money well spent

My son Nick, a first grader, looked over my shoulder as I thumbed through Facebook on a recent snow day. He saw a picture of a classmate standing bundled in the snow. He knew her name, so I asked him about her. I’ll call her Jane.

I like to ask my kids about their classmates. I like to nose around in their relationships at school, to get a feel for how they’re interacting with their peers and  what sorts of issues and non-issues are floating around. I’m a nosy mom.

“Do you like Jane?”

A smile hit Nick’s face like sunshine as he answered promptly and cheerfully. “Yeah!”

“Do you play together sometimes?”

“Kind of.”

“Do you ever play with her on the playground?”

“Kind of… she has a helper.”

I know Jane’s a child with a disability or two, but I don’t really know how her abilities and behaviors are affected.

“Do you ever talk with her?”

Nick unexpectedly made a sad face. He shook his head no, and he wouldn’t answer me aloud.

“What’s wrong, Nick?”

He shrugged.

“Is she non-verbal?”

He still just looked at me.

“Does Jane talk?”

With that question, it seemed he decided I was going to get it, so he finally answered. “Not really. She makes some noises and does this sometimes.” He flapped his hands a little.

“Does that bother you?”

“Of course not!”

He looked at me like I was daft to ask.

“Do you like having her in your class?”

“Yeah,” he answered without hesitation, and then he explained to me a bit about how Jane has a helper with her in class so she can do things, and sometimes she does hand-over-hand writing, just like he had to do through much of kindergarten. He also pointedly informed me, in a sort of remonstration, that Jane is not the only child who needs extra help in the classroom. He mentioned a couple kids with behavior issues, chattered about special ways teachers and aides work with them, and didactically made sure I wasn’t singling Jane out as being especially challenged.

* * * * *

There was a time not so long ago that I would have said I was proud of Nick for his attitude toward Jane, but I’ve come to realize that pride is a patronizing, almost offensive, attitude in this context. Why should I be proud of my child for looking at a human being with a disability and seeing… a human being?

We sat quietly for a moment, and I decided to take it up a notch.

“Nick, do you know that there was a time not so long ago that Jane probably wouldn’t have been allowed to be in the same class as you?”

His mouth fell open in an exaggerated expression of shock, and he yelled in my face, “WHY?”

I winced. Nick has a decibel disability. He was apparently born without volume control.

“Because she’s different. Grown ups would have said she doesn’t belong in the same class as kids like you.”

“WHAAAT?”

“People with disabilities would have been put in separate classrooms, or even in totally separate schools. In some schools they wouldn’t have even been allowed to come in the same school doors as kids like you, so you wouldn’t have even known they were there.”

Nick was disgusted. He couldn’t believe a world like that could exist.

“People would have said that if someone needs a helper in the classroom, she shouldn’t be there.”

“That’s so wrong!”

“Do you think your class would be better without Jane there?”

“NO!!”

By now my daughter Jesse, a fifth grader, had joined our conversation. Jesse copes with an anxiety disorder and OCD and Tourette’s. Jesse is sometimes beset by coprolalia, one of the most offensive manifestations of Tourette’s.  Jesse has a long history of therapy and treatment; she takes meds for the anxiety and tics; and she has an Individual Education Plan at school that ensures she gets much-needed special ed support and accommodations. As a result, she’s doing really well, and most days you wouldn’t know she’s anything but neurotypical.

I went in for the kill.

“There was a time when kids like Jesse wouldn’t have been allowed to be in a regular classroom.”

The kids were silent and shocked. It seemed like it was a lot to take in.

I gave it a name. “But some of our schools have changed a lot. We call it inclusion. An inclusive classroom, where all different kinds of kids can learn and play together. Do you like having inclusive classrooms?”

You know what the answer was, my dear reader.

* * * * *

Don’t think for a minute that I’m suggesting my incredible parenting and saintly values are turning my kids into inclusion champions in the schoolyard. I’m not even remotely that good. Frankly, I didn’t even have any idea what the concept of “inclusion” meant when Jesse started tormenting her teachers in preschool. I spent most of those early years apologizing and ducking my head in shame. And yet here was my young son now, instinctively embracing the heart of what inclusion is all about.

I didn’t teach him that. Rather, inclusion at school has created an environment where my children don’t really comprehend its absence. Inclusion at school has taught me that my own children are welcome, whatever challenges they may face in the years to come; and thus school inclusion has taught me to believe my own disabled child deserves to be included. Inclusion has moved me from a place of patronizing compassion and sympathy for others, and guilty shame for myself, to a place of co-equal acceptance and mutual empathy. Inclusion has taught my children and me that different is same, and same is different.

