Arlene is on the SCENE

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Youth activism is alive and well and brazenly powerful. Check out Malala Yousafzai. Even Jon Stewart didn’t know what to say, other than, hey can I adopt you?

We’re drawn to courage. When we see it in children, it’s even more engaging. It is accessible, and contagious. We begin to believe that we, too, can be that brave. Soon, as Martin Luther King said, “righteousness like a mighty stream” splashes each one of us in the face, wakes us up to the possibilities, and now we’ve got change on our hands.

I think what stops us all in our tracks is the combination of Malala’s courage plus the so-called Golden Rule, do unto others… Malala not only pushes for change against the most fierce resistance imaginable. She also demonstrates the wisdom and once again, courage, of self-examination, ensuring that she also stays true to her principles and values.



Just watched Emily Bazelon talk about her new book about empathy and bullying on Steven Colbert‘s show. Loved what she said and can’t wait to read the book.


One of the things that caught my attention was her argument that we are probably now overusing the term bullying. I had a personal experience that made me think the same thing. Well, my daughter had the experience. I just screamed from the sidelines.

Emily had it right when she said “drama” can be mistaken for “bullying.” My daughter got caught up a couple of years ago in a major shifting of alliances within her social group. Ladies, you know what I’m talking about. A canyon suddenly splits your circle right down the middle, and you either jump on one side or you get sucked into a black hole by yourself. What made the situation so much worse is that the word bullying was suddenly being thrown about, and school staff grabbed on and ran with it. Soon, my daughter was being summoned to the principal’s office, being lectured about not being a bully. No call to me, nor to the other parents, who by the way were all talking about what was happening, working together to help the girls navigate through this sticky mess. It was startling how fast this thing got escalated.

I think Emily has it right. Let’s be proactive rather than reactive. The concept of empathy should be in every character education curriculum, which should be in every school from the moment those kids walk through the doors. And when I talk to kids at schools around the country, I always talk about “practicing empathy.” Let’s be honest, it doesn’t always come naturally. Sometimes we have to stop ourselves and think about the best way to respond in a situation, the empathetic way. So we need to talk to kids about it, and give them concrete examples. Empathy means listening, reflecting, asking questions, eye contact. In my presentations lately the kids and I have been role-playing empathetic responses, and it feels right to present it as something we can actually learn to do, for those times when it doesn’t just bubble up on its own.

We as parents and teachers can model empathy, and perhaps more importantly, point out concrete examples, especially to our youngest. Plant the seeds early on, and by the time our kids get to that jungle they call middle school, they will be empathy experts!


Heading into next week’s holiday, feeling thankful and all, I’m going to focus on something my young client said to me a couple of weeks ago. It was the day before Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast. Winds were picking up; gray skies threatened. The streets were empty as I headed to see two new clients, the day after a social worker removed them from their home.

They were at their aunt’s house. An adult cousin was there too, with her two kids. An uncle came by. Their godmother called while I was there. As I left, another aunt pulled up to see the children, give them some Halloween candy. The kids asked me many important questions: What was I going to dress up as for Halloween? Will the hurricane knock this house down? What is my middle name? Did I have any more tic-tacs?

I explained what was happening to them as best I could, and let them know the adults would keep them safe. But they may not be able to go home for a while. I told them that they would be staying with their family until their mother was ready to take care of them again. The older one blew out a long sigh of relief. Then he looked worried again.

“What happens to kids who don’t stay with their family? Where do they go?”

“They go to a foster home,” I answered.

He shook his head slowly. Then stared right at me. “I’m the luckiest kid alive! I get to stay with my family!”

Yes, indeed. The blessings of family.

Just some of the Liu family

Happy thanksgiving! Hope everyone enjoys their lucky time with family!

Service dog, “Chili”

I just saw an article about a student in Texas who was told she would no longer be allowed to bring her service animal to school.  While the Americans With Disabilities Act requires service animals to be allowed into public and governmental facilities, new regulations in March 2011 clarified the definition of “service animal.”

