Everything is Under Control
This is the first in a new series of short conversations with interesting women sharing stories from their lives.
Susan and I met on a lake a few summers ago. Our kids are on the same swim team, and her oldest daughter – the swimmer – was, when she was younger, the spitting image of my middle daughter, Olympia. They look so alike, in fact, that I was told a funny story in which a friend had been hanging out at their home and was curious to know why their family had a photo of my daughter on their mantle. So naturally, a bond was born.
Daughters bonded or not, I admired Susan from the moment I met her. She is at once effervescent and erudite. I’m a brooding, glass-half-empty kind of gal, but I don’t want my friends to be. Susan is a woman who is changing the game on every level. She is raising smart, confident teenage girls who don’t apologize for their intelligence or have difficulty saying no; she is a breast cancer survivor (although, read on, she’s not into clubs); she’s a wife (that’s a labor of love, but labor none the less). And remarkably, she is the founder of the ground-breaking charter, Brooklyn Urban Garden School, which she lovingly refers to as BUGS.
Keep Your Balance
CH: Tell me about balance.
ST: [Laughter] Balancing work and family – it really should be a verb, it should be navigating. Balance implies that there’s a certain status that you can have – where things are equal. Whereas navigation is ongoing and going in different directions.
CH: Thanks for clearing that up for me! Somehow that takes the pressure off.
ST: Before I started the school, I loved being home with the kids – it was exhausting but it was lovely. I mostly think about them right there [pointing at the living room floor] just naked, sitting, playing with trains and looking at board books, naked with food on their faces or whatever. I loved those days. Then it starts to shift.
CH: They grow and that magical bubble pops.
ST: Annika was three and then Isadora came. I remember very distinctly – I get emotional just thinking about it – dropping off Isadora to go to PreK at the elementary school where Annika had been, and I remember just thinking – gosh – I just cried – her first day – knowing that was it. It was school years now. There’re no more naked children on the floor. This chapter is over. The funny thing was, I had already been volunteering on this project with this group of community members – working on creating this school and commissioning a study with Brooklyn college to assess the needs of the community and I remember thinking – that first day of PreK with Isadora – what am I going to do now? And then that project just kind of took off. It was a perfect storm of me needing the project and the project needing me, and working with this exciting group, and it being a great catalyst for so many of my skills. I often go to where I’m needed – the kids didn’t need me, and this project really needed me. I just thought - I’m going to go do it. I can start this school! We can do this. I can help get it organized, I have a lot of the pieces.
CH: What was the dream, how did you make it a reality?
ST: We wanted to create a place where we could not just close the achievement gap but the opportunity gap. Where kids who don’t have access and don’t have privilege, who have really tough realities at home, can be with kids who don’t have those problems. The mission of the school is what we call all around sustainability education. It’s not just ecological and environmental science as you might think of ; it is economic and social sustainability. We have this phrase at our school – there’s no such thing as “away”. You know, you can’t throw something away, everything stays, and we must strive to keep it in a way that is life-affirming and sustaining. It can get depressing to think about where we can be heading, untethered to meaning and to purpose – to life -- but when I see these kids thinking systematically and being accountable and excited to spread the word it’s heartening.
CH: I know BUGS is a Charter school, can you tell me what it means to be a charter school?
ST: Charter schools are free public schools that are run privately. We receive a charter – a contract– that says, you may run this public school outside of the public system. You may run it according to the application that you have brought forth around your key design elements, your curricular objectives, your staffing, your finances, your board, whatever it is. You can’t characterize a typical charter school, because the whole idea is that they all are very unique and the reason why there is this policy is essentially for two reasons: either that the state is investing because of a LAB aspect – innovation. We want you to try this thing – we want to know, how’s that going to work and maybe we’re going to take that back to the rest of the public-school system. And/or you’re meeting a need of a population that the rest of the portfolio of offerings, offered by the traditional system can’t really help – a certain population.
CH: You’ve built a world – this school – that is representative of the kind of world that you want to raise your girls in.
ST: Yes, we have families from all over Brooklyn. It’s very diverse. Like the world I know, my girls know, their girls will know.
