Wacky Ideas Welcome

When I was in high school one of my teachers embraced the philosophy: the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. The premise being that if you had a question and didn’t seek out an answer, you were being stupid.

In spite of the questions I’ve heard over the years that test the premise, I still buy into the notion that it’s better to ask than to remain in doubt. So when my student said that she really had no interest in debating the topic of euthanasia for an argument based writing assignment, it occurred to me that she might not be asking the question.

questionsSo I did.

When I had said euthanasia, what she heard was “youth in Asia.”

Ah. Pretty hard to take sides in a for-or-against debate about a billion little kids in a continent a world away.

I encourage my students to ask lots of questions, in part by asking plenty of my own. I usually take a Socratic approach, turning their questions back at them to get them to think of their own answers. They don’t often appreciate my methods. What some of them care for even less, though, is when my queries stray from their school work and hit closer to home. It’s not idle curiosity, nor am I looking to unearth any imagined mysteries of their college antics. Instead, I offer them somewhere to throw the dirt that can weigh them down so. So I ask questions that can lead to places that I don’t need—or particularly want—to go.

Questions are good. Even if the answers sometimes aren’t.

Because those questions can make them think –reimagine, step out of their comfort zone, take a chance.

The process works outside academia, too. Just differently.

Marketing is supposed to be creative and fun, but even in such a dynamic field, there is the temptation to hang on to what works. After all, if you’re getting good results from a strategy, why would you change it?

To do better, my company’s founder might say.

So when an email went out last week about a campaign for one of our favorite clients with the inclusion that “no idea can be too crazy or wacky for us to handle,” it was a reminder that taking chances isn’t just for kids.

The account manager opened the doors to the whole team, with the invitation to try something different.

She gave no guarantee that the more outrageous of the ideas wouldn’t be laughed at; we do have a sense of humor, after all. But she was encouraging everyone to step up and maybe even out on a limb or two.

Good for her. Better for the company.

She’s got a whole lot of ideas and answers of her own; she’s been at this gig for a while and she’s good at it. But instead of relying on what’s worked in the past and giving ready answers, she’s asking questions.

And questions are good.

Cheering for Failure

GradesI meet most of my students when they’re freshmen, unsure and uneasy about the demands of college life, in and out of the classroom. I follow them through senior year, onto graduation and even beyond, and witness their personal growth with pride and pleasure.

I like to think that I’ve helped more than a few of them cross the stage at graduation with a little more knowledge, competence and confidence. I suspect they consider me a cheerleader to their success, audibly shouting from the stands, but more silently relishing in all that they have accomplished.

I wonder if they know, though, that I’ve also rooted for their failure.

When one of my students had atypically gone a full week without showing me any of the work she’d done on a soon-to-be-due paper, I confronted her.

I passed it in.

Huh? I hadn’t caught a glimpse of it yet. This from a student who once worked back-and-forth with me on more than a dozen revisions to a single paper. On the one hand, this is exactly the trajectory I hope for. Eventually, students hand in papers on which they’ve worked hard and long and feel confident enough to put their best work before their professor for a grade –without any assistance from me whatsoever.

In this case, with this girl, I was thinking there was another hand. I asked her why I hadn’t seen it.

She looked me straight in the eye and said, Because it sucked.

The one quality I always loved about this kid was her honesty.

She went on to explain to me that she just didn’t want to do the work I would make her do and that the paper she passed in would earn her a B; she was fine with that. In truth, the paper probably didn’t even deserve a B but she knew the professor. She also knew I held her to a higher standard than he did.

I never saw the paper. She got a B.

I wish she hadn’t.

Just as I’d hoped for that C another student received in final grades instead of a B-. And was glad for the 10 point penalty for the late paper.

Don’t get me wrong. I like receiving those texts with the got an A followed by exclamation points. I really do cheer on their successes –that is when they deserve them.

So many times they don’t.

They take short-cuts, make excuses, do shoddy work. None of it at all surprising. Some of my own college papers were less than stellar. The difference though, was that I usually received grades commensurate to my effort. Lots of work and lots of effort got me a well-earned A. Not so much work got not-so-good grades. No excuses. I got what I’d deserved.

My students seem less likely to acknowledge that their instructors aren’t giving them grades so much as they themselves are (or are not) earning them. They don’t often appreciate that C- as the gift that it is. Really, they want the B.

One of my students bemoaned a poor grade saying the professor could’ve cut him some slack. He likely didn’t appreciate my dude, you’re in college comeback. But called out, he gave me a reluctant admission that he could have submitted better work. Then, he flashed his winning smile. He’ll go far on that alone –he’s counting on it. And today, he may not be wrong.

