Republicans: IB Program’s Global Citizenship is Irritating (January 15, 2012)

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Earlier today I enjoyed Sunday brunch with two high school classmates, Faith and Gary. Gary and I have been inseparable for the better part of 20 years, while Faith and I always kept in touch as we went off to college, started careers, married, reared children (her case), divorced (mine) and reinvented those careers (both). The three of us were all part of the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program as secondary school chums. The IB curriculum’s Swiss founders, presciently foretelling the coming of a flat, borderless economic, technical and social planet, engineered the program in 1968 with a goal of helping young people “develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.” There are 3,318 IB schools in 141 countries.

IB, quite literally, prepares one for the multicultural complexities and rigors of life. There are no lazy U.S.-based educational standards to provide students with a free pass to college. I never worked so hard, with such a sense of reward. On graduation day in June of 1996, I held two diplomas in my hands: one from the Chicago Public School system and one from the IB Program. I knew I had earned both and had the skills to compete with any 18 year-old student from any nation. When I walked onto campus as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, no slouch an institution of higher learning by any means, I was floored by the freedom and comparatively undemanding workload I enjoyed.

The goal of the IB Program, per its website, is to put young scholars through a “demanding two-year curriculum leading to final examinations and a qualification that is welcomed by leading universities around the world.” Indeed. I took no less than seven, three-hour long IB exams in subjects ranging from French composition to advanced biology to trigonometry, theory of knowledge and psychology. I completed a 4,000 word extended essay in the subject area of my choosing with the help of a faculty advisor, and satisfied the 100-hour requirements of CAS activities (community service, arts and sports). It was a full and diverse life, in addition to the AP exams, SATs and other milestones of the American high school career.

It’s quite true that with all my extracurriculars, scholastic demands and a steady boyfriend, I didn’t have an abundance of free time. But I lived smack in the middle of the City of Chicago and I didn’t have occasion to fall into any of the Windy City’s urban traps for wayward students either. Between the years of 1992 and 1996 when Gary, Faith and I were enrollees, Lincoln Park High School was the only institution within city limits to sponsor the program. Grade school students from all corners of Chicago prepped for the entrance exams, with immense peer competition for the roughly 120 spots. The program was expected to have a 50 percent attrition rate by the time all IB exams were completed. In other words, half of us were expected to fail.

The Lincoln Park High School of the early 1990s isn’t quite what it is today. Low-income students from nearby Cabrini Green outnumbered WASPy, middle-class types. Gang activity was a daily event and Chicago Police were no strangers to the hallways. Yet as a student of the IB program, there was no time or energy, not even the temptation really, to indulge in drugs, alcohol or violent pursuits. I simply had too much riding on my day-to-day effort. I came from a broken home and the IB program, quite frankly, was my ticket out. If my resolve should wobble, I need only remind myself the dropout halflife experienced by my non-IB counterparts.

All things considered and precociously exacting as my teen years were, it was the best situation in which I could have found myself, especially when set in relief against the structure-free, violently unpredictable, toxic environment of my family life. Academics and the other requirements of the IB program were an escape, one that required me to think broadly and forwardly with a clear-head.

Within this general and personal context, who on the planet could view the IB program through the prism of sinister anarchy and unpatriotic indoctrination? Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), the Tea Party’s poster crackpot.

Back to brunch with Faith and Gary. Faith mentioned in passing that Ms. Bachmann had publicly decried the program this past summer as a force undermining American unity. I took the Internet upon my return home and found the following explanation from Mother Jones magazine: [Bachmann and other] “right-wing critics argued that IBO was quietly weaning kids off the antiquated notion of national sovereignty and American ideals and pushing them to become world citizens. (This, among other reasons, is why conservatives were so irked by Obama’s statement that he considers himself a ‘citizen of the world’). IBO students would be taught to revere the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and embrace a doctrine of moral relativism that values gay rights, redistribution of wealth, and the notion that the earth itself is a living organism.”

Well we can’t have that now, can we? If American students are to continue their competitive decline and complete their transformation into the ignorant, distracted sheep so valued by Big Business, Big Banks, Big Oil and a corrupt U.S. government, better to keep them away from lofty, radical notions that we’ve only got one race and one planet to protect.

