Every morning, Wallace Kornack leaves his Georgetown home just after dawn, and drives north into Rock Creek Park. Ever since he retired from his job as a nuclear engineer, he's taken his passion for science in a new direction. Up.
Kornack is, in the words of his friend Bill Butler, "the most hard-core birder in Washington, D.C." He has been in the park nearly every day, rain or shine, for the past 13 years. Other birders come out frequently, but no one as much as Kornack; he's the unofficial president of D.C.'s birding scene.
"The thing about birding, is you have to have exceedingly great patience," Kornack says, "It's going to be quiet for quite a long while. It's not very stimulating, but it's what we do."
Kornack walks around, saying hello to everyone and making sure he has his or her names. He keeps a list every morning of which birds were seen, and who saw them. "I appreciate a good birder, I want to know who they are, and I'll write their names down. They know me, I know them."
There's no published meeting time for the group; it grows mainly through word of mouth. During the week, there are just a handful of birders, but on the weekends — especially during the spring and fall — there can be as many as 50 people.
Many of those people come to look for a fairly small and vocal perching bird known as warbler. The warblers are making their way up from Mexico and heading toward Canada. They're here for just three or four weeks.
In the distance, Kornack spots Matthew Sileo, a 30-year-old University of Maryland graduate student. Kornack pulls out his pen to add Matthew's sightings to his list. "Two black throated greens... one yellow warbler... 10 yellow rumps... 3 red eyed Verios."
Kornack adds these to his list, which, as soon as he gets home, he types up and sends to an online database called e-bird. It's run by Cornell University, and because birders use it all over the world to look at migration patterns, Kornack's pretty careful about which observations make the cut.
"Depends on the credibility of the birder, and most of the people here are very experienced birders," he says.
After two hours of birding, the group is now leaning against a fence, chatting and pointing their binoculars up into the trees for any final identification. Today was not a big day, Kornack says, but still there are dozens of birds on the list.
"There are disappointing days, but there are very exciting times, too. That's what brings you out every time... the unexpected appearing before your eyes."
Deep within the bowels of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, scientists at the Feather ID Lab have spent the past four decades studying what happens when humans and birds compete for the same airspace... it's the often messy science of bird-plane collisions, or birdstrikes.
The lab has no shortage of work helping the military and civilian airports determine which birds are colliding with planes, but in the past few years, the lab has also been stepping out of its avian comfort zone, and into the digestive tracts of Burmese pythons.
"I love birds. I didn't think I'd ever be working with Burmese Pythons," says Carla Dove, head of the Smithsonian's Division of Birds. She is a forensic ornithologist by training.
The opportunity to work with prey remains from pythons first arose about five years ago, when researchers at Everglades National Park in Florida wanted to find out if the Burmese Python, an invasive species running amok in Florida swamps, was eating native birds. The answer has been a resounding yes. An early study encompassing about 80 pythons found 25 different species of birds in their stomachs.
"This snake is opportunistic," she says. "It's eating everything in its path."
Pythons first appeared in the Everglades in the late '70s. They're popular exotic pets in Florida, and may have been released by their owners, or escaped from backyard enclosures.
Some estimates put the current Florida population in the tens of thousands, and Dove says the amount of devastation the snake is inflicting on native species makes it hard for her to see it as anything other than the villain of the story.
"I love snakes and all animals, but I have to say, my dislike for the snake has really intensified over the years."
When it comes to his relationship with Anton Chekhov's classic 1895 play, The Seagull, D.C.-based playwright and director Aaron Posner says it's complicated, particularly for young theater artists.
"It's [The Seagull] about theater, and it's about art and 'I'm going to change the world' and all that," says Posner. "So it was one of my favorite plays." But as he grew older, he says, "it became a less favorite play. And then one that I found pissed me off."
A few years back, when Posner found himself chatting with some theater folks about the play "and why one loves it and hates it," he says he had a sudden brainstorm: to create his own version of The Seagull.
"I should call it Stupid Fucking Bird,'" he says. "And people laughed, and then I went to the bathroom, and in the bathroom I thought, 'I [really] should do my own adaptation of The Seagull, and I [really] should call it Stupid Fucking Bird.' And maybe a month or so later, I started writing."
Longer writing process
That was a few years ago, and since then, Posner has been writing and rewriting, and now his play is premiering this month at Woolly Mammoth Theater, helmed by Woolly's artistic director Howard Shalwitz.
Shalwitz says the cast was working with draft number 8.4 the other day. And indeed, it's common for a playwright to burn through multiple drafts before a play gets on its feet — often before it even starts rehearsals. But in the case of this play, which Shalwitz says they've taken to calling SFB, it's been entirely different.
As Shalwitz explains, with most plays at most American regional theaters, "there's usually a long process with the playwright, a semi-long process with the director, a not-very-long process with the designers, and then a very short three- to four-week process with the actors."
