I Lost a Vote

So at the last board meeting, I lost a vote. This is the first time that’s happened to me while serving on a board — at the library, our votes were nearly always unanimous; I can only remember one time when one person voted against the rest (and he later said that he’d thought about it more, and decided we were right). School board is not going to be like that, I think.

I’m going to talk this out a little in the interests of transparency, and the hope that it helps clarify some things for both locals and others struggling with educational policy in the midst of a pandemic. This will be a little long.

I speak only for myself, not the Board as a whole or any other board members.


The issue in question was brought to the table by ROYAL, the high school’s Black student activist group (https://www.facebook.com/royalOakPark/); they were pushing for a no-fail policy for this past year, along with various other things. Let me pause here and just say that I admire the students greatly for their efforts and activism, and I hope that they continue to speak their truths and advocate for change.


TIMING NOTE: The timing was unfortunate. We were close to the end of the year when ROYAL raised the issue, which was also not long after the new board members (myself, Kebreab Henry, and returning (after a gap of a few years) board member Fred Arkin) were seated. We had less than a week to make this decision before seniors would be graduating; final grades for seniors had just been given, and we didn’t yet have final grades for the rest of the school.

Obviously, it would have been better to raise this issue much earlier in the process — I would say March / April 2020 for that semester, with similar considerations decided over the summer of 2020 for the academic year of 2020-2021.

That way, administration, teachers, students would all have known what to expect and been able to plan; one real problem with doing it now was that with it being so last-minute, a lot of people (teachers, admin, and at least some of the students) clearly felt blindsided.


THE ISSUES ON THE TABLE: Regardless, administration brought this to the board table, and in the original agenda, raised three possibilities:

1) give no F’s (I think it was something along these lines, but I’m not positive of the specifics, because this item was pulled from the agenda after consulting with legal — there were some issues with it)

2) waive summer school tuition fees (either just for students engaged in credit recovery classes (whereby they can do the work to turn an F into a higher grade), or for all classes

3) waive the additional required classes for graduation that OPRF typically imposes (we can’t waive all of them because some core classes are required at the state level legally)

The administration’s recommendation was to not do 2 or 3. 1 had been pulled.


There followed a lot of board discussion, and I want to commend all of my fellow board members for how seriously they took this. We convened an emergency meeting that Tuesday to discuss this issue, and we already had an administrative meeting on Wednesday to orient new board members and help create an effective team, along with the regular board meeting on Thursday, and two graduation ceremonies on Saturday. I’d say that was close to 20 hours of unpaid service, plus the time to read the packet materials. So I hope the community understands that we did all take this very seriously.


CONVERTING F’s to NO CREDIT: I raised the question of whether we could convert F’s to NC (no credit). I’d spent some time researching what other high schools, colleges, and universities had done, and there was no standard practice, with strong arguments for many different approaches, but this certainly seemed a viable possibility.

That led to some long discussion, in part because the high school has not previously had a NC option, so it would be a significant change to add it. (But one that is within the board’s power.)

I had a lot of learning to do — among other things, I learned that at OPRF, they have a FX option, in which if a student earns an F, they have the opportunity to do credit recovery work, and if successful, the F is X’d out and completely replaced with the new grade. I think a lot of our parents aren’t aware of this, based on what I’m seeing on message boards, so I think we could stand to do better communication on the option. I don’t know how aware students are, but they should be fully informed on it too, if they aren’t.

The administration was arguing that since we already had the FX option (I may not be notating that correctly, since I just heard it said, but I’m pretty sure I have the way it functions down now), there wasn’t much point to adding NC. I disagreed. My arguments were:

– an “F” on your record affects your GPA, and will drag it down pointwise, whereas a NC is null — it’s as if you’d never signed up for the class. At the college level, we see this with students who withdraw early; if a student is failing a class, their advisor will ask them to consider if they want to withdraw, avoiding the GPA penalty. There’s generally an end point on that, some date that’s the drop deadline. I honestly don’t know how important high school GPA is — I don’t know how much it gets factored into college admission decisions. But as someone who flunked calculcus freshman year of college (and should have withdrawn instead), I was very aware of how that dragged down my college GPA, making me less competitive for graduate school. So I do think it matters on a practical level.

– an “F” is also demoralizing. This is a fuzzier argument, but I think it’s absolutely true that F / failure is something that a lot of people are hit hard by, and that NC / no credit is much less emotionally difficult. In general, I question our grading system overall — I’d like to look into research on whether F’s are actually effective at motivating student performance (which I think is the general argument), or whether that’s an unfounded assumption.

