Don’t believe everything you hear about rising graduation rates

Six months after a story celebrating the fact that all graduating seniors at one of D.C.’s lowest-performing high schools were admitted to college, NPR has reported a major qualification. Most of those students missed more than six weeks of school, and teachers and students confirm that many who graduated didn’t meet minimum graduation requirements.

This is a story not just about one low-performing high school in D.C. but rather a cautionary tale about what can happen anywhere when administrators and teachers are pressured to do the impossible: ensure that students who enter high school years behind grade level nevertheless graduate within four years. Ballou High School may be an extreme example, but there’s evidence that stories like this are behind much of the recent ballyhooed increase in the graduation rate.

Back in June of 2017, NPR ran a feel-good story on All Things Considered about Ballou’s apparent success in getting all 190 of its graduates accepted to at least one college–despite the fact that only 3% of students at the school had scored proficient or above on reading tests in 2016.

“With high dropout rates and low test scores,” reporter Kate McGee asked in the story, “how did this happen?” Her answer at the time: strong support from within D.C. public schools, plus donations that financed college tours.

Still, something seemed fishy. Especially after the Washington Post reported, earlier that same month, that more than a quarter of the teachers at Ballou had quit since the school year started.

To McGee’s credit, this week she–with help from others at NPR–followed up. This time, the explanation for the 100% college acceptance rate was, in the words of one teacher at the school: “smoke and mirrors.”

Nearly a dozen current and recent Ballou teachers told NPR they were pressured to pass chronically absent students and others who lacked the credits to graduate. Some of these 12th-graders were unable to read and write. If teachers complained about the situation, the administration made sure they got poor teacher evaluations. (And somehow, the size of Ballou’s graduating class shrank from 190 to 164 between NPR’s story in June and the recent follow-up.)

McGee and NPR deserve kudos for uncovering the seamy underbelly of their feel-good story. And the Washington Post–which never reported the 100% college acceptance rate but did report, in March, that all seniors at the school applied to college–deserves serious criticism for apparently ignoring the scandal. (As of this writing, they haven’t even mentioned it in their coverage.)

Some in D.C. feel the Post does a fine job of covering education. And it’s true their story about teacher turnover at Ballou and other schools was a good investigative piece, along with another one in July about how schools are making their suspension rates look lower than they truly are.

But anyone who has tried to cover education in D.C. (as I have) knows that there’s a lot the Post overlooks. And in recent months, as its new ownership seems to be directing more resources towards national news, the paper’s local education coverage has suffered. High turnover on the education beat hasn’t helped.

On the Ballou story, fortunately, NPR and its D.C. affiliate, WAMU, stepped up to the plate. Let’s hope they’ll continue to do so on other stories. But that probably won’t change the sad fact that no one is devoting much attention to education analysis in D.C.

Theoretically, the Post has two education columnists who are supposed to provide this kind of local analysis. But one, Jay Mathews, lives in California and usually rehearses the same themes he’s been harping on for years. The other, Valerie Strauss, has a predictable and reflexive viewpoint (anti-Common-Core, anti-charter school and anti-education reform in general). And most of the time, she simply reprints columns written by others–most of which have nothing to do with D.C.

A story like Ballou’s cries out for analysis. Why did this happen? How can it be prevented from happening again? What’s the solution to the seemingly intractable problem of high school seniors who are far from being ready to graduate? And how long will these poorly prepared students last when they get to college?

Here’s my own two cents. Mandating increased graduation rates–or any other reform that focuses solely on the high school level–will never work when you’re dealing with a student population that is far from where it’s expected to be. Like banning suspensions or pressuring schools to boost test scores, these superficial, top-down reforms can only lead to subterfuge and the devaluation of a high school diploma. (Just look at Prince George’s County for another homegrown example.)

With heroic efforts, some high schools may be able to take entering 9th graders who are reading at a 4th or 5th grade level and truly equip them for college–but probably not in four years. Some D.C. charter high schools that have seen good results–like KIPP College Prep, Washington Latin, and Thurgood Marshall–prefer to keep students for five or six years rather than graduate them, unprepared, in a mere four.

But the better solution to this problem is to look to where it begins–not in high school but in elementary school and before. Especially in high-poverty elementary schools, we waste precious years by giving kids a steady diet of reading and math rather than building their knowledge of the world by immersing them in history, science, and the arts. The theory is that practicing “reading comprehension strategies” like “finding the main idea” day after day on simple texts will equip students to read any text that gets thrown at them, including a high school textbook, regardless of whether they have the background knowledge that would actually enable them to understand it.

As cognitive scientists have long known, that way lies disaster–the kind of disaster NPR has uncovered at Ballou. If we want low-income students from less-educated families to get the same kind of high school education their more affluent peers are getting, we need to give them access to the same knowledge those peers are taking in at home. And we need to start giving it to them as early as possible.

Never Say Never–or First

When people ask me what I’m working on, I generally say this: a historical novel set in 1807 that’s based on the life of a woman named Eliza Anderson, who was–as far as I’ve been able to determine–the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I’ve omitted the “as far as I’ve been able to determine.” After scouring various secondary sources on the history of women journalists and editors, I hadn’t come across any earlier female editors. Most sources identify Mary Clarke Carr, who edited a women’s magazine from 1814 to 1816, as the first female editor, and she came seven years after Anderson. So I had begun to feel pretty confident that Anderson was the first.

