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As part of our effort to save the new building in Menlo Park for my daughter’s fabulous school, many of the parents wrote testimonials. After I helped Marina Vaserman, Director of Open Mind School, write a killer advocacy letter to the landlord, I wrote a testimonial too.
Later, after Marina thanked me for my help with the letter, she thanked me again. “Your testimonial made my day.”
“I was happy to do it. I’m so grateful that I found this school and that you were willing to accept Katie.”
“Of course we would accept her! We love having Katie here.”
This statement, delivered so matter-of-factly, made me choke up. Marina and other staff have said it before, and each time, it takes my breath away. Because for ten years it was abundantly clear to me as well as my daughter that she wasn’t wanted in public school. Katie was granted space merely because the law compelled them to do so. Even then, Katie was kicked out of school three times. Yes, it’s illegal, but it happened. Another district counted the days until she left.
Apparently it never occurred to either of these school districts that their attitude may have had an impact on the situation at hand.
After experiencing both, I have to say, the difference between tolerance and acceptance is like the difference between night and day. You can feel it, see it, and taste it. There is truly no comparison.
You cannot fake acceptance. You either accept someone or you do not. And believe me, a person knows when you do not. They feel it in their bones.
I’m sad that Katie went ten years without experiencing educational acceptance, but now that we have found a school that offers it, we will never go back. There is too much at stake.
Not only is Katie accepted for who she is at Open Mind School, but she is presumed intelligent and capable—rather than “retarded,” “non-compliant,” and “unteachable.” My child has not changed. What changed is the attitudes and beliefs of those teaching her, and this has made a tremendous difference.
In just over seven months, going only part-time, Katie has made phenomenal progress. She prepared and delivered a PowerPoint presentation on Mission San Francisco di Asis (aka Mission Delores). She mastered addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. She wrote poetry and a research paper on ants. She learned science, art, history, geography, and civics. She has correctly answered comprehension questions on chapter books such as BFG, Charlotte’s Web, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Wonder.
None of this would have been possible in public schools. I wish that were not the case, but sadly it’s true. In addition, Katie’s communication and social skills have improved. Her self-regulation and independence have grown exponentially. She’s mastering team sports such as volleyball and baseball as well as learning to swim. Any one of these things would be cause for celebration, but all of them? In seven months?
Most importantly, Katie no longer hates attending school. This has been the biggest change of all. It’s taken 13 years, but my child is finally learning to enjoy learning. After years of frustration, boredom, bullying, and lack of progress, that’s a beautiful thing.
In short, my daughter is thriving in her new environment. Open Mind School has given her not only the priceless gift of an education, but also a future filled with possibility.
Words cannot express my gratitude.
Until next time,
It’s summer and my daughter Katie has a two-week break before summer school starts. (Actually Open Mind School is a year-round school, so it’s just regular school that happens in the summer months.) So we are off enjoying the warm sand and ocean breezes while we can.
I’m going to be using my time to relax, read, do some writing, and plan for my role as the fourth Poet Laureate of Livermore. Katie will be doing as little as possible. We both need time to unplug and rest.
In two weeks I’ll be back, blogging about my unplanned life. Whatever you are doing, relax a bit, feel grateful for what you have, and enjoy the beautiful summer weather. I’ll see you soon!
Until next time,
On Monday, June 26th, I was sworn in as the City of Livermore’s fourth Poet Laureate. The Commission for the Arts notified me of its selection a few weeks ago, but I wanted to wait to make the announcement until the appointment was official. Well, it’s official. My term starts on July 1, 2017, and lasts two years (with a possibility of a two-year extension).
To kick off my first week, I read my first official poem to the City Council, hosted the Whistlestop Writers Open Mic, now in it’s fourth year, and on Sunday, July 2nd, will host a cowboy poetry event at the Heritage Guild’s community open house at historic Hagemann Ranch, located at 455 Olivina Avenue in Livermore. I’ll be showcasing poems from two local poets: Lynn R. Owens (Livermore’s “Poet Lariat,” now deceased) and Lauren DeVore, who owns a ranch on Morgan Territory Road. Plus I’ve collected some fantastic examples of classic and contemporary cowboy poetry, including a fair number of female poets!