But regardless, in the year of the pandemic, when everything academic was thrown topsy-turvy, with teachers across the world trying to learn how to teach remote in the midst of all the other stress and trauma, it feels ridiculous to me to not acknowledge that, and to pretend everything was business-as-usual.

Teachers did their very best, many of them exhausting themselves trying to take care of their students, but there is really only so much that can be done when the entire system is so stressed. We don’t blame doctors when their patients’ lungs fail from COVID. We shouldn’t blame teachers when decades of teaching experience prove to be insufficient to the needs of students during a global pandemic.


The board agreed to put the F-to-NC up for a vote, and to vote on the other two points separately. At the board meeting itself, we heard from both the faculty senate and the student council, who spoke with conviction that they were strongly against changing F’s to NC. Both groups (for perhaps slightly different reasons) felt it was disrespectful of all the work they’d put in over the last year.

Disrespect was certainly not my intent, and speaking as a teacher myself, I don’t think it’s disrespecting the faculty’s expertise or efforts to acknowledge that this was an unprecedented global disaster, which might require administrative intervention beyond what can be accomplished in the classroom.

I hope this doesn’t start me off in a rocky relationship with the OPRF faculty, because while I’m new to the school and don’t yet know the teachers individually, I’m sure they have generally done an extraordinary job in unprecedented circumstances. I would not normally override their recommendation on academic matters, and I certainly didn’t recommend doing so lightly in this case.


For the students, their argument seemed to be that many of them had worked really hard to bring their grades up, and so it was disrespectful of their efforts to allow others who hadn’t worked as hard ‘off the hook’? I’m not sure if I’m representing that correctly, so apologies if not.

But if that’s what they meant, then I disagree — your efforts are your own, and your hard work and earned grade are not diminished by someone else getting the tiniest of easings of their difficult road.

I would argue that this is something of a pathology in the American character — we have such a pull-yourself-up-by-your-boostraps mentality, that many Americans are reflexively against anyone ‘getting a break.’ I think it feels like cheating to them. This is part of what fuels resistance to things like cancelling student debt, or switching to universal healthcare.

I would ask students to think seriously about this issue as they continue in their academic and career pursuits. It will continue to matter, probably for the rest of your lives. Your success is not diminished by someone else getting a helping hand.

Again, I do acknowledge that many may simply have felt blindsided — that it felt unfair to have worked so hard to bring up their F’s (or help students do so), and then be told at the last minute, “Oh, you can have the NC option instead.” I agree the timing is terrible, but if it’s the right thing to do, doing it at the last minute seems better than not doing it at all.

Let us reduce harm as much as we can.


All the students who managed to pull their grades up should feel very proud of their hard work. Not everyone was able to do that, for a host of reasons.

Disasters are not evenly distributed. I think that’s one of the hardest aspects of trying to make policy in the midst of all this, because we know our own experiences and often speak from them, but that may really not give us much insight into people who have had a very different experience.

My daughter’s grades crashed during the pandemic, going from A’s to D’s and potential F’s. She was able to pull them up over the last few months, which is great. But I’ll point out that she has two parents working from home, both educators, and we could take the time to sit with her, help her figure out all her missing assignments, help build some additional structure in her day to get the catch-up work done, actually sit and work beside her as a motivator for the hardest ones, even teach a little math and English if she got confused and stuck (perhaps because she’d had her attention slip during a remote learning class, which is so easy to do).

Many of our students don’t have access to that kind of parental help, for a host of reasons, and may be contending with many additional issues as well — needing to work to supplement family income because a parent lost a job, perhaps. Having a parent or grandparent who is sick, or who has died. (One of my students in April 2020 had already lost four relatives (in New Orleans) to COVID death.)

It’s understandable that students and parents and teachers who saw grades being pulled up dramatically this spring (generally with a lot of teacher support, of course), might assume that “hey, the kids are all right.” But the truth is that only some of the kids are all right.

I especially want to acknowledge and make clear that in America, Black and brown kids are more likely to be ‘not all right’ than others. Black students have been experiencing the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the police killings of Black people this past year as well — they were contending with twin pandemics this year, of both disease and police violence. (It is good that we’re addressing the police violence more vocally and openly now, but it is also surely traumatizing and intensifying trauma for Black folks in many ways.)

