Friday, July 29, 2011

Do We Treat History Like a Dead Language?

Originally published on Huffington Post:

A sweltering parking garage filled with wand-wielding Harry Potter enthusiasts (all waiting in line for the midnight premiere of HP and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) may not seem like the most obvious place to quiz one's sister's friends about current events, but it was still an hour until the theater doors opened and I was bored. So I started a trivia game and out popped a question that I was dying to see if anyone could answer:

"Who's Betty Ford?"

It actually wasn't such a random question. Mrs. Ford had passed away only a couple days before. It had been all over the news -- radio, television, the Huffington Post. That said, I wasn't expecting much. My mom had asked the same question to two of my sister's friends the day before to receive blank stares.

"Uh ... related to Henry Ford?" was the response.

I felt it my duty to clarify who Betty Ford was (the trailblazing First Lady who de-stigmatized treatment for addiction and breast cancer) before we moved on to the cheery topics of biology, Latin American dictators, and (eventually) Harry Potter as we finally filed into the theater and grabbed our 3D glasses.

Along with the memorable Molly Weasley vs. Bellatrix Lestrange showdown and the fervent thought that I never want to see Voldemort's face in 3D again, the response to that simple question -- Who's Betty Ford? -- stuck with me.

It seems we're not only uninformed about our present, we're ignorant of our past. The "Nation's Report Card" -- the NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress -- revealed that only 13 percent of high school seniors who took the test in 2010 scored "proficient" or higher.

If we can't even demonstrate basic knowledge about our country's beginnings, why should I care that a sophomore Honors student doesn't know who Betty Ford was? Maybe because someday our grandchildren will look at us and say, "Holy cow, Betty Ford died when you were a teenager? Boy, Grandma, you're old!" just like I stared at my grandpa in awe when he said he watched Robert Frost -- that Path Not Taken dude we read in freaking HIGH SCHOOL LITERATURE! -- on TV at JFK's inauguration in 1961 (and oh P.S., that started the tradition of the inaugural poet).

History is made every day. The challenge is getting everyone to pay attention to it. Paying attention to not only the biggest headlines -- Osama bin Laden; or the saddest -- the tragedy in Norway.

Not just the Casey Anthonys and Real Housewives of the world, but the end of the space shuttle and the creation of South Sudan. The death of Betty Ford, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the famine in Somalia. Don't these things deserve at least as much attention as Rebecca Black's new music video, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, or even -- gasp -- the stuff we study in high school US History?

And that's where I see a big problem -- the lack of emphasis in school on the fact that history isn't all dead people and finished wars, it's Boehner vs. Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan. I would love it if we made more comparisons between current issues and issues of the past. Maybe we'd realize that sometimes, "current issues" and "past issues" are one and the same. Our world's people still fight over natural resources, kill in the name of religion, occupy regions and give them up -- just as we did "so long ago."
When I was younger, I had a tutor whose entertaining (if at times alarming) anecdotes on the Founding Fathers and modern politicians helped shape my realization that history is meant to be spoken about, not only read. Today, my parents still ask me to update them on the happenings of the world that day, and are more than happy to discuss -- or debate -- with me. I'd love to see such an environment echoed in our nation's public schools. If only we could start talking about the serious side of news with our friends, as easily as we bring up Snooki's latest exploits...

I'm not saying there's no hope. As a HuffPost devotee and a thirteen-year-old, I know that being a teenager and being an avid news-watcher are not mutually exclusive roles. Once I logged onto Facebook to be greeted by the cheery sight of a spirited conversation about the debt ceiling debacle. The wall post, by my sister's friend Airin, read: "I don't get it... How is reducing taxes and reintroducing tax loopholes for the super-rich going to help reduce our deficit?" The part that made my day was the link underneath -- "View all 62 comments."

