Book World Live: Sandra Tsing Loh, author of 'Mother on Fire'

Mother on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh
Mother on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh
Sandra Tsing Loh
Author, Performer and Commentator
Tuesday, September 2, 2008; 3:00 PM

Author, commentator and performer Sandra Tsing Loh rants and raves about the challenges and rewards of finding affordable and high-quality schools in urban America. She writes about her own family's love-hate relationship with the Los Angeles public schools in her new book, Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$ Story About Parenting!, which was reviewed in Book World.

Sandra Tsing Loh is also the author of A Year in Van Nuys and Aliens in America. She is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, she has performed two solo shows Off-Broadway, she has been a commentator on the public radio shows This American Life, Morning Edition, and Marketplace. Her current syndicated radio show is "The Loh Down on Science." Mother on Fire is based on a solo show that ran for seven months in Los Angeles. She lives in Van Nuys with her husband and two daughters.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book Worldor in the weekday Style Section.


Sandra Tsing Loh: Greetings! I'm Sandra Tsing Loh, writer and Los Angeles public school mother. My new book is "Mother on Fire," which describes my entry into our local public education system. I'm also a public school activist--most recently, on June 17, I and a collection of "Burning Mom" friends threw a pro-public school rally in Sacramento on the front steps of our state capitol building. I am 46, philosophically on the very old end of Gen X. I welcome your public school questions and our discussion.


Arlington, VA: Dear Sandra,

Loved your essay and have been thinking about it a lot. Honestly, my major concern about the public schools isn't the ugly buildings or the lack of music classes; it's the bad teachers who can't be fired, the mediocre teachers who can't be fired, the burnout, the hours of soul-crushing busywork and boredom, the indoctrination into shutting up and sucking it up, the lack of individualized instruction, the outdated pedagogy, all the stuff that makes the average American kid hate school and learning while the average private school kid looks forward to it. (I swear I don't care what grade my child starts algebra, but I do want him or her to like school and feel good about it.) I'm a teacher and have worked at both an elite private school and an underfunded public charter; I know how much good teaching matters to a child's fundamental daily quality of life, even if not at all for their long-term wage horizon or whatever.

Do you think there's space for parental aggressiveness on those issues, for protecting your child from the worst of school? If so, what does it look like?

Sandra Tsing Loh: In my experience, it's not an either/or world. I have found some extraordinary teachers in poor public schools, and some lousy ones in elite private schools. (Although in LA, there's a high premium in some of the expensive private schools I've visited on pleasing parents, and being in tune with the parents' needs. . . or at the very least, assuaging parent anxieties, which in this day and age can feel vast and overwhelming.

Sandra Tsing Loh: I also feel (perhaps radically, in this day and age) that while we do want inspiring teachers for our kids, and schools they want to go to, children can survive an occasional uninspiring teacher and episodes of sheer boredom. To go on a brief tangent. . . For instance, and this is perhaps framed by living in L.A., I often notice parental belief that their children's creativity will be crushed by any moment of boredom. However, even (and especially?)working writers/artists/musicians experience lots of boredom and horror (facing the blank page, etc.), and getting through to "the fun part" requires enormous self-discipline and even, dare I say, some rote exercises (I myself began my paid writing career reporting on local intramural sports leagues for the Burbank Leader at 30 bucks a shot).

Sandra Tsing Loh: Still, you're right in that sometimes teachers SIMPLY NEED TO BE BOOTED OUT. . . And in that case having "entitled, demanding, Type A, middle-class parents" on one's side, who pepper the principal, etc. with e-mails and generally make themselves a pain can do wonders. In my dream, some of these pain-in-the-a** parents who tend to all cluster at one boutique public school could fan out among other public schools and share the "wealth" of their sheer high-strung "demanding-ness." Parents really can make a difference, and I think part of our 21st century U.S. public school mission is for public school parents across the country to "wikipedia" everything they've learned about their local public schools, share it nationwide, and then we can really have a movement!