Equal.

Inclusion doesn’t happen because one day people wake up and say, “hey, let’s include everyone, no matter what their abilities and needs are! Yay!! Inclusion!!”

Successful inclusion takes effort and commitment and advocacy and good laws, of course; and it takes creative, educated thinking to identify and develop accommodations, modifications, and therapeutic tools. But also in the crassest sense it takes money, which most families raising children with disabilities don’t have enough of. We rely on private health insurance to cover the costs of treating our children’s unique disabilities and providing interventions and therapies to improve the quality of their lives; and more of us have been able to do that now, thanks to the ACA. When that’s not enough, we turn to public resources like Medicaid. We look for help in our public school systems too, through special education programs and occupational therapists and speech therapists and school counselors and whatever else we can get our hands on. Those resources are funded through school budgets but also in part through Medicaid.

Is it taxpayer money well-spent? Of course it is (even leaving aside social justice issues and basic human decency), and not just for the individuals who rely directly on these resources. Anyone who thinks Jane is the only one benefiting from inclusion — including the therapies and modifications and aides that make it possible — is living in a narrow, dark tube. Jane’s inclusion benefits all the children and families around her just as much as it benefits her, short term and long term. 

Nick isn’t having a better experience at school because he’s learning to “tolerate” Jane. He’s having a better experience because Jane, his peer, is a unique, fully formed human being in his classroom. He’s learning broader skill sets in human interaction, thanks to diversity. How will he treat kids who are mean or kind? Kids who are hostile or bullied? Kids who are verbal and non-verbal? Kids who learn quick and learn slow? Kids who can sit still and can’t? Kids from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds? Kids who have visible disabilities and invisible disabilities? The last is just one more in a long list of questions we ought to be confronting as we grow up.

Someday, as an adult, Nick will enter the workforce. He may have a boss, an employee, a co-worker, or a client with a disability. How will he handle it? Before inclusion, he likely would have been facing that question for the first time as an adult, with a jarful of ignorance, bias, and misinformation.  With school inclusion, right from his earliest memories, Nick will have experiences that inform his thinking and decision-making, that will help him make intuitively respectful, wise choices in how he engages with people.

I can’t readily put a price tag on that. But I know the number would be high, really high.

* * * * *

It’s easy to wring hands about the sometimes astronomical dollar costs of providing therapies and services for people with disabilities, at taxpayer expense. I haven’t dug too deeply into the justifications for moving to Medicaid per capita or block grants, but I suspect that this is a big part of the problem: some people just don’t think it’s right to put too much tax money into one person. They’d like to cap it.

For my part, I find it easier to wring my taxpayer hands about the costs of not providing needed services. There are plenty of resources out there for you to find, if you want to, about how much more it costs on the fiscal front for our governments not to include, empower, and enable people with disabilities. And no one can really quantify the moral cost to a society of having people with disabilities living in dehumanizing institutions or abandoned to the streets, unable to find employment, unable to live independent and healthy lives because we’ve failed to provide them basic supporting resources. I’m with Nick in feeling a sense of disgust that this is even up for debate.

So I’m trying not to be swallowed by despair, as we watch American leaders start to tear down Medicaid and the ACA, which have been instrumental in supporting people with disabilities as they strive to live fully enabled, human lives.  I’m trying to stay focused on the day-to-day, right here in my tiny world in Wisconsin. I’m thankful that I live in a place where regular kids like Jane and Nick can be in a regular school together. If Jane requires a little or even a lot more assistance to make that possible, so be it. Someday it might be Nick who needs an extra hand. Allocating money to need doesn’t mean Jane is unfairly getting too much.

Allocating money to need makes equal inclusion possible, and therefore it is exactly what fairness looks like. It makes Jane and Nick equal children in our society, just as they are equal humans in our species. And I’ll always take equal over a tax break.

First grade is for the perfect birds 

 

Let me just say this up front, before I move on to complaining: I pink-puffy-heart the public schools my kids attend. Our school district is incredibly diverse for Wisconsin, both economically and racially. Our teachers are mostly wonderful, and our experience with special ed has been better than it could have been. (This is a rousing endorsement, coming from me today.)

