Suspensions Really Aren’t Good for Anyone

an empty old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse with light shining throuhg a window on one desk

A report, an email, and a public comment to the Iowa City Community School District

A little while ago, the Iowa City Mental Health, Special Education, and Disability Advocacy Group released a report on the disproportionate number of elementary school suspensions handed out to Black, poor, and disabled students.

I believe in statistics, but I’m not very good at them, so I wrote an email to the school board noting that if you kick kids out of school, there’s the logistical problem of where they go:


To the Board:

For fifteen years I worked as a public librarian in Illinois, Wyoming, and Iowa. In every place I worked, there were invariably kids hanging out in the library, all day, during the school year, on days when there was school. While libraries embrace and welcome children, they aren’t equipped to provide all the things a six or eight or ten year old needs for a full day, and thus they’re left scrambling to see what they can do.

In all that time, I never really knew why the kids were there. It is only recently that I learned that kids as young as grade school can be—and are—suspended from school. And, as the research done by the Iowa City Mental Health, Special Education, and Disability Advocacy Group makes clear, the children most affected by such suspensions (or exclusionary discipline, to use the technical term) are those already often underserved by our society: Black kids, special needs kids, and kids living in poverty. 

Librarian Jessamyn West often notes that “The hardest to serve are the hardest to serve.” I would never deny the difficulty of teaching and working with youth, but whether the difficulties are caused by special needs or simply the result of implicit bias that causes us to attribute fault and “difficult behavior” to people who don’t look like us, the solution is not to remove the “problem”—the problem is when we decide that some kids deserve an education and some do not.

I conclude, as ever, with this excerpt from John Dewey that has been my guiding light as a parent and as a citizen: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”

In the name of our community and our democracy, I call upon the ICCSD to end exclusionary discipline in elementary schools.


Laura Crossett

Public Comment

Now and again I like to enjoy the special form of democracy/torture that is a public school board meeting. Here is the statement I made, which you can watch if you want.

The dark. White men with beards. Fire at night. Being alone. That your mother would die. That you’d be in trouble at school. That you’d get beaten at home for being in trouble at school. Tornadoes. Being shut in a small hot dark space. That your parents would split up. That your parents would get back together. Cops. Blood. Laundromats. Being away from home. Aquariums. Nuclear war. Dogs. That the car you were riding in would go out of control. Shadows.* 

Close your eyes for a moment, if you can, and think back to when you were a child. What was the most frightening thing in the world—whether it happened to you directly, or you read about it in a book or saw it in a movie, or whether you imagined it. Think back to that fear. Feel it. Now imagine that it’s happening—or something like it. What do you do?

I always tell my kid that the back part of your brain is where you go first when that fear strikes, and it tells you to fight or to run away every time it encounters a monster, or what it thinks is a monster. Part of the process of growing up is learning which things are monsters and which aren’t, and part of it is teaching the front part of your brain not to run away or to hit and kick, because for the most part, these monsters aren’t real.

Except that they are, in that moment, when you’re having that visceral reaction. And if that visceral reaction is fight, it can get you in a lot of trouble.

We’ve given you a lot of statistics to look at, and I know you have—or I hope you have—learned something about implicit bias in the past few years, if you aren’t already someone who is the target of it. But behind each statistic in that report is a kid, a kid with an entire life story that we can’t get from demographics. Every time we kick one of those kids out of school for the day, they miss out on an education—but so do we.

*Every fear on this list was specifically listed by friends and family as the thing they most feared growing up.

An Open Letter to Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds

Depression era woman holding a toddler in her lap
Estherville, Iowa. Wife of Homer Sharer and one of their five children. The Sherers are former tenant farmers and hired hands, now living on unemployment relief. Photo by Russell Lee, 1936, from the Library of Congress.

Dear Governor Reynolds:

It is my understanding that you have decided to discontinue additional federal unemployment payments to Iowans who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic because you want people to get back to work. As one of those Iowans, I’m writing to you because I would very much like to go back to work, but I’m having some difficulty figuring out how I might do so. I have a child who suffers from significant mental illness. As I know both mental health services and childcare are both interests of yours, I thought perhaps you might have some advice.

Five days after I was laid off from my job, my then eight-year-old son was transported to the ER by the police and then admitted to the children’s psychiatric ward for a ten-day stay. Upon his discharge, there were no follow up plans for his care other than the same (now remote) visits he had had with his psychiatrist and therapist. His psychiatrist found a partial day treatment program for children which met for 2.5 hours a day and was a 40 minute drive from our house. I applied and was placed on the waitlist. We got a spot in the program shortly after the derecho. Less than half an hour into the day the second day, as I was driving aimlessly around Cedar Rapids—between the pandemic and the storm, there was nowhere to go to spend the hours my son was at partial day treatment, I got a call that my son had tried to escape and they didn’t know what to do. So that was that for that program.