Those comments -- hitting the same points Rachel Maddow does in a typical commentary -- were all written by high school students. The two writers doing most of the commenting debated the merits of trickle-down economics, criticized Republicans for using the term "job-creators" to describe wealthy individuals, advocated for the Gang of Six debt plan, weighed the pros and cons of economic benefit from oil companies versus environmental damage, protested deregulation of American business (Airin writing as a supporting example, "In India, Union Carbide was allowed to escape regulation. It poorly informed its Indian employees about the dangerous chemicals they were working with [...] As a result, 8000 people died from a gas leak. The governor of the region took the CEO into custody [...] but the US intervened and he went completely free" -- an incident which many other American students -- or adults -- might not know about).

Whatever your politics, I hope you can at least agree with two statements posted on this politically charged comment thread. The first one, saying "I'm obsessed with this entire conversation" and the follow-up, from Airin, saying "I'm glad we high school kids have obsession-worthy conversations. XD"

Eyes-crossed-out-from-laughing-so-hard-smile indeed (yes, that's what an XD is). We need to start more conversations that get students (and adults too!) commenting back and forth with the same enthusiasm and well-informed opinions that we see on modern music stars. By bringing current events into the classroom, everyday discussion, and social media, maybe we don't need to wait for our grandchildren's questions to remind us we should have paid more attention to current events. History is made every day. On a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, in the halls of Congress, and yes, in the millions around the globe clutching our Harry Potter glasses.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Somewhat Haphazardly-Organized Thoughts on Girls and Leadership

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave a TED Talk a while back, which I watched; I was impressed with her poise and interesting opinions (but then again, which TED speaker doesn't have those qualities?)  Her talk helped answer a very important question: why we have too few women leaders.

I would like to challenge, however, the widely held idea that since girls aren't becoming leaders as a result of naturally being less boastful, entitled, and commanding than most boys, girls need to start assuming those qualities in order to become CEOs. (That's paraphrased). This does, however, seem to be the idea-- girls don't speak up enough, take the lead enough, boast enough.

As Sheryl Sandberg pointed out, when girls try to be commanding, it's called bossy. When a girl boasts about her personal appearance or her latest work, it's being a show-off, etc. (This is all speaking in very general terms, mind you. If you haven't already watched Sheryl Sandberg's speech, do, otherwise the rest of this will be confusing). So we need to stop criticizing girls for the qualities we praise in boys.

On average (according to Sandberg) most men tend to brag about their own accomplishments and negotiate for raises far more aggressively than most women (I can tell you about people for whom this generalization does not apply, my parents being essentially the reverse of that description); when asked why they are successful, men (keep in mind the generalization here) will say that it was because of their accomplishments and hard work, whereas women will say they got lucky or they were helped along by amazing coworkers, etc. And society tends to dislike women who will buck the trend and assertively negotiate for a raise.

This is all statistically supported and that is the general trend. So what is it that I disagree with in Sheryl Sandberg's speech?

The problem I see with this is that I felt the underlying message is that women need to be more like men in order to succeed in what is still a men-dominated area (business). It needs to be okay for women to brag, to ask for raises, to be aggressive. Sandberg focused more on making society accept women when we do those things; rather than changing our expectations of what a CEO should do.

My thinking? Don't we need more CEOs who don't fly out the window with a golden parachute?

Don't we need more people in the world to stop talking about themselves and start thinking about others?

Don't we need more people who thank others profusely?

It's time we stop saying that girls need to change, and adopt those behaviors; it's time to say that boys could learn from girls. CEOs of top companies could probably use a dose of not-asking-for-raise behavior and less self-entitlement, rather than us trying to change girls in order to fit into the common mold of what we think a CEO looks like. I give speeches quite a lot about how often negatively-portrayed behaviors common to children (i.e., impulsivity and naivete) may be positive behaviors in some situations, leading to unfettered imagination and problem-solving.

Maybe these often negatively-portrayed behaviors statistically common to women are positive things. We all love people who give credit to others for their success. Companies would probably do better with CEOs who didn't blow their own horn and ask for ridiculous salaries and new yachts every year.

In her talk, Sandberg shared an anecdote of her college European Intellectual History class, where her classmate Carrie avidly read the original works in Latin and Greek and attended all the lectures; Sandberg read them in English and attended most of the lectures; and Sandberg's brother read one book out of twelve, went to a couple of lectures, and received last-minute tutoring from Sandberg and the highly studious classmate before taking the test.