Teachers in Wisconsin’s public schools don’t feel especially loved these days by their state government, whose Republican leaders tend to create the impression they think PS teachers are whiny spoiled brats and lazy overpaid bums working in schools that are overwhelmingly failing because of a lack of competition from private schools, which problem can magically be fixed by vouchers.

I’m not buying it. I know our PS teachers are using their own money to make up for gaps in school budgets for much-needed supplies in their classrooms. I know they work overtime without compensation, because I see the odd hours at which they send out emails to parents. On weekends. I know how engaged they are with the curriculum. I know how they have loved my kids. They are not whiny babies, and they are not overpaid, and they are decidedly not spoiled.

I also know that public schools don’t suck and aren’t failing. Maybe some are, but in general public schools are doing great and are seriously under appreciated. A thriving public school system is, in many ways, the beating heart of a successful democracy, a great institution that helps create a well-informed, literate voting population. Hypothetically.

Anyway, I’m a supporter of our PS teachers, period.

So understand that my complaints here are about early education models, not about my school system or public schools or my kids’ teachers. These are hard times for PS teachers. I don’t want to pile on.

(Except now I will.)

* * * *

I’ve been hearing on and off all year from Nick about a sliding-scale behavior chart they use in first grade. Nick — an otherwise cheerful and well-adjusted young laddie — was very apprehensive about it at first. He told me last fall that there was a big chart in the classroom with every student’s name on it. Next to each name was a sliding marker on a color scale. If you screwed up, your marker slid down the scale to a bad color. If you didn’t screw up, you stayed at the top on a good color.

I was a little shocked, skeptical even. It sounds a lot like public shaming, like a new iteration of the dunce-cap model. I thought we don’t public-shame our kids anymore.

I asked about a bit and learned the entire first grade team uses this system. I intended to visit the classroom and check it out, and inquire and wheedle about it, but I became complacent quickly. Why? Because Nick is a compliant, hardworking, easy-going kid who handles himself really well at school. After years of Jesse’s struggles, it’s easy for me to be lazy about Nick, whose needs are far less immediate and intense and obvious.

But then last week this came home.

It made me really, really grumpy.

* * * * *

I generally hate color-coded rating scales. Remember when the Homeland Security color chart came out after 9/11?

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I made so much fun of that, living in Washington, D.C. where we felt unsafe every day for a long time after 9/11. There was something stupid about the color-coded system. The different categories felt arbitrary, filling me with meaningless rhetorical questions that distracted me from my job. What is, after all, the difference between a “high risk” and a “significant risk”? And why in that order? Doesn’t “significant” belong above “high”? Why do three of the five categories include the same word in the header and description, but “guarded” goes with “general” and “elevated” goes with “significant”? Why even have the category “guarded” (aka general)? Isn’t there always a general risk of terrorist attacks?

Head scratchers.

I felt the same way when I saw Nick’s behavior chart and the colors.

IMG_3290.jpg

I couldn’t stop the stupid questions.

Why is there any category higher than “ready to learn”? Doesn’t that seem like, I don’t know… the pinnacle of what we’re looking for in school? What more do you want from these little 6- and 7-year-olds, most of whom are still only barely capable of wiping their own butts after pooping?

What makes a choice good versus a great one? What’s outstanding? Why isn’t outstanding about choices too? Is it meant for the teacher’s pets, like some categorical recognition that you are generally an amazing person regardless of the choices you make?

Why is there a tattle category? Or maybe it’s better to think of it as the nuclear option category, the grown up equivalent of “I’M TELL YOUR MOMMY!” Why isn’t the tattle built into the top of the scale too? Don’t I deserve to be contacted if my kid is “outstanding”? (which, you will note, Nick apparently is, la la la la.)

What silly person picked the colors? Why is PINK outstanding and RED super bad? Pink, after all, is simply white-diluted bled-out red. Is there some secret, insidious, gendered message contained in that choice? I noticed that the color progression follows the rainbow, except one color is missing. Why replace indigo-in-the-middle with pink-on-top?   Every modern rainbow has seven colors, one of which is indigo. Look:

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People really need to commit to a thing and do it right. If you’re going rainbow, just GO FULL RAINBOW. Otherwise, you’re just confusing the kids.

* * * * *

After I failed to get over the color coding, my eyes fell to the “Behavior Codes.” I don’t understand. They’re not codes. They’re a top-eleven (why? why?) list of all the (apparently) worst things kids can do at school.