I was in many ways lucky: with the help of our school’s student-family advocate, I applied and was approved for Medicaid for both of us, which meant that we were finally able to get services including BHIS (behavioral home intervention services), which I’d tried to get years ago but had not been eligible to receive, even if I was willing to pay $180/hour out of pocket, and a care coordinator (variously called a PIH or an IHH or something else depending on the agency you use).

Unfortunately, most of these services have waiting lists, too, and by the time we got a spot, my son had already spent another week in the hospital.

His school has bent over backward to provide accommodations and to help in any way they can, and I have nothing but good things to say about the staff there, particularly our principal and all the special education staff.

But services are one thing: a child willing to cooperate with those services is another. A psychiatrist can prescribe every medication under the sun, but none of them help if you don’t take them. It takes me an hour to an hour a half per day to get my son to swallow one pill. My son is prescribed six pills per day. I could easily spend a full workday just getting him to take medication.

Similarly, his therapist and BHIS provider can go above and beyond to attempt to engage him in therapy, but no one can keep him from hanging up on the Zoom call or refusing to engage with the provider who comes to our house.

His school can offer every IEP intervention and accommodation known to special education, plus a few new ones, but they cannot make him go to school, either in person or online. And neither, I am afraid, can I—he’s much too heavy for me to carry, and he does not respond to threats or bribes (neither of which is a terribly effective method of getting people to do anything, or so I have gathered from both the psychology classes I have taken and from life experience).

Getting a job outside the house would thus require reliable childcare, which costs $15/hour in the area where I live. Taking a job that pays less than that is not an effective money-management strategy, and getting a professional job of the sort I used to have would be difficult, given the number of appointments my son has each week—although of course with the kind of pay I once had, we would lose Medicaid and thus lose at least half those appointments—and any job I got would require an employer flexible enough to allow me the time to get my son to all those appointments, regardless of their location.

Working remotely sounds like a better solution, but many remote jobs require that you be able to work from a space in your house that is free from interruption. I do not have such a space in my house. While I might be able to create one, using it would again require childcare, as someone would need to be on hand to answer to the needs and demands of a child who is not very self-sufficient.

There are remote jobs that can be done on one’s own schedule, but I have found it difficult to concentrate on content writing or call evaluation while dealing with near-constant interruptions. I suppose the answer is that I should get up at 3 am each day to work and let my child sleep in as late as possible—a tempting idea at times, but not one that would get me enough sleep or be good for him.

So given that my child will not go to school, will not take medication for ADHD or anxiety, will not attend therapy or other intervention services to learn skills to deal with his difficulties, and will thus not stop taking his anger and anxiety and frustration and fear out on me—and that half the services he receives are dependent on my earning less than $23,000 a year—I am wondering what kind of job you would suggest I might pursue, or that other Iowans in my place might? For I am hardly the only one facing the circumstances I do: the difference mainly is that I am much luckier than most. I have savings; I have very little debt; and I have family who would likely help me out.

But many Iowans are not so lucky. I am sure that, absent the money they might now be receiving from additional pandemic unemployment funds and the gutting of the Iowa Workforce Development system over the past decade, they, too, would appreciate your help.


Laura Crossett
[address redacted]
Iowa City, IA 52240

Journal of the Plague No. 14: Black Lives Matter. Black lives matter, too.

My neighborhood is rife with Black Lives Matter signs—homemade ones, ones made by the local high school and various local churches, premade ones ordered by neighbors and friends—and has been since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

Of course, my neighborhood is also the sort of place where people have only starting grudgingly putting out Biden signs in the last few weeks, and where plenty of people still have their Bernie and Warren signs up (plus a Kamala Harris one that shares space with a Warren sign down the street from me) from the caucuses that happened a lifetime ago. We are Precinct 14, baby, and don’t mess with our voting record, you Precinct 18 Longfellow snobs who are only a couple of points ahead of us.

I say that, and then I think about how none of these signs are up in my yard. Partly that’s just sheer laziness—I’ve got old political signs in the garage that could be repurposed—partly it’s pandemic indecision (is it okay to go to the store to buy sign making materials, or am I needlessly endangering myself and others?), and partly it’s my usual White Liberal (TM) unease.

I know (from seeing the house’s residents) that one of the signs is in the yard of a Black family, but the rest of the signs that I know of (more than half, I’d guess) are in the yards of white people. That’s hardly surprising—I live in a fairly white city in a very white state, and while our school is integrated by local standards, the students of color live primarily in a neighborhood a short bus ride away. Historically, parts of the neighborhood where I live were even designated white, and some conventions die hard.

I don’t—and can’t—speak for Black Lives Matter, the movement, which I believe to be about, among other things, the historic and current state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies: Say Their Names, the signs and marchers say, because so many of their names have been forgotten or were never known. Can you name a person who was lynched? Maybe, if you study the subject, but probably not. But I do think a lot about the ways in which Black lives matter while Black people are still alive.

