Monday, February 11, 2002

February 11-15, 2002

FEBRUARY 11, 2002

I thought watching the Winter Olympics would be something my kids and I could do together. I have nice memories of watching them with my mom when I was growing up, and now my kids have the added incentive of seeing athletes from their native land competing with those from their adopted one. I thought my daughter would love watching the graceful figure skaters and my son would love all the speed-demon skiing and we'd all love having something on TV that didn't bore one of us to tears. But no: Bored is exactly what they are. Never mind the Russian competitors with the same name as my daughter or the folks hurtling down hills faster than we'd hurtle down the highway or the snowboarding that's just like the skateboarding on "Rocket Power." Unless Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and SpongeBob SquarePants turn up to do commentary soon, my kids could not be less interested in these games.

Which means I'm viewing on my own, since my husband thinks the events are either monotonous (anything that involves athletes going down the same slope or around the same course over and over) or silly (anything that involves men wearing spandex and sequins). But me, I could have that stuff on morning, noon and night. I'm ticked off at NBC for not having the games playing constantly somewhere on one of their cable networks, at least. If they're going to preempt my favorite prime time shows, the least they could do is give me something to watch at 10:30 on a Saturday morning in return. Let the kids squabble about who gets to watch the Disney channel and who gets to watch Nick; for the next two weeks, anyway, one of these TVs is mine. Loser gets to watch curling with mom.

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FEBRUARY 12, 2002

Watching the Winter Olympics this year, I am once again struck by what a bad example these athletes are setting for our young people. I'm not talking about steroids or bad sportsmanship here; I'm talking about how flat-out unsafe most of this stuff is. Maybe it's a good thing that my kids don't want to watch the games with me -- they might get the idea that, say, laying on your back on a small piece of metal and flying down an icy, slippery track is something they'd like to try. Which would have to in some way involve my dead body, Olympic glory or no Olympic glory.

The Olympics didn't need snowboarding to say they're into extreme sports; you can't get much more extreme than what some of those downhill skiers are doing, careening down nearly perpendicular slopes at speeds that would get you pulled over on the turnpike. Even so delicate a sport as figure skating now involves so many elaborate and risky jumps and throws that I have a hard time watching. I guess they're trying to make it more athletic and that's after all the point of this whole endeavor, but I liked it better when it was just pretty.

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FEBRUARY 13, 2002

I don't think I've ever been so happy to have children who have no prodigious talents yet apparent as when I heard Jim McKay's "Up Close and Personal" profile of figure skater Todd Eldridge last night. The story revealed how Eldridge had left home at the age of 10 to pursue his skating dreams. The age of 10! Do kids get to leave home at the age of 10? I mean, I know he wasn't standing at the side of the road with a sign reading "Olympics or Bust" or anything, but that seems such a tender age to devote one's life so completely to something. At age 10, my daughter devoted her life to watching the Disney Channel, but at least she didn't need to leave home to do it.

I suppose if your child does have an overwhelming talent and ability at something, be it ice skating or gymnastics or whatever other practice-intensive discipline comes to mind, it would be hard to deny them the absolute best shot at excellence, even if it meant moving away to train. I suppose it would be hard to say no; but how on earth could you say yes, knowing what sort of insane pressure these activities put on young people, knowing that any semblance of a real life is out of the question, knowing that your son might devote 20 years of his life to a sport and still fall down at every blasted Olympics. Knowing all that, wouldn't you just want to tell that 10-year-old to take the skates off, sit his butt down and watch some TV already? Come to think of it, maybe it's not a coincidence that my children are showing no prodigious talents...

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FEBRUARY 14, 2002

Between helping my daughter do a science report on dingos, helping my son make Valentine cupcakes for his class, watching a little "Star Trek" just to have some contact with my husband, and falling asleep where I sat, I didn't get to watch any of the Olympics last night. My only peek at the games was in the early evening when my daughter and I watched a little curling. Yes, it was curling that brought her to the TV at last. To ask, "What are they doing?" And, "Why?" If this were prime time on NBC, we'd get a detailed little documentary on the sport complete with bios of its main players and stirring theme music. But since it's 5:30 on MSNBC, we just got guys pushing rocks and sweeping. Do those guys sweep up around the house as part of their training? Just wondering.