But, just as one should never say “never,” one should probably never say “the first.” I’m currently reading a book called Learning to Stand and Speak, by Mary Kelley. It may sound like a manual for dog trainers, but it’s actually a history of women in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century. The title refers to the explosion of women’s education during that period, and what women were able to do with that education in a society where many roads were closed to them. The answer, in a nutshell: do good works, teach, and/or write.

In discussing the last of these options, Kelley mentions an anonymous “Lady” who apparently edited a magazine called the Humming Bird in–wait for it–1798. That is, obviously, a full nine years before Eliza Anderson came along in 1807. So (in my own attempts to learn to stand and speak) I stand corrected, and admit that I misspoke.

Compared to Anderson’s magazine, the Observer, the Humming Bird appears to have been a fairly modest affair. Only two issues have survived, the inaugural issue in April 1798 and another issue from June of the same year. Undoubtedly there were other issues, at least between April and June, but it’s not clear how long the Humming Bird sang. And the issues that have survived are only four pages long, whereas the Observer ran to sixteen pages that appeared every week for an entire year.

More significantly, the Humming Bird presented itself as a publication specifically for women–or rather, “ladies”–whereas the Observer set out to appeal to a general audience. Initially Anderson tried to conceal her gender (even those who knew full well she was a woman began their letters to the editor with “Dear Sir”), but after a while, perhaps because the secret had gotten out, she came out of the closet. In an editorial titled “Speak of Me As I Am,” she acknowledged that “much curiosity has been excited to know, what manner of woman our female editor may be,” and proceeded to describe herself.

The anonymous editor of the Humming Bird, on the other hand, alluded to her sex in the very first issue, and presented her introductory “Address” to “those of her Sex who see fit to Patronize the work.” Like Anderson, the Humming Bird editor (or “compiler,” as she referred to herself) realized that there might be curiosity about such an unorthodox undertaking: “A Lady paper is a novelty in this part of the country [Connecticut], and many will predict that it cannot be supported.” But, she went on, “I find there is taste enough among the ladies to encourage a work of this kind, and hope there is spirit enough to keep such a work from sinking, if properly conducted.”

The Humming Bird‘s editor went to some pains to reassure her readers that her entry into what historians might label “the public sphere” wouldn’t interfere with her duties in the private one. “I know it will be agreed that it is a woman’s business to attend to her family concerns,” she wrote, “and that she has no business to be inquisitive about what is going forward in the world.” But she argued that it was possible for her, and her readers, to find time for the magazine without neglecting their domestic responsibilities: “I am not concerned, however, but that I shall have time both to clothe my family and to find entertainment which shall be satisfactory to you; and if you will divide the time properly, you will find time to do all your business, to read the Humming Bird, and to earn a small sum to pay the Printer for printing it.”

Anderson made no reference to whether or not she was neglecting her domestic duties. And to judge from at least one contemporary account, she wasn’t particularly zealous in that department. The architect Benjamin Latrobe, who wrote arts criticism for the earliest issues of the Observer, remarked in 1812 that Anderson’s house was “miserably out of sorts,” and that Anderson’s daughter was “not well attended to.” Anderson yearned for the life of the mind, for books–Latrobe reported that the house was full of them, and that she had 400 of her own, quite a collection for that era.

But while they may have had different priorities, both Anderson and the Humming Bird editor recognized that women, or at least elite women, were in a position to devote some of their energies to literary endeavors. The Humming Bird editor, seeking contributions, solicited “the aid of those ladies whose situation in life give them time and opportunities to write.” And Anderson argued that in a community where men were “almost entirely engrossed” by the demands of business, a woman like herself should have been applauded for trying to “promote the cause of taste, literature, and morals by undertaking the arduous employment of editor to a weekly paper.” (“But alas! luckless dame,” she continued, such was not the case.)

They had other things in common, too. An essay on “affectation” in the Humming Bird could almost have come from the pages of the Observer. “Can it be too much lamented,” asked the writer in the Humming Bird, “that the beauty and simplicity of nature should give way to the disgusting rules of studied art?” Nine years later, Anderson (writing under a pseudonym) complained of “this ridiculous rage for improving [women’s] natural graces by the assistance of art.” Affectation was apparently quite a serious problem in the late 18th and early 19th century.

And Anderson, for all her implicit challenges to male authority, shared with the Humming Bird editor and most other women of the time a reluctance to follow her arguments to their logical conclusions. She may not have alluded to her domestic duties, but in other ways she subscribed to the traditional conception of the feminine role. While she published “political communications” (as long as they were “written well and with temper”), she protested that she herself had “never so much attended to the subject of politics as to entitle her to an opinion.” And she criticized the practice of public examinations at girls’ schools because it endangered “modesty, the sweetest ornament of the sex.” Public acknowledgment of young women’s merits might lead them to become “insolent, forward, and presuming,” she said. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that she was indignantly defending herself against those very same charges.

In the end, both the Humming Bird editor and Anderson illustrate, to different degrees, the dilemma faced by educated women in this period. They were, so to speak, all dressed up with nowhere to go: educated, but not employable–and perhaps afraid that if they challenged their assigned role too openly, they might lose the privileges and freedoms they’d managed to acquire in the preceding decades.

And in the end, it really doesn’t matter whether Anderson was “first” or not. She was close enough to first, and far away enough from us, that her accomplishment–like that of the anonymous editor of the Humming Bird–is impressive and worthy of note. And if neither of them is as modern as we might like in their opinions, we need to keep in mind what they were up against.

Traveling Books

This evening, on my way to the pizza place around the corner from my house (what a godsend—a place that sells gourmet pizza that you pick up raw and bake at home, albeit for a hefty price), I happened to spot a book on a bench.