I still think about the Urban League study done in Chicago (I haven’t yet been able to track down the study itself or the story I wrote about it for Third Coast Press but will provide a link when I can) that found that more qualified Black candidates were passed over for less qualified white ones, repeatedly and consistently. That was true whether they showed up for in-person interviews or whether they merely sent in resumes with “Black” names and addresses.

I still think about the New York Times Magazine story I read about Black maternal mortality rates, which cross economic boundaries, and which, in the absence of any any physical explanation, are thought to be caused by racism itself—“wearing,” they call it in the article—the constant feeling of having to be on guard, of being followed in stores, of having white people cross the street when they see you, of being overlooked—not to mention the very real toll of worrying about your sons and husbands and male friends and family day and night.

I don’t know what, if any, impact putting a sign in your yard has against all of that. I do know that on Saturday when I drove to a small town an hour or so northeast of here, I stopped seeing Black Lives Matter (and, for that matter, “we’re in this together”-type COVID signs) the moment I left the city limits, though I saw signs for both Democratic and Republican candidates in about equal measure.

These days when I walk the dog, I’ve been slowly rewriting the lyrics of Phil Ochs’s classic “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” for the present moment. “I cried when they killed George Floyd/Tears ran down my spine/And I cried when they shot Philandro/As though I’d lost a brother of mine/But you protesters got what was coming/You got what you asked for this time/So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal,” mine starts. Other than updating some references and language, though, I keep realizing it doesn’t need much rewriting. “If you ask me to bus my children, I hope the cops take down your name” could be said just as easily by the white moderate today as it was in 1965, at least to judge by the number of coded conversations I read on school and “mama” discussions groups on Facebook.

I started this post days ago. In the meantime, at least one more Black man has been shot by police.* I just now read reports of multiple Black Lives Matter signs shot full of bullet holes in my town, though none I know of in my neighborhood. I do not know how to count how many Black people have been rejected for jobs or housing, how many have been followed in stores, how many have received subpar medical care, how many junior high girls have been disciplined for dress code infractions (hint: it’s a disproportionately higher number than for white girls, at least in data collected from the school district here a few years back), or how many Black kids have entered the juvenile justice system.

Some of those numbers we can track; others we’ll have no way of ever knowing. I was able to attend a chunk of an implicit bias training my city offered last week before childcare duties took over, and among other things the presenter showed was a non-fatal but still consequential traffic stop wherein two young Black men in a rental car were stopped and arrested on the unfounded suspicion that the car was stolen and that they had drugs in it. It’s appalling, but then so is the story a friend once told me of her workplace (one of those much lauded small local businesses) wherein a Black man came in with resume and, the moment he left, the boss tore it up with a remark I won’t repeat.

I hope we—and by we here I mean white people—can start thinking about the ways Black lives matter in our own lives. Most of us aren’t cops and never will be; most of us don’t carry guns. We don’t carry fountain pens much anymore, either, but Woody Guthrie had it right—“Some’ll rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.” That pen (or the trash can where that resume landed, or the Black woman getting followed around the store, are often just as harmful as a bullet.

*That Walter Wallace’s family had called for an ambulance to get him to the hospital for help and then the police showed up instead is particularly horrifying to those of us who have gone through such calls ourselves. The Utah teenager who was shot after his mother called for an ambulance is not a story I should have read on the first days of school, but it’s one that caused many people I know to wonder if he only came out alive because he is white. The Washington Post keeps data on fatal shootings; mental health status is among the leading causes.

Journal of the Plague No. 10: Commencement

From the official Grinnell student newspaper, the Scarlet & Black, May 15, 1970. My apologies to the photographer, who is not identified, for not giving them credit.

Fifty years ago today, Grinnell College, like most colleges and universities across the United States, was closed in the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State. When Grinnell announced in March that it would be closing the campus after spring break, I wrote to the archivist there to confirm that 1970 was the last time the school had closed before the end of the academic year. It was, he said, and still a sore point that they hadn’t gotten a commencement until their 20th reunion—and likely to worsen, as there was a good chance their 50th reunion would be canceled as well—as has indeed come to pass.

My heart goes out to them, and to the class of 2020. If I was raised on anything, it was the sacredness of academia. I was too young to attend my mother’s PhD graduation, I clearly recall her MD graduation some years later, sitting in the balcony at Hancher Auditorium with my whole family, who had come from Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Illinois to watch my mother cross a stage, receive another diploma, and become yet another kind of doctor. A few years after that, we all gathered in Ohio for my cousin Felicity’s law school graduation. To this day, if you invite me to your graduation and I can make it, I will—I prefer them to weddings, baptisms, and almost any other civic or religious ceremony marking a rite of passage I can think of. I recognize that my fondness for commencements is a peculiarity of mine, but I think it has a reason.

