Category Archives: Education

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

I don’t post much anymore and this post is long and it’s not funny but I really hope you will read it. I ask you to read it. And share it because it matters not just in Portland, not just in Oregon but throughout the U.S.

My mother was a teacher before I was born. She began her career in upstate New York and then moved to Portland, Oregon. In Portland she taught at Boise (pronounced Boyce) Elementary in North Portland which in 1963-64 was a very nasty neighborhood. Race relations in the U.S. were not good at that time (not that much has changed) and the Albina neighborhood where Boise is located, was a violent, rough place.


Albina 1969

Joan, my mom, was 100 lbs of Irish power (her maiden name was Powers). She was a tough little customer and had tons of colorful stories from her time teaching at Boise. Joan taught a little girl named Maria Pia Gompetro (sp?). Maria was a spitfire and when parent-teacher conference time came, Maria had to sit in and translate for her mother, who was from Italy. My mom would say, “Maria needs to settle down and pay attention in class.” Maria would translate and her mother would nod and smile. “Maria, I don’t think you’re telling your mother what I just said.”

She had an African-American boy in one of her classes who she walked by one day and placed her hand on his back to look at his work and he winced. She took him out of the class and looked at his back. In her exact words, his back looked like “hamburger”. She called his mother to come in and his mother said, “Don’t you worry Miss Powers, I’m making sure so and so does his work.” Her method of making sure the little guy did his work was whipping his back with a wire coat hanger. My mother told her if she touched him again, she would have her arrested.

My mother had a theory, had a goal of identifying children who were smart and had the drive to do better and getting them the education that would get them out of the ghetto they lived in. She went to Boise school officials and Portland Public School officials and begged them. “I can tell you who these kids are, get them out of here and give them a chance.” Nope. No can do, that’s not fair.”

Floyd. I can’t remember Floyd’s last name. Floyd was far too old to be in the 4th grade at Boise. He was smart and funny and his home life was a violent hell hole. Floyd loved my mother and was very protective of her. He would walk up and sit on the corner of her desk when the class was acting up and lecture them all to shut up and listen to Miz Powers. He was NOT happy when he met my dad, Joan’s fiance at the time, when my Dad came to the classroom. But he skeptically gave his approval of the marriage. A couple of years later, my mom saw Floyd on the local news. He was arrested for armed robbery.

Fast forward to 2016. I am tutoring reading at the Portland Public School for homeless children, the Community Transitional School. I tutor two kids for 30 minutes each. Homer is in kindergarten and Maria is in 1st grade. I am sorry to say that Homer is a lost cause. He is a tiny, darling African American little boy who has no attention span, can sort of kind of read a few words. One of my kids couldn’t read in kindergarten but she also had a stable, engaged family and a safe, comfortable life. Homer doesn’t have that and I think society’s ills will win with Homer.

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Oh my dear little Maria. Maria and I are pals. M is for Maria and for Maggie. I told Maria that my middle name is Mary, “Maria is Spanish for Mary.” Maria told me, “No, Mary is English for Maria.” This little girl is a live wire and she is smart. A couple of days ago, during our 30 minute time together, Maria said, “that word can’t be ‘babies’, baby has a Y in it.” Hurrah Maria! We spent the rest of our time thinking of nouns that end in Y but their plural is ‘ies’. Maria picked up on that, I didn’t point it out to her.

This kid has it goin’ on. She doesn’t want to be too obvious with her smarts but she brings it when it matters. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She is smart. I want to help her progress. A few weeks ago I spoke to the reading program coordinator asking how can I spend more time with Maria? And the coordinator thought that Big Brother/Big Sister would be a good idea. Nope. The school doesn’t have a connection with them. Okay, what about Trillium Family Services? A local Portland non-profit that does amazing work with children and families. Nope.

Unfortunately, CTS, as a school, does not match students with mentors through any programs. There are a number reasons for this. One is that we are not able to extend the same services to each child. It is a matter of equity. We want our families to feel we are providing a service of teaching and helping every child.


Are you shitting me?! What if mentoring at CTS caught on?! What if we, the privileged of this country no matter what color, what if we go out and try to save one starfish at a time? What if it’s not fair? There is still good to be done, children to be helped and nurtured, it’s not always fair but it can work.

Must Maria, who is only 7, be lost to the lowest common denominator simply because if she gets extra help, it’s not “fair”?

I was raised by Joan Powers O’Connor and my siblings will remember one of Mom’s favorite lines, “life isn’t fair.”

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Last week I posted this on Facebook:

An entry level engineer just turned down our offer of employment. Not enough vacation time (10 days a year) for him and he “really likes to get out and do things”. I weep for the future.

