No On 2: Students With Disabilities

Most charter schools in Massachusetts serve students with disabilities at a much lower rate than the districts in which they are located. If you are skeptical of this claim, I encourage you to go to the DESE website and check the numbers yourself. 

But those numbers won't tell you everything about this issue. Most specifically, the DESE data lumps all students with disabilities together. Which means that a child with ADHD who needs extra time in a quiet space when there's a test is counted the same as, for example, a child who requires a one-on-one aide. 

One thing I'm really proud of as a Boston Public Schools parent and a Boston resident and taxpayer is that the Boston Public Schools welcome everyone. When a non-verbal five year old on the autism spectrum applies, BPS does not say, "we can't help you." They say, "here's how we can help you."

Deaf students, blind students, students with "multiple handicaps which are physical, cognitive, and severe in nature": all are served by the Boston Public Schools. (A quick search found this document from 2013 enumerating the various populations of students with disabilities within BPS).

Charter schools are neither designed nor set up to serve these students. That's not an opinion. They simply don't have the scale to do the job. 

Serving all students, no matter what their needs, is justice at the most basic level. I'm proud to live in a city that does this and proud to live in a country where this is the law.

Serving students with severe disabilities is also very expensive, which brings us to Question 2.

Charter schools in Boston get the BPS per-pupil allotment for every student that enrolls. But, as noted above, they don't serve everyone. They were never designed to do so. And the BPS per-pupil allotment is higher because BPS serves these students. What this means is that charters in Boston are getting money that includes the cost of educating the students with the highest need without serving these students.

The students with the highest need must remain in Boston Public Schools, only now the budget is stretched thin because some students who don't need the services have left the system and taken their per-pupil allotment with them.

In other words, charter schools as they are currently financed undermine the ability of the Boston Public Schools to serve every student, including those with serious disabilities.

Question 2, then, boils down to a question of what kind of city, commonwealth, and country we want to live in. Do you believe that serving all students is a profound expression of justice? Or do you think those students are a drag on everyone else and should ultimately be left behind?  Because that is what's fundamentally at stake here. 

Are we going to open twelve new schools per year whose budgets rest on the backs of the disabled? If you look at the PDF I linked to above, you'll see that BPS serves 786 students who are classified as "severely emotionally and behaviorally disturbed." Imagine the challenge of raising such a child. (Or maybe you don't have to imagine it.)

Now imagine telling those parents that you can't help them. BPS administrators will be the ones who have to have those conversations, but we will be responsible for shutting the metaphorical door in those parents' face because it will be our votes that create the policy.

Can you live with that?   Is that the kind of society you want to help create?

I hope your answer to those questions is no. If it is, please join me in voting no on Question 2.


(Note: I've tried to be sensitive with how I've written about disabilites: if I've unintentionally used a term that is outdated or offensive, please let me know and I will make the edit.)

No On 2: Counseled Out

I've been trying to focus my commentary about why we in Massachusetts should vote no on question 2 and keep the charter school cap on easily-verifiable data. (Find my previous posts on this issue here and here.)

But I want to talk a little about my experience working in a charter school.

I spent 3 years working in a Boston charter high school in the late 90's/early 2000's.  Here are some things that happened during that time.

I worked in the English department, and we had two high-stakes assessments that students needed to pass in order to move on to the next grade. One was a timed writing assessment. This was given in the spring, and students had two or three chances before the end of the school year to pass it.

The other was "juries." We would give a student a poem or a paragraph, and they'd have a certain period of time to mark it up, and then they'd have to come in and face a "jury" of a staff member and some people from the community. They would read the poem, and then we would grill them with questions about it.We would score them on a rubric, and if they didn't pass, they would have to go to summer school.

This was true no matter what their grade in my class had been. Does it make pedagogical sense to have summer school hinge on a high-stakes, ten-minute performance on a task that depends at least in part on skills not explicitly taught in the class? I would argue that it does not.  But this is what we did. And we patted ourselves on the back for our awesome rigor. And also played havoc with families' schedules.