As pictured above, although Grinnell did not have a formal or real commencement in 1970, my father (in perhaps his final act on the campus) and three other professors, including his good friend Hip Apostle, a math and philosophy professor who dedicated his free time to translating the works of Aristotle with a consistent English vocabulary, held a symbolic commencement for the few students left on campus who wished to attend. They even got the notoriously stingy campus bookstore owner to get them some caps and gowns. My dad is the one in the paler colored gown up above—Harvard, in its pretentiousness, makes its PhD gowns in a dark red color (crimson, no doubt).

There are no real parallels between 1970 and the present aside from the closing of campuses and the general sense of paranoia and doom (I should note that I was not alive in 1970, but I have read so much about that era, and talked to so many people about it, that I often start to feel that I was, though I wasn’t born till the last American troops left Vietnam five years later.) But this photo of the symbolic commencement at Grinnell has nonetheless been haunting my mind these past two months, ever since Grinnell was the first college in Iowa, and one of the first in the country, to shut down its campus.

A year before, in April 1969, my father, already a notorious and not always popular figure on the Grinnell campus, became briefly famous statewide for what we call the flagpole incident. I’ve written extensively* about the history of those days, but in short, a group of students turned the American flag on campus upside down as a protest against the Vietnam War and, after it was righted (and turned upside down and righted again—leading to the excellent Scarlet & Black headline “Flag flip flops, flap follows”), my father held a vigil beneath the flagpole for several days to prevent anyone from turning it upside down again, an action that made the front page of the Des Moines Register and led to a job offer at Cornell College, where my father taught for the remaining eleven years of his life.

The flagpole incident, as we call it, is so well known to this day that last summer, in the Before Times, my son and I were at the Farmers Market in Iowa City, and he was wearing a Grinnell tshirt. “I like your shirt!” a young woman yelled over at us. “Thanks!” I said. “My mom went there and my dad taught there.”

“What was your dad’s name?” she asked. “Oh, this was a million years ago,” I said, “but he was sort of well-known—John Crossett.”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I grew up there, went to school there, know all about.” And this was forty-nine years since the man taught there.

At the same time, though, I still get emails regularly from people who tell me my father was the best teacher they ever had. “He really taught me how to write,” said one I got just a few weeks ago.

My father began his teaching career in 1958 at Hamilton College in New York state, continued it briefly at Parsons College here in Iowa, then went to Grinnell from 1962-1970 and then to Cornell College from 1970 to his death in 1981. He was a conservative who taught through some of the biggest upheavals in academia and in the world, and yet despite his difficulties is still remembered by innumerable students today. My hope for the class of 2020–and for all of those studying at this time—is that you, too will find a teacher like that—one willing, as my father was, to keep the spirit and ritual of education alive even when the circumstances, be they fear of riots or of global pandemic, alive.

*See the title essay in my MFA thesis if you are really curious.

Journal of the Plague No. 7: Poetry

Photo of lavender and white asphodel flowers against a green field with rocks
“Asphodels. Asphodelus aestivus” by gailhampshire is licensed under CC BY 2.0

poetry makes nothing happen

W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

Many years ago I went to what I like to refer to as the unfamous writing program at Iowa, but I hung out with a fair number of poets from the famous one, and both in and out of seminars, the Auden vs. Williams argument was perpetual. Does poetry make nothing happen? Or is it the thing that prevents us from dying?

Passionate arguments were made on each side, by people who themselves were spending two years of their lives doing nothing but reading and writing poetry (and drinking, smoking, staying up too late, getting involved in ill-advised relationships, and the other things one does in graduate school, although sometimes with good reason—I remember a friend telling me he’d left a workshop, gotten in his car, and driven halfway across Nebraska because he was so upset, which seemed like a perfectly natural reaction at the time).

When I applied to a writing program, I thought I’d be solidly in the men die miserably every day camp. I hated my limited experiences of the working world and wanted nothing more than to go back to a life where reading and writing were valued above all else.

Then, of course, just before I started graduate school, I got involved in Students Against Sweatshops. That summer I sent my union membership card back in the mail the moment I got it. (That year’s vice-president later told me he said, “We got a card back already!” in great excitement, and then the president looked at it and said, “Oh, it’s just Laura.”) By the time I sat down to read and discuss Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, it was hard for me not to scream “great writer and all, but he was on the wrong damned side of the revolution,” because regardless of where the revolution ended up, I couldn’t imagine not joining it at the time.

I tended, then, in these arguments, to come down on the Auden side: poetry makes nothing happen.

No side ever won, as I remember it, though these memories are distant, and based on too many nights of bad beer and secondhand smoke and too many drafty classrooms the next afternoon, marginally hungover and trying to impress everyone.

