Through Someone Else’s Eyes

mardis gras 2On occasion my kids have made me crazy doubt my parenting skills. From the choose-your-battle incidents of their toddler years to the sleepless nights of teen-hood, they’ve both left me wondering at one time or another what the hell am I doing wrong?

Luckily, my version of them wasn’t the only one to which I was privy. I had other people, other eyes, to remind me that the personalities I was getting to know weren’t necessarily those they were showing to the world.

One of my friends who worked in the schools knew Michael on a kid-in-the-classroom level and she often assured me long after he’d graduated from grammar school, that buried beneath his teen bravado was still a good kid. Same for Alex, when people who knew her from the local bagel shop would tell me they adored her.

It’s not that I hadn’t seen lots of signs on my own that my kids didn’t actually suck; it’s just that in the heat of a bad moment, those shining examples fell to dust. That’s why it was so nice for Michael and me to step out of our world for a little while and reconnect in another. On our recent trip to New Orleans, Michael got to interact with a wide cast of colorful characters and I got to look at him through their eyes. And it was good –for both of us.

I often serve as that other set of eyes for my students.

Sometimes I give them a reality check –tell them that their work could use some work, that they’re not going to sail through yet another class on good looks and charm alone, and that it may be time to step up, even to grow up a bit.

I’ve had students balk at the notion that they were less than perfect, jump ship early on because of the truth I was trying to tell.  But those who were willing to hang in there with me came to appreciate my honesty –even insist upon it.

And because I told them that they sometimes fell short, they were more inclined to believe me when I bestowed the occasional compliment.

More likely, but not always.

They’d pretty easily hear my good job, or I’m proud of you after an academic assignment was checked off their list, but they were often less willing to believe me when I placed the admiration more squarely on their shoulders, instead of their work.

I’ve found a puzzle in dealing with this generation of kids. The very students who come in with an edge and an attitude of entitlement are often those who don’t easily accept an earnest accolade. When I offer my outsider’s view of who they are in a positive light, I sometimes hit a brick wall of skepticism. Even after I remind them of the many times I’ve been willing to tell them they’re wrong, they doubt me when I tell them they’re right.

That’s the paradox of the millennials I know. They come in ready to conquer the world with a hell-bent bravado, but after a first skirmish, they’re often left scarred and retreating, unwilling to take up arms for another foray into battle.

And I know why.

The same parents who told these kids they’re wonderful are also those who’ve provided instruction on how to get a better grade with a conversation instead of a revision, how to make the team without the tryout, get the job before the interview. All the time those parents are providing short-cuts to some misguided version of success, they are also sending a loud and clear message to the kids that they won’t get the grade, can’t make the team, don’t deserve the job.

If every time a kid faces a challenge, he’s given a crutch instead of chance, why wouldn’t he choose the shortcut over the long road? Some of the smartest, most able students with whom I’ve worked are also those who fight near debilitating angst and anxiety. They don’t believe they can do it, make it, earn it, because their parents don’t.

I get to be another set of eyes, telling them that they’re good, they can, they will.

I tell them, time and again, even if I can’t get them to believe it.

If only I could, then maybe they really could conquer the world.

Don’t Lie to Me

truthKids lie.

I’m thinking that’s not the first time I’ve led with such a radical notion. Apparently the trend continues.

Students do, as well. Sometimes it’s a 21st century version of the dog ate my homework:  my printer broke/computer crashed/files were lost. But sometimes it’s eyeball-to-eyeball utter defiance, you’d-swear-they-were-telling-the-truth.

I’d like to believe that my students and I have developed such great relationships that they would never lie to me. My boss’s response would likely be: Ha.

She knows the job. Knows my students. Knows me.

My students have lied.

Often, those lies come in the form of omissions, not bald-faced lies. If I don’t phrase the question in the exact right manner, then the fuzzy answer they supply isn’t technically, actually a lie. Right?

Sometimes it is.

One of my students came in early with a lie. I never fully trusted her after it. Interestingly, she became more honest as the years passed. By the time she graduated, I could depend on her for a candidness that many of my other students would never provide.

But the one student who I honestly felt was incapable of lying, eventually did.

Wake up call. All bets were off.