Years ago, a neighborhood group raised money to install several attractive cast iron benches on the stretch of Connecticut Avenue just below Chevy Chase Circle, an alluring verdant island with a lovely fountain that unfortunately is inaccessible to pedestrians lacking the suicidal urge to cross three lanes of traffic so chaotic that even drivers hesitate to enter the fray. But I digress.

I hardly ever see anyone actually sitting on one of these cast iron benches, although that presumably was the idea when they were installed (citizens who contributed towards their installation received naming rights, and my favorite resembles an epitaph, with a man’s name, his dates, and the cryptic phrase “I tried”). Basically the benches just sit there looking decorative. Which is why, I suppose, the book caught my eye.

It was a hardback, black in color, with a typed note taped to its front cover. “Traveling Book,” the note said. “I’m not Lost—I’m on a journey.” Further down, this phrase was translated into Spanish, German, French, Italian, and (I think) Dutch. The remainder of the note explained that you could go to and look up a certain ID number to find out where the book had been and “maybe make an entry as to where I’m going!!!” (The book seemed to enjoy referring to itself in the first person, not to mention using exclamation points with the abandon of an adolescent girl.)

Okay, I thought, intent on picking up my pizza before someone else ran off with it (I had placed an order in advance), if it’s still here on my way back, maybe I’ll take it. It was, and I did.

It turned out to be Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy, not a book I’d ever heard of or was likely to read. I don’t have anything against Tom Clancy (supposedly he’s used a friend of mine as the model for one of his characters), but I have a tower of books next to my bed, waiting to be read, and thrillers aren’t really my thing. But the note said, helpfully, “Pick me up, read (or not), and release me!”

Absolved of any obligation to actually read the book, I thought, why not? It was an intriguing idea, this “traveling book,” kind of like a message in a bottle. Tomorrow I’ll be going to an airport, as it happens. What might happen if I left (or “released”) it there, I wondered? Who would pick it up? Where would they take it? Would one of those foreign language renditions of “I’m not lost” actually come in handy?

And where, I wondered, had this book already been? As soon as I got back to the house I logged on to to find out. To my disappointment, I was actually the first person to pick it up. It had been “wild released … somewhere in Maryland, USA” earlier that day, by “donhunt,” a resident of Chevy Chase, MD. Chances are that “somewhere in Maryland” was actually Chevy Chase, MD, which is only a few hundred feet from the bench where I picked it up (the MD-DC border runs through the middle of Chevy Chase Circle). Allowing for a bit of poetic license, it’s possible that “donhunt” actually left the book on the bench where I found it.

I also discovered, while on, that it’s a “social networking site” that’s been around for over 10 years and has as its mission the aim of “connecting people through books.” There are over 1,175,000 “Book Crossers” (of which I’m now one) and over nine million books in circulation.

Book Crossing also describes itself as a “celebration of literature and a place where books get new life.” I suppose this is true if the people who pick them up actually read them, and even more so if they avail themselves of the opportunity to post comments about the book on the website. Even with all the books gathering dust on my night table, I might have been tempted to read some other book (possibly “How to Toilet Train Your Cat,” listed as one of the “recently released” Book Crossing titles—I’d actually settle for a book on how to get your cat to use the litter box). But the book I happened to pick up just didn’t exert that powerful a pull.

Still, it might prove irresistible to the next person to pick it up, possibly someone about to embark on a long plane flight without (horrors!) anything to read, someone who is less averse than I am to schlepping a hardback book on a trip. Whoever it is, I hope they’ll record what happens on

Say what you will about e-books being the wave of the future—this is one thing you’ll never be able to do with them.

Blog Tour Rollout!

Are you ready? The Mother Daughter Show book blog tour begins July 1 and runs through the end of the month, with 14 different stops!

Me, I’m more than ready: I’ve already written the various posts or answered the questions that were put to me by the bloggers. And I’m really impressed that there are readers who are enthusiastic enough to not only devour books but to blog about them regularly as well. The Internet may have killed off any number of print book reviews and even jeopardized the publishing industry as we know it, but the good news is that there are a thousand book blogs blooming out there.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the world of book blogs, here’s a brief and totally unscientific overview, based mostly on the 14 blogs that are hosting me.

Some of the blogs focus on a particular aspect of writing. My first stop, on July 1, is The Character Connection, which “explores the motivation and likability of characters”—a subject I’ve often thought about, since my agent told me I needed to do some rewriting because my main character wasn’t likable enough. The prompt I got from that blog was to write about how I develop my characters.

On July 13, I’ll be visiting a blog that focuses on plot—appropriately titled The Plot Thickens. For that one, I wrote a post on how I develop a plot—another thing I’ve given some thought to, since my agent also urged me to do extensive rewriting because I didn’t have enough of a plot. (A theme is beginning to emerge here!)

Another blog, City Girl Who Loves to Read, where I’ll be on July 31, asked me to write about how I develop a setting—one question my agent didn’t raise with me, but which I found pretty interesting to write about, since the settings of my two novels are vastly different (one is set in the 1790s, the other in 2009). Literary R&R (July 20) focused on voice—specifically how I captured the voices of the teenage daughters in the book.

Then there were the bloggers who tailored their questions to the themes of my book. Mom in Love with Fiction, where I’ll be visiting on July 7, asked me to write about “how moms have to learn to model behavior versus just telling their daughters how they should behave.” Kimba the Caffeinated Book Reviewer (July 10) wanted to know about “connecting with your teen through books and music.” Crazed Mind (July 11) was curious about what topics I’d recommend for her and her college-age daughter to discuss if they both read the book (I hope they will!). Christie’s Book Reviews (July 9) wanted to know what would happen if Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush were the mothers in my book—a scenario I confess I had never considered.

