Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I remember darkness. I found darkness in the Appalachians … and the Outer Banks … and Tucson … and camping in the Sierras. Two winters ago I drove my son to Mammoth so he could snowboard. I left Los Angeles after work and Levi fell asleep halfway up there. Past Bishop the sky darkened until it exploded with stars. So many stars that the mountains appeared like a cardboard cutout in front of a curtain of lights. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen them. One or two … maybe a dozen … might shine through the dimness of Los Angeles’ eternal light on any given night. But I lost the sparkling magic of a truly dark night when I moved to LA. I miss seeing stars.

So when I saw the note for Earth Hour announcing lights out from 8:30-9:30, my optimism got the better of me. Maybe we’ll see stars! I thought. I went downtown where the LA Department of Water and Power was hosting a lights off gathering, and where the Broad Museum and Disney Concert Hall were going dark. My sister and I stood at the top of Grand Park where we could see Disney Concert Hall down the street and the LADWP building above Dorothy Chandler Plaza. We waited anxiously for 8:30.

Is it 8:30?

I think so …

Did anything happen?

No? Wait. Yes? Look! The Broad Museum is dark.

Right. But what about everything else?

A few facades were slightly darker than they had been a minute ago. But the office buildings, and LA DWP, and City Hall were still illuminated with office lights gleaming from within. Streetlights still shone, so bright it was hard to make out which building facades were no longer lit. Needless to say, not one additional star surfaced. We walked past Disney Hall and saw its lights were off, but its shiny sides glowed from adjacent lights. Beautiful. But disappointing after expecting stars. Driving back to Northeast LA was more promising. The hills were considerably darker than usual. People were participating. Still … no stars.

Fighting for dark skies is about more than saving energy to combat climate change. Nocturnal animals need night darkness to survive. Migrating birds are thrown off course, confused by the artificial lightness of cities. We are confused, too. Our circadian rhythms and melatonin levels are disrupted by electric lights, especially the bluer light of screens and newer energy-efficient bulbs. And from a safety standpoint — the primary reason our cities are so lit up — more light doesn’t equal more safety.

I’ve had countless moments where too-bright lights disrupted sleep, and vision, sense of safety, and those stars. The nice thing is, we can do something about this. Tucson and Flagstaff, Arizona, protecting the scientific sky studies of their observatories, have protected its dark skies with progressive policies allowing only low light levels from shielded lamps.

Thierry Cohen‘s Darkened Cities photographs imagine a world where starlight illuminates our urban environments. Wouldn’t it be worth it? What dreams and wishes and wonders and machines have been made seeing stars? Wouldn’t it be worth changing the brightness of our lamps, shielding our streetlights to only shine down, and changing the way we light our buildings and landscapes … to free the darkness and see the stars?

Reframing Lawn: From Fallow to Bygone

The fourth Drought and Beauty series lecture was last Friday, organized by the landscape architecture departments of Cal Poly Pomona, USC, and UCLA. Eleven of us gave quick, pecha kucha format presentations, followed by a brief response from two local writers. I chose to tell the story of one reason I work in landscape architecture: my education on the lawn.

According to Michael Pollan’s 1989 article “Why Mow?”, it was Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1868 Riverside community that introduced lawn to American suburbs in the form parks, greenways, and continuous front lawns. But it was Levittown after World War II that became the first suburb to sell houses with lawns already in place. The Levitts dogmatic support of the lawn was helped by recent inventions of the rotary lawn mower, pesticides and fertilizers made from the remnants of war explosives, and weed-free grass seeds.

Cristina Mileni’s 2005 dissertation mapped and modeled the biogeochemical cycles of turf grass. She mapped 32 million acres of lawn in the contiguous US. That’s our largest irrigated crop, three times larger than the area used for growing corn. No matter the climate, soil moisture, or natural habitat, the same turf grasses cover drastically different regions of the country – with the result that most require irrigation or chemicals or both to stay green.

