I Didn’t Move Here for This: A Letter to the Editor About Prince George County Schools

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***photo taken September 6, 2016***

by Melissa Face

Parent of Walton Elementary students

Nearly four years ago, my husband and I moved our two children to Prince George from Wakefield. This decision was not an easy one, as it meant leaving extended family behind. But we relocated in order to enroll our children in Prince George County Schools.

Prior to moving to the county, I was employed with the school system from 2008-2015. I taught special education and English at Prince George High School. Within that time frame, I had the opportunity to serve on the school system’s communications committee. We met regularly with the superintendent, and I found it an insightful experience that allowed me to understand the inner workings and goals of the school system. And even though we were often facing and addressing our own flaws and shortcomings (including our outdated, aging facilities), the division seemed concerned. The outlook seemed forward thinking. And the future appeared hopeful.

Those emotions have morphed into concern and fear. I am afraid of short and long-term health concerns, as my husband and I deliver our children each day to a building that is infested with mold, CO2, and other contaminants. I am afraid of them being at an open campus with a security situation that has historically been contingent upon funding received from a grant. I am concerned about the temporary fix of moving children to a trailer until a more permanent solution is created. I am afraid that the people who can make change happen may not do it.

It is time for our children and their safety to be prioritized within the county. They deserve better, and the county is letting them down. The county is letting us all down.

Posts and reader comments on Prince George County’s social media page indicate that the county is concerned about new business. But think about it: What reason is the county giving businesses to build or relocate here? Where is the attraction? Why should families move to Prince George County? Why should those of us who live here stay? What is the long-term relationship between the county and Fort Lee going to look like if schools aren’t improved? Will it remain a “solid partnership”? I am doubtful.

At this point, taxpayers, parents, and teachers really aren’t interested in who did what in the past. I don’t care who was or wasn’t invited to a particular meeting. Build a school for our children, and do it now. As the Prince George County School Board and the Board of Supervisors move toward next week’s meeting, I urge them to make a decision that will result in the quickest, safest solution for our students. 

The county has some serious catching up to do in terms of the school system’s buildings, technology, and safety. It’s time to make changes before parents begin seeking alternative routes for their children. Moving is an option. Private schools are an option. Creating a charter school within Prince George County is also an option to consider. I know I’m considering it.

Stolen Snack and Opportunity

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by Melissa Face

Evan didn’t mention the incident when I picked him up from aftercare. Though that would have been more convenient, I have grown accustomed to addressing school concerns after dinner and into the late evening hours. 

My kids are rarely able to tell me the things I need to know when I first pick them up in the afternoons. Instead, the details of their days trickle out like drips from a leaky faucet. A random splash here and there until they have finally expelled all they were storing.

“Oh, and someone ate my snack at aftercare today,” Evan told me, around 7:30 one night.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “The snack we packed?”

“Yes. A girl ate my cookies.”

“How did she get them?”

“She went into my backpack and took them.”

“So what did you do?”

“I told the teacher,” Evan said.

“That’s good,” I told him.

A few minutes later, I emailed the aftercare director and explained Evan’s story. I received a prompt reply with reassurance that the situation would be handled.

The next day at pick-up, the aftercare teacher told me she had spoken with the child and her parent about the snack incident.

“I explained to the mom that kids have to be careful about eating other people’s food because of allergies and that her daughter could have had a reaction from eating Evan’s cookie,” the teacher relayed.

She told me she would monitor the situation more carefully in the future. I thanked her and walked the kids to our car.

When I was driving home, it occurred to me what the teacher had actually done: perpetuated the common belief that we should be concerned about how others are impacted when they wrong us.

In an already litigious, victim-blaming society, this teacher’s response is more part of the problem than the solution. 

How does this scenario differ from a burglar’s family suing a homeowner because he fell into their pool and drowned while he was robbing the house?

Or what about someone’s auto insurance rates going up because a thief steals the person’s car, crashes it, and suffers life-threatening injuries?

What if the girl at aftercare HAD been allergic to something in Evan’s cookies? Would I have been at fault if she had reacted, even though she stole them from my son’s backpack?

It wouldn’t surprise me.

And most importantly, why didn’t the aftercare teacher simply tell the girl that stealing is wrong and she needs to respect the property of others?

My best response to my own questions is that she was afraid.

