The Chaperone: Academy of Sciences Edition

The dik-dik: a creature whose name enthralls tweenagers everywhere. Photo credit:

1:17 pm: “Despair.” With freedom still 118 minutes away, I looked longingly at the jellyfish in their watery castle. Nothing would have given me greater joy than to watch them float for the remainder of the afternoon. It behooved me to focus on the task at hand, however: herding hormonal preteens through the gift shop while keeping all breaking, licking, and stealing to a minimum.

I’ll start at the beginning.

9:00 – 10:30 am: “Mutual Tolerance.” To be honest, the first hour or two had not been terrible; everybody was reasonably focused and amenable back then. Students swarmed the exhibition halls, copying each other’s answers to worksheet questions while I relentlessly counted heads. Long ago, when I brought my kids here on a regular basis, I let the youngest wear her tap shoes. That way I could hear her footsteps and snag her before she disappeared into the kaleidoscopic crowds. But these kids were my size, with long legs and All-Stars and limited impulse control, so I wrangled to the best of my abilities.

10:45 am: “Loss.” Unable to locate either of the teachers or even the vast majority of the other students from our school, I was forced to swallow my pride and ask for assistance from museum personnel. They raised eyebrows in disdainful bewilderment, spoke agitatedly into headsets, and filed us in front of a packed auditorium–to the embarrassment of all currently in my charge. Note: Middle schoolers do not like to be embarrassed.

11:00 am: “Reprieve.” In the Planetarium, most of the tough kids dozed off, which was a nice turn of events. I guess it’s tiring to ride that pubescent roller coaster all day.  Given a moment to relax and gather my thoughts, I might have gotten a few winks myself. Let’s call it meditating.

When I did manage to pay attention, I heard myself guffawing at the docent’s terrible jokes. How disappointing. What happens to humans when we reach middle age, anyway? And why isn’t there an exhibit at the Academy of Sciences that explains mid-life mysteries such as: how we hurt ourselves sleeping, or why pants become unbearably tight by 4 pm?

12:04 – 12:26 pm: “Lunch.” We desperately needed an airing out, but rain was dumping relentlessly. We sprawled on the floor of the cafeteria, where the noise level hovered around an impressive 140 decibels. I tried to keep the food fights to a minimum; failing that, pretended not to notice. Kids stole each other’s Cheetos, spilled a variety of contraband, and “group-chatted” with friends back at school, hooting and snorting until half-chewed food bits plastered their phones and friends. Several skirmishes were doused, and all cursing was ignored. Note: teachers occasionally adopt a Stepford Wife-type expression, perhaps because death and/or a partial frontal-lobotomy is necessary to avoid feeling pain in these circumstances. I adopted the same approach. It beats yelling.

What my face looked like, though I was too tired to shrug. Photo credit: DeLine Pictures, via DePauw University

12:46 pm: “Detonation.” All hell broke loose once we hit the touch pool. Due to some comment or action too small for the adult seismograph, Mia and Carmen were no longer speaking, so the other girls allied themselves accordingly. I had to choose: force all sides of the conflict to stay together and risk a full-on fight? Or give the aggrieved parties enough room to avoid bloodshed? Since only a few kids could torment sea stars at a time, I let my cranky quorum dissolve into disparate, dark caverns of tanks. I was lucky to know where five or six of them were at any given moment. The phones were out in force by then, no doubt broadcasting their social war to the larger middle school arena. I pretended not to notice—mostly so I could check my own and count the minutes to freedom.

2:10 – 2:29: “Education.” In the African Hall, I tried in vain to interest them in a replica of Lucy (the oldest human ancestor to walk upright) or in the adorable penguins that swam and pooped and watched the Nature Channel at the far end of the room. Instead, students gravitated to the diorama of stuffed dik-diks, doubling over as they read the explanatory signage loudly and repeatedly—a sign titled, “Dikdik Details,” and containing other unfortunate words and phrases such as: “sticky fluid.” Never mind that the fluid in question was produced by their under-eye glands. Hey, science experts! Couldn’t we have called this eye fluid tears, so that eleven-year-old boys might refrain from dry humping the nearby benches?