Maybe my students know better than I. Many of them seem to be doing just fine with minimum effort and maximum manipulation of a system they have a better handle on than I do. They often get the grades they want –even when I wished they hadn’t.

So I’ll keep wishing them ill. Or at least a handful of them.

It’s only the students who are most capable for whom I truly cheer for defeat. Because they may know all the short cuts, but I know all the scenery they miss when they don’t take the full ride.

 

 

Butterflies

They’re more than just butterflies. For most of the students I know the transition back to school doesn’t merely cause a gently uncomfortable fluttering in their stomachs. It’s more like a Molotov cocktail mix of emotion creating tumultuous explosions in their brains. While many of their peers experience a sort of nervous excitement at the beginning of a new fall semester, my kiddos are struggling with amped up anxiety that can be nearly debilitating.

Precedent (and I) reminds them they’ll get through this transition –again. They’ve managed. They have found success.

Still, this is not an easy time of year.

butterflyLong after I had no reason to worry about the upcoming first day of school, I still fought of flutters. Into adulthood I had dreams of roaming hallways, missing classes. Then it was the vicarious connection to my own children that left me sleepless before that first day of school.

In spite of the reasons she had to hate back-to-school, Alex has always been fairly unfazed by transition. When she was a toddler and I woke her to tell her we were going to Disney World, she didn’t miss a beat. Years later, when her little brother was given a similar sort of surprise, he kicked at the Contemporary Hotel room door in an effort to escape. Disney, Mickey and the whole army of animated friends he’d come to love were no enticement. He wanted to go home and sleep in his own bed.

For a lot of years, school was a sort of home for Michael. He was blessed with good grade school teachers who were more captivated by his intellect and humor than intolerant of his quirkiness. It didn’t last. An ominous sort foreshadowing came when, with grade school in his rearview mirror, Michael told me that back-to-school was the time of year he stopped learning.

My students don’t always embrace learning. But their reluctance to renter the rat race of college life often has little to do with what they are taught in the classroom. It’s all that other stuff.

It’s too bad they couldn’t step back and remember—if only for a second or two—that the classroom stuff is actually why they’re at school. Mom and dad and they may have too fully embraced the notion of an elusive “college experience.” Coursework and learning sometimes take a backseat to the life lessons college students are allegedly learning on campus. I’m all for some big picture ideals but what exactly is wrong with that other learning –you know, the one for which they’re paying the big bucks?

I’ve met all levels of learners and have seen the good and bad in educators. I sometimes harken back to Alex’s fifth grade teacher who was clear in her high expectations for all her students. She raised the bar and –regardless of their innate abilities—her students met it. They were often able to do better than they thought they could –probably because someone believed that they could, too.

I believe my students are ready and able—even if they’re not always willing—to succeed. I confess, though, that I have a particular fondness for the smart kids. (Did I mention that rarely do the smart ones receive the best grades? And no, I am not referring to Michael right now.) I cut some students a bit more slack than I should because I believe, in spite of much reluctance on their part and evidence to the contrary, they’ll get it. They’ll find something worth learning, whether it’s in or out of the classroom, and go full throttle in the direction of their passion. They’ll head toward an abyss of knowledge and plunge into its depths.

So maybe the students who are most frightened by the fall transition are dead-on accurate. Just imagine how scary it must be for them to stand at the precipice of their full potential.

Family Business

handsI’ve read enough of the details of the Demoulas divide to understand a bit about the players and their rift. I get that the wounds are deep, the scars likely permanent. But isn’t it time to put down the weapons, take a breath and step back? Regardless of the visceral hatred between Arthur S. and Arthur T., are they both so self-absorbed that they can’t see the catastrophic collateral damage their family feud is causing?

I don’t get it.

How could I? Where I come from, family trumps business and profits. By far.

Kelley and I often discuss the very good example that was set for both of us growing up. We learned a lot about familial ties and loyalty, but also what it takes to run a successful business when the partners are family members. Our parents didn’t always agree on the way things should be done. They fought. They yelled. But at the end of the day, all that was put aside. They came together for food and drink, and to leave work –at work.  They even vacationed as a foursome. Because that’s what families do. Or at least, that’s what my brothers and cousins and I were taught.

Michael and I were talking about the Market Basket debacle the other day because its ripple effects had landed—or not landed—on his kitchen table. I outlined a snippet of the news, but then offered him a scenario in terms to which he might more closely relate. What if the family business with which he was already familiar had remained in all our hands and rather than feuding cousin Arthurs they were feuding Phils?

He couldn’t get there. The Phils of whom I speak are very different; in age, style, ideas and ideals. But they’re still family. In Michael’s world, what’s going on with the Demoulas clan is unfathomable.