CH: So, is your school offering an opportunity to kids who would not typically be exposed to this type of an education?
ST: Yes, that’s the whole idea. What we found is that there are some great schools in our district – wonderful. But that they were disproportionately serving affluent families – like my own – and they had selective criteria in terms of who knew about them and who could get into them and all of that. What we loved is that charter is a random lottery and equal access to this high-quality education. And what’s so interesting about the diversity is that it’s very challenging and really great.
CH: I’d like to point out that you are not only running a school, but you built a school from the ground up – that is a gigantic job. The other gigantic job in your life, is parenting. A lot of women talk about how they sometimes find themselves unable to give a hundred percent to everything and step out of the work force to focus on their family, but your attitude is, you can’t walk away from what you build, family or school.
ST: There’s too much at stake.
The Worth of What You Do
CH: Family, school... priorities?
ST: To hit a sore spot for Nick and I, he was part of the blood, sweat and tears of creating this school – as well as parenting – he is a very equal partner in parenting. More involved than I am in some ways. I was impassioned, I was not sleeping, I was just working all the time. I couldn’t believe it, that we actually were getting this school off the ground. We went from kitchen table conversations to sitting in front of the state [the charter schools commission] and we would make it through the first hoop and then we would make it through the next hoop, and we were like – oh my gosh, we might open this school based on these ideas that we had around a kitchen table!
CH: You were working around the clock and there was no monetary value placed on that work, and in our society, work is often valued based on what you’re getting paid.
ST: And this is the breaking point for us, and it was very hard in the birthing process of this school and the transition for the family is that I didn’t want the kids to suffer and I didn’t want Nick to suffer. He was used to me preparing the food. That’s also a source of joy for me – or getting his lunch. All the things – the roles you used to play. If I had just started work – like, mommy is going to work now, I’m putting on my suit, dropping you off at daycare, it’s a new chapter, but it was nothing like that. It was just by degrees – I had this project and that project and then I dropped Isadora off that day at PreK and launched into this thing. I was working more than any other person I knew with a regular 9-5 job, I was working constantly. So, I took the hit. I would wake up at the wee hours – and I was kind of frenetic – I would be like – WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, EVERYTHING IS UNDER CONTROL!?!? You know [laughter] And I was just trying to hold it all together and still be doing what I was doing before. I didn’t do it just to be the perfect person, but really out of love. Nick was feeling a sense of loss and the family was feeling a sense of loss. I wanted to still be able to give and be present.
CH: Did you have resentments about the financial compensation you weren’t receiving for such a huge sacrifice.
ST: Whatever blind spot that is about how that’s work – I genuinely feel so fueled by it. I don’t know what that is – but I feel paid. I can see the results of my work – there’s progress, there’s development – I’m done. Which is ridiculous, I know. Like – oh wow, I feel so good about what I just did. But it was on the back of my family, you know? That didn’t have as much of me and wasn’t being monetarily compensated for that. When I feel guilty about that – I do think – what would it be like if I hadn’t done it. I think about that for the kids – like – would you really want me to have not done this? And I do see my kids proud of what I’ve accomplished with the school. They don’t see it as much now because I actually go to work, but so much of creating the school was in our home – like, you’re on a conference call in your slippers with the state. They would hear me negotiating leases – they’ve heard me do so much. Really just rallying, talking to parents, signing petitions. How do you get things done? How do you just take an idea and turn it into something? And I see that with Annika – she gets really jazzed. She’s an activist and she’s only 15 - she’s part of this group and they have working sessions and they have the marketing sub group and they have the budget task force and she knows all that from having watched me. I’ve also learned a lot about how you have humility about the sense of entitlement and privilege that my race, education and socio-economic status really gave me to be able to do this. I do feel a sense of responsibility that I need to use that for good. People pay attention - I have a masters from Harvard, let’s use it!
CH: I love that, I love it so much. It’s exactly that. There were probably some very hard days and days that you questioned why you were doing it in the first place but ultimately you had a vision and you were going to make it happen and your children are seeing what happens when you don’t step away, when you have that tenacity – just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you stop.
