A Very Fortunate Political Editor
There are forty-four former First Ladies of the United States, and Barbara Pierce Bush is the forty-first. I think I achieved a career high when I landed an interview with her. That’s when others began referring to me as a political editor.
As a political editor, my work has mainly been in populating campaign websites, speech writing, social media, etc. I’ve also another political editor or two with content writing. But luckily, my role as a contributing editor for the suite of Lifestyles & Homes magazines gave me access to the First Lady and allowed me to learn more about her wonderful literacy initiative. It was incredibly rewarding to veer from reporting on community news and athletes, and concentrate on the political editor spectrum.
I am so incredibly thankful I had the opportunity to speak with the one-of-a-kind Barbara Bush before we lost her on April 17, 2018.
A Chat with Houston’s Resident Former First Lady
By Melanie Saxton
Her heartfelt insights on education, literacy, dogs and skydiving
Barbara Pierce Bush is passionate about education. As a wife, mother, grandmother, public servant, volunteer and author, she has devoted much of her life championing the cause of literacy. Read ahead for her commonsense views on school funding priorities, community involvement and the ways ordinary parents can make extraordinary differences in the quality of education. Her beloved Millie gets a mention, along with the “work” of family pets Bibi and Mini…and we couldn’t resist asking about her husband, President George H. W. Bush, and his skydiving adventures.
Melanie Saxton: Mrs. Bush, it is a pleasure and an honor to speak with you about issues weighing heavily on the State of Texas. Your recent op-ed article in the Houston Chronicle clearly highlights the problems we face regarding education funding. How do you suggest parents, tax payers and educators get involved? Why should they?
Barbara Pierce Bush: It is easier to be a lazy parent than a good parent, but we all need to work together especially in light of the budget cuts. Parents, neighbors, business and church leaders need to volunteer — get involved — go to PTA meetings, read to children one day a week. We can all do something small to contribute. These children are our future.
MS: Reading the comments posted to your article, it appears people are concerned with how education dollars are spent. How would you prioritize the spending? How important are campus buildings? Extracurriculars? Teacher staffing and classroom sizes?
BPB: If districts are going to cut teachers, they need to do it strategically. Last hired, first fired is not a good policy. School districts need to make sure they hold on to their best teachers, not just their most experienced ones. Currently, the law requires school districts to ensure that there are no more than 22 students per teacher in elementary classrooms. This means that districts with 24 fourth-graders must have two fourth-grade classrooms, which in turn means that districts have to hire another teacher to staff the additional classroom. There is research indicating that class size affects student performance, but those effects tend to be modest. Other research suggests that the negative effects of having a mediocre teacher tend to be much larger. The problem with policies designed to reduce class size is that it is hard to staff all those additional classrooms with high quality teachers. International comparisons of student performance suggest that countries that spend their money on higher teacher quality perform better than countries that spend their money on smaller class sizes.
MS: I noticed that you encourage parents to get books in front of their children.
Why do you believe reading is important and what can parents do to counteract the distractions?
BPB: It is so important to start early. You are the adult — talk to your children! One of the easiest things for parents to do is reading a bedtime story. Set aside a little time everyday to read together. The parent is a child’s first teacher and the home is a child’s first classroom. Teaching your child to love reading will send him or her on a lifetime journey of learning.
MS: The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy is a national treasure, awarding over $40 million to 863 family literacy programs in all 50 states. What inspired you to champion literacy initiatives? What has motivated you to elevate the cause for the last 30 years?
BPB: The idea of an educated public motivates me. If we are a nation of readers, we can create jobs and a competitive workforce. When young people can read and comprehend, they are more likely to stay in school. And if they stay in school, they are less likely to turn to drugs or crime, or to get pregnant. All of these things would lead to happier families.
MS: Congratulations on the success of the recent 17th Annual Celebration of Reading in Houston. The event had a record audience of 2,000 people and raised just over $2 million. I noticed that several Bush family members attended. What support have you received from your loved ones regarding your tireless efforts?
BPB: We are so proud of all our family. George and Mandi Bush live in Fort Worth and oversee Dallas Celebration of Reading. They bring young and innovative ideas to the event. Doro Bush Koch heads Maryland Celebration of Reading, and Jeb Sr. and Jeb Jr. lead Florida Celebration of Reading. It has truly become a family affair!
MS: A beautiful library in Spring is named in your honor. You’ve visited the branch and read books to children on several occasions. How rewarding is it to interact with young readers?
BPB: I love reading to the children and meeting their parents. The library in Spring is state of the art and great for the community. Our dogs Bibi and Mini have enjoyed visits to library too!
MS: You are not only an avid reader, but an author. I found Barbara Bush: A Memoir to be moving, funny and eye-opening! Do you encourage young people to seek public office despite the intense scrutiny?
BPB: Yes, but only after young people have worked, paid taxes, been responsible citizens, and volunteered in their communities.
MS: Your beloved dog, Millie, has also left a legacy. The Millie Bush Dog Park is a local west Houston favorite. She is also the only “First Pet” to author a book. What prompted you to share her life in Millie’s Book?
BPB: I thought it would be fun to show children and adults the White House. What better way than through pictures. The book also raised close to $1 million for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
MS: Your husband, President George H. W. Bush, is renowned not only for his public service but also for his skydiving feats. He’s announced his plans to jump from an airplane on his 90th birthday, health permitting. What are your thoughts about his skydiving adventures? Have you ever been tempted to join him?
BPB: I say if he feels like it — jump! He is doing it with an experienced skydiver who will not let him get hurt. Many people write and say “Thank you for showing us that old people can still do things.” I am not the biggest fan of heights, so I am absolutely not tempted to jump with him.
As for her current and future activities, Mrs. Bush is spending the summer in beautiful Kennebunkport, Maine, with plans to fly back with her husband for a joint birthday visit in College Station. The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum announced a public cake and ice-cream celebration scheduled for June 10th to honor the couple. Mrs. Bush’s birthday is June 8 and President Bush’s birthday is June 12 — his milestone 90th. In the meantime, Mrs. Bush will continue to spread her literacy message across the nation and the world.
Find Out More
You can learn more about The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in Washington D.C. at www.barbarabushfoundation.com.
Check out the Barbara Bush Library at www.hcpl.net/location/barbara-bush-cypress-creek.
Visit the Millie Bush Dog Park at 16756 Westheimer Parkway, Houston, 77082. www.co.harris.tx.us/Pct3/parks/milliebushdogpark.aspx
Learn more about the President and Mrs. Bush’s Birthday Celebration at bushlibrary.tamu.edu/museum/events.php?id=513