My personal battle with the lawn began in 1998 when I landed in a typical suburban home just north of Charlotte, NC. The backyard was mostly a wood and practically took care of itself, other than an annual thinning of saplings sprouting beneath the trees. The front was mostly lawn. I didn’t mind at first but it quickly became a burden to mow with three small children under toe. One day, I watched a flock of starlings peck about on my lawn, reminding me of my childhood yard in Ohio. My neighbor across the street – with the crew-cut lawn to match his crew-cut hair, yelled “you got grubs … better kill them … or they’ll kill your lawn!” So I did some research.

Diazinon was recommended to kill grubs, beetles, spiders, fleas, a dozen other critters … and was available everywhere. I dug a little deeper (because I like birds and I love my children) and I found the EPA banned diazinon that year as a poison but allowed it to stay on store shelves for another four years. This enraged me. If the EPA wasn’t going to look out for my children, who would? I began reading every bottle, box, and packet before I brought it into my house.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped ban DDT in 1972 … but we’ve increased chemical use in our landscapes. … And it’s not working. The more chemicals we use, the more damage pests do to our crops, and the more resistance they develop to those chemicals. As I read I came across Cradle to Cradle design where the Waste of one endeavor becomes Food for another, as in nature where a tree creates blossoms and fruit to procreate and feed animals and then fall beneath the tree to build soil and create nutrients for that tree and other things that depend on the soil. What we have instead are toxins being used AS food to GROW food laced with chemicals and leaching into our groundwater and streams. Instead of Cradle to Cradle Design we’ve set up an entire Grave to Grave system.

To state the obvious, I was obsessed with grass … and the high cost of its perfection … and with eradicating it from my children’s lives. Inspired by my mania, my sister made the sculpture, above, called Blade. The vinyl represented the lawn’s artificiality. The huge scale gave us a new perspective on grass. I was so mad about grass and the toxic mess we were swimming in (and other issues around urban ecology) that I moved to Los Angeles so I could study landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. Here we had an even bigger lawn, weirdly, that our landlord mowed occasionally, until he went to jail.

After the winter rain, with no mowing, the lawn became an overgrown weed patch… much to the delight of my children. They made mazes through it and hid behind mounds of sour grass and mallow. Little did I know, these are all edible and nutritious. These weeds have value. Dandelion greens sell for as much as $9 a pound. Our weedy gardens and lawns are a huge source of potential free food.

There are precedents for less work yielding more crops. Masanobu Fukuoka developed a natural farming method with no plowing, no agricultural chemicals or prepared fertilizers, and no flooded rice fields. His methods produced more food than Japan’s most productive farms. When I was still at home with my kids I read a book called The Lazy Gardener … it was my first introduction, at the very small scale, to Designing with Nature. To work with nature instead of against it, whether improving soil health, guiding water flow or planting for pollinators.

When I bought my own house in Los Angeles, I used those principles and low impact design to keep rainwater on site, use no chemicals, and have native and drought-tolerant plants under my orange, pecan, and Oak trees. I let nature do its work so I can work less. After 6 years, my garden requires no chemicals, and only occasional water during the drought. The orange tree gets my laundry water. The maintenance is infrequent (mostly in spring), and involves weeding and mulching, and transplanting the expanding succulents. These smallest choices can have big impacts. Consider this. According to the National Wildlife Federation:

  • 18% of municipal solid waste is composed of yard waste.
  • The average suburban lawn received 10 times more chemical pesticide per acre than farmland.
  • A gas lawn mower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as a car. A weedeater 21 times more, and a leaf blower 34 times more.

 

Learning what went into to keeping lawns alive, even in the rainy southeast, changed how I felt about them. Lawn went from beautiful to ugly to me. I see a perfect lawn and cringe at the pollution and noise it requires to survive. Landscape architects, designers, and gardeners allocate resources in ways that can appeal to and shape the public’s sense of beauty. The more we do to communicate the importance of natural systems in our everyday landscapes, the more we can reframe beauty in the eyes of beholders. For what could be more beautiful than landscapes that offer clean air, clean water, healthy soil, healthy food, and a rich variety of plants and trees?