After coming out of the test, they asked each other how they did. Carrie, the undoubtedly most prepared of the three, said (quoting from the speech here), "Boy, I feel like I didn't really draw out the main point on the Hegelian dialectic." And I [Sandberg] say, "God, I really wish I had really connected John Locke's theory of property with the philosophers that follow." And my brother says, "I got the top grade in the class." "You got the top grade in the class? You don't know anything."

To me, Sandberg's speech went on to emphasize why society should make it possible for girls to have "I got top grade in the class" behavior.

My point is that the bragging brother should take a dose of humility, instead.


By the way, I totally agree with Sandberg's point that we need to stop demonizing girls for taking the lead in business/political/etc. situations. I'm not saying that girls shouldn't be confident. However, I'm saying that we need to change our expectations for CEOs (aggressive, assertive, etc.) from the current definition to one that more closely matches the best qualities of girls and boys. So--let's stop trying to get girls to change. Let's focus on changing our society.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

TEDxRedmond not receiving support from local school district (at least not easily)

TEDxRedmond, the event I'm organizing with fellow youth (for the second year), is all about learning, inspiring, and doing good, from the unique perspective of young people. In response to the question, "Why attend TEDxRedmond?" we've heard amazing responses from attendees, like this from an 11-year-old: "I really, really enjoyed TEDxRedmond last year.  I loved that everyone there is trying to make the world a better place. Since last year I have been very busy trying to do the same.  I have been volunteering my time with the Riverview Youth Council,  I am the youngest in the group, most of them are in High School and I'm 11.  We work on teen suicide prevention, preventing tobacco use, and other healthy choices.  I also have been volunteering to serve food at tent city and helping the local women's shelter and sponsoring people on Kiva.  But the biggest thing I have been working on is anti-bullying.  I am working to help create a safe and bully free school. My dream is to be standing on a stage one day at TED talking about how I made a difference and inspiring someone like me to do the same."
One 13-year-old said: "I think of myself as a 'learner.' I constantly ponder over issues that affect my world and, thereby, me. TEDxRedmond is the perfect forum for young learners like myself. I wish to share in the intellect, the views, and the questioning spirit that makes TED so significant to our generation and beyond. I would like to be a part of the larger objective of creating an aware and accountable epoch in our world."

School districts presumably work every day to try to get students thinking of themselves as learners, getting young people to start grassroots change against negative behaviors like drug abuse and bullying, etc. Yet I somehow doubt that our school district (which will remain unnamed) has heard responses like these at Spirit Day or the school dance (I have a feeling that, in a school situation, you'd get laughed at for even saying 'creating an aware and accountable epoch in our world,' as this 13-year-old did), but dances, Spirit Days, and football games, are among the officially school district approved events, held on school district facilities without a problem. TEDxRedmond, on the other hand, is not.

Why do I care so much? Well, as one of the largest performing arts centers in Redmond (where we hope to host TEDxRedmond) is owned by this school district, we had to apply to use it. As the majority of our youth organizing committee comes from this school district, I thought it made perfect sense that we could rent the building without paying upwards of 2000 dollars, since, with our students mainly coming from this SD, it would be a school district-related event.

You'd think the school district would jump at the chance to host a non-partisan gathering of hundreds of highly motivated youth discussing grassroots change, doing good for the world, education, the environment, charity, etc. As I've unfortunately learned, it's not nearly so easy. In response to the group letter we sent from all the members of our committee who attend school in this district, we were told that the performing arts center was not designed for a "group of students" to use.

It makes you wonder who schools were designed for in the first place.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Supporting TEDxRedmond

I wanted to let everyone know about the youth event I'm organizing again this year (along with an amazing committee of fellow students): TEDxRedmond. An independently organized TEDx event (TED is a prestigious nonprofit and conference dedicated to Ideas Worth Spreading), TEDxRedmond's goal is to promote youth voice on important issues ranging from education to the environment. You can watch videos from last year's conference on the website, and read about why people are signing up to attend this year. We've received phenomenal feedback about last year's event--young people, inspired by TEDxRedmond, have been building bully-free schools, raising money to fight disease, joining boards, and simply taking action to help others. 

