Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How To Raise Successful Children

I think most of us, if asked to define "success," would think deeply enough to consider more than the capacity to acquire great wealth. Certainly, we would cite things like having "enough" money and a holding personally satisfying job, but we would also include things like mental and physical health, good personal relationships with friends and family, and a general sense of well-being about how life is going.

There has never been a study that links early literacy or early numeracy to any of these aspects of "success," even the superficial one of wealth. None. Never. 

The research that's been done on successful people tends to find, rather, that their success comes from being motivated, sociable, and having the ability to work well with others. These are the skills and attributes children work on when they have ample opportunity to play, especially outdoors, with other children, with few toys and lots of time, and with a minimum of adult intervention. Our job as adults to prepare an environment in which free play is possible, to keep an eye out for hazards (as opposed to risks children choose to take on their own), and where children have the opportunity to do things for themselves, even if it means failing, and failing often.

As a teacher in a cooperative and a parent myself, I understand the pressures parents are under. On the one hand there are those who insist we must drill and grill our youngest citizens lest they "fall behind," while on the other, there are those who are in the business of selling us on the idea that children are constantly at risk of abduction or injury or other dangers. These twin manufactured fears, and they are largely manufactured, have caused a generation of parents to behave as what is popularly called "helicopter parents," always hovering nearby, always ready to step in, always urging and cajoling and warning, teaching helplessness instead of independence. All this leaves precious little time for the children to actually play in the way that will allow them to grow into successful adults.

I reckon by writing this, I'm now, at one level, joining the fear-mongers, providing parents who are already pulled this way and that by fear, one more thing about which to worry: is my child getting enough free play? For that I'm sorry, but the answer is, if you're a typical American parent, probably not.

We are a cooperative preschool, which means that I work more closely with parents than most teachers. I write here often about teaching children, but one of the most important things we do is to also teach their parents, which is done formally through our parent educators, and informally by our larger community of families who are, collectively, striving to offer children the opportunity to acquire the skills and attributes of success through play. It's a learning process I've witnessed time and again, one that I experienced myself as a parent. I know that for some it is a painful one of "letting go," of coming to trust the world enough to know that those inevitable bumps and bruises our children experience, both physical and emotional, those "failures," are the true building blocks of success. It's hard because we live in a culture that tells us our job as parents is to fix things for our kids, to make things easy, to soften the blows. We have to consciously push back against the culture of fear that has come to surround parenting if we are to raise truly successful adults.

Most of our three-year-olds are out of diapers. When they tell me they need to go to the potty, I point to the bathroom and say, "The toilet is in there." If you ask their parents, many will insist their child still needs their presence, if not assistance, in the bathroom, but it's really no longer true. Sure, children may want mommy with them, after all it can be an intimate, private moment, but when mommy isn't at school, they've shown they are more than capable. Yes, some struggle to get their pants back up, others miss the toilet, and I'm sure few do as thorough job of wiping as mom, but they all come out of there, mission accomplished, then hop up on the stool near the sink to wash their hands. 

It's likewise difficult for parents to step back and allow their children to engage in, say, conflict or risk, but it must be done if our goal is successful children. Yes, they will fail, and those failures form the foundation of success. Indeed, when looked at from the wider perspective they aren't failures at all, but rather steps along a pathway. As Thomas Edison famously said about the invention of the light bulb when asked by a journalist how it felt to have failed a thousand times: "I did not fail a thousand times. Inventing the light bulb was a process of one thousand steps."

In that direction lies success. 

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

What We Should Learn From Uganda

This post is a follow-up to Friday's post about how the destructive business models pioneered by companies like Walmart and Microsoft are at the core of the corporate-backed push to replace traditional public schools with unaccountable, often for-profit, charter schools.

From Valarie Strauss' Answer Sheet column in the Washington Post:

Uganda's education minister just announced that the government is closing a controversial chain of for-profit nursery and primary schools because, she said, national standards were being ignored and the "life and safety" of some 12,000 children were endangered because of poor hygiene and sanitation.