Community … continued

Colorado Boulevard, Eagle Rock

Colorado Boulevard, Eagle Rock

Last Christmas I wrote about the community I found by accident … because of an accident. This season has me thinking a lot about the community we make on purpose.

Our lives are wound up in our communities, whether we ask for it or not. Our communities make us feel welcomed or ostracized, safe or afraid, warm or cold. If we’re lucky, our communities have the resources to provide a supportive and healthy environment for all residents. And if we’re not, that luck can be changed.

Because luck is all of us.

Luck is the woman who asked our neighborhood council to help her plant trees on our main street, and then led the community to plant and take care of them. Luck is the woman from Recycled Resources for the Homeless who found winter shelter for our homeless neighbors. Luck is the fathers and mothers who volunteer at our elementary schools each morning, guiding children safely to their classrooms. Luck is the market owner who creates community for our teenagers, and who called an ambulance for my son the day he came in bruised and battered. Luck is the hardware store that lets us keep an account, so my children can pick up a mop or batteries even when I’m not home.

We make luck when we create community. Luck is when we lend a hand, look out for our children and teenagers and preteens (even when they act stupid), offer help to all our neighbors whether they have homes or not, check on our senior citizens, and make improvements to our environment. Luck is all around us. Or it can be.

Here’s to a new year full of luck and love to create the communities each of us deserves … no matter our race or gender or age or education or economic status. Because people feeling pain spread pain. And people feeling loved share love.

Happy New Year and Renewed Community.

Wind in My Hair

What do my grandparents have to do with wind in my hair?

A 1960s gold Plymouth Valiant convertible. My first memory of riding in a car. Top down, sun on my shoulders, wind whipping my hair into my eyes and mouth … pure joy. So, even though I work to design places for walking, biking, and bussing, I still have a soft spot for cars.

That car took us to the pool on summer days in Chapel Hill, where we climbed out of the backseat onto scalding-hot asphalt and ran from shadow to white stripe trying to save our bare feet from blisters.

That car had floorboards rusted through from Henry leaving the top down through too many summer showers. We dropped pennies through the holes and watched the road for the giant blue tarheels painted on the ascent up to the University, and my grandparent’s house.

That car meant summer and laughter and love. Henry’s dog Fidel sat in the front seat when Henry drove. When Felicité drove the summer she got a perm, college boys whistled from behind us, and laughed when she turned with a big wink as they passed to get a better look.

That car was flattened in Hurricane Hugo, sitting in Felicité’s neighbor’s driveway. She gave it to him for all his help with her house and health as she got older.

There were other convertibles.

The bronze 1982 VW Rabbit I learned to drive on. It was zippy and cute and fun to shift its 5-speed stick. I drove through the suburbs with the top down, singing “Gloria” and “Take On Me” at the top of my lungs.

The red Chrysler LeBaron my sister and Shannon and I drove to the beach topless and top-down.

The Sebring symbolizing California dreams that brought me home last night.

But the Valiant was the first. Summer and sun on my shoulders and wind in my hair will always remind me of my grandparents and siblings and convertibles … and of feeling loved.

Sharing Beauty

Today was different. This morning I went out in my garden and watered for the first time in a month. I did a little pruning. Just a little … to remove the spent flowers from my favorite Poppy. I didn’t notice what was different at first, but I felt it. In fact, I didn’t realize what was different until just now.

It was quiet. There was no lawn mower choking into the morning. My neighbors diagonally across the street, the ones with a Saturday maintenance schedule, turned their lawn into a dry garden last week. It was a big shift for them, and for our neighborhood. It means one more family understands their landscape a little differently. It means we’ll have quiet weekend mornings from now on.

My landscape ethos came from two places: the women who raised me and the books that shaped me.

My mom let us pick our own Berry and Rose bushes to plant and tend to. My Grandma Mary grew Irises and Roses and Violets. My Grandma Felicité grew Mint and spent morning hours hand-weeding her lawn and ajuga. Carole, one of my second mothers, grew lilacs that filled her whole yard with fragrance. The Secret Garden introduced me to the possibilities of a garden as memory and a living being. I’ve always loved gardens that were full of flowers and places to discover.

