Category Archives: Just Parenting

It’s not all about the schools.

Back to School 2016: The Road Trip

keep calm and get backNo reason to keep denying it; Summer’s all but over and the back-to-school season is upon us. For the Parent Imperfect, this week is all about that transition and the mixed emotions that go with it. It all starts a little earlier once they finish high school. On Monday, Vince and I loaded his stuff into the car and headed to the Finger Lakes region for Year Two. It was to have been an end-of-the-summer road trip for the entire family, but Ms. Connie wasn’t having it. I drew the traveling straw.

Mountain shotSince it takes longer to get to Ithaca than it takes to get to San Francisco, Vince had lots of time for a pensive transition back to college life. The ride through western Mass and upstate New York was gorgeous, reminding me of how little time I spend in Vermont these days. After living intensely with a group of IC people for all of freshman year, he didn’t see any of them over the summer. He has a new roommate this year and the young woman with whom he spent a lot of the spring semester transferred to Syracuse. There was a lot on that mind surrounded by the headphones, and the Parent Imperfect was much more chauffeur than confidant. Vince needed the 6+ hours to get back into an Ithaca frame of mind.

He was actually scheduled to go back to school two weeks early to train with the rugby team, but he decided that his knee couldn’t take another year of that sport. I think  he was also quite enjoying himself in Boston, and didn’t look forward to spending the last two weeks of summer grunting and hurting in Ithaca. Summer was to have been a time of rehab for his MCL injury (not a tear), but, instead, he spent the summer lugging around other people’s furniture, which was anything but rehab for the knee. He’ll have moments of regret about that decision in the coming weeks, as rugby was a big part of becoming part of the college community last year.

I want my future backWe remain, as always, on a “need to know” basis with Vince, but from what we could tell the first year at college seemed to be a year of growth for him. He points to last January, when he worked for a month at the moving company with men in their 40s and 50s who make an uninsured living for their families (sort of) by moving heavy things from place to place. Many of them walk like his father walks, even though they are twenty years my junior. No other students, just Vince and perfectly intelligent guys of various races who’ve ended up on the wrong side of the rigged economy. I’m not sure what he learned from that, but something clicked.

I’m sure he was still being a full-on college boy when he went back to school, but he did well enough in his classes to get into Ithaca’s much-respected communications school for Year Two. They had passed on him when he applied as a first-year student.

Ithaca viewHe was visibly excited to get back to Ithaca, although he has also become aware that going to school there is costing money that other good schools wouldn’t necessarily cost. From the beginning, he had a sense of the privilege in that, but he didn’t always understand the cost of it in the same way.

He will not stay up at night worrying about this, but he knows it in a way that he didn’t, even last year. He says that he is exploring transferring in January. We’ll see. I feel the pain about the money, but, if he has found a passion at Ithaca it would be a shame to let it go for the unknown at another place.

It was great to have him here over the summer, but he now lives on South Street as a matter of convenience (for him). In essence, he treated the place like a flop-house over the summer. Who would turn down a flop house with food in the refrigerator? I remember the days when life was so much more fun in the 1-4AM period, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to live with someone who is living that dream. Then, when one of the parents (or the sister) was reaching a limit, he would be home for dinner for a couple of nights, make the time to go visit his grandparents, or spend an evening on the couch talking about the Republican convention or the problems with Bernie’s campaign.

After too many hours in the car, we rolled up to the beautiful dormitory  where he’ll spend the next few months. The move did not have that high energy of excitement and nervous anticipation that we all felt a year ago. This was more lugging his stuff up the back stairs into a room that his definitely a step up from the freshman digs. He was happy to have the help moving in, but then it was time to go. His roommate and friends were nowhere to be seen, forewarned via social media of my arrival. I barely had time to deliver my predictable departure speech, which he probably could have delivered, himself. His phone was buzzing with things to be done as soon as he could get rid of the rest of the family unit.

