Category Archives: Family

What Would You Do?

There is a little boy in our neighborhood I’m worried about. I’ll call him Sam. Sam is four years old and always seems to be unsupervised. He rides a bike up and down the sidewalk without a helmet, crosses the street on his own, walks uninvited into peoples’ houses, and seems to be in danger of injury or worse.

Sam has started knocking on our door regularly looking for our seven year old son. When told he should be at home, he says his mom told him to go play outside. He lives in a nearby apartment complex which has had a history of trouble. He says he and his mom live with her boyfriend. Barefoot and shirtless, he roams the neighborhood like a homeless waif. He is clearly developmentally delayed, craving attention, and neglected.

It breaks my heart. What would you do? Report him to CPS? Ignore him? Feed him? Clothe him? Would you let him play with your children?

But Seriously…

My previous post was a reaction to my frustration with Washington state’s new teacher evaluation law and its inclusion of student performance data. Obviously there is never going to be a parent evaluation system connected to our use of data in teacher evaluations.

But I would like to share some of the parents whose children have attended schools where I have taught. First, there was the father who informed me at a conference that it didn’t really matter if his son did well at school. After all, the father didn’t, yet was successful in the field of contracting. If that was the same message he gave his son, no wonder the boy was alternately apathetic and angry.

Then there was the dad who was unhappy that I didn’t cut his son some slack behavior-wise, and stormed off, shouting, “I’m pulling my kid out of this school!” Then, as if an afterthought, added, “And you’re a moron!” Well, you know what they say about falling fruit!

Next up is the eight year old girl who lived in a house that in any normal community would be condemned for human habitation. I witnessed the principal “escorting” her to the office as she screamed a never-ending string of expletives, including all known forms of the f-word. The scene reminded me of “The Exorcist.” What kind of parenting produces that?

I’ll never forget the day and a half I spent as a substitute in a classroom where a girl repeatedly called me “Mr. Clown.” Multiple trips to the office did not discourage her. The rest of the class was not likely to be offered future work with the state department either. This was obviously a troubled community.

And what would one expect from the boy whose father hasn’t held a job for any length of time since his son was born? Apathy oozing from his pores, that’s what.

I could go on, but my point is these students must perform well on assessments if their teachers are to be evaluated fairly. And what are the odds of that?




New Parent Evaluation System Advances to Governor’s Desk

The following is but a fantasy born of the author’s frustration with the shortsighted Washington State Legislature. It is not intended to incite hysteria among irresponsible parents residing in the state of Washington.

In an effort to make the new teacher evaluation system meaningful, Washington State legislators today approved a new parent evaluation system. To ensure that teachers are teaching students who are ready to learn, parents must agree to participate or their children’s test scores will be ineligible for use in teacher evaluations. In addition, the children of any parent whose evaluation ranks at the lowest level, unsatisfactory, for two years in a row will not have their test scores applied to teacher evaluations. Those children will then be removed from the home and placed in a boarding school until such time as the parents complete remedial parenting classes, hold a job for six consecutive months, quit smoking, receive counseling for anger management issues, and any other interventions as ordered by the courts.

Parents will be evaluated based on two twenty-four hour observations each year conducted by a qualified social worker. Evaluation criteria will include the following areas: Home Environment; Health and Safety; Enrichment Opportunities; Discipline; Nurturing; Modeling of Appropriate Behavior/Interest in Learning.

The social worker will give a minimum twenty-four hours notice of the planned observation. The social worker will be permitted to observe all family routines during a full twenty-four hour period. A second social worker will relieve the observer so that he or she may get a decent night’s sleep because nobody performs their best work when they are tired.  In addition the social worker will be permitted to interview any member of the family regarding activities not observed during the visit.

Unlike the new teacher evaluation system, parents will have the right to request a second evaluation by a neutral observer after initially being rated unsatisfactory.

The governor is expected to sign the law into effect tomorrow.

It’s true: You can’t go home again

From the time I was age nine my family made our home on Mercer Island, Washington. When we moved there in the sixties it was a lot like many small towns in America, except the average income put most residents in the upper-middle class.

As long as I can remember, Mercer Island had a certain reputation in nearby communities. We were the rich people. It followed me through school and even into adulthood. I’ll never forget being told by an opponent in a pick-up basketball game in college that my home town was “bush league” because “nothin’ but a bunch of rich people live there.”

As prejudiced treatment goes, it could have been worse.