Dik-diks need a good scratch now and then–especially up there from whence sticky fluids spurt. Photo credit:

Oh, well. At least everyone temporarily forgot about World War III.

Note: the Dikdik is named for the alarm call it makes by blowing air through its nasal passages–often while lurching in a zig-zag pattern. I’m surprised they weren’t named “Drunken Idiots” or “Tween Boys.”

Another note: the Blue-Footed Booby is not on display at the Academy. I’d say I dodged a bullet there.

2:40 – 3:15 pm: “The Reemergence of Hope.” The schlep back to school was remarkably uneventful despite:

*a twenty-minute walk in the pouring rain

*100 wet, overstimulated sixth graders crammed onto a single city bus, and

*the fact that adults were outnumbered 25:1.

One of the teachers commented that this was a “great group of students” and that they were a “welcome relief” after last year’s cohort. I managed to maintain my new Stepford Wife expression while making a mental note not to volunteer for anything involving the current 7th graders.

3:15 pm and onward: “Dénouement.” I rewarded myself with vending machine coffee in a Styrofoam cup…and a big fat glass of wine with dinner.

What I learned: kids are great, but two is plenty. Also, we can’t possibly afford to pay our middle school teachers what they deserve.

Citizen Tony

Al Pacino in Scarface, from Looks like he could use a little smiling practice.


My friend Tony—né René–watched Scarface the night before his citizenship test. When asked, “What is your name?” he answered, “To-ny. Tony Montana,” spoken like Al Pacino. “She didn’t laugh,” he told me. “She wrote it down.”

Tony was famous for swabbing the Principal’s weepy back sores in a bathroom stall–just so he could recount the story later; for weaseling a trip to Disneyland from the school district; and for rehearsing his photo face in the closet at work.

“It’s hard to get the smile right,” he explained. “You have to practice or your school portraits look stupid.”

100 Words on Teaching

©2008 Beret Olsen
©2008 Beret Olsen

I had vowed never to teach: unending hours, little pay, no glory, plus—most damning for someone in their early twenties—both my parents had done so.

Yet somehow I could not stop myself when the time came to choose a path.

Over drinks, I would hear about my friends’ glamorous lives. I would moon over their law degrees, paychecks, publications, and wonder what I’d been thinking.

Later I would reach into my bag for my wallet, coming across a crumpled note that read, “I love you Miss Olsen.”

It reminded me what I had instead…and why I would stay.

Small Important Words


My brother-in-law is a very ambitious and successful guy. I asked him once, “how do you juggle everything?” And he told me, “Sometimes, when I’m hurrying from one thing to another, I pull over, turn off the car engine for two minutes, and breathe.”

His comment didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. It wasn’t delivered in a “here’s what you must do to be amazing like me” manner. It was just honest and straightforward. And effective. Dubious? Try it yourself.

Today I would like to take a moment to mull over a few other comments that seemed very small at the time, and grew to be important tenets along the way.

“Don’t discount this young man just because he’s nice to you.” I was indeed surprised to hear a comment like that from my mother. Smart lady, though. I married the guy.

“Be more Beret.” This sounds like a no-brainer. People say things like “be yourself” and “be true to yourself” all the time. But somehow, throwing my name in there made all the difference to me. I thought, “I am Beret, how can I be more Beret?” I started small, of course. I started reading books that I like, instead of the ones I should read. I started saying no to things. I started saying yes to things. I started making time for things that make me happy. I started singing along with catchy songs even though they might be insipid. Who cares?

“You don’t have to love being a mother, you just have to love your children.” This was news to me. If I ever write a book about parenting, this is the quote I will use on the dedications page.