Much more quickly than I came, I was gone. And now, on South Street we are three…

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Parenting the Beautiful Game, #1

Beautiful GameThe Parent Imperfect promotes a big lie by suggesting that his parenting is mostly about school assignment, charter school expansion, Advanced Work Class and the exam school choice, in short, the improvement and the defense of public education. In truth, my parenting is much more about managing the stress of young people attending the stress factory that is the nation’s oldest public school, and parenting soccer. I’ve somehow become a most unlikely soccer Dad.

Vince began playing soccer with JP Children’s Soccer in September 2001. You probably remember that month–especially its 11th day–for another reason. That was a busy month in our household. It was also the month that Vince began K-1 at the Rafael Hernández School, and the month in which his then little sister was born.

Vince didn’t immediately love soccer, but it grew on him. He tried several other sports, but soccer was the constant through ninth grade. He was not the kind of kid to be head over heels in love with a sport–it was all about doing something with his friends for Vince–but he came to really like soccer. As a result, we spent a fair amount of time getting him to practice and attending his games. Probably too much of dear Connie’s early life was conditioned by Vince’s soccer schedule. She attended dozens of games and endured many hours in the restraints of the car seat as her parents moved Vince through his appointed rounds.

Connie was curious about the game, but never really got into it. We often joke that she concluded that, if her brother could play soccer, than it probably wasn’t a game worthy of her attention. At her parents’ mild urging, she tried it a couple of times as a little kid, but it just wasn’t her thing. At that point, Jamaica Plain Children’s Soccer had adopted an “academy” format that focused on basic skills building in fluid groups of children, rather than the formation of set, competitive teams. Connie had no patience for that format, so she pursued other interests.

Sadly, soccer was one of the early casualties of Vince’s attendance at Boston Latin School. At the moment of his highest interest in the game, he was not playing, and not playing soccer meant disconnection from his most important group of friends. By the end of ninth grade, the interest in soccer was gone, and he had moved on to an entirely different social group at the school. He still does something with a soccer ball on the front porch almost every time he leaves our house, but he has never played soccer again. Perhaps he’ll pick it up again in the future, when it doesn’t matter quite as much.

IMG_0316For almost two years, there was very little soccer parenting at our house. Vince turned to basketball, and, then, volleyball. The work of keeping him in the school he refused to leave was plenty to keep us busy. Connie tired of spending her time at Vince’s soccer games, and developed her own strong interests in theater, music (piano), dance and, most of all, in becoming very acquainted with her body through gymnastics. Soon, Vince was going to as many of her meets, recitals, etc. as she was his. We, her parents, supported all of these interests, on the one hand, because we were/are nuts, and, on the other, because school did not take up a great deal of her time and attention during those years. Neither Liz nor I had ever played soccer or knew the least bit about the game, but, to each other, we admitted that we missed it. There was social connection in it for us, as well, and on the days when it wasn’t freezing cold, raining or (as in the case of a memorable day at Fort Devens) snowing like crazy, it could be very pleasant to sit outside and watch kids play.

But our soccer parenting days were over, or so we thought. What little did we know…

 

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Nemerov to the rescue…

After a long absence, the Parent Imperfect needs a poem about the first day of school to stir me from my slumber. This one came to me today, courtesy of The Writer’s Almanac

September, The First Day Of School

I

My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph’s dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend,
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.

II

A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one,
As from the alphabet come Shakespeare’s Plays,
As from the integers comes Euler’s Law,
As from the whole, inseparably, the lives,

The shrunken lives that have not been set free
By law or by poetic phantasy.
But may they be. My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form

Nor hope to know it. May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.

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The Pressured Child, Take 2

The Pressured ChildThe Parent Imperfect just finished a week that was even a bit wilder than usual. Dear Liz started a new job in that city where “ya’ don’t come out the way you went in.” The entire family is in for a lot of adjustments. Always aware, I responded by organizing a week in which I needed to be out of the house for seven nights in a row. It all started with a trip to the nation’s oldest public school for a meeting of the exciting, new Parent-2-Parent group, followed by a lecture by the well-known child psychologist, Michael Thompson.

