Monday, February 22, 2010

Schools Are Not Smart

On February 1, Alexa Gonzalez, a seventh grader at the Junior High School in Forest Hills, New York, was handcuffed and arrested after she wrote on her desk. WROTE ON HER DESK. And she didn’t write anything violent, threatening, or even profane. She wrote, “I love my friends Abby and Faith. Lex was here 2/1/10 :-)” in green marker. Her severe punishment was due to the school’s “No Tolerance” policy. These policies have been adopted by schools around the country and are once again a topic of debate after Alexa’s arrest. In response to criticism of the policy, Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for Alexa’s school system, told CNN, “Our mission is to make sure that public schools are a safe and supportive environment for all students.”

Um, WHAT?! Please don’t tell me that you think handcuffing a child who wrote on a desk is making anyone’s environment safe. I assure you that young Alexa feels less safe and supported at school now than she did last year. And how are her schoolmates any safer now? Do you really think that this menacing CHILD WITH A MARKER threatened them? Really? I find it hard even to articulate my anger around this issue. But of course I am going to try.

I used to be a middle school English teacher. I worked in many different inner city schools and among them was a school in Dorchester, the most violent part of Boston. The year that I worked and lived there, Dorchester had endured over 80 unsolved murders. I am not making that up. But the things I saw at school scared me more than the streets – and I am not referring to the students’ behavior. I once watched a teacher and a social worker drag, beat, and tackle an eighth grade boy because they had asked him not to leave school and he tried to anyway. He tried to walk away from them, and they threw him into a wall. Oh, and our principal was fine with it. I am not making that up either. I had nightmares for weeks about what I saw, and I still feel guilty that I didn’t make a bigger stink about it. I bring this up only to say that I have for many years known that the adults are making schools unsafe for kids in ways that people often don’t consider and probably wouldn’t believe.

Let’s think about Alexa and her “crime.” She is a 12 year-old girl who wrote on a desk. How many 12 year-old girls write on desks? Or rather, how many 12 year-old girls DON’T write on desks? I mean, good grief – I have caught myself doodling on desks. And I was a teacher! Imagine what school is like now for Alexa, who has to worry that her other normal adolescent behaviors might lead to being handcuffed and dragged to the local precinct. What must that be like for her on a day-to-day basis? It sounds to me like school has become a rather fearful place for Alexa and her classmates.

What strikes me most about this story is Alexa’s own statement. Recalling what it was like to be arrested in front of her classmates, she said, “I didn’t want them to see me being handcuffed, thinking I’m a bad person.” First of all, the idea of unnecessarily subjecting a 12 year-old girl to humiliation in front of her friends is among the more sinister acts I can imagine. How many of you reading this were once 12 year-old girls? If you were, you know what I mean. And if you weren’t, you’ll just have to trust us – it’s a nightmare. That Alexa was so embarrassed in front of her peers for such a minor rule infraction is unthinkable. Furthermore, it is among the most important tenets of adolescent psychology that an adult should never assign a negative identity to a teenager. Adolescents are by definition in the critical developmental stage of establishing an identity. And we know that in order to develop a stable identity, adolescents rely on not only how they see themselves but also on how others see them. So treating a teen like a criminal is only more likely to make that teen act like a criminal. This is a fact. (If you want to hear it from someone other than me, google “Erik Erikson Identity vs. Role Confusion” and read all about it.) I am not insinuating that Alexa is now doomed to life as a criminal. But whoever is coming up with these punitive policies knows nothing about adolescent development, and that is plain terrifying.

In addition to the fact that schools like Alexa’s are creating a hostile, unsupportive environment for their students, these schools are also creating a toxic relationship between kids and cops. Back in the day (a day I doubt anyone reading this can remember), police officers were seen as helpful, friendly public servants – at least to those who were not breaking the law. Over the past few decades, this perception has changed, and police officers are often viewed as the enemy. The reasons for this are too many and complicated for me to address, but I wonder how students at Alexa’s school see police officers. And ask yourself if you think this type of assignment is a good use of our police force. I know that Dorchester, Massachusetts could use a few more cops solving murders – you know, if New York wants to lend them a few after they finish traumatizing little girls.