Now I don't know much about Uganda, but when I think of the country, it's as a struggling third world nation. I'm sure there are many wonderful things about Uganda, but I certainly don't think of it as a place that has the economic wherewithal to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when it comes in the form of billions of dollars in aid from the World Bank, wealthy individuals like Bill Gates, large corporations like Pearson Education, and the US and British governments. Yet that's exactly what they are doing, shuttering 63 schools operated by a for-profit corporation business known as Bridges International Academies (BIA), funded by this who's who of deep pockets, operating hundreds of "school-in-a-box" type institutions in African countries, including Kenya and Uganda.

It doesn't surprise me that the Gates Foundation gang of "venture philanthropists" and education for-profit charlatans like Pearson Education are involved in something like this. I can imagine that Gates sees a nation like Uganda as being so desperate for cash that it makes a perfect laboratory for his experiments in "unleashing powerful market forces" on children. I'll bet it never occurred to him and his squad of education deformers that their hosts would be so rude as to bite the hand that feeds them, but with this action, Uganda is showing we first world nations what we need to do to stop these child abusers who would turn generations of children into test score coal miners working to fill the coffers of education mercenaries like Pearson Education and BIA.

For-profit corporations exist for one purpose only and that is to make a profit. I doesn't surprise me at all that BIA cuts corners on things like hygiene and sanitation. Of course they have substandard facilities. It's a given that a for-profit corporation would try to get away with "unqualified staff and teachers." I could have predicted that they would try to save money with "scripted curriculums developed overseas." I have no doubt that they ignored Uganda's national standards in the name of squeezing another dollar out of those poor kids. The thing that continues to shock me, however, is that Americans are letting these very same bad actors get away with exactly the same model in our country under the banner of charter schools, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core.

From Salima Namusobya, executive director of the nongovernmental Ugandan organization Initiative for Social and Economic Rights:

"We have long been worried that BIA schools did not respect the government guidelines on basic requirements and minimum standards for schools, for example, regarding infrastructure, purposefully used unqualified teachers in order to reduce costs, in violations of Ugandan laws, and were developing a massive for-profit business without the agreement of proper oversight authorities."

Sadly, we might not even be able to say this in the States because we have actually allowed the bad guys to write our education laws and standards. It is well known, for instance, that the Gates Foundation almost single-handedly managed the creation of the Common Core federal school curriculum and charter schools legally operate with virtually no public oversight.

From Frederick Mwesigye, executive director of the Forum for Education NGOS in Uganda:

"The Ugandan education system suffers many shortcomings. However, it does not mean that any investors can come in and make profit out of the situation by delivering low-quality education while disregarding national authorities and standards. International treaties and a recent resolution from the UN Human Rights Council make clear that it is the duty of the government to close schools that are sub-standard or that lead to commercialization of education, and we applaud the Government for upholding its obligations."

So good on Uganda for not allowing their children to be exploited by the venture philanthropists and  not letting the child labor profiteers get away with it. I presume that the US has signed on to that same UN resolution. Let Uganda be an inspiration to us. Maybe some day we will catch up to them.

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Vacant Ruins On Main Street

The reason I have never spent a penny at Walmart is because I despise their business model. Over my lifetime, in small town after small town, they built their big boxes, usually with taxpayer subsidies, then used their giant-ness to offer artificially low prices until their competition -- mostly the small businesses that once anchored Main Streets -- were out of business, then raised their prices again. There's more to dislike about that company (e.g., they pay such low wages that many of their employees are forced to rely on public assistance), but that was the one that made me vow to never set foot in one of their stores.

One of the reasons I avoid using Microsoft products is because of the company's history of producing inferior software, then using their financial wherewithal to crush or buy any competition that threatened them, robbing the marketplace of superior products in favor of their juggernaut.

Three times in my state of Washington voters rejected charter schools at the ballot box, but since this is a pet project of deep pocket interests, including the wealthiest man in the world and Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the heirs to the Walmart fortune, they were able to keep bringing it back. Finally, on the fourth try, on the tide of tens of millions spent flooding the state with advertising, a measure authorizing taxpayer money to fund private schools finally squeezed by in 2012. 