But with SFB, Woolly's been able to bring all those people together over an entire year, "and touch base with the play at different phases of its development. Not just 'Oh, here's the script, and now we're doing a quick production to put it on the stage.'"
The secret? A $4 million fundraising campaign to develop and produce 25 new plays in 10 years, by providing more technical resources, larger casts, extra readings and workshops, and longer rehearsal periods. The campaign is called "Free The Beast."
"I think American directors and American theaters in general are among the best in the world at doing a really good job in a really short period of time, but we also do spend less time working on a play than most other countries do, who have deeper government support and companies of artists who've been sustained over many years through that support.
"So I think that sometimes we rob ourselves of the tools that we could develop if we gave ourselves a little more time to experiment."
That's precisely what Free the Beast has done for SFB: it's given it "more time." And cast member Kimberly Gilbert, who's done a ton of shows around town, says she's felt the difference.
"I think I've done about seven world premieres," Gilbert says. "And ultimately what happens is when you work on a regular rehearsal schedule, you feel that you're ready to open when you close. Because you don't have any time to let things marinate."
But with SFB, the cast started marinating last April, during a weeklong workshop in Lake George, N.Y., and they've done a few more workshops since then. So at the play's first official reading this April, Gilbert says instead of feeling the typical jitters ("Usually I'm sweaty and, you know, heart racing,") she felt right at home.
"It was just as if it was another step in the process," she says. And she admits that, in a way, this process has spoiled her.
"Spoiled, but also ruined, in a way," she says with a laugh. "Like, it's ruined me!"
Playwright Aaron Posner is totally with Kimberly Gilbert on this one. "We've had a great luxury of time," he says. And yet "we could use more time."
For now, though, a little more than a week remains before SFB is up and running. And though the play isn't exactly an "adaptation" of Chekhov, word has it the first-act set includes a big picture of the playwright, more or less overlooking the proceedings. So, love him or hate him, he'll most definitely be there in spirit.
Previews for Stupid Fucking Bird start May 27 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Northwest D.C.
Back in 2003, comedic actor Shawn Westfall started an improvisation comedy school at the DC Improv on Connecticut Avenue along with club manager Allyson Jaffe. What began with a mere 14 students has now graduated nearly 1,800 people. And this past week, Westfall and Jaffe celebrated their 10th anniversary of helping D.C. bring the funny.
A different skill than stand-up comedy, Westfall describes improv as "collaborative comedy made up completely on the spot, based on audience suggestions." And contrary to what one might think, Westfall says the last thing students should do is try to be funny.
"The minute they start trying to funny, trying to be clever, is the minute that their scene will go off the rails," he says. "Primarily because they're up in their heads, thinking about the ways in which they're going to sort of show off their comedic acumen. Well, what they're not doing is paying attention to what's happening in the scene."
And if paying attention to what's happening around you sounds like good life advice as well, it turns out improv lessons are often applied outside the classroom by Westfall's students. The "yes...and" principle in improv instructs students to say "yes" to whatever is being offered on stage "and" build upon that offer.
"Even if you don't take these principles out into the rest of your life, there is something therapeutic about getting together with people who only a few short weeks ago were strangers, tearing these barriers down, laughing with them, laughing at them when they do something completely outrageous on stage," he says. "There is something to that."
The first instrument singer-songwriter Angela Sheik ever played was her grandmother's piano. She wanted to learn how to play the Star Wars theme song, she says. But she's since branched into more unusual instruments — namely, a theremin and a loop pedal, which she uses to create lush, unique sounds. Sheik recently joined Metro Connection reporter Bryan Russo in the studio to talk about her one-of-a-kind musical style and to show us how to use a loop pedal.
On the art and science of looping:
"I had a different loop pedal for a long time¬ and I was at an electronic music festival and thankfully some guy came up to me, and he said, you should check this pedal out; I think it would really open up the possibilities for you," says Sheik. "I am so grateful for that man. I don't know who it was, but he was so right. It was just such a songwriting tool for me. It kept me from playing a crazy amount of chords. You know? The loop pedal gives you a structure, and I think changed my songwriting.
On using what she calls the queen of boss pedals — the Boss RC-300:
"It's basically three pedals smashed together with some effects, which is going to allow us to take some loops in and out. So we can record something and then we can take it out. You know, trial and error. Rhythm is key, and then you can add harmonies and take them out, and the rhythm will stay.
On defying musical genres:
Sheik says she's influenced by artists like Imogen Heap and Regina Spektor — musicians who defy genre, but she also says she's already had struggles with people who want her to embrace a genre with her own music.
"'What genre?' is the question that they usually ask and I don't have an answer for them. I love the people, especially the women icons that are the genre. Imogen Heap is her own genre. Regina Spektor is her own genre. She made anti-folk in my mind, so yeah, that's what I aspire to be."
