The Backstory: That Time I Tried Out For Jeopardy

Sitting here in Alexandria watching fat snowflakes float lazily past the windows, I thought of my first-ever trip to the DC area.

It was in the summer leading up to my senior year of high school that I sat on the couch watching Teen Jeopardy! and thought to myself, “I could do this.”

Indeed, and there’s no point denying it, I have been 100% a nerd for pretty much my entire life.  I have always read voraciously, loved school, sat near the front row, aced tests, and watched public television.  Jeopardy! became the show that occupied my 7:30-8:00 TV viewing slot as soon as I was old enough to realize that there are people in the world who get paid for raising their hands faster than anyone else because they knew a bunch of stuff.  My tribe  lol

So when I saw at the end of the week of Teen Jeopardy the invitation to audition, I sent in my postcard and figured nothing would come of it.

But then I got the letter:  Come to Washington, D.C., it said.  You’ve been invited to the tryouts, it said.

My dad went around telling everyone who would listen.  My mom started freaking out a little about how we would get to D.C.  You gotta understand, we weren’t a traveling family.  I loved going places and seeing things, but I did most of it through school. (God bless teachers.)  D.C. was going to be a 5 hour drive (what?!) into a giant city (OMG!).  My mom got car sick anytime she wasn’t the one driving, and she abhorred big city traffic, lane changes, or pumping her own gasoline. (Hey, PA was the land of plenty, where gas station attendants waited at beck and call to keep drivers from having to smell like gasoline.)

Salvation came in the form of Suzanne, one of my mom’s coworkers.  Not only was she happy to go on adventures, she had a friend near DC who worked at Andrew’s Air Force Base.  I think he might have been a chaplain’s assistant, but I can’t remember.  In fact, about the only thing I remember is that his name was John, and he and Suzanne seemed *really* friendly.  And he was a nice guy.

Thus, in a cold November, I found myself in the back seat of a car headed to DC for a weekend.  I was missing two days of school (the tryout was on Friday) – also extremely rare. So this was 1000% exciting.


The Jeopardy! tryout consisted of meeting in a room with about 30 other high schoolers to take a multiple choice test.  Alex Trebek was there afterward to talk about the show & the process while we waited for the tests to be graded. I don’t remember the bar for passing; I think it was 80% correct.  An assistant came into the room and called seven names to advance to the real tryouts.

Alex stood at a makeshift podium while the assistant handed us a bell (like the ones you ring at a counter for service) and explained we would play a mock round of Jeopardy, 3 people at a time.  If you knew the answer, “ring in” and follow the “What is…..” format of the show.  It was nervewracking, I’ll be honest.  I’m sure they were looking at this point for poise, personality, charisma.  I did ok; my stage experience at that point in my life was nearly non-existent, so I was quickly given a thank-you and shown the door.

But it was cool. 🙂

With that out of the way, the 4 of us had time to explore the city.  John took us onto Andrews AFB — there was extra security at the gate because George HW Bush was there playing golf!  We drove up to the clubhouse where several black SUVs lined the drive, surrounded by bored Secret Service agents.  I got my photo taken with one of them.  He was quite friendly.  I’ll have to scan my photos & upload them sometime.

We attended the Protestant serviced at Andrews on Sunday morning, one of my first glimpses into a world of Christianity that wasn’t defined by separatism.

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

This trip also marked my first visit to the Smithsonian — that occupied the bulk of Saturday.  I think I wore out the adults in the group.  My goal was to hit as many of the museums on the Mall as I could.  We made it through an art gallery, the Castle, the American History museum (parts of it), and Air & Space.  Truly, Air & Space was the absolute highlight.  I had inherited my dad’s love of all things flight plus developed a devotion for space exploration and science fiction.  Mind-blowing.

We fit in a few landmarks too – I saw the Vietnam Wall for the first time on that trip, where my mom paused to look up the name of someone she knew in our hometown.  We did a rubbing of his name and took some photos to take back to his mom, who had probably never been to DC to see her son’s name memorialized on the wall.