Sandra Tsing Loh: We have to force 21st century U.S. public education to become more parent-friendly, and that includes better customer service, including school district websites that don't just re-quote the equivalent of government census info. (I always think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance--what parents want to know is not how many pistons the motorcycle has, but where to put the key in and how to shift the thing into drive!)

Sandra Tsing Loh: (A great example, I believe, is the InsideSchools website in NY that possibly, just possibly, is forcing the NY public school district website to become more parent-friendly.)


$$$$: I cannot even wrap my mind around how expensive it is to raise kids. I went to private school myself and I have no idea how I would ever make enough money to do the same (if I ever have kids!).

Sandra Tsing Loh: Thus the saying, "It takes a village." If we were truly in a dog-eat-dog world and had to pay retail for every little thing (including childcare at city rates of $15/hour), life would be unaffordable! But what I've personally found in my own experience is that moving from competitive to community-based thinking is not just cheaper but better for building communities.

Sandra Tsing Loh: In LA, I always use the example of a block where at 7:30 in the morning, four Lexus SUV's fly to four different parts of the city to transport children to four different $20,000 a year private kindergartens. If those four families just sent their kids to the corner public school and put even one year's worth of private school tuition into that school, it would be (at least partially) tax deductible (if done correctly), it would enhance the school, and maybe even real estate values!


Washington, D.C.: We have so many controversies with the schools in D.C. (as I am sure there are in L.A.). One of the latest concerns a new program to pay public school students for getting good grades. The message seems to be, "adults get paid to work so why shouldn't kids be paid to stay in school?" What do you think of this plan? 14 Schools Named to D.C. Program to Motivate Students With Cash (Washington Post, Aug. 29)

Sandra Tsing Loh: Let me rip the Band-Aid off and address what I think may be at stake here. There can often be a troubling split between let us call them "middle class families"--where education is valued, stressed, and home rewards systems are set up accordingly--and SOME poor families, including less educated parents, who don't particularly see the point of school. An LA principal friend of mine talks of walking through the very poor neighborhoods around her Van Nuys middle school and finding households too poor for books, but with a single giant screen TV in the middle of the living room continually blaring.

Sandra Tsing Loh: I believe children of such poor families indeed need to be "marketed" to, and to be persuaded that math, music, history, writing, etc. are valuable things. A favorite example of mine is an afterschool program called Academic Chess whose title at first sounded boring to me. Then I saw one of their presentations ("There was a king who was always starting wars. . . His chancellor says, 'Give me a few days and I will invent something for you that's BETTER than war. . . '"). . . And I MYSELF couldn't wait to play chess.

Sandra Tsing Loh: So payment for good grades sounds pretty tricky, but I'm in sympathy with the basic underlying issue of, "How do we motivate children from non-education-stressing households to want to learn?"

Sandra Tsing Loh: Here's another little story I find quite amazing. Teachers at a very poor public school in Los Angeles found that their kindergartners and first graders, whose parents came from rural Oaxaca (no more than an 8th grade education), did not understand the connection between bubbling in answers on tests and getting good grades/achieving in school.

(Of course, there are those educational philosophers who would also question that connection--fair enough.)

These children thought standardized test blanks were more like a lottery ticket--you filled in a blank at random, and if luck went your way you would win the Lotto.

The teachers made an effort to educate the children on what was at stake and, yes--leavened rising class scores with desirable prizes--and that school became a very high scoring school. In our school I notice, as prizes, gummy worms, occasional afternoon waterplay, things of that nature. I'm fine with it as it seems to work. God bless our teachers! (It's Republican convention time, I like to say, "God bless!")


Washington, DC: I loved your columns in The Atlantic! I didn't renew when you stopped writing for them. What happened? Are you writing somewhere regularly now? You're the best!

Sandra Tsing Loh: Aren't you lovely? The truth is, editing my Jonathan Kozol piece seemed to take about four months! Those Atlantic pieces are difficult. We're in the middle of editing a giant one that will either kill me or appear in November. They just take a long time to bake.