I never in my life imagined a time when I’d stop reading, but other than the book discussion books I read for work, I’ve barely read more than two pages together in the last month. Books are hard to come by for many people right now, especially if you lack money, internet, or an ability to read ebooks (confession: I hate ebooks) and you don’t have hundreds of them lying around on shelves in your house, many of them unread or worth rereading, as I do.

But as one of my coworkers noted today and as readers advisory experts have counseled for years, reading isn’t just about access: you have to be in the mood to read a particular book, and nothing seems quite relevant or right at the moment. In the weeks after 9/11–and trying to stop another war is another thing I did not have in mind when I applied to graduate school—I mostly lay on my sofa and listened to the radio (and swore at NPR for being such freaking nationalists) and read the hundreds of emails pouring in from the listservs I was on locally and around the country.

We didn’t stop the war—in fact, it continues to this day. We had some marginal success with SAS (and USAS continues fighting on campuses across the country to this day). And we didn’t have poetry, and I don’t know how much we had happen. But we had each other, and we had the things we said to each other, the things we repeated, and as C.S. Lewis says in another essay of his that I love, if you find a man who has read a book over and over again, no matter how bad you think the book is, you may be sure that it is for him a kind of poetry.

I am still looking for poetry that fits this pandemic, though it may not be able to end it. But I’ve come to believe we cannot win the argument—no one can. Poetry makes nothing happen, and we die miserably every day without it.

Journal of the Plague No. 5: Students Against Sweatshops 20th Reunion

Students Against Sweatshops in Jessup Hall, from UE News. I am third from the left.

Today marks the second day of the 20th anniversary of a six-day sit-in by Students Against Sweatshops in the University of Iowa administration building, Jessup Hall. We were there after a year of research, coalition building, educating, and gathering support for our three demands—1) drop out of the Fair Labor Association, an industry sponsored “monitoring” group that did pre-announced factory inspections and then certified them as “sweat free”; 2) join the Worker Rights Consortium, a real monitoring group, and 3) draft a code of conduct for UI licensees to insure that all companies producing apparel and other items bearing the UI logo were required to adhere to basic human and labor rights. We gained endorsements from everyone from the UI Student Government to the UI Center for Human Rights to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and many in between.

We achieved the first demand on the first day of the sit-in. On the sixth day, at 11:30 pm, the UI suddenly became very concerned about our health and safety, and UI police officers raided the building, chained the doors shut, and arrested anyone who refused to leave voluntarily—ultimately five of us were arrested, charged with criminal trespass, threatened with assorted university disciplinary actions, and banned from Jessup Hall for a year. A year later, we finally got the UI to release its Code of Conduct, sort of—several companies, including Nike, Champion, and Jostens, were allowed to sign a “clarified” code that stripped collective bargaining rights from the code.

Twenty years later, we are still waiting for the UI to drop out of the FLA.

We were supposed to be holding a reunion this weekend—a time to reconnect, to visit the UI Archives, where much of the history of SAS is now preserved, and to hold a public event featuring talks from UI Archivist David McCartney on the history of student activism at the UI; John McKerley of the Iowa Labor History Oral Project, who has documented much of our movement through interviews with several of us who were there; representatives from the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Hall Workers on their fight to be recognized and win fair wages and conditions for their work; an update on the wildcat strike by graduate employees at UC Santa Cruz from Michael Marchman, who organizes graduate students in Oregon; and high school students from the Iowa City Climate Strikers. We’d have had tables from current activist groups and exhibits of SAS actions past. It would have been—and someday will be—a wonderful event.

Although our focus was on the garment industry, during its time at Iowa, SAS also fought for farm workers, prison workers, steelworkers, graduate employees, coffee growers, and so many other invisible laborers who make our world possible.

COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of our event along with many others, but I decided to record the introduction I planned to give as a message to all of you out their fighting for a better world.

And she remembered to feed me, or why I love Warren

Series of photos white couple in academic regalia with a toddler.
My mom, my dad, and me at her English PhD graduation. Shortly thereafter, she started premed classes, because, she said, “I wanted to do something your father didn’t know anything about.”

I didn’t make any big endorsements this election cycle because I’m a 44 year old woman and I’m pretty sure nobody cares what I think, and I didn’get to caucus anyway, as I had to work, and I doubt it would have made a difference if I had: I correctly predicted the exact number of delegates from my precinct (4 Sanders, 4 Warren, 1 Buttigieg). But I have of course been thinking about it a lot.

Many months ago a friend of the family asked who I was backing, and I said Elizabeth Warren, in part because she is smart and thoughtful and hardworking and has sound ideas, but really also because she tells this story about how she had to potty train her daughter in five days in order to be able to go to law school, because the only daycare she could find required that children be potty trained, and, I said, that resonated with me, because it reminded me so much of what my mother had to do in order to go to medical school—she started when she was 32 and I was 3.5. Two years later my father died, and thus to continue she had to find not only childcare but overnight childcare, sometimes every fourth night for months running. And it made me think of what I’ve had to do (on a much smaller scale) to go on having a professional job a kid.

“Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he said, and I thought of course. I’d like to say I just thought that and that I didn’t yell at him about how he didn’t get what a privilege it was to be able to go to medical school and not have to do anything else, but of course I did, because I’m me.

I love Bernie Sanders and have for many years, and I love my dad, who, like Sanders, had ties to Vermont, though their similarities end there, at least politically. My mother once described my father as “making the John Birch Society look a little pink around the edges,” and I’d be hard pressed to think of a thing he and Bernie would agree on. But like Sanders, my father was beloved by many people. Even now, 39 years after his death, I hear from his former students about what an impact he had on their lives, regardless of what they want on to do, from going back to work at their family business to winning a Nobel Prize. His tough-mindedness mixed with kindness, generosity, and ongoing support is legendary. Even though he notoriously believed men were intellectually superior to women, he encouraged one former student to keep her babysitter and finish her dissertation because, he said, she was the most brilliant student he’d ever had.

That generosity of spirit, however, did not extend to his own family, or at any rate it did not extend to my mother. Once, when asked to get me up, get me dressed, get me breakfast, and get me to preschool, he did—or rather he did except for the breakfast part, which he forgot, but that was my mother’s fault. If she hadn’t been pursuing this silly medical school thing, she would have been there to give me breakfast.

I love Bernie Sanders, but I often wonder if he ever had to find childcare, and how his life and his career might have been different if he had.

Sometimes, when Sanders and Warren supporters were fighting on the internet, I’d want to go hide in my room because it felt like Mom and Dad were fighting, and indeed, I can’t think of any more apt metaphor. My father dealt with big important things in life, and they were things I care about deeply. But my mom cared about those things too and remembered to feed me.

Aside from my family, the major influence on my political upbringing were the socialists I hung out with in high school, whom I met first through the anti-war movement against the “first” Gulf War. Identity politics were one of the things they railed against the most: you should never pick someone because they were like you. And to a large extent I agree with them. I didn’t caucus for Hillary Clinton in 2008 (in Wyoming, where she and Obama were the only candidates left) or in 2016 (when I was proud to be a Bernie person). I would be thrilled to get rid of my female governor and senator in favor of just about any Democrat. But I don’t think that means you can never be for a person because they also happen to be somewhat like you.

I’m glad I was mostly distracted by digital file formats (and, of course, my kid) last night, because when I did finally look at the news, it was like watching my mom get beat up over and over and over again.

I’m mindful that the majority of white women (although none I know) voted for Trump. I don’t think I’m the only—much less most important—demographic, operating as I do from a position of great socioeconomic and white privilege. But I do mourn the losses of the only politician I’ve ever heard talk about childcare in a way that suggested she had actually experienced the difficulties of childcare, and of the way that the lack of it keeps women out of the workforce and out of public life. I have lost track of how many times I have said, “I’m sorry I can’t come to your thing because I have my kid” in the past eight years, but it might be almost as many times as I’ve said “your books are good for three weeks; your DVDs are good for one.” If I am not with my kid, it is because I am paying someone or someone is doing me a favor. And that, more than anything, is why I was a Warren person, because I think she gets that. Maybe that’s selfish of me, but surely it’s no more selfish than the billionaires for Trump.

And now I have to stop this so I can do some work for my job before I pass out, and before my kid wakes me up at 4:30 am.

A Mom

A black and white cutout of a mother and child under a flowering tree

There’s a photograph that High Country News published when Charles Bowden died of Bowden talking to Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and the reason so many of us fell in love with the West, and Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First!. There they are: three men of the West, champions of its wild spaces and untamed, unknown, untrammeled (in the lovely word from the Wilderness Act) places through their writing and their activism. Those three are in the foreground, named. But there are three other people in the picture, though you won’t see them unless you take a long glance down Abbey’s porch from the place where the three men are standing, a long glance all the way down to the end, where a woman sits on a porch swing with a baby in her lap and a toddler next to her in a stroller. The unnamed woman is Clarke Cartwright, Abbey’s fifth and final wife, and the baby and the toddler are their children, children who won’t grow up to know their father very well, for he is old already in this photo and doesn’t have many more years of his hard living life left to live. One Life at a Time, Please, one of his books is titled, but he tried to cram fifty into one.

The last time I was in Moab I saw Clarke Cartwright listed in the phone book, and when I saw the piece on Bowden and this photo, I almost looked her up and called to ask what she thought, but I didn’t, because I figure she must get nothing but phone calls about Abbey. I was surprised to see she was even in the phone book, but then everyone I have ever looked up in the phone book in Moab has been there, and I’ve never called any of them. It’s that kind of place.