I could go on and on about why this story frightens and outrages me and why it should frighten and outrage you. But I imagine you’ve read enough for now. And because I try to keep these columns light (well, sort of, anyway), I’d like to propose a solution – not to the problem of No Tolerance policies in schools but rather to the problem of the urge to doodle. See, if Alexa had an iPhone or iTouch with Swakker Doodle on it, she could have written where I have instead of on her desk. Just saying.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Buyer, Eater, and Drinker Beware

When I was in high school, I drank almost two liters of Diet Coke every day. Don’t ask. If you really want to know why, go to the archives and read “Counting Crackers.” If, like me, you prefer to know as few details as possible about other people’s lives, suffice it to say that I drank a lot of Diet Coke. In college, I found out that NutraSweet was causing 90% of the crippling migraines I had suffered for nearly a decade and that the citric and phosphoric acids in my precious Diet Coke were literally burning a hole through the lining of my stomach. Needless to say, or maybe not, I stopped drinking Diet Coke. Migraines and ulcers can be kind of a drag. I mean, unless you’re into that sort of thing, in which case, cheers!

It never occurred to me to be outraged at Coca-Cola for selling me a product that was slowly killing me – or at least leading me to a life of chronic pain. After all, it was I who chose to drink two liters a day of something created in a lab. Just because it is calorie-free does not mean it is a health food. We all know that, right? I was a victim merely of my own bad choice, right? Maybe. Maybe not.
I haven’t paid much attention to Diet Coke in the years since our breakup (like with so many other scorned lovers, I am reminded of our love affair now and then by burning sensation in my gut), but a new commercial managed to grab may attention. During the Olympic broadcast today, I heard a Diet Coke commercial mention something about Diet Coke’s new “Heart Truth” campaign. I went to the website, where I read this:

A healthy, happy heart is essential to staying extraordinary and making the most of every moment. Diet Coke and The Heart Truth are partnering to raise awareness for women’s heart health programs. Join us to show your support and be inspired daily.

Okay, to be fair, nowhere does Diet Coke claim that it is good for your heart. And, in fact, I am not sure that Diet Coke itself is in any way bad for your heart. But just one week before these “Heart Truth” ads began, The New York Times reported that researchers have linked diet soda to metabolic syndrome – the greatest risk factor for heart disease. While the research determines only a correlation, not a cause/effect relationship, they found a relationship nonetheless. Somehow I doubt the timing of the campaign is unrelated to this report. And even if Diet Coke is not directly bad for one’s heart, I know what large doses of it did to me, and I know that it is proven to be linked to kidney stones and kidney disease. So I guess the question is, at the very least, which of your organs do you like best? Diet Coke wants you to embrace your heart but tell your kidneys to get lost. Which is cool. I mean, we have two. And there’s always dialysis.

Here’s the thing: we know that Diet Coke is trying to market itself as healthful. So, can one blame Coca-Cola when she realizes it in fact is not? I don’t know. I read last week that two women are suing Jillian Michaels because Michaels’ product “Jillian Michaels Maximum Strength Calorie Control” didn’t help them lose weight. The product is a supplement containing primarily caffeine, guarana, glutamine, and ginger. Users are told to take two pills before meals. That’s it! Two pills and you’ll lose weight! Come on, now. Part of me is angry that our courts are taken up with litigious whiners who have ridiculous expectations and sue people for capitalizing on their laziness. But part of me thinks people like Jillian Michaels – experts who knowingly endorse worthless products – are dangerous and need to be penalized for their malevolent irresponsibility.

I’m not going to sue Diet Coke because every once in a while I have to take a few weeks worth of Prevacid. But I don’t buy any Coca-Cola products. And let me tell you, I was pretty addicted to Vitamin Water until I found out that Coke owns it. Likewise, I’m not going to watch “The Biggest Loser” or buy any of Jillian Michaels’ exercise DVDs, either. Because while there needs to be legislation in place that protects consumers from false claims, especially where our health is concerned, we as consumers need to be educated and selective about what we buy and whom we support. Don’t let Diet Coke tell you how to be healthy, and don’t let someone who makes a living humiliating obese people on national television lie to you about weight loss. Think about the logic of taking health advice from anyone other than your health practitioner. Your kidneys will thank you.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Gwyneth Paltrow Is Full of Goop

You probably already know that Gwyneth Paltrow has a website, “GOOP.” You may also know that she has consequently been the object of quite a few bloggers’ attacks. I felt kind of bad for her at first; I mean, as a celebrity she’s an especially easy target. As a celebrity from a privileged upbringing who now disses the US whenever she gets the chance and speaks with an affected quasi-British accent rivaled only by Madonna’s, she’s an even easier target. So while I am no big Gwynnie fan, it seemed she was taking a bit too much heat for what I thought were simply recipes and exercise tips. And then I went to the site.

I didn’t go to GOOP on purpose. (Ha. “Go to GOOP.” This could be the new “jump the shark.”) I was planning a dinner party and, since I’m not much of a baker, I googled “blondies.” I just wanted to make blondies, I swear. Google directed me to, among other places, GOOP, where I read this:

The cookie. Small, delectable, perfect. Not out-of-a-package cookies with unpronounceable ingredients. Warm, homemade cookies. Butter. Brown sugar. Chocolate. I’ve rounded up some of my all-time faves, the ones that you find on my kitchen table most often. Bliss.

