Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Swimming (ly)

Firstly, a confession (and I realize that in my new American dialect I should be saying 'first' rather than 'firstly', but I'm feeling a little bit scared about being too American today). I confess that I'm not a great 'swimming' mom. In part this is because I'm not a great swimmer (too many memories of not being able to see anything in the space between taking off my specs and reaching the side of the pool), I'm a bit squeamish about poolside hygiene (veruccas and stray hairs and all those lost band-aids floating about under the water), and I'm not very good at helping my children swim. In fact, there have been instances where my 'not-a-great-swimming-mom' has endangered my children's lives. For instance, there was a time in Barbados when we encouraged Maya to jump from the side of the pool into our arms and then watched in horror as she missed and slowly sank; there was another time in Whitley Bay when I encouraged Maya to get into the pool before her swimming lesson and then watched in slow motion horror as each time she kicked her legs her head went a little further under the water (eventually I jumped in after her and spent the rest of the lesson with my jeans dripping puddles around my bare feet)... But they have survived so far, and we continue with the swimming lessons.

Secondly, another confession. I really really like the Massachusetts' approach to raising children. It's upbeat, positive, and encourages a 'can-do' attitude (in fact, at the front of Iola's kindergarten class is a big poster saying 'we are can-do kids'). When the children fall over at basketball, for example, they are scooped up, brushed off, given a high-5 and sent off to finish the game. They are expected to realize that life is fun and that attitude is everything. They are expected to believe that they can do anything and I am 99 and three-quarter percent behind this. It's a great way to treat children and Maya and Iola are thriving. Iola's favorite word is awesome and she'll high-5 her basketball coach, kindergarten teacher, swimming instructor and so forth until the cows come home.

I'm just not sure that it's a good way to learn to swim.

In England, there are learner pools. Shallow areas where children splash about with floats and woggles and gain the confidence to put their faces in the water. When I rescued Maya, the water only came up to my knees. It's all about technique - they learn to starfish (float with their faces in the water), and rocket (cruise with their faces in the water). At swimming lessons in Tynemouth, the focus was upon encouraging the children to run really fast across the pool so that they would trip and, you've got it, put their faces in the water. It's a slow process and it's resulted in Maya's beautiful technique which means that she can, very slowly, move across the pool in flawless front crawl or butterfly (with her face in the water).

In Cambridge, there is the YMCA. The YMCA is great - it's upbeat, has fantastic front desk staff, wonderful basketball coaches, and even provides free boxing lessons for children (which Maya politely declined while Iola is counting the 426 days until she is old enough totake part). The YMCA in Cambridge is also the third oldest in the US and it is a little 'tired'. I have no problem with old pools, they have their own charm: little shiny white tiles, mosaics, bits of history. For example, they renovated Portobello Swimming Baths while we were living nearby and it is a joy (see right). They haven't renovated the swimming pool in Cambridge YMCA. It has a delicious authenticity which I am, unfortunately, unable to appreciate.

The Cambridge YMCA pool is also quite deep. There is no 'learner' pool or 'baby' pool or 'children's pool'. There is just the swimming pool. Just one 30 yard long expanse of 5 ft deep water. The children who have learnt to swim here are great - they have a fantastic can-do attitude and bravely leap straight out of their depth. They might not have Maya's technique, but they certainly know not to pause mid-length to put down a sneaky foot.

It's safe. I reassure myself that it's safe. In Iola's non-swimming class, each child has a float tied to their middle and then they're released out into the pool like a swarm of splashing puppies. Rather than encouraging the children to put their faces into the water, they are encouraged to keep their faces above the water. This evening one small girl required a little additional encouragement and a larger red float from the lifeguard - but the discourse was very positive and the child didn't drown. And, in absolute fairness to the wonderful way in which children are raised around here, the child didn't cry. I don't know if she high-5ed the lifeguard because my eyes were fixed on Iola, but she certainly had a great can-do attitude.

On the positive side, I am overcoming my phobias about dirty changing rooms. In fact, I barely noticed the nappy in the corner and the slight smell in the air because I was so utterly relieved that both girls had emerged from the pool unscathed. I have not checked their feet for veruccas.

Another positive is that I can see the results of this approach in the children who learned here and, now in Maya's class, splash past her as they complete their allocated set of lengths.

