Is That Hat Killing Brain Cells?

If he’s not asleep, this student is doing a close approximation. He looks as he always does, with his hood pulled low over the knit cap he wears to cover the greasy strands of gravy-brown hair. He sits more like amoeba than student, his shoulders hunched, head down, hands limp as old rags. I tell him it’s time to join me in this, our fourth week together.

“Hand me your hat,” I say, after a few moments of silence. His eyes flick up without any other body part moving. Not even his expression changes.

“You have head lice?” I ask.

“No.” Irritation, there. But he flips his hood off and hands the dirty knit cap across the table. I pull it on low, till my own hair shadows my face and shields my eyes. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up over it, let my bones go slack until I resemble his form.

“You’re funny.” His voice flat and shapeless.

“Do I look like I care much what you think?” I ask without looking at him.

“I look up,” he says, with an edge of irritation.

I adjust my eyes up without moving my head, so they peer at him through streaks of hair.

“You’re funny,” he repeats.

I ignore him.

“I care.” he says louder.

I flip open a file to his transcript where yellow-highlighted Ds and Fs. “It looks like you care.”

“I care.” Assertive. Insistent.

I take off the hood, hand his hat back across the table. He takes it, turns it in his hand.

“How would we know?” I ask as gently as I can.

He meets my eyes tentatively. “I do. It’s just hard.”

“Tell me more about that,” I say. And he begins for the first time to talk about what makes school difficult for him. Fifteen minutes passes too quickly. As we wrap up, I ask, “Have you heard about couples who want to have kids, but can’t.”

He nods.

“You know what they tell those guys? To only wear boxers. No jockeys.”

“Uh-huh.” he says, which really means, ‘I’m not following.’

“Too much heat,” I say, “affects the cells’ ability to work right.”

“Is that true?”

“I don’t know.” I say. “I read it someplace. But it’s an interesting question, don’t you think?”

* * *

He seeks me out five days later to ask if we can talk. He’s wearing his knit cap, but the hood to his sweatshirt hangs loosely at his back. His face is visible.

“I went to the doctor,” he said, “and told him I think I’m depressed. And he gave me these papers. Can you help me?”

* * * *

Where does that go in the research, in the grant application, in the hopper of numbers that quantify and validate what teachers, coaches, and mentors do?

I’m reading Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle and trip over a line that reminds me about the importance of informal mentors. She writes:

“I do not think that it is naive to think that it is the tiny, particular acts of love and joy which are going to swing the balance…”

Featured in Foster Focus Magazine

Proud to have a story featured in the July issue of foster care alumni Chris Chmielewski’s Foster Focus Magazine, the nation’s only monthly magazine devoted to foster care.
Rose Barn
In June 2004, my adopted daughter Rose received not one, not two, but three letters of commendation from United States senators. “It has come to my attention that you have been selected to participate in the 2004 Youth Leadership Forum… This outstanding achievement demonstrates your proactive attitude towards your education,” wrote Senator Ron Wyden. “I believe there is nothing more valuable than a good education. Your impressive record indicates you share that view.”

To appreciate my (then) foster daughter’s accomplishment, one must consider how little others expected of her when she was young. Read the rest of the story at Foster Focus, July 2014

Two Women Who Pointed My Way

prince charming play


In sixth grade, I scribbled my first play, “Prince Charming and the Seven Widows.” This was not an innovative or complex story. It had no real educational value. It wasn’t the original lyrics or dance numbers that prompted my teacher Mrs. Shrauger to ask me to produce and direct it using our class as cast and crew. Perhaps it was my enthusiasm. Perhaps it was her heart.

Phyllis Shrauger

Phyllis Shrauger was a member of the Hoquiam City Council when I was in her sixth grade classroom. She was an advocate for the arts, and civic responsibility, and took our class to a city council meeting. The choir she led sang Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music in nursing homes. She was the first teacher I ever witnessed providing differentiated instruction–before I’d ever heard such a term–for students who were differently abled. She partnered me with a student who had just moved to the country from Southeast Asia (I don’t remember where) and gave us each a hall pass to wander the school grounds whenever we liked, naming objects in English. Another student in class had a toy telephone in his desk that he called the Tigger Phone. She would pause whenever he pretended it rang.