Alexandria.  The Old Town is famous for its brick streets, old buildings, and quaint shops and architecture.  I’ve been there several times since then (and I’m typing this post from an apartment only a few miles away) but I’ve never found it as magical as that first time when the lights were twinkling on the streets as we crossed the drawbridge into the historic district.

Travel is mind-expanding.  It’s funny to me now to see myself as a kid with little experience beyond the narrow confines of Western Pennsylvania, but that’s where I got my start.  I’m thankful for all of the adults who threw me in their car and took me places – near and far – because I can’t imagine living a life without those opportunities to see that the world was bigger than I ever imagined.

My “Backstory” series collects a variety of stories from my formative years. You can find them all under the category “Biography.”

Link & Rant: “Your children deserve better than this” (Washington Post)

An excellent open letter by two outstanding 1st grade teachers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, defending their decision to stop giving two of the state-mandated assessments to their students.

This is one of the most concise, understandable, realistic explanations of the “on the ground” effects of high-stakes testing on the classroom environment.  The drive to assess! test! measure! quantify! is driving excellent teachers from the classroom who cannot, in good conscience, grind their students down under practices like this.

If you care at all about the education system, whether you have kids in the public schools or not, I urge you to read this, do your own research, and start making some noise.
–Send a copy to your legislators (both state and federal).
–Call the school board members for your district and encourage them to lobby for change at the district and state levels.
–Support teachers in your area who choose to buck the high-stakes testing pressures. They could lose their jobs, but with vocal parent support, they have a chance.
–Insist that your state pay teachers well.  This is a profession that demands a master’s degree, a high level of skill and training, and countless hours of work.  When school is out, teachers are still working. Reward good teachers.

Kids feel like school is a prison.  We aren’t creating 21st century innovators and critical thinkers; we’re destroying kids’ will to learn by testing them to death. We’re reducing teachers to mindless drones, stripped of any autonomy or professional standing.

OK, I’ll stop ranting. Seriously though — read the entire piece not just my excerpt (it’s not long) and then DO something.

We understand the need for assessments. We want to progress monitor our students in order to meet their differentiated teaching needs. We value data. However, we went to college for an understanding on how to do this. We both build in-depth, all-encompassing portfolios that are a TRUE picture of the growth of our students. These portfolios do not just show math and literacy, they also show growth in cognitive development, writing, understandings of every state standard, art, identity of self, science, social studies, social-emotional development, and more. We do these portfolios so that we can have an accurate measure of each child across every domain. We have authentic assessments, off-the-shelf scholarly assessments, summative assessments, and formative assessments; all of which are paired with some sort of work sample or media documentation. Believe us, we know where our students are.

via Your children deserve better than this, first-grade teachers tell parents – The Washington Post.

Cross-posted to Teaching Redemptively

Pimiento Cheese Enchiladas

People.  Stop everything and make this for supper tonight or tomorrow or whenever you need a fast and tasty meal.  The household invented this on Sunday when we realized we had 1) excellent pimiento cheese (handmade by GiGi’s Gourmet); 2) leftover roasted chicken; 3) half of an onion that I found on the kitchen table; and 4) a bottle of Trader Joe’s enchiladas sauce.

Sent the husband to the store to pick up a) 8″ round tortillas; b) a container of ricotta cheese; c) some shredded cheese.

To make this:

MMMM. Cheesy bubbly goodness.
MMMM. Cheesy bubbly goodness.

You do this:

  • 8 oz high quality, preferably homemade pimiento cheese
  • 8 oz ricotta cheese
  • 1-2 cups shredded cooked (leftover) chicken
  • ½ of an onion, sliced into half-rounds
  • fajita seasoning or your fav Tex-Mex seasoning
  • 8 large tortillas
  • 1 bottle of enchilada sauce
  • 1 cup shredded cheese – whatever you have

To prepare:

  1. Preheat oven to 375.  Spray a 9×13 or 10×14 glass dish with cooking spray for your own sanity afterward.
  2. Pour just a little enchilada sauce in the bottom of the pan and swirl around. For flavor.
  3. In a bowl, mix the pimiento cheese and the ricotta cheese together so it’s light and fluffy.
  4. In a small skillet, sautee the sliced onion in a little butter until it’s golden brown.  Throw in the chicken and some fajita seasoning and heat through while you’re doing steps 1-3.
  5. Prepare your enchilada making station: A flat surface for rolling, plus a stack of tortillas, the chicken & onion mixture, and the cheese mixture.
  6. Spread each tortilla with a couple tablespoons of the pimiento cheese mixture then add a couple tablespoons of chicken and onion.  Roll and place seam-side-down in baking dish.
  7. Top the enchiladas with the rest of the enchilada sauce.  Then top that with the cup of shredded cheese.
  8. Bake at 375 for about 20min or until the cheese on top is bubbly and golden brown and everything is really hot.  If the cheese browns too fast, cover with foil (I accidentally added the cheese halfway through so maybe you should do that.)




Work, Moms, Families, ‘Merica, and The Dream

I realized while writing that last post: the rabbit trail I wanted to take would turn that post into a monster.  So here’s a coda of sorts.

America’s work/life balance seems is broken. This is not really a revelation; people have been writing about it, like here (Slate) and here (The Atlantic).

Women who work “outside the home” tell us they suffer tremendous guilt (or suppress the guilt), perhaps because the dominant message in both sacred and secular society is that the successful woman is a Pinterest mother, crafting perfect sandwiches for her offspring from the sanctity of a spotless home.  She runs taxi for all the soccer games and school field trips in a sparkling tan SUV that runs on a hybrid engine (caring for the environment!)

And to the extent that work gets in the way of the Pinterest dream, work is a villain for the working American mom.

We Americans seem unable to find any way for a woman to be both a flourishing human being (a doctor, a pharmacist, a hairdresser) and also be fully a mother without having to blend those into a shadowy compromise, a failure to live up to either set of impossible standards.

Corporate / Working America runs on consumerism – the economy must grow! grow! grow! so people must spend! spend! spend! And that demands work! work! work! so we can earn! earn! earn!    I am tired just thinking about it.  So we work to earn to spend so the economy can grow, and that work eats 40-50 hours of our lives because Americans work more than nearly anyone else in the world; we take fewer vacation days; we offer very little in the way of family leave to actually give both men and women breathing room to achieve a balance of life and work.

Research tells us that men are likewise frustrated at the vice-grip of trying to balance work and family.   Working moms get all the press, but the dads can’t even talk about it.  American companies rarely offer paternity or family leave for new fathers, and the struggle for a dad to balance his work life with his children doesn’t get much better from there on — even if his wife is staying home.

Our national view of parenting seems to be broken too, at least for some middle-class families.  It’s possible to smother kids with too much love, to clutch so tightly that it’s not possible to let kids go.  We’ve taken all of the risks out of living (or attempted to), reigning in kids’ freedoms so that no kid ever seems to be alone ever – and certainly never out of line of sight. But kids need freedom to develop creativity, problem-solving, and independence.

Colleges are telling us that “helicopter parents” are worse than ever. Some have appointed “parent bouncers” to force parents to leave their kids behind and get off campus on Move-in Day.  It’s like we Gen-X’rs had such a great time in college that we insist on living our lives again, vicariously, through our children.

One of the most interesting books I read in the last couple years was Bringing Up BéBé (Amazon link), written by a woman who moved to Paris with her husband and their toddler. The French women around Druckerman weren’t obsessed with their children. Their homes weren’t child-centric.  The tiny preschools down the street were ready to accept the wee ones around the six to nine month mark, and the mothers returned to being people first, and mothers second. They were far happier, far more fulfilled, far more successful in their marriages, far better parents (as evidenced by the happiness & behavior of their children).