We can’t just look at the students who are making it through, who have somehow managed to survive and maybe even thrive in the midst of disaster. We have to turn to those who aren’t making it, and ask, what institutional barriers are in their way?

I don’t think the school board can fix generational poverty with a single vote. But for what’s within our power, we need to use the lens of asking “How is this policy affecting the most marginalized, the most disenfranchised students?”

If a policy is hurting them, we need to ask why it’s still there, and be willing to consider change. Humans are generally very resistant to change. ‘This is how we’ve always done it,’ is a powerful force.

Even the smallest changes often feel radical, but they are the ONLY way we progress.


I’m getting off my soapbox now, to finish with a few facts.

The end result is that we voted to not charge for summer school at all this year (good), and we voted to waive the OPRF-specific graduation requirements. The F-to-NC vote failed, with Kebreab Henry and I in favor, and the rest of the board against.

The consequences of that particular vote are relatively small — we weren’t talking about changing F’s to credit, which would have allowed various students to graduate who couldn’t otherwise. The faculty and administration were very set against that, and I’m honestly not sure I’d be in favor of it either — I’d want to research more before deciding. There are certainly serious issues with ‘passing up’ a student into a higher-level of a course that they’re not ready for.

But changing F’s to NC would have eased the road a little for students who have had a very tough year, with no real downside that I can see, and in the end, I’m really disappointed that the board decided against.

I won’t try to speak for the rest of the board here — all of our meetings are broadcast and recorded, so if you’re interested, you can go and follow the discussion there: https://www.oprfhs.org/board-of-education


Whew. Okay, that was a lot. I hope this was helpful in some way.

P.S. It may be disconcerting to other board members to see me writing this all out, and I hope they don’t see it as problematic, or something that will make their jobs harder. I certainly hope we can have a congenial, respectful, and productive board for the next four years.

Several thousand Oak Parkers voted for me, presumably knowing that I was a writer, and many of them knowing that I tend to write this kind of thing out in some detail. I think this is what they voted for, so I’m going to try to live up to that.

Sworn In

I’m catching up on posting a few things from last month, which got very harried with end-of-semester. This is a quick pic of me in the sari I wore when being sworn into school board office.

What’s funny is that I waffled mightily about which sari to wear — the problem being that I mostly wear saris for weddings and award ceremonies, so most of the ones I own are really a little too bling-y for a solemn, semi-formal occasion. Sparkles everywhere! Mirrors and sequins!

Last time I was in Sri Lanka, I did pick up some handloom saris (supporting traditional heritage textile workers, and paying fair trade prices, thank you), with the thought that they might be appropriate for different kinds of events. But the other handlooms I bought are really quite bright. 🙂 Red and orange and such.

And of course, I COULD have worn a bright red-and-orange sari, but I thought this one was actually kind of perfect, in sedate (yet subtly rich) colors. Marrying East and West, as it were.

I did have to borrow a dark blue mask from Kevin, because all of mine are too cheery and patterned to go with this sari! If I hadn’t been in a rush, I might’ve seen if I could cut some fabric from the interior end to sew up a matching mask — ah well. This worked, I think.

(Dearest aunties, please do not critique my sari draping — I had literally five minutes to actually put this on between finishing work and rushing off to be sworn in. I did my best! Thank goodness the blouse still fit!)

Bending Towards Justice

I’m no Paul Goyette when it comes to photographing and documenting the political work of our community, but I did want to capture this moment at the D200 high school board meeting yesterday. Current board president Sara Dixon Spivy hands a bouquet of flowers to retiring board member (and former board president) Dr. Jackie Moore, while current board member Gina HarKirat Harris looks on.

This is particularly moving for those of us who have been following the path of our high school over the last eight years, where Dr. Moore has been shepherding through a real shift in direction towards creating an actively anti-racist and truly inclusive high school.

I know it was incredibly difficult work, entailing much personal sacrifice on her part, as she held long, fraught conversations with community members and board members. Patiently, compassionately, and with clear vision, Dr. Moore pushed us all towards a better school, one that truly serves all its students well.

There’s a saying of Dr. Martin Luther’s King’s — “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The corollary to that saying is that it doesn’t happen on its own. The arc bends towards justice only when dedicated and committed people do the work to bend the arc, and bring the rest of us along with them.

Sworn In

Waiting to be sworn in for school board. I was in a rush, but think I managed a decent sari drape in five minutes, which I would’ve said was impossible a decade ago. I wear sari a lot more often than I used to — I guess practice does help. 🙂 Wearing traditional Sri Lankan handloom tonight.