Mrs. Shrauger treated my manuscript as if it weren’t derivative. She encouraged me to select a cast and let me lead  a dozen students from class to the stage each day to practice our play, then convinced the principal to let us stage it for the entire school.



A few years later, I went to a small high school in a rural town. Marsha West, an English teacher, encouraged us to make radio plays of Greek and Roman mythology, and newspapers accounts of those decadent gods. Some of my favorite early passages in literature were from those we studied in her classes. Two years in a row, she took several of us to Port Townsend to polish and publish our stories as part of a statewide literary magazine called Crosscut.

I was a logger’s daughter without financial resources for college, so I moved to Edmonds, Washington with a friend, and went to work at Jack in the Box after high school graduation. I cleaned the morgue and pathology labs at a Seattle hospital.  In my twenties, I worked for an army recruiter briefly, and later, processed overpayments for Social Security. After ten years of facing people’s death and disability, I took a good look around and knew I didn’t want to be there. I quit my government job to become an electrician’s apprentice. Then I quit that to caretake three children whose parent sexually abused and neglected them. Through the next two decades  children I parented over thirty children, many with special needs.

Even mothers get a few solitary moments to pee. I hung a magnetic board on the inside of my bathroom door. For three minutes, several times a day, I could steal away and manipulate words while my world held steady. Oh sure, somebody was yelling “Mom!” right outside the door. Bolstered by bits of type, I’d reply, “Just a minute, I’m…busy.” As tired as I was, I followed Cynthia Whitcomb’s advise and lengthened my day by rising at 3 a.m. to write.

While I was busy patching lives and purging demons, I found new dreams: helping a young man be the first in his family to graduate high school. Seeing an elementary child’s rage at her rapist transform into powerful art. Seeing a mentally ill mother who killed her child get a fair trial. Witnessing my twin sons earn scholarships: One to Georgetown University, the other to Embry Riddle. Seeing each of my children grow up and seize life on their own terms.

Life will give you dreams if you are willing to see them.

In the midst of all that, I wrote a half dozen screenplays. One did pretty well in the Austin and Sundance contests, resulting in a story meeting in Los Angeles. The producer and I chatted before the meeting. He asked how many kids I had.

“A lot,” I said.

“How many is a lot?”

I hesitated, but what’s a mother to do?

“More than you can count on one hand,” I said.

He loved the script and agreed to shop it. But as we parted, he said, “You have so many children, I’m not sure you have the commitment to be a writer.”

Parenting is about commitment. Staying for the long haul. Relinquishing self-indulgence except in stolen moments that come between other people’s needs. I didn’t sell the screenplay although Lifetime held it for six months, passed, and requested it again a year later.

“Does the baby have to die?” they asked me, as if in telling a true story, I could change the outcome.

Despite some terrible days on which I failed as a mother and an advocate, I’m proud of what I have accomplished on behalf of people who needed me when their lives were darkest. So many changes in me as a result of caring deeply and taking a stand. I was led by these two extraordinary teachers and forged by fire. From that fire, I now write.

* * *

Marsha West is alive and well, and still writing and loving life. You can read her blog at Marsha’s Musings.

Phyllis Shrauger passed away in 2009. You can read more about her here.

From One Kind of Boxer to Another

Some time back, I was at an elementary school and met a little guy who was having a hard day. He had been sent to the principal’s office for hitting other children, and he was perseverating about one of his favorite topics: vacuum cleaners. Did I have a vacuum cleaner? he wondered. I said I did. What brand? Darned if I could remember.

“Maybe a Hoover,” I said.

You don’t know? I shook my head. Can you draw me a picture of it? I told him I couldn’t draw well and asked him to draw it for me. What does it look like?

I described my upright vacuum while he asked me if it was short or tall, if it had a rotating beater brush and what kind of attachments it had. Does it have an extender rod? Could it suck up a dead mouse?