A year or so later I tried to do an interview with a man who had written a book about searching for Abbey’s grave. I never did anything with it because I wasn’t happy with how it went. I asked why he hadn’t talked to any women, and he said (as I recall) that he’d talked to everyone he could find who would talk to him. That made sense and yet I was still pissed off, and I couldn’t figure out why, and because I couldn’t work out what I was angry about, I just shoved the interview transcript aside and never did anything more with it, and I started trying to write about the picture of Abbey and Bowden and Foreman and Clarke Cartwright instead.

* * *

The other day (or night—I don’t really sleep anymore) a local acquaintance posted to ask if anyone wanted to start a book club for working moms about advancing their careers. Right after that—or right before it—she posted yet another link to that book about why women my age can’t sleep, and I wanted to ask if this book club for working moms would be meeting at 3 am when we all can’ sleep because of fucking perimenopause, or whatever pop psychology reasons lie behind the idea that somehow women of my generation are the first in history to have trouble sleeping at night.

That same day a local friend said his Facebook was all Bernie and he wanted some other perspectives, and could anyone offer any? It was late at night, but I typed this up on my phone:

Okay, here’s the deal. I love Bernie. But some days I wonder if Bernie has ever had to find a babysitter. I often reflect on a time when I was having a meeting with you and another friend and I had to go to make daycare pickup and you guys both said “oh, we’d better go so our wives don’t get mad at us.” And I thought of what a different life that would be if I could be marginally irresponsible and the consequence would just be a spouse being mad at me versus my whole good standing in society.

That was just one day, and I don’t want to act like I think it’s every day of your lives. But I think it is every day in the lives of male politicians, and thus as much as I dislike identity politics, hearing Elizabeth Warren talk about having to potty train her daughter in five days so she could go to law school reminds me so much of what my mom had to do (find not just childcare but overnight childcare every fourth night for months running) to go to medical school. (And we are all of us privileged white women—and it’s still hard.)

I’ll still take Bernie over Klobuchar because I agree with him far more. But it’s not as enthusiastic a take as it was four years ago.

The result was exactly the sort of argument that makes me never want to write anything or post anything on the internet (even though I’ve been doing so publicly under my own name for twenty-one years), the sort of argument that makes me want to apologize to everyone, delete everything I’ve ever posted, and hide under my bed—or run away to Utah—until everyone has forgotten who I am or that I ever lived. But of course I can’t run away to Utah, because I am a mom.

I hate being a mom.

I hate that someone posted a “Valentine’s candy for moms” meme today and lots of people liked it and shared it, and all the candy hearts said things like “put your socks on.” I hate that I am for some reason part of a group called BAD MOMS where (get this) I was once called a bad mom. I hate Mothers Day, even when people nobly try to reclaim it for the anti-war movement (a lost cause if there ever was one), and I hate all the nouns acting as adjectives that have been applied to the word mom. Soccer mom. Helicopter mom. Tiger mom.

I want to be in the foreground in that picture, not the background. I want my name in the bold face type. I want to have (as an old Scott Carrier monologue put it) no interest in taking part in the market economy or the democratic process.

But I can’t. And I’m afraid even to type the whole sentence here that I had planned for fear of what readers may think of me and the choices I’ve made, but I will: But I can’t, because I’m a mom.

Why I’m (Still) Not Sorry I Voted For Nader

A beat up Nader for President 2000 sticker on a bike
The Nader 2000 campaign had bicycle stickers because of course they did.

This piece was first published as one of my “Girl Next Door” columns in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids ICON, 23 November 2000. While many things I’ve written in the past twenty years make me cringe, I stand by this one.

I was thirteen years old when I first heard the song “Masters of War,” penned by Bob Dylan and sung, in the rendition I found in our record cabinet, by a young, short-haired, blue-eye-shadowed Judy Collins. I had not, at this point in life, acquired the accoutrements of the “me against the world” mentality I was already starting to form, but even Judy’s rendition couldn’t hide the bite in the lines “How much do I know to talk out of turn?/You might say that I’m young, you might say I’m unlearned/But there’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you. . . .” Ah yes–youth to itself rebels, and all that. But I’d like to suggest that there’s a little more to it than that.

Last week, Gary Sanders (for whom I have a great deal of respect) published a guest opinion in this paper accusing young Nader supporters (such as myself, I can only assume) of being True Believers. Sanders introduced the charge by acknowledging that he himself had once been a True Believer, hitchhiking to New Hampshire to volunteer for George McGovern. Nowadays, being older and wiser, or at any rate crankier, Sanders sees this as folly. As he sees it, working for McGovern eventually helped Richard Nixon, working for Nader just helped George W. Bush.