Don't know if I missed any figure skating, but I'm not sure if I can handle the stress of that sport anyhow. The judging factor has become a problem, hasn't it? It's hard enough, as the sport has added so many complicated jumps and twists and throws, to watch the routines through parted fingers, silently willing the skaters to please, please stay upright; to then have them receive a figurative crow bar to the kneecaps in the scoring is too much. Were the judges wrong? How the heck do I know? I believe what Scott Hamilton tells me. I do have a pretty good idea, though, that if the Canadians had bobbled and won based on funny numbers and the Russians complained, we would not be still be hearing about it. There's something to be said, and to be taught to children, about being a good loser, even in the face of perceived injustice. Otherwise, parents across the land are going to be hearing about kids' grades being low because the teacher has a fix in.

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FEBRUARY 15, 2002

It seems like the news is full of cheaters these days, from duplicitous Enron execs to influenced Olympics judges to Web-surfing high school students. The first two I have no use for, but those high school kids ... the story goes that about a fifth of the sophomores in biology class in Piper, Kansas, copied material from the Web and used it in a leaf-describing project that formed half of their course grade. When the teacher failed them for plagiarizing, their parents protested, and the school board eventually ordered the teacher to change the grades. The teacher resigned, the town is up in arms, and pundits everywhere are using it as an example of the decline of American schools and American character. Cheating is cheating, plagiarism is theft, and condoning it in any way is saying that no one needs to do honest work anymore. There's always an excuse, a loophole, an irrational parent to get you out of it.

And I wonder: Did none of these people foaming at the mouth about the awfulness of copying work off the internet and getting away with it ever use something in their school days without rewriting it? I mean, I was a good writer in high school, and mostly did my own work, but there were more than a few times when a careful comparison between my research and the World Book Encyclopedia would have resulted in a mighty embarrassing similarity. It's hard, for a kid, to see something written clearly and then find a way to rewrite it, especially if it says pretty much exactly what they want to say. Goodness knows, it's hard for adults sometimes.

Parents of the offenders have been quoted as saying that their children worked hard on their projects -- which involved gathering leaves over a long period, studying them and making a nice presentation of them, in addition to looking up material on the Web and writing about them -- and don't deserve zeroes. They say their children did not understand to what degree they were expected to rewrite their research. The teacher counters that she made everybody sign a contract at the beginning of the project that there would be no plagiarism. But I wonder how many kids connect plagiarism -- the deliberate stealing of another's work and passing it off as your own, as in copying someone's report or downloading a term paper off the internet -- with putting research found on the Web word for word in one's own report. Did the teacher give them lessons in rewriting research? Did she explain that you're supposed to find several sources, distill them in your head, and mix them into a new presentation of thought? Are her students able to do that? Or were they just pointed toward the Web and expected to know what to do with it?

I think it's too bad that the teacher took the hard line she did here, rather than conferring with the students and families before giving the zeroes. And once she did give them, I think it's too bad that the school board didn't back her 100 percent. As in Olympic competitions, sometimes the decision of the judges just has to be final, like it or not; otherwise the whole system, and any respect for it, falls apart. That's what appeared to have happened in Piper, where students stopped listening to the teacher because they knew they could appeal any decision she made to the school board. I blame the kids for that attitude, and their parents if they condone it, but the cheating? Man, I've had my fourth-grade daughter copy sentences out of her textbook to answer social studies questions; is that plagiarism? She brought home research printed off the internet for a report on dingos the other day, with the parts she needed helpfully highlighted by her aide, and let me tell you, just getting her to understand what fit where was a big chore. Did I have her rewrite sufficiently? There are only so many ways you can describe the coat of a dingo. And, I'll bet, a leaf.

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