It was the Walmart/Microsoft business model all over again. Time and again, we've seen it happen: charter schools, backed by billionaires, get their nose under the tent. In the beginning these new private schools might seem okay, innovative even, but then the big, for profit chains move in, the Microsofts and Walmarts of the charter world, companies like KIPP and Gulan, bringing their clever policies of excluding low performing students, implementing their standardized curricula, anchored by a laser-like focus on standardized testing, cranking through teachers like fast-food employees, all while producing no measurable improvement over traditional pubic schools. They drain funding and middle class students from traditional public schools, putting them in the same category as those poor mom & pop stores that Walmart destroys in its wake; or those software start-ups with better ideas that Microsoft deals with by sucking them up or stomping them out.

This time, however, the Walmart/Microsoft crowd hit an unexpected road block: in 2015, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that charter schools, as passed by the voters, were unconstitutional:

. . . (T)he Washington state high court ruled . . . that the law violates the state constitution, which says that public school funds can be used only to support "common schools." The justices voted, 6 to 3, that charter schools -- which are publicly funded but privately run -- are not "common schools" because their governing boards are not elected but are appointed by the founders of the individual schools. 

That's exactly the point: charter schools are simply not public schools. Public schools are democratic institutions set up not to train our children for those "jobs of tomorrow," but rather to educate them so that they are prepared for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and therefore must be overseen by "we the people," not "they the billionaires." Now if there was truly a level playing field, I might concede that a little healthy educational competition might lead to innovation and improvement in our educational outcomes, but all you have to do is look at Walmart and Microsoft to know that there has never been a level playing field and there never will be. And not only that, but charter operators, like many of the charters around the country, will outright cheat in order to win. In this case, in fact, it appears that the Walmart/Microsoft crowd has actually broken the law. From the relentless Seattle Education blog:

As described in a recent post . . . I showed the timeline of emails that involved the Gates Foundation, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction . . . the Washington State Charter School Association (WA charters) and the Mary Walker School District (MWSD) in getting public money funneled through the MWSD, a 500-student school district in eastern Washington, to the charter schools scattered around the state to keep them open. WA charters stated last year the they received $14M to keep the charter schools open but apparently that was just a ruse. The plan was to keep the charter schools open with tax payer dollars even though the Supreme Court ruled they were unconstitutional and therefore illegal.

This is the way the privatizers work. They may or may not have violated the law, but in any event they are insulated by their billions and they aren't going to stop until there is no more public education, because that's the plan. It isn't enough to compete, but they must also destroy their competition in the process, which in this case are real public schools educating real children. Despite opposition from the voters, they just kept spending until they got what they wanted and now, apparently, despite the law, they are going to just keep spending. In the end, their objective is to end public education as we know it and turn the project of educating our children over to the highest bidder.

Of all the prongs of the corporate attack on public education (e.g., high stakes testing, standardized curricula, Common Core, union busting, de-professionalization of teaching), the replacement of real public schools with charters is the aspect where they seem to have had the most success, and that success is, in fact, their biggest threat to democracy. The goal, as Diane Ravitch illustrates in her book Reign of Error, is to completely privatize schooling in America. If they succeed, it will be a dark day. Whenever I write about charters, there are always readers who respond with stories about the "wonderful" charter attended by their own child. I believe that there are some that fit that category, but believe me, they are not long for this world. The business model of Walmart and Microsoft will eventually stomp them out, leaving vacate ruins on Main Street.

I hope it's not too late to push back on charters. I hope there are enough of us who aren't ready to give up on the promise of public education. Because that's what it's going to take: enough of us saying "No." To paraphrase Jim Morrison, let's hope that while they've got the money, we've got the numbers, because that's the only way to fight billionaires.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Watch Out! I Might Scream!"

Our Star Wars curriculum includes teaching about the pivotal characters Darth Marcus and Luke Groundrunner. If you've not heard of them, they'll be featured prominently in Star Wars X or XI, one of those, when the franchise finally begins wrapping things up.

