Friday, May 20, 2016

Sexual assault at BYU: My own story

In 1997, during my last year at Brigham Young University (BYU), I was raped just off campus by a stranger who approached me and asked for the time. He said he had a knife, and I did not resist the attack. I was frozen with fear. I didn't kick or bite or try to run away. I couldn't scream; I couldn't make even one sound of protest. For years, I would replay the attack over and over in my mind, trying to imagine a different outcome, trying to imagine myself fighting off the rapist. Even in my imagination, I could never escape from the rape. I couldn't make myself fight hard enough.

I was a young, devout Mormon woman with no prior sexual experience, and the rape left me with overwhelming guilt and shame. Self-blame was accompanied by a lingering feeling that I had lost some important part of myself, something that I wasn't sure I could ever regain. I had the sense that everything in my world was somehow tainted and dirty. For months, I hated my sexual organs, so horrified was I by what had happened to them and to me.

But here is the part of the story that I remember with gratitude: When I reported the rape, everybody believed me. Every single person. And nobody blamed me. Nobody asked me why I stopped to talk to a strange man on a dark street. Nobody wondered why I didn't scream or run when I had the chance. When I apologized, sobbing, to the police officer on duty for being stupid enough to walk home alone in the dark, his response was emphatic: "You had every right to walk down that street, " he said. "This wasn't your fault." When I asked my bishop whether God would forgive me, he told me as many times as I needed to hear it that there was nothing to forgive. When I asked my roommates whether they were disappointed in me, they told me that they were angry. Not at me, but at the rapist.

So many people during those first few hours and days were there to give me the support I needed: the group of young men—strangers to me—who called the police for me when I burst into their house after the attack, the detectives who questioned me, the doctors and nurse who examined me, my bishop who showed up to give me a priesthood blessing, my roommates who took me home, the dean of students who called me the next day to tell me how sorry she was that this had happened, the family members who loved me fiercely and protectively, the BYU psychologist who provided counseling services. It felt like I was being wrapped in successive layers of healing love by everyone I came into contact with. During the long months ahead, as I worked through my own trauma and shame, I knew that I could lean on people around me—people who saw me as worthy of respect and love, even when I couldn't respect or love myself.

Every survivor needs this kind of support. Rape victims should not have to prove that they are perfect rule-followers in order to get the help that they need. They shouldn't have to prove that they struggled and fought. And though this should be obvious to everyone, it's worth saying again: Rape victims who know their attacker should be treated with as much respect as victims of strangers. Date rape should outrage us as much as, if not more than, the less-common stranger-in-a-dark-alley scenario.

Reading the stories in the last few weeks of sexual assault victims who were treated poorly at BYU has been painfully eye-opening. It horrifies me that, while I was believed and supported, others have been blamed and censured because of suspected Honor Code infractions. Being raped was bad enough. I do not know how I would have survived had I also been shamed and punished.

I plead with university administrators to make reasonable changes in the university's policies and practices: Please do not punish victims of sexual assault for Honor Code violations that come to light over the course of the investigation of the assault. This puts victims in a terrible position, forcing them to choose between putting their academic career in jeopardy and letting their assailant go free. Please do not make policing Honor Code violations a higher priority than finding and prosecuting rapists.

Please do not add to victims' trauma by opening up an investigation into their behavior. Please give them the supporting services that they need to heal. Please let all students know that they are safe to report sexual assault.

Finally, please consider issuing an apology for the harm already done to students. As administrators of a university that affirms the Gospel of Christ, you have an opportunity to teach us all a lesson in humility and self-reflection. To this end, the newly-formed sexual assault advisory council and the website asking for feedback from the BYU community are wonderful first steps. Admissions of error will not make the university look weak or foolish. Rather, they have the potential to be a beautiful testament to the power of redemption and our universal need for grace.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Vacuous Truths at the Dinner Table with My Preschooler

Sanzio 01.jpg
By Raphael - Stitched together from, Public Domain,

I told Johnny that he should change one sentence that he wrote on his second-grade homework assignment. He had written,"The sun is the biggest star in the solar system." But the sun is the only star in the solar system, so that sentence doesn't mean much.

But of course, the original statement, in a mathematical sense, is true. It's not very helpful, but it's true. I mean, let's say the sun won first place in the sculpture category of the community art show. Even if it was the only entry in its category, it would still have won the contest.

Our dinner conversation that night went something like this:

Me: "Well, saying that the sun is the biggest start in the solar system is truebecause it's the only star in the solar systembut it's kind of silly. I mean, what if my  teacher told me to write about my family, and I wrote, 'All of my husbands work at NASA, and Owen is my biggest husband'?"

