Julia Steiny: Thanks to My Sons, Who Got Me Involved in Schools


By Julia Steiny

Per tradition, this year at Thanksgiving dinner we’ll go around the table and say what we’re grateful for this year.  Likely many families do this, driven by the mom or whoever is feeling under-appreciated, or wanting to call out the brats for being spoiled.

Giving thanks is a fabulous habit.  It’s as proactively healthy as brushing your teeth or exercising.  Therapists recommend it for battling bad moods and minor depressions.  C’mon, what was lovely for you this year?  Be positive.  Whatever your troubles at the moment, what stands out as a bright spot in your life?

My sons have long refused to participate in the other home-grown traditions of their younger lives.  But circling up at Thanksgiving has persisted even through teenage eye-rolling and despite the superior attitudes my now-grown sons can occasionally adopt towards Mom.  Hearing a personal thought from everyone — young, old and middling, be it earnest, snarky or frank — is a fundamental restorative practice.  What I now call a circle began decades ago.  Who knew what was to come?

My kids got me into education, and later Restorative Practices.

I did get some fancy degrees early on when I was training for life as an artist.  My father would say I was a crashing failure at it.  True, trying to become a playwright/director/dramaturge was a tough nickel.  And most of the handful who do make money at it don’t make much.  Of course motherhood doesn’t pay a dime.  And on its bad days it gives new meaning to thankless.

Still, being a mom, and only that credential, opened a door for me into an Alice’s wonderland of school politics.  Through an insane fluke years ago, I was appointed to the Providence School Board.  My twins were in kindergarten.  It was the year the infamous Buddy Cianci took office as Mayor for the second time.  He later went to prison on RICO charges (racketeering).  But he was hardly the only one playing fast-and-loose with the resources intended for the City’s public education system.

I was appointed by the previous lame-duck Mayor, whom I thought I’d impressed with my vast reading about schools, and most specifically my understanding of the Providence teachers contract, which I’d studied with a group of parents.  Eventually I realized I’d only been appointed to be a mild pain in the butt to the new Mayor.  School Boards and Committees are often stepping stones to more prestigious political offices, so mere moms are generally just place-holders.  I was a political nobody, a rank novice who would be deservedly ignored.  Limp handshakes were all the welcome I got at my first meeting.  The School Board secretary pulled me aside and gave me a great piece of advice I’ll pass on to you:  “Shut up for six months until you know where you are.”  And I did.  I watched and learned.

I learned that the System wasn’t very concerned about kids.

Yes, some people on the Board were well meaning.  But they were afraid to speak up or felt paralyzed by the brick walls of regulations, laws and contract provisions.  Most painful was realizing that adults were collecting gobs of taxpayer money and passing it around to one another.  I was blown away.  Winning and losing political clout seemed the principal purpose of the educational bureaucracy.  We virtually never discussed students, except for those who needed us to vote to expel them.  The kids were getting a super-raw deal.

Rather suddenly my phone was ringing itself off the hook.  Can you get my kid a bus pass?  They keep saying she’s eligible, but I don’t have a car and the pass never comes.  Or: My kid’s Spanish class has no textbooks.  The teacher speaks little English, so the students are lost.  And this was common:  My kid had a great teacher — young, energetic, enthused.  But that teacher got “bumped” out by a more senior teacher, who for some reason had the right to take that position.  The new teacher is wasting my kid’s time, but the administration tells me that there is nothing they can do.

And oh, by the way, most of the students are low-income and kids of color.  My own kids had their struggles, learning alongside the rest of the public school kids.  But their problems were a window into some of their pals’ far more serious issues.  In time I had no choice but to do everything I could to make a difference in those kids’ lives.  I can’t say I’ve been terribly successful, but giving it my all every day has been a healthy, if sometimes frustrating habit.

I never would have taken up the task if my boys hadn’t put me on the path.  Who knows what I’ll say during the go-round on the night of Thanksgiving?  But in the spirit of giving thanks, here’s to Soren, Nick and Felix — and Conrad, their dad.  They don’t need me any more, except as a sounding board and dinner companion.  But oh did I need them.  So, thanks.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny