What we never, never talk about

Just last week I had a student remark, casually, as he left the classroom: “Thanks for including The Glass Castle as an option in the reading list. I liked the book. The author’s childhood was so much like my own.”

The student was talking about a book which captures a nearly-insurvivable childhood. Homelessness. Poverty. Abuse.

This summer, my novel Ana comes out from Silent e Publishing. Silent e does some self-published books; mine is a traditional, literary contract. That’s an important distinction for me, the author, and for many readers.

I chose to write Ana because of deepening concerns regarding attitudes towards poverty and homelessness. The book reads, deliberately, as a light novel about a wealthy fifty-something widow who moves from New Jersey to Florida following her husband’s death. It deals, boldly, with the distances we keep even from those we love, and the masks we wear for each other. Because it is a social justice novel, because the ending is a bombshell, because there will be anger, cognitive dissonance, disbelief in some readers, I have included a Why I wrote this afterword. My student’s remark is one more affirmation. Now that the book’s coming out, I’m a little nervous. But, I had to do it. Here’s a bit of why, from the afterword:

I wrote this book because I’ve become increasingly concerned regarding the attitudes of those who’ve never been hungry, never lived on the edge, toward the growing number of citizens who are teetering there or have tumbled over. Recently in nearby Daytona, citizens put together a homeless shelter where individuals can eat, sleep, and have mental health services. As if homelessness is synonymous with mental illness. As if, as a matter of course, a person wouldn’t be homeless without something being wrong with their mind. This, and particularly the public’s lack of concern with this pairing, is only one indicator of the astonishing bigotry associated with poverty in this nation. Assumptions and misconceptions abound.

Here’s another—and for me more personal—example. A friend of mine, who for the last six years lived with and assisted her mother, was recently named as a beneficiary in her mother’s will. My friend doesn’t drive or have a job. An executor is in charge of the will, and my friend’s portion is to go into an irrevocable trust. Her nieces’ shares, because they are under twenty-five, go into a separate trust. They have husbands, and jobs. She doesn’t. Because my friend is without income, the executor and other beneficiaries have gotten together, cleaned out the home my friend lives in while ordering her to sit outside, told her how she should spend her trust income, and decided it should be a “special needs” trust. When I pressed them on why “special needs” they shouted at me, because she doesn’t drive. Because she doesn’t have a job! Again, the layers of ignorance are mind-numbing.

In the coastal central Florida town I live in (which the town of Robinson is modeled after), the divide between the haves and have-nots is ever more apparent. Because it is a touristy beach town, restaurants abound. None of them offer a living wage to the workers. Not a single restaurant in town offers sick days, retirement, or health care benefits. Yet more and more tourists clog the roads, making it harder for locals to get to work. Skateboarding is illegal on our streets: falling down drunk is not. There are actually all kinds of drunken festivals throughout the year. Wine walks. Bike and bars—ride your bicycle from bar to bar. Supposedly, all of this is good for the town. The truth is, the minimum wage and below it jobs which are on the rise actually lower the per capita income.

My own situation has ranged greatly over the years—my husband and I raised four sons in a 1,200 square foot home in a working-class neighborhood. While we are fortunate enough to own our home, there have been difficult times. We both hold higher degrees, but chose as careers public service. During the housing crisis we fell victim to a predatory lender in a refinancing; the lender actually changed our paperwork after it was signed and notarized from a fixed rate of interest to an adjustable. Although we eventually won a class-action suit (this was done to hundreds of mortgage holders), instead of surrendering our home to foreclosure, we chose to continue paying the mortgage, and for years paid over $2,000 a month. We will never get that money back.

During that time my husband worked for a brokerage house out of Brooklyn, doing online customer support for our home in Florida (he’d left the fire service after discovering that, after childcare and taxes, he was bringing home twenty-nine cents an hour. So, he stayed home with the children and worked online while they were still too young for school). One year, he made trades as a day-trader as well, with some modest gains. He was good at it. However, his employer criminally reported all of his trades (and those of many other employees) as gains, leaving us with over forty thousand dollars in tax debt. The employer was caught and convicted; our tax situation was irreparable. We are still paying for those back taxes. Unfortunately, a few years earlier I’d experienced an emergency brain surgery which took place in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve. Since I was not expected to live, financial concerns were the last thing on our minds. While I was literally under the knife (at this time my husband was still a firefighter and I was teaching) our health insurance carrier switched from a PPO to self-insured. For two years following my surgery, the two insurance companies refused to pay the bill which amounted to over $100,000. Each claimed the other was responsible to pay. Finally, they agreed to split the bill, but by that time our credit was completely ruined.

Shortly after my husband lost his position with the brokerage our own living was reduced to poverty level. Although we were both working very hard, we could barely keep food on the table. This went on for years. Because we were “poor”, relatives politely quit visiting; if family came to town, we met at a restaurant (which we usually could not afford to do.) Distances grew, and we were treated with condescension. There were times when we could only afford to pay either our power bill or our water bill; sometimes we had to take showers at the public ones at the beach and port drinking and cooking water purchased at the market. We flushed toilets and mopped the floor with rainwater. All while keeping up huge mortgage and tax payments. It was during this time that I began to make note of the razor-thin line between sheltered and homeless.

I also realized how shallow were our perceptions of others. Although I had friends in similar, or worse, financial straits, most of them pretended they were not. They seemed ashamed of and dishonest about their situations. This made me think about the deceptions we foist on each other, even on friends and family. Perhaps that was why—this culture of lies—it seemed easy for my own siblings in particular to ignore a sister and her family living below poverty level.

