Break out of the Bubble, Suburbanites!

I have come to realize over the years that my family lives in a bubble. I did not grow up in the bubble, but education and hard work afforded my husband and I the opportunity to make a good living and provide a nice lifestyle for our family. So we moved to the suburbs and began our life in the bubble.

I first realized the downside of the bubble when my older daughter was about ten years old and we traveled to Cerritos for a swim meet.  For any of you not familiar with Los Angeles and its surrounding urban and suburban areas, Cerritos is a working class area in Southeast Los Angeles. The population of Cerritos, according to the census bureau, is predominantly white, however, compared to where we live in Westlake Village, Cerritos has a much higher percentage of Hispanic, African-American and “other” citizens.  I’ll never forget my daughter’s eyes as we pulled into a convenience store parking lot so we could use the restroom and grab some water bottles. They were wide with what I quickly realized was fear and apprehension and she leaned close to me as we walked towards the store and whispered, “Mom, is this a bad area?”

Cerritos is not a bad area. But Cerritos is “different” from Westlake Village. It more accurately represents the “melting pot” that is Los Angeles. The part of Cerritos where we landed that day was not pretty or well-kept. The cars in the parking lot of the convenience store were primarily pick-up trucks and older model Fords and Chevys, not BMWs and Mercedes.   From this scenario, my daughter inferred that Cerritos must be a “bad” area, that the patrons in the convenience store might be criminals, and that we must not be safe.

Since then, I’ve had several of these experiences with both daughters whether traveling for soccer games and swim meets, attending events or just stopping off the freeway on the way to some other destination.  And occasionally, we have visited places that truly were “bad” areas. I can recall a very sketchy spot in Long Beach, a Holiday Inn with bars on it and sirens that wailed all night. And of course, attending a concert at the L.A. Sports Arena, visiting the USC campus (Boo! Go Bruins!) or trying to find a short cut to the airport, you can’t help but go through some sections of town you’d probably rather not.

Let’s face it: most of us who moved to the suburbs did so because we wanted to raise our children in safe, pleasant areas with access to good schools, and we were fortunate enough to be able to do so. That said, I think it is vital that kids (and parents) get out of the bubble that is suburbia on a regular basis. The problem with being in a lovely, protected bubble is that it gives you the false impression that everyone lives in it and, dare I say, cultivates a sense of apathy towards those who exist outside of the bubble. When you live in a lovely suburban area, you don’t have to acknowledge that poverty and homelessness exist (save the odd shopping cart lady that roams the grocery store parking lot). You don’t have to face the reality that many children grow up in neighborhoods where just getting to school is an effort and dodging bullets is commonplace. Your are lulled into thinking that everyone must have your “first world” problems of where to book your child’s next birthday party or which high school has the best track team, whether you should vacation in Hawaii or Tahoe this year or whether you should get a manicure only or spring for the full mani/pedi instead.

I’m not saying that anyone should feel guilty for having the means to live in a nice suburban enclave. But when you live in the bubble, it’s easy to forget what’s outside of it and to have your children grow up being only vaguely aware of how fortunate they are.  And when you are finally confronted with something “different” as my daughter was in Cerritos all those years ago, your reaction is usually to dislike, distrust or fear that which is different from you and your experiences.  Exposing your kids to different places, cultures, races, religions and yes, economic situations, is just as important as sending them to school. If they never see outside the bubble, how will they learn to tolerate, accept and be understanding of other people and their situations?

In Los Angeles, we are fortunate to have such a sprawling expanse of humanity in every flavor and form, just a car ride away from wherever we are. Alright, so the traffic can sometimes make it a rather long car ride, but I have to say I’m often shocked when I hear suburbanites in my area tell me that they never venture farther than the next suburb over.  Our city is rich with diversity, cultural experiences and educational opportunities that most of us never take advantage of, to our children’s detriment, I fear.

I know one of my resolutions this year is to get outside of the bubble more often and to see areas of my city I’ve only read about in the paper or just haven’t made time to explore. My older daughter now attends school and lives in Tucson, and given some of the less than glamorous neighborhoods in close proximity to campus, I think she has become more comfortable with the inherent heterogeneity that exists outside of the bubble.  For my younger daughter who is naturally tolerant and accepting, but often harbors fears about the unknown, I’ve recognized that even a hockey game at Staples Center, a swim meet in Oxnard or a walk around West Hollywood can provide her with the valuable lesson that not everyone looks, dresses and acts like her, nor do they have access to the many resources she and her friends do. It doesn’t make these people and places “bad”; it just makes them different.  It’s an ongoing process, but I’m determined to have my kids see that while it sure is great to live in the bubble, getting outside of it on a regular basis is one of the most important things you can do.

When it comes to reading, does anything go?

I have always been an avid reader and am a huge believer in the power of the written word.  One of my earliest memories, when I was maybe four years old, is of sitting on my family’s couch, literally surrounded by massive piles of books, all of which I was sure I was going to read that very day.  I know that I owe part of my passion for reading to my mom who modeled good reading habits for me and always seemed to have an Agatha Christie or other such mystery in her hands.