Just a few years ago, about 20 percent of the District's 11,000 special education students were enrolled in private schools because the District couldn't meet their needs. These private school enrollments cost taxpayers about $200 million a year in tuition and transportation. But since the start of this academic year, DCPS has limited private school placements and tried to "mainstream" more students into public schools. DCPS says it's proud of its progress, but there are many parents who feel their children's needs aren't being met. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza talked with Metro Connection's Rebecca Sheir to explain the changes. Following are highlights of the conversation.
On why DCPS started to bring special education back into the city's public schools:
"DCPS's new philosophy is 'Better Services, More Kids, Closer to Home.' Last year nearly 1,600 students were placed in private schools; this year it's approximately 1,200, and DCPS wants to reduce that number even more. Nathaniel Beers, the head of special education services for DCPS, says there are instances where private placements are best. But he also says students are generally better served when they are close to their communities."
On how much of the decision is being driven by money:
"Money is definitely part of it. In the past, DCPS spent as much as $150 million per year on these private placements and approximately $60 to $90 million more on these students' transportation. If you look at the breakdown per student, and of course the amount varies widely, it costs approximately $36,000 to educate a child with disabilities in D.C. public schools and twice that in a private setting."
On what teachers are saying about the larger number of special education students in their classrooms:
"I spoke with Nathan Saunders, the head of the Washington Teachers Union, and he says educators are already under so much pressure to teach, so when you add in children who have very specific needs, it's challenging. You may have a child who acts out and disrupts the entire class, or you may have one who has autism and you have never been trained to deal with his or her needs. Saunders says the success is uneven."
On how the parents of the special education students feel about their kids moving out of private schools:
"I think it depends on what the child's needs are. I've heard from parents who are willing to try this out and see how it goes because they like having their child go to their neighborhood school. But there are parents such as Greg Masucci. He went to the city council to speak out because he doesn't feel his child's needs are being met at all."
Listen to the full interview here.
Doctors and nurses at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore see more than 8,000 severely injured patients each year. These are people who've been in bad car crashes, suffered gunshot wounds, or taken a serious fall. They arrive for treatment at a place that was the first of its kind when it opened more than 50 years ago. To this day, it's thought to be among the best in the nation.
On a Friday afternoon, the sun is shining on the roof of the Shock Trauma Center in downtown Baltimore. Slowly a helicopter comes into view, and staff run out to help offload the latest patient, a man who fell off a ladder, hit his head, and lost consciousness.
Seconds later, the patient is in the trauma unit downstairs, where about a dozen staff members in pink scrubs swarm around him.
"When things are going well, it's truly like an orchestrated ballet, says anesthesiologist John Blenko. "Everyone knows what everyone else is doing. They know where they are, they know what's just happened, and they know what's coming next. There's no repetition, nothing's missed."
Every patient who rolls through the elevator doors here comes in with grave injuries. So the decisions that doctors and nurses make in an instant can easily mean life or death. Those decisions need to be made fast, and in rapid succession.
"Usually Friday afternoon around 4 o'clock, 4:30, it's like somebody flipped a switch," says Blenko. "Things get busy, and they get busy real fast."
Especially when the weather is nice: people hit the road in cars and on motorcycles, and they hit the streets, and get caught up in violence. This particular afternoon, things do get very busy. Within the course of a few hours, ambulances and helicopters have brought more than a dozen seriously injured patients.
"It's kinda busy. It's not the busiest we've ever been, but it's kinda busy," says Dr. Thomas Scalea, the physician-in-chief in charge of the Shock Trauma Center. At Shock Trauma, doctors don't have the luxury of time to order a bunch of tests, and wait a week for the results.
"We have to make decisions sometimes based not on the greatest information, so you go on a lot of clinical feel, a lot of gut sense."
Everyone in the trauma center seems to thrive on this fast pace. Scalea compares it favorably to a rollercoaster. Nurse Ellen Plummer has another analogy.
"Your adrenaline's going all the time pretty much, and you're almost like a racehorse waiting to go out the gate," says Plummer.
She says as a nurse, you quickly get used to working 12-hour shifts with adrenaline pumping constantly. But for patients, whatever event brought them here was unexpected, and often life changing.
"These patients, and the families, they don't wake up today knowing that they're going to get in a car crash and they're going to get injured," she says. "And they have no preparation for that."
That's the bad part of the job, Plummer says, having to break the news to a family. Or finding a child's note to Santa in the pocket of a woman who just died after a car crash.
"We can't save everybody," she says. "And that's the worst part of this job. Totally the worst part of this job."
Even though they can't save everyone, the doctors and nurses at Shock Trauma do save most. Of the dozens of patients who arrive here in ambulances or helicopters each day, 96 percent survive their injuries.
In Loudoun County, just off Leesburg Pike, there's a place where hundreds of people "wing it" every day — sometimes in more ways than one.
Anthony Leonardo is one of those people, and today the bespectacled, pony-tailed young scientist has led us to the window of the "Dragonfly Flight Arena," deep within the main building of the Janelia Farm Research Campus.