A couple of the blogs focused on the genre of satire. Novel d’Tales (July 19) asked, “Writing humor/satire: when is it too much?” The Book Connection (July 17), in a more neutral vein, asked me to address “the fun and challenges of writing satire.”

Lastly, there were the blogs that posed a list of questions—fortunately, questions I could pick and choose from. Most of the questions didn’t seem to be keyed to my book, and I suspect all authors get pretty much the same list. Some of them were specifically focused on writing (The Wormhole, July 23—“When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?”), and others were not (I Am a Reader, Not a Writer, July 16—“Skittles or M&Ms?”).

All in all, it was quite a workout, but not an unpleasant one. I actually had a couple of new insights about the writing process, and I think I managed to say at least a few things about The Mother Daughter Show that I hadn’t said before.

I hereby invite all readers to check in at as many of my blog tour stops as you can—and leave me a comment or question if you’re so moved. Click here for a link to get the entire schedule of the tour, along with links to the various blogs. And thanks to all the bloggers who are hosting me!


Blog Slog

I’m going to be on blog hiatus for a while. That is, I’m going to be writing for other people’s blogs instead of my own. This is what’s known as a “blog tour.”

When I started telling people that The Mother Daughter Show was going to be published, they often asked if I was going on a book tour. The short answer to that is “no.” Very few authors go on book tours. The ones who do go have major publishers, and even most of those authors don’t get sent out on the road.

Book tours are expensive, for one thing, and small publishers like mine don’t have the resources to send their authors around the country. And, glamorous as it may sound, I’ve read enough complaints from authors to understand that a book tour can actually be pretty hellish. Not only do you have to fly around the country, reorienting yourself and giving the same spiel over and over, but sometimes you get to a book store and find that the audience is pretty sparse. You might even find that the only audience members are employees of the book store—I seem to recall having read that anecdote more than once.

But what has taken the place of the book tour—for many authors with lower profiles than, say, John Grisham—is the virtual book tour. (Come to think of it, John Grisham is so high profile that he probably opts to skip the book tour, because he can sell just as many books without it.)

Here’s how it works: there are untold numbers of blogs out there, many of them focusing on books. These hard-working bloggers, bless their hearts, are often happy to have someone else do the blogging for a change. And so they “host” guest authors, who write guest blog posts or just answer some questions posed by the host. On the day that the author “visits” the blog, readers can post comments, and the author can respond.

Obviously, this is a lot less expensive than a book tour, and potentially less humiliating as well. It may be disappointing if no one posts any comments the day you’re guest blogging, but it’s a lot less painful than standing before a podium and seeing only two or three faces in the audience.

Still, it’s a fair amount of work—especially if you’re booked into 14 different blogs, as I am. And while some of the suggested topics and questions are thought-provoking, others are … well, not exactly what you would have come up with yourself. But you sometimes get off-the-wall questions during real book tours too. The challenge is to take the question and figure out how to manipulate it so you end up talking about something you actually want to talk about. (One way to learn to do this is by listening to politicians—lucky for me this is an election year!)

All of this is by way of saying that since I have to write 14 blog posts for other people’s blogs, I’m not going to have the time or energy to write anything for my own blog for the next few weeks. But I’ll be back eventually.

Meanwhile, you can take a look at my blog tour schedule by clicking here. It doesn’t start until July, but keep it in mind. I’d love to hear from you while I’m on “tour.”

A Vengeful Screed?

I’m about to do something that no author should ever do: respond to a negative review.

Generally speaking, I abide by the rule that one should take one’s lumps in silence. It’s never easy to hear criticism of your writing, but if you’re going to make it as a writer it’s something you have to get used to. And I have. Nor am I so naïve as to think that everyone who reads The Mother Daughter Show will love it. There are very few books, if any, that are universally beloved. Usually, when I read a review by someone who didn’t like the book I remind myself of all the people who did like it, and I move on.

But this review—an Amazon reader review—is harder to brush off. The reviewer didn’t just attack my writing, she attacked me as a person. And, as I’ll explain in a moment, she did an injustice to the very people she was trying to defend.

The review, headed “A Vengeful Screed, Not a Satire,” takes issue with my novel because, according to the reviewer, “it’s based on TRUE EVENTS that are thinly veiled as satire and that defame three real-life mothers who dared to reign [sic] in the author-Broadway wannabe from taking over a sweet tradition.”

The reviewer admits in the review that she has no first-hand knowledge of these “TRUE EVENTS.” As far as I can make out, she’s a friend of someone who was involved in the real Mother-Daughter Show and who feels that she, or someone she knows, has been portrayed in the novel in a less than flattering light.

It’s hard to know where to begin. First of all, as I’ve said repeatedly, while the book was inspired by a real experience, it is—and I’m going to put this in all caps—FICTION. Yes, a few things that are in the book did happen, but huge amounts of it came from my imagination.

This is especially true of the characters. While the three main characters fill roles vis-a-vis the fictional show that were, more or less, filled by real women involved in the real show—the Writer, the Organizer, the Keeper of the Peace—these characters are creatures of my own invention. I had no interest in turning the real women in the show into fictional characters, and even if I had, I couldn’t have done it. I simply didn’t know them well enough to write about them in the kind of detail a novelist needs to command if she’s going to make her characters come alive.