The poetry readings will be split into two 30-minute segments: one at 3:00 p.m. and the other at 4:00 p.m. The event runs from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., and will include a 4-H horsemanship demonstration, square dancing, glass blowing, antique farm equipment, presentations by local ranchers, games for kids, the El Ranchero Vaquero Team (Mexican horse dancing) at 1:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., plus free food!
It’s going to be an exciting and fun event, and I’m happy I could help out my dear friend Barbara Soules and the Heritage Guild. Barbara is already planning to make this an annual event! I hope you can join me.
For those of you that missed my first official poem, here’s what I read to the Livermore City Council on Monday night after I was sworn in.
A PLACE TO CALL HOME
That’s what we used to say as bored
high school students eager to escape.
It was different then: no hip restaurants,
no outlet stores, no wine bars,
or even coffee shops. We bucked
hay in the quad for Homecoming.
I dreamt of a fast-paced career paired
with big city lights, far from a sleepy
hometown. I got them—for awhile—
but by thirty I found myself, inexplicably,
here, in the one place I’d sworn to avoid.
Which changed more, the place or I?
The Vine serves wine; we have fireworks
downtown. The cowboy bar is gone, replaced
by yoga studios, French bakeries, craft beer.
Now when I climb Pigeon Pass at night,
see the Valley cupped like a sea of stars
in the Earth’s hands, I feel blessed. I hike
Brushy Peak in the shadow of windmills,
mark seasons with vineyards. I pass
Baughman’s and the Donut Wheel, feel
something twist in my head-strong heart.
For both the place and I, things were lost
in the passage of time, but much was gained.
The roots I once sought to sever sink deeper,
drawing me close, weaving a cloak
that shelters in life’s inevitable storms.
Livermore—it’s good to be home.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be talking to key constituents, making plans, and settling into my new role. If this first week is any indication, it’s going to be a busy two years!
What new tasks are you tackling this summer?
Until next time,
As I wrote before, Open Mind School (OMS), my daughter’s fantastic new school in Redwood City, was being kicked out of its current location by Oracle’s childcare provider and then lost its new location in Menlo Park to Facebook. We had just over two months to figure out a solution or OMS would be homeless. And my daughter, once again, without a school.
It was devastating news.
Marina Vaserman, the Director of Open Mind School, several OMS parents, and I worked together to write the mother of all advocacy letters. Marina delivered it to the landlord over Memorial Day Weekend, along with parent testimonials and other information about the school and its mission. Then we waited.
I didn’t know if our pitch would work. If Facebook had offered more money, it seemed likely that OMS would lose the space. I felt sick at the thought of my daughter losing the only school that had ever treated her as a bright, capable individual. Katie had made so much progress in six short months. What would we do if our pitch failed to sway the landlord?
I spent several sleepless nights, worrying, praying, and mulling my options.
And then the parents received an email from Marina, entitled We Are Small But Mighty. Guess what? Fate smiled on us. The landlord read our letter, watched the video, and considered the parent testimonials and other information. In the end, he decided to go with Open Mind School rather than Facebook. He and Marina signed the Master Lease, guaranteeing OMS a home for at least five years. Possibly as long as ten. I suspect many of the parents will continue to push for a fundraising plan that will start us down the path to purchasing property. But the Menlo Park lease bought OMS some much needed time.
After a tense couple of months, OMS has found a place to call home in Menlo Park. The new space offers room to grow (20,000 square feet versus 7,000 in the current location) and requires a conditional use permit. Marina has already found a consultant to help secure the necessary approvals from the City of Menlo Park.
I’m not sure if this will mean a longer commute for Katie, but it will definitely be a different one, over a different bridge, to a different building. Changes are coming, whether we like them or not, but at least they are positive ones. Katie and I will not need to search for another school that can meet her unique needs. I’m deeply grateful for that.
Starting in August, 28 children from 13 school districts scattered around the Bay Area will converge at 1215 O’Brien Street in in Menlo Park to continue their educational journey at Open Mind School. I can’t wait to see what new magic unfolds for our exceptional kids.