I've written about our Star Wars curriculum before. It is, like our entire curriculum, a product of the children themselves, which is, like our entire curriculum, a product of their interests. For the past couple years, Star Wars has been top-of-mind, even for children who have never seen the movies. Indeed, most of the children have never seen the movies, so we largely cobble things together from what we glean from the popular culture, older siblings, parents, and our own imaginations.

Darth Marcus, as I tell the story, is the father of all the Darths and in the end he turns them all to the Light Side. Luke Groundrunner is Luke Skywalker's brother. There isn't much to distinguish the two other than their names. Some of the children have added their own bells and whistles to the legend. This is what I call goofing off with the kids, or as Kurt Vonnegut puts it, "farting around," which is the reason we exist, "don't let anyone tell you different."

Lukas, now a grader, was among the first to be privileged with the Darth Marcus information. By this time, he's seen the movies and assures me that I'm wrong, the character does not exist, yet still, when he comes to visit the school, he holds his tongue unless pressed, much the way we adults do about Santa or the Easter Bunny. It's part of the fun to believe in Darth Marcus and, to a lesser degree, Luke Groundrunner.

Yesterday, a mother of a recent Woodland Park preschool grad posted on Facebook, quoting her daughter:

I cannot eat lunch right now. I'm watching the Star Wars channel and it's the movie Tom made. Eeeee! This is the scary part. Here comes Darth Marcus! (Screams while staring at the imaginary big screen TV) He is so bad and dangerous! Okay (walks to dining table) I can watch it from here. I made the TV higher up, but watch out. I might scream!

Are you listening George Lucas? Darth Marcus is a game changer.

This is the kind of stuff that makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning: being a part of this, these families, having the chance to live forever in the imaginative play of their children. And I do hope Darth Marcus lives forever, a secret only understood by us.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Making Your Dreams Come True

I know the secret to making your dreams come true.

As I've mentioned on these pages before, I find air travel to be a physical and emotional pain. One of the ways I attempt to combat it is to get rid of my screens and instead read magazines, preferably more erudite ones that focus on science or history or even current events (just so long as they dig beyond the headlines of the day). I used to travel with books, but I've found the herky-jerky nature of travel makes the magazine form more conducive. In any event, having been traveling for over four weeks now, my original collection of magazines had been devoured cover-to-cover, so before hopping on my jet to Perth I stopped by a news agent where I found a promising looking publication called New Philosopher. Not only was the concept intriguing -- philosophical essays -- but it was printed on extra heavy, high-quality stock, which gave it a nice feel in my hands. 

The theme of the current issue is "luck." In a piece by writer Oliver Burkeman (which is not yet available online, hence no link), he discusses what's called Littlewood's Law, named for a British mathematician by the name of John Edensor Littlewood:

Let's suppose, he said, that you're awake and active in the world -- as opposed to sleeping or resting -- for a mere eight hours a day. Suppose furthermore that a tiny 'event' of some sort occurs at the rate of once per second during those hours: you see someone in the street, you read or hear a sentence, or have a thought, and so on . . . Crunch the numbers on that basis, and it turns out you can expect to experience a one-in-a-million occurrence -- the kind of odds most of us would call miraculous -- roughly every 35 days.

So, simply from a mathematical perspective, each of us experiences a very lucky moment on roughly a monthly basis; unbelievably lucky, astronomically lucky, a miracle. The thing is, we don't get to choose what that specific lucky moment is going to be and because most of us are intent upon chasing a specific kind of luck (which we often label our "goal" or our "dream"), we don't recognize the one-in-a-million occurrence.

When I graduated from college, my first employer was so impressed with my ability to write "plans" that my unpaid internship turned into a paid one within months. I had been taught in school to write clear, unequivocal mission statements, followed by goals and objectives, supported by strategies and tactics, all in the service of that original mission statement, the idea being that if we just followed our plan our business dream would come true. Those plans helped us secure business, they helped us get going, but I soon came to realize, first with despair and then with a shrug, that my beautiful plans were almost immediately relegated to the file drawer in the light of real events and real people. I realize now that those plans, far from helping us achieve our goal (which in business is always to make money), were really just blinders that pretty much guaranteed failure -- or at least a success far beneath the one postulated in the mission statement. The more seasoned businesspeople around me knew this, at least intuitively, at least in part, which is why my plans wound up by the wayside as we made it up as we went along with varying degrees of success.