Because not only were some students who had passed English being sent to summer school, but students who planned ahead for their summers were punished. They would have to move around summer job schedules and family vacations. The school literally would put kids who had successfully passed all the work in my class in the position of having to choose between visiting family in the Dominican Republic (for example) and passing English.  

Perhaps this is one reason why our senior class always had half the number of students who had started as ninth graders. This is still true in many Massachusetts charter schools. This is why it bothers me when pro-charter hedge fund guys describing themselves as brave fighters for educational equity: charters subject their low-income students to things that wealthy parents would simply never put up with. 

As it turns out, a lot of parents agree with hedge-fund managers that charter schools are not the best choice for their own children. So a lot of students leave.

And, of course, students are also counseled out. 

Charter schools will tell you they don't do this. This is a lie. I sat in the meetings and was complicit in this happening.  It was done with this veneer of kindness and concern--"we see that you have needs that we're not going to be able to meet here. We know of a great program at West Roxbury High School [or wherever]where they can give you the support you need. We really enjoy having you here, and we don't want you to leave, but more than anything we want you to succeed, and we just feel like you'll have a better chance of success somewhere else."

This, of course, is illegal as well as unethical. It also gives lie to the charter assertion that they are better schools--charters themselves tell certain students that they will be better served elsewhere.

Most importantly, though: this damages children.  I know: I watched them cry in the meetings. Just imagine what it does to you to be told that you're very lucky to be in the best possible school, except, actually no, not you, because this incredibly awesome school doesn't serve people as broken as you.

I can't prove this happened. I don't have any records, and though I remember some names of the students in question, it would be neither legal nor ethical for me to reveal them.  

But it happened. I would swear to it in a court of law. If anyone on the other side asserts that it doesn't, they are lying. 

Please vote no on Question 2.

I Was a Teenage Bully

I don't particularly want to write this, but I keep composing it in my head when I'm supposed to be sleeping, so here goes.

I am a physically small person. I was beaten up with ease by people bigger and stronger than me a few times and threatened by people bigger and stronger than me countless times.

More importantly, my dad died when I was nine. I got screwed. Most kids I knew had two living parents.

I was also, from 7th grade on, a kid with no money going to school with the richest kids in my city.

So I protected myself with the weapons I had--sarcasm and a quick wit.

I considered any use of these weapons to be justified. After all, I was a victim in life and not popular with girls. (At the time, I blamed them for not seeing the generous, faithful heart I concealed under a snarky, indifferently-groomed exterior.)

Many years later, I look back at some of my behavior during this time with shame. I bullied people. I thought I was the underdog for all the aformentioned reasons, and yet I had the power to make people laugh, and I often turned this against people who "deserved" it.

People were afraid of me. 

Many of the people I was mean to were far more privileged than I was, and they still are: when you come from wealth, you don't have to do much to stay comfortable in life, and your family usually won't let you fall too far.

But I was not justified in being mean to them. And, in fact, in that situation, despite their numerous societal advantages, I was the one with more power, and I was indiscriminate in its use.

I'm thinking of this because of something that happened on the internet this week. I'm not going to refer to it by name because I am afraid of having a social media mob summoned against me.

But, to be brief: someone wrote something very stupid and hurtful. And they did not respond graciously to being yelled at. And a mob was summoned, driving them into social media silence and quite possibly killing their publication.

Here's what stood out to me. The first is that the offender, in a private email that was shared with Twitter, asked why they were being attacked like an enemy when they were not the enemy.

I know that the conventional internet wisdom is that whenever someone offends you, it's your right to go in guns blazing and denounce them in the strongest terms possible, at which point they must grovel abjectly or be mobbed into silence.

But the offender's question resonates: is this how you would talk to a friend? 

When someone you know and like says something a little off, how do you approach them about it? With some compassion and empathy, or by denouncing them in the strongest terms possible? 

