Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How Oldest Brady Boy Saved Peter Pan

Here's the story, in Peter Pan's own words from his first essay draft [with a little copy-editing by me, but less than the application version got]:

This friend has been real close to me. [Oldest Brady Boy] is his name. He's athletic-focused and makes me laugh. He will do things for friends or will help you or tell you what's right. He gives advice on what to do in that circumstance. One thing he has helped me in is how to do things right, like telling me this is wrong, this is right. [He'll ask:] "What are you going to get involved in if you do these kinds of things? What is this going to lead you to in the end?"

He has made me a good person. He's always together with me. All the time we go places and play soccer, a good athletic sport where we can meet other kids at the park or in our own neighborhood. He helped me stop hanging with some people I don't need to be with, who are falling in a bad step now. [He helps me think about] what kind of friend should I hang with, what step are they on, if they are good. Who is going to give you good footsteps to accomplish what you want to be in life?

This friend has showed me a lot of things and has changed me in many ways. He is almost more than a friend [because of] how we look out for each other and changed one another on what to do right in life.

Perhaps readers remember that years ago I predicted Peter Pan would either be a real force for good on the block or the block's leading gangbanger. I'm pretty sure his friendship with Oldest Brady Boy pulled him away from the circle that Joey is falling into. They used to be pretty tight for a while, and I think that's who he meant by "people I don't need to be with." He's spot on, but it's breaking my heart that Joey's the problem on the block. I feel like he's slipped beyond me now.

Last Minute High School Applications

Well, Peter Pan and his brother showed up this afternoon looking for last-minute help with their Noble Network high school applications. They said they both already applied to Perspective Math & Science Academy, where their sister is going. Three 150-word essays each, and they hadn't started a thing before they got here around 4 this afternoon.

Peter Pan has some potential as a writer--he got one and a half of his first drafts done before I had to throw them out around 4:30 to go to a meeting. His brother has a lot more trouble writing, and his writing is a lot more trouble to understand. He kept using the word "above" when he meant "about," which took me a little while to figure out. He didn't even finish one draft before I had to go. I made them promise to keep working on it while I was gone and then we'd work together when I got back.

I got home about eight and they were here until 10:30. The brother still wasn't finished--he's got to rewrite one of them because he got off topic--but he's pretty close and there are 150 words in his draft (even if they are poorly spelled and incoherent).

The Nobles insist that kids hand-write their essays on the application form, which I suppose is to deter parents or others from writing them for them. It's not too hard to get around that, though, if the kids are willing to copy. I will freely admit I have the kid write a first draft, then if time permits said kid revises it, then I write a nice copy with all the words spelled correctly and correct punctuation, which the kid then copies on to the application. Now usually they make some mistakes copying, so there are still errors in the final product, but it probably isn't a totally representative sample of their work, either.

Tonight I went further down the path of deception, I'm afraid, especially with Peter Pan's brother, who was struggling to come up with 150 words for these essays. He did write two drafts for all his essays, but the second drafts were to get more words and to make them more coherent, not at all for mechanics. I still had to revise his second drafts to make them understandable to someone other than the author. I don't know what the final versions will look like, because he didn't have time to copy the clean versions I put together from his drafts before 10:30. Now he's on his own. Whew. I thank and pity his future English teachers.

In better news, Peter Pan himself wrote pretty good essays that didn't take nearly as much copy editing. I'm going to do another post to give you an excerpt of the rough draft of one of them, which is about how being friends with Oldest Brady Boy has changed his life, maybe even saved it. I knew Oldest Brady was good for him, but now I know he is a real unsung neighborhood hero. Read on above.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chocolate Chip Cookies

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do on a winter Sunday was make chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen with my mom while the Eagles game played on the TV in the den. Probably in honor of that, when I ran into three of the Brady girls coming home from the library on Friday afternoon, I invited them over to make cookies on Sunday. "If it's not too cold," I said.

"What time?" they asked.