Thompson, author of The Pressured Child, spoke at the school almost exactly two years ago, and he really got my attention. With Vince in the throes of making a decision about college, and Connie in the throes of eighth grade, I felt like I needed another shot of Thompson’s wisdom. The last talk could have been called, “Seeing Your Highly Competitive School the Way Your Son/Daughter Sees It: A Strategy for Getting a Parental Life,” and this one way remarkably similar.

A very good crowd was on hand for the talk in the BLS library, which says to me that lots of parents feel that they could use a little (or a lot) of help. There is nothing like sitting in the BLS library for two hours to drive home the degree of privilege inherent in being part of that school community. It is an amazing school library, the kind of library that a society with our resources ought to be able to offer every high school student.

One of Thompson’s great strengths and one of his really limiting weaknesses is that he lives in the world of therapeutic interventions. He “sees” students, often when they are having some pretty serious trouble in school. Being in that role means that he also talks to quite a number of parents. His vocation is to help people, especially young people, survive one of the most important institutions that we as humans have created for ourselves..our schools. His experience has taught him that an important part of helping young people survive school is to get their parents to back off a bit.

Thomspon talkingThompson has discovered the ancient magic of stories. He heals groups like the one gathered at BLS by telling stories about how difficult it is to be a student today, and how often we well-meaning parents make things more difficult for our children. Many of the stories this time were the same as the stories of two years ago, but that didn’t seem to bother the large part of the crowd that made it to both talks.

Early in his talk, Thompson establishes that, not only has he been a school psychologist for decades, but he has also devoted many days of his life to following children through their school day, something that no one else in the room has ever done. This “hallway cred” and his gift as a storyteller make people pay attention to him. It’s easy to see why schools invite Thompson to speak all over the world, and the man reminds the audience at least twice that his is a global phenomenon. Nothing wrong with being a phenomenon, I suppose.

About in the middle of the talk, Thompson offers his image for the school experience of children. “I have come to see school as a thirteen year hike.” What’s the most important single accessory to a hiker? Their boots, of course. And for some percentage of kids, the school boots fit perfectly from day one. They never feel a bit of pain from their shoes. These are the easy through-hikers. Others, of course, are dealing with sore feet and blisters all along the way, but they find a way to keep going, despite it all. For some kids, however, the shoes of school attendance fit so badly and the pain is such that they just can’t keep going. Those hikers leave the trail. According to Thompson, 36% of the boys who begin high school in New York City do not finish. The hike is a brilliant metaphor that many in a crowd of BLS parents relate to with ease.

Perhaps the most powerful stories are the ones he tells about his own children. This time, Thompson talked about a daughter who suffered from serious dyslexia and had a very difficult time with the academic side of school. In school, she found a way to express herself through sports and other extra-curricular activities, got through school and has ended up as the highly-recognized manager of a high end restaurant. What could be a more hopeful fable?

Pressured parentsBut it’s another story that receives the most dramatic play from Thompson. The story plays on the regular tendency of many parents, including this one, to always ask kids how school was that day. To drive home his point, Thompson talks about a young kid who accompanied his parent to a Thompson talk. When the shrink sees the kid, he offers him a chance to speak to the crowd by asking if his parents always ask him how school was that day. The kid, almost too perfect to be true, says that his mother does always ask that stupid question and of course he doesn’t really tell her the truth of his day. Ready for the punch line, the psychologist asks the kid if he would share his reason for not telling his parents how his day was. The kid pauses for dramatic effect and finally says, “There’s not that much she can do about it!”

This is the key transformative moment in the talk, and the reason schools the world over line up to pay what I can imagine is a healthy fee to have this man speak in their community. In addition to getting us to see how hard life can be for kids in school, Thompson wants parents to realize that they have little control over the school environment. Much better to get out of the chopper and focus on trying to help your kid get three “simple” things: CONNECTION, RECOGNITION AND AN INCREASING SENSE OF MASTERY. It is these three things that kids need to get out of school to prepare them for what lies before them.