Today I spent some time returning to my upper-middle class roots. I was meeting my friend Lee for breakfast in Seattle, and I had some extra time. So I hopped off I-90 and drove around for awhile. Driving through downtown Mercer Island I was reminded how much it doesn’t look like the place where I grew up.

Two story buildings were almost unheard of in the retail core through the 1980s. Now there are whole blocks of five story condo/apartment/retail development along the freeway frontage, extending a block or two to the south.

I drove through the old neighborhood, and the old homestead and the houses immediately adjacent to it are essentially unchanged. But the childhood homes of two of my oldest friends, including my breakfast companion,  have been demolished and replaced with large luxury homes. I knew this was the case, but it is still disorienting.

Front of my childhood home in the 1970s.

Sometime in the late 1980s I read an article about the Mercer Island real estate market. The realtor being interviewed was very critical of the homes there, calling them mostly old vacation homes and “daylight ramblers.” She discussed how the market demanded better properties for such a prime location.

I grew up in one of those daylight ramblers. Her words stung.

For the unfamiliar, a daylight rambler is a one-story with a basement built into a hillside. The downhill side of the basement appears like the bottom story of a two story house with windows, doors, etc.

Upstairs was a large living room with vaulted ceiling, large fireplace, and expansive picture windows with a sweeping view of Lake Washington, Seattle, the Olympic Mountains, and the I-90 bridge. From the street you wouldn’t expect so much from a very humble looking home. I was lucky to live there.

With my parents long gone, I have no connection to the house. Ultimately, I expect it will go the way of many of the older houses on the island, which is a shame. No, it isn’t a “great” house, but it is a home with a history for my family, the Toda family before us, and those who have lived there since.

What is it that drives people to build ever larger and more luxurious homes? I can understand it when the space is truly necessary. I don’t understand it so much when it is simply driven by money.

Sunset, August 6, 1978. Venus is visible on the left edge of the photo.

It’s a strange feeling when you realize you can’t afford to live in your home town. I live about 45 minutes to the south now. I’m sure the life-long residents here have seen many changes to their community that are equally disturbing to them.

The two decades I’ve been here have been long enough to see changes. Farmland is being paved over. Development in the name of growth is changing the character of the community. Schools are being impacted. Local politics have become increasingly divisive as money becomes more influential.

I don’t believe that population growth, economic growth, and income class shifts must go hand in hand. It is possible to have a stable economy with a continually improving community, minus the growth that so obliterates the past. What makes such a place rare if not non-existent is a desire for more wealth. There will always be people looking to make a lot of money and calling what they do progress, regardless of the negative impacts of what they do.


Christmas time can be tough for children in poverty

This originally appeared in the Puyallup Herald.

We are now well into the holiday season. It’s a joyous time for many, but a sad and stressful one for more than we can know.

This often plays out in the classroom through escalating misbehavior as the winter holidays approach. For some of these students, the thought of home for the holidays brings dread rather than excitement. School is the one safe, consistent, and caring place they know.

For others, home may be safe, but the joy of giving and receiving gifts may be just a dream due to a lack of financial resources. Children can have a hard time understanding why their friends get so much when they get very little.

People can be quick to judge, and blame poverty on the parents, believing that they just need to work harder, or be more ambitious. Such thinking is unacceptable. They are after all, children, and children deserve to have a real childhood regardless of their parents’ shortcomings.

We have heard a lot about the working poor in recent years. These people try to do everything right. They work hard, often at multiple jobs, and are barely able to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Free time together becomes a precious but rare commodity for their families.

I will never forget when a former president met one such person, and quickly spun her story into his vision of the American dream. To this day I am unsure whether his words were due to cold political skill, cruelty, or lack of intellect.

Estimates vary, but from one in five to one in four children in America live in poverty.  Even one in ten would be unacceptable. The children are powerless to make a real difference in this situation.

Another sickening statistic: 1.5 million children in the U.S. will experience homelessness this year.

We are a wealthy nation, a developed nation, an educated nation. How is it possible that so many of our children have less than the bare necessities?

I won’t pretend to have the ultimate solution to these problems, but I have some suggestions.

First, to the corporations that like to employ many part-time workers or expect long overtime hours to save money on benefits: Shame on you. You force people to seek work with a second employer, causing a scheduling nightmare and still no benefits worth mentioning.

Start giving people full-time employment with limits on overtime expectations or stop pretending to be family friendly.

Next, to all citizens: Buy as many things made by American labor as you can afford. Manufacturing jobs pay better than those in the service sector and we need to be bringing them home so more people can earn a living wage and really support their families.

Finally, be kind to your fellow citizens who are down on their luck. Most of us aren’t any different, just a little luckier.