"How 'bout around three?" So we agreed.

I guess 14 degrees was warm enough for them, because a little before three I heard a voice calling me from outside. (I never did get my doorbell fixed, and that's fine. It was so loud it would make me jump out of my skin. Now people have to work to get my attention, and I'm not giving myself a giant cortisol hit every time someone comes to visit.)

Three of the Bradys from the all-girl side of the family came. Their cousin Ines wanted to come but her family was going to see her brothers play soccer, so she went, too.

We cleared off the kitchen table and got to work. I softened the butter in the microwave to make it easier to cream with the sugar. That's always the longest part. The girls took turns and I only gave it a few whacks near the end to make sure the butter wasn't streaking and there weren't too many hard specks of brown sugar. The oldest Brady of the bunch was having fun searching them out and pounding them into nothingness with the wooden spoon.

"The last time I made chocolate chip cookies was four years ago," she said. They were at their cousin's house in Michigan. She must have doubled or even tripled the recipe, because they made more than a hundred cookies. "My cousin got mad because everybody was coming and taking them."

They broke the eggs over the bowl and picked out a couple of small shell pieces that fell in. After mixing in the eggs and vanilla, we started adding the flour. They were surprised at how stiff the dough gets, but they got all the flour in.

I think they had the most fun forming the cookies. I made one rounded-teaspoon size cookie as an example for them to match and then went to talk to my roommate the Good Elf while they made more. When the second batch went in the oven, one of them got the bright idea to round the lumps of dough into balls with her hands, then put it back on the cookie sheet. Those cookies came out looking almost store-bought. We all agreed making the dough from scratch was more fun than using the pre-made dough, although one of them thought the chocolate chips melt better that way because you leave the dough in longer. (She had a point.)

My oven's timer counts the seconds for the last minute, so they had fun counting down the last ten seconds of each batch. "! Cookies!" One of them kept saying "Blast off!" instead.

"It's like New Year's," said the youngest.

Between batches we talked about summer and swimming and going to Great America. They thought we should make more cookies and sell them as a fundraiser to buy tickets for a Great America trip next summer. I wasn't sure we'd make enough money selling cookies, but apparently you can get discounted tickets for so many Coke purchases or something like that. I made no promises.

The oldest told me her mom wants to learn how to make cheesecake. I found a recipe on my shelf of cookbooks and wrote it out for her to take home, but I've never actually made it myself. Maybe we'll have to test out the recipe over Presidents' Day weekend.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sarah's Test Date

I was out of town most of this week, but Thursday morning while waiting for breakfast in an airport restaurant, my cell phone rang. It was Sarah's mom from next door. Sarah's test date for the Orozco bilingual gifted program is in mid-February. She wondered if I had had a chance to talk to the principal about Sarah. Not yet, I told her. It may not matter anyway if they don't have space, but it doesn't hurt to try. We agreed to get together early next week to talk about the test.

It was funny when I explained I wasn't in Chicago, I was in Baltimore.

"Is that far?" she asked.

"Yes. I'm flying back to Chicago today," I answered. (Since she wasn't born here, I don't expect her to have a strong grip on US geography. But it still surprises me sometimes when moments like this pop up.)

Right after we hung up, I called a friend of mine who has had two sons go through the gifted testing process. She asked if Sarah would be going to IIT. I didn't know but said I'd find out next week. My friend's kids both took their tests at IIT. With the older son it was a cattle call--every kid had a number, there was a lot of waiting, it felt very impersonal. This year, with her younger son, she said it went much more smoothly. The wait was short and they called the kids by name. Apparently with the four-year-olds they just take them in a room and an IIT psychology grad student asks them questions until the kid can't answer any more. I wonder if it's different with the school-age kids who don't have standardized test scores yet. I guess we'll find out in February.

Junior's Report Card

Well, I went to Golder today with Junior and his dad to get his report card for second quarter. The good news is his math teacher picked him as her student of the quarter for outstanding improvement in math. (This is the basic math backup class, not algebra, but he got a C in algebra, so I'm happy.)