To set the scene:
Last week a fresh-out-of-engineering school job applicant declined a job with my company. Anyone who has read this blog knows I’m here for the health insurance but it’s not a bad company. The company that I work for is a niche firm specializing in hydraulic and hydrologic computer modeling. I can make an educated guess that the compensation package offered to “Scott” (his real name), a recent graduate of the Univ. of State at City, included: salary of at least $50k, 10 days of paid personal leave, 10 paid holidays including St. Patrick’s day (which is dumb….should be the 18th for hangover care), birthday day off, employer paid health insurance, 401K, Roth IRA and probably other stuff but like I said, I’m here for the insurance.
My comment on Facebook reflected my opinion that the current generation of American 20- and early 30-somethings is looking for a work/life balance that prior generations had not thought of till later in life. In my opinion, they earned it. I think that we have a generation of “kids” who were given trophies for showing up. No winners. No losers. Just curry that self-esteem. I think they have been taught that they should have what they want when they want it and not let work get in the way.
I’m going to share some comments from Facebook and my thoughts on the repercussions of this generation’s decisions. I would also like to know what you, my brilliant readers think about this.
I had a few comments like the following:
“Ah, the Age of Entitlement. The saddest era ever.” and “He must have received a 10th place trophy as a kid. You can’t just give it to the team who wins.
But for the most part, my friends supported “Scott’s” (I think, that’s his name) decision to look for a job that offered him the free time he wanted. There were also comments from people who live/work in Europe or work for European companies. That is a topic for another day. For the purposes of this post, we are discussing the United States in the here and now.

So, here are some of the comments from Facebook:

I guess I see it differently, I’d say good for him! He’s probably in his early 20s, why should he settle for employment that won’t leave him fully satisfied? Engineer jobs are aplenty and he has a good 40 years or so of work ahead of him. I recently turned down a job with a $23,000 pay raise for another job that gives me more time off and I still feel like it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.
If he can find an equally good job with better vacation, why not? Sounds like he is just taking advantage of a free market where he has options.
Oh you and I could have a long conversation about this I’m 26 and just resigned from a FT position, some of the reasoning behind it was how much time I was selling my life to work!

I say good for him too. I actually applaud him for not settling for something that doesn’t fit into the lifestyle that he wants for himself. Maybe he doesn’t measure his self worth by how much money he makes, but by his life experiences. He may not need “things” like the rest of us do. He may have impeccable work ethic. He may have already figured out how much money he needs to survive, support his lifestyle and what he’ll need to retire and when. If all of this is the case, we should all take a page from his book and maybe we’d all be happier and fulfilled.


I know the people who wrote these comments and I can comfortably say that almost all of them have taken on great mental, emotional and financial responsibilities for themselves, their families, and their country. And if they say, let the next generation or two take it easy, that is their prerogative.
My thoughts on the subject differ from theirs (as you knew they would).
Scooter Scott, I understand that you would like more time to “get out and do stuff” and that is your choice. I want you to understand a few things, though.
1. You still need to pay off your student loans. I know they are onerous. Actually they are outrageous but you signed the papers. When you default on loans, it costs the rest of us money.
2. If, after you have received your degree in history or Aztec studies or ecological poetry or water resources engineering, you don’t get that “meaningful” job with plenty of vacation time to hike things, don’t go live in a tent in a public square and compose rants on your IPad against the 1 percent. There are plenty of 1 percenters who worked their asses off to get where they are.
Well there are, I should know.

Well there are, I should know. Except I don’t get paid $50k to blog and play Friends with Words.

3. I don’t want to pay for your insurance. If you drive a car, can’t afford insurance and get into an accident OR blow your knee snowboarding without any health coverage; my insurance premiums go up.
4. If somewhere 10-15 years down the line, you change your mind and decide you do want to buy a house instead of renting but can’t qualify for a mortgage because you don’t make enough money or your credit score is inadequate; don’t complain that it’s not fair and demand that mortgages be easier to obtain. Subprimes are no one’s friends.
Scott (if that is your real name), I understand that you want to have more time to enjoy life. Don’t we all? Go! Go Carpe Diem, Carpe hard! I only ask that you realize that your decision comes with its own implications and you are not freed from society’s responsibilities simply because you want to get out and do stuff.

I couldn’t get the YouTube link to work.

What say you?

Note: I have no idea what is wrong with the spacing on this post but I’m done fighting with it. Done, I tell you!


Life/Work Balance with a First Job. Too Much to Ask?

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Discussing “It” with a 10-Year-Old

I have just been going through drafts of blogs I have started and never finished. Sometimes I start a blog, title it and write a couple of words to remind myself of what I wanted to write and then I write about Lady Boners.