Perhaps you've never said something that hurt someone's feelings. But if you did, how did they let you know?  

I'm not suggesting not being vigilant about injustice. I'm suggesting perhaps approaching individuals who mean no harm but cause harm anyway with empathy and kindness before rage. In other words, talking to them flawed human being to flawed human being. Treating people, even ones who have said something stupid, like they are people. (Note: I'm not talking about trolls who pop up and say outrageous and/or threatening things in order to provoke and/or silence you. I'm talking about people who unintentionally hurt your feelings by saying something ignorant and hurtful.)

I know about the concept of tone policing. I don't, however, feel that anyone has a lifetime license to be unkind to people. I thought I had one in high school. I got screwed over, so people who had more than me deserved what they got from my anger.

But here's the thing: they were still human beings. They deserved kindness and empathy because of their humanity. And I feel bad about the times I was mean to them. If you feel that someone's identity means they do not deserve to be treated like a human being, I would like to encourage you to examine that point of view closely and see if it holds up to scrutiny.

A final note: no matter how you identify, if you have the ability to get hundreds or thousands of people to angrily denounce someone who offends you, then you are the one with more power in the situation. If you have more power than someone else and you use it to humiliate and silence them, then you are actually the bully. Trust me. I was a teenage bully.

The Long Detention: Frank Dolan's Kindle Scout Campaign

In another lifetime, Frank Dolan and I were co-workers.  

And now we kind of are again, as Frank has written an absolutely first-rate crime novel set in a suburban high school. It's called The Long Detention, and Frank is launching a Kindle Scout campaign to get it off the ground. I sat down with him (on a chat client, but whatever. We were both sitting down. At least I was.) to get the scoop. The-Long-Detention

Brendan Halpin:  So, first of all, I loved the book.

Frank Dolan: Thank you. That means a lot to me.

BH: You really nailed the staff politics of a big suburban high school, which is an unexpected pleasure in a crime novel.

FD: Ha! Well, I guess I'm better at writing about the politics than navigating them.

BH: Well, you've got at least sixteen years as a high school teacher, so you must be doing okay with the politics. So you're launching a Kindle Scout campaign. What is that?

FD: It's a program Amazon runs where you submit your book through their program and people get to "nominate" the book for publication. You just go on the site and click on the book (or books) you'd like to see published. If they decide to publish the book you picked, you get a free electronic copy.

BH: So it's not like a Kickstarter or something where people have to put money down up front.

FD: Right. All you have to do is have an Amazon account and click on the book. 

BH: What's the advantage of doing it this way? Why not just self-publish?

FD: Well, the big advantage is that they pay you a $1500 advance if they pick your book. And then because they've invested some money in the book, they invest some energy in promoting it. I guess like putting it in their "if you bought this thing, you might like this other thing" emails and stuff.

BH: That's huge. What's the downside?

FD: I mean, they keep a bigger percentage of the cover price than they would if you did it yourself. But, then, if nobody knows your book exists, you don't sell any. 

BH: Tell me about it.

FD: So I guess it's like a chance at 50% of something instead of 70% of nothing.

BH: Cool. Well good luck: so if you get enough votes, you win the 1500 bucks?

FD: As far as I can tell, the votes--or nominations, whatever--are necessary but not sufficient. Ultimately if they don't like the book they won't pull the trigger, but if nobody is interested in the book, they're less likely to like the book. If you know what I mean.

BH: I do. So what's your pitch? Why should we go nominate you?

FD: Well, for one thing, it costs you absolutely nothing. Like, it feels like a pretty small ask to me. But also the book is good. I think it's good, anyway. If you like dark crime fiction--James Ellroy, Charlie Huston, that kind of thing--you'll definitely like this. 

BH: I can attest to that. I'll post the link and the cover image you sent.

FD: Thanks for your help! 

BH: My huge and devoted following is at your disposal.

No on 2: What Makes an Excellent School?