Until next time,
That’s what the shaman said during her ceremony.
I already knew the answer to her first question, which was “what is your process?” Based on her examples, I knew I tackled issues with a combination of planning and preparation. I also knew I often got stuck by doing too much of both. So I wasn’t expecting to discover much during the meditation.
What popped into my mind was the memory of a map spread out before me on the kitchen table, planning the route for our family camping trip. At twelve, I could do it as well if not better than Mom. I thought of all the trips I’d planned: for my family, for Michael, for my daughter Katie, for friends, for myself, including a three-month solo trip through Europe. I accomplished this through planning and preparation. It was, I realized, a highly honed skill, a talent, that I’d taken for granted for years. Something to be proud of. Something I’d developed through years of practice that began when I was a child.
I studied the map, the calculator, the dog-eared guidebook and realized that Mom valued safety and therefore remained stuck. I had learned to move beyond fear with planning and preparation. That’s how I kept myself “safe” but still able to adventure far beyond my comfort zone.
But what about the times I did too much planning and research, the times I also got stuck? I thought through all those trips, all those plans, and realized when I had a destination, a vision of where I wanted to go, the planning and research stayed in check. It was, in a word, focused. It was only once I began my unplanned life, when all milestones and destinations were obscured, when all dreams had vanished, that I lost focus and got stuck.
I needed a vision for the path forward. A vision to guide the planning. I needed balance.
There was a ying and yang to moving forward.
The shaman asked how our process had served us on our journey. Hmmm. It had served me well for years. I had my life well-planned until suddenly I found myself in uncharted territory, spinning my wheels. Overwhelmed, I thought. I felt compassion for my younger self. Alone and terrified, with an autistic toddler in tow. No map, no guidebook, no resources. Just a leaking roof over our heads and a dog dying of bone cancer.
I hadn’t done that badly, all things considered.
I knew I’d been moving forward in some areas, but hopelessly stuck in others. I knew I’d been reacting to Katie’s constant issues rather than being proactive and relying on a plan (or goals). Was it possible the vision was too far off, too remote?
Then again, hadn’t something led me to the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM)? Hadn’t something been leading me all along?
I had no answer to those questions, but it was clear to me that I needed more short-term goals, that preparing for a well-planned adventure felt better than wandering lost in one.
The shaman asked what we needed on the path forward. I was immediately struck with the vision of Katie striding across a college campus, her fiery curls wind-blown, laughing with friends. For years I’d been telling myself this dream was too far out of reach, but suddenly I could see how it had been guiding me, even when I had no idea it was influencing my choices and actions. Hadn’t I read a story of a fourteen-year-old nonverbal teen diagnosed with severe cognitive delays who learned RPM and by 22 was graduating from high school and heading to college? If it was possible for him, it was possible for Katie.
Perhaps more important than a map or guidebook was the vision or the goal. Perhaps with a vision, you could find your way without a map.
I had my vision for Katie, but what about me? What was the big vision for my life?
I wasn’t sure, but I knew it was time to find it.
Until next time,
As I wrote before, Open Mind School (OMS), my daughter’s fantastic new school in Redwood City, was being kicked out of its current location by Oracle’s childcare provider and then lost its new location in Menlo Park to Facebook. We had just over two months to figure out a solution or OMS would be homeless.
After our parent meeting, we decided that our first course of action would be to send a letter to the Menlo Park landlord in hopes that we could sway his decision. If that didn’t work, we would approach Facebook to see what was possible. After that, we would would regroup and decide what to do next.
Marina Vaserman, the Director of Open Mind School, and several OMS parents took a stab at the letter to the landlord. It wasn’t bad, but this had to be the mother of all advocacy letters. Adequate would never be good enough.
So shortly before Memorial Day weekend, about a week after our parent meeting, I did a total overhaul of the draft letter. Then Marina and I stayed up until the wee hours tweaking and polishing it further. In the end, we were pleased with what we came up with.
Here’s the letter that Marina delivered to the landlord:
We, the parents, teachers, and supporters of Open Mind School (OMS), are contacting you regarding our current real estate challenge. As you may be aware, OMS is unique in what it offers to children like ours — a place where neurodiverse students join neurotypical students to learn and thrive.