Lastly, when I started teaching, I didn’t go through the traditional credentialing route. I hadn’t taken any education courses in college, so I had a boatload of theory crammed into six or eight weeks one summer, and then I was thrown to the wolves. Terrified nearly to paralysis, I asked a seasoned teacher for a few wise words before my first day. “Always have an extra piece of chalk in your pocket,” he said.

When I tell that story to people they roll their eyes. “Nobody has chalkboards anymore,” they say. But while I am grateful for discussions of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, that teacher’s advice still rings in my ears. For me, it meant that no matter how great a challenge I was facing, how insurmountable and overwhelming it might seem, I could break it down into tiny, doable tasks. Likewise, despite the fact that the knowledge and skills we need as teachers/parents/humans are hopelessly infinite, we can start by learning one thing and building upon it.

Onward and upward.

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Unexpected

brown paper pkg
They send dry ice home wrapped like a present. Nota Bene: hold the cord, not the paper!

The photographs I chose to include for “The Unexpected” challenge are ones I took to document a science project for my education blog. I was simply trying to capture the procedural steps, but ended up being mesmerized by dry ice and everything about it. Like sublimation, for example:

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

Or, if you add dish soap and water, the way the potion bubbles for hours.

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

But the best surprise of all occurred when I left food coloring, soap, and dry ice in a pyrex measuring cup in the sink for a couple of hours…and it grew an ice cave.

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

How a kid not really called Larry and his Top Secret notebook saved me from sixth grade

@2013 Beret Olsen
@2013 Beret Olsen

I loved school at first, back when it was okay to pay attention and know the answers. My mother worked in the school library, so after dismissal I would stay and help her re-shelve books, repair them, or–best of all–cover the new paperbacks with clear contact paper. If her work kept her later still, I could curl up on the carpet next to the hum of the fish tank, and happily devour any book that caught my eye.

Midway through third grade I got my vision checked. It was bad news—not too surprising for a bookworm.

My first pair of glasses had gold metal frames that were squashed into two little hexagons, and filled with already embarrassingly thick lenses. When I put them on, suddenly everyone else saw me clearly. They began to notice my dated hand-me-downs, my awkwardness, my skinny legs.  I started to hear whispers about birthday parties to which I was not invited, and once-good friends meandered away at recess. Those that didn’t, stole my hat and buried it, or worse, called me “Miss Mature.” My social circle slowly dwindled to one friend who insisted we play Dog, galloping up and down the stairs of her house on all fours. I appreciated her loyalty, but found her game babyish and tiresome.

Meanwhile, I tried to do well academically while flying under the social radar. I just wanted to survive and move on to junior high.

Then, in sixth grade, Mrs. Crouch sat me next to a kid I’ll call Larry.

Larry was on the scrawny side, and pale as a potato chip like me, but there the resemblance ended. As class clown, he had lots of charisma and loads of friends, but no desire to do anything but ‘get by’ academically. Larry had little time for things like geometry and state reports because he was busy with his super top-secret notebook. He carried it everywhere: a tiny red spiral-bound steno, which he filled with juicy details about the girls he liked, and then tucked in his back pocket for safekeeping. At recess, the popular girls would speculate about which of them had made his list, and what he might say about each one.

Clearly, he and I could not have been more different. The bizarre thing was, Larry and I got on spectacularly well.

For one thing, he was damn funny. I recall the giddy joy of watching the faces he made behind Mrs. Crouch’s back, and hearing him parrot her most annoying remonstrations.  I suspect we would not have gotten on so well if we had had a more palatable teacher.

“Who belongs to this ink pen??!!” she barked, waving it in our faces.

“Do not wipe your nose waste under the desk!”

Mrs. Crouch had a very prominent, pointy nose, which went well with her daily barrage of tedious teacher speak. She constantly lamented our lack of respect, and lectured endlessly about how much time we wasted messing about in line. We would all have to miss recess if one person spoke, or burped, or snuck a drink on the way to the music room.

Listening to her drone on and on seemed like the real time-waster to us.

Larry and I began to tune her out and do our own thing; we became allies.