A few paragraphs later, Gwyneth offers a blondies recipe. Here’s what struck me. Or rather, here’s what made me really angry: The first line of the recipe entry is “This recipe has to be the least healthy ever to be included in GOOP.” Oh, man, come on. Is she really going to be that girl? You know, the one who has to point out the calories and fat in every freaking tasty BLISSful thing out there? I’m not a big dessert eater; I’m an organic-foods enthusiast, a vegetarian, and a somewhat compulsive exerciser. But if I want to have a blondie, I want to do so in peace. GPalt is that girl, though. At the end of her intro, she tells us the calorie count in a blondie – and she calculates one blondie as…wait for it…1/60 of the total recipe. When was the last time anyone divided a pan of brownies or blondies or whatever into sixtieths?! It’s dessert, not an amuse-bouche! (Ha! Take that, Gwynnie. Amuse-bouche! Who’s the pretentious foodie now?) Her idiocy completely distracted me from my original plan and I spent the next hour reading through some of her…goop. It’s pretty easy to hate. Gwyneth herself has already responded to this hate, telling Elle UK, “F&*k the haters…How could people hate me, my intentions, or what I’m trying to do? I’m a good person and I’m trying to put good things out into the world.” Um, okay. You might be a good person. There is really no way for me to fact check you there, Gwyn. But “putting good things out into the world?” Let’s examine this by looking at a few of the gems I stumbled across:

The Title: "GOOP: Nourish the Inner Aspect." The what? Do what to the what? How is attaching guilt to a blondie and promoting starvation diets (see the next item) nourishing anything? Nourish. The. Inner. Aspect. Riiiiiiiiight.

The Diets: One week’s newsletter is called “Detox.” In it, Gwyneth begins with, “It’s that time of year, folks. I need to lose a few pounds of holiday excess. Anyone else?” Ugh. It doesn’t nourish my inner aspect to search the internet for “good things” and come across these words. I hate the implication that enjoying the holidays is excessive, and I hate the cloying way she asks this question, like we’re all in this together. She’s just one of us, guys! One of us needs-to-lose-weight-excessive gals! She goes on to offer a 7 Day “cleanse” menu that she designed herself (they teach Nutritional Sciences at theater school, right?). Each day’s menu begins with a “glass of room temperature water.” And then, an hour later, you get a cup of herbal tea. Breakfast of nourished champions, I am sure. The rest of the menu includes smoothies and raw vegetables and pureed soups and the occasional steamed piece of salmon or chicken. Isn’t she the mother of two kids? I couldn’t take care of a skateboard on this diet, never mind a child. Also, the practice of excessive eating followed by near-fasting is, last time I checked, referred to as “bingeing and purging.” She calls it “cleanse;” I call it socialized bulimia. Most importantly, regardless of the caloric and nutritional values in her menus, I object to the assumption that she is in any way qualified to create a menu that others should follow. And I certainly reject the breakfast-free detox diet as an example of good things in the world.

Her language. In one post she refers to her friends “Katie Lee Joel and her husband William.” William Joel. I read an interview with Katie Lee Joel last week in People, and Katie Lee referred to her now ex-husband as “Bill.” So, what’s up with that, Gwyneth? Are you trying to impress us with your knowledge of nicknames and their formal sources? When I read this, I immediately thought of that “Seinfeld” episode in which George is dating the crazy “papier-mache” hat maker who wears chopsticks in her hair and refers to Jerry as “Jerome.” This sort of thing  -- Jerome, William -- is a device writers use for characterization when the trait they are trying to evince is pretentiousness. Just saying, Gwyneth. Is this a voice to which we are supposed to relate? I, for one, don’t want to.

You get the idea. I realize that I don’t have to read the site. If it bothers me so much, don’t read it, right? Good point. And I won’t. I also realize that by writing about it, I am likely inspiring people to go to the site and hence increase its traffic. Whatever. I am not trying to take the woman down. (Cut to Gwynnie breathing a huge sigh of relief.) I’m just wondering, when did we start supporting the idea that an actress is an expert on topics like relationships (yes, she goes there) and nutrition? And when did an educated woman start believing that she was putting “good things out into the world” by telling me to cut my blondies into sixtieths and drink water for breakfast? She might be an easy target, but she has earned that.  If one is going to use her celebrity to appoint herself an expert on things that really affect others’ well-being, then I hope we call her out when she misleads. I hope her irresponsibility is met with responsibility on the readers’ side. And I hope that the people who read her drivel, especially the women, reject her advice for what it is: goop.