In Memory of Jesika (April 25, 2011)

Jesika Stairs

Two years ago today, I lost my partner in crime, Jesika Brooke Thompson, to an almost ludricrously brief battle with ovarian cancer, the “silent killer” of too many amazing women. Her 17-day struggle with the disease, and the effort to accept life without her, has been a huge factor in my personal transformation since April 25, 2009.

I am reprinting the eulogy I read at Jesika’s memorial service, as a small way of spreading the word about this fantastic friend, wonderful daughter, partner and professional.

In less than two weeks, I will be walking with Team June/Jesika as part of the Chicago Chapter of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC). If you would like to make a donation to this important cause (and any amount is appreciated), click here to be taken to my personal page

 

I first met Jesika Brooke Thompson in September of 1992 when we were both freshman at Lincoln Park High School on the North Side of Chicago. Jesika had come over to Lincoln Park with a crew of her fellow graduates from Hawthorne Elementary school, some of whom are with us today. As for me, I was the lonely, 100 pound, 5′ 4′ refugee of a tiny place called Pilgrim Lutheran Grade School. My graduating class had 12 students, so I was both overwhelmed and excited to start my new life as the member of a freshman class of nearly 1,000.

Luckily enough, I knew a few people from a summer school program I had participated in only a few months before. Some of the students I met were from Hawthorne, so when the inaugural at Lincoln Park rolled around, I stuck close to them. That first day of classes, a bunch of the Hawthorne crowd, including Jesika, decided to grab lunch at Robinson’s Ribs across the street from campus. As I walked across the quad to meet my pals, I got a look at Jesika, and, more importantly, she had a chance to size me up. I will never forget her first words to me: “What is that thing on your head?”

Yes, I, the skinny 14 year-old white fish swimming for the first time in a huge, multi-cultural pond, had dared to wear a bandanna to class. I had some misguided notion that it made me look tough or cool. Of course Jesika called me right out, not for the last time in what would turn into a beautiful 16-year friendship. You see that was Jesika’s way. The more she loved you, the more she enjoyed poking you in the ribs, reminding you never to take yourself too seriously, or get too big for your britches.

The last time I saw and spoke to Jesika in person was April 10th of this year. It’s so hard to believe that was just six weeks ago. Though we had grown and changed so much in the last decade and a half, Jesika’s final words to me were as memorable as the first. By the this time, Jesika was aware that she was ill and carted around an oxygen tank and mask to help her breathe better. One would have thought this challenge might subdue her sarcastic side. Not so.

For a few years now, and much to the embarrassment of my husband Eddie, I have been illogically attached to this puffy, long black winter jacket I bought at H&M. The thing may be ugly as sin, but it’s warm and that’s all that matters to me when it’s 30 degrees below outside. Am I right? Jesika had taken a few swipes at this coat over time, but I forgot all about this as I spent time with her at the apartment she shared with her partner, Kevin Smith. It wasn’t until I put my jacket on to go home that I was reminded I ought to have had the presence of mind to wear something else. Because out came Jesika’s quiet and serious voice with an important question: “Becky, why do you always have to wear that? When you gonna buy a new coat?”

I told this story of our first meeting, and shared this piece of the final conversation I had with Jesika, because they are two beautiful and funny bookends to a friendship that spanned half my life. I couldn’t do anything remotely foolish or uppity if I wanted to escape Jesika’s notice. She kept me, and so many of us nodding our heads right now, honest. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I loved her for it.

Now that doesn’t mean that Jesika lived to giggle at the ones she loved, even if it sometimes felt that way. Jesika also had a way of letting you know when she believed in you, that she was 100% behind you, your biggest fan.

I had so many stupid ideas when I was a teenager: trying out for the high school dance team for instance, when I don’t have a lick of rhythm. Going to the homecoming party freshman year, though I was warned by someone we all know well that it would be “ghetto and stupid.” But you know what? I followed through with those plans, and guess who stood right by me as I made a fool of myself? Of course Jesika. She might tell me once I would be sorry if I made up my mind to do something I’d later regret, but that never, ever stopped her from supporting me. She was even willing to endure the same embarrassments if it meant I didn’t have to stand alone. What an amazing gift.