It's just that I'm not sure what happens to the children who don't learn to swim here.... not the children who haven't attended the lessons, but the ones who did attend the lessons but never quite mastered the 'can-do' elements of this kind of swimming. I suspect that somewhere there are therapists who treat women who are even further down the 'not-a-great-swimming-mom' spectrum than me!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cambridge Police

I've not seen many American cops and robbers shows - a few episodes of the The Wire, distant memories of rolled-up jacket sleeves in Miami Vice, a couple of Die Hard movies. I've not seen many but even those few are enough to provide some of the dominant stereotypes... We've amused ourselves trying to find examples of those stereotypes around Cambridge.

 (Slightly overweight) Keanu Reeves look-alikes... (I have yet to see a female cop since arriving in Cambridge three months ago. Go figure.)
... wearing reflective shades... (The sartorial effect suggests the quiet threat of the highway patrolman in Psycho - see image - rather than a practical response to the winter sunshine).
... drinking coffee and eating donuts... (we stayed at a hotel for our first two weeks here, and each morning two squad cars would pull up and four cops would saunter through the hotel, help themselves to coffee and pastries, and then return to their cars. The first morning, in a burst of enthusiasm, I pointed them out to my children and said, "Look, girls, that's what an American policeman looks like." The cops didn't return my smiles.)
... in black and white chevrolets. The Cambridge Police drive low-slung chevvies which crunch over potholes and cruise slowly backwards and forwards through Harvard. Sometimes they stop when me and the girls are on a pedestrian crossing.

We lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the past three years and the policing in that area was phenomenal. We had local bobbies riding around on bikes and stopping for friendly chats with children, police walking around the city centre, widespread Neighbourhood Watch and education programmes. The Newcastle police force is, inevitably, facing massive cost cuts which will affect the way that it polices the area: chatting to children and cycling around Tynemouth don't fit comfortably into the economics of efficient policing. That's a shame. 

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, policing policies are different. When an old man tripped and fell outside the hardware store last week, someone called 911. Within 5 minutes, an ambulance, a squad car and two fire engines had arrived at the store. They always send out all the emergency services to any 911 call here, just to be on the safe side. The costs aren't relevant: I have been assured, by two people who work within the Cambridge P.D, that the force is "loaded". One of the major sources of police funding is generated through road traffic management: any building work which affects traffic flow needs to employ a police officer to be on-site. There is a lot of building work in Cambridge. This is where the police are at their most visible. I have not seen any cops on foot (except when walking through the hotel lobby) or on bicycles. I have seen many many cops standing around near building sites. 

Last weekend, I took the girls to their favorite park. While they played about on the monkey nets with some other children, I chatted to Billy. I liked him. Although our views were poles apart, we chatted amiably while sharing the parenting: taking it in turn to rescue the children when they got stuck on the ropes, pushing the smaller ones on the swings. He was interested in the news and told me that he had been particularly shocked by the recent riots in England, finding it laughable that such a furor had erupted from the police's shooting of one man. I talked about how hard it is to be a young person in the UK at the moment; he agreed and reflected that he knew only a few "bad" kids. I talked about my experiences as a teacher and a volunteer youth worker, musing on the effect of bad parenting and poverty upon children's life chances and behaviors. He told me that he had shot one of the "bad" kids the previous week and that it was the closest he had come to killing a youth for nearly 20 years. 
(Billy was slighly overweight, looked a little like Keanu Reeves, and had a pair of shades visible in his jacket pocket... I should have realised.)

I know nothing about guns (ok, I actually know nothing about quite a lot of things that are fairly fundamental to American culture - baseball, the Vow of Allegiance, how the medical system works - but I know particularly little about guns). I told him that I couldn't do his job - I would be too scared of getting shot, too worried about making the wrong call, too preoccupied with trying to see the good in each person. He replied that it really wasn't that difficult. The "bad" kid last week had put other people at danger. He was brandishing an item which looked like a gun (it wasn't a gun, but that wasn't the point). Billy had no option but to shoot him. Did he, I asked, shoot to disarm him? Billy laughed - that wasn't possible. No marksmen could shoot with the accuracy to disarm someone. You shoot them, he told me, to stop them being a danger. If they die, too bad. He could see the concern on my face and got out his bullets to reassure me. The Cambridge Police use hollowpoint ammunition which has greater "stopping power" than full metal jacket. That means that you only need to shoot your adversary once. One of these bullets will, Billy told me, stop anyone. You don't need to shoot them four or five times to stop them. It's safer. I nodded but I'd run out of words. I couldn't be a cop. I'm not that brave. And I'm not able to stand in a playground with my children playing about a climbing net within feet of where I am and feel ok talking about guns and ammunitions and shooting "bad" kids. 