Open Mind School has helped our children grow and realize their full potential. It serves students whose needs have not been met by numerous Bay Area school districts, including San Francisco, Las Lomitas, Los Altos, Mountain View, Pleasant Hill, Livermore, Union City, Daly City, Sunnyvale, Menlo Park, Milpitas, Hayward, and Fremont. These children travel long distances to attend this school, in part because it offers what no other school in the Bay Area can provide: an opportunity for equal education tailored to unique student needs.
Open Mind School has so many incredible stories of student transformation, so many great partnerships, so many amazing initiatives, but most of all, so much heart! The attached documents provide a deeper overview, but you can watch this video to glimpse the magic.
We know that you’ve been in discussions for months with Marina Vaserman of OMS for the lease of 1215 O’Brien Street in Menlo Park. Our current sublease ends in two months. If another organization takes this location, our students risk having no home for the coming school year that begins in August 2017.
This is a heartfelt request on behalf of all our exceptional children to please give OMS primary consideration for the lease of 1215 O’Brien Street in Menlo Park.
Parents, Teachers, and Supporters of Open Mind School
Now we wait to see what happens. Will OMS find a place to call home? Will it be moving to Menlo Park or not?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I do know that none of us will give up on this amazing school and the magic it performs daily for our exceptional kids.
Until next time,
After a great deal of thought, I decided to apply for the City’s Poet Laureate position. I did it in part because I didn’t want the program to end. But mostly I did it because there were things I’d hoped to see implemented during the past twelve years that were not. It appeared if I wanted to see them happen, I’d have to do it myself. Also, I was attracted to the challenge of being Poet Laureate. I thought it would help me grow and evolve as a poet. Plus I thought the role would help me claim the title of poet.
There was something else that I struggled to explain, which is embarrassing for a writer. Yet there it was, this vague feeling. Propelling me to apply.
So I put together my writer’s resume and gathered up five representative poems. I started brainstorming ideas, and I kept thinking about the vague feeling, attempting to define it. When it came to me, I knew with certainty that I would apply to be the next Poet Laureate. Because it was important.
Here is a preliminary list of my goals, which I’m sure will expand as time and opportunity arise:
- Continue the monthly Whistlestop Writers Open Mic that I founded 3 years ago.
- Continue the Ravenswood Poetry Series on a quarterly or bi-monthly basis.
- Continue the monthly teen poetry contest.
- Continue the Poetry in a Test Tube Contest.
- Launch a wine-related poetry contest.
- Host another ekphrastic event to showcase local artists and writers.
- Launch a cowboy poetry event.
- Host poetry slams to involve more local youth.
In addition, I want to revamp the Poet Laureate website. Instead of having a website for each individual Poet Laureate that goes dormant every few years, develop a permanent website (and corresponding Facebook page) devoted to Livermore Literary Arts. Website will include a Poet Laureate page, which can be updated each term, but also a literary events calendar, details on ongoing events, information on writing workshops, showcase teen poet of month, showcase poetry contest winners, provide literary links as well as bios for past Poet Laureates, and possibly even showcase local writers and poets. I also want to explore ways to establish a Livermore Literary Arts Center to house readings, workshops, book launches, poetry slams, etc. Because I’d rather spend my limited volunteer time organizing and hosting events rather than searching for an elusive venue.
But back to that vague feeling. I told the Commission for the Arts that if selected, I wanted my term as Poet Laureate to be collaborative and inclusive. In part because this is simply my style, but also because we all benefit from inclusion. Studies show that when inclusion increases, innovation, creativity, and problem solving increase as well. So I intended to foster acceptance and tolerance in whatever I did because it seemed that this is what we as Americans most need at this time.
Now more than ever, I believe in the power of words. Words to inspire, to motivate, to heal, to give hope. Words that uplift us. This is what I most want to give to my community: the power to rise above what would tear us apart. Maybe I’m crazy, but I believe I can do this through the literary arts.
So I applied. I had my interview with the Selection Committee last week. My fingers are crossed.