As a parent, I have always tried to instill this love for reading in my two daughters with, admittedly, mixed results. While I read to them both from babyhood until beyond the time they could read for themselves, and while I continued to model good reading habits with my own reading, my older daughter really never adopted a passion for pleasure-reading, but merely read what she had to for school. My younger daughter, on the other hand, does enjoy reading and has always reserved time in her schedule to do so, but as the burden of school-reading increases, I can see that this passion could cool over time, if we’re not careful to continue modeling and encouraging.

Given this passion for reading, I’ve always believed that “any reading is good reading”.  While I want my kids to read challenging works, classic stories and thoughtful literature, I’ve never discouraged them from picking up less intellectually demanding material like The Clique series or Pretty Little Liars books. These books serve a purpose, as well – they provide great escapism, simply story lines and again, they count as reading time (and time spent away from the computer and phone).

But I recently read some disturbing news that made me question whether any reading is good reading. A recent article in the Huffington Post about the results of a Renaissance Learning report, revealed that American high school students are primarily reading books that are designed for a fifth-grade reading level.  The most popular book among high schoolers last year was The Hunger Games – a book that is ranked at a 5.3 level, meaning it is just above a fifth grade level.

While The Hunger Games is a great story that both teens and adults have embraced (see my previous blog post on this topic; in short, I loved it), the repercussions of the study’s results are clear: if kids aren’t reading material that is challenging enough for high school – much less college – how are they to improve their reading and writing skills enough to think critically and to synthesize and analyze higher-level curriculum?   Unfortunately, the article points out, this study reflects trends in national reading scores which remain low and have dropped significantly between 1992 and 2009.

So do we let our kids read whatever they want – comic books, tween “chick lit”, Seventeen magazine?  Or do we push them to read books that are indicated for their grade level and challenge them?

I admit, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, since students are and should be expected to read works of literature in the classroom that are “at grade level”, I’m inclined to let mine choose what they read for pleasure. On the other hand, I’m cognizant of the fact that a steady diet of Pretty Little Liars is certainly not going to expand their horizons (much less their vocabulary) substantially. In a perfect world, they would choose to read much more challenging works during their free time, but even I am tempted to pick up the occasional People Magazine at the hairdresser’s or the latest pop culture phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey because it gives me a respite from some of the deeper and more thoughtful works I usually read (side note: don’t bother with “Grey” or at least, don’t spend any money on it. My take: it’s poorly written, the plot is old and tired, and the dominant/submissive thing was done so much better by Anne Rice in The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty and Exit to Eden years ago. Sorry, but poor writing, no matter how sexually explicit, turns me off).

So, should we try to encourage our kids to reach more intelligent and stimulating works? Should schools do more to encourage the reading of classics and weightier modern-day works?  Or should we just focus on encouraging the act of reading – regardless of the material? What do you think?

Saying Goodbye to Who We Used to Be

This weekend, my former writing instructor, Tod Goldberg, wrote a tribute to Adam Yauch of The Beastie Boys, who passed away last Friday. Tod wrote eloquently about what The Beasties’ music meant to him. One line of his tribute really stuck with me:

…you begin to recognize that the sadness you feel isn’t just about the loss of that person’s life, but also the recognition that who you were when you met that person is long gone, too.

This simple truth helped me understand why we can be so overwhelmed with sadness at the passing of someone we’ve never even met. After all, while we might feel like we knew Adam Yauch or Clarence Clemons or Whitney Houston or any of the countless others who we’ve lost recently through their public personas, most of us have never met, much less been a part of these people’s lives. What is it then, that causes the heart-wrenching void we feel when a favorite musician, actor, novelist or other public person dies?

As Tod so perfectly articulates, it’s the knowledge that who we once were, at a certain place, in a certain time, is gone forever. The young child, sitting in a mother’s lap, listening to a beloved story, the awkward pre-teen dressed to impress at a first dance, the college student, cramming for finals in a dorm room, the young parents trying to quiet a restless newborn in the wee hours of the morning. We recognize in the passing of the people who formed the backdrop to our lives that we can never again be who we were then – that a certain part of us has disappeared forever. It’s bittersweet, the acknowledgement that we’ve matured and grown, left behind pieces of ourselves in the process that only seem more dear to us with the passage of time.  Through the faded lens of nostalgia, even the bad morphs into good and we long for the feeling of being in that place and time again.

The loss of who we were seems to hit especially hard at this time of year, with Spring turning into Summer, the time of graduations and moving on. At this time last year, I was planning my older daughter’s high school graduation. Amid the excitement of parties and celebrations and orientation for her new life on a university campus, came the sad acknowledgement that things in our house would never again be the same, that a special period in our lives was about to depart from us forever and that we would all be changed. Walking her new campus during orientation, I was struck with nostalgia for my own college days, so much so that even the tough times began to seem perfect and magical.  It wasn’t simply my youth that I missed. It was the person I was in those days – the person I was before launching headlong into adulthood and the working world and before becoming a wife and mother. It was a time when I wasn’t even aware of all the milestones I was checking off – milestones I now realize are all in my rear-view mirror.

Ahead of me lies one daughter’s middle school graduation, the other daughter’s completion of her freshman year in college, our first summer without two children at home, and at the end of the year, a significant birthday that marks the passage of way more time than I’d like to admit.  I don’t mean to seem so morose – I embrace the future and look forward to all that is new. But I can’t help missing those people, places and times now departed. Because after all, their loss means saying goodbye to who I was when I encountered them – a part of me that I have to let go.