I asked how old he was. He ignored me. I asked what kind of vacuum he had at home.


“That’s a good one,” I said.

Do you have a shop vac? I said I do. What brand? I didn’t know. He was incredulous.
What kind of vacuum do you use to vacuum your car?

“I don’t usually vacuum my car. What do you like besides vacuums?” I asked.

He ignored my question. Can you please draw your vacuum? He passed me a piece of paper and a blue Crayola. I asked him for a brown crayon instead.

You have a brown vacuum? What brand is it?

He watched me draw from across the desk; the image was upside down to him. That’s a funny kind of vacuum.

I kept drawing, adding a table with plates on it and a few bits of food on the floor. I turned the picture around to show him.

A smile spread on his face. Your vacuum is a dog?

“Boxer brand,” I said.

I told him I thought it would be a good idea if he didn’t hit others–maybe he could earn more time using vacuums. “You could even study them. That way,” I said, “you ‘ll be an expert, and you will be able to design better vacuum cleaners than anyone else and maybe someday you’ll design your own brand of vacuums with your name on them.”

He grinned ear to ear.

I believe it. This child’s passion could translate into that kind of success. But first he needs a little guidance.

I wanted to talk about one thing, but we end up talking about another. If we’re patient and let them lead, sometimes children come along.

Answering Karen Karbo’s Call to Live Like Julia

I’m super excited about Karen Karbo’s newest book in her Kickass Women series: Julia Child Rules: Lessons On Savoring Life, due out in October, so it was only natural that I decided to play along with her invitation to Live Like Julia. The book is comprised of ten rules that Julia lived by, including one my kids would say I’ve already mastered, “Play the Emperor”.

I decided to go with Rule #9 – Make the World Your Oyster (Stew) because I had no idea what that meant beyond life being full of richness (if you’re lucky enough to find a pearl) or seizing what you want, as Shakespeare’s Pistol declares, “Why then, the world’s mine oyster which I with sword open.”

Seize what I want? Like a pirate? Insert a knife between the shells and force it open for the treasure?

Then it occurred to me: Julia may have worn pearls but she made masterpieces of meat. It couldn’t be about looking for treasure, hoping for treasure, dreaming of treasure, seizing opportunities and forcing myself in for my own gain, could it?


Int. Doctor’s Office – Day

I sit on the exam table devoid of bra or panties in that special washed-to-threadbare-thin gown (attire that gives physicians the assurance you will not run out before they’re done talking) that ties in the back, trying to read her face.

I’d like you to go on blood pressure medication.

Yeah, I’m not going to take any medication.

Well, yes, you need to.


Me frothing at the mouth at home. A normal person might be pacing but pacing could be construed as exercise and god knows I don’t exercise, so…

Here is where the insanity becomes clear. I know about motivating people because I spent several years engaging objects at rest (known to others as “students with below a 1.0 GPA) to become objects in motion, thereby passing their classes. I spent another couple years visiting truant elementary school students and their overwhelmed, underachieving parents in order to help the children engage in regular attendance. I even had a poster in my office at Oregon City High School that looked a lot like this:

Simple, right?

Karen remembers an episode of Julia Child’s The French Chef where Julia cautioned viewers to “make sure we had everything we needed before we began.”

If I’m going to reduce my blood pressure, I might need to make a list of what I’ll need.

Turns out, I already have what I need. A gym membership, a yoga mat & video, yoga blocks (still in cellophane), pedometer, elastic bands, Fitbit to monitor motion and sleep, a trampoline, a nice bike, a hot tub (in which to recuperate) two arms, two legs, a body (if you can still call it that) and a head.

The head is the problem.

Remember that block that says, “I choose.”–The one that I used to iterate and reiterate to students was the essential step in change?–I don’t actually do that step. I’m fond of explaining to people that I don’t actually like to exercise. Or to sweat. Or to feel my heart pounding in my ears. I once told my buddy Joe Koziol, “I am content living in my head,” to which he replied, “If you don’t take care of your body, where will your head live?”