Well, attempted to clarify the definition. I would say the definition is still a bit vague.

The new regulations state that “dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support” are not service animals under the ADA; however, the regulations also give an example of a service animal who “calms a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack.” Hmm. Sounds like “comfort and emotional support” might indeed be part of a service animal’s function.

In the Texas case, Chili helps the student stay calm during anxiety-provoking situations, anxiety that is caused by her disability.  My confusion lies in the Justice Department’s dismissal of providing “comfort” as a legitimate task of service animals. For kids living with disabilities such as autism, anxiety disorder, or mood disorder, comfort and emotional support is precisely the service they need to function in the classroom. Would the school rather employ a para-educator full-time to provide this support?


The power of animals is vast. My own former pup, Jasmine, greatest dog ever (I’m covering the eyes of my own two mutts lounging by my desk) was amazing in the classroom. She helped during therapeutic groups and in individual sessions with children who needed to work on attachment, empathy, and self-regulation.

Maybe the Department of Justice needs to clarify a bit more. If someone has a disability affecting their emotional and/or mental state, and the animal helps to address that need, sounds like a service animal to me.

I often imagine the mixture of feelings we get when we’re off to do something new is like a stuffed backpack.  In there, you’ve got your excitement, your anticipation, and of course, your nervousness, maybe even a bit of fear.  I picture it as a backpack because your only choice is to pick up this big bubbling brew of feelings and hoist it onto your back, then push on forward.  I mean, what are you going to do, stay home?

(Well, sometimes we do stay home, don’t we? Sometimes we just say nah, I’d rather not risk it.)

But school leaves us no choice. We get pushed out the door for this one. And school offers such a mixture–fun, excitement, friends, learning new things, plus a lot of tricky situations that you’ve got to figure out. As Arlene experiences, there’s a whole lot of judgment going on within those school walls. It seems like this can be one of the hardest things about school, the feeling that everyone is watching you, forming opinions, judging.

I came across this great campaign, Everyone Matters. They issued a challenge: go 24 hours without a single judgment of another person. Think about it–not a single “Ew, what is she wearing?” or “He acts like a weirdo!” Nothing, not a single statement or thought that pegs someone with a label that you’ve decided fits them. A great way to practice how to be all the time. Nice idea for the first day of school.

This should make that backpack a little lighter.

I always told myself that my kids “aren’t involved in that cyberbullying stuff.” I spoke openly with them about the subject, listened in to their conversations when I drove carpool (the BEST source of inside scoop!), talked to them about the online rules for our family when they did begin to venture into social cyberspace. I was all set, no problem here, I thought.

But a recent perusal of facebook and twitter was a slap to the side of my ignorant head. The comments and postings that were swirling through my kids’ social circles were eye-opening–and very concerning. Come on, why would I think my kids are above all that? It’s just a fact–most are vulnerable to it. We need to adjust accordingly.

Not to say we have to cut them off from social media–that’s where it all happens, apparently. (Is it like middle school dances? The arcade? What is the 80’s equivalent of facebook?) But we really do have to be aware, and we really do have to monitor. Not in some kind of suffocating way, but just openly and honestly. Like this is the cost of doing business on facebook. Sorry…dude.

I heard about this great post on cyberbullying with an amazing graphic. Check it out:

Cyberbullying Infographic
Source: Accredited Online Colleges

It was good to go home again. It really was. Growing up in Rhode Island was special. I didn’t appreciate it, like most things, until after it was over. (Why does it always work like that?)

But this is why we set the book in Rhode Island, to kind of re-live it. And this is why we keep coming back.

We visited nine schools in three days–what fun! Providence, Coventry, West Warwick, Narragansett, and Wakefield were all on the schedule. The best part: the “real” Arlene came with us! That’s right, Grace Caldarone stole the show at Kizirian, GJ West, Carnevale, and Narragansett elementary schools. We were so happy to have her with us!

Now that I’m home for a few, caught my breath, did my laundry, all that…I have a few things to say to my new friends.