But it isn’t a static thing. My landscape ethos has changed over time just as gardens do. The gardening I kept and books I read as I got older deepened my belief that my gardening was part of my bigger community. When Felicité died I planted a tree for her in my garden. And another for my great aunt. When Mary died I took Irises from her garden in New York and planted them in mine in North Carolina. Five years later they came with me to California.

The Foxfire Books provided a primer on self-sufficiency when I lived in the Appalachians. Raising kids and tending a huge yard turned me in desperation to The Lazy Gardener and its tips for working with nature instead of against it. Worry over waking my napping babies with loud lawn machines was one of the many reasons I was looking for a different way to garden. Cradle to Cradle and The Granite Garden turned my love of gardening with nature into a desire to design with nature. A year after I read them I was in graduate school.

My ethos continues to evolve as my understanding of myself and nature and design evolves. It is no surprise that people might need encouragement and guidance to understand the impacts their gardens and landscapes have on the world around them. So many of us came to where we live from somewhere else. And we brought the ideas of gardens (and often the plants) that we were raised with. For those who haven’t been educated in natural systems, or the beauty of lazy gardening, or the local climate, or the complexities of municipal water infrastructures this “brown is the new green” motto we have in Southern California might be confusing.

So, let us be kind.

Let’s be kind to those who water too much or prune too much or top their trees or blow away all the important nutrients from the soil they are trying to grow something in. Let’s be kind and patient and loving and simply show them a different way. It takes time to grow awareness and evolve perception of beauty. Almost as much times as it takes to grow a garden that defines it.

So let’s grow our dry and beautiful gardens to show our neighbors what’s what. They’ll notice the flowers … and the shade … and birds … and the butterflies … and the quiet … and maybe that you’re not doing that much. And then, when all the color and scent and life sinks in … they’ll notice the beauty. And they’ll want some of their own.

 

Summer Rain in L.A.

We all needed the rain. Four years of drought left our trees, plants, soil, wildlife, and spirits in thirst. My eyes, ears, nose, and skin drank in the rain as it came … steady at times, in bursts and downpours at others. Thunder and lightening took me back to east coast summers at the ocean.

After the rain, quiet filled the air. The clouds were low and quick-slow drips dropped from the roof. A cricket chirped from a dark corner of the garden, and the traffic halfway up the ridge roared like waves rolling in. Sunday night was moist and serene. No neighbor music but an occasional car’s lock note after a shut door. The garden felt happy.

For the Birds…

My grandma was a birder. I caught her enthusiasm for spotting and identifying our flying feathered friends on a trip to Sanibel Island in 1980. She introduced me to Great Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets, Ibis and Roseate Spoonbills. We saw Cormorants and Little Green Herons and Cattle Egrets. These most magnificent wading birds stood poised for us in the shallow waters of the J. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. But none of them got her as excited as the Osprey we saw the next year.

It nested outside our Collington Harbor cottage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was 1981, I think. It was the first Osprey spotted in Nags Head since the pesticide DDT was banned in 1972. DDT had been broadcast sprayed in massive amounts from the 40s to try to control both insect-borne human diseases like malaria and typhoid, and tree diseases like Dutch Elm disease. The spraying caused mass die-off of many insects and affected the food chain that ate the insects or contaminated soil. Shore birds that ate large amounts of fish carrying DDT produced eggs with thin shells that cracked in their nests. The effects were gruesome and widespread.

The birds my grandma taught me were rarely in my consciousness. I never saw them. Not in Ohio or North Carolina where I was grew up. I remember the first Bald Eagle nesting on Jordan Lake outside Chapel Hill while I was in college. Everyone was excited about it. North Carolina went from zero in 1984 to over 100 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles in the past 30 years.

The first time I remember seeing a Great Blue Heron other than Sanibel Island was after I moved to the Appalachian Mountains in 1992. My neighbor took us out to see the tragedy of a Heron wrapped around the wires bringing electricity to his house. We were as devastated to see its demise as excited to see one in our midst.