I was working full-time at the University of Central Florida as a Coordinator of Educational Training Programs at the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. While I served mainly in the county I lived in, Volusia, once a week I had to drive to Orlando, 115 miles round trip, for a clinical meeting. My husband was at that particular time working on a bachelor’s degree. We had three sons living at home; two in high school and one in middle school. Both the middle school boy and the oldest had after school and weekend jobs as bus boys at a local restaurant; our middle son was attending a rigorous magnet International Baccalaureate program in a neighboring town, so he didn’t have a job. He also has the form of autism formerly known as Asperger’s, as well as arthritis. So, three of us in the home were working at that time. This was after the financial crash and after my husband lost his job at the brokerage. Of twelve remote support personnel, Mikel was the last one to be let go before the job was phased out. At that time, he decided to go back to college. His student loans and grants provided some extra income after tuition and fees.

We qualified for both reduced lunches at school for the boys and for government commodities, a very old federal program. Commodities are distributed through local churches. We chose to access the food bank at a church in nearby Port Orange, where our son’s magnet school was. Unfortunately, distributions took place on Tuesday afternoons, the same day as my clinical meetings in Orlando. My husband was in class on Tuesdays, and took the local bus as we had one vehicle. I would rush from Orlando to make it to Port Orange, then stand in line in my suit and heels. The distribution was around the back of the church, and the line was generally long. Once patrons retrieved their paperwork from one window, they took it to the next window and handed it over. The person who then checked the paperwork and called instructions to volunteers packing boxes and bags happened to be the pastor’s mother, a woman in her late sixties. Every time she spoke to me, after she’d called “Family of five!” to the volunteers, she chatted a bit and always asked, “How’s the job search going?” Every single time I told her, “I have a job” she looked puzzled.

One particularly trying afternoon I lost my patience, and although I wasn’t rude, said, “Listen, I not only work full-time, I have a terminal degree. I teach at UCF.”

“A terminal degree? What’s that?”

“If it doesn’t kill you, you’re done.”—my standard answer in trying to explain the MFA. She looked blank. “Like….a doctorate. A PhD.”

“And you still qualify for free food?”

“Yes, ma’am, check the paperwork.”

More puzzlement. “Well, there are four other people in your household. Why don’t they have jobs?”

“Actually, those who can, do. One of our sons has autism. The other two, who are 14 and 17, work when they aren’t in school. My husband is a full-time student taking an overload of courses. A lot of the people who come here work, many of us at full-time, professional jobs. Many of the people standing in line here work more than full-time in the service industry.”

The next week, the pastor’s mother smiled at me as I      waited for my food. And of course she asked the inevitable, “How’s the job search going?”

I replied, “As well as can be expected in this economy.”

I made a couple of friends, Laurie (her real name) and Sally (a pseudonym), who were honest with me about their situations. That helped both them and me. To have someone to commiserate with, particularly about the relentlessly exhausting struggle to find ways to pay the bills, made that relentlessness easier to bear.

We struggle. But perhaps we are more honest about it with each other than the general run of citizens, are. Our families don’t really want to know. I have siblings with multiple properties whose savings fall easily into six digits. They are good people. They could write a $20,000 check without missing it. They don’t visit, but they do call. When they come to town, they genteelly ask to meet at a restaurant; they buy. I’m sure they feel good about that. I know they do. They’re kind people, they truly enjoy getting together, going out to eat. They would not enjoy walking through my door, into the 1200 square foot concrete block house with no heat, window units for air, and 1970’s tile floors, with six people living in limited space, along with the two dogs which help with the autism in the house. They don’t, really, want to know.

Our mother ages, and there are discussions about moving her into a facility, or into one of their comfortable homes out of state. She can no longer clean her own house completely, and she’s too friendly to hire someone to do it. I do it. On top of struggling to get by. Although my siblings do visit, and engage as much as possible, it doesn’t occur to them to scrub her toilet. That’s a job for me—the poor one. Of course. But we don’t talk about that.

And that is what is wrong, here. People don’t want to know. That’s why I wrote Ana. I’m active in the local arts community, and there’s a world-class facility close by where I’ve studied several times. I like the staff out there. They like me. But, we argue a bit on facebook when I try to make the local cool people see; this town relies on a workforce which is largely unseen. If you drive the causeways at one a.m.you will see weary food service workers making their way home, some walking eight to ten miles home. They don’t have cars and they don’t have insurance. Yet, visiting writers are shepherded to the four star restaurants, poured eclectic glasses of vino under twinkling lights while these people ruin their shoes back in the dishpit. The busboys and dishwashers take the scraps home, wondering if they’ll get sick from recooking the leftovers of a $60 steak. It’s true. And nobody talks about it.

So there you have it, a bit of a teaser on Anamy forthcoming novel, from  the afterword. Why I did it. Think about it. The line between the haves and have-nots is razor thin, and judgements, particularly regarding the homeless, abound.

Even a word or two

As many of you know, I am now back with Volusia County Schools, teaching. My husband is at one high school and I am at another, and the simplest answer as to why is, we needed the financial benefit of the split-family insurance! It saves us well over a thousand dollars a month.

I am LOVING teaching senior English. I am at a wonderful school with literally the finest students I’ve ever worked with. As many of my friends and followers know, my dream as a teacher is to create life-long learners; and since I have “had” to do lots of professional development as a “new” teacher (I’ve taught English as an ESE teacher, as a coteacher,and as a college professor at two universities, but this is my first year as a senior English, general education K-12 teacher! Exciting for me!), I am enjoying it and realizing I am a life-long learner.

I’ve been teaching a long time, and the more I do the less I know. Let me explain that. There’s so much, out there, to learn; and, the older I get the more I realize that due to new discoveries and technologies and inquiring minds, I need to work HARDER to keep up. I need to be open to learning. So, as much as I can, I access the fabulous learning opportunities offered to me through professional development.

There is an issue which, to me, is disturbing in the media (social, academic, and popular), and pervasive. There seems to be a perception–and I include my VCS professional development classes in this–that “free and reduced” is an indicator of poverty. It simply isn’t so, and leads with a ripple effect to all sorts of erroneous perceptions and even policy implementations. I’ll explain.

If your child attends VCS, and you have one child, you can make up to $37,295 annually and your child can receive reduced lunch (with three in the household–if you are a single parent the amount is $29,635). If you have three children, the amount is $52,613–$44,954 for a single parent. Think about that for a moment. That isn’t poverty level. Yet, we think of (and speak of professionally as well as socially, that’s important!) “free and reduced” as a synonym for “poor.” That’s wrong.

Here are the federal poverty guidelines for 2015:

2015 Federal Poverty Guidelines – 48 Contiguous States & DC
Persons in Household 100% Federal Poverty Level Medicaid eligibility* threshold 138% FPL
1 $11,770 $16,243
2 15,930 21,984
3 20,090 27,725
4 24,250 33,465

So, our example families are nearly 200% ABOVE the national poverty level. This is a big, big problem, this misinformation. Think about it. See what I mean?

Is it political? Or, is it just smart?

In these hot political times, in this time of great unrest in this nation, many stakeholders in the American public education process shy away–some in fear, some in ignorance–from discussion of or taking a position on the very real impact of the election of Donald Trump to the office of president. There is no more political office than that of president. Make no mistake: Mr. Trump is absolutely a politician. To be apolitical in the current climate is to be either stupid or ignorant. There’s no cure for stupid; ignorance, on the other hand, is fixable; the remedy is knowledge.

While it is all well and good to allow for a variety of political opinions in this great nation, and to listen to others’ views, to support a candidate who will say (and not in a locker room, but in a bus full of people, male and female) “Grab ’em by the pussy” is to show a gross lack of care for the children of this nation. This man is to be the leader of our country; this includes LEADING its children. He has ZERO experience in preparing for the job of the leading politician in the land. Zero experience with working with fellow politicians in the other branches of government. He is a misogynist and bigot; he publicly mocked a man with a disability. It strikes me as stunning that people who voted for him seem surprised that he has chosen as his nominee for Secretary of Education a woman with zero experience with public education (unless she went to public elementary and/or junior high; she attended private high schools and college–and she has never taught or held a degree in education). Her children have never attended public school, either. Why would people expect Trump to choose somebody with experience when he has none himself?

Trump has openly expressed a very Trumpesque drive to cut entitlement programs. Public education is the biggest entitlement program in the country. Yes, it is free. Education. For all children in the country. But, it isn’t a Constitutional right (and some of those are on the Trump chopping-block as well), so don’t be at all surprised if he and his new nominee have their way and education becomes privatized. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they try to take away the entitlement, itself, and make it for-pay. To say nothing of the programs and laws in place to protect the kind of individuals Trump openly mocks; individuals with disabilities.

If you’ve shied away from discussing these things because they are “political” pull your head out of the sand and get busy working to protect your children from the ignorant, vile, disgusting leader-elect. A man guilty of the things we have seen this man do will not be out to protect the children, much less those cited by Lady Liberty in her harbor: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” That’s immigrants, people. The children of those immigrants.  It’s time to get political. Past time.

Here’s Donald Trump’s Choice for Secretary of Education


Public Education as Welfare


In Memoriam: The Late Mike Martin in his own words–I Killed Black Beauty from Surfers’ Rules: The Mike Martin Story

Mike and I had agreed to publish his autobiography, which I was coauthoring with him, with George Foote of Silent e Publishing. I don’t know if that book will be completed. It may be a long time before that decision is made. But, I wanted to share a chapter from it which Mike was particularly fond of, to offer some comfort to his friends through Mike’s own words. As many of you will, I’ll miss my friend. May he rest in peace with those who have gone before.



I killed Black Beauty

It was in 1994 and my friend Robert Wolfe, who was originally from New Smyrna Beach, was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach, which was originating the first edition of the Walk of Fame. The Walk of Fame is a section of sidewalk on the corner of Main St and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, directly opposite the pier. Patterned after the Walk of Stars in front of Grumman’s Theater in Hollywood, there are plaques sunk in the sidewalk which commemorate legendary surfers.

So Robert said, “We’re having a big display at the museum to coincide with the Walk of Fame premiere, and we want to feature pro surfing and the ASP surfers, because the premiere is going to take place during the US Open. Can you try to get something from Tom Curren?”

After two World Titles in 1985 and ’86, Curren made a comeback and recaptured the crown in 1990, the year before I moved to California. I said, “Well, I’ll call him. I’ll try.”

I got Curren’s number and called him. I had to try several times because he’s kind of a reclusive guy. He was living back in Santa Barbara, his hometown, with his second wife after living in France for years with his first wife. After many messages, he finally called me back, which actually surprised me. But, we did have a relationship of sorts because I had been Head Judge during his first years on the Tour and his first two World Titles. I explained about the museum exhibit and asked, “Is there something you could loan to the museum?  I’ll pick it up and put it in the museum and I’ll be responsible for it.”

He said, “Let me see, I might be able to dig something up.”

I was going up to Rincon to judge a contest, which is in Santa Barbara and is his home break. I said, “I’ll give you a call when I’m up there. I’m spending the weekend at this contest.”

Curren said, “Oh, okay, that’s pretty close by.”

I actually had doubts that he’d show up, because he was a kind of “Mr.Mysto” type guy. So I rode up there with the late Midget Smith, Mary Lou Drummy, and Kurt Page to judge this WSA, Western Surfing Association, Amateur contest. We drove up in Midget’s van. We were there three days for the contest. I call Curren every day and left messages, but I never heard from him, which, once again, didn’t really surprise me. I told Robert and Midget and everyone I was with, “This is really a long-shot because Curren just isn’t into this type of thing. He really doesn’t care about publicity and he hasn’t promised me anything anyway.”

My best hope was actually just to speak to him again, maybe while we were in the same town at the same time. So, I just kept leaving messages like, “Tom, I’m here until Sunday afternoon, if you get the chance to call me back.” And this was before almost anyone had a cell phone. I certainly didn’t. So it was call every evening from the hotel and just wait another day.