ST: And just because you can have a vision and it shifts over time, you have the humility to rub up against the reality – that’s the grit – that’s the stuff.
CH: Speaking of having grit, can you talk about being a professional female in a position of power?
ST: I’m not entirely at peace with my role. This is still an uncomfortable stretch for me. Being in charge is difficult for me in many ways. I’m more of a geeky administrator who’s more at home in an academic kind of way. Because it’s a standalone charter, I also serve as the super intendent. When I was growing up, my father was a doctor – I thought I was going to be a doctor – I didn’t see myself going into education. I thought that was a chic profession – it didn’t seem challenging enough or barrier breaking.
CH: In the end – you’re in education – so you’re doing what you call women’s work, but you’re doing it from the top. You’re changing the game. That’s men’s work, traditionally. Have you understood that about yourself?
ST: I haven’t thought about it in that way – but it’s the part of me – that when you hear me say, I’m so jazzed by the work – when I feel paid in full, when I feel like it’s a creative process that’s high stakes, it is intellectual, it is moving a lot of balls at the same time, it is a lot of responsibility (and sometimes I hate it!) and then I meditate and I say a prayer. The flip side to the stress that I feel is opportunity. I give thanks for the opportunity to have such meaningful work. It’s stressing me out because it is such high stakes. I’m privileged to be able to have that work. To have meaningful work.
CH: I’ve often thought about creativity and being female and how essential creativity is to me in the work that I do. Being creative requires mental space, physical space, time – you have to be so selfish to allow yourself the freedom to be creative and I’ve struggled as a mother with allowing myself that freedom – to be that selfish. I took a year off from work last year, my son was in first grade, my daughter in kindergarten and my baby was still home. I was writing and I was doing my own independent work.I did the school photos, but what kept me most busy was the mom work.
ST: That kind of work is so important!
CH: Your school grew out of mom work – that kind of energy. But it’s an interesting thing that I am always exploring. You think about male artists, traditional male artists, they disappeared down their art studio rabbit holes and didn’t come out. You can’t raise a child like that.Women can’t do that. Men with parenting instincts can’t do that, either. Consider Atticus Finch, raising his children – he is a widower – up to and including school work, bedtime stories, and doing that most male thing, shooting a rabid dog with a single shot.
ST: [But] I like those old British period flicks – I just want to be the gentleman who retires to the office. I have my meal, excuse me, I’m retiring to my office. I hate to say it – I love my family and everything – but to me that sounds like heaven.
CH: Your office for years was the kitchen table with the family buzzing around you!
ST: Totally; and usually complaining about my stuff being everywhere! Now this is where my situation is different. That is relevant to my father, for sure, my husband no. My husband is incredibly present. He feels abandoned if I’m not as present. To play astrology – he’s a Gemini, he likes his twin around, me not so much. If I go out with the ladies or I go out and do something or I work late – he doesn’t really like it. I LOVE it when he’s out and I can have a weekend alone. Some of that has to do with the fact that he is Swedish. His work fits into a nice little box and as a Swede – his work is not his life – he is not defined by his work. I am, in part, by what I do professionally or with my time. That’s not a Swedish thing – you are not your job. So, he’s quite present and he has really helped me in that navigation with family life.
CH: You have this incredibly creative job that you do with your family at your heels. That’s not a criticism – this is perhaps the best way for women to function. Maybe that’s why, perhaps, we do it this way and we don’t disappear into our study or “retire to the office.”
CH: Because we are fueled by our people! Even at the expense of our people. Because I feel the same way, I work in a very creative field and I do my calls in the living room and I freak out on my family if they interrupt me – but I could leave my house and do my calls somewhere where they aren’t going to do that – but I don’t want to. I want to hear them in the other room, I want to step over them while I’m reviewing scripts or call sheets or whatever.
Not Letting the Beast of Illness Get You Down
CH: Let’s switch gears. I know something about you that, in recent years, you’ve started sharing with more people. You told me last summer that you were diagnosed with cancer a little while back, when exactly did that happen?