New York, N.Y.: Were you a product of the "Spock generation" who grew up believing it was wrong to spank your children, and thus your parents should have been permissive, or were your parents more traditionally strict on discipline?

Sandra Tsing Loh: Ha ha ha! My late mother was German, my father is Chinese, the general rule was, "Get a degree in science (preferably physics) or you will starve on the street." We weren't spanked or anything, but short of opening up the car door on a speeding-by freeway there was no way to get out of the piano/ballet schedule given, and I recall both parents could sink into a gloomy monosyllabic (or sometimes multi-syllabic) rage, so that was enough. We didn't have our own rooms or computers and televisions, there simply was no escape.


Washington, DC: Well, obviously: what do you think of what Washington is doing with its fast-privatizing public school system?

Sandra Tsing Loh: A sticky wicket. Without knowing ALL OF THE DETAILS (and who really does?), change and pressure is good. An ENORMOUS help would be if parents can dial their hysteria down a bit and stop "rushing the bank" all the time. In LA (as in other big cities), there is SUCH hysteria about kindergarten, preschool, and even pre-toddler classes! It stresses the system, and hard.


Alexandria, Va.: How do you manage to do all that you do?

Sandra Tsing Loh: My office, which I am sitting in right now, is an unbelievable wreck. It looks like a homeless person's office. So I tend to drop matters like having a clean car or buying new clothes or exercising. I've written a bit about work/life imbalance in my weekly "Loh Life" commentaries which you can find online at:


Harrisburg, Pa.: Now that news of a politician firing a librarian over censorship issues has reemerged, what are your views on whether local governments should be able to ban books of their choosing from their libraries?

Sandra Tsing Loh: Wow. That's a very big question. Part of me is horrified that extraordinary works of literature have been censored in America, part of me is wary about things like The Anarchist's Cookbook which instruct one on how to make bombs out of regular household materials.

I should mention that I've just come back from Burning Man (which I went to because I thought it was an important event to see, as a writer, if I were to understand contemporary American culture) and. . . I honestly believe a bit of self-control in our culture is a good thing, a web of rules keeps us from being howling animals!

That's a short answer to a big question.


Washington, DC: You are the best! Simply the best. I wish we in DC could have a clone of you. We need your wit and lightness here. Everyone takes themselves sooo seriously.

Are you still writing for The Atlantic?

Sandra Tsing Loh: Yes I am still writing for the Atlantic! We're editing a new piece now. Thanks so much for your great note--I appreciate it. I adore the Atlantic, of course, but when reader mail is published it veers to the pugilistic. (So many Fight Club references today!)


Leesburg, Va: How did you choose Crown to publish your book? I'm finishing "Out of the Nest and On the Wing - Raising Confident and Independent Kids" and wondering who would be the right publisher for me.

Sandra Tsing Loh: I like Crown, who before me published Jonathan Kozol. . . You know who is a very interesting publisher you might look into for your book? Da Capo Press (hopefully I spelled that right).


politics: I know this is off the topic of your book, but I am so curious to know what you think of Sarah Palin's VP nomination.

Sandra Tsing Loh: As I mentioned earlier, I just came back from Burning Man yesterday, and as surreal as that festival was (go ahead and google it!), the nomination of Sarah Palin seemed surrealer still. All I know is from two skimmed LA Times articles, so understand that this is a snap judgment.

On a personal level, I understand that a woman was chosen to get women votes, but Palin is said to be more interested in gas company taxes than healthcare and education, so the initial sisterly vibe hasn't taken. I'm alarmed at traveling about with a stunt baby (did I read that correctly?), although I know that can be done with a lot of help, which she will clearly have.

I want to add that I am a Democrat, so am partisan. That said, I don't easily succumb to the traditional weepy women's debates. (I'm always amazed at Blue Coast elite Democrat women who passionately argue for universal childcare, even though they themselves would not only never use universal childcare, as opposed to a high-paid nanny, they would never deign send their kids to public school.)