See how a logical argument will ruin a perfectly good excuse?

My process–I didn’t even try to share this with my doctor–looks more like this.

You might have to squint at the INTENT box because there’s a lot of internal dialogue going on there. (Click on it if you’re really desperate to read what my head traffic does.)

But back to my taste test of living like Julia. I read Chapter Nine: Make the World Your Oyster (Stew) and nowhere did it say that just because you eat what you like, you get to become a slovenly pig that hides out in jeans and sweatshirts. Not at all. Instead, Karen notes, Julia wore pearls while cooking.

Pearls? I could wear pearls while I exercise. That’s ludicrous, isn’t it? Like I’d be trying to look good, or something. Nobody accuses me of that now. Of course, I may keel over from a heart attack or stroke if I don’t change the INTENT box to things that generate ACTION.

Which brings me to Julia’s practice of refusing to overthink things. (I bet she never knew how great it feels to think so much. Like I don’t understand pâté. Give me a slab of beef, medium-well.)

I don’t think I can stop the overthinking part cold turkey. It’s radical. I need a cigarette just thinking about it and I don’t even smoke. I’ve decided that my part of the Live Like Julia, Rule #9 is going to need to skip intent all together and get straight to action. Julia was not a woman who wallowed in ambivalence. She prepped, she cooked, and she served. Action-action-action.

I’m going to get my ass in gear and I’m gonna wear pearls while I’m doing it. Screw ambivalence. For seven days, I’m not gonna overthink, I’m going to overdo. I’m going to sweat, beating heart and all. If any of you bloggers living Rule #10: Every Woman Should Have a Blowtorch, see me lolly-gagging around like I’m waiting for the perfect oyster to detach itself, roll ashore at my feet to reveal a precious stone, do me a favor: Brandish a little flame low enough to get me out of my head and onto my feet.

Insidious Beasts

You sit in somebody’s living room and try not to stare. Try not to let your eyes scan the room like a streak of light, or if you do, hope to make your face flat and quiet, as if what the lenses capture is without impact. A carefully watered plant holds the same weight as a ragged shoe or yesterday’s remains from the dog nobody let out. Truancy isn’t about the house.

Still, it’s hard to hold the eyes of someone who won’t make eye contact, and when their eyes lead yours, it’s almost impossible not to dance. Whatever the condition of the home, you can bet there will be apologies offered, as if a child’s pattern of absences is exposed in shameful household deficits. Truancy is about patterns, which the environment eagerly reveals.

I’m in a home that reeks of yesterday’s urine and this morning’s feces, last night’s dinner, yesterday’s dirty clothes. I’m demonstrating to the family how to comb nits from the hair of a child who can’t ever remember not having them, whose entire school career—four years—is punctuated not with spelling tests or classroom parties, but absences due to blood-sucking parasites.

I don’t think it was lice the secretary saw, the mother tells me. I think it was a flea.“Well,” I say, “they don’t want fleas at school either.”

I separate a thin strand of hair with the tail of a comb, then pull the segment of hair taut between the child’s head and my fingers. Sun filters through hazy windows as I point out how live nits glisten like crystals. Semantics won’t help the child’s head, but they may save the parent’s pride.I’m not against them saving face during the interminable process of nit-picking. Medical experts will tell you head lice is not about cleanliness, but experience will remind you that it is about attention to detail. This home clearly needs more of both.

* * *

I knock at the door of a well-manicured home in a new subdivision. The mother invites me in, serves iced water in a sparkling glass as we sit in the family room on soft leather chairs. Everything is clean and in its place. The student I’m about to meet has become expert at excluding herself from school and the parents are frustrated with their lack of control.

“Where is she?” I ask. The mother’s chin lifts toward the stairs, as if she is so tired of the battle she cannot even raise a flag to defeat. She leads me up to the girl’s room and opens the door. The room is dark with tidy curtains. A shaft of light slips around one edge of the fabric, catching the silver gleam of the television, the stereo, the cell phone charging in its cradle. Sterling necklaces dangle on corner of a mirror. Earrings glint on the dresser top.