I scanned the list and finally understood something I’ve been struggling with all year.  When I pick up the kids from school, I like to ask questions like, “Tell me something good you did at school today.” I’ve worried because Nick either can’t or won’t answer that question. He typically shrugs, makes “I have no idea” eyebrows, and runs off to pretend sticks are alien laser-shooting weapons. But he’s always ready to tell me about the tiny ways he messed up.

And now I get it. If I asked Nick what he did wrong, he’d have a ready answer. The school has provided him a handy list of fails by which to measure his days.

More questions stacked up. Nick has told me you can slide up and down the color chart through the day. It’s constant surveillance. But how do you go up or down?  How do the behavior codes translate to the color chart? Is there a counting and adding and subtracting system? Do some fails move you more on the scale than others? Is  it arbitrary and secret, so the kids have no real idea how their behaviors will affect their color? What if you were out of your seat for a good reason, like you were about to vomit and you ran out of the room? What if you save a life by doing CPR? Does that make up for a whole mountain of bad and put you on perma-pink? What if you “misbehaved” (don’t really know what that means without more information, if you have social cuing issues like me) because you have a mental health challenge? Does it still count? Do you get sent down the color scale, or do you get a modification? Does that need to be in an IEP? Does a parent need to formally request a 504 accommodation?

I stared at the chart and behavior codes and tried to slow my racing thoughts, and then a bit of an ache touched my heart. Imagine what this sort of plan does to a kid with severe anxiety, or the extreme-moral-self-judging down side of OCD, or ADHD, or a variety of behavior challenges or home situations that make this stuff hard. Imagine a kid who’s looking for direction on how to behave, not how not to behave. She won’t find it on this list.

I thought of my Jesse in first grade. I think they had a similar system in place, but I was too exhausted from other issues to pay any attention.  Jesse would have been paralyzed in the face of this sort of behavior chart, until she would have exploded in raging fits. Which is pretty much what she did. It would have been an exquisite torture. She would have wandered over to that chart every day and volunteered herself right down to red, in a desperate attempt to be free of the overwhelming, unachievable task of staying good. She would have obsessed on all the ways she could screw the pooch, those thoughts filling her head thunderously until all her self-control was drowned in the noise and she tic’ed her way down the bloody scale. Being on red would have satisfied her, allowing her to discard the dissonance of hating herself while seeing evidence that someone else didn’t think she sucked completely.

I sat back and shook my head. How do we end up here as adults? How do we convince ourselves that these are good ideas? I’m not judging, mind you. I’m the fool who made a behavior chart for Jesse, just last year, that started with “do what you’re told, when you’re told to do it.”

It would be so easy to fix the negativity embraced by this first grade chart. You just flip it to the positive, and see where it takes you.

I stayed in my seat.
I waited my turn to talk.
I followed directions.
I was respectful.
I behaved well.
I helped a friend.
I was kind.
I was fair.

And so on. Kids would have behaviors to shoot for, instead of behaviors to avoid. They might become more aware of all the good things they do, rather than the bad. I think it’s easier to strive than to avoid, even if striving is hard. I think most of us would prefer to climb a steep mountain than to walk through a minefield. Why would we ask anything else of our children?

I have no doubt that most of our elementary school’s teachers actually focus on positives in the classroom (or else how would you ever make it back up the blessed sliding scale?). I know Nick’s teacher seems to be flexible and realistic about what kids can accomplish at this age. I wish the first grade team could just put that attitude on the chart to send home.

* * * * *

The kicker on this list, the thing that made me tell Nick I don’t care what color shows up on it, ever, was the note to the parents.

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Parents are only invited to talk about the chart with their kids in cases of failure.

I consider that limited exhortation a full-on system failure.

Parents should be invited to talk about the chart with their kids no matter what. Why in the world would we only focus on what’s negative? If your kid’s coming home PINK every day, doesn’t she deserve a hefty back-pat? I’m not talking about false praise or puffery. I’m talking about reinforcing behaviors we value.

What if we replaced that parental directive with something like this:

Please talk with your child about what color day he had. Ask him what he did right, and what mistakes he made. Talk with him about how positive  behaviors make school more fun and help him learn better.

* * * * *

Jesse came out of school today telling me about some pretty gnarly stuff she did. Definitely in the red zone for a fifth grader. I told her it was unacceptable, and I was a bit of a wanker. At least while she screamed at me and kicked the back of my seat in the car, I didn’t scream back; but I failed to dig for any deeper story. After we picked Nick up, Jesse innocently started telling me about a break dancer who came to school today to do a presentation. Among other things, he was doing the crotch grab-and-grind that Michael Jackson popularized.