And it should be.

If I’ve passed absolutely nothing else on to my kids, at least I got this one thing right: your family will always have your back. And that’s not just mom and dad. It’s the whole family. When I was young, I was as confident of that as I was that the sun would come up. It always did; they were always there.

Maybe the Demoulas craziness is just another example of what kids don’t have today. The more they’re bombarded with these examples of families that don’t get along, the more it becomes their normal. And if they can’t trust their families, then no wonder that real loyalty among their friends seems such an alien concept.

Michael has become distrustful. He’s in business for himself and he’s learning some hard lessons first-hand at a pretty young age.

Still, the idea that cousins can’t get along, that your family doesn’t have your back, to him –that’s just crazy talk, well beyond his comprehension.

And it should be.

Moro Reflex

We are wired for trust.

Out of the womb and into the world, as a species, we possess a dearth of protective instincts. Anyone who’s ever seen a startled infant flail his arms and legs has to get that humans are ill-equipped to make it long-term on their own. The Moro Reflex may hearken back to an evolutionary day of falling primates desperately grasping to illusive clutches of fur. But its modern day display makes it pretty clear that babies truly believe that someone will always be there to catch them if they fall.baby

Fast-forward to 21st century maternal instincts and those Neanderthal kiddos couldn’t have gotten it more right. As a protective breed, modern day moms are even better (or worse) than their forebears. They don’t just protect defenseless babies; they follow those babies through developmental stages much further than any of their predecessors. Moms are catching falling children when they stumble in grade school, high school, and even college.

And their kids trust them to do so, to be there, to take care of things, to clean up after them.

Too bad it isn’t made crystal clear to those kids, though, that not everyone is in their corner like mom and dad. That trust isn’t necessarily the natural order of things out in the big bad world and that it may need to be deserved and earned. That flailing about waiting for someone to catch them is a pretty wrong way to wade through life.

After one of my students felt betrayed by her friends, she told me, “I don’t trust anyone.”

An extreme response.

She had been lucky to find a college group where she fit in. It guaranteed her a lot of fun nights and gave her a sense of security wherever she roamed on campus. After the mind-changing incident, though, she reconsidered whom she should call friend. I also suggested that such a large circle of “friends” might be unsustainable.

She came to believe that never again trusting anyone wasn’t the way to go, but a measure of caution might be a good idea.

Ah, lessons learned.

Michael isn’t as quick to trust as his sister is. He’s also more likely to cut someone off when he feels he’s been betrayed. He doesn’t forgive easily. Or perhaps, he’s like his grandmother who claims she’s willing to forgive, but never forgets. Hmmm.

Michael and I have been dissecting the nature of trust recently. He’s young to be in business for himself, young to be learning some of the harsh lessons to which he’s recently been exposed. He’s trying to decide whom to trust and who may—or may not—deserve a second chance. For now, he seems willing to align himself with “partners” while looking to a future as independent contractor. No surprise. Even in preschool, Michael was a bit of an independent contractor.

My kiddos from college, though, aren’t necessarily set up for such independence. Some of them have gotten used to sturdy safety nets stretched beneath them and have become adept cliff jumpers. It’s hard to blame their behavior; past evidence supports their death-defying exploits. Someone has always been there, able to catch them just before they hit rock-bottom.

The thing is, I want my students to take chances, to believe, to trust –in others, but especially in themselves. I also want them to know, however, that flailing about with open arms into a plummeting abyss is no way to start their lives, and certainly could be one that ends it.

Trust can be ephemeral. It shouldn’t be. But too often, it is.

I don’t (usually) ask my students to trust me. Like my son, I believe trust needs to be deserved and earned. But if I were to posit an unearned entreaty to my students, I would plead, trust me: you need to be careful about whom you trust.

Brick walls

Alex’s teacher gave an early, but prophetic warning that family secrets didn’t live long in kindergarten classrooms. In spite of the fact that we had nothing particularly interesting to hide, the Sicilian omertà that must be hard-wired into my DNA left me unsettled at such a notion. Sharing secrets, no matter their insignificance, doesn’t sit well with me.brick walls

Maybe that’s why I’m sometimes still caught off-guard when people I barely know share theirs with me. In my role as long-distance interviewer for our clients’ students and grads, I’m sometimes taken aback by what these interesting strangers are willing to tell the voice on the other end of the line. Tragic deaths, debilitating illnesses, abusive relationships, drug dependencies. Perhaps they sense a cloak of anonymity in the strange area-coded telephone number and it lends comfort like a warm and reassuring blanket that it isn’t. I don’t get it. From the start of the conversation, they know that what I’ll be writing is meant for publication. And yet, they share so much that can’t really be published.