The other good news is he brought his civics grade up from a D to a C-. That may not seem like a lot, but I know he had to work hard to do it because the class isn't easy.

Now for the bad news. His other D last quarter, in physics, sank to an F because he bombed the final. He got less than half the questions right. We talked to his teacher and she said she knows he is trying but he just didn't get it. This quarter Junior will stop in and see her after school on Tuesdays to go over the homework with her and make sure he gets help on the parts he doesn't understand. Wednesday is her office hours, and he may go see her then, too. The thing is, he'll also have to take a make-up class after school to earn the quarter-credit he missed in physics. The class will either be on Mondays or Wednesdays-they don't know yet.

The other bad thing about failing physics is he will have to pay for the makeup class. It costs $140, which is a lot of money for his family. His dad wasn't too happy about that, as he noted in the car on the way home. "Junior plays Nintendo three, four hours a day. Too much," he said. Dad's right.

The last bad thing is that Junior still hasn't gotten paid for the After School Matters program he did back in the fall and early winter. An administrator assured us she has done all she could to get the debit card from ASM to the handful of kids who haven't received theirs yet, including Junior. Maybe if we're lucky he'll get it in time to use some of it to pay for the makeup class.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Well, I think I found out who was shoveling my snow yesterday. Around 5 p.m. the guy I refer to as "The Groundskeeper" knocked on my door. He had already shoveled off the front step.

"I'm broke," I told him.

"That's OK," he said, and kept on shoveling anyway.

"Have you got a place to cook?" I asked. When he said yes, I offered him some of my frozen hamburgers left from last August (it's about time they got eaten, yikes!). He took them.

This morning when I got home from church, Yup-yup tried to tell me he was the one who had been shoveling. I think word about the hamburgers must have gotten around.

Lost Dog--Still Searching for Buddy

The search has been on since before Christmas for Buddy, the small white poodle with a purple collar owned by the former principal of Chavez Elementary. Ms. Traback is offering a $500 reward for the return of her dog, no questions asked. There are signs up all over the neighborhood in English and Spanish with the address--5030 S. Marshfield--and the phone number, which I don't remember.

"Buddy was a ball of fire" around the house, Ms. Traback told me right before Christmas. She really misses her dog, and is pretty convinced that someone found him and is taking care of him. He is a friendly little one so I agree it's likely someone took him in. Hope this helps Buddy come home.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Big Snow, More Applications

Well, we're getting the big snow they said would come. Fortunately, this morning somebody shoveled my sidewalk. My front steps probably had six inches on them by around noon (I hadn't shoveled since early yesterday morning), but the sidewalk had an inch or less. Whoever that was, thanks!

Tone-Loc and Alicia stopped by earlier today. I had seen them on the street earlier this week. Their mom wanted to know when we could do their applications to Perspectives Math and Science Academy. I said, "How about on Saturday?" When they came here, I was on my way to the store to get more salt. I let Alicia borrow my shovel and said I would come to her house to get it back latet.

After I got back from the store, I went over to their place. I noticed there was a shovel out front and wondered why Alicia wanted to borrow mine if they already have one. I knocked on the door and on their window. "Who is it?" someone called. I answered with my name and Tone-Loc opened the door. I went in and stood just inside the front doorway where all the boots were, at the edge of the kitchen/dining room--I didn't want to make any more mess, but clearly other people had been tramping around the kitchen in their boots, so I wasn't taking my shoes off.

Tone-Loc's little brother was playing at the card table set up for dining. "I thought you said it was the police," he said to his brother.

"No, honey, it's just me," I told him. He showed me the photo he was looking at--it was the cake from his birthday party. Tone-Loc went to get his mom. The apartment was tropical-warm (to my feeling) and all four burners on the stove were turned up high with no pots on them. I noticed this but didn't say anything to anyone about it.