I found the notes on “sex talk with Annie” in my drafts folder yesterday. Since I wrote the Lady Boner blog yesterday; it follows that I should continue blogging on adult-related themes.

Because I am an adult. I discuss sex calmly and scientifically; using the proper terms such as Lady Boner, HooHaa, Thing and Place.

I remember it like it was four years ago, which it was. It was the spring of Annie’s 5th grade year. I didn’t have a job so I was home to greet my little dumplings everyday after school. On this particular day in the spring of 2007, I was weeding in the backyard when the kids came home. Typically the girls walked home from the bus stop, came in and we discussed their days or if it was a nice day, knowing I would be out in the yard, they would come out on the deck and let me know they were home.

Aside: One of my most treasured memories of the girls’ elementary school years was hearing their voices wafting down the street as they walked from the bus stop. I’m a big fan of open doors and windows so in the fall and spring, I could hear the girls before I could see them. I recall being out at the road getting the mail and hearing them and waiting till they crested the hill and waving and waiting for their little selves hauling those big back packs to reach me. Ack! I’m getting all teary!

Cute girls not talking about sex with me.

Back to spring 2007. That particular afternoon, Annie came out in the yard to tell me that her FLASH class, or STAR or whatever the acronym was for sex ed class, had happened that day.

My mother didn’t discuss sex with me. I came of age in the mid- to late 70s when liberation of everything was the rage. Still, there was NOT going to be any free love, open forum sex talk in the O’Connor household. You need to know about sex? Go read a Judy Blume book, especially page 83 of Forever. Keeping that in mind, I set out to be a much more available mother, a much more open mother. I would be the mom full of fun and information, knowledgeable and unflappable. Put that on my tombstone:

Here lies Margaret Mary O’Connor

Knowledgeable and Unflappable

I digress.

Annie came home from school, out to the garden and told me, “Mom we had FLASH today”. I play it cool, look up at her, “how did it go?” And go back to my weeding. “It was okay. The boys were laughing.” Me, nodding, “do you have any questions about anything that I can help you with?” (See how accessible I am?)

Why does this cute child want to talk about sex with me?

So here we go with the TALK.

“Mom, did you and Dad have to do that to get me and Brigid?”

Oh man, she really just jumps right in doesn’t she? Be cool. Be knowledgeable and unflappable.  I look up at Annie and nod my head, “Yes, we did.”

“Do you have to do it for a long time?”

Oh gawd, I…. I really don’t want to talk about this with my daughter, my 10-year-old daughter. My first instinct was to say, “if you’re lucky.” BUT I didn’t!

“It can.”

Back to my weeding. Weeding weeding weeding… very detailed weeding going on.

“Could you do it for like a minute?”

“Yep.” That absolutely could happen.

“If you did it for a really short time, you’d probably have a really small baby, right?”


More weeding, looking at the dirt, maybe if I keep looking down, she’ll go away. Which she did.

So I think I handled that really well. Happily, she went and told her younger sister everything she had learned so I didn’t have to have the Talk with Brigid two years later.

Of course, it was only a couple of years later at the beach when Annie asked her Aunt Molly “what is an orgasm?” (Thank you Sleepless in Seattle). Molly told Annie that she should ask me and then came screaming, laughing to tell me. Our family has got this sex stuff down. Knowledgeable and unflappable.

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You’re Not Special

I have excerpted the following paragraphs from a commencement address I read on It is outstanding. If you want to read the whole thing and it is a great read, click on the Swellesley Report link.

After graduation from Colgate, I lived with Laurie and her family in Swellesley for the summer of 1987. It is a lovely town and we had a really great summer. It is a privileged place full of privileged people and I fear for a generation of privileged kids that they feel that success is their due. That they should get the trophy just for showing up and I’m talking about my kids just as I am any kid in Wellesley or Evanston or Shaker Heights or Lake Oswego or Darien.

Hope you enjoy as much as I did!  Thank you to David McCullough Jr., Wellesley High English teacher.

Have a great weekend.

Wellesley High grads told: “You’re not special”

By bbrown | Published: June 5, 2012

new Wellesley High logo

            “But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection!  Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!”  And I don’t disagree.  So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus.  You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… 

           ….I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.

            As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.  Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.  Be worthy of your advantages.  And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect.  Read as a nourishing staple of life.  Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.  And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

            The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.  You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube.  The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life.  Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow.  The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil.  Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem.  The point is the same: get busy, have at it.  Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you.  Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. 

….Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct.  It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things.  Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.  And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.  The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

            Because everyone is.

         -David McCullough

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