On the other hand, I am no longer surprised when my students do the same. Even in our initial meetings, they spill secrets quickly. I attribute their lightning fast disclosures to their youth and the social-media-tell-the-world-all generation from which they come. And understand that there’s something in the dynamic of even our earliest interactions that creates a layer of unearned trust.

I’ve adapted to this strange world order so readily that I’m now confused when students don’t tell me everything from the get-go.

One of my students let down her guard early on, but then did her best to rebuild the wall she tries so desperately to keep between us. For all the times my students—and even my own kids—have shared stories I didn’t need to hear, hers is one I’ve worked hard to unearth. Because I think she really, really wants to share it. Needs to.

We play a game, she and I. It’s a push-pull relationship, the kind with which I am too achingly familiar. Michael and I did this sort of dance for years and it was at times excruciating. But this young friend of mine isn’t my kid. She stepped into my world as a fully formed person with whom I never would have interacted, had it not been for this odd position that I now hold in her life. We’re sort of stuck with each other. We don’t have to be, though, not really. But when I gave her the option to fully bolt, she couldn’t. Like I said, I think she wants to share; she’s just not comfortable with the premise. And that I do understand.

For a whole lot of reasons, I find I have little in common with most of my students. It’s not just the generational divide; that’s too obvious. It’s a lot of other stuff about where we come from and what we consider as life’s priorities. But my sharing-adverse student and I are on the same page, in at least this one regard. I could actually teach her a thing or two about avoiding tough conversations. Instead, I’d rather she learn that the crushing weight she’s carrying would be less of a burden if she’d only share a little of it. It doesn’t have to be with me. I’ve told her as much. But it does need to be with someone she can trust.

She trusts me. On Tuesdays. Not always on Fridays. I get so close. We get so close. And then we’re not.

People often tell me I’m crazy for straddling two worlds, two jobs –both pretty demanding on my time and my psyche. I can’t fully explain why I do it. Except to turn to the metaphor of an incomplete building I can’t leave until finished. Although in my case, I’m not laying bricks, just trying to break a few down.

 

 

Tigger Teacher

tiggerOn her first trip to Disney, we searched high and low for sightings of her favorite character. Unfortunately, Pooh Bear wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous on location as he was in our own home.  I knew how desperate we were becoming when
daddy considered greasing palms for access to the furry fellow.

Pooh was finally sighted, at first from parade distance, but later at a breakfast where the dreamed of full-fledged, flesh-to-fuzz hug could be completed. We could have left Mickey and company right then and there with mission accomplished euphoria.

Who doesn’t like Pooh?

But really, I wondered, why wasn’t my little girl seeking out the character with whom she most clearly identified?

Watching my exuberant toddler bouncing around the office one day, I asked Alex if she was Tigger.

She looked at me with a “duh” expression more befitting a teenager than a two-year-old. Then, with a thumb in the air gesture to her back and rapidly nodding head, she said, “see my stripes?” as if, how could I not?

Alex has always been a Tigger.

I love that about her.

To say she’s had reasons NOT to be would be a full recoloring of her personal history. But from the moment she emerged healthy from Brigham & Women’s NICU, Alex has always managed to find a way to bounce back. Over and over again.

I wish I could say the same for the other kids in my life. I think I know way more Eeyores, or perhaps more likely Piglets –a mass of fretting fatalists, feeling small, ineffectual, and always worrying.

Convincing them that there’s less to worry about than they think can often be one of the most challenging parts of my job. Interestingly, I don’t do it by telling them all’s right with the world and that everything’s going to be okay. I can’t always make that promise. Instead, I ask them simply to consider –what’s the worst thing that could happen?

It’s an exercise not all of them embrace. For the zero-to-ninety few who escalate too quickly, having them consider the worst imaginings of their mind can set them in a tailspin. However, for a few of my overly anxious kiddos, walking them through the unlikely steps of their worst case scenarios is an exercise in reality. It helps them pause, step back and understand that the worst stuff doesn’t usually happen. And sometimes—when the worst thing is a bad grade or missed assignment or even a failed class—maybe it’s not so bad, after all. Even when the bad is really bad, I can sometimes get them to step outside of their insular lives and understand that they still may have more to be thankful for than most.

Pooh Bear might be a pretty apt philosopher. His simple-minded, but kind musings stand clear as a reminder that being nice is pretty good way to go. However, when the one person the kids have trouble being nice to is themselves, I’d opt for a little Tigger tutelage. Because when the
going gets tough, what they really need to do is –bounce.