. Spurlock that he needed to “decompress” after two combat tours, a judgment that took him by surprise. Scrambling, he settled for a job delivering pizzas.

Mr. Spurlock’s disability claim for his back injury took 18 months to process, a year longer than expected. With little choice, the couple began putting mortgage payments on credit cards. The family debt climbed to $60,000, a chunk of it for medical bills, including for his wife and child. Foreclosure seemed certain.

While few Americans are sheltered from the jolt of the recent economic crisis, the nation’s newest veterans, particularly the wounded, are being hit especially hard. The triple-whammy of injury, unemployment and waiting for disability claims to be processed has forced many veterans into foreclosure, or sent them teetering on its edge, according to veterans’ organizations.

The problem is hard to quantify because there are no foreclosure statistics singling out veterans and service members. Congress recently asked the Veterans Affairs Department to find out how badly veterans were being affected, particularly by foreclosures. The Army, too, began tracking requests for help on foreclosure issues for the first time. Service organizations report that requests for help from military personnel and new veterans, especially those who were wounded, mentally or physically, and are struggling to keep their houses and pay their bills, has jumped sharply.

“The demand curve has gone almost straight up this year,” said Bill Nelson, executive director for USA Cares, a nonprofit group that provides financial help to members of the military and to veterans. Housing, Mr. Nelson said, “is the biggest driver in the last 12 months.”

Congress has recently taken small steps to help, banning lenders from foreclosing on military personnel for nine months after their return from overseas, up from three months, and ensuring that interest rates on their loans remain stable for a year. Another relief bill to prevent certain injured veterans from losing their homes while they wait for their disability money was signed into law in October. The protection is good for one year.

“We owe these men and women more than a pat on the back,” said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, who introduced one of the bills.

But the short-term measures do little to address the underlying economic difficulties that new veterans face, beginning with the job hunt. Veterans, particularly those in their 20s, have faced higher unemployment rates in recent years than those who never served in the military, though the gap has shrunk as the economy has worsened. (Veterans traditionally have lower unemployment rates than nonveterans.)

Recently discharged veterans, though, fared worst of all. A 2007 survey for the Veterans Affairs Department of 1,941 combat veterans who left the military mostly in 2005 showed nearly 18 percent were unemployed as of last year. The average national jobless rate in October was 6.5 percent.

A quarter of those who found jobs failed to make a living wage, earning less than $21,840 a year.

“You fill out a job application and you can’t write ‘long-range reconnaissance and sniper skills,’ ” said Mr. Spurlock, who searched a year for a better-paying job than delivering pizza, finally finding one as a construction supervisor.

The situation is especially troubling for the injured, whose financial problems begin almost immediately.

“The wife drops everything to be by his bedside,” said Meredith Leyva, founder of Operation Homefront, a nonprofit group that provides emergency money and aid to 33,000 military families a year, including the Spurlocks. “She stays at the nearest hotel to make sure he is alive. They live that way for months. She either has to quit her job or she is fired. This bankrupts people.”

Some injured veterans cannot work at all and must rely on disability checks and other government payouts. The wait for a disability check from the Veterans Affairs Department averaged six months in August, enough to financially crush some families.

Those who can work struggle to find employers willing to accommodate their injuries, including mental health problems. The Labor Department recently started a Web site, America’s Heroes at Work, that prods employers into hiring more wounded veterans and explains that post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury are manageable conditions and not necessarily long-term.

Some believe that the government has to do more.

“There have to be incentives for employers,” said Thomas L. Wilkerson, a retired Marine Corps general who is chief executive of the Naval Institute, an independent nonprofit group.

Active duty troops who switch installations also find themselves struggling. Many of those forced to sell their homes this year are finding a scarcity of buyers, or even renters, particularly in states hit hard by the mortgage crisis. Military spouses must choose between taking a loss on their homes or riding out the housing slowdown and facing another separation from their loved one.

Although the government offers safeguards for some federal employees in similar circumstances, it will not help service members make up the difference if they are forced to sell a home at a loss.

What is worse, foreclosure or excessive debt can damage a service member’s career by leading to discharge, the loss of security clearances or, in extreme cases, jail.

A 2007 California task force reported that in the Navy, the number of security clearances revoked because of debt increased to 1,999 in 2005, from 124 in 2000.

“It’s the crash in the market,” said Joe Gladden, managing partner of Veteran Realty Service America’s Military, who sees families in extremis out of Northern Virginia. “It’s not that they have made stupid decisions.”

Mr. Gladden said e-mail messages and phone calls to his office had become so routine that he encouraged military families to share their stories anonymously on his company Web site,

“I am about sick over this situation,” one woman wrote. “Our two young boys have to go without seeing Daddy until we can sell our house. Not only that, but we face the possibility of Daddy deploying to Iraq again. Shouldn’t we be able to spend as much time together until that happens?”

For the Hatchers, the financial decline began after Roger, a Navy reservist and father of four, returned from his first tour of duty in Iraq. When he got back to Ventura, Calif., in 2004, his job as a groundskeeper for a school district was gone. He was offered a custodial job for less pay. Mr. Hatcher decided to find another job. He looked for several months, then was redeployed to Iraq. By then, the family had moved to Bakersfield, to a cheaper house near relatives.

His second tour was tougher. Iraq had grown more violent, and in late 2006, Mr. Hatcher was blown out of a Humvee after it hit a roadside bomb. The blast injured his shoulder, arm and neck. Back home, Mr. Hatcher, 49, fell prey to nightmares and rages. He drank heavily, said Tami, his wife of two decades. The pain in his shoulder never let up.

It took Mr. Hatcher eight months to find a job, and the family fell behind on their house payments. A disability claim filed in 2007 was still pending in August, Mrs. Hatcher said.

Mr. Hatcher wound up hospitalized for post-traumatic stress disorder three times. “We noticed there was a change after the first tour, but not as drastic as this time,” Mrs. Hatcher said. “The person comes back a different person, and then you have financial issues on top of it.”

His new employer, a construction company, welcomed him back after each medical absence. Still, weeks off the job meant weeks without pay.

Meanwhile, the mortgage company ratcheted up the pressure. Feeling cornered, the Hatchers signed a forbearance agreement, which significantly increased their monthly payment. “They knew about my husband’s situation,” Mrs. Hatcher said of the mortgage company. “They wouldn’t work with us.”

The Hatchers borrowed from friends and relatives but still came up short. Then two nonprofit groups stepped in to help. One of them, Operation Homefront, negotiated with the lender to keep them in their house.

Mrs. Hatcher, a purchasing agent, tried her best to shield her husband from their financial troubles. “It’s putting a big strain on me,” she admitted. “But only one of us can lose it at a time right now, and it’s his turn.”

The Spurlocks, back in Florida, were not so lucky. Operation Homefront managed to stop foreclosure proceedings, but the couple had to agree to a deed in lieu, turning over their house to the bank. Their debt was forgiven.

The family moved into a rental house and whittled down its credit card debt to $26,000.

“It feels impossible right now to pay off our bills,” said Michelle Spurlock, 28, her voice breaking. “I had to get my mom to bring diapers over. We couldn’t go grocery shopping. As soon as we turn a corner, it’s something else.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

September 18, 2008

You Know a Bush is in the White House When….

Filed under: Uncategorized — table9 @ 9:13 pm
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1. We’re involved in an unwinnable, expensive war in the Middle East.

2. People are losing their jobs, and nobody is hiring.

3. The economy’s in the crapper.


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