Adults have become increasingly fearful of telling people, even kids, when they have done something wrong. We don’t want to hurt feelings, step on toes, or God forbid, make someone not like us. (I shudder at the very thought of it.)

We need to get over that right now. It’s ridiculous, and we aren’t doing anyone any favors when we are trying to see how nice we can be. 

Kids want to be told right from wrong; they want boundaries.

Take the example of a well-managed classroom versus a chaotic one. Initially, students may prefer the latter. They will be able to talk loudly with their friends, run around the room, and do basically whatever they want. But after a while, they will grow tired of it and ask (in their way) for structure and guidelines. I’ve witnessed this firsthand when I had substitutes for my own classes.

“We missed you,” a student expressed, after I had been out sick for a couple of days.

“Yeah! We missed you a lot,” another student echoed. “The sub let us do whatever we wanted.”

They didn’t like the freedom and absence of boundaries. They wanted rules and structure. They wanted to learn in an environment that valued expectations and consequences.

If we are unnecessarily nice and worried about offending kids by telling them they are wrong, we are forfeiting a valuable opportunity to improve morality and teach life lessons. We are also creating a generation of adults who won’t respect the boundaries of others. Plus, avoiding calling people out when they are wrong because we are afraid of hurting feelings IS still hurting someone: the victim.

Adults need to step up their game and provide children with appropriate boundaries. That means we sometimes have to tell them things they don’t want to hear, like “No”, “That’s not okay”, and “Stealing is wrong.”

It seems we have become so concerned with being nice that we have lost sight of the real objective: doing what is right. 

            Perhaps a blend of kindness and assertiveness might be more beneficial. And if we are calling this concoction a cocktail, let kindness be your garnish. Not your main spirit.

 

I Look Awesome!

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by Melissa Face

Dressing Delaney was simple last year because her school required a uniform. Each day she wore a plaid jumper over a white polo, with matching navy tights and black Mary Janes. 

Life was easy then. There may have been no room for creativity, but there was also no room for arguments.

This year, Delaney is in public school, and she has a bit more freedom in her wardrobe. She has always had a strong sense of self, and more recently, that has transferred into her fashion choices. She knows what she likes, and what “looks bad.” And she is very much aware of the effects a fantastic outfit can have on her self-esteem.

“I look awesome in this!” she exclaimed the other day, while trying on a black leotard at Target. She has since worn the leotard around the house on the weekends, but thankfully, she hasn’t mentioned wearing it to school.

She has, however, asked to wear the shirt portion of a Wonder Woman costume, and she became incensed when I pointed out that it was tight and showed her belly. 

We don’t always agree on what fits.

Another issue we don’t see eye to eye on is color coordination. 

“That doesn’t match,” I told her, as she slid her legs into striped leggings and pushed her arms through a floral print top.

“Yes. It does,” she argued. “They both gots pinks in them!”

To minimize the morning clothing chaos, we pick out Delaney’s outfits for the week on Sunday afternoons. She tries each one on. She looks at herself in the mirror, then she does her splits. If the outfit passes both the fashion and flexibility tests, we hang it up in the closet, so it’s ready to go. We also pick out a few alternates because…she’s Delaney.

This week’s lineup includes leggings, a rainbow skirt, and two Halloween costumes. Before I agreed to costumes, I checked the school’s handbook and read the dress code line by line. The costumes don’t include a mask; they aren’t revealing, and they are longer than her knees. They really look more like dresses than actual costumes. 

There is, however, a clause that prohibits clothing that is “disruptive to instruction.” 

But isn’t that the very essence of being a kindergartner? Five-year-olds, by nature, are disruptive to instruction. What difference does an outfit make?

I’m letting her wear the costumes this week. If we’re told they aren’t appropriate, she won’t wear them to school again. I’m not encouraging her to break rules, but I do want to encourage her to express herself.

At five years old, there is very little that Delaney can control about the world around her. But if a few outfits can make her feel ready to take on this crazy world, she needs to wear them. I want her to feel as awesome as she did in that black leotard, every day of her life.

Mother-ship

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by Melissa Face

I was worried about the start of school this year. I wasn’t sure how the kids would do without me. And honestly, I wasn’t sure if I would be okay without them.

This summer was an emotional one for us. I lost my grandmother, and my children experienced death for the first time in their young lives

Aside from two long weekends and an overnight stay, we were always together. 

Every. Single. Day.

 And even though they often drove me nuts, I wasn’t ready for them to be under the supervision of someone who cannot possibly love them as much as I do.

From mid-June to early September, we were both captain and director of our summer cruise ship. We decided when it was meal time, how long we could stay at the pool, and how many snacks we could consume each afternoon. 

We set no limits. 

On September 3, our ship docked and the all-inclusive vacation ended abruptly. My little passengers embarked on new adventures in kindergarten and third grade. They had their own set of concerns at first: Would classmates be kind? What would the teacher be like? Who would we sit with at lunch? Would the new itinerary allow time for multiple snacks?

Evan was especially concerned about the increased rigor and the first year of SOL testing. Delaney was more worried about the change in her sleep pattern. “I’m not a wake-up kind of girl,” she reminded me the night before.

Fortunately, their fears were minimized once they arrived at school, found their seats, met their teachers, and reached out to make new friends.

The first week, though it was only a three-day week, was smooth sailing. They had virtually no adjustment period, and I found myself, once again, saying, “They are okay. They are strong kids who deal well with change.”

For the next few months, Evan and Delaney will be at sea, learning new skills, creating new bonds, and taking in new experiences. 

And in December, they will return to me for a couple of weeks. We will sleep in, watch movies, bake cookies, and enjoy the freedom of setting our own schedule again.

I can’t wait to welcome them back aboard.

Granny

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by Melissa Face

***Previously published in September Sasee. ***

I’ve been thinking about my childhood, longing for the simpler days, and wishing I could clean up my life’s messes the way you would mop your kitchen linoleum. One section, then another.

 “Good as new,” you’d say.

I liked when you picked me up from school in your gray Chevelle. That whale of a car floated down Highway 460 and you didn’t mind giving it a little gas, especially right when the light turned green. You backed off once you reached the speed limit, though. You weren’t one to break a lot of rules.

I remember sitting at your kitchen table, eating carrots dipped in ranch and working on my “lessons” as you called them. You let me eat as many after-school snacks as I wanted: dunkin’ sticks, hot chocolate, or something homemade you planned to save for Sunday lunch. You let me have it anyway. 

You chatted some while I did my homework, but you mostly kept busy with chores. You washed and peeled vegetables, shelled peas,  and snapped beans. I nudged your Lazy Susan and watched your African Violets spin a kaleidoscope of green and purple. 

“You need to finish up your lessons, now,” you reminded me. 

Once I completed my work, I daydreamed by the kitchen window. I flipped through stacks of seed catalogs and gawked at pictures of unusual vegetables: purple potatoes, red carrots, and bumpy gourds. 

Sometimes we walked to the back lot and ate apples from the tree or tasted tomatoes from the garden. We surveyed the farm, checked on the azaleas, and flattened down some of the raised spots the groundhogs made. 

“Ornery critters,” you’d mutter.

I liked snooping around your bedroom when you were busy with other things. I peeked at your house dresses, arranged neatly in your closet and stiff on wire hangers, your shoes in rows on the hardwood floor. I found your closet was exactly like the rest of your life: clean and organized, with no hidden surprises. What you see is what you get. 

I opened the makeup on your vanity, tubes of rounded, red lipstick and several black pencils. I wondered for the longest time what you did with those pencils. What were you drawing?

I remember you cleaning your house with ammonia.

 “It stinks,” I complained. “Why do you clean with pneumonia?”

“It’s ammonia,” you corrected. “Doesn’t your momma clean with this?”

I’m pretty sure she didn’t. I remember the smell only from your house. Your house, sterile as an operating room. Windows up on nice days, floral breezes in the kitchen. You scrubbed and cleaned and polished and scrubbed some more.

In later years, you had to be careful cleaning around the house, pruning azaleas, and working in the flower bed. The slightest brush against something left your arms sleeved in shades of purply blue. You blamed the bruises on aspirin.

“I don’t even remember it happening,” you told me. “So I guess it didn’t hurt much.”

You changed your bandage and revealed a slice of skin shaved back like parmesan. I held my own arm and winced. But you tended to your wound without even an “ouch,” doused it with rubbing alcohol, covered it, and got back to work.

I remember you as tall, strong, and fearless. I can picture you in your green church dress that you knotted at the waist. I remember your hair, styled and colored, dark with violet hues. Sometimes Lady Clairol gave you more shades than she advertised.