"The room is 15 feet by 15 feet by 15 feet," he explains. "So it's like a big cube. At the top of the room we have a huge number of very bright lights, and so the room is sort of lit to look like noon on a summer day."
Leonardo has furthered the summer-day theme by keeping the room at a steady 82 degrees, installing artificial grass, and providing a heaping helping of fruit flies for his dragonflies to eat. He's also covered the walls with blown-up photographs of the trees, grass and flowers you'll find all over Janelia Farm's 689 acres.
"So now it has enough appearance of an outdoor realistic environment that dragonflies think, 'this is a good place for me to hang out and forage,'" he says.
Dance of the dragonflies
Leonardo and his team actually catch the dragonflies on the Janelia Campus, which the Howard Hughes Medical Institute built in 2006, so scientists could set up shop in a collaborative and flexible environment.
"It's internally funded, so you don't apply for any grants; there's no teaching," Leonardo says. "So all you have to do is your work."
And if you're the head of a particular lab, as Anthony Leonardo is, you're pretty much given free rein to study whatever you fancy for a renewable period of five years. And a topic — that's long fascinated Leonardo is this idea of prey capture.
"Prey capture is essentially a problem of predicting where a moving target is going to be in the future," he says. "So this is both a challenging problem, but also a deeply interesting one because prediction is sort of a fundamentally interesting thing about what people and other animals do: you're trying to figure out what's going to happen in the future."
While that's happening, there's so much going on, and so much that scientists don't yet understand. It's like a highly choreographed dance of senses sensing, neurons firing and muscles responding.
"This is sort of analogous to a football player catching a ball," Leonardo says. "And so the objective of the football player is really to watch that motion and alter its own body movement to reach it as some future time coordinate."
Not a bad metaphor, but when you're talking about motion, there's a major difference between footballs and fruit flies — the latter of which, by the way, Leonardo gets from some of his fruit-fly scientist buddies upstairs.
Leonardo says dragonflies are the most sophisticated hunting and flying machines in nature: "Outdoors, they catch maybe 95 percent of what they go after, which is phenomenal," he says. "Something like a lion does like 15 percent."
Here's the thing, though: compared with a lion, or that football player, dragonflies are tiny. But not so tiny they can't carry a miniature wireless system that records and transmits their neural activity as they zoom around. Leonardo calls it a "telemetry backpack."
"The first two generations of this thing we also called a backpack, and we attached it on the other side of the body," he explains. "This caused great confusion for everybody because they were like 'It's a front pack!' So now it literally is a backpack."
Granted, it doesn't have padded, adjustable straps and a pocket for your cell phone, but it does have this little computer chip with electrodes that go into the back of the anaesthetized dragonfly. Once the animal starts flying and foraging, the backpack detects and sends out signals from what Leonardo calls the "steering neurons."
"The animal's going to fly, catch things, and we're going to monitor the signals coming out of these neurons while the animal's doing it," Leonardo says.
He and his team also shoot videos of the animal — at a whopping 1,000 frames per second — to get a more macroscopic view of what's going on. What they're looking for are things such as how the body moves through the air toward the prey, why the flight pattern looks like, and how it moves through space.
Once Leonardo goes through all the videos, and analyzes all the signals from the backpack, his next job is to look at all that data and figure out what it all means.
"We have lots of ideas and models for how to do that," he says. "But at least you can kind of measure all of the relevant information. And then you have the greatest hope probably of ever actually understanding mechanistically how the pieces are combined."
Anthony Leonardo says he doesn't have all 10,000 pieces yet, but he's well on his way. And he'll find out soon if he'll be able to get closer, since his Janelia Farm contract goes up for renewal in July 2014.
We'll visit a local shock trauma center to meet doctors and nurses who work on the fly to save lives. We'll hear from a longtime D.C.-based teacher of improv comedy. And we'll hang out with a musician who's all about experimentation and play. We'll also take a more literal look at the idea of winging it, with stories about creatures that take to the skies.
It's our weekly trip around the region. This time around, we visit Arlington Ridge, Va., and the Hawthorne neighborhood of Northwest D.C.
Hawthorne, Washington, D.C.
When Marianne Becton walks out of her house in the Hawthorne neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to walk her dog, she doesn't see the rush of people and vehicles that defines the city.
"[There's] a lot of green space," Becton says. "A lot of children. A lot of mature trees. Well-managed homes. A lot of people walking. And of course, a proximity to the park, so we get to see the park every day."
That natural beauty is Becton's favorite part of Hawthorne, which sits close to the Pine Hurst Tributary in Chevy Chase. But what has surprised Becton is the amount of diversity in the area.
"I think Hawthorne represents a really mixed bag," Becton says. "All kinds of people live here. There are older retirees here. A lot of young families have come in in the past several years. Blue collar, white collar. We have every kind of demographic mix, age, every racial mix. A very diverse neighborhood."