ST: The birth of the school and the cancer unfortunately happened at the same time [about six years ago]. I had gotten a mammogram around the same time that the school was getting up and going, we were hiring the staff… and I just felt something kind of weird one night. I had been living off of adrenaline for so long - launching the school - and PG Tips Tea. I didn’t tell Nick – I thought – let me just get it checked out. So, I went and had a biopsy and I could just tell, I just knew. Everyone was quiet. There was a lump in my breast. This is a crazy story. I got the images from the biopsy to my father, he’s a neuro-radiologist, and he gave it to someone to look at - I still hadn’t told Nick or my mom. I was on a field trip with Annika’s class to the Brooklyn Court, I’ll never forget, and I got this call from my dad. My dad says – I hate to tell you this honey, but it really looks like you have cancer. It looks pretty clear. The irony was – I return to the group on the field trip – one of the moms on the field trip had just been through this. I walked up to her and whispered, my father just told me I have breast cancer. And we just sat on that – you know that thing – you just have to deal and get on with things. And I went home and ended up telling Nick and then everything just kind of unfolded. We told the kids.
CH: But with the school weeks away from opening, and everything you had put into getting it this far! How did you cope?
ST: I definitely went from shock to let’s just do this thing. I have to open a school! I don’t have time. I also was not ready for this to be my identity.
CH: Give me the timeline, this is so hard to grasp.
ST: I found it in May, and August 2nd I had the mastectomy, and we opened the school two weeks later. It was crazy. And then the staff came and then the students came. It was so intense. In my case they thought it looked better in the images than when they went in. They went in and discovered that it had splattered into my lymph nodes. They took 22 nodes out and then chemo was all first semester.
CH: How did your life function? Who was your support?
ST: Everyone was amazing, my friends from my children’s elementary school and Nick – bless him – who was so worried, beside himself. My girlfriend threw the girls birthday parties.
CH: Do you consider yourself part of the cancer community?
ST: Now I do, at the time, I really didn’t, and I didn’t like that. I’ve never really been into clubs, when I had the girls, I didn’t join a mommy group.
CH: [Laughter] I remember those mommy groups! I ran so fast in the other direction! So, what changed for you with cancer? How did you begin to feel connected to other survivors?
ST: There was one moment in particular. We were at the airport, at JFK, and Isadora said – look mommy, there’s a big pink ribbon! She was so excited. It must have been October – so there was pink everywhere. And she was so excited – like – look mommy! It’s for you! And for the first time I realized, this is an incredible group – people are behind us – we’re not alone. And there was a feeling of community that really benefitted the kids and that’s when I really started loving pink. I was like – you know what – this is great for them. It’s not my bag but it’s great. And then Isadora and I walked the breast cancer walk last year.
CH: There is something extremely powerful about community.
ST: Yes! I talk about it a lot more now as well. It was almost like – yea, that happened. Like – remember, that happened! That’s part of me. I have to watch it – the sob story - you don’t want to pull the cancer card too much [laughter].
CH: I think what’s interesting about you, now, the way you reflect on your experience and finding your voice as a cancer survivor is that socially we repress things that are difficult or hard to talk about, but it’s so essential that we tell our stories. It’s simply about bringing people together, not doing it alone. We’re not out here parenting and working in a vacuum, there are other women that are trying to achieve goals, personal and social. It’s helpful to know that there’s this mom in Brooklyn achieving some really cool goal also. It’s so hard to have a dream and see it through – it’s hard to juggle everything, whether it’s kids, or husbands or work or cancer! All of those things require time and attention and space. Community, ultimately, is what’s going to save us. You already know that - that’s what you do – with the school. You created a community to make your community better. It starts at this micro level and it extends out. These kids at your school, they’re going to go on to make an impact on a macro level.
ST: It sounds really cheesy – but speak your truth is something that I have been thinking about a lot. Particularly in my job, where I get confronted a lot. Yes – it’s about listening, but sometimes it’s just about speaking my truth. It can actually be calming – it can put other people at ease. It’s something to push back on, it’s something that they know is also there and I don’t just make someone feel better by just dissolving into what they are.