I’m not here to quibble with Sanders’s numbers or with his reasoning. Rather, I’d like to point out what I feel is a flaw in the idea that elections are solely about policy (as Sanders and Gore supporters would have it) or all about character (as the Republicans would like us to believe). At the risk of pissing off fellow activists, and to invert the old feminist saying, I’d like to suggest that, when it comes to campaigns, the political is the personal. Working on a campaign is not simply a way of getting a candidate elected to office; it is a way of making your own story. It’s a way of acting upon belief and a form of empowerment. If you get one person to change her vote because of you, youve accomplished something. And if you’re working on a major party campaign, that’s really all they want you to accomplish. Just get out the vote, and make sure they know how to mark the ballot.

But working on a campaign like Nader’s–or, I would imagine, McGovern’s–gives you a lot more than that. You know you aren’t going to win–not in the numerical sense, that is. But you might win in other ways. When I talk to people about Nader, or sweatshops, or why there shouldn’t be a new jail, I am doing so only partially in the hope that they will change their votes. What I am really hoping is that they will start to think differently.

If you think a little harder about why it is that the average CEO in the United States now makes 475 times as much as his lowest paid employee or why African-Americans make up 26% of Iowa’s prison population but only 2% of its overall population or why Steve Alford gets a $25,000 bonus if 70% of his team graduates in four years, I regard that as a victory.

Sanders may wish, in retrospect, that he hadn’t volunteered for McGovern because he think that it ended up helping Nixon win the election. But I wonder, would he really have wanted to miss the experience? I imagine that in a way it must have been pretty great–hitching a ride to New Hampshire, knocking on doors with groups of other kids, talking about things they believed in and about a man whom they felt stood for those things. I imagine that there are victories that come from that experience that are more important than where McGovern placed in the primary, victories that continue to fuel Sanders’s indefatigable work on local and national progressive causes and which make him proud to be a member of “the party not only of Al Gore, but of Tom Harkin, Paul Wellstone, Maxine Waters, Barney Frank, and Jesse Jackson.” Are those experiences which Sanders really wants to deny the next generation?

In 1994, when I was graduating from high school, what I mostly heard about people my age was that we were apathetic and uneducated. We mourned the death of Kurt Cobain, not JFK; we were unqualified to do anything but flip burgers and unmotivated to do anything else; we’d rather change the channel than rock the vote.

Now that the public has begun to take note of some of the things we do care about, largely because of the Nader campaign, we’re being characterized as hopelessly misguided idealists instead of hopelessly lazy cynics. Either way, though, we’re supposedly ruining the future of America.

Well, I never felt America had much of a future to be certain about, but I’ve been working for some kind of future since about a year after I first heard that Bob Dylan song, and for me, and many others, I suspect, the political continues to be personal. We work because it gives us not only a sense of political power but also one of personal authenticity. The movement gives back to you tenfold what you give to it. It gives you camaraderie, education, experience, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of hope. And there’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you: I know that that hope is crucial.

Statement to the Iowa City Community School District Board

Thank you for the opportunity to speak this evening, and for the hard and unglamorous work that you all do as school board members. My name is Laura Crossett, and I’m a 1988 graduate of Lincoln Elementary, a 1994 graduate of West High School, and a librarian at the Coralville Public Library. I live in Iowa City, and my son attends kindergarten at Mark Twain Elementary.

Every morning when we get to school he goes over and rings the buzzer and says “Hi, it’s me, Peter,” and every morning, Whitney Wessling, the amazing secretary at Twain says “Hello, Peter.” He’s an anxious kid, and this is one ritual that helps him know it’s okay to go into school every day.

I have seen Whitney show that same level of individual care for all the students at Twain. In the midst of handling phone calls and incoming messages from parents, teachers, and staff, she still knows which kids might not have gotten breakfast if they’re late, and she always knows who needs a hug.

Secretaries, janitors, physical plant workers, groundskeepers, and food service workers aren’t just automatons making a machine work: they are human beings doing difficult, demanding, essential work for which they are rarely recognized, and as such they deserve a say not only in their wages but also in the conditions of their employment, including sick leave, vacation, grievance procedures, and all the other so-called “permissive” topics in collective bargaining agreements — topics that have historically been bargained in good faith for the past 40 years.

Saturday you released a statement noting that “the board and administrative team’s intent to protect and preserve prohibited and permissive items was not conveyed clearly” in meeting with the secretaries’ union. I would call that a drastic understatement: a document that reads “[t]he District proposes to remove the following articles from the negotiated agreement: payroll deductions, union rights, employee hours, seniority, discipline and discharge, sick leave, leaves of absence, vacation, health provisions, safety provisions, grievance procedures, wages and salaries” could hardly be clearer in its intent to strip these employees of everything but a pennies per hour pay raise.

You have apologized for your error. I hope that means you plan to return to the bargaining table ready and willing to include those items in the next collective bargaining agreement and that you will soon come to the table with the janitors’ and food service workers’ unions with that same good faith. The people who make our schools run deserve no less.