Becton says that she loves that mix of people, carrying with them a variety of experiences and personalities. And she says that her neighbors are caring, something you don't normally see in a bustling city.
"So I think when people think about cities, they think that it's probably so fast-paced and not as kind and not as gentle, and this neighborhood is very kind and very gentle."
Arlington Ridge, Virginia
Katie Buck has had a connection with Arlington Ridge since 1983, when her parents purchased a house in the community in Arlington County. When they passed away, Buck moved into the house and renovated it, excited about living in a community so full of history.
"The history of Arlington Ridge is very rich. It dates back to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars," Buck says. "Fort Scott Park was a park during the Civil War where the Union built a fort to protect Washington."
Buck says the town is full of historic architecture, including the Hume School, the oldest school in Arlington County. But Buck says that Arlington Ridge isn't just a neighborhood full of century-old buildings and homes.
"The architecture is very mixed in Arlington Ridge," Buck says. "We have a number of homes that are nearing 100 years in age that were built for people to have vacation homes up on the ridge overlooking the Potomac River. And, of course, like any community, we've been experiencing a number of renovations occurring, as well as some teardowns and new homes being built."
But that history isn't Buck's favorite part of living in Arlington Ridge. Instead, she loves its location as a quiet community surrounded by big cities.
"I love living in Arlington Ridge because we have great accessibility to Washington, D.C., Alexandria, the national airport," Buck says. "And yet we are an old community with strong neighbors and beautiful homes and trees."
[Music: "No, Girl" by John Davis from Title Tracks / "Mamma Mia" by ABBA from Karaoke]
It's common knowledge that California has produced a mother lode of gold. Ditto on Colorado and Alaska. And according to Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History geologist Tim Rose, "Australia produces some fabulous gold to this day."
But back in the day, a place much closer to home produced some pretty "fabulous gold," too: Montgomery County, Md.
"I grew up in the Gaithersburg area," Rose explains. "As a kid, as a rock-hound, we knew about the gold. So I've been having my eyes to the ground looking for it, ever since!"
Montgomery County is on the Piedmont Plateau: a belt of metamorphic rocks extending from New York to South Carolina. And the Piedmont has all these veins of quartz running through it.
"Within some of them there are little pockets of gold and fool's gold, too," Rose says.
But it was honest-to-goodness real gold that had people in Montgomery County all keyed up back in the 1800s, when it was first reported in the area.
As word spread, Tim Rose says people started panning for gold in streams in upper Montgomery County. Then they started full-blown mining operations: by digging trenches and sinking shafts. Pretty soon, the county boasted 20 to 30 mining operations.
"Everywhere you go in our area here, you look in stream beds, you look in farm fields, you'll find white quartz like that," Rose says. "Someday I'll be looking down, because I am still looking, and I'm going to see the glint, and I'm going to pick it up, and I'll go, 'Okay, I can stop looking now!'"
Searching for gold
Amateur geologist Jeff Nagy says he knew a man to whom that very thing happened not too long ago.
"[He] was walking along the trail and saw a piece of quartz," Nagy, a Montgomery County native, explains. "He stopped and picked it up and turned it over, and there was a streak of gold through it. So, you never know what you're going to turn up!"
Like Tim Rose, Jeff Nagy has spent a lot of time with his eyes peeled to the ground in Maryland.
"When I was a kid, I'd come home and my mother would be dumping all the rocks out of my pockets, and complaining about all the rocks I'd be picking up!"
Now, Nagy's a proud member of the Gem, Lapidary and Mineral Society of Montgomery County, and of the Baltimore Mineral Society. I recently helped him continue his lifelong gold hunt right near Great Falls, at the former site of the Maryland Mine. The gold mine used to be one of the state's largest, longest-lived and most productive.
Building over mines
Nowadays, the site has a lot of ruined buildings, like an old water tank, and overgrown dump piles. You can also find scores and scores of abandoned prospect trenches and shafts.
"This would have been a vertical shaft," Nagy says, motioning to a deep hole in the ground. "It was probably 200 feet deep. Look at the big tree growing out of it, so you know that thing is completely caved in!"
But from 1867 to 1940, Nagy says the Maryland Mine was a fairly thriving 2,200-acre operation.
"Part of it's down here and the Park Service owns it," he says. "The rest's up in River Falls this way, [where] there [are now] housing developments."
And that's the thing about so many of Montgomery County's gold mines. They've long been built over with roads and/or houses. One spot Jeff Nagy and I visited, not too far from the Maryland Mine, is now a tree-filled park, with benches, tables and a playground.
"Just think: the little kids on the playground playing atop an old mining area!" Nagy muses. "Unless you knew it was here you would have no idea that anything had taken place here."
Montgomery County's rich history
Nagy is currently updating the Maryland Geological Survey's book, "Minerals of the Washington, D.C., Area." He says he's eager to spread the word about the region's rich history of gold, and other minerals.