And even if you were to accept the reviewer’s claim that my characters somehow “are” real people, they’re actually not that bad. Sure, they’re flawed—all literary characters need flaws, especially the ones in a comic novel—but to me they’re fundamentally sympathetic, and I know that many readers perceive them that way as well. I didn’t want to write a story that had villains in it. When my characters behave less than admirably, as all of them do on occasion, I wanted readers to understand their motivations and be able to imagine themselves behaving similarly. Yes, the book is a satire, but it’s a gentle one.

Not to mention that if you accept the reviewer’s logic, one of the women I’m “defaming” is actually myself, since one of the characters plays a role parallel to the one I played in the real show.

As for the reviewer’s contention that I was a “Broadway wannabe” who tried to “take over” the show, that one is actually kind of amusing—or would be, in a different context. Suffice it to say that I had no such ambitions.

And as for the idea that the show was a “sweet tradition”—well, some people feel that way, I’m sure. But I’ve spoken to quite a few women who, over the years, had a less than sweet experience. I’ve met women who told me they would go home and cry after the planning meetings because the other mothers were so cruel to them. I’ve met women who were in this show 25 years ago and still find the experience too painful to talk about. The year I was involved in the show, I’m sure there were women on the periphery who thought it was all very sweet, but anyone who knew what was really going on was well aware there were serious problems.

Is it worth putting some women through such unpleasantness year after year so that other women can continue what is, from their perspective, a sweet tradition? I don’t think so. And apparently neither does the school, since as of this year they’ve abolished the show. (Some people think the school took that action because of my book, and credit or blame me accordingly—one Mother-Daughter Show veteran told me I’d performed a “public service.” But I’m confident the school didn’t need me to point out that the tradition had gotten out of hand.)

Of course, most likely none of what I’ve just said will make any difference to the reviewer or others who share her point of view. But I do feel that in one respect the reviewer got so carried away by her strong feelings that she unintentionally injured the very people she was trying to defend. In her zeal to denounce me, she opened the door for readers to take everything in the novel as literal truth—including, for example, the philandering husband I invented for one character and the bulimic daughter I invented for another. I suppose it’s possible that the characters’ real-life counterparts have such family members, but if they do, it’s a total coincidence. And either way, I can’t understand why anyone would want to give the public the impression that these things are true—especially someone who considers herself a friend of the people involved.

I didn’t set out to write a “vengeful screed,” but if I’m totally honest, I have to admit that I was upset when I began writing the book three years ago—not because my song lyrics had been rejected, as the reviewer would have it, but because of the cruel and sometimes underhanded way people were interacting with each other. But as I wrote and rewrote the manuscript, which ultimately went through about thirteen drafts and underwent substantial changes, my own emotions and the facts of the real-life show receded. My focus was simply on writing a decent novel. And although it wasn’t always easy to do all that rewriting, I’m very glad I did. Reflecting and revising not only makes for better writing, it also minimizes the chances that the final product will end up sounding like—well, like a vengeful screed.

That’s why I waited 24 hours after composing this blog post, during which I turned it over in my mind quite a bit. Then I read it again and made some changes before posting it. I can only wonder if the Amazon reviewer did the same.

Who Are You Calling “Catty”?

The other evening I visited a book group that had read The Mother Daughter Show—something I’m always happy to do. After the usual preliminaries, one of the women (as usual, all the members were women) began a comment by saying, “I thought your book was really well written. I mean really, really well written.”

I thanked her, but something about her tone alerted me to the probability that there was a “but” coming. And there was.

“But I had a hard time with all the cattiness.”

I felt a wave of disappointment. Not because she had an objection to the book—I understand that not every reader is going to love everything about my book. But in my own mind, my characters aren’t catty. They may not always act admirably, but I’ve tried to provide understandable motivations for their actions, and my hope is that readers will sympathize with them while recognizing their flaws. “Catty” just doesn’t sound like an adjective you’d apply to someone you found sympathetic.

I murmured some response, but later I found myself mulling over the remark. I wished I’d asked the woman to be more specific—not just in pinpointing what behavior by my characters she’d found catty, but also what she meant by the word.

It seems to me it’s an adjective that’s applied exclusively to conflicts between women. But do we use it to describe all conflicts between women, maybe because we’re uncomfortable with the very idea of women fighting? Or do we mean a certain kind of behavior? Do we ever describe men as being catty? (Let’s be clear here: I mean heterosexual men.) And are there any adjectives that we use specifically to describe conflicts between men?

All of these questions began swirling around in my brain. Not being able to track down the woman who made the “cattiness” remark, I added the questions I’ve posed above to the Reading Guide on my website. Maybe they’ll come up at the next book group I visit.

I also looked up “catty” in the dictionary, and I was surprised to find that there was no gender reference. The definitions were given as “1. Subtly cruel or malicious; spiteful,” and “2. Catlike; stealthy.” As a cat lover, I can go with “stealthy,” but I do feel I should register an objection, on behalf of the feline population, to the linkage of “cat” and the first definition, which of course is the more common usage. I’ve seen my three cats go after each other, and there’s nothing subtle about it—or particularly cruel or spiteful, for that matter. They just fight. Of course, they’re all boys. And somehow, we do seem to associate the word “cat” with women. Think “catfight.” Or “cathouse.”

So let’s get back to the gender angle. Clearly, the woman at the book group meant something specific to women. The question is, what?