It gets to be Sunday, the last day of the contest, and we’re going to leave straight after the final and drive back to San Clemente, which is about four hours, and I haven’t heard from him. Oh, well.

But, late in the afternoon, during one of the last heats, I see this tiny little woman walking down the beach toward us, carrying this surfboard. She’s not dressed for the beach, and she can barely get her arms around this surfboard, carrying it with both hands. It’s clearly not her own board. It’sTom’s second wife Maki, from Panama, who I’ve never seen or met. Anyway ,she’s coming down the beach with the board, and I figured it out and said, “Mrs. Curren?”

“Are you Mike?”


“Tom asked me to bring this to you.”

“Wow, that’s fantastic, thanks so much! Please tell Tom thank you from me!”

So, all of us are holding it and looking at it, especially Midget Smith, who was a surfboard shaper by trade himself. It was a 6’3” Channel Islands, shaped by Al Merrick (before he dropped the Channel Islands label). I recognized it as one of Curren’s boards because it had all his sponsor logos and this thick black line all around the rails on the deck. But, at that time, I didn’t know it had a nickname, “Black Beauty.” I had seen enough boards of his to recognize it as one of them, because they all had the same two-inch black outline regardless of the size of the board. His whole quiver looked like that. If he was riding a 6’0’ or a 6’8” they all looked the same from a distance. It was only later— and to my great consternation— that I learned that this was the original one that he and Merrick had dubbed “Black Beauty.” Of course, now anyone can order a “Black Beauty” model Al Merrick, as the mystique of that surfboard has passed into the lexicon of the sport. But I get ahead of myself.

The board was in horrible condition. It was all beat up; dings on the tail and broken nose and it looked like it had probably been stored under the house or something. But, hey! My mission is accomplished! I’d just take it back to Huntington Beach and give it to Robert Wolfe to display in the museum.

Well, Midget had this van and we were already packed up to leave with all our boards on top, and we hadn’t brought any extra racks. I really hadn’t thought this was going to happen. That’s the part I really screwed up, and is the oversight that still wakes me up at night occasionally. Midget says, “No worries, I’ve got some rope we can tie it on with.”

Now, almost twenty years later, I must explain to the reader that I accept full responsibility for this disaster, even though Midget tied it on the van. Midget was my great friend and has been gone since 2008, Rest in Peace.  He tied it and knotted the ropes firmly and we both tugged and wiggled it and assured ourselves that it was secure.

We take off down the freeway, southbound on the 5, trying to get back to San Clemente as early as we can on a busy Sunday afternoon, which is enough explanation to anyone who has navigated the Southern California freeway system. Whoosh, whoosh, six lanes each way, everyone averaging 70 miles an hour, trying to get as close to LA as they can before hitting the inevitable traffic jam. Apparently what happened was: we were going fast, fast, fast, and the board’s straining against the rope, but secure as long as we’re at speed. Then we hit L.A. traffic, and slow down to a crawl. That must have created loose slack in the rope. We sit and crawl for a while—4 PM Sunday weekend traffic— until we reach the south side of LA. Then, suddenly freeway-style, the traffic eases and the green flag drops and everyone accelerates back up to speed with a sigh of relief. And then Kurt yells, “Curren’s board just flew off the van!”

            Oh my God, No!

Midget, to his everlasting legend, reacts instantly like an Indy car driver: brakes hard and jerks the van left into the emergency lane, with all the junk mufflers and blown tires and broken glass. Just, grrrrrr, balls to wall, and fishtails to a stop.

I’m screaming, “Oh my God, we’ve gotta get it!”

Midget throws it into reverse and starts backing up at speed against the flow of the traffic until we reach the spot where we can see the board. It’s blown over now into the middle of six lanes with a thousand cars bearing down on it. We screech to a halt. I’m just hyperventilating.

“I’ve gotta get that board!” I actually jerk open the side door of the back seat and for an instant, purely on adrenaline, I was going to try and grab it. Kurt Page lunges over and bodily grabs me with both arms, yelling, “Mike, you’re crazy, you’ll be killed, you can’t, there’s no way.”

Mary Lou and Midget are both turned around yelling, “Stop it, Mike! Sit down!” And the wind blast from six lanes of speeding cars snaps me back to my senses. Then, in only seconds, before all our eyes, we see boom, boom, boom, boom, the board being hit by car after car. Just disintegrating. Shattered into bits. Fins and pieces of foam flying and bouncing everywhere. It was mulched into small fragments right before our eyes. In retrospect we were lucky it did not cause an accident to anyone who hit it.  We sat for a few minutes, now in stunned silence. The relentless stream of speeding cars made it clear that there was no way to wait and salvage anything, even if a small chunk survived.

Midget said, “We might as well get out of here.”

I see Tom Curren’s World Championship Black Beauty surfboard that he’s loaned to me, under my care, destroyed on the I-5 freeway right in front of my eyes. And I can’t save it. We drove on back to San Clemente and I was just distraught. I was speechless most of the way home. I thought about driving back up after rush hour to look for fragments, which would have been another two hours. But what would have been the point? The rest of the ride all I can think about is,      How do I explain this to Tom Curren?

Mom always said, “If it’s bad news, you might as well get it over with.”

The rest of the way home I had plenty of time to agonize over what I was going to say.   The only small mercy was that, just like always,he didn’t personally answer his phone. I got his voicemail and just started apologizing, “Tom, it’s Mike Martin, I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but your board flew off the van on the 5 this afternoon on the way home. I tried to get it, but I couldn’t get to it, it was shattered into pieces. I can’t apologize enough, I’m crushed about this, I don’t know what to say, I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life, etc.,etc.”  Until, beeep, I filled up his message tape and it cut off. I still felt the need to apologize directly, at least voice to voice, so I keep calling back every day for a week.  The whole time I can barely sleep, and I know I won’t be able to rest until I actually hear from him. Every day I call again, “Tom, please give me a call back, just so I can apologize to you voice to voice, if not face to face, because I feel so bad about this,” Finally one day about a week later I come home and the light’s blinking on the answer machine. I push the button.