He points to Patapsco State Park, just west of Baltimore, as a prime example of erstwhile mining activity in the state. Between the 1830s and 1940s, Nagy says hundreds of mines in the area were pumping out a bunch of different minerals, including quartz, flint, soapstone, feldspar, beryl, mica, garnet, chromium, copper, serpentine, limestone and iron.
But Smithsonian geologist Tim Rose's eyes are on a different prize: gold. But again, not just any gold.
"Gold's found all around the world," he says, and of course, it's also been found in Montgomery County, Md.
"But not by me," he continues...Yet!
[Music: "Golden Years" by David Bowie from Best of Bowie]
It's an age-old problem: bullying. Ask most anyone, and he or she will remember being taunted by a bully on the playground or in a school bus. Over the years, our definitions of bullying have evolved, and the issue has gotten more attention as new forms of harassment, such as cyber bullying, have entered the lexicon.
But that doesn't mean bullies are always called out for their behavior. One mom who lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore — we'll call her "Rachel" — says her sons have been repeatedly bullied, and that teachers don't always know how to handle this problem.
"I have been dealing a lot with issues at school, with children saying things or spreading rumors about my children, and it's been hard for me to deal with, and it's actually taken a toll on our family," says Rachel. "My children sometimes don't want to go to school because of it."
Rachel says her older son has been coping with bullying for several years.
"It started when he was in the fifth grade with somebody just telling him that nobody likes him... I believe it started when one child didn't like that my son was a best friend of one of his friends, and he started telling kids that nobody likes him," she says. "Unfortunately that spread through the bus, and my son's peers in the neighborhood started to believe that. And if we fast-forward to now, I found out that that kid that first began bothering my son, has bothered many kids and has never been disciplined for it."
Rachel's son, who asked to use the pseudonym "Bobby," says he watched his brother deal with bullying before he himself confronted similar problems in school.
"He started to withdraw from the family," says Bobby. "He started to become more like, alone... We still hung out, but he didn't like to go outside as much."
Bobby says he was first bullied in the third grade.
"I had this really good friend, and I made him my friend near the beginning of the year," he says. "Then near the middle of the year this kid came along, and he had, like, a whole group of people with him. And whenever I tried to hang out with them, they're like, 'No, we're part of this club and you can't join.'
"So they wouldn't let me play with him, so he just stopped hanging out with me as much, and we stopped going over to each other's houses, and then we stopped talking during school."
Bobby says bullying can "really take a toll on a person."
"It can make people lose friends, and make them feel terrible about themselves," he says.
[Music: "Sea of Love" by Tom Waits from Brawlers / "Music For My Mother" by Funkadelic from Funkadelic]
In the backyard of their Bel Air, Md. home, Hunter and Kyla McLaughlin are bouncing on their trampoline, blowing off steam. Their mom, Shelly, says these siblings are best friends.
"They're a year apart, and in some ways they're almost like twins," she says.
But in some ways, this brother and sister have been through much more than many siblings. Hunter is 11 and has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism. For years, that diagnosis impacted every dimension of the family.
"He was very impulsive as a younger child, and if it came to mind, he just reacted and did it," says Shelly McLaughlin.
If they were out in public, like at the grocery store, that impulsiveness could be a big problem.
"He would take off," she says. "I would be in the checkout line, [and] he would bolt out the door into the parking lot, and he was not coming back unless I physically went and grabbed him."
McLaughlin, a single mom, knew how stressful this was for her. But it was only recently that she started to realize how autism has affected Kyla.
Learning compassion at the young age
"There are times where she's like another mommy to him," says McLaughlin. "You know, I remember times where he was having meltdowns, and he would just trash his room, and then when he was calm I would go in and talk to him, and Kyla would go in and start picking things up in his room."
McLaughlin says these experiences have made her daughter a more compassionate person. But being a sibling of a child with autism sometimes meant Kyla had to fight for her mom's attention.
"In a way she almost got stuck developmentally, in that during those critical developmental periods, I couldn't give her the attention she needed because I was so busy trying to deal with the daily crises that were going with Hunter and his explosions and his meltdowns and his running away," she says.
McLaughlin says slowly, over time, things have gotten easier. These days, Hunter and Kyla like to cook together and make movies on Hunter's iPad.
Adapting to a hectic life
The fact that McLaughlin's family life is calming down a bit makes a lot of sense to Kathleen Atmore, a developmental neuropsychologist at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children's National Medical Center.
Atmore is also a mom. She has four children, including a set of twin boys. One of the twins was diagnosed with autism at 18 months.
"My son with autism would have just a lot of trouble handling frustration," she says. "I think that was the first thing I saw... even his cry was different."
Atmore knows how all-consuming autism can be for parents and kids. But now that her sons are in their teens, she also has a longer-term perspective to share with families just starting on this path.