That said, once again, still looking for a sisterly vibe, with Sarah Palin, but it's still early. But I do find the photos alarming, just a tad Kathryn Harrison(sp?)-esque! But friends, this is all off-the-cuff Blue State pot-shotting from California, filter as you may.


Los Angeles, CA: Weighing in on the LA schools: I have a daughter who will be a senior in an LAUSD magnet high school. Here's my experience:

First you have to let go of any notions that raising a child in a city school will be anything like it was for you, and learn to work with what is, not what you grew up with.

Next, Make your home buying/renting choices by taking the local schools into account. There are huge quality swings over just a couple of blocks. The LAUSD schools have high achievers and low achievers and not a lot in the middle. If you have a child in the middle, it is incumbent on you to get tutoring to get them into the honors level classes or into a private school.

The magnet schools are the "deal with the devil" that LAUSD has made with the families of upper middle class, mostly Caucasian families. My daughter has had access to very good honors and AP programs at the schools as a gifted student and not always as part of a magnet.

Last, it's important to know the community and not just the test scores. Lower scores indicate more economic and racial diversity and that's not a bad thing. There aren't "mean girls" cliques, there isn't a lot of conspicuous consumption, there is a lot of racial separation but if the administration is doing its job, there's a "live and let live" attitude among the students.

Brava to Sandra for tackling this topic; supporting urban schools shows our children that we "walk the talk", perhaps the most important lesson that we can pass along.

Sandra Tsing Loh: Wow! What a wonderfully nuanced report, and hear ye, hear ye. To go that one step further, I ALSO often ponder what the "value" of education is at all (aside from getting a certain number of young people into business school so they can use their professional careers buy their way into a gated community and not, say, have to become an hourly wage earner like a bus driver. . . a great fear of middle class parents). Essentially, to repeat myself, often the unspoken "value" of education is to keep middle class children from falling out of the middle class. . . (And then I'd love to say, "Discuss amongst yourselves!" but I'm not sure I understand the technology well enough!)


Midwest: I just wanted to make a little comment, one of the earlier posters said something about 'the lack of individualized instruction' and while I do agree that teachers/administrator/school programs might be a bit more strained, there is something to be said about the fact that public schools tend to have more selection of classes when it comes to electives, college level courses and specialized/trade training, which can make a big difference to high school students trying to figure out what they want to do with there life. Also, public high schools tend to have a lot more opportunities for extra curricular activities that might better cater to individual needs/interests.

Sandra Tsing Loh: Interesting. . . Where are you located in the Midwest, by the way?

A great friend of my Midwestern husband (and mine) is a public school teacher from South Dakota, whose practical advice routinely cuts through fancier parenting notions from the coasts! There, I've said it. Midwestern at heart!


This American Life: One of the funniest things I have ever heard was the piece you did for TAL about the band that did a song about your dad's nude beachgoing. I am cracking myself up here just thinking about it. What is the latest on your dad? Father's Day '96 (This American Life)

Sandra Tsing Loh: While moving pretty slowly at 86, my dad still swims in the Pacific Ocean in nothing but ladies' underpants every day. . . That's more exercise than me!


Cleveland, OH: How do we motivate children? In my (our) day, negative reinforcement was the norm. Is spanking ever useful?

Sandra Tsing Loh: While I frown on spanking, a very occasional well-placed ****shout**** I find does wonders! Or varying the vocal tone to that darker basso place.

As though I should be giving any parenting advice. At this very moment, my temporarily abandoned children (last day before school starts) are watching cartoons. As a reward, they have been promised lunch at the local McDonald's Playland. . .

Where, as I like to say, at least I will be greeted with, "Hello, welcome to McDonald's, may I help you?" This is a high customer relations bar many local public school offices cannot match. Must. . . bring. . . public. . . education. . . into. . . 21st. . . century!


Alexandria, Va.: In what ways can you and/or can you not identify with Sarah Palin?