Everyone laughs and laughs.

I go on, "And Rosemary [who is not married] could also say truthfully that all of her husbands work at NASA. That statement is mathematically true."

Owen questions this, but then has an "aha" moment when he realizes that you can say that all members of the empty set are *fill in the blank,* and the statement is always true. 

"Well, it's mathematically true, but not linguistically true," he says.

Four-year-old Ezekiel is quiet during the whole exchange. Finally, he says, "Daddy, daddy, I have a math problem. All of my macaroni and cheese has a cousin, and the cousin's name is  . . . Glasses!"

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

16 Things to Say to Your Wife

I am not a professional. This is just what works for me. Maybe all couples should have "wish lists" of words that they each want to hear from their spouse.

1. I love you.

2. I am sorry.

3. I was wrong.

4. We disagree on this point, but I am willing to entertain the possibility that I might be wrong. Can you shed some more light on this?

5. I am sorry that you're hurting. What you're going through sounds really hard.

6. You are beautiful.

7. I am glad that I married you.

8. I would love to spend a romantic evening with you some time soon.

9. I figured out why I've been frustrated lately, and I'm ready to explain it to you.

10. I thought more about the conflict we had yesterday, and I realize that I was not being totally fair.

11. That isn't what I originally had in mind, but it sounds like a reasonable request.
12. That doesn't sound reasonable to me, but that's just my initial reaction to what you said. Can you tell me more about what you're thinking?
13. I know that we want different things, but let's find a compromise that we both can live with.

14. I want to make sure I really understand what you are saying. Let me know if I have it right. What I thought you said was . . . 

15. How have you been feeling lately about . . . .

16. How can I help?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Governor Kasich, Abolishing the Metaphorical Teacher's Lounge Would Be Even Worse than Banning the Real One

The Secret School - Nikolaos Gyzis
The Secret School, Nikolaus Gyzis

 Recently, Ohio governor and Republican presidential hopeful John Kasich raised some ire over a comment he made at an education conference in New Hampshire. The unabashedly anti-public-education governor said that if he were King of America, he would "abolish all teachers' lounges, where they sit together and worry about 'woe is us.'"

Kasich's spokesman, Rob Nichols, had this piece of snark to say in response to those who took offense:

He thinks teachers have far more support in their communities than they sometimes give themselves credit for and they shouldn't pay attention to the small number of pot-stirrers in their ranks who try to leverage problems for political gain. Anyone thinking he was making a comment on buildings or school architecture or space usage might need to look up the word "metaphor" in a dictionary.
Emphasis added by me, because I was pretty well stunned by that last zinger of a sentence. 

Note to Governor Kasich: If you want to try to defend your fairly outrageous statement, calling it a metaphor is not the way to do it. Yes, we know what "metaphor" means, and no, we didn't think that you were really talking about architecture. We get it: It is teachers' voices that you object to, not the teacher's lounge. 

I mean, let's unpack this metaphor. If Kasich is not talking about the brick-and-mortar space, then what is he talking about? What is the metaphorical teachers' lounge that he'd like to abolish?

Indeed, it's not the literal architectural space that bothers him: It's the gathering, the meeting of ideas, the organizing together. It's the outcry over poorly designed, misused standardized tests; it's the many thoughtful critiques of the new teacher evaluations. It's the multitude of blogs, Facebook groups, and forums that have sprung up in response to worsening working conditions and low morale. It's the collective yearning to break free from education reforms that undermine teaching and learning.

Of course Governor Kasich would prefer that teachers stop talking about what's really going on in their classrooms so that the narrative of education reform can continue, unhindered by teachers' lived realities. The metaphorical teachers' lounge is far more important than the literal one.

If Kasich really wants to do damage control, he needs to offer an apology. The "it was a metaphor" defense makes his statement worse, not better.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Guest Post - A Family Reunion

John Larsen is the guest blogger for this post.

I just returned from a 5 day 4 night vacation to Eastern Pennsylvania where I spent time at a Family Reunion. I was excited about it, mostly because it was vacation! Away from work! In the mountains! To be honest, I was a little terrified at the number of people that would be in one house with me. I have 8 siblings, and a smattering of neices and nephews, so getting together in one giant cabin requires some serious people niceties, which I've been working on, as well as some ridiculous grandiose food preparation, which I'm terrible at.

Thanks to people more organized than me, our Family Reunions always have a theme. Two years ago was "Larsen Family Forever!" and this year's was "We are one!" They don't put me in charge of these things, mostly because the theme would be the Simpsons opening music.