"I have gone from the terrified mother to the capable professional in one day," she says. "And I think that experience has helped me understand that every difficult period evolves into something else that might, you know, still be challenging. But it gets better."
Atmore says she advises parents to carve out one hour, one evening a week for each child in the family. She follows this practice with her own kids.
"It's more than one hour now," she says. "It's usually between 8:00 and 10:00, that I just force myself to sit down. It's really been hugely helpful to simply sit down."
Spreading the attention
Twenty-five miles from Kathleen Atmore's D.C. office, Woodbridge, Va. resident Katherine Walker has been working to find a similar sort of equilibrium with her own children.
Her son Adam is on the autism spectrum — his diagnosis is "pervasive developmental delay not otherwise specified." Walker says she started noticing something was wrong when Adam was 18 months old.
For years, Walker devoted all her energy to Adam's medical care and therapy — and her daughters, twins Sophia and Miriam, had to come along for the ride.
"Part of their childhood was definitely stolen because they had to grow up a lot faster than children who don't deal with disability in the family."
Walker says all that intensive focus has paid off for Adam. But now it's time to bring more balance into her daughters' lives.
"I've been doing Girl Scouts with them, and I'm the troop leader," she says. "Just those kinds of mother to daughter traditions and experiences that I'm trying to pass on."
Walker says she now feels her son and her daughters are getting what they need from her. Getting to this point has been hard, she says. But it's been worth it.
"These kids are exactly what I prayed for, even with the trials and tribulations with Adam," she says. "I am so blessed with my three children... and I love it, I absolutely love it."
Tara Boyle's story was informed by WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories. For more information, click this link.
[Music: "Mother" by Yann Tiersen from Good Bye Lenin!]
For more than a decade, China has been the top country for international adoptions to the United States. Since 1999, American families have adopted more than 60,000 Chinese babies and toddlers. But that's all changing, as China has tightened adoption rules in the past few years.
Lisa Reff, of Bethesda, traveled to China in 2002, to adopt her first daughter, Sarah, who was then 10 months old.
Reff is a single mom and she says she chose to adopt from China, in part because back then it was in some ways simpler for a single person than adopting domestically.
"You knew what the paperwork was, you knew what the timing was," she says.
The Chinese adoption system was transparent, and the babies were healthy. So, there was a rush of Americans adopting Chinese children. Almost 8,000 were adopted in 2005, the year Reff returned to China to adopt her second daughter.
"Most people stayed at a hotel called the White Swan, which we affectionately called the White Stork, because it was just filled with Caucasian parents and Chinese children."
But starting in 2006, adoptions dropped precipitously, as China changed its policies to promote more internal adoptions. The result, in the United States, is that among kids currently in elementary school, there is a uniquely large cohort of Chinese American girls.
Discovering the past
Ninety percent of adoptees from China are girls, due to China's one-child policy. And because Chinese families can't just go to an orphanage and give up a child, parents often leave baby girls in public places, where they will be found quickly and taken to an orphanage.
That was the case for Lisa Reff's two daughters: Katie and Sarah.
"I was, I think, not sealed closed, but put in a box, 'cause I remember I was near the orphanage when that happened," says Sarah.
"My mom told me that I was left in front of a school in a box," says Katie.
The story about the box is all they know about their birth parents. But this summer, the family is planning a trip back to China. They'll hit all the tourist sites, but they'll also visit the orphanages where the girls spent their first few months. Katie's interested in seeing a particular piece of furniture she knows from a baby photo.
"Seeing if there's a red couch, that, all the children there, they took a picture of all the babies and me on a couch."
These "heritage tours" as they're called, are pretty common. It's a way for adoptive parents to help their kids understand where they came from. Janice Morris, a mother from Arlington, took her daughter three years ago.
"It was an opportunity to see what life would have been like for her in China, and for girls in general, both good and bad," says Morris.
At the time, her daughter Claire was 10.
"It was sorta sad, because I saw how lucky I am to be here, in America. But I also was happy to see where I came from," says Claire.
They visited the orphanage, and they also went to her finding place — the farmers market where Claire's birth parents left her.
"There were a lot of rice farms there," she says. "So if I was still there, I would have to do a lot of growing rice."
Connecting with culture
These trips can be important for adopted children as they get older and start to grapple with questions of identity, according to Ellen Singer, a social worker at the Center for Adoption Support and Education in Burtonsville, Md.
"Sometimes it helps fill in the missing pieces to the questions they have in their minds. So for some children it's extremely powerful and healing."
She says it's also important to tell children the story of where they were born, and how they were adopted, even if that story includes potentially difficult elements, like being left in a box.
"We always counsel parents how to do it from an age appropriate perspective. What you tell a three year old is different from what you tell an older child."
As the children adopted from China in the early 2000s get older, some will of course have more questions about their background. But for these kids, it may be hard to get good answers: there are no records to help track down birth parents; even things like exact birthdates are uncertain.