Recently, and in a sorry economic state such as the one we’re facing right now, I made the decision to leave the stable comfort of my 9-5 job and strike out as a freelance writer. I had 6 years of undergrad and grad school to prepare me for this moment, in addition to the simmering will of a dreamer. But I feared what others might say. Did I have enough talent? Was I crazy to give up my solid income at the age of 30 for such a potentially risky endeavor? Would I live to regret taking a chance, and have to endure the ego check of crawling back to the corporate world? For as many doubts as I had in myself, Jesika made it clear that she didn’t have any. She was a registered follower of the blog I manage with my sister. Her only teasing complaint when I published my first piece in StreetWise newspaper last month, was that she’d have to hit the street to get what she called “her daily Becky fix.” Again for a moment, I have to stop and marvel that conversation took place only a month and a half ago. But that was the Jesika way: tickle you with one hand and hug you with the other. For everytime she kidded me for leaving my Facebook profile picture up too long, she would end her message by throwing in a reminder of how proud of me she was.

Maybe the reason I find it so hard to believe she’s gone, even a month later, is because I still feel Jesika behind me in so much that I do. When I walk through the mall and see a kiosk selling the latest model of pink Blackberries, Jesika is there. A week ago, as Kevin and I stumbled around the Lemont cemetery in the pouring rain, looking for Jesika’s burial plot as my worthless high heels sank in the mud, I could almost hear the heckle of Jesika’s generous laugh.

It doesn’t seem real, right or fair that a person so young, intelligent and hilarious be taken from us in such a sudden and terrible way. Sometimes I still have to sit quietly and repeat the words, “Jesika is gone.” Otherwise, I might let myself believe she is just out of town, catching a Janet Jackson concert with one of her many friends scattered across the nation. At a number of points in the last month, as I spoke to Kevin, or my husband, about my great friend Jesika Thompson, I felt as if I were choking on my own selfish desire to bring her back. I was Jesika’s side kick, not the other way around, and I wondered how I could keep moving forward without her love and support.

But that’s just it. I don’t have to. Jesika is right behind me, as she always has been. She will always be young, fresh and healthy. I don’t remember an old or sick version of my friend, just the bright light that she was. If there is any comfort to be found in the gaping wounds of her loss, perhaps that indelible image of Jesika’s teasing laugh, her unyielding support, is what will get me, and maybe some of you, through this difficult time.

The Curse of the Class of ’96 (December 14, 2010)

I am a fairly tortured soul, as is obvious to anyone who either reads my work regularly, or is personally acquainted with me. My childhood struggles were complex, painful and more than any kid deserves, but I have been pretty fortunate as an adult. The bulk of my psychological work these days is to try to make sense of my past and come to terms with it; to find a way to live and move forward despite having the two least capable parents on the face of this Earth, who still pop up to torment my sister and I now and again. But as I mentioned, in adulthood, Jen and I have a pretty good thing going: solid marriages, thriving daughters and nieces and a wonderful relationship with each other. I often forget to count my blessings, which I believe the self-indulgence of writing often renders a tempting oversight.

In the last 18 months, I have come across the stories of three of my fellow female graduates, Lincoln Park High School class of 1996, that render me shamefaced with my own weakness. What these brave, formidable women have endured, I am certain I would never have had the stones to face. And the accounts of their survival and endurance must be shared, must be written by my pen, so that I can continually remind myself of the preciousness of life, that I haven’t a moment to waste in depression and wallowing.

Right before the graduation rituals and festivities of my senior year, my close friend and confidante, Niki, was struck by a CTA bus on her way to school. One of the most brilliant, beautiful yet small built people I have known, the impact with the large vehicle sent my friend skidding across Halsted Avenue on her head. There was every reason to worry. However, after a fairly lengthy hospital stay, Niki made a miraculous recovery and appeared at our senior luncheon with nothing more than a slight limp. There was much rejoicing after a terrible scare.