“Hey Mike, it’s Tom. Listen, ha ha, don’t worry about it. I’m just glad no one got hurt. But it’s not your fault and I’m not mad at you. I don’t hold it against you.” I could not believe how kind and gracious he was, even to the point of chuckling over it.

The next time I saw Tom in person I went up to him and said, “Tom, what can I say?”

He said, “Come on, Mike, let it go. It’s not your fault. Stuff happens.”

That’s a real gentleman.

That’s the story of “Black Beauty” Tom Curren’s World Title surfboard. He loaned it to me for an exhibition in the International Surf Museum in Huntington Beach and it got destroyed while en route. But fortunately, Tom seems to have forgiven me, and we even had a laugh about it once.


Years later I saw a quote in a magazine about, Tom Curren’s famous “Black Beauty” world championship surfboard, which was destroyed on the freeway being transported to an exhibition at a museum. Thank God it didn’t mention my name.



Musings on Fluency


Photograph: Larry McGone, 2016 (fellow waterman)

Although I haven’t posted in quite a while, CEG is alive and well. We still offer tutoring and consultation. Although I (Kate) have taken a full-time position with Volusia County Schools, as has Mikel, we are both available after three on school days. If you need help during the school day, one of our other consultants will be happy to assist you. Please simply use the form under “How we work.”

As many of you know, I am a big fan of professional educators. It is one of the reasons I am cautious regarding both home schooling and private schooling in Florida. In Florida, one doesn’t have to have attended any college to teach either of those (although many who do, have).

Fluency is a term educators are, well, fluent with! Many components, carefully managed, build educational fluency. Why is it so crucial? Let’s look at an example. First there is skill acquisition, then there is fluency. Here’s a bit about fluency, and as the link implies, it is an oversimplification:

“An Oversimplified Overview of Fluency

Fluency strategies are designed to take an existing skill, and increase accuracy and speed of skill performance in order to develop competence. For example, a child may be able to tell someone his name 10 seconds after being asked, but if he’s already lost the attention of the person asking, that skill isn’t going to help his social success. The goal of fluency training for this child would be to increase his rate of performance of telling people his name until it became fast and accurate and therefore meaningful for the child.

Precision Teaching Literature suggests that teaching a skill fluently (achieving accuracy plus speed as a requirement of mastery) achieves the following goals:

  • Retention
  • Endurance: The ability of the skill to be performed at a particular level over time.
  • Application: The ability to combine elements of a behavior to create a more sophisticated behavior.”–(citation: http://www.autismteachingtools.com/page/bbbbfg/bbbbfz)

Such crucial educational concepts are standard for professional teachers. As well, they learn in college and continue to address in professional development at which developmental stages to introduce new skills; when to revisit mastered concepts and skills to continue fluency-building; strategies for enhancing engagement.

I had a real-life reminder of the crucial nature of skill acquisition, mastery, and fluency this past week.  Our twenty-five year old son was surfing near the north jetty at Ponce Inlet when he was bitten by a large (the surgeon estimated eight feet) bull shark. Sam, our son, who was in deep water, used his surf leash to bring his surfboard to him, got on, “whitewatered” in, and calmly used his surf leash as a tourniquet until help arrived. He remained calm. He never went into shock. Beyond treating himself, because he was calm and lucid, he was able to assist in his own care once the ambulance arrived. Now, Sam is a strong young man, and tends to be calm rather than stressed–he’s a true Type-B personality. However, it is my belief that fluency played a key role in saving his life.

Sam has been surfing just about every day for the past dozen years. Even when the waves are very bad, he is out there, skill building. He is as fluent in the water as a twenty-five year old surfer can be. That’s key. He has acquired the needed skills, retained them, built his endurance, and when the need came to apply his skills to a new situation, he was able to combine elements of a behavior to create a more sophisticated behavior.

The key here is supervised skill acquisition, and practice to build retention and endurance. Because Sam was a fluent surfer, as his friends put it on the fundraising page, “…..local icon, rolemodel, and all around waterman Sam Cumiskey. On August 29th Sam was attacked and mauled by a 7 ft bullshark while surfing ponce inlet. Sam is starting his road to recovery and made it through a successful surgery this  morning.”…he is alive. (citation: https://www.gofundme.com/2me52gcg)

Surfers and boaters understand the term “waterman.” It means the individual is fluent. Sam’s fluency helped save his life, because all that practice kicked in to make space in his brain available to deal with a brand-new situation: his skills such as retrieving his board, surfing to the beach, and remaining calm in the ocean, as well as reading the water, became so automatic that he was able to focus on the emergent nature of the situation and concentrate on getting out of it, stopping the bleeding, saving his own life.

Now, I realize this dramatic, real-life situation may have you scratching your head and saying to yourself, “What does this have to do with education?”

Fluency is a very real need when it comes to learning. Let’s take reading. First, students acquire the skills needed to read, then, they practice, practice, practice to build fluency. Once students become fluent readers, the necessary skills are automatic when they are faced with new learning which they must read and retain! I am continually surprised at the questions which come from fluent readers regarding new textural information, as opposed to those which come from students who still struggle with fluency-building. Fluent readers are able to key in to new concepts and new information and make the necessary cognitive leaps which lead to new skill acquisition. That’s learning. That’s education. And that’s why educated teachers are crucial to your child’s learning.

