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'Mother on Fire' wants best public school education for all kids

Sandra Tsing Loh went to college and earned an undergraduate degree in science. But her journey into science didn't quite work out.

In fact, says Loh, "after muddling through for a few years, (I) spectacularly bombed my physics GRE, That was the writing on the wall suggesting a switch."

Loh then decided to go into English graduate school at the University of Southern California. It was there that the author/performance artist/commentator found her true, er, callings.

While at USC, Loh "joined an avant-garde music group I met through the back pages of our local alternate weekly. We started throwing live happenings. . . it sort of became what I do."

And a happening it is. When she isn't performing her live show, Mother on Fire, about her clashes with Los Angeles school officials and her philosophy on the crazy L.A. life, you might catch her giving The Loh Down on Science, her National Public Radio segment. Loh has now written a book that is based on her show called Mother on Fire the subtitle of which we can't really use in a family paper. But the book has all the punch of the show, Loh says. "I just did the stage show the other week, so it is indeed something that continues to compliment the book," she said.

Loh, who will appear at the Times Festival of Reading on Saturday, agreed to answer a few questions about motherhood, performing and schools.

Every woman's life changes when she has kids. What was the biggest change for you?

My focus went off my career and into mothering. . . I was amazed at how extremely BIG the act of mothering was, how complete, how fascinating, how satisfying, how fun, how great some of those baby products SMELLED (Mustela . . . hm!). It essentially split me in two. There is work mode and then there is mother mode.

In the meantime, as a writer, becoming a mother has entirely changed my universe in that it has made my universe much larger — it has given me another lens through which to view the world . . ., made me much more aware of not just the schools but of all our public institutions (parks, libraries, etc.), of class (those who can afford private schools and those who cannot), of government obfuscation in terms of how dollars are spent, and more.

A friend of mine just wrote on her Facebook page that the way she knows she is a mom is that she had just uttered the phrase, "No naked cartwheels" to her children. What is the one thing you have said to your kids that you didn't think you would ever hear coming out of your mouth?

"No. No. No. Get down off that wall right now. If you don't, I promise you, you will fall, crack your skull, your eyeballs will go exploding out of your head and you know what your father and I will be doing? We'll be standing right here laughing. That's right. We'll be laughing. Because you never listen. What? Yikes! Oh forget it!" (Cue running and seizing child who is totally ignoring this monologue off wall.)

In one of your articles, you wrote that your Asian father has had a difficult time accepting you as an artist. How do you make that relationship work?

In the some 25 years since I've graduated from college and essentially quit science, I've stuck with art and made some success at it . . . So not only is he resigned to it, he has gotten to enjoy being the star of my work, and being celebrated and hailed wherever he goes. (Also, during one performance art piece I did where I threw money into a crowd, he collected some, and waved it to television cameras: "All that money I put into her college education — I finally got some back!")

I've also come to realize that my dad is a bit of a street performer himself (he always tells stories to entertain the people who pick him up while hitchiking). . . Maybe instead of a happy engineer supporting a family of five in the '60s he was actually a frustrated performance artist! Makes sense now, in a certain way.

Give us your wisdom, oh Mother of Small Children (a phrase Loh uses to describe herself): What is one thing all moms need to know to make it through the day?

I think if you mother and volunteer or mother and work or do any combination of the above you can definitely have a messy house, wrinkled T-shirts, and we won't tell if the occasional french fry or Happy Meal toy surfaces from under the floor of your car. . . . There is a lot of marketing suggesting we have to be anchorwomen who make our kids organic lunches on coordinated plateware in Martha Stewart perfect houses, whereas in practice there are some weeks I've written articles at stoplights on the dashboard of my car while me and the kids ate nothing but chicken McNuggets. I remember dropping one of my McNuggets down the side of the gear shift and making no attempt to retrieve it — what's the point? Who knows what else is down there? This is the way today's mothers live — or at least the way I live! No staff!

Word association: Public school.

The standard cliche negative associations are easy: Shootings, bombings, riots, gangs, No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, testing, testing, no art, no PE, burned out teachers, intractable unions!!!

I'd like to substitute those with: free, American, belongs to everyone, strength of the community, hope of the future.

Now that your daughters (ages 6 and 8) are in public school, do you ever think you will move them out to a private school?

I am committed to public school, which means I continue to aggressively research what options are available and what SHOULD BE AVAILABLE. I believe our tax dollars pay for it, so these are OUR institutions, and we can demand they be better if need be. I consider the time I DON'T spend earning money to pay for private school tuition (time) I can work on understanding the public school system better, to empower myself and all the other parents I'm sharing information with to force our public schools to deliver more of what its customers (that's us!) want. It helps to be periomenopausal and aggressive.

I briefly considered homeschooling when faced with my first $15,000 a year tuition for kindergarten, but then realized even my "crappy" local kindergarten would take my kid off my hands for four hours (free childcare) and she might even learn a few letters. And then I actually visited the school and saw it was much better than that! I continue to try to teach my girls piano, but seem to lack the drill, drill, drill gene. I think there is much their teachers do better.

Your life sounds so interesting, growing up with an Asian father and a German mother. What was life like in your home as a child?

Hard. I always joke that we had potatoes AND rice for dinner. Sadly, my father was very cheap and my mother loved to have adventures, resulting in a fabulous summer vacation . . . IN ETHIOPIA.

Okay, one of your rants is on gifted children. A: Are your children gifted; and B: Is that a question you get asked a lot?

I'm not asked that a lot, as it does seem a very personal question, doesn't it? My kids seem clever enough and they do love to read, so I'm not "worried." Sure, they're gifted! (Most recently they were gifted with lice.) In any case, I look at giftedness with a jaundiced eye because there are plenty of children who peak at 6, 12, or 17 with their giftedness and then go on to not have very successful lives. I got a perfect 800 on my math SAT in high school and today, at 46, can barely complete a Sudoku puzzle (level easy!). Although giftedness is kind of a necessary evil for keeping middle-class families attracted to public schools, I'm also a tad uncomfortable with some of the dynamics that go on around it.

How does your story resonate for mothers outside of L.A.?

I've visited with mothers from Seattle to Brooklyn to Chicago to South Dakota to Northern California and beyond. Everyone has a story. In any town, there is the "good" part of town, the "bad" part of town, the "hot" school, the "bad" school. . . . Degrees may vary, and the populations may look different, but school struggle is something every family goes through.

Except in Florida. I hear public schools are perfect in Florida, and that no mothers have any complaints. I look forward to visiting St. Petersburg and hearing the praises of Florida's responsible and thriving state budget and of its well-funded and expertly-run school district! I'll bring my reporter's notebook.

How is school working out for your kids now?

While they have some days they prefer (chess!) and some they like less (timed multiplication tests in third grade), they enjoy school — it's their hub.

Sherry Robinson edits the Go Momma page on tampabay.com and writes for the Whoa, Momma! blog. She can be reached at robinson@sptimes.com or (727)893-8305.

Meet the author Sandra Tsing Loh will talk about her book Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$ Story About Parenting! at 11:30 a.m. at the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida, 140 Seventh Ave. S.

'Mother on Fire' wants best public school education for all kids 10/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2008 4:17pm]
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