I don’t think women have any monopoly on cruelty, spite, or malice. I’m inclined to focus on the word “subtle.” Actually, I’m inclined to more or less junk the dictionary definition and offer one of my own: to me, “catty” connotes behavior that is two-faced or insidious. For instance, when someone turns around and begins to tear into an ostensible friend as soon as she (or possibly he) leaves the room. My hunch is that this is what a lot of people mean, and that they think of women as being far more likely to engage in such behavior than men. (There’s historical precedent for this. Today, while doing research for a historical novel, I came across this passage in a magazine article from 1807: “As to the belles, when any opportunity is given to them to declare their sentiments, they will commence a brisk cannonading against the dress, reputation, and awkward behavior of others, and tear in pieces without mercy the whole circle of their dearest friends.”)

Generalizations based on gender are of course fraught with risk. Neither women nor men are monolithic groups. But, admitting that my observations are totally unscientific, I have noticed some differences between the way males and females engage in conflict.

When my son was perhaps twelve, I overheard him and his friends playing video games in the basement. They were loudly and continuously berating each other, calling each other “stupid idiots” and similar epithets. I raced upstairs to alert my husband, and asked him whether we shouldn’t intervene. “That’s just the way boys talk to each other,” he shrugged.

On the other hand, when my daughter was about ten, she got a letter from two supposed friends of hers, laden with all sorts of obscure verbiage. They seemed to be telling her they didn’t want to be friends with her any more, but it was impossible to figure out why.

I don’t want to place too much weight on these two incidents, but it does strike me that women tend to be more indirect in their confrontations. For instance, in The Mother Daughter Show, some women who object to a script another woman has written decide to simply replace it with a different version without telling her, on the grounds that it will be “kinder” not to confront her directly. And at that book group I was at the other night, a woman told a story about an annual sale at her kids’ school that was co-opted by another group of women in a similar manner. (And while I wouldn’t call the woman who made the “cattiness” remark catty, there’s no doubt she was trying to soften her criticism by being indirect.)

If in fact women do engage in these kinds of subterfuges and machinations, I would suggest that it stems from an aversion to conflict. We may say it’s “kinder” not to confront someone directly, but more likely we’re trying to be kind to ourselves. After all, when that person ultimately finds out that we’ve secretly betrayed her, she’s likely to feel worse than she would if we’d been more open about our disagreements. It’s no fun to be stabbed in the front, but there’s a reason “stabbed in the back” sounds worse.

I consider myself a pretty conflict-averse person, and yet I’ve found myself embroiled in a few unpleasant tiffs over the years—and they’ve all been with other women. But I don’t think that’s because women are more likely to have conflicts, direct or indirect (and I’ve experienced both). I think it’s because I’m more likely to interact with other women.

And there’s a reason for that. The fact is, my positive, rewarding interactions with other women have far outweighed the negative ones. My close friends are almost all women, and those friendships have helped sustain me. That’s what I prefer to focus on, and that’s what I tried to bring out in The Mother Daughter Show—that it’s not the petty differences between women that are important, but the bonds of love and friendship that persist despite those differences. If only there were a gender-specific word to describe them.

Career Re-Entry: A Perilous Prospect

Finding a job these days is a daunting prospect. But imagine how much more daunting it can be if you haven’t held a job for the past ten, fifteen, even twenty years. You worry that employers will look askance at that huge hole on your resume. Your skills may have gotten rusty—or perhaps, given the rapid pace of change, obsolete. And you’re going to be competing against energetic, tech-savvy applicants half your age.

It’s a situation faced all too often by women who’ve chosen to take time off from their careers to care full-time for their kids and who later—whether by choice or necessity or both—try to get back into the workforce.

I’ve been lucky. Unsure of whether I wanted to continue my career in the law or stay home with my kids, I managed to find an interesting and fulfilling part-time job when I was pregnant with my first child. Later I turned to writing, which (in addition to being the one thing I’ve always wanted to do) gave me the ability to control my hours.

But I’ve long been interested in the difficulties faced by mothers seeking jobs after having gone cold turkey from the work world. I’ve had friends in that position, and I’m well aware I could easily have been there myself. Beyond that, it’s a national, maybe even a global problem as well as a personal one. These women have talents and skills that could benefit the economy and society. If they can’t find a way to put them to use, we all lose.

So when I saw an opportunity to weave this theme into my novel The Mother Daughter Show, I jumped at it. Years ago, when I was freelancing for a magazine, I tried to write a feature article on stay-at-home mothers who were going back to work. I interviewed a lot of interesting women, but few of them were willing to be profiled intensively and identified by name. Not only were they wary of the invasion of their privacy, they didn’t want to be seen as somehow speaking for all women in their position—feelings I could readily understand. So if I wanted to write about this phenomenon, fiction seemed like a better approach.

My character Amanda practiced law unhappily for a brief period of time, as I did. When it became economically feasible for her to stay home, she jumped at the chance. With three young kids, she barely had time to contemplate whether she would ever pick up her legal career again—and she wasn’t exactly eager to do that anyway. As her kids got older, she found the idea of looking for a job after such a long hiatus paralyzing. When the book begins, Amanda’s youngest child is about to leave for college. And she’s under serious pressure to make some money: she and her husband have just lost their nest egg in the 2008 stock market crash, and they’re facing the prospect of three college tuitions.

It’s hard enough to return to a career after a long absence when you really loved what you were doing. But trying to launch a reentry when you’re unenthusiastic about the job you left makes it way harder. Some women, like Amanda, always disliked their jobs. Others find that the years they’ve spent at home have changed what they want. One of the women I interviewed for my abortive magazine article had a successful career in the aircraft industry before quitting to stay home with her kids. When a divorce forced her to start thinking about a return to work, she discovered she no longer wanted to be a part of the macho world where she’d once thrived. Instead, she decided to get a graduate degree in school counseling.