In Wednesday's papers, there was the story about a retired police lieutenant and a young off-duty police officer responding to a woman's calls that the local pharmacy was being burgled. Both men had guns. As they struggled with the robbers, the retired police lieutenant was heard to shout "Who's the good guy?" and then, in the confusion, shot the off-duty police officer. He died. I don't know what kind of bullets that they used. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

The importance of children

Children hold a different place in the Boston/Cambridge hierarchy. Of course our children are the center of our universe, but we're gradually becoming accustomed to children in this area being treated as though they are the center of the universe in general.

The museums around Boston invest heavily in staff. I've chatted to a couple of people working in the  local museum management and they've explained the rationale in prioritizing expenditure on staffing. They see their staff to be their primary resource: the staff are more important than the artifacts or exhibits in relation to the 'experience' of the museum as a whole. In terms of being a visitor, this means that there are lots of chances to interact with experts and to attend live shows rather than just reading the guidebook and looking at the displays and their labels. As a child, this means that the museum becomes your playground and the staff just seem to want to play and have fun with you.

For example, we trot along to the Museum of Science most Friday afternoons after school (it's only a 10 minute walk from the girls' school so it seems a shame not to...). Over the past couple of months, Maya and Iola have dissected the heart and lungs of a dead lamb, rebuilt the skeleton of an ostrich using the actual bones, computer generated shoals of fish to fill an aquarium, climbed into/on top of/under a variety of exhibits, interrogated two voice-controlled avatars, role-played every aspect of being a bee (Iola particularly enjoyed being the Queen Bee and sending two members of staff around the room to look for pollen), and experimented with a Van der Graaf generator (note: Maya was unharmed in the experiment photographed above). Many of the staff now know the girls by name and give us advance information about any experiments or special activities which they think that the girls might enjoy. Maya, in particular, is thriving on all this science and is obsessively following NASA's GRAIL spacecrafts as they enter the moon's orbits and hypothesizing the relationship between neutrinos and time travel.

I can understand how the Museum of Science can easily model itself as a 'child-friendly' museum because the majority of the exhibits are, by their nature, fairly interactive. Over the Christmas vacation, we also visited the Museum of Fine Arts. I forewarned the children that they needed to be on their best behavior: this is a grown-up museum filled with ancient relics, priceless art, delicate sculptures and so forth. Before we arrived, we explained to Iola that she was strictly forbidden from leaning on anything, scribbling on anything, tying knots in anything, or trying to break anything. But we're in Boston now - what was I thinking? We arrived at the Museum and a typically enthusiastic member of staff recommended that we visit the Roman gallery. She gave both girls an ipad with animated explanations of many of the pieces of art, a folding picnic stool, sketch books, and as many crayons as we could carry. In the Roman gallery - literally in the middle of the Roman gallery with statues of ancient emperors on every side - child visitors were encouraged to make their own mosaics. It wasn't possible for child-free adults to get close to the antiquities because hoards of children, glue sticks, felt tipped pens, and tiny bits of paper littered the gallery. By the time the children were given clay so that they could make their own dragons, it seemed completely natural that one of the leading art galleries in America should place the highest of values upon children having an 'artistic experience'. Iola was in heaven.

If you are planning a visit Boston or Cambridge, I strongly recommend that you bring along a child. Everything seems better if you have a little person with you. And if you don't have access to a real child, a cardboard cut-out  will work similarly well in some situations. For example, unaccompanied adults risk life and limb when trying to cross Cambridge streets but if you attempt the same maneuver with a child on the end of your arm the traffic will screech to a halt in every direction. Or get your little person to ask the waiter for a table and you'll be whisked to the front of the queue while all the grown-ups who have been waiting look on in dismay.

So... (and I love the word 'so' - it's a key part of the Bostonian dialect which ensures a long pause in the conversation during which one can recollect one's thoughts while making it virtually impossible for one's audience to (politely) interrupt you)...

So, it is becomes increasingly surprising when we come across the very small minority who do not value children above all other things. We've only met a few people who, ahem, don't really like children very much: the assistant in the expensive cycle shop frequented by Nathan who 'encouraged' me and the girls to wait outside in the cold (I did very much want to point out that none of their bikes, expensive as they are, was worth even as much as Emperor Augustus' big stone toenail); the old lady who marched across Lexington's main street and shouted at Iola for touching one of the flags decorating the edge of the sidewalk;  Maya's Grade 4 teacher who rips up children's work in front of their faces and refuses to teach them if they talk.

But these are anomalies. To be a child in Cambridge or Boston is, as Maya and Iola would shout in their increasingly Bostonian accents, "juhst great"!