When I was young, before the pressures of "getting real" were upon me, I dreamt of being a superhero and a saint, of a life of hedonism and of adventure, of building things and tearing things down. I saw myself by turns a spelunker, baseball coach, architect, firefighter, daddy, hobo, titan, jewel thief, politician, archeologist, tinker, tailor, solder, and spy. I imagined myself living a life of ease and great striving, both poor and rich, complicated and simple. I toyed with all of those ideas for myself, each holding special charms, then, as I approached that arbitrary point we call adulthood, I pretended to focus on one of them. I was going to, one day, be the creative director of a Madison Avenue advertising agency. I know, pathetic, right? And even I didn't really believe in it, even as I had a "plan" for making it happen.

I really beat myself up about it, but by the time I had graduated from college, I was certain that I didn't want to be one of those Mad men, so it was without enthusiasm that I continued to work that damned plan, which landed me with that first employer who was impressed by my ability to plan: that employer, by a one-in-a-million chance, turned out to be the woman to whom I've now been married for the past three decades. I don't know if I even recognized it at the time, but my dream had come true: I was and still am the luckiest man alive.

And I don't mean that in the usual sniveling, husbandly way, even though I know how it sounds. I don't care, it's true. I'd always dreamt of finding a true life partner.

One of my thousands of dreams was to follow in my own mother's footsteps, to be a parent and homemaker, something that had seemed an impossibility given the gender of my birth, yet, as luck would have it, I found myself in exactly that role when our perfect daughter was young, just as I'd always dreamt.

At some point, in my infinite list of youthful dreams, I'd once fantasized about being a teacher and by the unpredictable turnings of fate, via a one-in-a-million long shot, someone asked me at just the right moment, "What are you going to do with your life?" And when I didn't have an answer, she said, "You should be a preschool teacher." And that's what I did. What incredible luck! My dream came true!

As I travel though Australia, self-indulgently "suffering" the toils and uncertainty of travel, speaking to audiences of colleagues who seem to find me both entertaining and informative, I see another of my dreams coming true. I'd often romanticized the life of a traveling minstrel, roaming from town-to-town with nothing but a rucksack and a song. Now, I'm living the dream.

For a long time I dreamed the dream of being a writer, and now here I sit, writing every day and people actually read it. My dream became reality.

It's all been pure luck. And please don't try to spoil it by insisting that it was luck made by hard work, diligence, and putting my nose-the-grindstone because despite popular mythology, that has had absolutely nothing to do with it. I've not worked hard: I've been lucky because I have dreamed a million dreams.

And so that's the secret to making your dreams come true. Dream a lot. Dream often. Dream like a child, every day, passionately, then hold onto that dream even as you dream the next one. Because for every new dream you dream, you increase the odds that your monthly allotment of one-in-a-million long shots will the one for which you've been waiting. 

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Trying To Learn About Freedom

It's been over six years now since our family unloaded most of our stuff, including our large house on its large plot of land. We didn't do it all at once, as one might imagine. It took us nearly a year, with countless trips to the dump, donations to Goodwill, and Craig's List sales, just to get our stuff down to a light enough load that we would even consider moving. And then there was still a year after the move where we continued to sort through our storage locker, the largest unit they had, going down three locker sizes over the course of the next 12 months. There are still a few pieces of furniture in there that really ought to be sent along to more useful lives, but the motivation isn't there since we're now down to the least expensive space they rent.

It wasn't always easy, especially as some of the stuff of which we rid ourselves had been with us a long time, decades in many cases, even since childhood. I literally said, "Goodbye," to some of the things, but as melancholy as the process sometimes left me, there is nothing like the feeling of lightness, of freedom, that comes from getting rid of stuff.