The mountains were stuffed with species I hadn’t seen before. And not just birds. A Pileated Woodpecker flew regularly through the woods around our house. Tufted Titmouse, Black-Capped Chickadees, Purple Finches and Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds made daily appearances. But we also hosted little Southern Flying Squirrels, who ate the bird food off of our porch at night.

The older I got the more of those great shore birds I saw. I chalked up their return to the diminishing presence of DDT in their environment. Ecology being the complex set of systems relationships that it is, there was much more to it than that. Here is a beautifully thorough timeline of the Eastern Bluebird from the 1700s until the present. Reducing environmental toxins, increasing protected habitat, and actively breeding threatened species to return to the wild have helped restore Bald Eagles, California Condors, Brown Pelicans, Peregrine Falcons, and Robins.

The graph shows spikes in species extinctions that correspond with hunting patterns and introduction of environmental toxins. Taken from: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/07/07/alexander-the-great-explains-the-drop-in-extinctions/

The graph shows spikes in species extinctions that correspond with hunting patterns and introduction of environmental toxins. Taken from: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/07/07/alexander-the-great-explains-the-drop-in-extinctions/

From the beginning of European settlement, humans have impacted birds directly: by hunting them for food, sport, or feathers for women’s hats; and indirectly: by destruction of habitat for development, changes to habitat by hunting other animals (the eradication of beavers from the 1600s on in North America completely changed our riparian ecosystems), or by introducing toxins.

The banning of DDT was progress, but it didn’t change our ways. Other pesticides are still toxic. Plastics are finding their way into the nests and throats of birds and other animals. Fish eat microscopic plastic in our waterways, and birds and other mammals eat fish. We eat fish. We know toxic chemicals and plastics severely damage our ecosystems. And yet we still allow their production and prevalence in the environment. Instead of relying on young geniuses like Boyan Slat to invent plastic clean-up machines, why don’t we prevent the pollution in the first place?

Here are some good resources on the subjects of birds, plastic pollution prevention, and pesticide prevention.

Biophilia/Biophobia

We humans have a complex relationship with nature. Those of us who work to conserve, restore or design with nature often take for granted humanity’s dependence on and innate love for nature. “Biophilia” was E.O. Wilson’s suggestion that we as humans have an instinctive bond with other living systems. I feel this when I’m in urban nature … getting a much-needed dose of trees overhead and singing birds and cool breezes whether immersed in nature or in the relative protection of my neighborhood park or back yard. So I jumped at the opportunity to tour The Presidio’s Forest this week at the Greater and Greener Conference in San Francisco.

As we walked through the 100+ year-old forest I thought of the beloved places of my youth, surrounded by tree trunks and protected by broad canopies. Signs of people connected to nature surrounded us. A group of small children played on top of massive felled trees stacked neatly on one another. An impromptu twig fence marked the place of previous play. In the same vein, Andy Goldsworthy — the artist known for ephemeral art made with nature in nature — erected “Spire” with trunks carefully thinned from the dense forest. Further on, a beautifully stacked stone wall welcomed us into the San Francisco National Cemetery, a resting spot surrounded by forest and overlooking the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge beyond. It is hard to imagine feeling anything but peaceful there.

But not everyone grows up playing in their local rivers and woods. Not everyone had tough and motherly Girl Scout Troop leaders guiding them into far-off camp sites to learn how to determine direction, traverse hillside trails and make fire. Not everyone had 6th grade Science Camp counselors teaching them where a Wolf Spider lives and how to spot Poison Ivy or guiding them through boulder mazes in Ohio’s Hocking Hills.

Mickey Fearn of North Carolina State University works to teach children who have never experienced nature how to appreciate and love it. I had the honor of hearing Fearn speak this week in San Francisco about “Biophobia,” the opposite of Biophilia, or fear of the natural world. For urban children and their parents who have only experienced nature through media, the world outside the city is full of terrifying predators and deathly conditions. Man vs. Wild, Survivor, and movies such as Jaws and Anaconda prove only that nature is something to be feared and overcome. It takes a week, Fearn said, to get these children to feel comfortable in the once foreign natural world.