It has taken Thompson a while to get there, but this is the chase…the climax of the show. If you think about it, this is kind of a mixed message. “Back off, but help your kid achieve three things that that can be very difficult to achieve in a school like BLS (and even more so in other public schools).” If your kid happens to have an IEP, or is a Black or Latino male, then you face some special challenges getting Thompson’s big three, but I guess that’s another talk.

School cultureIf I get another chance to see Michael Thompson speak, I’ll go again, but I’ll go determined to ask him why he doesn’t talk much about the culture of schools. He describes school culture, but prefers not to use that term. If he buys the idea of “school culture,” I’ll ask him to say what that means to him, and I’ll ask him to tell a healing story about a time when he saw the same damaging thing (like anxiety to the point that a kid can’t go to school) happening over and over to kids to such an extreme that he decided that, in addition to helping the victims, he had to do something about the culture that was contributing to this outcome. He could then tell the story of how he worked with others (teachers, students, parents, administrators…whoever) to make the necessary change.

I know, he’s a therapist who deals with “cases,” but I insist that a story about changing school culture would be a bit more empowering to parents who feel that the culture of their school needs to change in order for their child to achieve CONNECTION, RECOGNITION AND AN INCREASING SENSE OF MASTERY. Without at least a nod to such stories, Thompson’s message is enlightening, extremely funny, but, in the end, quite disempowering.

 

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Day One…A Father’s Remembrance

Childbirth stories
The Parent Imperfect notes, once again, that readership has increased quite dramatically during the long absence of new posts. I’m ready to risk a new decline in viewers with something new that is a bit different than my usual pontifications on the state of public schooling.

Last week, Vince turned 18. Fearing that the day would just pass like any other, Liz and I proposed a party of sorts to mark the occasion, one that would include whatever friends he might invite, along with adults who have known the boy over the years. To our near shock, he agreed, as long as it didn’t “ruin” a whole night of debauchery. True to form, as soon as the invitations went out, Boston was hit by the largest January snowstorm in its recorded history. Nothing is easy.

The weather was bitter cold, and there was no place to park on our street. But many friends braved the sub-zero wind chill (inside the house, as well as outside) and sheets of ice along the sidewalks to share this evening with Vince. They included one of his current teachers at the nation’s oldest public school as well as a remarkable man who helped Vince through both 4th and 5th grades at the Hernández. Also present was the friend who volunteered hundreds (no, thousands) of hours over several years to share with Vince his love of soccer. Against her better judgement, the current schoolmate who has known Vince longer than anyone else his age was also in attendance. Finally, one determined guest, a parent who we met on Vince’s very first day of school in kindergarten, rammed her car into a snowbank in order to park. So stuck was the car that she had to summon AAA to yank it out. This was not an August trip to Larz Anderson Park.

At a certain point, we lured Vince into the dining room with birthday cake and then made him sit there as people said what they dared to say about him. Those who knew the real stories were prudently silent. When my turn came, I had a story all ready but, for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to tell it. Maybe I was afraid of embarrassing Vince. More likely, I was afraid to humiliate myself. Instead, I stammered out some incoherent stream of consciousness and passed the baton to Liz, who told two beautiful stories.

Now that story is burning a hole in my pocket, so I’m going to write it here. That way, I can be sure that only a select few will see it.

IMG_0054I’m going to take a moment to tell a story about Day One, a story of birth. I’m not doing it to embarrass you, Vince…really. I’m telling it because I think there are people in the room who will know you much longer than I will, and I want them to know this about you.

The story starts with Vince not being where he was supposed to be. If you know about childbirth, you know that babies are supposed to come into the world looking down, so that the world doesn’t shock them too much. They also come through the birth canal much better that way, with less wear and tear on Mommy.

Unsurprisingly, as he prepared for his coming out party, Vince twisted and turned until he was face up. This act of defiance made the whole thing much more difficult for Liz…only one of many hints of things to come.