Perhaps because I had no one to tell, Larry showed me his super top-secret notebook of girls, something he hadn’t even shown his closest friends. I found out that he liked Teresa because of her strong legs and perky boobs. He liked Becky for her great dimply smile and her athletic ability. Bethany had a tight little butt and a great sense of humor. Page after page of hormone-dosed, haiku-like lists of infatuation. In all, there were about fifteen girls for whom he pined, but not one would he ask out, not in a million years. I’m still not sure why.

When we would get caught discussing his notes, Mrs. Crouch would say, “What are you doing? Making a date for tomorrow??” And then she would laugh at our discomfort and embarrassment.

Resentment grew.

Larry and I started a new notebook: “The 50 Things We Hate Most about Mrs. Crouch.”

  1. Her sensible shoes.
  2. The way she calls pens “ink pens.” Is there some other kind?
  3. ??

I wish I could remember the rest. All I remember is how great it felt to retaliate with a pencil and paper. We never made it to fifty, of course. She wasn’t that bad.

The last month of school, Larry’s good friend Kenneth was seated in front of us. Sometimes he chatted and goofed around with Larry, but the bulk of his free time was reserved for making my life miserable.

He would poke me with his pencil.

“Miss Mature,” he said repeatedly, trying to get a rise out of me. I would pretend to be engrossed in my work, and then roll my eyes at Larry when he wasn’t looking. He would shrug. I knew where his alliances lay, and I understood.

Eventually Kenneth would tire of that game, though. Turning back around, he would tip his chair slowly, slowly, until his greasy head rested on my desk. I could no longer pretend to do my work.

“Ah! Miss Mature! Your desk is sooooo comfy,” he cooed.

Strangely, Mrs. Crouch never seemed to witness his egregiously annoying behavior; for once I would have appreciated one of her mind-numbing lectures. At least he would have had to sit up.

One day, as Kenneth started to tip back, Larry stared at the back of his head thoughtfully. Suddenly, he grabbed my desk and slid it back just enough so that Kenneth crashed backward onto the floor.

Since he didn’t crack his head open, I can safely call that the best day of fourth, fifth and sixth grade combined. What’s more, Kenneth never rolled his head on my desk again, not even when we had to sit next to each other in junior high.

Eventually Larry gave me his notebooks for safekeeping, and I’ll probably find them when I dig through the closets at my parents’ house. It would be hilarious to re-read them, but I don’t really need them anymore; just reminiscing about them does the job. Thanks Larry, wherever you are.

How I ruined my kids’ chances of becoming President by microwaving their food in plastic containers before I knew better (plus a million other parenting mistakes)

Parenting was always hard work.

Except, perhaps, in Betty Draper’s world, where you hired someone to cook, clean, and raise your kids while you mooned about in your house dress.

That Mad Men model of parenting never appealed to me, though.  I like being involved–hearing what my kids are thinking, helping them solve problems, exploring the world together.  I’m certainly not advocating for a hands-off experience.  Still, when did parenting become so fraught with pressure and competition?  When did my goal to raise happy, healthy children devolve into sheer panic that my children will never achieve their full potential because I failed to be the perfect parent.  I admit:

a) I didn’t wait list my children for a competitive nursery school before they were born.

b) Those eighteen-dollar, über green metal sippy cups from Switzerland that I gave my toddlers contained bisphenol A.

c)  I’m monolingual.  Mostly.

e)  I avoid PTA meetings like the plague.

f) The robotics workshops for 3rd graders were completely booked up before I figured out how to log onto the registration site.

What’s going on here?

Am I really stressing out that my kids’ summer day camp might not be academically rigorous enough?  Do I really believe that a single parenting misstep will impede their potential progress forever?