A few years ago I taught eight architecture students from East Los Angeles College an Introduction to Landscape Architecture class. We had eight weeks to learn the principles of designing with nature so they could develop sensitive solutions for a city-owned apartment landscape. We began by taking a field trip to nearby nature. My own children, well-versed in exploring the natural world, joined us as we toured Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, and the Audobon Center in Montecito Heights.

“How did you find this place?” one student asked in awe as we stood under the Colorado Street Bridge looking into lush Sycamore Trees and Coast Live Oaks surrounding the sandy bottom of the Arroyo Seco. We were standing just a half mile from the Norton Simon Museum and Old Town Pasadena, and one mile from the Rose Bowl. We were less than 10 miles from East Los Angeles College. And yet, most of my students had never experienced such a natural setting. Most of them had spent their lives in East Los Angeles or South LA, miles from the San Gabriel Mountains or SoCal’s famous beaches and yet disconnected from nature.

“My teacher took me here when I was in school,” I answered. And because she did, I took my own children, and then my students. My children, aged 8 – 14 at the time, were proud to show these older students around the Arroyo. They

“I’m going to come back here,” the student said, drinking in the beauty with all of his senses. I hope he did. This week, as we celebrate Earth Day, I think of my ELAC students, and Mrs. Kugelman’s 5th grade students I help lead along the Los Angeles River each year. And I hope that each of them find a little connection to nature to take with them to a greener, healthier future.

School for the Angels

I always loved school. Even chronic shyness couldn’t dampen my drive to learn and do my schoolwork and please my teachers. From elementary through college and years later in graduate school, I failed only one class, and that was because I decided I’d rather sleep in than go to my 8:00 a.m. Intro to Economics class. So, despite early and frequent signs that they were not thriving, it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that my children didn’t love school. I am still coming to terms with it.

I was lucky. I grew up in a time and a place with excellent public schools filled with compassionate and creative teachers who taught me using informal methods in an experimental program. I had art and music and played in the orchestra from the time I was in 4th grade. My conductor was a surrogate grandfather. He instilled in me a lifelong love of Mozart and Bach and Aaron Copeland, even though I never practiced. I got to choose what language I wanted to study in 8th grade. Every single one of us got to take wood shop and drafting and metal and cooking and sewing and home economics. I learned how to balance a checkbook. And I learned multi-variable calculus. We took minorities and government and public speaking, which serves me well to this day. My experience in public school made me a die-hard believer of our public school system.

Three children and six public schools later, I have nearly lost hope in our system. My children, each one very smart and creative and full of dreams and goals, have struggled to make it in their schools … schools in communities known for excellent schools. They had over-crowded classrooms and overwhelmed teachers. They had very little art or music and no home ec or wood shop or metal shop classes. Their orchestra teacher kicked kids out if they didn’t practice or forgot their music three times. My kids didn’t stand a chance. My 19-year-old daughter never quite understood that not trying in classes because she didn’t like a teacher only hurt herself. My 17-year-old son, who was most motivated to do well in school and fit in, struggled off and on with such strong anxiety he either skipped classes or self-medicated or both.

My 13-year-old son’s 8th grade year began with class sizes of 40 and more. He made his way during the day from a class with no windows to classes with all the blinds drawn. He struggled to stay still and pay attention during each 90-minute class – classes that were 15 minutes longer than my longest college lecture classes … classes I had struggled to stay focused through.

After a rocky 7th grade trying out living with his father across the country, and then moving back mid-year, he fell into a cycle of failure. I talked to his counselor and each of his teachers (both 7th and 8th grade) about his situation, urging them to be patient and encouraging him to simply show up and do his best.

Even so, as the year went on, he lost any interest in doing the work, and began skipping school. I dreaded 11 a.m., when an automated message would alert me that he hadn’t shown up for school that morning. The penalty for truancy sounded dire. At the low point (knock on wood), I asked him what his ideal school situation would be.

“I want to be home schooled,” he said. I stifled the sigh that begged escaping. As a working single parent, I couldn’t imagine a way to make home schooling work. Especially with my proven impatience when it came to helping my kids with their homework. I dug deeper.