After a long and painful (for Liz) journey, Vince was ready to be born. Because of a transition in the birthing team, I was, at the moment, alone at the gates, waiting for him. And suddenly, there he was! This little head and shoulders emerged into the world and then…he stopped. It was as if he wanted to check out the scene before he committed himself. Maybe he wanted to see if any of his friends were around.

His eyes opened to the world and, for what seemed like a half-hour, his little head swiveled around taking it all in for the first time. And then as I moved my head closer to his, those eyes “fixed” on mine, as much as a baby’s eyes can fix on anything in the first seconds of life. I was, of course, overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of my first child. I’m sure his first blurry view of my eyes found them full of tears. I was truly smitten, but his reaction was a slightly different one. 

His eyes opened wide, with a startled expression. His mouth followed, as if to say, “Whoa, talk about a face to stop a ninth-innin’ rally…No offense, boss, but I’m going to get me another little dip in the hot tub.” 

And I swear to everyone in the room that this creature’s first body language was all about going back from whence he had come. But we know that nature and mothers have other ideas at this moment, and from somewhere deep inside Liz came the energy for one last powerful push. With that last burst of energy, a primal act of unconditional love, she overruled Vince’s ambivalence and popped him into the world. The rest, as they say, is history.

Vince, I remember this story today, 6602 days later, as if it was yesterday, in part because I’m reminded of it every school  day at 6AM when I face the unenviable task of rousting you out of the sack. Very much like Day One, your eyes open on those of your loving father and you quickly turn back to your covers, hoping it’s all a bad dream. But I also remember it because in those few seconds on Day One, you showed me many things about yourself that I think have turned out to be amazingly true. I’ll leave it to you and your friends to figure out what those things might be… 

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Ciara Sees (the Dangers of Social Media)

Social media cautionAs you well know, the Parent Imperfect has often turned to this social media platform to rail against the evils of social media, especially for teenagers. How’s that for hypocrisy? In truth, I do feel quite strongly that social media, while surely a mixed bag, is damaging those young people whose social lives are so powerfully conditioned by their odd relationships with “friends” via hand-held computers supplied by their parents. I used to be able to feign self-righteousness on this until, just about a year ago, we made the irreversible and unforgivable mistake of getting Connie a smartphone. Being an eighth-grade girl is hard enough without an instantaneous connection to all the people who love you today, but will have a very different opinion tomorrow.

Setting limits is, of course, the way to a solution, but we find that setting limits on Vince and Connie has become much more complicated as they and their devices have become more sophisticated. The combination of being more knowledgeable about the space than their parents and boldly defiant at key moments has shifted the balance of power decidedly toward the kids in this discussion. Long, long gone are the days when strict parental controls on the Mac they used was all that we needed. Now setting limits usually means imposing similar constraints on ourselves, and we never quite get around to that.

Dystopian LitThen, just as the parents approach the abyss of mindless prohibition, one well-known (to us) social media maven writes something suggesting that she may have more understanding of the problem than those who would sanction her. Asked by her ELA teacher to indicate that she was awake during the class about dystopian fiction, our favorite SnapChatter came up with something called, “Ciara Sees.” In it, she hints at a world in which “The Device” has made the transition from being constantly clutched to becoming a defining member of the human body. What follows is an except from the words providing the door into this strangely familiar world.

…Ciara walks through the corridor, hurrying and trying to muffle the noise of her sneakers. It’s her daily trip to the bathroom at school, but there’s something else on her mind. Scanning her arm at the entryway, the door swings open and she walks in. Her device looks just like everyone elses, but it’s different. Ciara wasn’t born with a device on her arm. In Rafertin, everyone (except Ciara, clearly) is born with a device. This device is where inhabitants get all information. All humans rely completely on their device to function. Ciara doesn’t.