The French mindset of making children part of life rather than the center of life paid big dividends in the parents’ and children’s lives. And their educated, capable men AND women were able to pursue gainful work if they chose.

Agree or disagree with Druckerman, it’s at least worth considering.

And here’s where I’m going to get in trouble:  🙂   It would help if the dominant voices in Christianity were not preaching that SAHM’s were the closest to the Kingdom.  Even if it’s not spoken aloud, it’s certainly a deep undercurrent in the religious traditions that have shaped my life — all of them.  Working women are appreciated and supported and occasionally pitied yet the homemaker is the fairest of them all.  Eventually, the argument reaches its natural conclusion – that the women who matter the most to the Kingdom are those who have raised children.  That perspective marginalizes a lot of women. (Rachel Held Evans has an excellent post on why the Church can and should support “breadwinning” wives, one that addresses several of these thoughts better than I have.)

So what took me down this deep rabbit hole of thought?
Just the recognition that we Americans have built our own cage – our working lives and family lives are in conflict because the system  for earning what we need to live (whether that’s a realistic measurement or driven by capitalist greed) is forcing us into decisions that shouldn’t have to be so gut-wrenching, guilt-ridden, and exhausting.

Gender and Calling: A few thoughts

Yesterday I wandered around in the not-all-that-brilliant observation that I can’t really get a grasp on my own calling (what I’m supposed to be doing on this planet, my personal mission statement, whatever you want to call it) without viewing that very question from within the complex network of relationships that surround my life.

We all draw circles of influence and relationship in our lives—often including spouse, parent, and employee (or perhaps entrepreneur).

And for me, as a woman within conservative Christianity living in America, that means I haven’t had an independent sense of my calling in life. It’s always been a calling alongside.

Let me hasten to clarify: I’m not complaining or unhappy with the alongside-ness of my calling. But I do want to pause to recognize what that means for me:

1. Because my calling has for the past couple decades been inextricably linked to my husband’s, I don’t plan clear, guiding goals for future accomplishments in my life and work (more than a year or so down the road).

I’ve never felt the pull toward the FUTURE the way Coart does.  Perhaps that’s a part of my personality – that I’m totally happy living “in the moment” – but that doesn’t match the way I view milestones at work: starting the new year, dreaming up a new project, thinking “what if we did this next year…..” is actually very energizing for me.

But I don’t seem to develop those same questions or daydreams about my work as a whole.  I don’t spend much time considering questions like “What if I started a company to ……?” “Should I be writing a book about …..?” “What big problem or need in the world would benefit from my skills and experience?”

2. Because my calling is alongside, I don’t pursue opportunities that would launch their own trajectory that could radically depart from Coart’s.

For example, I’m not pursuing any job openings right for any reason since he’s finishing a PhD within 18 months, and his future employment will make all the difference in where I end up living and working.

[Again, I’m not complaining AT ALL, especially since Coart has always been very conscious of what is best for the two of us together, not just me. And he’d be happy for me to launch something new.  And he provokes me to be a better version of myself (far better) than I would be on my own – more thoughtful, more analytic, more caring, more capable. I expect that he’s more disappointed at my vocational myopia than I am.]

3. And then there’s the really big one ….  Parenting.  Knowing that childrearing totally up-ends the apple cart of a woman’s career planning has had a profound effect on the way I “imagine” my life’s work and calling — and that has been true since the day I got married.

We don’t have kids (yet) but we both want to raise children. I assume kids will work their way into our lives sometime in the next few years.  We both want that.

I don’t plan for the future because, as a woman, I feel like I have very little control over what my future circumstances will be. 

And that plays out in a variety of ways, including this:

I know what I’m good at: provoking people to flourish as better versions of themselves (usually intellectually, sometimes spiritually).

But I can’t really tell you how that’s going to play out in the world as a whole, because I can’t lay much claim to controlling the context in which I do and will work.

And that, my friends, is kind of frustrating, honestly.