You always had good advice, too. Finish chores you like least, then do something you enjoy. And let yourself air out at night; parts need to breathe.

The years have passed quickly.  Twenty-three of them. I wish I could remember more. More than the azaleas, the smell of ammonia, and the pencils on your vanity. Something more than the shades of purple on your arms, your hair, and your African Violets by the window.

I wish I could forget some things, too. Like the way the corner of your mouth hung after the stroke, how you struggled to find words, and the way your walk became a shuffle. 

I wish I could forget my parents’ car parked in front of the funeral home, the knowing, denying, refusing. It’s all part of my memories of you; there’s no separating good from bad. 

It’s like the bowl of succotash on your Sunday table. I can’t spoon out a butter bean that hasn’t touched a tomato. 

But what would you say about the wanting to remember and the trying to forget? What would you tell me about my incessant daydreaming and worrying?

“Worry is a waste. Do something practical.”

What would you say about the messes in my life? 

Start with what I like least and fix that first, maybe. Clean up the mess. One spot at a time. Then, air it out. Things need to breathe.

Good as new.




Back to School Thoughts

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by Melissa Face

My family and I walked into one of our favorite fast food chains the other day. I immediately recognized the young woman across the room at the drive-thru window, and she noticed me. She removed her headset and called to another employee to switch places with her so she could come take my order at the counter. But first, she gave me a hug.

“Mrs. Face! How long has it been? It’s so good to see you!” she said.

I told her I was very happy to see her, and she quickly caught me up on college and work. We chatted a little bit more until our order was ready. Then, my family and I ate and said goodbye.

“That happens a lot,” my son, Evan, said on the way to our car.

“What does?” I asked.

“You seeing your former students. It happens all the time. At restaurants, at the movies, at the mall. They’re always so happy to see you.”

“That’s true, Evan. They usually are.”

“Well, it kinda makes me proud,” Evan said.

“Really? Why’s that?”

“It’s just cool having a mom who is a teacher and who really loves her job,” he said.

I believe that sometimes things happen right when we need them to. And I really needed both of those things at that moment  – the quick visit with a former student and the admiration from my own child. 

You see, if I’m being completely honest, this is the first year since I began teaching that I haven’t felt excited to return to the classroom. Despite the fact that I do truly love my job, I just haven’t felt ready to go back. It’s not that I need more time at the pool or one more road trip, though those aspects of summer are pretty fantastic. I’ve just been feeling like I’m not emotionally prepared to go back to my job. 

A big part of my summer break has been spent grieving the death of my beloved grandmother who left us unexpectedly in mid-July. The loss is significant, and the pain is intense. I am more exhausted now than I was when school dismissed in June. 

The other difficulty I’m having is being separated from my own children again. They will be entering third grade and kindergarten at a school that I like very much. But with our country in a state of constant violence and upheaval, I’m not ready to have my kids out of my sight. School supplies, SOL scores, and AR goals all seem so trivial to me right now. I just want my kids to be safe. Nothing else matters more than their safety.

Anyway, teacher work week is rapidly approaching, and I have to get myself prepared whether I want to or not. Since I’m a compulsive planner and list maker, I’m making a list that I hope will help me keep things balanced personally and professionally: 

  1. I will continue to put relationships at the forefront of my teaching. I will treat my students with respect and provide an environment that is safe and inviting. It may not look like a Pinterest classroom, but it will be a welcoming space for them to share concerns and discuss difficult topics. 
  2. I will set firm boundaries. I will only grade at home if it’s a major assignment and we are nearing the end of the grading period. Weekends are for family and my personal projects.
  3. I will not allow hectic work and school schedules to keep me from doing the things that really matter to me. We aren’t over committing ourselves to a variety of outside organizations or over scheduling the kids this year. But we are making a weekly dinner date with my parents, and we’re sticking to it. Life is short.
  4. I’m going to make certain my two children know that even though I love my job, I love them much more. And I will make sure my actions mirror my words.

I’m struggling a bit right now, but I know I’m going to be okay once the first bell rings on September 3.  I may not have six weeks worth of lesson plans complete or a perfectly decorated bulletin board, but everything will be fine. My students don’t need a “perfect” teacher any more than my children need a “perfect” mother. They just need someone who cares about them, values relationships, and can help guide them through this crazy world. And I can do all of that – even on my worst days.