They could have been sisters with Officer Henkelman, if not twins, and when I asked if they were, they shook their heads no but smiled. Still, they felt like sisters. Perhaps it was the sisterhood all around me, extending to their kind faces and their strong shoulders standing in uniform. I decided this was the right time to ask if there had been any arrests among the hundreds of thousands of marchers expected to be in the capital that afternoon - their expression and response surprised me.
“No,” they said with a smile.
“Not one arrest?” I asked.
Not one, they confirmed.
I’d told my ten-year-old son that I didn’t know what might happen at The Women's March in Washington D.C. – that I hoped it would be peaceful but there was a chance I could be arrested. And if I was, I would go with police peacefully because I was there to march in peace and for peace and equality and human rights, not just for his teenage sister’s future but his too, and in support of women and men all over the country who’ve been the victims of sexual assault, racism and inequality.
“I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see women officers here today,” I said, “especially young women like you.”
I saw a glimmer of solidarity in their eyes beneath the shiny brim of their police hats, reflecting the light and hope of hundreds of thousands, if not close to a million, women and men who came to the capital to demonstrate their First Amendment rights without the threat of violence or police brutality.
“May I take your picture?” I asked. All three officers nodded and smiled again.
As I look back at all the smiling faces in my pictures throughout Saturday’s March, theirs stand out the most – one of my closest friends looking over at them with such pride while holding the sign she penned, “YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT – YOU HAVE THE DUTY TO SPEAK UP.”
We thanked them and marched on, but I kept looking back, watching them watch droves of women and men make their way to the National Mall, wondering if their mothers and sisters and brothers were marching too.
One of the most, if not the most, important moments for me during The March was seeing Harriet Tubman’s giant portrait in front of The Treasury, next to Washington, Lincoln, and Hamilton, and I realized then more clearly than ever that women of my generation, born after the civil rights movement, will never fully understand what’s been sacrificed so that all women have the same opportunities as men. We are still fighting, though, for the right to equal pay and the most basic of human rights, the right to govern our own bodies. As we all looked up to Harriet Tubman's larger than life black face next to three white male faces, we chanted, "Black Lives Matter!” over and over until it faded, and I worried that I hadn’t shouted it loud enough or long enough.
I thought about the three young policewomen again and remembered the wet cloths we'd put in Ziploc bags in our backpack. We never once had to reach for them. An older friend, a seasoned protester during the Vietnam War, recommended we bring them.
"They'll help us to breath if police use teargas," she said.
As we packed them in the transparent backpack the march organizers recommended everyone carry to make it easier on police to see what we had with us, I found myself adding up how old I was when she was walking the same streets, protesting for peace, while I watched The Sound of Music in 1970 -- the first time I heard "Heil Hitler" and saw Nazis in uniform. I was five.
By the time we reached the Treasury building, it had been hours since the march began and we had seen no conflicts between any marchers or any police. In fact, at one point when several police vans had to get down a street, they tooted their horns and everyone made way for them. They looked appreciative and I even caught a glimpse of more smiles on their faces as they waved to us. Police officers take an oath to uphold the Constitution, a Constitution that originally did not mention women. We hear, talk, and read about our “founding fathers” but not one word about founding mothers.
As we made it to where the Newseum building resides on Pennsylvania Avenue, I read the First Amendment out loud and loud for the very first time. It's engraved in large letters on the facade of the Newseum. The words reverberated in my ears, and a wave of pride hit me like never before. This is what makes America, America. Whether or not it’s ever been “great” has always been up for debate and dependent on who is talking. Ask the Transgender-American this question and the Gay-American bullied in Middle School, the college students sexually assaulted at American universities too afraid to report it, and any Black-American or Latino or Muslim-American living among bigots.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Reports say that over half a million people assembled in our nation’s capital on January 21, 2017, and reputable news agencies reported that it was the largest one-day protest in U.S. history. In D.C. we were sometimes locked in a stand-still position – I suspect this is how it was in every city that marched – yet, we were still kind to one another, helping each other to stay calm and safe, not just in protest of Donald Trump’s dangerous, disrespectful rhetoric and proposed policies or his long history of insults to women, or even his Twitter rants directed at anyone who opposes him, but in solidarity and support of humanity, decency, and respect for human rights… women’s rights.
It felt so simple and it is truly self-evident. We are absolutely ‘stronger together’ and we had the chance to physically prove it in Washington D.C. and all over the nation. Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latino, Caucasian, Transgender, Gay, and Straight Americans, walking side-by-side, hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm, peacefully up Pennsylvania Avenue, marching for our daughters, our sisters, mothers, grandmothers and our great-grandmothers who fought for so long for our rights and the rights of future generations -- long before Reality TV, Nielson Ratings, algorithms, Twitter and Donald Trump.