A year ago, we got a new dog, a puppy, a sweet girl that was named Stella by my three-year-old friend Brogan. If I thought I'd grown less attached to stuff over the past few years, Stella let me see that I'm still unhealthily attached to it, as she's finished tearing a hole in our living room rug that was started years ago by a former pet, shredded a pillow, and gnawed holes in the seat cushions of two dining chairs.

I said to my wife, a joke backed by despair, "She's destroying the last few sticks of things we own!"

It reminds me of something from Stephen and Ondrea Levine's book, Who Dies?

You see this goblet? For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it. I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, "Of course." When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious. Every moment is just what it is, and nothing need be otherwise.

For the better part of six years, I've been trying to move in the direction of this kind of enlightenment, one of which I sometimes remind myself with the short-hand of "easy come, easy go," but the advent of Stella has shown me that stuff still has a hold on me. Perhaps it doesn't own me to the degree it once did, but I still experienced a small heartbreak when I came home to find the floor covered in the stuffing that once plumped our pillow, even if I intellectually knew it had always been torn to shreds.

For the past several years, I've been reading a book to the children by John Muth, entitled Zen Shorts. One of the fables features a bear who awakes to find a raccoon burglar in his home. Instead of reacting with fear or anger, the bear is sad that he owns nothing of value for the raccoon to take with him, so he gives him the old, tattered robe off his back. I may never get there, but it's a goal toward which my soul yearns.

I've scolded Stella when I've caught her destroying one of our possessions, just as we might scold children who are ripping pages from a book or using a marker to draw on the car seat. We want them to understand the value of things, of stuff, how it costs money, how it is scarce, how it is precious and must be preserved. But when I'm traveling like I am right now, my world of stuff reduced to only what my backpack can hold, I wonder why it is that we habitually attempt to teach our children those dubious lessons about stuff, while ignoring the far greater one they are attempting to teach us about freedom. 

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

A New Understanding Of Phobias

The difference between your phobias and mine is that mine make sense.

I've always assumed that there were two kinds of irrational fears, the first being the kind that we learn in childhood, often through trauma. The second are those that have emerged through the process of evolution: it makes sense that the early humans with the capacity to learn a healthy aversion to, say, snakes would be less likely to be bitten by poisonous ones and would therefore be more likely to survive to pass on a tendency toward that specific caution through their genes. I could never quite wrap my brain around that explanation, however, and so assumed that most phobias were either the result of trauma, teaching/role modeling by loved ones, or, perhaps simply a hyperactive tendency toward caution.

So I found this fascinating:

Memories can be passed down to later generations through genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors, according to new research that may explain how phobias can develop.

It seems that researchers at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta have managed to create a generation of lab rats with an irrational fear of the scent of cherry blossoms by associating the fragrance with a stressful experience in a previous generation. The brains of the trained mice as well as their offspring showed actual structural changes which caused all subsequent generations to share their cherry blossom aversion.

Rats are not humans, of course, but the implications are fascinating. I've often wondered about the phobias of the children I teach. I once taught a boy who had an irrational fear of pinecones and it was a dark, dark day when he finally looked up into the branches of the pine tree on our playground. I was sure his parents had done nothing to "cause" that particular phobia. Another boy became hysterical whenever we sang the "Happy Birthday" song. He was fine with all other songs, but that one put him over the edge. When our daughter Josephine was an infant we lived within a block of the Pike Place Public Market where I would take her nearly every day, often stopping in front of a tank of Dungeness crabs where I figured she would be entertained while I had a cup of coffee. When she later developed such a full-on crab phobia that we had to take special routes through the supermarket to avoid passing them, I figured it was all my fault, but this morning I'm telling myself that the blame really belongs to a traumatized ancestor.

For the most part, this falls into the category of information that is interesting, but not particularly useful. I have always taken children's seemingly irrational fears seriously (even while I'll admit to  having sometimes teased adults), because the fear is clearly real, even if I don't share it. The source of that fear is immaterial. But it is still a compelling idea.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the question: If phobias can be inherited in this multi-generational way, what other of our brain changing experiences, positive or negative, do we pass on to our children and their children? Fascinating.

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