Poised for Change

Nice piece in the Wednesday Journal about the school board transition and the appointment of Greg Johnson as our new D200 superintendent.


Two Hour School Board Orientation Yesterday

Well run, and they got through a lot of material in that time.

I dressed up a bit; adorable honeycomb earrings and pendant by local artist Dima Ali. They made me feel better about the fact that I had to try on five (!) of my sheath dresses before I found one that mostly fit. It’s been a long pandemic winter, people, with a lot of couch time. 🙂 Still, it was kind of nice to have a reason to wear something other than sweatpants. I’m hoping the YMCA will start opening up more of its pool hours soon, as more people get vaccinated; I could use some swimming time.

Not the *most* exciting reading (pictured), but I’m sure these finance and school law handbooks they gave us will be helpful. To be clear, I’m not planning to read straight through them! They’re having us do some trainings soon, and then I’m expecting these will be references that I can consult as needed.

Oh, as a side note, I think the final certified results are in for the election — 7,381 Oak Park & River Forest residents voted for me, making me the front-runner, not that that really matters. Now that we’re on the board, we’re all working together as a body. (Still, nice to know, esp. in case I think about running for something else down the line.) Thank you again, to all who voted for me and all those who supported my campaign!

About 3400 students in my care, along with the faculty and staff. Will do my best for them.

Oh, and a quick note for those who need to schedule things with / for me — regular school board meetings are 2nd and 4th Thursdays of the month, 6:30 until sometimes quite late. There will also be additional committee meetings, details TBD. But for the next four years, you can plan on the Thursdays, at least.

The Political Will

Someone commented to me yesterday that they didn’t know how I did so many things. I get that a lot, and sometimes it worries me, because I don’t want to be setting up unreasonable expectations for others.

I can do so much because I have a flexible job with a lot of autonomy, because my partner has the same kind of job, because he takes on half the childcare, because our kids are older and mostly self-sufficient now (and even sometimes helpful with my work), because I happen to read really fast (super-helpful in various ways), because I’ve been cooking for thirty years and gardening for twenty-five years and have a lot of accumulated knowledge, because I have ADD and that has led to me becoming a jack-of-all-trades over the decades, because we get paid enough that we can hire help when we need it – etc. and so on.

Having a little extra money really makes a huge difference in simple ways. When I’m buying tools for one of the things I do (cooking, gardening, etc.), I may not buy the fanciest version out there, but I definitely often spend a little more than a mid-range item would cost. I look hard at reviews. Having good tools makes everything easier. I bought a really good pair of scissors at the start of mask-making, and I misplaced them recently, and had to try using three other pairs I’d had previously, and they were so much less effective, and when I had my good ones again, cutting fabric got faster and easier and even more pleasurable. (Good tools usually last longer too; they may cost less in the end than cheap tools, but you need to have the money up front to make the investment.)

I do work most of the time; I probably work something like 12-14 hours most days, including the weekend. But the work I do is tremendously varied, much of it is innately rewarding, and when I do get tired, I generally have the option to take a break. All of that makes so much difference.

I went into the school board orientation meeting yesterday (it’s going to be lots of time and lots of work, but it’s work I volunteered to do; I had the option of *not* running for office, and that feels so different from meetings you’re required to attend), and chatted briefly with a security guard as she directed me to the board room.

It had been unseasonably warm all day, and I asked if she’d had a chance to get outside yet, and she sadly said no; she worked night shift, so she’d only been outside on her way in to work. Which is not to say night shift is inherently worse. But it reminded me that it’s a privilege, in the world as it is, to be able to choose most of the hours I work, and to be able to arrange them to suit my own natural sleep schedule.

I woke up early today (around 4:30), and couldn’t get back to sleep, but that was fine; I lay in bed for an hour reading the newest Murderbot novel. Then I came downstairs, got coffee, curled up under a blanket and finished the novel. I have enough flex in my schedule that I can spend time in the morning reading for pleasure; I’m also lucky enough that reading novels is part of my job.

At 6-ish, I put on Gardener’s World on the TV, and was soothed by the dulcet tones of Monty Don as I cut up cashew milk toffee and packaged it for the sale on Sunday. I got through half a container, felt a little tired of standing, took a break to sit down and talk to y’all for a little. I might play a phone game for twenty minutes while half-watching the show, and then I’ll go back and finish packing up the milk toffee.