CEG dates for the upcoming school year

It’s amazing! The school year rapidly approaches and we thought we’d better put up our upcoming blackout dates. Please keep in mind that you are allowed to take up to three weeks off of tutoring per school year outside, or if you choose to, within, the following dates without payment penalty. Beyond that and sick days, you will be charged the hourly rate for missed sessions. Those three weeks need to be taken in blocks of not less than a week at a time, and we need to be informed ahead of time. In other words, if your child is scheduled Mondays and Fridays for an hour, you can’t take off Mondays and Fridays for two weeks here, and four weeks there, and count that because it is only ten missed tutoring days. Please understand that we have to plan as any business does for our financial needs and that includes keeping to schedule as much as possible; our vacation policy is generous. Please inform yourself and don’t ask your tutor to make exceptions for anything other than illness and true emergencies such as a death in the family.


August 15-19

September 5 & 22

October 6-7

November 21-25

December 26-30

January 16

February 20

April 3-19

Please put these dates on your calendars, and thank you!





Education, and choice

Seven New Smyrna Beach Senior High School graduates: James R. Davis, Jr. ’71; Dr. William M. Davis, ’73; Kate (Davis) Cumiskey, ’80; Richard V. Davis, ’76; Front Row-John D. Davis, ’79; Carol Ann Davis ’88; USN Commander Philip D. Davis, ’84

As a child, I was educated in the public school system in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Coronado Elementary, Chisholm Seventh Grade Center, New Smyrna Beach Junior High, and New Smyrna Beach Senior High–that’s the list of schools I attended before college. I was also dual-enrolled at Daytona Beach Community College my senior year of high school at the local campus started by my friend Michele Diesen’s mother, Jeannie.

I grew up in a large household, with five brothers and one sister. Both of my parents attended college in Georgia; my father at Georgia Tech, my mother at Georgia State. My mother worked in the guidance office at NSB Senior High; my father was a lead designer at Kennedy Space Center for NASA. Neither of my parents ever expressed the expectation that I would go to college. If I asked them what they wanted for me, the answer was always, “to be happy.”

Although my test scores were high–particularly in reading–and I was identified as a National Merit  Commended Scholar my junior year of high school, I was not a very good student. I worked full-time from the age of 14 on, and was a year ahead in school, a year younger than most of my classmates. I was an interested student, if the classes were challenging; a poor student in classes which taught me nothing new. My goal was to graduate, marry, and leave the state; which I did as rapidly as possible after high school. But, in the end, my home environment and education served me very well. I eventually earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Florida–an excellent school at that time, and one of the top ten schools for exceptional student education in the nation–then a Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina. All six of my siblings have higher degrees; three of us terminal degrees in our chosen fields of study. Every single one of us chose public service. Several are pioneers in their fields–my brother Bill Davis invented a non-intrusive mobile mass-spec lab for environmental field work; my brother John, environmentalist for the Attorney General of New York, successfully brought the largest environmental settlement, ever (N.Y. vs. G.E.) about. My brother Rick was a private first responder after the Haiti earthquake, and stayed three years. My oldest brother, Rusty, left his private psychology practice to respond after Katrina to Biloxi, and never came home. He helped redesign mental health disaster response and is now with FEMA. Yet, we weren’t pushed to college.

I think a lot about how our parents influenced the seven of us to not only pursue higher education, but to choose public service and to be life-long learners.  A large part of it had to do with example. Our parents were always reading.  Newspapers, news magazines, novels, anything they could get their hands on. They read to us, constantly, and we all discussed what we were reading around the table at dinner. Grades were important, and discussed–if one of us did poorly in class, our parents worked to find out what the problem was. They knew each of our teachers personally and volunteered at our schools. Our parents helped us with long-term projects and with our homework. They kept a set of encyclopedia at home, and encouraged us to bike to the library frequently. They took the time to discuss world events and conflicts, and to listen to our ideas. If we made an argument,  we were required to support it with evidence. We were required to listen to each other and speak civilly. We were never allowed to fight–not even to wrestle–or to own weapons. We were taught that the greatest weapon is the human mind, and to sharpen ours.

Our parents often took other children in who needed a place to stay, and our household was busy and messy. Nobody got their own room. We watched the news together at night and sometimes a little T.V., but we rarely had time for that. If we wanted spending money, we were required to work outside the home for it–there was no money for allowances. My parents, together, did the majority of chores and we weren’t required to help, but we wanted to. One of the biggest privileges at home was to be allowed to be the one to wash dishes after dinner. So, we loved to wash dishes. My point in all of this is, it’s all about perspective. Our parents wanted us to be happy, and they were happy, and they were educated and served others for a living. They didn’t make us the center of their world (with seven, that just wasn’t possible), and through their service to us taught us to look outward rather than in.

When it came to school, we were taught to make the best out of bad and good situations. That teachers are people, and get tired and irritable, and we were to be kind to ours. If we had a bad teacher–which a few of us did from time to time–we were taught to shut up, hunker down, and do our best. School was a microcosm of society; and, life is not fair. We were taught that if we wanted a good education, we had to work for it. It wasn’t up to the educators to make sure we got the most out of school, it was up to us, the students. The teachers’ job was to guide us, present the material at the appropriate time in our educational development, and it was our job to push ourselves, to question. To quest.

The reason all of this has been on my mind is I have noticed that some students are developing into helpless, lackluster learners. They don’t reach for more knowledge within the context of school, particularly in nonpreferred subjects or topics, and have little stamina for the struggle forward which makes those synapses jump and promotes mental growth. Although as a parent I have always been a “yes Mom” myself, and given my sons as much as I possibly could, I am alarmed when I see how much is handed to children. How rapid the access they have to information is. How little their parents emphasize the skills of research, working for knowledge, and sticktoitiveness. Children need to learn how to push through difficult tasks. Sure, assistance is what the adults around them, including teachers, are there for; but they have to learn how to independently work, and how to reach forward for learning. The learning, itself, needs to become the reward for the work.