Women will continue to rise up against oppression, and the men who support us have our gratitude, because there will undoubtedly be more men like Trump who’d like nothing better than for us to keep quiet so their voices are the loudest in the room. But our First Amendment rights define us as a nation, and we are blessed with the opportunity, the responsibility, and the privilege to speak up and uphold our Constitution, just as our law enforcement officers have the responsibility to do. May Officer Henkelman and her colleagues know just how much we appreciated their respect and their sisterhood during The March. Without it, not one of us could have made history on January 21. Marching forward, may we all remember how incredibly powerful it is to peaceably assemble and to petition the government, not just for women but for humanity.
I am a mother and friend, but would I do anything to save my son after he sexually assaulted a woman? This is the question I believe all mothers need to ask themselves, and is ‘saving’ your child helping them or additionally hurting them and the person they’ve victimized?
I cannot begin to imagine how Emily Doe and her parents felt when they heard Judge Persky’s statement about the “severe” impact that prison would have on Brock after being convicted of sexual assault with intent to commit rape. The judge's "I don’t think he’s a danger to anyone" had to be a knife through their hearts. What about being a danger to Emily Doe the night he raped her? Did the judge not factor that in?
How does a young woman who was sexually penetrated and left behind a dumpster live with that? How will she and young women everywhere start to believe that college campuses are safe places for them if judges are more concerned for the rapist than the victim?
Given Judge Persky’s prison sentence for Brock Turner, why would any victim of rape ever come forward again at Stanford University or any other college campus when their voices and even eyewitness accounts are dismissed so carelessly, and the rapist receives the equivalent of a summer camp stay in a county jail?
But I digress -- I’m still waiting for Brock Turner’s mother to speak up about what she will personally do to make sure that campus sexual assault and rape does not happen to another Emily Doe, who was on the night of her rape the same age as Brock's older sister.
If Carleen Turner is like her husband or their friend, she may be doing anything to save her son, covering for him because it’s too difficult to face the truth about your own son’s sexual behavior, blaming alcohol for it, blaming fraternity parties, blaming promiscuity, but what is she really saying to young women, including her own daughter, about victims of rape?
Your voice doesn't matter.
Since this story has gone viral, her son’s name and picture are now plastered all over the Internet, her husband’s character statement to the judge forever part of public record and public scrutiny. Just "20 minutes of action," Dan Turner wrote in his request for leniency for his convicted 20-year-old son. The audacity and the infamy of that statement likely stabs at every mother's heart, Brock's mother, Carleen, at the top of the list. But what can she do about it now? How could she use her son's infamy to help Emily Doe and all women like her? What would I do if I were standing in Carleen Turner's horribly squeaky shoes?
Would I talk to high school and college students about the percentages of rape on campus and off campus? Would I tell them that 23% of female students are sexually assaulted on campuses every year, yet those numbers are drastically low according to two Mother Jones’ articles stating that sexual assault on or near college campuses have reached epidemic levels and that authorities don't receive accurate information from schools? Would I tell them that it's because victims of sexual assault are too afraid to speak out against their attackers, too busy blaming themselves, so the true number of sexual assaults are vastly under reported?
Would I meet with rape victims and form an organization that supports their recovery? Would I ask my son to do the same? Would I tell my son that in order to truly help him, first he and I must admit that what he did was not consensual, what he did was rape and that’s why a jury convicted him. But that would require a mother and a son to openly admit that he raped an unconscious woman. It might also entail both a mother and a son giving thanks to the two eye-witnesses that put a stop to the rape. Could Carleen and Dan Turner and their son, Brock, ever find the courage and decency to thank those Swedish Stanford grad students?
I look over and see both my young son and soon-to-be teenage daughter doing homework, just a few days now left in their school year, and I think about that sentence again and again.
"As a mother and friend, I would do anything to help my child and save him.”
How will I help educate my children about campus sexual assault? What will I do differently starting today? Will I teach my daughter about what it means to give consent? Do I share with her Emily Doe’s statement? Will I talk to her about the statistics? That at least 1 out of every 5 female students will be sexually assaulted or raped at colleges this year, and 1 out of every 3 college seniors will become victims? I say to myself, yes. YES.
And my son, do I keep quiet and let his father handle that conversation when he too turns thirteen? Because it’s uncomfortable for a mother to talk to her son about his sexual urges, right? My answer changes, No. I don’t care how uncomfortable it is! I need to have that conversation with my son in three years with or without my husband. I need to have that talk many, many times throughout puberty and into his young adult life. I need for him to also hear Emily Doe’s voice and what she wrote to her young attacker. I need to tell my son that I will not “save” him should he decide to sexually violate another person, whether he’s been drinking alcohol or not.
A son's actions must speak louder than his words, but his victim’s words must speak louder than everyone else’s.
“So why did you cheat, Lila?” I asked. Lila is an A student and a soon-to-be senior at Palo Alto High School.