Still, many adoptive parents, like Lisa Reff, are making an effort to connect their kids to the culture. Reff's daughter Katie takes Chinese dance lessons, and she's learning Mandarin.
"'Ni hao ma' means like, 'How are you?' And then 'Wo hen hao' is usually the regular response, which means, 'I am fine, thank you.'"
Jacob Fenston's story was informed by WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories. For more information, click this link.
[Music: "Mama You Sweet" by Lucinda Williams from West]
Twanda Washington is on the brink of motherhood, somewhere she never expected to be. In her early 40s, and a high-powered regional sales manager for AT&T, Washington wasn't exactly on the "mommy track." She'd accepted that she'd be the world's greatest aunt, and was content. But, just about 9 months ago, she and her fiancé Patrick Amos found themselves face to face with a positive pregnancy test. Washington and her family recorded an audio diary, inviting us in for the first few weeks of her son's new life.
[Music: "Saturday Morning" by Melodium from "Music for Invisible People"]
Being a mother comes with a million different experiences, stories, attitudes, and opinions. But when it comes to all these things, might there be some specific trends in terms of how today's moms view themselves and their roles? A new study says yes.
Pew Research Center's Kim Parker and Wendy Weng co-authored and recently released the study. They interviewed about 2,000 adults nationwide, surveying the participants' attitudes about their work lives, family lives, and the struggle of balancing the two.
One thing Parker, who is the associate director of the Center's social and demographic trends project, says surprised her was, compared with a similar study in 2007, more moms now say their ideal situation is to work full time. The number went from 20 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2012.
"When we looked a little bit deeper to find out which mothers, in particular, were showing that change in attitudes, it was unmarried moms and moms who were struggling economically," she says. "So it sort of suggested that women who were saying their ideal situation is to work full-time, that may not be their ideal situation because they think that would be the most fun, but because they think that's the way that they're going to be able to provide for their families.
"And then when you look at women who say that they live comfortably, a relatively small share say that they want to work full-time. So that did suggest some sort of economic component there."
Balancing work and family life
At the same time, it seems the public remains conflicted about what's best for young children. Only 16 percent percent of adults say the ideal situation for a young child is to have a mom who works full-time. And that, Parker says, is "the conflict and the contradiction."
"Even when you ask moms that work full-time, they don't think that in a general sense, that's the best thing for a young child," she explains. "Although I'm sure they think that they're doing the best that they can for their own child. Everybody has to find their own balance."
Another interesting finding, Parker says, is that men place more priority on having a high-paying job than women do, and women place more priority on having job flexibility.
"So that speaks to the desire to maybe be working but to be able to also attend to all the needs of your kids," Parker says, "whether they're very young and need that hands-on attention or whether they're school-age and you want to be able to go to their concerts and their events and drive the carpools and all that."
According to the study, when it comes to mothers and fathers talking about how to balance work and family life, there's no significant gap in the attitudes between mothers and fathers.
"We found that the share of mothers and fathers saying that it's difficult for them to balance work and family life was almost identical," Parker says. "We also found when we asked mothers and fathers if they'd prefer to be home raising their children but they need to work because they need the income, again, there was no gender difference there.
"So fathers were just as likely as mothers to say that they'd like to be home with their kids, but they have to work because they need the income."
Spending enough time with the kids
The Pew researchers also asked mothers and fathers if they think they spend "too much time" with their kids. The results found 8 percent of mothers and 3 percent of fathers said yes.
"Dads were more likely to say that they spend too little time with their kids," Parker says. "And we know from looking at the amount of time, because we also analyzed how men and women spend their time, that even though women make up almost half of the labor force now, so they're almost equally represented in the labor force with men, but men do spend more hours per week on paid work. Again, I think that's because women do more in paid work now, and they're still carrying a heavier load at home in terms of child care and housework."
Researchers also asked women and men to rate themselves as parents. The results show that mothers give themselves slightly higher ratings than fathers. Parker says they also found that working mothers give themselves slightly higher ratings than non-working mothers.
Parker notes that the report came out right around the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique. That was the same week Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In came out.
"So it was just an interesting time," Parker says. "And it's always a topic that causes a lot of interest and conversation and everyone has their own stories.
"It's obviously an area that's still very unsettled and dynamic in terms of women deciding what's best and formulating their views. So I can't wait to do it again and find out what change is next!"
[Music: "Mama Said" by Steve Ray Vaughn from Family]
With Mother's Day just around the corner, this week we're all about moms. We'll get the latest research on how mothers feel about work-life balance. We'll hear a new mom's first moments with her infant son. And we'll talk with a mother about her struggles with bullying in her sons' schools.
[Music: "Every Little Bit Hurts" by John Davis from Title Tracks / "Mother (in the style of John Lennon)" by Hot Fox Karaoke from Hot Fox Karaoke - John Lennon 2]