Sandra Tsing Loh: I want to also add, to other Sarah Palin answer, that neither presidential candidate seems to be talking much about public education. . .

I weighed in on that on a recent op ed blog post (something we can mention, on

Reading both McCain's and Obama's planks, I see notions raised of parental choice (McCain) and citing of great programs that invigorate the inner city. There isn't much said about what parents can do and. . .

Well, for my two cents' worth, I'm always curious why, in political educational issues pieces, Teach for America is so often cited (worthy as it is), but never the PTA, a 100--plus year old parent-driven organization that, in California at least, doesn't just directly serve many local communities, but has the power to move legislation. (In California, reportedly, the PTA was instrumental in help limit class size to 20 in grades K-3.)


Silver Spring, MD: My spouse is a teacher in a school that's half kids fresh from overseas and half rich kids. She lives in terror of catching the negative attention of some of the more helicoptery parents of the rich kids. Perfectly ordinary competent teachers have been hounded from the school because they didn't spend 30% of class time on one parents' kid.

So we may be better off with some of those overinvolved 20K per year parents safely tucked away at private schools.

Sandra Tsing Loh: How apt is that observation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have found, quite frankly, that many of the higher-strung LA parents I meet need to begin their public school journey with a giant dose of therapy.

Anecdote. . . I and some of my public school mom compatriots have in the past thrown events like "Martinis and Magnets" where we gently try to bring let's call them "helicopter parents" into a public school head. Some are trying to give their own children an educational experience they never had, citing their own peak educational experiences as things like, "It was in my second year getting a master's degree in modern dance choreography when we finally turned our chairs IN TOWARDS each other." And you're going, "And you want THAT sort of euphoric release. . . IN KINDERGARTEN? When your children barely remembers where the bathroom is, and how to go?"

Can I agree with you that many of the parents I have met are absolutely nuts? Thank you. I feel better now.

To be fair-ish. . . American Parenting has become a giant corporate marketing complex which churns out its dollars on parental fear, and all the advertising is rather effective!


Censorship : When I was in high school (public) in the 70's, I had to ask a teacher to sneak me a copy of the banned "Brave New World" out of the closet. Censorship, if done properly, can affect both sides of the aisle.

Sandra Tsing Loh: Ah, the sacred ritual of the favorite teacher sneaking you a copy of the banned book! How wonderfully "bracketed" in a way. . . How "handle with care." I can't say we shouldn't treat volatile substances with respect.

The most threatening thing I find today is complacency. Oh those so very satisfying I-phones and nanopads!


DC: Hi Sandra! No question, really, just a rave. I absolutely adore your columns in the Atlantic - I turn to them first and am highly disappointed when an issue comes without one. You have such a fresh, common sense approach to women's issues, and I really, really admire your frank talk about money, and, yes, class. In the immortal words of Tim Gunn - carry on!!


[Insert loving emoticon here. . .!!!!!!!!!!!!!]

And as I always mention, lots more regularly replenished stuff on


_______________________ On the Democratic Convention: What About Us? (New York Times Campaign Stops blog, Aug. 29)

Sandra Tsing Loh: Check this out, Democrats (and everyone else!), for discussion. . .

_______________________ Burning Man

Sandra Tsing Loh: Here 'tis. . . Flip side of the American Dream!


My sister is a teacher: I have a sister who is a young teacher in an urban public high school (Brooklyn). She spent the summer working at a school in a disadvantaged area near Cape Town, S. Africa. She said that while both schools serve similar populations in a way (working poor, diverse, lots of immigrant families, some drug issues) the attitudes of the students were just so different - the South African students were more respectful of her position as teacher. It's so discouraging to hear her stories of how disrespectful and undisciplined some of her students are. What do you think of all this? What can schools, parents, society do to address this issue of respect?

Sandra Tsing Loh: Have you read Rafe Esquith?

Read Rafe Esquith! Read Rafe Esquith!