We are struggling to find a major funding sponsor this year, unfortunately, which limits us in terms of how many people we are able to bring in from out of state. There are many amazing youth who live in California and the East Coast whom we would love to fly in. If you or your company has the means to help us with these event costs, please contact us at to start the conversation. 

Even if you don't live in Washington State, you are more than welcome to participate in TEDxRedmond by watching our online webstream, "liking" the TEDxRedmond page on Facebook, following TEDxRedmond on Twitter, asking any questions you have about TEDxRedmond on Formspring, and reading our newest updates on the TEDxRedmond blog. Thanks so much for your support!

Monday, July 04, 2011

New Short Story "Cartography"

One of my favorite parts of traveling is a rather non eco-friendly one, I'm afraid (although I always do recycle or have someone else reuse them)--I absolutely love using paper maps to navigate through a city's streets. While I'm not quite the younger "Ellie" in the story, the reasons for loving maps are pretty much all mine. This short story was inspired by my recent trip to Philadelphia, where I used maps a great deal. Hope you enjoy!

There was something inherently appealing about a fastidiously mistreated map, worn and crinkled around the edges, with concierge circles in Sharpie marker around the must-see sights. Perhaps it was the way a map folded back neatly into place, like an accordion opening and collapsing, to satisfy one’s most orderly instincts; or perhaps it was the simple joy of owning something, leaving your mark on it in the most primal way (that was, with a marker of course).
          What few understood about the way Ellie looked at maps was that she harbored a very secret dream of being a cartographer. For all she knew there were no real cartographers any more, or if there were, they were strange government scientists who worked on a very technical level, like her uncle did. She guessed that maybe computers did all the work of plotting maps out now. Now that there were Garmins and Google Maps and Mapquest, who needed someone to draft a map on paper?
          Ellie’s ideal cartographer was a romantic one who appeared in the occasional storybook: a bearded sage in flowing robes who sat in a pencil-sketched tower, looking out pensively over the world, pen hovering over a scroll—about to draw it in perfect, beautiful 2D. This was what a cartographer was to Ellie. It was not a programmer and it was certainly not a Google car with a camera on top. If this was what cartography was in the “real world” (this nasty place her mother and father often referred to) she would do horticulture instead. She had just learned how to say the word “horticulture” and was very proud of it. She also had forgotten exactly what it meant.
          Though Ellie was not entirely sure that it was realistic to be a cartographer, she knew that it was entirely realistic to use a paper map. Paper maps, despite their consistently small-font street names, were reliably openable and closeable, unlike her mother’s bedraggled GPS. She took pleasure in being her family’s savior, proudly opening up the map when the GPS failed, and navigating them back to the hotel. She often opened up the map just to double-check a route, simply for the pleasure of standing authoritatively in the middle of the street and saying, “Yes, that’s right” with a grave nod.
          Just as she opened up the map for what would perhaps be another “Yes, that’s right” moment, her reverie was interrupted by an “Ellie! Hurry up!” moment thanks to her mom. Ellie looked up to see her mother standing ahead, waving rapidly as Ellie stared into the map.
          “I was just—” Ellie said, half in protest, half in anticipation of saying something meaningful, but stopped short. She realized that her mother and her little brother would probably not understand (or care) why she looked at the map so deeply, held its edges so tenderly, in that moment.
          A map, thought Ellie, was a beautiful orderly representation of her mother and father’s “real world.” A world that was disorderly and littered and loud and smelly and small, a world that was sometimes violent, a world where GPS devices stopped without warning and emitted loud beeps in noisy streets. A map, on the other hand, was a perfect world on a page.
          For all its disreputable ties (in small print fonts on clean white lines) to the contrasting greyish gum-ridden sidewalks under Ellie’s feet, a map was still a land of someone’s dreams—a picture of a long ago someone’s half realistic, half idealistic imagination as to what the “real world” ought to be.