When I see the complaining parents are doing all over facebook and out in public about public education, I am not at all surprised at the lackluster behavior of their children. Because parents are role models for their children. If your children see you complaining about following the rules, or the ineptitude of the rule makers (and that includes the Superintendent and the Board) you can’t expect them to be respectful, or to not whine. When you complain about these things, you are being a terrific role model of how to be a whiner. When you don’t teach your children that they have to follow the rules, like wearing school uniforms, you are teaching them to be anarchists. Try, instead, showing your children how to right wrongs; how to change things. Show them the great American systems which are in place like free, appropriate education, and the power of the vote! Teach them to make logical, respectful arguments based in facts they can show and support. Let them see you sit down and write a letter to the editor, to their teacher, to a state representative. Teach them to write a letter! Let them see you invest the time it takes to implement proactive change; not rant, rave, and give up.

School is not there to spoon-feed your children their educations. School is there to guide them in accessing those educations. They, and you, have to do the work to get them there. Choose to show your children how to be life-long learners, and how to look outward to the world, rather than be the center of it.

Why plumeria?

Why is the plumeria our symbol? The main reason is, we love it! Plumeria are beautiful flowers, and to us each color seems to have a different scent. We love Hawai’i, and have visited there several times. When you step off a plane at night (it always seems the planes from the mainland land at night, there) the floral scent from these flowers–which make up many of the leis, there–is powerful.

Here, in Florida, these flowers flourish. Their only real enemy is a hard freeze; over-watering can be an issue, but the sandy soil here is perfect. You can literally take a cutting, stick it in the dirt, and give it light and water and it will grow. That’s a lot like education: give those children a place to grow, don’t crowd them or over do it, be patient, and wait for them to bloom.

The plumeria is also known as frangipani, and there’s a reference to it in the very first chapter of one of my favorite novels of all time, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor! Pick up a copy this summer. It’s a post-nuclear war novel from the late 1950’s which takes place in central Florida; the town is fictional but the writing so exceptional any Floridian can see it. And, many of the places we know and love appear in the book; New Smyrna, Salt Springs, the St. Johns, even Pinecastle! Read it, and keep an eye out for Anthony, who likes to hide in the frangipani.

For teachers–Finding that extra income

I thought it might be helpful to do a blog post which holds new information for educators. Some of you may already be aware of these things and using them to reduce your monthly bills. For those who aren’t, summer might be a good time to check them out to see if they work for you.

I was recently consulted by two young people concerned about student loans. These were two separate clients. The first, a high school graduate who got into his early-decision college out of state and wants to be a teacher, came to me because he was nearly talked out of accepting his very sweet financial aid package by a teacher and a guidance counselor. The teacher told him her student loans were more than her mortgage; the guidance counselor that he was better off financially staying here and going to Daytona State. Both couldn’t have been more wrong, for reasons I’ll explore in a moment.

The second client was a young, recently married student who went to an expensive private school up north, and recently took a teaching job here. She had heard I knew how to access the student loan forgiveness programs. We were able to set that young family up with a program which will pay 100% of her remaining loans back if she teaches for ten years and her and her spouse’s incomes only increase by 5% per year. A five percent increase per year looks pretty good to local teachers!

Colleges offer financial aid based on two things: the Expected Family Contribution on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and the Cost of Attendance (COA). This is true for both public and private accredited institutions. If the COA is high ($200,000 over four years for the first student I mentioned), the college offers a package which first includes all federal and college grants, then scholarships, then offers loans. For the student above, his loans at the college for four years would total about $35,000. BUT, the cost of attendance covered includes laundry, three meals a day, and housing. And, since he will be teaching, he will not have to pay back that $35,000, effectively turning those loans into federal grants. All while building his credit. I’ll explain in a moment.

The second client will actually have to pay back a small amount of her federal loans, but was thrilled when I showed her how to drop her payments from $487 dollars a month to $25 a month. That will really help to offset her healthcare costs. Her loan balance was over $50,000. For her family of two, the adjusted gross income was $27,000. She chose the Income Based Repayment plan, which factored in up to a 5% increase in income for her and her spouse (if their income stays in that category, and they have children, both the AGI and the monthly loan payment drop).

Here is a key point, applicable to both of the above cases: The Income Based Repayment Plan is spread over 240 months; twenty years. BUT, this client, actually both clients, will participate in Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which forgives ALL outstanding FEDERAL loans after 120 (and they can be nonconsecutive) months of service. That’s key, because the teacher above is scheduled in the Income Based Repayment Plan to pay back $29,189 over 240 months, ending in $52,411 forgiveness (the higher figure is due to interest over twenty years.) However, she will only be paying back 13,212–because she is participating in both programs and her loans will be forgiven after ten, not twenty, years.

I know, I know. It’s complicated. There’s a lot to this, and you need to talk to the public servants at the end of the line on the federal end to get it straight. By the way, the first client? He will end up paying even less back. He plans to do several years with AmeriCorps and the Peace Corp before teaching; his payments will be nothing. Even if he went straight into teaching, since his loans are less than the second client’s, his payments would be less. And, he almost gave up a wonderful private-college education because his teacher and guidance counselor just didn’t know about this!

In order to participate in these programs, your loans need to be federal, and you need to have none in default. For the first, public service is not necessary. For the second, and the real money-saver, it is. One of the mistakes some teachers make is they think teacher loan forgiveness is the only path for them to get some assistance with paying back those loans. It isn’t.

Here are some links I hope you’ll find helpful, and please contact me with any questions. A word of caution: It is CRITICAL to do these steps in order. To have the low payments, you have to choose from the best federal repayment plan for your situation. To get public service loan forgiveness, you need to fill out the paperwork, and have your employer do it, annually. But, you need to be on a repayment plan (which means coming off of a forbearance or deferment) before signing up. Call them.