“How you doing?” I ask.

The teenage girl in the bed remains with her back to me, facing the wall. Blankets cover all but a tuft of black hair on her head.

“Mind if I sit down?” I ask, not waiting for her answer before I plant myself on the corner of the queen-size bed. Her mother withdraws from the room, leaving the door ajar. For half-a-second I conjure how sitting alone in a truant student’s bedroom would appear to an outsider. Or to my boss who doesn’t understand most of what I do, but likes the way reduced number of absences stack on a page.

“So you have cramps?” I say.

She grunts acknowledgement and shifts a little under the lump of covers but doesn’t make any attempt to engage.

“Take anything?”

I can’t, she says. It’ll make me puke.

“Oh…” I say. “So you can snort coke and drink beer, but you can’t take Ibuprofen?”

Her head snaps out of the blankets to size me up, then she rolls onto her back. I can see half her face now.

That’s right, she says.

“Big problem.” I tell her. “Because you’re going to have periods for another thirty years, so we gotta make a plan.” She rolls her eyes and glances at the cell phone on her nightstand. Examines her fingernails in the half light. She closes her eyes and then opens them to check if I’m still there. I am.

“You like Starbucks or Dutch Brothers’ coffee?” I ask.

“Never had Dutch Brothers.”

“Well,” I say, “You better get up, so we can take a trial run because tomorrow morning I’m going to be here at 7:15, cramps or no cramps, and I need to know which coffee to bring because we won’t have time to stop for another if I get it wrong.”

She rolls on her side to face me, propped on one elbow. Smiles. Asks if I really think she’s going to go out looking like this, waving her hand at her face and hair.

“Dutch Brothers is drive through,” I say. “So you’ve got five minutes to do your face and fix your hair. Everything from here up,” and I gesture from my shoulders skyward.

I turn and leave. Hear her rustling around in her room before I’ve even touched the bottom stair.

Is she going to school today? her mother asks.

“We’re just taking a trial run,” I tell her. She’ll be back in half an hour. But tomorrow, she’s going to school.”

Missed school days are insidious beasts. They creep up one moment at a time: one lesson, one class, one day passed without the benefit of school. It doesn’t matter whether the sparkle that keeps a child home is due to the reproductive habits of parasitic pests, the allure of a computer screen’s alternative world, or the call of friends on the silver cell, the damage is the same: missed days equal missed education.

Some children who have too many treasures miss school as often as children who have too few.

Unexpected Objects of Play

While taking an independent study “The Particularity of Play” mentored by Nils Lou, one of my projects involved engaging others in play through the use of unexpected objects in their work space. I placed a basket containing approximately twenty new play objects in each of two meeting rooms. The first was in Oregon City School District’s Special Education department meeting room where Individual Education Plan meetings occur with students, parents and staff. The objects were clearly not things ordinarily found in that setting: a magic genie lamp, a giant pair of ears, brain floss, squishy balls, finger puppets, pens with eye balls or animals on the eraser end. Another employee set the basket in the meeting room on my behalf, when other employees were not present. That employee sits near the office, which has a window facing her desk, so she served as “mole” to provide information about the status of the toys and staff interactions with them.

The morning that the basket was placed in the meeting room, I happened to walk past the lobby of that building where a woman was waiting. She said hello and I responded, asking if she was waiting for her child. “I’m waiting for a meeting,” she said. “Oh, fun.” I replied. “No…” she said. “Not fun. They’re never fun.” I felt a sense of anticipation that perhaps this time it would be different, given that there were fun objects present in the environment. Who knew what might happen next?

Indeed. What happened next is that the psychologist in charge of that meeting, Mr. U, removed the basket from the room before the meeting. According to two sources, U became agitated the objects were in the room, stating they were inappropriate and offensive. He placed the basket on a table just outside the meeting room, a spot that ordinarily houses treats and goodies for staff. Despite the categorical dismissal of the toys, other staff members began to explore them. What was striking was their willingness to play with them without disrupting their original packaging. How odd is it, I wondered, for adults to rub a magic genie lamp for wishes without removing the plastic wrap first? How hungry were they to play with the objects despite concern about whose property they were and whether or not they had permission to open them.