Charter school mythology maintains that charter schools are excellent. The astroturf organizations that venture capitalists fund in order to simulate popular support for charter schools have names like "Families for Excellent Schools" and "Great Schools For All." And, if you're foolish enough to get into an argument with one of these folks on Twitter, it won't be long before they compare themselves to Freedom Riders and you to an evil segregationist who opposes good schools for children of color.

In light of this, it's worth asking if charter schools are, in fact, excellent schools. There is certainly abundant evidence that they do not do as good a job of educating all comers as regular urban schools, but I'd like to take the comparison to another level. Charter backers often suggest that they only want to give people with limited means the same freedom of choice that wealthy people have. After all, if you've got enough money, you can move to any community you want and send your kids to the public schools there. 

By this logic, charter schools should be quite similar to the kind of suburban schools that affluent families choose for their children.  

So let's take a look and see if that's true!

I decided to look at Lexington High School, a public high school in an affluent community, and MATCH Charter High School, one of the so-called "Excellent Schools" that charter advocates want to open more of.

As one might expect, Lexington High School students perform very well on standardized tests. So do MATCH students, though they don't perform as well as LHS students.  

But there's more to a school than test scores.

At least in Lexington there is. 

Lexington High School offers Cheerleading, Field Hockey, Football, Swimming, Golf, Soccer, Volleyball, Basketball, Hockey, Wrestling, Baseball, Softball, Lacrosse, Tennis, and Ultimate Frisbee.

MATCH offers Basketball, Track, and Soccer.

Now admittedly, MATCH has a much smaller student body and couldn't support all those teams. But even the teams they have seem a bit half-hearted. MATCH girls' soccer plays 11 matches; Lexington High School girls' varsity soccer plays 20 matches. 

Lexington High School offers an extensive art program: they have a visual art department and a performing arts department that includes dance, drama, and music.

MATCH has no visual art teacher or music teacher. It employs one drama teacher who is also the athletic director. I am not making this up.

Lexington High School's library employs two librarians and three assistants.

MATCH does not appear to have a librarian or a library.

Lexington High School offers courses in ASL, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.

MATCH offers courses in Spanish.

Lexington High School's principal has 18 years of experience as a teacher.

MATCH's principal graduated from college in 2008.

Now, comparing a large suburban school to a small urban one may not be fair. But this is the comparison charter advocates invite. This, they say, pointing at schools like MATCH (which I chose for this example only because they do a better job of retaining their students than most Boston charter high schools, though they still lag behind BPS), is the very best we can do for urban students.


This barebones test-prep factory is the best we can do?

No: students in Boston deserve better. Students everywhere in Massachusetts deserve better.

And, in fact, they have better. 

Not only suburban high schools, but also Snowden, a small Boston Public High School where students can play soccer, football, hockey, basketball, wrestling, volleyball and softball. Where students can take courses in performing and visual arts. Where students can study Chinese, French, Japanese, and Spanish. Where there is a librarian.

Charter advocates would have you focus only on test scores, but these are not the only thing that makes a school great. The arts, world languages, athletics, libraries: these are not frills. They are, in fact, what the affluent parents of Lexington demand for their children. They are part of a complete education. And they are an area in which charter schools fall woefully short. 

This is not an accident. Charter schools have chosen to shortchange their students in these areas.  They have had twenty years in Massachusetts to establish themselves, and this is what they've come up with.

Our students deserve better and already have better. Expanding the number of charter schools will only weaken the schools working to educate the whole student rather than simply training students to take tests.

No On 2: The Charter Experiment Has Failed

This November, Massachusetts voters will weigh in on whether to lift the cap on charter school expansion in the Commonwealth. Question 2 would allow for 12 new charters to open per year.

This is an emotionally fraught issue that inspires a lot of overheated rhetoric, certainly including from me, but I'm going to try to stick to the facts and cut back on my usual sarcasm and snark. Without getting too deep into the educational policy weeds here, I'm going to present two reasons why I hope you (assuming you are a Massachusetts voter) will vote no on 2. 