To the kids at Pleasant View ES–let’s keep up the challenge! They dared me to come up with a funny story about a grain of rice. I double-dare you to write a poem about…hmm…this piece of toast that I half finished for breakfast this morning. Go! Write! Email it to me and maybe we put it on the site!

To my friends at Kizirian–can I come back again for the third time next year? You are all fantastic! Please write me at the link above–let’s keep talking!

Students at Narragansett ES–why didn’t anybody tell me it was “wear your sports jersey day?” I would have brought my Capitals shirt. What’s that? Bruins are ahead 2 games to 1? Well, it’s not over yet!!

Okay, you know I would get to you, fifth graders at Washington Oaks ES. (Yes, that means you too, Aidan!) I know you’re on spring break right now, but it’s the perfect time to start writing! I’d love to see your work, and email me more of your ideas for the sequel!

All in all, it was a fantastic trip. I have visited schools from Washington, DC to Los Angeles this year, and as they say, there is just no place like home.

Look-it you! With yo’ pants all rolled up like a field hand! What’s wrong with you, boy?!

Just words, spoken by staff to a client of mine at a youth detention facility during a recent visit with him.  Putting aside the odd reference to slavery (that would be a whole other post), it was the tone that kept resonating in my brain for the rest of the day.  That unbridled contempt–what dark past did that explode from?  Why direct such disdain toward this 16-going-on-10 year old?  Because he was playing with his pants during a difficult conversation about his bleak future?

So I know this site is about fun things, a book that delivers a positive message about difference.  But my work brings me to another side of things, and I return with new lenses to look through.  How do I speak to others who are different?  Not just in words but in tone.  Especially when it comes to someone living with a developmental difference, or with autism where sometimes the conversation doesn’t sync up.  Do I have “a tone?”  I’m sure I’ve never accused anyone of occupying the bottom rung of the hierarchy of slavery, but that staff’s comment must have generated from something within herself, some past experience?  And while some of us hide it better than she did, we all have biases and attitudes and past experiences that shape our approach to life and the people in it.

Problem is these are hard to see, harder to acknowledge, and change?  Forget-about-it!  But it’s a new year, and now’s the time to resolve to watch what we say.

It really boils down to what one young man said during a presentation at a school in New York: “We’re all here for a reason.  Doesn’t matter if you never move, never talk, never see anything.  There’s a point, you know?”

Yes, there is.  We can’t always see that point.  We sure do see categories, don’t we?  Autistic, tomboy, juvenile offender.  But meeting others with an truly open mind is incredibly challenging.  I’m hoping we’re up for the challenge.

We just had to share this story about a young boy who is fighting to take his service dog to school with him.  This reminds us so much of our beloved Harp, the wonderful Canine Companion who helped Marybeth for a decade with loyalty, earnestness, and yes, the cutest dog-face ever.  Harp was a member of Canine Companions for Independence, a fantastic organization that provides service animals for people with disabilities.  Service animals really do help with things like picking up hard-to-reach items and opening doors, but they also provide invaluable companionship.  We hope that with brave kids like Caleb fighting to make people understand the power of the canine, we’ll eventually see service animals everywhere!

Maybe in the sequel, Arlene should get a canine companion…

See what I mean? Harp--loyal, earnest, cute face

(And now you know why Arlene’s last name is Harper–a little known fact!)

This has been a powerful school year.  Arlene has proven herself to be a great discussion-starter!  By exploring the book’s themes we jump start conversations about disability, the concept of embracing who you are, and the idea of appreciating, not just accepting, the differences among us.  And of course, everyone we meet now knows what Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and why we need to join together to spread CMT awareness.

We’ve hit over twenty schools this year, from Maryland to Massachusetts, the big cities of New York and Philadelphia to the small towns of southern Rhode Island.  Our travels were chronicled most recently by New York Newsday!

We love seeing Arlene posing on bulletin boards everywhere.  If you have an interest in a free presentation at your school next year, contact us here or email: carol @

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