“What is it about the idea of home schooling that you like?” I asked him.

“The freedom,” he said. “And getting to do the work on my own.” Any chance he could, my son spent outside on the hills behind Occidental College. At 13, he is happiest searching the backyard for creatures or exploring the neighborhood with friends.

“Do you think you would be motivated to do it on your own, if you weren’t in a classroom with other children and a teacher?” I asked.

“Yeah Mom,” he said, nodding energetically. “I would do it on my own.”

Determined to find an answer that might work for us, I researched alternatives to home school for working parents. I came across unschooling, a movement in which children are gently guided in exploring and studying their own world. It sounded ideal for his curiosity about the natural world, but again required hours of parental guidance. Friends suggested the charter schools and private schools their children happily attended. But both had ridiculously early application deadlines, which I had missed for the following school year even though we were just starting the second semester. And, when I toured the schools they just didn’t seem different enough. There were still hours of sitting inside on a chair in windowless or shuttered classrooms.

His growing truancy rate made finding an alternative school an urgent matter. After hours of research, I stumbled across the option that I thought would work best for us: self-directed learning. It turns out, Los Angeles Unified School District offers a self-directed study program at campuses throughout the district. Within a week of finding out about the program, I had met with the teacher closest to us, enrolled my son, and taken him to his first meeting on his way to finish his 8th grade year.

“How come I’ve never heard of this program?” I asked Ms. Wammack at the end of our meeting. After struggling to find options for both he and his older brother, I couldn’t believe not one of their counselors or teachers had suggested it before.

“Schools don’t like to recommend us,” Ms. Wammack said. “Because they get funded per pupil. The more students they lose, the less funding they have.” I am still trying to understand the motivation of going against what a student needs, since it seems contrary to school goals to keep students who are failing.

The City of Angels School, a public school in LAUSD, provides teachers who work with our children one-on-one. My son has an hour appointment with Ms. Wammack every week to get his assignments and have them reviewed. He can spend as much time as he likes in the classroom, where a teaching assistant, plenty of brand new text books, and comfortable seating feel more like a college library study lounge than an LAUSD classroom. Almost any student is eligible.

Our first evening home, my son sat next to me and read the entire 20-page story “Flowers for Algernon” in his English Literature book. I couldn’t remember the last time he had read anything willingly. Now finishing week two, he took his literature book to the park each morning last week to do his reading, spent Saturday night after I went to bed doing all his math work, and sits next to me now finishing up his English workbook. His five hours of required physical activity each week for P.E. (in addition to reading about physical health), is accomplished by walking or riding his bike back and forth to the park several times a day. He studies there on the benches by the handball courts, meets his friends after school, and often just spends time there being outside in his element.

I check in with him every day to see how he is doing and feeling. But there have been no battles of the wills. He is owning this education and this process and it feels right in a way I haven’t experienced with any of my children except with a few very special elementary school teachers. I wonder how different my older son’s experience might have been had I known about City of Angels two years ago.

Unfortunately, as with all LAUSD schools, the City of Angels School is funded per pupil each year. So, just as the traditional schools fight to keep students from transferring to charter schools or private schools or other schools in LAUSD, City of Angels School is struggling to gain 400 more students this year in order to keep all of its teachers. If you think your child could benefit, check it out. If you have any questions or want to hear more about our experience, let me know below. I will answer you privately if you prefer.

Love the Where You Are

Love the where you are. There will always be things we don’t love about the places we live. Maybe it’s the traffic, or the trash, or the loneliness, or the violence. Maybe the graffiti gets you down (not everyone sees it as art). Or the broken sidewalks. Or the vacant businesses. Or the thriving businesses. Or the strip malls. But there is something to love there, too. Everywhere I’ve lived, everywhere we are, is lovable somehow.

If we can remember to love the great big things or quirky little things that first made us fall in love with our place, we can remember to work to make it great. Our wheres shape how we live every day. Our wheres make us better or worse. Our wheres say something about who we are. Take a little time to love your place today. Love your where.