A little while Tone-Loc came back and started playing his video game in the crorner of the kitchen. He asked if he could shovel my back yard out. "Not now," I said. "Where is Alicia? Is she out making money with my shovel?" He said yes. (Note: I better get my shovel back, or she's going to pay me for it out of her snow-shoveling money. I thought she needed it because they didn't have one.)

Then their mom came out. She looked like she might have been taking a nap. We shook hands and I asked her when would be a good time to work on those applicatons. "Later this afternoon," she said. I told her I would come back around 4.

I sure hope this works. These kids could really use a good school behind them. As I was leaving, some guy stuck his head out the second-floor window and we greeted each other. I didn't recognize him.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Physics Homework Help

Gotta say it's really sad that I'm Junior's lifeline when it comes to getting physics homework done. When I left the gym early this evening, I turned on my phone and there were four messages from Junior and his little brother asking when I was getting home and could I help them with their homework.

"I have physics, and I don't understand it," Junior told me. When I called him back, it was pretty late and I asked if he had gotten any of it done. "Yeah, some," he said. "There's just two parts I don't understand."

One of them was scientific notation and how to convert back and forth between scientific and standard. There were some problems where you had to multiply and divide numbers in scientific notation and I vaguely remembered you could just add and subtract the powers of 10 (the integers), but I wasn't really sure.

"Call Picasso," suggested Junior. "He's smart."

"Yeah, you're right," I said, and we called him. He's done it at Curie, too, and he thought yes, we could do that. So we did. (If we were wrong, you can call us out in the comments.)

Then we went back and checked something he had done earlier. Junior was supposed to explain and make a sample graph of a direct relationship between two things. He explained it in general and made a general graph, but he hadn't given a specific example. When we looked back, he came up with a good one: "The more kids you have, the more you have to do laundry."

"You see that from having your little brother around, right?" I said. They laughed. (There's nothing like a new baby in the house for laundry.) So he put labels on his graph--I think loads of laundry was the x-axis and number of kids was the y-axis.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Today's Dawn Update

Now that we're all back from the holidays, I went over to Big Picture at the end of the school day today. (I was looking to pay a student who has been helping me with transcribing and translating interviews in Spanish.) After finishing my errand, I saw Alfredo's office door was open and walked over. Just then, Dawn's mom walked out, clutching an envelope. We said hi and she went on her way.

I believe the envelope was a letter of support for Julian, who has a court hearing coming up soon. Alfredo and I talked about what had happened with Dawn. "It was really hard to let her go," he said. But she hadn't been coming to school regularly--she had quite a few absences and tardies. She hasn't been staying at home regularly and her mother doesn't know where she is, all the same stuff that has been happening for over a year. "It was putting a damper on the other kids," to have her come to school irregularly like that, Alfredo said.

We agreed that she is bright and has a lot of talent, but her (and her parents') inability to set routines and follow through on plans is holding her back. Her lack of faith in herself is also holding her back, but she's not taking the steps to take care of herself there either, like going to counseling. "We couldn't do it for her," Alfredo said. I understand that completely.

Interestingly, Alfredo's boss checked in with him when she found out one of Big Picture's last students was dropping out. "Are you sure that's the only solution?" he was asked. He explained the long process it had been and all the work he and Dawn's teachers had done to help her. Alfredo told me that Dawn's mom had thanked him today for all Big Picture had done for her children, even though neither of them will be graduating from the school. "She said she knew from the very beginning that we were on her side and she appreciated everything we had done for them," he said.

Of course, when I came back home from the school, I saw Dawn's mom on the sidewalk and Dawn pulling up in front of the house in her Camry. She gave me a big smile and I waved at her very enthusiastically, but I had to get back to work right away so I kept on going.

As far as Alfredo knows, Dawn is neither working nor going to school right now. Last week I stopped by next door and left a Christmas present for her, a small black purse--over the holiday I called one of her friends to get advice on what to get--so perhaps that will be a conversation starter the next time we run into each other.

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