Well, we weren't one, we were 42 (or 44, depending on how you count the dog and that little runt of a nephew, so cute!). And believe me, cooking for 42 is a lot harder than cooking for 1. No one makes books about "Cooking for 42 in 30 minutes or Less!" Mostly because it can't be done, or because the author was eaten before the sustenance made it to the table.

When it was my turn for breakfast we did scrambled eggs, which I thought would be nice and easy. Indeed it was. Plus, there was something satisfying about scrambling 6 dozen eggs. It's not everyday I get to do that.

There can't be a Family Reunion with at least one major mishap. Although my siblings may disagree with me, it was clearly the family hike (the talent show was a close second, way too long. Understandably terrible though, I was in charge of it).

The hike was billed on the program (a month in advance) as an "Easy" hike to a waterfall, one that all of the grandchildren (10+ children younger than 5 years old) could easily handle without much difficulty.

What we didn't anticipate, however, was the decision quality of the adults. What happens when you reach a fork in the path, and the signpost has been uprooted by a heavy storm or rowdy teenagers? It's a lot of standing around, hemming and hawing, looking at maps, and then whoever was in charge (not me) making a decision.

All I did was take one look down the chosen path and I knew that it was bad news. I bit my tongue, and trudged onward, the rain and mud from the previous night soaking into my shoes.

I guess they thought that the path less travelled would make all the difference. It did, as it turned out. We never made it to the waterfall. Instead, we sloshed through mud and jungle hacked our way (with little kids on backs) down that path less traveled. Looked like a stream bed to me, but I wasn't the one in front.

I had GPS on my iPhone, and in a moment of inspiration, took advantage of technology and found out that we were in the middle of the forest. I was more pleased than I would like to admit, until my brother pointed out that he could tell the same thing just by looking around.

Luckily, we turned around before we had to make camp and skewer a baby rabbit or two and survive the apocalypse. After we made it back to the cars, we shamefully and silently got in our vehicles and went back to the cabin to shower and eat lunch. No one mentioned it again, except in whispered constraint to spouses in bed. 

The next morning there was a scheduled "Hard" hike for adults. No one even so much as made a peep about it; someone pulled out a board game for the adults and a movie for the kids. 

Later that day we had what Grandma thought would be the most unifying event of the reunion: all 8 siblings (and any spouses) would gather and reminisce together about growing up.

Oh, I had a lot to say alright, but I wasn't sure that they wanted this to be the time for me to bring up early childhood baggage. My wife has been hearing about it for the past 10 years, and it's a miracle that she sticks around for the "Family" part of "Family Reunion."

We did pretty well, only bringing up Dad's temper once. And that time that my brother stabbed me with a pencil (twice). We laughed, we cried. It was two hours long. Someone fell asleep; bound to happen anytime 42 people are in the same house at the same time, several of them with pacifiers in their mouth.

When we finally said our goodbye's at the end of the week and all drove away in our separate cars, I felt a pang of sadness as the dust settled. It wasn't just because I was returning to work or leaving vacation in the mountains. I was because I actually, kindamaybejustalittle, missed my siblings and their families. Even the ones that I like a little less than others.

Sure, there are some that I may have trouble forgiving (and surely those that have trouble forgiving me), and there were things that I wish I hadn't said or done, but life is full of those things. In the end, it's not any different than my daily routine with my wife and 4 children.

Except it was a lot bigger, and required 6 dozen eggs for breakfast.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A love song to Prince George's County, an excuse for not posting lately, and a crazy plan.

I haven't posted anything here for more than a month, because I've been devoting all my blogging energy to this new project.

Let me explain.

I have lived in Old Greenbelt for ten years, and I love it more than reason. I love the trees, the lake, the walking paths, the Co-op Grocery Store, the New Deal Cafe, the Labor Day Parade, the historic single-screen movie theatre in the center of town, the community center with its dozens of classes and events. And I love the people. Old Greenbelt has a disproportionate share of the sort of quirky people who would not have made fun of me in junior high school, and these are people who have a passion for making our community a real community. It's really something.

When I first moved to Greenbelt, I thought of my little community as a sort of oasis in the desert that is Prince George's County. Because Prince George's County, for as long as I can remember, has had a terrible reputation: In the greater Washington area, PG County is the proverbial "wrong side of town." It's tacky, trashy, crime-ridden, with underperforming schools. We Greenbelters, so I thought, should huddle together and avoid the rest of the county.