Whether you’re returning to the same career or embarking on something new, there’s bound to be anxiety and trepidation. Thankless as the job of being a stay-at-home mom often is, at least you’re your own boss (unless, of course, you have a tyrannical toddler). And you can wear what you like. If you’re accustomed to that degree of freedom, you may not relish the prospect of taking orders from someone else (possibly someone younger than you) and squeezing yourself into constricting work clothes.

And a woman who doesn’t feel she’s exercised her intellect much lately may come to doubt her abilities. I’m not one to underestimate the psychic rewards of unpaid work—whether in the home or outside it—but there’s nothing that says “validation” like a regular paycheck. When I was doing background research for my novel, I interviewed Linda Mercurio, Director of the Lawyer Reentry Program at American University Law School, who said the women she counsels have often “lost that sense of themselves as a professional.” She reminds them that they’ve “never lost that piece of themselves,” and that what made them successful before will make them successful again.

If you do develop the confidence and have the luck to snare a job, you may find—as Amanda does—that you’ve now got two jobs: the one you’re getting paid for, and the one you were doing at home for free. Old habits die hard, and husbands and children who are used to having someone else pick up after them, cook their food, and do their laundry may be slow to adjust. And of course, you don’t stop being a mom just because you’ve gotten a job.

The Mother Daughter Show being a comic novel, I gave Amanda a happy ending: after she suffers through a stint as a temporary employee doing the dreariest of legal work, the (non-legal) job of her dreams falls into her lap. Certainly many real women—even in this difficult economy—eventually find a way to successfully reintegrate themselves into the world of work. But it should be easier than it is. Someday, I hope, society will recognize that the talents and intelligence a woman once brought to her career haven’t vanished while she’s been home with her kids. In fact, given what it takes to raise a kid, they’ve probably gotten a lot sharper.

Mothers and Daughters

It’s common knowledge that it’s tough to be a teenage girl, especially towards the end of high school. Cliques, boys, emotional upheavals, term papers, SATs, college essays—and the prospect, both scary and exciting, of heading off to college.

But what about the mothers? We suffer too, just watching it all. Or trying to. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the mother of a teenage girl yearns to know more than that girl wants to reveal. And the prospect of our daughters’ heading out the door—never to return to the family home in quite the same way—can make us a little crazy.

We hover, we grasp, we pry. Maybe we feel we have just a few more precious months to correct whatever has gone wrong in our relationships with our daughters—to try to achieve a closeness that the girls themselves are, simultaneously, trying to avoid. Their behavior may drive us to distraction, but the thought that we’ll soon be waking up in the morning and finding them gone has us in a panic. And through it all there’s the depressing realization that your daughter is now a lot more central to your life than you are to hers.

One reason I wrote my novel The Mother Daughter Show—which I began when my own daughter was a high school senior—was to explore the eternally fraught mother-daughter relationship. Each of my three main characters has a troubled relationship with her 18-year-old daughter. (Of course, there are also mother-daughter relationships that are happy and trouble-free, but just try writing a novel about a happy, trouble-free relationship!)

Each of these relationships is different, but none of these mothers really knows what’s going on in her teenage daughter’s life. And they’re dying to. As a mother you can understand, on an intellectual basis, that your daughter is going through a normal, healthy process of individuation, causing her to guard her privacy like a hawk. But at the same time, like my character Amanda, you sure as hell want to know who she’s talking to on the phone, or even just what happened at school that day. Teenage girls often react to such questions as though they were directly lifted from the script for the Spanish Inquisition.

Basically, they want you out of their lives. Until they want you in it. This phenomenon was neatly captured by the title of a popular book about relationships between teenagers and their parents: Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall. (Another title I love, for a book specifically about mothers and daughters: I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!)

Of course there’s also the “cool mom” model: mothers who pride themselves on their close relationships with their daughters. Their daughters tell them everything, and they share all the same likes and dislikes—or so they think. Maybe they’re right, and maybe I’m jealous of them. Or maybe I just needed a plot twist. But I decided to have my “cool mom” character, Susan, turn out to be the most clueless of them all: to her surprise, she discovers that her daughter has an eating disorder, and it seems like half the school knows about it.

For many parents it feels natural to assume, as Susan does, that your child is just like you, especially if you’re the mother of a daughter. She looks like me, a mother may think. She talks like me. She’s going through many of the same experiences. So she must be me, only younger! As my daughter would say, “False.”

Even if you come to realize that your daughter really isn’t you, you still want her to like you. And that can be a problem if, like my character Barb, you have a daughter who is constantly testing the limits and getting into trouble. For many of us baby-boomers, our own parents were more authoritarian, or at least more distant. But, maybe because we were young in the 1960s, it’s hard for us to see ourselves as authority figures. Ideally, we’d like to be our kids’ friends, even if they have no interest in being friends with us.  But at some point, difficult as it may be, almost all parents—mothers included—are going to have to play the heavy.

One thing I realized when I was planning to write The Mother Daughter Show is that maternal relationships don’t arise in a vacuum. The way we interact with our daughters has a lot to do with how our own mothers treated us, whether we like it or not. And so each of my main characters also has a mother of her own, with whom she has—you guessed it—a troubled relationship.