At the end of the first week, I went into the area after-hours and removed the outer packaging from each. I placed some objects back in the meeting room without the basket and left others on the table. Still others I left on the copy machine or on top of a file cabinet. The following day, the insider staff member called to tell me that someone wanted to know where they’d come from and why they were there. Other employees wore the huge ears while typing at their desks or explored the tactile objects. The Director of Special Education, Mr. F, she explained, announced to some employees that he thought the toys were part of an educational study, which imbued their presence in the environment and their subsequent use with a level of permissibility that seemed to placate the uncomfortable staff member.

The toys became a source of jokes used to relieve tension. At the end of the second week, I sent an email out to the members of the special education staff that had come in contact with the objects. A second school psychologist, Mr. L responded that the special education director, assistant director, Mr. U and the learning specialist were having a tense meeting in the director’s office: “I put one of the Spock ears on, stuck my head through the doorway and announced, “I couldn’t help but hear what you were saying.” At an eligibility meeting in the conference room…I picked up the multi-eye-stalk toy and said, “If we’re deciding about whether this student should be made eligible, it seems to me the ‘eyes’ have it.

“I also really enjoyed the toy you squeeze and all of these bugs and a little blood appears. It appeals to the gross little boy that still lives inside of every man, you know, the one that still likes fart jokes.”

In contrast, Mr. U did not respond to my email request for feedback, but took an opportunity to talk with me in person when our paths crossed. His response was confined to the benefit of those “types of toys” for children with sensory difficulties. When pressed for a personal response, he confessed to being a fidgety child, but that his older brother was “worse.” He seemed unaware that I knew he had removed the basket from the room and I did not mention it. The goal was to investigate what might occur in the presence of playful objects, not ask others to defend their actions.

A similar basket was placed in the school district board room where “The Cabinet” (school district top administrators) meets. Occasionally individual administrators will meet with members of the public there, too. I placed this basket in the office with the assistance of the administrator whose office door is most closely aligned with the meeting room, but without the consent or knowledge of other administrators or the superintendant.

The administrative insider, Ms. H, gave intermittent feedback over two weeks. She indicated after a week that the toys without wrapping were getting more playtime than toys in packaging. In particular, the cabinet members liked the squishy brain. On about the sixth day, Ms. H reported that the brain had been used so vigorously during one session that it had been squashed flat. I offered to exchange it for special education’s brain which seemed to be getting little action. She accepted. I delivered the brain some hours later, expecting to drop it off in an empty conference room as the door was open, but she and two others were meeting. I quietly entered and set the brain on the end of the table. “We have a new brain!” she exclaimed, disrupting the moment of business, but eliciting smiles.

Again, I waited a week to unwrap the toys. It fascinated me that so many highly paid individuals who made important decisions about children’s lives were so hesitant to unwrap $3 toys, yet would still play with them with the outer packaging intact. At the two week mark, I sent emails to the administrators who had contact with the objects in the school district board room. Superintendant Dr. R concurred that the squeeze toys were favorite: “The preferred items were the brain and the ball that when squeezed reveals worms/snakes inside… The brain was often pushed into action when someone thought that someone else needed a new one.”

The administrator for special programs Mr. H wrote that “there was a sense of mourning when the brain was broken. The group was rejuvenated when a brain transplant occurred.” He stated that his recollection is that all individuals present during the five cabinet meetings handled the objects. “Even certain members whom I would think would not have surprised me and picked up an item, observing and investigating.” At one point during a cabinet meeting, Ms. H reports that two administrators put finger puppets on their fingers and began “talking with each other using funny voices.”

(This excerpt is from “The Particularity of Play” by Deb Stone. Portions of that paper were published in Nils Lou’s The Play Book.)