Skating, Part 1

Note: As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The high today was 27 degrees. Why, might you ask, would I—who, hating both heights and the cold, am clearly not a skier—leave sunny California, where the low today was 57 degrees, to come to a place whose nickname is, as far as I can tell, “Land of Nothing”? Answer: Skating! This year Mark made it to the national championships for his skill level. That competition, scheduled by people whose ancestors were clearly polar bears, was in Minnesota in January, where the temperate rarely climbed above zero and was, at one point, colder than Antarctica (I’m not even joking). Anyway, there was a pairs coach there who fell in love with Mark (not literally)(I assume). She is based here in Colorado Springs, home of the US Olympic training facility, and wanted him to come out to see if they could work together with a female skater she had in mind. Depending on how this weekend goes, Mark might be moving out here in the next few months to begin his life as a potential Olympian in earnest. Stay tuned …

But this is not that story. This is the story of how it all began … 

People ask me how Mark got into figure skating. The long, scientific answer is: “I don’t know.”

Unlike Daveon, who played baseball for years, and then switched to cross-country and track for the last several, Mark flitted from activity to activity every few months. From day 1 until about 7th grade, he tried: swimming, gymnastics, ultimate Frisbee, baseball (a disaster—he clearly hated it, though he wouldn’t quit for reasons I still don’t understand), basketball, capoeira, soccer, and a few others I’m sure I’m forgetting.

But somewhere along the line he happened into skating, and—for reasons I still don’t understand—among all the “activity of the month” options, this one stuck.

There is one story I like to tell that maybe gives a clue as to Mark’s bond with the rink. When they were little, I took the boys to Toy Story on Ice. (One perk of fost-to-adopt: During the “fost” period, you get free tickets to just about anything and everything kid-related.) A few months later, we rented Toy Story 2 on DVD (see: Movie Night). About halfway through, Mark started crying. Bawling, actually.

There didn’t seem to be anything particularly sad going on in the movie at that moment, so I asked what was wrong.

He practically shouted: “They’re supposed to be on skates!”

For the record, Mark says his interest was piqued the night we watched Ice Castles (see: Movie Night). But I’m pretty sure that was well after he had already started training. From my end, I’m just planning to thank Pixar when Mark brings home Olympic gold.

Next: Skating, Part 2

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ASCEND

As you’ve probably figure out by now, raising my kids has helped me believe in magic. And not just because of all the years I spent coming up with clever ways to convince them that Santa Claus was real. Including the year I made a big show of having them see me to go bed, and then changed the sheets overnight, so I could say that Santa magically put new sheets on my bed while I was asleep.

Anyway, back from the North Pole. Here’s the magic story of ASCEND:

When I got the boys on January 11, 2003, Mark was in preschool, and Daveon was in 1st grade. Which meant, legally, I had to get him into school ASAP. Unlike many adoptive—or biological, for that matter—parents, I did not do a big search to find the “right” school for my kids. I also did not move into a neighborhood known for “good” schools. Even after 40 hours of parent training, a lot of what I did and still do in terms of parenting would fall under the scientific approach known as “winging it.”

We started with our neighborhood public school, where Daveon lasted all of two days. After his third (fourth?) fight started by a kindergartner, we were done. A guy I know at the YMCA had worked for the district for years, and he recommended a school whose principal he knew well. She was doing “great things” there. Maybe for some kids. Daveon lasted at that school until June, barely. And only because we had our alternative already lined up.

Meanwhile, Mark got into a Head Start campus at the old Oakland Army base. Because most of their day was eating, sleeping, and playing—aka Mark in his natural habitat, at least until skating kicked in—he did fine.

So, magic: About two weeks after I got the boys, I was invited to a friend’s birthday dinner in San Francisco. It was a grown-up event as a nice restaurant. I was very torn about leaving the kids so soon after I got them, but on the other hand the thought of a few uninterrupted hours of adult conversation was irresistible. I arranged for my heroes Jim and Chris—fresh with their own two newly adopted kids—to watch the boys, and off I went to the big city.

One of the main topics of conversation was, unsurprisingly, Joe’s new kids. Across the table from me was a woman named Elena whom I did not know. Elena asked about the kids’ schools, and I explained where they landed, more and less smoothly. She then said flat out: “You need to send them to my school. I’ve been teaching in Oakland for over 20 years, and it’s the only place that I would send any kids I had.”

Um, OK.

The good news: Said school was having an orientation for prospective parents of kindergarten students the next week. I called on Monday and got a slot at the event.

The bad: They only had openings for kindergarten. But Elena advised: “Just go and apply for your younger son. If he gets in I’m sure they can work something out for the older one.”

When I pulled up that Monday afternoon, my first experience of ASCEND was watching a group of older students (7th or 8th grade) walking down the hallway in a double-file line … in silence … with no teacher leading them. As a point of reference, I would be hard-pressed to remember a single kid of any age walking down a hall in silence—teacher or no teacher—at either of Daveon’s earlier schools. I thought: “I don’t care what else they do at this place. I want my kids here.”

At the orientation, the teacher, parent, and principal spiels were encouraging.  Entering just its third year, ASCEND was a small school (max class size 20), founded by teachers and parents who demanded better for their kids and knew they could provide it. There was an activist spirit to both the faculty and parent make-up, and they were doing great things.

At the end of the presentations, I approached the principal with my application for Mark and explained that I had met Elena a few days before. She said immediately: “Oh I know who you are. Just give that to me and I’ll take care of both your sons.”

They were in. In part because the school was almost 100% Latino and Asian, and improving the racial mix with a couple of African-American boys fit their vision of diversity nicely.

And in part—you’ll never convince me otherwise—magic.

And magic it was, especially for those first few years. Daveon’s reading increased two grade levels within six months, and Mark, getting in from the ground floor, had a solid foundation from day one. The kids stayed with the same teachers for two years, and those particular K/1 and 2/3 teachers did work magic on the kids—an amazing blend of compassion, individuation, high expectations, and constructive discipline that many schools would do well to mimic.

Though the school changed in later years—growing larger, turning over staff, losing some of the special charm that made it ASCEND—and though the boys had some high- and lowlight school experiences after that (stories for another time), ASCEND gave the boys—and me—a “home away from home” base that really spoiled us in terms of what school could be like.

Next: Skating, Part 1