Sadly years later, the fallout from the accident reared its uly head once more when Niki suffered a massive stoke that forced her to learn to walk and talk again. Obviously, this much adversity would be more than enough to put most of us in a bad mood, but the always well-dressed, still smarter-than-I-will-ever-be Niki has gone on to earn a law degree, marry her soulmate and become the co-founder of a successful fashion blog:

http://sequinsthatdontsuck.blogspot.com/

I have written about my friend Jesika more than once on this page. Jesika, the nonstop hysterically wry and funny presence in my life for 16 years. In late April of 2009, this gifted woman (also a trained lawyer) died after a tragically short 17-day battle with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer. I will never forget this brief period of illness, not only because it was so difficult for everyone who loved her, but because she never, ever lost her spirit. At our final meeting, before I departed for what turned out to be an ill-timed 10-day trip to Israel (I was not there when Jesika breathed her last), she had her priorities in order: making fun of my “ghetto” black, puffy winter coat, mock pleading with me to get a new one. Despite the months of endless grief that followed, this final taking of the piss could not have been more apt – and comforting.

And only yesterday, I learned of yet another heartbreakingly awful blow dealt to a female member of my graduating class. My first memory of Bahar, a fellow student in Lincoln Park’s International Baccalaureate program, was of her approach toward me, all torn stockings, black eyeliner (it was the grungy 90s after all) and open heart. Another student in the program had mentioned my name to her, favorably it seems. So she approached me on the playground, and after announcing the need for introduction, politely shook my hand – all earnest business.

I never grew as close to Bahar as I often wished I had. She ran with the “cool” crowd, but appeared to be one of the few who actually deserved the label. I never saw her mistreat anyone she encountered, so quick with a smile or compliment. I always admired that as well as her alternative, exotic good looks.

So when a mutual friend sent a link to this story from the Chicago Tribune yesterday, I was heartbroken beyond all reason for my classmate. But I was not at all surprised by the depth of her character that the story portrays:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/ct-met-cancer-marriage-20101212,0,1667137.story?page=3&track=rss

Bahar met her husband, Nick, two years ago, when he was already sick with an advanced form of the cancer, sarcoma. She fell in love with him anyway, married him despite the inevitable conclusion, and devoted her life to looking for a cure. Sadly Nick passed away December 1st, a mere two months after the couple finally made it legal.

I do not know where she finds the strength. Bahar is my hero. Though we have not spoken in many years beyond the casual bonds of Face Book, she needs to know, as she picks up the pieces of her life, what an inspiration she is to everyone who hears her story.

I don’t know why so many miserable challenges have befallen such a crowd of fantastic young women. I know that life is full of terrible experiences that often defy explanation. I spent all day yesterday, forgive me, coming up with a silent mental list of lives I would trade in order to restore Bahar’s husband to her. But I am not God and I have no say in these matters.

I wrote about this trio of people from my formative years not to point out coincidence, but to synthesize the collective strength of these women. I don’t know if fortitude and moral fiber can be absorbed by osmosis, but in the name of Niki, Jesika and Behar, I am obligated to try.

Holy crap! I won! (March 25, 2010)

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Back in January, the Editor-in-Chief at StreetWise, Suzanne Hanney, told me she’d like to nominate two of the pieces I wrote for the paper last year for Mate E. Palmer Communications awards, sponsored by the Illinois Woman’s Press Association. At the time, I thought she had gone daft. I had been a freelance reporter for all of about five minutes when she told me I actually had a shot of winning such an accolade. I spent a sizeable amount of time in 2009 honing a reputation as a go-to journalist for Chicago’s burgeoning urban agriculture business. But considering that my previous reporting experience consisted of theater criticism for the Lincoln Park High School newspaper, I figured I still had a ways to go before earning the right to trophies. But is always nice to be nominated for something, and Suzanne has been a critical mentor in my development as a writer. I can never thank her enough for all she’s done.

So imagine my great astonishment as I returned from the gym Tuesday afternoon and opened a letter from the Association. I had to read it several times over before anything made sense. It seems the good ladies of journalism decided to make me the State’s winner in the Special Articles: Agriculture, Agribusiness, Aquaculture category. Really? Wow!