Worst of all, I worry about their school.  Why is that?  The basics are completely covered, and my kids are doing well.  They have amazing gardening, art, dance, and computer classes.  They have science fairs, field trips, carnivals, committed teachers and parents.  Yet, whenever I talk with parents of children at other schools, I feel my blood pressure start to rise.  I get school envy.  Your kid’s class has launched a website?  They are learning Italian?  They went on a field trip to China?  I am driving myself crazy.  I keep losing sight of what is important here.  These are kids.  They are learning.  They are creative.  They are happy and growing confident.

At the end of the day, isn’t it more important to teach them to think for themselves and enjoy life?  Isn’t that a greater gift than a childhood resume cooked up by parents hell-bent on making sure their child has no leisure time whatsoever?  Play is important, too. Extended periods of unstructured time formed the basis of my childhood, and those were the times that I could choose my direction of inquiry; I could develop as the author of my own creative world.

Last year, I was weirdly elated when I dropped my girls off at a camp I like to call:  “Lord of the Flies.”  It’s just a hundred kids running amok, loosely supervised by pre-teens sporting color-coded bandanas.  Campers are singing inane and vaguely inappropriate songs, making endless lanyards, and building forts out of fallen branches.

I think it’s fabulous when children are immersed in another language, taken on a trip, introduced to science, opera, and history.  We seek those opportunities and seize them when we can.  But in the meantime, let’s not forget to take some time to play and enjoy each other’s company.  Life is good.

Don’t get me started

What is wrong with how public education is structured for kids?

I don’t know where to start with this question.  The original structure of the school day was devised to prepare people for factory work–hence the length of the subject periods, regular breaks, that sort of thing.  Accordingly, as a teacher I had to schedule a certain number of MINUTES PER DAY for Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, et cetera.  Nevermind that good investigations, projects, and discussions do NOT conform to those sorts of timeframes, and that it is much more engaging and meaningful to learn to read through the arts or social studies…or learn to write and do math in order to complete scientific explorations.  The results of segregated subjects and truncated work times are often superficial and interfere with real learning.  How can we ever go deep in any particular direction?

About a decade ago, a study (the TIMMS report) revealed that in Japanese schools, 9 and 10-year-olds were exposed to an average of four topics in mathematics over the course of an entire YEAR of instruction.  That means that children might spend months exploring fractions in a meaningful and comprehensive way.  Furthermore, teachers had release time on a daily basis to plan together and discuss how to reach children who might be struggling, as well as those who needed more of a challenge.  What a concept–teachers could work together to hone their skills.  In contrast, a fourth grader in U.S. schools was expected to cover 35 or 40 topics in the same amount of time, and there was NO paid time to collaborate with colleagues.  Here’s your teaching guide, buddy.  Sink or swim. Oof.  There is nothing lonelier than the first year of teaching.

To top it off, No Child Left Behind forced us to focus an egregious amount of our time and energy on TEST TAKING, particularly in “at-risk” schools.  I was told to throw out most subjects and focus on the very basics of language arts and math.  Seriously.  Oh well.  Funding had already been cut for all of the “extras” anyway: art, music, physical education went by the wayside.  What is the goal here?  Test-taking drones?  To be clear, visual, performing arts, P.E. are all still included in the state standards, they just are not supported by funding, resources, teacher training programs and personnel.  And no one is thinking about your school’s play or integrated visual arts projects when they peruse the standardized test scores in the paper.

To make matters worse, every few years the textbook industry fuels an overhaul and we have to introduce a new math or language arts curriculum:  buy all new texts and supporting materials, get new training, and then, just as we start to reach proficiency with any particular set of materials, we start over with new ones.  Furthermore, the pendulum swings wildly between the pedagogy du jour, when the most obvious truth is that not all children learn by the same mechanism, and we need an approach which addresses many different learning styles.

A friend of mine–a teacher and a scientist–mentioned to me that the way we teach science is all backwards.  “To prepare students to be scientists,”  he mused, “we need to set out questions without knowing the answers.  THAT’S what science in the world is all about.  Pose the questions–better yet, solicit the questions–and investigate together.”  Nevermind, if we set aside time for science, we won’t meet the API goals for this year anyway.