Until next time,
Open Mind School (OMS), my daughter’s fantastic new school in Redwood City, was being kicked out of its current location by Oracle’s childcare provider and then lost its new location in Menlo Park to Facebook. Welcome to the cut-throat world of Silicon Valley real estate.
We had just over two months to figure out a solution or OMS would be homeless.
As a former land use attorney, it was the policy implications of the situation that struck me first. How could a nonprofit organization hope to compete with large, wildly successful for-profit tech companies that could afford to pay three times the market rate for real estate? This could not be the first time that this type of thing had happened. How many “little guys” had lost out when outbid by Oracle, Facebook, of another tech giant? I wanted to stand before the Redwood City and Menlo Park City Councils and put them on notice. If nothing else, it would get OMS and its situation some free media coverage.
After the initial shock wore off, OMS parents were quick to organize a meeting. Never have I encountered a group of individuals more willing to fight to the proverbial death. Particularly for those of us with older children, there was no going back to public school.
The meeting was held at a parent’s home in Atherton. I have never been to Atherton. Let’s just say it’s probably safe to assume nearly everyone who lives there resides comfortably in the top two percent of wealthiest Americans. I felt horribly out of place as I parked my dirty twelve-year-old minivan outside the gated entrance.
Once I was in the casually elegant back yard, however, those differences fell away. This was a group of diverse individuals united by their desire to save a school that was, in a sense, saving their child. Money didn’t matter here.
We soon learned that OMS’s monthly lease at its current location was $40,000 per month. The figure made all of us gasp. No wonder the tuition at OMS was so high! Immediately most of us began viewing this as a two-pronged problem. OMS needed a lease for the short term, as well as the cash necessary to purchase a building for the long term. A permanent place with room to expand.
As we ate pizza and salad, we threw out ideas. It quickly became clear that this was an extremely well-educated and connected group. At the time it gave me hope. Later, it would sadden me that only the most educated and wealthy parents had the ability to enroll their children in a place like OMS. Why wasn’t this education available to all children with autism and other learning differences?
The group identified that it probably needed a grant writer. “I can do that,” I said. I had already explained about my experience as a public interest advocate.
“We may need someone to help with any conditional use permits or rezoning,” a father said.
“I can do that too. I used to work as an environmental and land use attorney.”
The guy next to me laughed. “Any other hidden talents?”
“I’m a pretty good editor.”
Which is how I ended up in charge of writing the mother of all advocacy letters to the Menlo Park landlord in hopes that we could sway his decision.
Wish us luck.
Until next time,
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up my daughter for the Tri-Valley Special Olympics track team (aka the Tri-Valley Rockets). As I told my father at the first practice, I would have been happy if Katie managed to follow directions in a group setting, which had always been a problem in the past, without exhibiting any negative behaviors. But once again, Katie (and Special Olympics) wildly exceeded my expectations.
From the first practice, the coaches were enthusiastic, patient, and cheerful. They worked hard to teach children and young adults of varying abilities (and disabilities) how to improve their track and field skills. I was impressed again and again with their dedication and commitment.
The coaches were assisted by a handful of local high school students. These gals were amazing! They ran laps with Katie, held her hand while she waited, and patiently tried, again and again, to hold a stilted conversation. They complimented her clothes, her athletic skills, even her attempts at sportsmanship. Katie was clearly in awe of them, and she blossomed under their attention.
For a girl who has spent most of her life in the company of boys. it was lovely to see Katie able to bond with other females.
After some debate, the coaches registered Katie for the 50-meter dash, the standing long jump, and the softball throw. At each practice she would stretch and run laps with the team, then practice her individual events. She was able to do this with little to no involvement from me. (Woohoo!) After a few weeks, her teammates were saying, “Great race, Katie!”and she would smile and slap them five. I loved seeing her build relationships with these kids.
The volunteers even helped Katie have conversations with several of her age-appropriate (and cute) male team mates!
Finally, last week, the Special Olympics Regional Track and Field Competition arrived. Held at Amador High School in Pleasanton, teams from all over the East Bay competed. The bleachers were packed with athletes. parents, siblings, coaches, and volunteers. The Tri-Valley Rockets were prepared to give it their best shot.