I don’t demand complete honesty from all of my students. Truth is, there’s a whole lot of stuff I’d rather not know, so I specifically don’t ask some questions, side-step away from a few difficult conversations. Often, my students are way more comfortable with sharing than I am, but I leave the TMI phrase as a thought bubble in my head and let them talk about things I don’t need to know.

There’s a whole lot I don’t need to know. And I’m okay with that.

Until I need to know. And ask.

I called out a student not long ago. It was close enough to a lie.

I gave a choice. I got complete honesty or I got out.

These aren’t my actual kids. I can (sort of) abandon ship any time. This one had reached the high water mark long ago, and I was ready to bail. I could have, too.

But instead, I got honesty.

So I’m still in.

Maybe good for the student. Not so sure that it’s good for me.

 

Household Chores

Doing laundry is simple. Throw it in a washer, a dryer, fold and put away. Not terribly taxing, no heavy lifting, no hands and knees scrubbing. And yet, it’s my least favorite household chore. I’d opt for cleaning a bathroom over doing a couple of loads of laundry, any day.

LaundryBecause despite the simplicity of it, it simply is never done.

Kind of like parenting.

My mom has frequently noted that worrying about her kids didn’t cease when we became adults, nor when we had children of our own. In fact, the presence of grandchildren only widened her circle of worry. As the family’s somewhat reluctant matriarch, she also has plenty of nieces and nephews in whose lives she remains protectively involved. There is even an assortment of unrelated children from lifelong and new-found friends, not to mention the childhood friends of my brothers and me that have filled her quasi parenting role over the years.

If you have kids in your life, that sort-of-parenting thing is nearly unavoidable. Even if you don’t want it, even if you’ve never been a parent.

It’s why my mom was among the very first to know when my brother’s friend was going to be a dad. Why my son’s buddies will hang with me even when Michael’s fast out the door. Why Alex’s friends are my Facebook friends. And why the lines can become so blurred when I work with college kids I didn’t know before and won’t see after.

Graduation marks a pretty clear ending to my relationship with my students. It’s probably why I have a harder time at the ceremony than they do. I know what they don’t; that it will be the very last time I ever see them. Sure, a few circle back for a visit or two, friend-request me on Facebook, enter my LinkedIn network. But in any meaningful way, most of them are gone forever. It’s the way it’s supposed to be and I accept it. In fact, I appreciate the clarity of the ending.

It’s harder for me when the lines are fuzzy.

I once told a student that I could help her get all As if that was what she wanted (it wasn’t hyperbole; this kid was capable), but if she wanted me to care more about her grades than her, she’d need to find another tutor. I was serious. I was either all-in or all-out.

Black and white.

She opted in. But after accepting that black and white bargain, she presented me with a whole lot of grey—kind of like poorly laundered whites—and it drove me crazy.

Try as I might, I know I can’t fold up my kids’ troubles into neatly sorted piles. One glance at my daughter’s bedroom or a typical dorm room offers proof-positive of the messiness of kids’ lives. Foreshadowing evidence may begin with babies at mealtime, or toddlers at play, but the state of disarray lasts a lifetime.

Whether you’re an actual parent or only a quasi-parent, kids make your life cluttered and messy and unfinished –but never incomplete.

Shattering Ceilings

    Among the many areas for which I feel somewhat ill-qualified in guiding my students is when I attempt to push them into a business world which I’ve successfully shunned for most of my life. It isn’t that I don’t understand where they’re going. I get corporate America. I understand resumes and interviews. I know the rules of the game.

    It’s just that from my vantage point, the game often is not worth playing.

   broken glass ceiling And young women can be at a particular disadvantage. Even when they’re heading into PR and communications (no shock that my students would be of that ilk), fields well full of the fairer sex, they seem to face some pretty daunting hurdles. The most formidable barriers of which may be the gatekeepers themselves: other women.

    Last semester, when one of my students found herself in a back-and-forth volley of snippy emails with a would-be internship employer, I offered what I considered a commonsense approach. Apologize for missing the meeting and move on. In her defense, the girl was trying to fit an above-and-beyond internship into a full-course curriculum and a 25 mile commute. Car problems and finals week pushed her just over the edge. The woman answering her email mea culpa couldn’t be bothered.