1.You Just Haven't Earned it Yet, Baby. We already have a public school system in Massachusetts. If charter schools are going to continue to expand, I think it's reasonable to ask whether they are doing as good a job as regular public schools.

The answer to this is a resounding no. This may come as a surprise given that what most people in Massachusetts know about charter schools is that they are innovative schools that do a better job than regular public schools. 

What this actually means is that some charter schools perform, as a whole, better on statewide standardized tests than schools in the surrounding districts.

The data that's rarely discussed, however,  is the fact that charter school demographics tend to differ greatly from those of the surrounding districts. In particular, English Language Learners (who tend to score lower on Standardized Tests conducted entirely in English) and students with learning disabilities (who may also not perform well on standardized tests) are vastly underrepresented in charter school enrollments.

(All this data is public, but few people ever put it together. Here's a data-heavy post from last year and another from this year if you want to dig into the numbers. Or you can go here and do your own research.)

We've had charter schools for 21 years, and they have proven either unwilling or unable to serve a student body that mirrors that of the district in which they are located. Why, then, should we open more schools like this?

Here is some more data. You may have heard that Massachusetts charter schools have over 37,000 students on their waiting lists. State Auditor Suzanne Bump analyzed this number and found it to be overstated and unverifiable. So it's important to be aware that people quoting this number are using data they know to be bad in order to bolster their argument.

But apart from the students waiting to get in to charter schools, it's important to look at the students clambering to get out.  Judging by this post, charter schools, at least the ones in Boston, have relatively abysmal graduation rates. Simply put, a lot of students leave. Those numbers are three years old--again, all the data resides here if you want to do your own analysis. Something to consider: in its application to open a new high school in New Bedford, City on a Hill Charter School projects losing 65% of its students. (The data is at the end of the post.) 

Again, I'm trying to keep my opinion out of this and stick to facts. To sum up: Massachusetts charter schools are failing to educate English language learners and students with disabilities at the rate of the regular public schools. They also fail to graduate students at the rate of regular public schools.

Now for my opinion: if we're going to invest more public money in a parallel school system, it should work at least as well as the one we've already got. Charter schools simply do not. So this alone justifies a no vote.   But speaking of pubic money....

2. Charter Schools Are Not Accountable to the People Who Fund Them.

This may also be surprising, but it's true. In your city or town, the people who run your public schools are accountable to you, usually because their bosses are elected officials like school committee members or the mayor. So if you have a problem with your school and you don't get any satisfaction from the school, you can go to your city councilor or school committee member for help. Also, you can look at the school department's line-item budget because it's a public document, so if you really want to investigate how your tax money is being spent, you can.

If you have a charter school in your town, the officials of the school do not report to any elected officials. You can't appeal to your local elected officials for help because they have no power over the charter schools. 

Here's how they work: charter school employees report to the charter school board. The charter school board is made up of people selected by the charter school board itself. There are no elections, and most charter schools do not have any parent or student representation on their boards. (Here's a board and here's another if you'd like to check for the kind of people on these boards. No parents or students on either.)

As you can see if you click on those links, the people on charter school boards all have other jobs. So they don't really report to anyone.   

The Commonwealth evaluates charter schools once every five years. The current Secretary of Education, who oversees the charter renewal process, served as a director of the pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools even after he was serving as Secretary of Education. 

So if you have a problem with a charter school and you get no satisfaction from the administration, you can go to the unelected, self-appointed board. If you don't get satisfaction from them, you can wait up to five years and hope to have some input on the renewal process overseen by an advocate for charter schools.

And if you are a taxpayer and want to see how the charter school is spending your money, you can't see a line-item budget. Charters put an overview in their annual reports but are not required to disclose their line-item budgets as regular public schools do. Here's a bill that is proposed in the current session. It recommends a lot of changes that even I, as someone who follows this issue closely, did not know were necessary for charters to be as transparent as regular public schools. The upshot is that charter schools in Massachusetts currently disclose far less information about their operations than regular public schools. 