The DeviceThe bathroom is gray. Looking in the mirror, Ciara holds up her arm to view the device. CIARA 10 it reads. AGE: 16. HAIR: BROWN. EYES: GRAY. MENU- NEWS, WEATHER, EMOTIONS.  She chooses WEATHER. It reads -4 degrees Celsius and snowing. On her tiptoes Ciara peeks out the tiny window in the bathroom. It looks sunny outside. “But right,” she thinks, “I’m supposed to believe everything I see on the screen.” Her thoughts are interrupted by the swinging open of the metal door. In walks Galia 8. “Why are you wearing sneakers, it’s freezing outside and snowing” Galia barks. As Ciara begins to shake her head, she remembers that she must agree. “I must rely solely on the device,” she thinks. “Umm- well my mom, my m-.. I mean, my snow boots are too small. My mom is buying new ones on her device sometime today”, Ciara rushes to explain. She notes that her device reads 2:43 and counting. She has almost exceeded her 3 minute time slot for the bathroom. Hurrying, she swings open the door and stumbles out. “Weirdo”, Galia mutters.

A tear trickles down Ciara’s face. She begins to run. 2:52 2:53 2:54. She enters the classroom, panting. “About time, Ciara”, says the Device Studies Professor.  On the board the word OLIMENTAL is written. “Can someone please explain what this word means to our beloved classmate Ciara?” The professor gives her a sideways glance. There is a smirk on his face. “Anyone?” A hand goes up. It’s Diandra 2. “Well, it basically means you’re different, stupid, annoying, bad…” she trails off when the professor gives her a hard look. Ciara muses, “I’ve seen this word somewhere before. Where was it?” She shifts in her seat, waiting for an answer.

And just what word would that be?

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The PI Turns Five

First Day from Different PointsIt occurred to the Parent Imperfect at some point last night that this blog began about this time of year, five years ago. I checked and yesterday was, indeed, the five-year anniversary of the PI.

Much has changed since that first post, when I decided to report on the happy family’s attendance at a downtown health care rally. We don’t attend a lot of rallies together these days. Vince had just finished his first week at the nation’s oldest public school, and now he is in his last year there (Dios mediante). I guess that makes this a chronicle of the time that our children have spent at that school. We have certainly had our issues with BLS, but now both kids are there, so we have somehow voted with our feet. As difficult as the experience has been for Vince, he remains committed to the place, and insists that he would not have wanted to go to school anywhere else. Connie is still very early in the game, but being on the soccer team this year really seems to be changing her relationship to the school.

The Pressured ChildI read something the other day saying that the average number of posts on the millions of blogs that people start is 1.6. Many times, people take the step of starting a blog and then do a single post (or none at all), and never get back to it. I guess that makes the PI something of an outlier. I’ve gotten sick of this and left it alone for months at least three times, but, strangely, people keep looking at it, even when there is nothing new. In fact, some of the blog’s most visited days have come when I wasn’t paying any attention to it. I’m not sure what that says about the blog, but this odd behavior is part of what eventually gets me to start up again.

In the beginning, this was much more about the oddities of our family life. Over time, it has become much more about our experience of the Boston Public Schools. Neither Vince nor Connie particularly liked seeing things in here about their personal experience, so there is less about that now. I don’t use our real names, but, over time, a lot of people have figured out who is writing this thing, so the kids felt a little exposed. They remain characters in the PI, but in a little different way,

Ohrenberger MeetingAbout midway through the life of the PI, I became involved with a crazy group of fierce public school mothers (for the most part) called Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST). That involvement has played a big part in the shift of my emphasis toward the BPS. Were it not for Quest, I would never have known anything about school assignment in Boston, would never have heard much about the experience of being a child with special needs in the system, and I certainly never would have paid much attention to all of the hub-bub about the Dearborn School. In short, I would never have thought I had anything to say. I should also say that, were it not for Quest, I’d have spent a lot more evenings at home, complicating the lives of Liz, Connie and Vince.

Dumb parentsDuring the life of this quirky little space in the blogosphere, both Liz and I have changed jobs, passed one of those milestone birthdays and seen my children go through incredible changes. Those of you who have read this and shared your thoughts about it have made yourselves part of this process, and for that, I am very grateful. I don’t know why so many of you prefer to give me your comments offline, rather than on the blog, but I treasure them, however they come.  Thanks for joining me on this surprising little journey.

 

 

 

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