“To get a good grade,” she confessed.
“How would your parents react if you told them?” (Both parents are graduates of a prestigious Ivy League university and both are high-earning professionals in Silicon Valley.)
“They’d be shocked.”
“Did you cheat in several classes or just one?”
“A few,” she admitted, her warm brown eyes low and lost.
“And do you remember anything that you learned in those classes?” I asked.
“No, not really… except maybe how to cheat.”
What are the Lila’s of Silicon Valley telling us about their world and the letter-grading system? What has the need to get an “A” done to them? Is it, in fact, the prime reason they cheat? Are college admission offices really seeing then the truth on high school transcripts and SAT scores or are they often evaluating a carefully concocted lie? If so, what are parents, schools and higher education doing to change the status quo?
Questions like these have been tapping me on the shoulder ever since I read Denise Pope’s book, Doing School. Her book resonated with me, especially after I overheard another teen last year (also an A student and a top athlete) casually talking about how he’d cheated his way through various classes in high school that he thought were a waste of his time. He and one of his college grad friends were rapping about how dumb you’d have to be not to cheat if a class was boring or you didn’t like the teacher.
So, last month when Stanford Law School announced that they are doing away with the traditional A-F grading system (following the lead of other elite law schools like Yale and UC Berkeley), I decided to take a closer look at the letter grading system at the high school level in our community and even at the university level.
Innovative undergraduate programs at schools like MIT, Reed College in Oregon, Evergreen State College in Washington, and New College of Florida (NCF), as well as UC Santa Cruz, have also incorporated broader grading systems which include individualized performance evaluations, with the focus off grades and back on a more personalized approach to each student’s learning experience.
Will Stanford Law’s decision influence Stanford’s undergrad program to take the focus off grades? Are these ‘out-of-the-box’ approaches working? Are students really challenged and motivated? Could they actually learn more and enjoy college more without receiving or knowing what letter grade they were given by their teacher?
Now that my own daughter is about to start Kindergarten, dangling her innocent feet into the icy cold waters of the American public education system, I have finally decided to begin my quest to unearth the answers to some of these questions. I have begun by interviewing teens at Palo Alto High and Los Altos High, and even Stanford freshman.
I’d like to hear from them first. What do they think about what Stanford Law has recently done to improve learning and take the focus off letter grades? What changes would they make at their own schools to improve how they’re graded and evaluated? What would they tell their parents if they could about the pressure they’re under to academically achieve? What if they came clean about cheating, what would actually happen to them? Has cheating, in fact, reached epidemic proportions because of the need for the "Almighty A”?
I recently spoke with author, Denise Clark Pope PhD, a leading researcher and lecturer on the subject of pressure to compete and achieve in high school. Her book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, openly talks about how we have created a culture and an education system where kids are doing whatever it takes to get the grade and win the attention and the recognition of their parents and teachers, but at the cost of their own well-being and self-respect.
Dr. Pope is also a lecturer with Stanford University's School of Education, where she founded and directs Challenge Success, a national research and intervention project for K-12 schools. Because her work has inspired me to explore the topic more closely, I wanted to ask Dr. Pope’s reaction to Stanford Law’s move to take the emphasis off grades and place it back on learning.
“Do you think that the law school’s decision will truly impact or change students’ overall learning experience?”
“Students who are grade-oriented will most likely continue to try for the Honors or “H” status because that’s their mindset, but many students just want to focus on the work instead of the grade,” she replied.
“Will Stanford University follow suit and change their grading system?”
“I know that a few folks have suggested doing what MIT has done – not grading first year students or at least not grading the first quarter of work. The idea being that it is such a big transition from high school, not wanting to overload incoming freshman with grading anxiety but rather saying, ‘Here, let’s get your feet wet first.’”
In the final pages of Doing School, Dr. Pope speaks about the need to listen to high school students before we can even begin to change or impact their education successfully. If we don’t listen to teens and their ideas about how to improve their learning experience, how will we begin to understand how to reach each student emotionally? And without reaching students emotionally, truly understanding what they care about, there is little hope for reigniting their passion for learning and discovery.
There’s no telling how long cheating has been going on in the classroom. In 2005, a Duke University study revealed that 75% of all high school students cheat in the United States and if you include copying homework, it climbs to 90%. Last year, in Reagan McMahon’s article “Everybody Does It,” (SF Gate, September 9, 2007), Dr. Pope states that 80% of honors and advanced placement students cheat on a regular basis because they have more to lose if they don’t cheat.
So, how does Silicon Valley rate? Have we here in the privileged backyard of Stanford University done a better or a worse job at over-loading and stressing out our youth? What would students really say about cheating to get the grade when they aren’t being threatened or judged by an authoritative adult in their lives? Do they feel it violates their integrity or self-respect? A little? A lot? Can they articulate that yet or does that come years later, after they’ve received their college diplomas by hook or by crook. I hope to share my findings in the coming months.