Public schools are public entities funded by public money and must, therefore operate with complete transparency. Charter schools are public entities funded by public money and do not operate with complete transparency.

I'm not accusing anyone of anything; I just think, as a taxpayer, that it's very bad policy to send a bunch of tax dollars to an organization that won't tell you exactly how they are spending the money.

In Conclusion 

Charter schools have not proven that they can do the job better than regular public schools, and they are not transparent about their use of public funds. Therefore we should not vote to create more of them.



Diversity in Children's Publishing, Or The Lack Thereof

As anyone who's ever unsuccessfully queried an agent knows, publishing is a subjective business. Which is to say this: whether your book gets published depends not on the quality of the book (assuming a certain baseline professionalism) but on whether someone loves it. This is not a system you can game because love is irrational. You never know what's going to make someone respond to your book. 

Which is what made the Lee & Low diversity survey so interesting. It revealed that the children's publishing industry consists overwhelmingly of straight white women.  (The survey didn't cover agents, but I'm willing to bet that the numbers are similar.) Which simply means that if you're going to get a book for children or teens published in this country, you have to get at least one straight white woman to love it. Actually, one probably won't do since your editor will have to take it to a meeting and get other people to agree. So let's say two.

Now obviously straight white women are capable of loving books by all different kinds of people. But it's a reasonable fear that all those straight white women might be responding better to books that speak to their experience than books that don't. (Thought experiment if you're a straight white woman reading this and preparing to tee off on me in the comments: imagine you can't get published without someone who is transgender and Hispanic loving your book. How confident are you that your book is going to find love? Sure, we're all people, and we all experience the same kinds of emotions, but is the cultural context of your book just going to be too far from the experience of  a transgender Hispanic editor to get it in their guts in a way they have to do in order to love it?)

The other day someone tweeted out a link to the Publisher's Weekly rights report, which tracks which books have been bought by which editors from which agents. It includes a headshot of the author. As I scrolled down, I thought, "Whoa! That's a lot of white women! Only 6 out of the 15 projects sold there don't involve a white woman!"

So I thought, let me look at some more of these and see if this is an anomaly. So I looked at every rights report from January 11, 2016 through April 25, 2016.  I stopped at the end of April because I figured 15 weeks is a relatively decent sample size and, after all, nobody's paying me for this.

I counted the total number of projects and then counted the number of those projects that don't have a white woman creator. (So for picture books with an author and an illustrator, I counted them in the white woman category if either the author or the illustrator is a white woman even if the other member of the creative team isn't).

Major caveat: I don't know how people self-identify. I used a combination of people's names and headshots to determine whether they were white women. So I may have put a handful of people into the wrong category.  And my study necessarily doesn't take into account any diversity in religious beliefs or sexual orientations. All the Rights Report posts are free and available to the public, so feel free to double-check my work.

Here's what I found. 

From January through April of 2016, there were 330 book deals announced. 

Of those 330 book deals, 99 did not involve white women.

In other words: 70% of deals in the first third of this year were for projects written and/or illustrated by a white woman.

Quick demographic check: in the USA, 77 percent of people identify as white. Assuming roughly half of those are women, that's 38.5%.  So, demographically speaking, 38.5% of the population accounts for 70% of the children's publishing creators. 

To put it another way: all men and all people of color, who represent 61.5% of the US population, are competing for just 30% of the spots on publishers' lists. 

Now, let's be clear: it's really hard to get published. Most books that get written will never be published. If you're a white woman, it's still really hard to get published. It's just not as hard as it is for everybody else.

Why I Chose Boston Public Schools

In a few weeks, my youngest child will graduate and I will be able to say I sent three children through the Boston Public Schools.

Since I am a middle-class (holding on by my fingernails!) white person, I hear a LOT of people talk about how they "have" to move out of Boston "for the schools."