I’ve known some women whose relationships with their mothers were so toxic that they shied away from the idea of having children at all, fearful they’d be doomed to inflict on another generation what they suffered themselves. Some mothers are at the opposite extreme, eager to replicate their own happy relationships. Most of us, I suspect, are somewhere in the middle, hoping to keep the good stuff but do better in areas where we feel our mothers fell short. But unconsciously, we may find ourselves repeating their mistakes too, listening in horror to our own voices as we utter the same words that once made us cringe.

Maybe, like Amanda, we shrank from what we perceived as our own mothers’ emotional neediness, but then find ourselves feeling just as needy with our daughters. Maybe, like Susan, we’re determined not to be manipulative, but find it impossible to resist the impulse to exert control. Or maybe, like Barb, we strive to avoid the hypercriticism that made us resent our own mothers, but find that our daughters resent us nonetheless.

For all their conflicts, the mothers and daughters in The Mother-Daughter Show—to a greater or lesser degree—ultimately come to a point of mutual sympathy and understanding. You might say that’s the kind of happy ending possible only in a comic novel. But it’s possible in life too, although maybe not until the teenage years are over. Someday, I hope, my daughter will have a daughter herself. And if there’s any experience that can induce a woman to feel some sympathy for her mother, it’s having a teenage daughter of her own.

Downtown Abbey and the Classless Society

There aren’t that many cultural phenomena that transcend generations these days, but one of them has recently arrived in the form of a veddy British period piece called “Downton Abbey.” As everyone reading this probably already knows, the PBS series traces the fortunes of a wealthy, titled family—and their below-stairs domestic servants—before and during the cataclysm of World War I.

My husband and I found ourselves glued to it during its first season. Now my twenty-something son and daughter have discovered “Downton Abbey” and appear to be equally mesmerized—just the way my mother and I were both enthralled by the remarkably similar British series “Upstairs, Downstairs,” shown on PBS back in the 70’s. (Of course these days, thanks to the miracle of time-shifting, we don’t all have to watch “Downton Abbey” at the same time. My son and daughter watched the first season only recently, courtesy of Netflix, and my husband and I didn’t get around to watching Sunday night’s season premiere, which we had recorded, until Monday night. My daughter, who had already seen it, joined us for the last 20 minutes and helpfully provided dialogue a split second before it was voiced by the characters. She, in turn, had watched the premiere with a couple of friends who had already seen the entire second season, which has already been broadcast in Great Britain, on the Internet.)

I can’t help but wonder why so many of us Americans are fascinated by the spectacle of the dying British class system (it’s not just me and my family, of course—guests at the dinner party my husband and I attended Sunday night were clearing out before 9:00 so as not to miss the show). This week’s New Yorker quotes the American actress Elizabeth McGovern, who portrays the American-born Countess of Grantham, explaining it this way: “We are so similar and yet so profoundly different. In England, you are always having to read the signs. No one says exactly what they mean.”

True enough, but I wonder if there’s more to it than that. In a way, I think part of what fascinates us Americans about the series is what’s more out in the open—specifically, the way class is treated so matter-of-factly. Everyone knows his or her place, and even the servants are vigilant about policing class lines (at least some of them are). People may cross the boundaries, and they seem to be doing it more frequently under the pressures of war, but at least it’s clear where the boundaries are.

Meanwhile in this country, we go to great lengths to deny that class exists at all. Virtually all Americans think they belong to the middle class—a 2006 Gallup poll found that 1% of Americans identified themselves as upper class, and 6% as lower class, despite the fact that at the time 12.3% of Americans were living below the federal poverty level. And Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum recently denied that there were any classes in the United States at all.

And yet just a few days before he said that, the New York Times reported that there’s actually less economic mobility in the United States than in Canada and Western Europe—including that bastion of class oppression, Great Britain. Basically that means that if you’re born poor in the United States, it’s going to be harder for you to move out of that status here than it is in the land of Downton Abbey. (And yes, the British class system isn’t what it used to be, but there’s still a franker acknowledgment of the existence of class than there is here.)

Mr. Santorum may try to distinguish between income and class (he’s quoted in that Times article as saying that movement “up into the middle income is actually greater, the mobility in Europe, than it is in America,” so at least he acknowledges that much). But when what you’re talking about is multi-generational poverty—and the relative abundance of that in this country is apparently the reason we have less mobility—it’s really a distinction without much of a difference. Generations of low income produce a certain kind of culture, just as generations of high income do.

Anyone who thinks we live in a classless society just has to take a look at my hometown, Washington, D.C. Things aren’t quite as stratified here as they used to be, partly thanks to gentrification—which, before it pushes out low-income residents often produces an interesting mix of people within a given neighborhood. But you’d be hard pressed to find many residents of the Upper Northwest quadrant of  D.C. whose income is below the poverty line, while other areas (specifically Wards Seven and Eight) have plenty of people in that category. (I had to mention the Upper Northwest, since that’s ostensibly the subject of this blog!)

Maybe we’re so fascinated by the frank acknowledgment of class distinctions in “Downton Abbey” because it’s a relief not to have to pretend such things don’t exist. It’s understandable that some Americans feel an impulse to deny that there are classes in this country. After all, our founding was premised on a rejection of titles and aristocracy and everything that went with them (although believe me, few if any of the Founders would have gone so far as to reject the idea of class). And a classless society is surely a laudable goal. But let’s not confuse aspirations with reality.

Meanwhile, we can all tune in to “Downton Abbey” and feel smugly superior to these people with their antiquated but somehow charming notions of where they all rank in the social scale, whether we really are superior or not.