Ah. Of course.  There was a reason her obsessions with sexuality had bubbled up. I should have hunted first, instead of just assuming she had let things get out of hand today through lack of effort. She didn’t just go to the red zone; she was ushered there as well, by the school, however inadvertently.

So if I was queen, I would add this to the parental exhortation, in fine print somewhere on that stupid calendar, because I wish someone had said it to me when Jesse was in first grade, so that I could have been a better parent to her. I wish someone would keep saying it to me now:

If your child had a bad day, STOP. Take a breath before you react. Before you get suspicious, angry, or disappointed, before you punish her, before you natter at her… Give her a hug, a kiss, and a snack. Tell her you love her, and nothing will ever change that. Ask her if she’s okay. Ask her to tell you her side. Recognize that every peer in her classroom knows she had a red day, and that is humiliating. Sure, discipline her, have a consequence, whatever. But also help her pick up the pieces. Help her find courage to go back and try again. Tell her about the things she does right.

Tell her she’ll always be pink to you.

 

I did it again (reflections on the joys of mediocre advocacy)

Last week I had my first private conversation ever with an elected official who represents me.  It was terrifying at first and I had an anxiety attack, but everything turned out “okay,” even though she’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat.

Whaaaa?

I know, crazy talk.

So I did it again on Monday. Last week it was by telephone, but this week… He came to my house. Eek.

It meant I actually had to clean up. It was a hefty price to pay to engage in mediocre advocacy, but I was willing to make the sacrifice of having clean floors, cleared surfaces, dust-free furniture, and an absence of mildly gross smells in the kitchen.

This time my assembly rep, Dan Knodle, came over. He actually agreed to come to my house! He wanted to come in the afternoon, his aide told me. I explained the situation in basic terms to make sure Dan knew what he was stepping into: two potentially feral children in the house. He said it was okay.

I prepared the kids over the weekend. In particular, I made sure Jesse knew and was on board about us discussing her mental health journey through the school system. Some of the conversation might be painful for her.

She said yes. Also, she insisted on calling him “Mr. K-noodle.” So did Nick. Much giggling ensued.

I prepared for the worst.

* * * * *

At 4:30 p.m. on Monday, a clean-cut, straight-backed, snappy-casual gentleman knocked on my kitchen door. Definitely a politician. I was nervous, of course, and feeling significant anxiety. But then in stepped Dan and I realized I was on terra firma, my own kingdom, the place where I am the boss of all things. I felt good. It occurred to me that Dan has some courage to visit strangers, albeit constituents, in their homes.

Any stranger who comes into my house with an agenda of any kind is immediately at a disadvantage, because the very first thing you have to do is take off your shoes. I try to be nice about it, but Americans like their shoes. With Dan I said something like, “We have a strictly shoe free house. Would you mind taking off your shoes? If you’re not comfortable with that, it’s okay, but also you could put on my husband’s slippers to be more comfortable.”

Awkward.

I invited Dan in and suggested we stay in the kitchen, because the furniture in our living room is beyond disgusting, thanks to the existence of children. And there we sat in my kitchen and talked, for a full hour.

 

It was a sprawling conversation, but I only want to tell you about the important things.

* * * * *

Dan arrived with very little idea of what I wanted to chat about. So I gave him a copy of the mental health initiative that’s in Governor Walker’s budget. Six million dollars to provide staff training and to increase mental health services on school campuses. Dan took it in like a good Republican: “This is new money.”

Yup, I said, it’s new money. It’ll probably require a new employee in the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). And it’s really important that we spend the money, though I would prefer a “zero” after the “six.”

I’m not sure he thought that was funny.

In fact, he said he wasn’t aware of the provision at all until I brought it to his attention.

GOOOOOOOOOOOL, screamed a tiny voice inside my brain. I just scored a tiny point, because the first voice Dan was going to hear about this initiative was mine, and the first story he was going to hear about it was Jesse’s. I never underestimate the power of a first mover advantage.

* * * * *

What followed was a long discussion about how children with mental health challenges are, as I sometimes say, the bottom dwellers of school intervention, relegated to the counselor’s office as disciplinary problems and truants. Teachers frequently don’t even know what clues to look for to identify basic symptoms of common disorders like anxiety, OCD, tic disorders, and depression — let alone how to work with them in a classroom setting. And there’s still this wall of stigma, which leads people to believe that “developmental disabilities” are things schools can address, but “mental illnesses” are best left to the private medical sector.