Two titles to look for:




_______________________ Ask A Magnet Yenta

Sandra Tsing Loh: Because, like many cities, our own LA Unified does not have a parent-friendly website, here's what a couple of us volunteer public school moms (with so much leisure time on our hands) started for free two weeks ago. We're already overwhelmed with questions. Oh, for a Gates grant!


Midwest Again: Actually I'm from Indianapolis (we consider ourselves midwestern), and only about five years out of a large public high school. And, while I did the traditional straight to college thing, I know a lot of people who didn't go the traditional route and my school had a ton of resources for them that I know for a fact most private schools around do not have (sometimes private school kids could/would come to our school for those resources). I also found, in general, myself to be a lot more prepared for college (from everything to larger-class sizes/less instructor attention to having a been introduced to more diverse education/teaching methods) than many classmates who went to private schools.

Sandra Tsing Loh: Let's have a huzzah for some of our INCREDIBLE unsung public school teachers and counselors. . . !!!!!!!!!!!!!

In our city, for instance, any newspaper headlines about public schools tend to be bombings, shootings, fires. . . Oh, and combative quotes from the pugnacious head of our teacher's union.

It's easy to forget the unsung extraordinary public school teachers/counselors/etc. that for decades go to work every day, slug it out, do their best, achieve small miracles.

I have never visited a public school, no matter how outwardly blasted looking, that doesn't have at least one gem of an adult within it, pedaling as fast as they can.


Kansas City, Mo.: I am a retired educator, still educating. If, in the beginning of our nation's history, the same kind of intense curriculum had been required of students becoming teachers as has always been required of students becoming doctors, lawyers and clergy people, America's educational system would be a shining example to the rest of the world.

Sandra Tsing Loh: Yes and. . . One other wrinkle. . . The women's movement came along and, instead of the two options of "nun" and "teacher," now smart women could choose to do. . . ANYTHING!

Controversial stance as it might be, I consider my volunteer poor urban public school work a kind of community tithing for the incredible freedoms I've had as a woman who came of age in the '70s and '80s.


Sandra Tsing Loh: One more comment re: ASK A MAGNET YENTA. . .

We find, in Los Angeles, on our FREE ONLINE PARENT-TO-PARENT advice website, a parent may ask us a question akin to: "Many of our neighbors are starting to send their kids to the local elementary, we are thinking of doing the same, what's your feedback regarding this school?"

It's worth noting that such parents would not trust their neighbors' judgment (or even, perhaps, advice), but would write in to pose a question about that school to online strangers. It's, in a way, the craiglisting of society. . .

Recently, my sister and I found some car keys dropped on the ground in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and a passing runner (male, professional, Silicon Valley-esque) indeed suggested we post a notice about the car keys on Craigslist. "Don't call the police!" he said. "I wouldn't trust them with anything. . . !"

Something to ponder. . . How we build communities today, in this increasingly fractured world. . .


Long Beach, CA: Perhaps if you performed on piano in the back of a truck while circling the Administration offices the kids needs you espouse might get noticed?

Your children could throw dollar bills, golf tees, stress balls, golf balls, and $5 gift certificates to "Hot Topic" to the confused administrators (who value a golf-tee and a monogrammed stress-balls over education I'm quite sure) watching you like a cat watches a moth flitting at the window...

They MIGHT actually notice one of your points - you think? Or am I over optimistic that administrators can do anything other than contemplate their navel?

Sandra Tsing Loh: Ha ha ha ha!!!

We really thought HARD about throwing money recently on the steps of the Sacramento Capitol (like the Dame of Carcasonne, perhaps?). Very tricky stuff though.

Thanks for asking though. . . I really would like to get more performance art back into today's political activism (part of the reason I checked out Burning Man, I'm still trying to process what exactly I saw there. . . !).


Brave New World:...and we read it in high school officially for English class in 1968.

Sandra Tsing Loh: Fab-u-lous!!!

Thanks so much to all, feel free to send any of your further public school comments to me via our complicated-sounding website. . .

Have a great September!



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