After that, I’ll probably go down to the basement and pot up the dahlias, which I’ve been meaning to do for days. The back deck pots also need tending in various ways. If I get tired of doing physical things, though, I can always come back to computer work for a while — there’s e-mail to answer, checks to deposit and bills to pay, student writing to read and think about, preparatory to class. And if I get tired of staring at the computer, I can go pack up the coconut rock, or sew some masks…

I teach at 10 and again at 12, so there’s a little hard structure to my day, but it’s so relaxed compared to some of my earlier jobs.

The second-worst job was the summer during college when I was living in Evanston, but the only job I could find was a temp. gig out at O’Hare. I was staffing a machine that was making ID badges for workers, part of a big push to redo their system, working in a trailer out on the hot tarmac for eight long hours a day. I didn’t have a car (or know how to drive), so that meant a 90-minute commute each way on public transit, either taking two trains or a train-bus-train combo. I could read on transit, which was something, but often I was too drained, and when I got home, I usually had just enough energy left to make myself dinner, watching something dumb on TV, and go to sleep. I felt sort of half-alive, that summer.

The worst job was a filing gig in the Bay Area. The work was monotonous — I was temping, redoing office files that had gotten badly misaligned over the years, and so day after day, I spent eight hours alphabetizing paper files. That wouldn’t have necessarily been awful in itself — sometimes you can get in the zone and think about your novel or whatever — but the people were weirdly contemptuous, and the overall office environment just seemed kind of miserable and toxic. I found myself waking up in the morning and crying, day after day, trying to force myself to get up and get dressed and go in to work.

I was much more exhausted after working those eight-hour days than I am now, working 12-14 hour days, even though I’m twenty years older. Which is weird, and counterintuitive, but being able to take little rests whenever I need to makes a huge difference, I suspect. Being able to shift from one kind of work to another helps too.

I don’t know what my conclusion is here. I want a better world, I guess, one where everyone can have this kind of flexibility in their work. That’s probably unrealistic on multiple fronts — some jobs require long stretches of work by their very nature. (And some people are perfectly happy doing the same work for long stretches of time, and more power to them if so!)

Still, I hope that one consequence of the pandemic is that we all take a long, hard look at our workplace habits. I hope that employers learn to trust their employees a little more, give them the option to work remotely more often, if the job allows. (You’re going to save a lot on office space, businesses! Keep that in mind.)

The unions fought for the weekend, fought for an eight hour workday. As automation increases, can we work towards a world with a 4-6 hr workday, or a 4-day work week? What would that look like?

Can we do that while still paying people a decent wage, enough to live on and support their families? Can we provide educational opportunities for all, and healthcare too?

I think we can. In America, we certainly have the resources collectively. We just need the political will.

Last Library Board Meeting Tonight

I might write something more substantial up about the last four years of board service at some point, but for tonight, I’ll just say:

• if you’re thinking of running for office, or serving on local commissions, please think about it seriously; we’re always in need of good people committed to making the community better

• being on the library board was a particular kind of challenging fun that I hadn’t anticipated — problem solving for the greater good!

• it’s been a pleasure and a privilege serving with this board and staff, all committed to the library’s mission and dedicated in their service

• and in particular, I want to publicly commend our library director, David J. Seleb, who has done an exemplary job of managing our library’s response during a pandemic, taking excellent care of the community and the staff, while simultaneously shepherding a challenging and sensitive racial equity initiative through its first stages. Oak Park is very lucky to have him.

I’m going to miss working with these folks.

A Little Surreal

I had a school board orientation with a dozen or so people in person. We were all wearing masks, and all sitting around a big table a few feet from each other (and we also had several people attending via Zoom), and I think it was fine, we’re probably mostly all vaccinated at this point too, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve attended a meeting like that, so it was a little surreal.

Thinking of Them

Teaching feminist theory in my lit. class today, and asked the students if they could define what first wave and second wave feminism were. I also asked if they’d call themselves feminists — why or why not? (In previous years, at least a third of my class typically was hesitant to call themselves feminists, including many of the women.)

They’re in breakout rooms right now, we’ll see what what they say when they come back. But after winning the school board election yesterday, I’m reminded that the 19th amendment was only passed in 1919 (ratified in 1920).

There are likely women alive in America today who remember when women (their mothers) weren’t allowed to vote. Today, after winning my election, I’m thinking of them.

America STILL hasn’t had a woman president.