I made my big picture pitch. When it comes to disabilities, the broad arc of history in our public schools has been one of expanding inclusion and comprehension. We used to exclude pretty much everyone with differences from “regular” classrooms and schools. But now we have this growing awareness that schools can and should, through well-trained staff and in collaboration with parents, ensure a robust and inclusive education for people with physical disabilities, birth defects, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, and a wide range of differences. My kids’ school system commonly and confidently provides supports to students with a ton of different issues.

So why should we not provide the same confident supports to people with mental illnesses? Why can’t we start to see those as “disabilities” as well? They are, after all, lifelong conditions that people have to learn to cope with, live with, deal with, just like any other disability. We’re not asking schools to treat mental illnesses through teaching staff, but rather to do the same thing they do for other disabilities: provide supports, develop accommodations and modifications, show compassion and understanding, refer children to private therapy if that’s appropriate.

I think I got a little excited. I discovered I was leaning forward in my chair toward Dan (I hope I didn’t get in his personal space, because he would be too polite to tell me). My arms were flapping around in big arcs, apparently to demonstrate my vision of expanding services for children. I think I was getting bug-eyed.

Dan expressed some surprise.  He apparently had not been aware that mental illnesses like Jesse’s aren’t viewed as “developmental disabilities” and don’t provide as good a passport to services.

GOOOOOOOOOL!! Screamed something inside me. I just scored another tiny point.

I taught my representative something. It wasn’t because I’m an amazing advocate. It’s just because we were talking, and he was listening, and he asked the right questions. All I had to do was take the chance of answering them.

Dan, a Republican, shared his thoughts about how spending money like this on early interventions will likely cost the state less in the long run because of improvements in outcome for people at risk. Yes, Yes, I said. I, a Democrat, shared my thoughts on how lucky Jesse is to have well-to-do and well-educated parents who can  provide private supports and advocacy, and how I would like kids whose parents can’t provide those supports to still have as much success and support as my Jesse. Yes, yes, said Dan.

We were seeing the same coin from two sides. We connected, I think, on fundamentals.

* * * * *

As we wound things down, Dan offered me a couple eye-opening thoughts.

Now that he’s aware of this provision in the governor’s budget, if it ever comes up on the chopping block he’ll be able to say, “I have a constituent who cares very deeply about this budget item.” In his little list of budget issues, there’s a “K” for keep or a “P” for protect next to this item.

GOOOOOOOOOOOL!!

My tiny voice made that happen. How cool is that?

If and when this is voted in with the budget, he added (and he seemed to think it has a good chance of making it through), I would have homework to do. I could make sure my school district applies for a grant under the program that’ll be set up with this new money. If there were any hiccups, I could follow up with Dan and our state senator to ask for their assistance in the grant process.

I can do that?

Yes. Apparently, as a voter and constituent, I can. I actually have tiny power that goes along with my tiny voice.

What a concept.

* * * * *

I suspect I threw a whole lot of words and information at Dan, and maybe I got too excited at times, and sometimes I made no sense, and I was having a bad hair day, and maybe I was offensive? I don’t know, I really don’t.

Plus every five to ten minutes, one of my kids came into the kitchen with important matters for me to address.

“Mom, can I have a frozen yogurt?”

<Jesse drapes herself over my back and stares silently over my shoulder at Dan.>

“Mom, can I play with the Xbox?”

<Nick stands very close to Dan. I manage to blurt just in time, “You’re not allowed to jump on Mr. Knodle.”>

“Mom, I’m going to the basement so I won’t interrupt you. Okay? Can I do that?”

All of that makes me a pretty mediocre advocate and human being, I guess. But I still feel like I did the right thing, inviting Dan into my home, and taking time to tell him too many details about what’s on my mind when it comes to mental health issues. Someday maybe it’ll be something else, something more controversial or more important. But Dan and I know each other just a little now, and I hope we’ve laid a good first paving stone on our journey as representative-and-constituent.

We may just be two tiny voices in Wisconsin, but we’re listening and trying, and I have to give myself (and of course Dan) credit for that.

If you’ve ever had a pack of goldfinches land in your yard, then you know that it doesn’t take many tiny voices to make a beautiful noise. So whoever you are, reading this, if you haven’t done it already, go make your tiny voice heard. You might be pleasantly surprised by what happens, even in these challenging times.