Shop locally and help the wider economy grow, prosper

Published in the Puyallup Herald: 09/21/11 1:51 pm  


This afternoon I’ll drive to Terry’s Berries to pick up fresh produce. For a number of years my wife and I have been buying a share at this local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.I’m a strong believer in buying as close to home as possible, something that’s not easy in the 21st century. I regularly check labels for place of origin when buying any product. I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot any time I find clothing with a “Made in USA” label.As I write this, I’m wearing a pair of jeans, a polo shirt, and running shoes, all made in America. It took a little effort to find them but well worth it.

It’s even better if I can find a product made in my community, county, or state. I feel good if I’m putting money in the pocket of a fellow citizen.

When we dine out we prefer locally owned and managed establishments over chains.

The local food movement seems to be having a noticeable effect.

Shopping at Fred Meyer, I noticed that produce is labeled with a special sign if it is produced locally or regionally. This is a positive development and gives me hope that our buying habits can have an impact in the wider economy.

Currently, our two motor vehicles are American made. Future vehicle purchases will start with looking at models made at home, but we aren’t stupid. If a car is clearly a bad purchase, we won’t buy it, American or not.

Personally, I see buying close to home as a security issue. I can see a day coming where we as a nation become vulnerable because we’ve outsourced so much of our manufacturing and food production.

The more of us who seek to buy locally, regionally, or nationally, the more pressure we put on the producers to change their habits. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be spending more money either. When you stop to think about what you are buying, whether it’s where it was made, or whether you really need it, you’re more likely to make a purchase that you’ll be happy with for some time.

Spending time at the local farmers market is a good way to build community.

You’ll run into friends, neighbors, and co-workers while you patronize local merchants. Walk around downtown, too. You might discover a shop you didn’t know existed. It could be just what you’re looking for!


Many people have succeeded in life by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, as the saying goes. These people are to be admired for their determination and grit. We often use the same phrase as a suggestion to those who are struggling. “You just need to get up off your duff and pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” some have been heard to say. The problem is that not everyone has bootstraps, or boots for that matter.

Seventy years ago this June 11 my Dad, Harold Clifton Brown, graduated first in his class from West Point. Born the first son of an electrical engineer and a Norwegian immigrant who had briefly written for silent films, things looked pretty bright for his future from the start. He soon had two brothers to play with and his parents were doing pretty well providing for the boys. His dad, Harold senior, worked for Pennsylvania Power and Light. He was called “Brownie” by Grandma Brown, and she took care of the boys and the home. When Dad was about six, Brownie died of a sudden illness, leaving Grandma to provide and care for three young boys. It was 1924.

Through the worst of the Great Depression Grandma Brown worked hard and raised the boys. Dad did pretty well in school, except in the area of conduct.

Third column from the left is Conduct, preceded by attendance numbers. According to the scale it was his worst area.
Yep, Dad was a bad boy with potential. This was recognized by U.S.Senator Fred Brown (No relation. And no relation to the former Seattle SuperSonic.) of New Hampshire who appointed Dad to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Dad continued to work hard once at West Point and in the end was incredibly successful. He served in World War II with the Corps of Engineers, earned a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Science at the University of Chicago after the war, and eventually retired as a Colonel. He went on to work fifteen years as an analyst for Boeing.

Funniest caption ever.

So dad had a bit of a rough start, but his life by most standards was successful. He certainly pulled himself up by his bootstraps, wouldn’t you say?

In no way do I consider myself the success Dad was. I went to college, reluctantly. My record as an undergrad was undistinguished. I flailed around at a variety of jobs for six years afterwards. Something finally clicked and I got my teaching credentials with a 3.74 GPA. Since then I’ve been gainfully employed as an elementary school teacher. But I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps. Couldn’t find them. So how did I get where I am? I’m white, male, grew up in an upper middle-class community, and I’m the son of a very successful father and saintly mother. Had but one of those puzzle pieces been missing I might be missing too (See Depression).

So when I hear or read about people using examples of others overcoming long odds to “make something out of themselves” to justify criticism of those who fail at same, I get agitated. Sometimes I even get hot under the collar. On rare occasions it gets my back and my dander up. Way, way up. If someone opines that you should stay out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat, well, better make yourself scarce, because that’s one too many cliches.

Sometimes people need help to simply lead a normal life. We all are products of our families, communities, nations, and genetics. Fortune determines the variety and quantity of each. Genetics can impact ambition, health, and talent. Our families impact our self-image, values, and attitudes. Community and nation provide opportunity, resources, and security. If fortune is kind we find it easier to make our way in the world. If fortune shorts us in one or more areas we struggle a bit more. If too much is missing, ambition can find little room to grow.