(There's a lot to unpack in that statement, but I'm just gonna leave it packed up for now. )

To people who say stuff like this, my decision to stay in the city and send my children to public school here is incomprehensible. So I'd like to explain it. Here, ladies and gentlemen and everything in between, is explanation of why my wife and I chose the Boston Public Schools for our kids: 

In elementary school, you want your kids to learn to read, write, and do basic math. Guess what: they're gonna learn that stuff. Especially if you're reading to them and what not. So what else do kids get out of school in the elementary years?  A whole lot of socialization. 

It's certainly possible to live in a bubble in this country and have no idea that not everyone lives the kind of life you do. I did not want my kids to live in such a bubble. I wanted them to meet, and share space with a whole bunch of different kinds of people in different circumstances in hopes that they would grow up open-minded and empathetic. Of course you can be open-minded and empathetic no matter where you go to school, but you're going to be inherently less open-minded if you've never met anyone who doesn't fundamentally live the same kind of life you do.

When I named my older daughter Rowen, some of my friends who lived in the suburbs asked if I was worried about her being teased for her name. This literally never happened in Boston Public Schools, where a diversity in names is the norm. I was a high school teacher for ten years, and when I taught in urban schools, my height (or, more accurately, my shortness) was never an issue. When I worked in the suburbs, I was teased about being short every day. Now, I'm not sensitive about this: I know I'm short. It never comes as a surprise to me when it's pointed out.  But the relentless reminders that you don't fit the mold do begin to wear on one.  

All of which is to say, there's a lot of acceptance of differences baked into the Boston Public Schools experience. My kids had white kids, Asian kids, Hispanic kids, black kids, and mixtures of all of the above in their classes. They had classmates from at least four different religions and classmates who were born on four different continents.  They had classmates with single moms, moms and dads, two moms, two dads, grandparents...just about every permutation of family situation you can imagine seemed normal to them because they knew someone in that situation.

A lot of people don't want to send their kids to Boston Public Schools because they feel like they'll have to be extra vigilant, work hard, and be involved. As an antisocial and lazy person, I sympathize with this point of view. But here's the thing: there really isn't such a thing as a Crock Pot school system that's just "set it and forget it." No matter where you go, you're going to have to get involved. And if you have a child with special needs, that's especially true. People I've known with special needs kids in suburban school systems have had to fight especially hard with intransigent administrators in order to get their child's needs met.  This happens in Boston too, of course. It happens everywhere. All of which is to say, not wanting to be an active parent is a bad reason to not choose the Boston Public Schools.

A final note: my kids have had a handful of fantastic teachers in the Boston Public Schools. They've had a handful of horrible teachers. And they've had mostly competent teachers. That was pretty much the spread in my education at both Cincinnati Public Schools and the private middle and high school I attended. It's been the case in every school where I worked.  

So, if the amount of excellent, good, and bad teachers are more or less the same everywhere, what exactly do we mean by "good schools?" I have my suspicions about what most people mean by good schools. But for my family, the Boston Public Schools were good schools.


Anarchy in the YA

A lot of the conversation about young adult lit these days seems to focus on rules for what you as an artist (sorry--gonna use the a word throughout this post) are allowed to do.

You are not allowed to write characters who do not share your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, skin tone, and Meyers-Briggs Personality Type.

JK, actually you are allowed to write characters who are not you, but you must immerse yourself in VERY SERIOUS RESEARCH first.

Unless you are writing a character not like you who is not wholly and inarguably good. Then your work is problematic.

JK, your inability to write a complex, multifaceted character who is not like you shows that you should pretty much only write characters who are you.

Oh, and by the way, you must be very careful about what "messages" your art is conveying because THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

The hell with all this. Let me tell you something about art:

There are no rules.

Anybody telling you what you must or must not do in your art is inherently wrong.  Do whatever you want. 