Pleased as I am, I did have to take a moment to appreciate the irony. Ms. Concrete Jungle herself, lover of all things urban and high culture, wins a media award for writing about farming. True enough that the farming takes place within City limits, but it’s agriculture. If there is such a designation, I have what the horticulture set might refer to as a “black thumb.” I couldn’t even keep a cactus alive when I was living in Bensenville. But I suppose that’s life, isn’t it? Full of surprises.

The awards luncheon will be held on Saturday, May 15th, and I will receive the honor in front of a sea of female journalists who have been in the game much longer than I. How humbling and awe-inspiring. I don’t do praise well, never have, so when the inevitable tears of embarassment materialize, I will have the support of my family to help me dry them. It means so much to me that Jen will be sitting at my table, because honestly, I wouldn’t be writing this post were it not for her. A little more than a year ago, I was languishing in corporate hell, nursing a dream, but doing nothing about it. Jen invited me to participate in this blog, then kicked me in the pants as often as needed until I found the guts to branch out.

As a winner of the 2010 Mate E. Palmer Communications Contest, I will have paid entry for a wider competition, sponsored by the National Woman’s Press Association (NWPA), of which I am also a member. Again let us pause to reflect on that idea that Boop will going womano y womano against seasoned Red state agriculture vets. It’s kind of hilarious.

I dare not develop a big enough head to think I will place at the national level. I still can’t believe something I wrote will be considered at all. But I feel pretty amazing today, not to mention vindicated. I chucked it all, literally – safety, salary, benefits and continuity – to enter into a new field, as it has fallen on hard times, and when I have to compete for bylines against people ten years younger than me, with twice the experience. But even more astounding than having the gall to take a risky plunge is the fact that it’s working.

I’ll be damned.

Oscars 2010: Boop Calls Best Picture/Best Director (March 6, 2010)

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I have a plethora of nerdy stories to share, and I will share them in time, that will clearly illustrate I have always been uncool. It’s not like publicizing the fact on a blog makes it shocking. It is a truth universally known in my own circle. Not only have some of my past hobbies made it amazing that I ever had sex at all, but it redoubles the thrill of victory that I managed to land a hot husband. Because honestly, I might look alright, but I am a DORK.

Case in point: in the spring of 1996, as a member of Lincoln Park High School’s Academic Decathlon team, I won a gold medal in the interview category. It was the regional competition at Senn High school, and though I had a decent day overall, I knew as soon as I walked out of the classrom where students chatted with judges, that I had nailed it. The crux of my repartee? A detailed, charming and lengthy chat about why I hate to find myself out of the loop on Oscar night; my quest to be as informed when I watch the annual telecast as I am while watching the SuperBowl after 17 weeks of play. Seriously, this superficial swill won me a gold medal, out of about 100 contestants, because I was so freaking earnest. I leave you to decide which is the most nerdy part of this anecdote: Academic Decathlon, a Hollywood insider’s rant about the Academy Awards, or the fact that I was earnest in doing so (there’s honestly no better word to describe it).

But I digress: another year, another Oscars awards show. This year, the producers (including the fab Adam Shankman) are mixing it up: two comedic hosts (Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin), no more Lifetime Achievement honours during the televised program (thank you!) and count them, 10 Best Picture nominees. The latter change is a throwback to the Oscars of yore, pre-1950, and has already lived up to its potential to be exciting and controversial.

Although, in the end I did not see many of this year’s Best Picture nominees, having watched A Single Man and Crazy Heart be shamefully overlooked in favor of the overrated and overhyped Avatar (yes, I said it) and The Blind Side (Really?), I am prepared to call the race for a film I still very badly need to fit into my schedule: The Hurt Locker. I have yet to hear anything less than stellar feedback about this one, and I think it’s high time a female helmer walk off with the Director’s trophy too. Recent bad PR karma caused by an overzealous producer aside, I think it’s Bigelow’s year all around. Please let it not be James Cameron.

If I am wrong, I hope the error favors Precious, Up, or Up in the Air. Who is your favorite this year? And do you like the 10 nominee format for Best Picture?