Lipsticking the pig and other delusions

One Volusia County Schools graduate–ready for the adult world

It’s a tough time in the world of education in the good old U.S. of A. I think about this a lot. A lot. It keeps me up at night, wakes me early in the morning. One of the terrific things about the past year has been the fascinating situations I’ve been invited to be a part of. Each case is so different from the last! I’ve worked with home schooled, public schooled, and privately schooled children and adults; I’ve worked with adults out of school; I’ve worked with faculty and administration in both public and private K-12 settings and in colleges and universities. I’ve worked with the children of people across economic and social spectrums from the extremely wealthy to the homeless. With children who are only children, who are part of a large family, who were adopted, who are being raised by grandparents. For me, this diversity has been a beautiful reflection of what it means to be a citizen of a nation which is still a great experiment.

One frustration for me has been (and this is consistent with my experiences as a public servant) misperceptions about public education. Public education is an entitlement program. When I posted that in an education forum on facebook, outrage ensued. Entitlement! That cannot be! Entitlement programs are not for people like ME! That’s for people who don’t pull their weight! NOT ME OR MINE! 

Sorry. Public education in the U.S. is one of the largest entitlement programs, if not THE largest. It may be a bitter pill for some to swallow; get over it. Count yourself blessed that you are so used to free K-12 education that you take it for granted. Don’t let emotion confuse you. Or, politics. Facts are facts, and just as that wonderful commodities program implemented during the Great Depression (and continued at the back doors of churches all over town this week, next week), you may get blueberries, you may get cheese, and you may get canned beans; you take what the bureaucrats dish out, which depends on a tangle of factors it would take several lifetimes to sort, or you get off your wallet and head elsewhere.

This takes me to myth #2, the one which really burns my bacon; your child is entitled in this great socialized system of education not to free and red carpet, but, free and appropriate. Once you accept the debunking of your first illusion that you are above entitlement programs because you are this terrific, capitalistic, maximally independent and contributing John Q. Citizen and realize you not only drive on public roads but follow them to the doors of public schools; this pill is easier to swallow and will help you understand your child’s education sooooooo much better than you do right now.

The largest obstacle I have run into this year is parents who can’t get past their disappointment in their child’s teacher, school, district. What do you expect from welfare? A red carpet? A custom-designed program for little Johnny’s favorite things; that his teacher should teach him using the harpsichord because he has a talent for it, the 32 flavors because he knows them by heart, and a celebration of his taste in sports team T-shirts to protect his fragile little ego?  Parents say they are so very concerned about the way teachers are treated by the School Board (us: we elected them), but turn right around and complain about these public servants, these bureaucrats, these teachers. Teachers are, by and large, AMAZING people. But they are public servants just like firefighters, cops, nurses at the public health department. Teaching is, for most, NOT some holier-than-holy, mystical calling which ebbs and flows but reaches a climactic moment accompanied by angelic singing when your daughter earns that honor roll certificate. It’s a job. For some, a career. It’s a low paying job, where professionals are often treated like morons by their bosses and by the public, where the donation of time is expected. I am a huge fan of my profession, because I know that the overwhelming majority of teachers are amazing at their job. If they weren’t, they simply would not last. It is that difficult. I promise you.

Teachers not only have to deal with professional parameters which are so dynamic they are pretty much liquid; they have to deal with the little individuals in their classroom! They can’t customize twenty-two educations! And, if they did, they’d be ripping your child off from the education they are entitled to; based on the fabulous American culture of education, which includes not only research-based programs, but literally hundreds of years of trial and error; legal, ethical, and curricular precedent; the ability to participate in thirteen years of preparation for entry into that unique on the planet social experiment–our society.

So, maybe dial back your expectations to match reality. Quit lipsticking that porker; stop coming to the free lunch table and expecting a five-star meal, or even meat-and-threes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something for everybody, and the payoff for your child can be enormous. There is, to my mind, no substitute for the diversity present in public schools. Diversity of exposure to concepts, styles, individuals. This, folks, is a reflection of the real American world. Diversity of authority figures. Diversity of problems. It can be very difficult to navigate. It is much more appealing to think of sheltering your child, home-schooling. But think about what that teaches them. I am not right for what everybody else gets. This affects different learners in different ways, as you can imagine. But, the worst myth about homeschooling is that many parents think they can teach because they know their child best, and because they went to school. That’s like thinking that because you broke your arm in the third grade, you can do orthopedic surgery. Sure, there are parents who have the education to be teachers (they’re called “teachers”)! Sorry to be so blunt. Just debunking myth #4.

Right now, education is in crisis. That’s not news. In a crisis, we need to come to grips with the facts, discard illusions, and get busy working together. I’ve worked with parents who absolutely, positively, understand all of the above, and come to the table to work with the schools with clear eyes and heads. Sure, they’re upset and get it straight when their child’s educational needs are not addressed, or when a teacher or administrator screws up—psst: educators are human—but they get it solved. They are available to the school and they know the school. They work within the system to change what they can, and find creative ways with the help of the educational team to go around what they can’t. And, because they know that public education can absolutely, positively, be the very best place for their children to prepare to become contributing members of our democratic society, they sweat it out and stay there.

A momentary backtrack, before I close. It is very, very important for you to know what you want for your child when they are small and in school. Later, it becomes important to know what they want, as well. Do you want them to earn lots of money? Do you want them to follow their muse, find their heart, peace-out their way into the cosmic consciousness?  Do you want them to enter politics, medicine, space? Do you want them to be brave enough to jump into the ever more complex, ever more precarious world of love and parenting? Do you want them to enjoy the journey, or to set a goal and get there? Do you want them to fulfill your dreams? All of these things, these big-picture, global issues, factor into the appropriate educational setting for your child. Be honest with yourself. Wade through the myths, hype, and crap out there and communicate with the educators before deciding.

Or, you could always yank your child out and plop them into any one of many available private, unaccredited settings where the teachers might, or might not, be teachers. In the state of Florida, anybody with a high school diploma and a clean criminal record can teach in private school. Sure there’s great ones around–Sacred Heart in New Smyrna pops to mind–but there are far more masquerading and lusting for your public dollar.


Public Education as Welfare