Even if your art is aimed at young people. Maybe especially if your art is aimed at young people.  You do not have a responsibility to be didactic or morally correct in your art for young people. Young people live with ambiguity all the time. They can handle it.  By the time you're a teenager, you've already noticed that bad people frequently prosper, that good people do bad things, that love is complicated, that hate is complicated, and that people are complicated. You know people who have done terrible things. You know people who have had terrible things done to them. 

And, you have a very good bullshit detector. So you don't require art that tells you how the world is supposed to be in order to shape your delicate mind.  Art that tells you how things should be rather than how they are can be comforting, and so go for it. But you also deserve art that reflects the world in all of its messy horror and glory. 

When I was young, there was a big anti-art push from the right. Google Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Karen Finley, or W.A.S.P. if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Now, the anti-art forces are also coming from the left.

But here's the thing: the urge to dictate terms to art is a totalitarian impulse, and it sucks wherever it comes from. Art requires you to think for yourself. People who want to regulate art through actual lawmaking or through the internet shame patrol are fundamentally against you thinking for yourself.

Regular readers, both of them, know I am an advocate of real criticism; if something sucks, say it. After you've read it. That is your right, and, I would argue, your responsibility as a reader.

But you don't get to tell artists what's permissible. You don't get to make rules for what artists get to do or for which artists get to do what. 

One reason art matters so much to so many of us is that making or consuming art is one of the only times we can really feel free. Don't let anybody take that from you. There are no rules.

Some Thoughts on Rejection

Well, in my second decade as a professional writer, I am becoming very well acquainted with rejection.

The other day I was pondering one of my latest rejections, in which an editor said some of the elements of my book felt "too familiar." My initial reaction was, "the fuck are you talking about? The shelves at bookstores are groaning with familiar!" Seriously--take a stroll through the YA section in any bookstore and check out how publishers go out of their way to ape the titles that have already been successful.

I had a similar moment when my middle grade adventure novel was rejected by an editor for having too much adventure. She wished I had written a book about two girls getting to know each other in middle school rather than a book about two girls getting to know each other in a nonstop rollicking adventure where they save their town from the machinations of an evil ape.

That's a bit like saying, "this coffee is okay, but I really wanted it to be hot chocolate."

So:  the reasons I've been rejected are bullshit.

But, fellow writers, it isn't just me! Your rejections are also bullshit! You can tell because they're contradictory:  "too much like other books on our list" is followed directly by, "we don't see a market for this kind of thing."

"I couldn't connect with the characters," says one editor. "I loved the characters but the plot just never came together for me," says another.

Here is what it all means: I didn't love your book.

That's all.  They can give you reasons why they didn't love it, but the reasons don't matter. Because love is irrational.  And, I mean, fair enough, right? Do you love every book you read? If your job were championing books, would you champion one you didn't love if you didn't have to? Of course not.

I would say this: if you're getting the same feedback from everybody, you might want to look at that element and revise it. But if  you're getting wildly contradictory and/or nonsensical reasons for your rejections, that's good! That doesn't mean your book sucks! It means that the ten, or twelve, or however many people you've sent it to don't love it.  And no book is going to be loved by everyone.

Of course the business of publishing is incredibly frustrating. Because if you like your book, I guarantee someone else will too. Probably a lot of people.  Even if it's only 0.01% of people who will like your book, in a country of 350 million people, that's an ass ton of readers. But it's really hard to find those people and get your book into their hands. This is true even if you do get your book published.

(Example: my  profane, snarky memoir of my sucky experience during my late wife's cancer treatment is definitely not for everybody. But it's probably for more than 6,000 people, which is about how many people have bought it.) (You can pick up the ebook or the audiobook, and if you like swearing and music, you'll probably be glad you did)

Rejection sucks. Take it from somebody who has been rejected a lot in the last five years.  But it doesn't mean your book isn't good or  you aren't a good writer.  It just means the right people don't love your book. Yet. Maybe someone else will. Or maybe they'll love the next one.