But I was wrong. A few years ago, I started exploring the county, and I was amazed at how much I liked what I found. Lovely parks, imaginative playgrounds, ethnic restaurants, bargain shopping, friendly people. I began to explore the neighborhoods: the old dignified neighborhoods, the beautiful new McMansions, the artsy neighborhoods, the up-and-coming neighborhoods. I started noticing how friendly people are, at the library, at the supermarket, at the playground. I found so much to love in this county. The pontoon boat tours at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, the farm animals at Watkins Park, the amazing Indian Creek Playground near Lake Artemesia, the historic Riversdale mansion. And we have the University of Maryland! We have GLUT, a co-operative vegetarian food market founded in the late 1960s by Vietnam War protesters where you can literally work for food. But we also have the upscale Wegman's, and we have dozens of farmers' markets. We've got the National Harbor, the Hyattsville Arts District, the Montpelier Arts Center, the Cheverly Publick Playhouse. We've got the brussells sprouts at Cafe Rue, the Kenyan style goat stew at Swahili Village, the Thai curries at Siri's Chef's Secret.This is not a wasteland; it's full of wonderful places waiting to be discovered. I have become a bona fide Prince George's County enthusiast.

We're affordable, down-to-earth, and we're moving in the right direction. Our rate of violent crime is still higher than Montgomery County's, but it has declined significantly in the last few years. What's more, our homicide rate is significantly lower than that of D.C. proper. And, sure, former County Executive Jack Johnson was convicted of corruption, as was a former superintendent of schools. But corruption like that is hardly unique to Prince George's County. Why does Prince George's County have such a poor reputation?

The answer to that question is probably complicated, but part of the answer undoubtedly lies with the schools. Prince George's County schools are underperforming, by just about any measure you want to look at. There are definitely bright spots in the landscape. Our son's neighborhood school, Greenbelt Elementary, is doing comparitively well, and he has had a positive experience in the two years he's been there. We have been impressed with the staff and the students, and we are fortunate to have a school building that is in relatively good repair. That doesn't mean that there is no room for improvement. To cite one example, until this year, when we were lucky enough to get a full-time art teacher, kids only had art class once a quarter. Once a quarter. (For kids in many other schools in the county, this is still the case.) And there are good things happening throughout the county: graduation rates are up, enrollment is increasing after a nine-year decline, innovative programs are being developed. Still, by and large, most people view county schools unfavorably.

We are fortunate to live in the Greenbelt Elementary School district. Greenbelt Elementary is not perfect, but it's a good school, and I want other families across the county to have the confidence in their neighborhood school that we do in ours. As I have spoken with parents and teachers and listened to their gripes about the county schools, I've noticed that most of us don't know whom to contact with concerns that cannot be resolved with the principal. Most of us don't want to write letters, make phone calls, or testify at Board meetings, because we don't think we can make a difference. Most of us don't even want to try to change anything, because it seems hopeless. There has been a pervasive sense of futility in the PGCPS community, and that sense of futility has led to apathy and resignation.

A few of us decided to band together, call ourselves an advocacy group, and try to figure out how to engage with the PGCPS power structure to influence the policies and practices that govern our schools. We believe that parents and teachers must have a louder voice in the system and find ways to effect positive change. We believe that this is worth going out on a limb for.

We gave ourselves the name "Prince George's County Advocates for Better Schools,"and we started a blog with the same name. We have a slogan (informed! connected! empowered!) and a vision statement and everything. I admit that the vision statement is a bit over the top — sort of jargon-y and full of buzzwords (though we've so far avoided "paradigm shift" and "synnergy") —but please tell me how else one writes a "vision statement."

We have found that we are not alone in our goals! There are groups of engaged parents, teachers, and community members scattered throughout the county. One of the purposes of our blog is to help connect people who have similar concerns and interests. We continue to find people who are fighting the good fight in their (geographical or philosophical) corner of the county, and we are often amazed at their efforts. We want more people to join forces. We want more people to have the information, support, and confidence they need to speak up.

So, that's why I haven't been posting on my personal blog lately. This project has taken an enormous amount of my time and mental space, more than I would have imagined at the outset. And do we have a large following yet? Not really. Have we gone viral? No. Have we made a difference yet in the schools? That's unclear. Do I often feel like Don Quixote? Yes. I am at peace with the reality of my situation: This is hard work without a whole lot to show for it (yet), but this was something I needed to try — and still do.

Long live Prince George's County and the public schools therein.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pi on the piano, the first 41 digits.

When my cousin heard I was having a Pi Day party, she called me up from Missouri and suggested that we play pi as a melody. So I wrote down the first 41 digits of pi on a long piece of orange paper and played them on the piano in the key of C, where 1 corresponded to middle C, 2 corresponded to D, and so on. (Zero became the highest note, an E.) In the left hand, I added chords and arpeggios. I was surprised at how melodic the random sequence of notes sounded when I added rhythm and accompaniment.

Here's the video, just over one minute long.