Molly, volunteer extraordinaire. took three of the girls under her wing and registered each of them for their respective events. Katie waited in the staging area without issue. When it was her time to compete, a volunteer escorted her onto the field to the correct place.
For the softball throw, Katie held the hand of the stranger/volunteer and threw with her left hand. Molly and I both yelled across the field, “Other hand! Use your right hand.”
The volunteer heard us and switched sides. Katie did another lackluster throw with her right hand. Then she noticed the girls on either side of her. I could literally see the light bulb switch on. She dropped the volunteer’s hand and really threw. The softball soared, roughly three times farther than the first two throws. The official and the two teens who were measuring jumped back in surprise. Then all three erupted in cheers. Katie was all smiles when she won her first gold medal.
After a trip to a nearby park to swing, Katie was ready to run the 50-meter dash Her coaches worried that she wouldn’t stay in her lane (the Rockets practice on a dirt track) and that Hailey would false start as she often does. Hailey didn’t false start, and Katie, after a delayed start due to the startle-inducing gun, took off.
Katie is fast when she wants to be, and she was extra fast that day. All the girls stayed in their lanes, and Katie won a second gold medal in her division. Hailey did too!
Last came the standing long jump. After a long day in the heat, everyone was tired. Katie fumbled her jump, and the twenty-something male who was officiating demonstrated the proper technique. “Now show me a good jump,” he said. “Let me see what you can do.”
Katie studied him as if assessing his daddy potential, then jumped like she had wings on her feet. Later Molly would comment, “I’d have jumped for that guy too.”
It was a long, long wait for the final results. Katie sat patiently, despite the crowd—something that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. In the end, she won a third gold medal and stood on the podium, basking in cheers and applause. She wore her medals for the rest of the day, looking down at them as they softly clinked.
For the next few days, she arranged them on the kitchen table so she could admire them as she swung. Then we hung them near the swing. She clinks them together when I’m not in the room.
All in all, Special Olympics was a most excellent experience. One we will definitely repeat.
Until next time,
In addition to the Brownie star party and finally securing ABA services for my daughter Katie after nearly 18 months, two other things happened last week. First, my school district finally got around to visiting Open Mind School (OMS). They had a tour and asked about Katie’s progress. They didn’t seem surprised when OMS staff described how things were going. Which begs the question: did they know she was capable of this all along? Or are they merely happy to be getting a good return on investment for the substantial tuition they are paying?
How could they label a child “unteachable” and “retarded,” then merely smile pleasantly when told that this same child mastered addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division in less than six months?
As I drove back home in hellacious Friday commute traffic, I wondered, doesn’t it make them the tiniest bit guilty that they didn’t achieve at least some of this progress in their program? Or do they find a way to justify their failure, shrug it off as a lack of funding and resources? Do they recognize how short-sighted this approach is?
I will probably never know the answers to those questions, but there was one important detail that both the OMS staff and I left out of the glowing narrative of the school and its success with my daughter. We didn’t mention that the school might be homeless in August.
It turns out Marina, the school’s Executive Director, had learned nine months earlier that the childcare center located below OMS on the building’s ground floor, had offered well above market value to purchase the building. Located only a few blocks from the Oracle campus, the childcare center had a two-year waitlist and serves primarily Oracle employees. It intends to demolish the second floor used by OMS and expand its facility.
Marina spent nine months searching for a new location. She found one in Menlo Park and negotiated a ten-year lease so the school would not have to move again anytime soon. (Purchasing was out of the question given Silicon Valley’s expensive real estate market.) Just as she was about to announce the change to the staff and parents, the unthinkable happened. Facebook outbid OMS for the new school location.
How could this happen twice in less than a year?
With only two months to spare, OMS needed to identify a new location, negotiate a lease, and move. It seemed an impossible task.
Six months after transitioning to OMS, Katie was at risk of losing her phenomenal new school. I had no idea what I or the other parents could do, but I knew I wasn’t giving up on OMS without one hell of a fight.
Until next time,