Let’s step back a bit, though, to 1983 -- twenty-five years ago. (Okay, that’s quite a few steps back.)
It was a pivotal time, not just in my life and my education, but also for technology and the world we know today in Silicon Valley. 1983 was the year I would graduate high school, the year before my father would die, the year before Steve Jobs would present to the world the first desktop computer – an amazing 9” screened, black and white Apple Macintosh. I wouldn’t know it yet, but I would do the same thing at the University of San Francisco that Steve Jobs did after his first semester at Reed College. I would leave college and begin to love learning all over again. Jobs would eventually become one of my heroes, a self-directed innovator who saw a vision of the future because of a profound love and passion for discovery in the present.
Twenty-five years ago when I was a senior in high school, it would have been me, instead of Lila, giving the same answers to those questions. It’s no big secret -- cheating in school and lying to your parents strolled hand in hand in my generation, too. But it seemed much more sophomoric, especially when Ferris Bueller and Tom Cruise in Risky Business made lying to your parents and teachers look so fun and glamorous, particularly in your skivvies.
Like Lila, though, I also had very academically successful parents. The expectation in households like Lila’s and mine were set by our parent’s achievements, and with high achievements comes high expectations and insurmountable pressure to compete and please. However, in the Eighties, it was generally the kids who never did well (mostly “the jocks” in my high school) that were cheating off the kids who studied hard and always did well (“the geeks,” as it were). Today, it is the “smart” kids who are leading the way, caught up in a broader spectrum of pressure from home to do well at everything – academics, sports, social-clubs, music, band… and the list or beat goes on.
During the Eighties, teens fell into clearer categories than they do today, and it was the students mostly, not their parents, pushing for more extra-curricular activities. Parents today know that leading universities want youth who are unique, students who stand out both academically and socially, and that’s why they’re pushing their children harder. Is this healthy? Is it helping their kids? Maybe. Maybe not. What would parents do differently if they knew how much their kids cheated to keep up? What would parents say if they knew that cheating is now considered among their A-student children to be a very helpful, time-management tool?
Eleven out of the twelve teens I’ve interviewed so far admitted to cheating or helping others cheat. Each said that the number one reason they do it is because of pressure from their parents to get a good letter grade. The second reason, they said, is because they don’t have enough time to study and cheating makes their life a lot easier and manageable. The third reason is pressure from friends who may drop them socially if they don’t let them copy their homework or cheat off their test.
Do they consider cheating to be wrong or a big deal? Not really or at least not until they get caught. But that almost never happens. Why is that? A seventeen year old from Los Altos High put it this way, “Because the people who do it are really smart and good at it.”
I was particularly bad at cheating in high school, which gives you a fairly good idea of my academic skill-set, although, I did try… many times. I was no different than any of the teens I’ve interviewed. I just don’t remember cheating being “no big deal” or ever casual. What I remember was almost throwing up during my SAT exams, doubled-over in pain, thinking that my whole life and future teetered on the outcome of those English and math scores. The fear and pressure that consumed me as I walked into that auditorium flapping with Flock of Seagull haircuts came from parental pressure to succeed academically, but it also came from a strong desire to impress my parents and family to gain their respect and attention. Sad, ironic and true.
Coming from a strong academic family, letter grades and SAT scores were everything (both my parents were educators, however neither of their parents went much past the 4th grade in school). Because my parents couldn’t afford private university for their eight children on a teacher’s salary, academic scholarships were expected. So, the thought that I might just be an average student with a creative, artistic streak was not an idea that was easily entertained or accepted. “Average” and “creative” were code words for “failure” – not just for me but also for my parents. And talking about happiness without academic success was just not in my parent’s vocabulary or probably in any book or thesaurus they may have consulted on the subject. Academic achievement meant better opportunities in their generation. It meant better pay, better jobs, better houses, better appliances, better cars, better families and better children… and, of course, it still does. However, being better doesn’t actually mean happier – not then and certainly not today.
Had I just been able to make out the answers on Lawson’s test form (Lawson was my calculus-loving, former 3rd grade boyfriend, who had a functioning car and offered to drive me to take the SATs) I would have whole-heartedly cheated that day. Without a doubt, I would have cheated my way into a bright and shiny new college education. Fortunately for me, though, little Lawson turned out to be a 6’5 giant at seventeen, and his exceptionally long basketball arms blocked all the answers I so desperately wanted to call my own.
Thanks to Lawson and his gifted arms, I didn’t get into Stanford like one of my older sisters who was awarded a full academic scholarship. No, my path to learning and education would be different – maybe even more challenging and gratifying than studying at an elite university.
(If you’d like to read more about Dida Gazoli’s research findings regarding the letter grading system in Silicon Valley and what teens and their parents are saying about it, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org)