So, when I see the alcololic homeless man vomiting by the side of the road I try not to judge him. I don’t call him “loser.” I see the me that might have been had my circumstances been slightly different.


I am not religious. I haven’t attended church on a regular basis since I was about fifteen years old. To that point I was a Roman Catholic. I had gone through Confirmation and First Holy Communion. I even tithed, intermittently anyway. There was a certain comfort in childhood in attending church on Sundays, going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, or being smudged with ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Mom was a devout Catholic and I know she wanted her children to be the same. I think it’s safe to say that none of us turned out as such. Because Dad was not a Catholic I did not face much pressure as I began drifting away from church. I know Mom wasn’t happy, but there was no anger. She just looked sad. I never spoke to her about my reasons and she never asked. She died of breast cancer six years later.

What it came down to was unhappiness. I seldom felt really, truly joyful as a child and a young teen. Doing all the right things in my church never made any difference. Happy times always seemed to be experienced through a filter of haze. While I had a few close friends, many of my peers teased me, especially as I began to gain weight through my obsession with junk food and television. Thankfully, time has helped me understand what I now believe caused that hazy filter. Depression.

About ten or so years ago, listening to my future wife describe her own symptoms and experience with depression I realized it sounded much too familiar. I had never had a name for it until then, had no way of asking for support because I didn’t understand and I feared being judged.

A few years earlier, after months of the worst symptoms, I described my experience to my doctor. He had no clue whatsoever. No diagnosis. Nothing. I went back to the same doctor after learning about depression, and asked him if I might have depression. He gave me a brief questionnaire, reviewed it, and gave me a prescription. That first prescription actually made my symptoms worse, but things have gotten better over the years. I’ve since changed health care providers.

I could not even begin to tell you how many people have tried to draw me into their religion over the years.  My thin veneer of normalcy did not conceal my core of sadness, making me an obvious target. Let’s start with the Hare Krishna in San Francisco in 1974 when I was seventeen who called me a “far-out guy.” I walked away with a book I didn’t want and less money than I started with, but I was too polite to say no. Then there was the time a high school buddy and I were approached outside the Seattle Scientology office, and asked to take a “personality test.” When they found out we were under age they quickly moved on. There have been more Jehovah’s Witnesses than I can begin to count. Once, a JW woman came to my parents’ house offering literature. Strangely, I came to know her several years later as the bride to be of my step brother, also a JW. Nice enough people, but why do their churches tend to be window-free? Not a good fit for claustrophobics. I sat next to a Mormon missionary on a Greyhound during my freshman year in college. Once he knew there was no chance of me converting, we were able to discuss music for the rest of the trip. When I was thirty I ended a seven year friendship because he could not stop proselytizing. I had been one of his groomsmen. I question that decision to this day, but I feel talked down to anytime people treat me as though I’ve had no experience with or knowledge of their religion. Ultimately, it wasn’t religion that helped me take the first step on the road to wellness, it was knowledge.

Then there are the people who simply practice their beliefs with no expectation that those around them be anything other than what they are. If anyone will bring me back to church it is these people. They treat non-believers like human beings, not objects to be manipulated. They lead with their joy. They live their lives fully and meaningfully, setting an example which your average televangelist cannot. They will never carry garishly colored signs with cruel messages at the funerals of fellow Americans who gave their lives in hopes of  preserving freedom of speech. You won’t see them blowing themselves up in a crowded public space on the evening news. And they won’t beg for your money to support their “ministry” on channel 96 at 2 a.m. More than anything else, they won’t call for a “holy war” or burn heretics and witches, real or imagined, at the stake.

During my most recent depression flare-up I made a 40 mile drive to visit with an old friend. I made a point of it because I knew the support of friends and family is an important element in the treatment of this illness. My friend is the minister of a Presbyterian church in an urban area. I couldn’t have predicted such an outcome for him thirty-five years ago. As we enjoyed lunch at a neighborhood cafe he listened patiently to my story and was very supportive. Not once did he suggest that I make any spiritual changes in my life. He simply affirmed my feelings and concerns. After lunch we drove back to his church. I had brought along my camera equipment because I wanted to take some pictures of the interior of the beautiful church. He left me there as he headed off to an appointment. I stayed another thirty minutes or so, inside a church of my own volition, not as a guest at a wedding, or a mourner, or tourist, for the first time in almost forty years.