    Was I missing something here? I must have been.

    So I asked a friend who has steadily climbed the business world ladder for the last 20+ years. She got it immediately. She painted a few scenarios. One –the woman had brought the girl onboard and the student’s missed meeting was already reflecting badly upon the woman. Two –she was threatened by a younger, perhaps better polished version of herself. And three, she was just a bitch.

    At the last of her offered explanations, I balked.

    I could hear the shoulder shrug through the telephone line. Regardless of any offense I might take at the stereotypical notion of what defines a successful businesswoman, she seemed to be saying -it was what it was. She implied that Meryl Streep had captured more than good comedy in The Devil Wears Prada; Meryl’s Miranda Priestly was, in fact, pretty representative of women-and-younger-women workforce relationships.

    My apparently naïve vision of an upturned hand offering guidance was slapped away pretty quickly in the world my friend sketched.

    “Girls suck,” she said.

    God, I hate that word. (okay, I get the hypocrisy –let’s not go there)

    And also I don’t believe it.

    Because if I did, I’d have to revisit every lesson I’ve passed along to my kids. I’d have to rethink my personal history. And I’d have to ignore some pretty powerful women in my own life, starting with my mom, my grandmothers and my aunts but enveloping also my cousins, my sister-in-law, my friends and my own supervisor at work.

    It isn’t that I haven’t seen the women to whom my friend refers. I know they’re out there. It’s just that what gets forgotten in all that condemnation and cut-throat imagery are the other women in our lives.

    So because I believe we are bountiful, here’s to the girls who’ve lent a hand, a shoulder, an ear.  The girls who’ve held ponytails after too much partying, wiped tears away after breakups, calmed one trembling hand with another. The girls who’ve offered high fives and fist bumps, but also honest assessments of our outfits, our weight, our boyfriends.

    I believe in all of us because I know that at the close of that horrible news telephone call, the one that usually follows is placed to another woman. And that the in-sickness-and-in-health vow may extend more befittingly to the woman who is bringing food and taxiing children, or sizing her friend for a wig before shuttling her to chemo. I know that at the end of a man’s betrayal, there is a woman pulling her friend from the wreckage of a broken marriage. And that at the depths of her self-esteem, it isn’t a man, but rather a woman telling her that she’s beautiful and worthy and loved. And when the kids are making her crazy, it’s another woman showing up at the doorstep with a bottle of wine and a contributing curse.

    Sure, it’s about venting and raging, but it’s also about crying and consoling. Sometimes its words, like “I’m sorry,” or “I get it,” and sometimes it’s complete silence, a hand on a knee, a hug. It’s reassurance and affirmation and pride. It’s simple understanding, or utter irreverence. It’s being there –good times and bad- in a way that supplants geographic location; it’s the kind of touch that transcends physical contact.

    Perhaps because I’ve been tested with bad times, I doubly believe in the good.  I’ve cried crippling tears of loss, but more often streaming tears of laughter. And sharing them both with me is always a woman.

    So if my young friend will trust it, I’ll continue to pass along my naiveté. Because for every woman shattering glass ceilings with disregard for raining debris and collateral damage, I’d like to believe there are at least as many pulling the littered shards from hair and clothes and leading with helping hands. My vision ignores the nasty emails and focuses instead on the one my student received which sincerely thanked her for joining the team, assured her that she’d always have a home in their workplace and signed it with Xs and Os. The email’s author is the type of woman I wish to be in her life –a woman who isn’t threatened or spiteful, but rather a guide up the ladder of a success that isn’t measured solely by titles and paychecks. And one who willingly passes along the feminist torch with a light that doesn’t burn, but rather bolsters and warms, instead.

A Boss Example

A few years ago it occurred to me that I was probably among very few employees whose first response to an email from her boss was a smile and a pleasant anticipation. I knew that regardless of the challenge that her email might also include, it would be embraced with warmth, respect and always a bit of humor.

endicottWhen Kathy indicated at the beginning of last semester that I might not expect to have her at the helm if I agreed to take on additional students –I didn’t. I love my job and the students. But I know that both sentiments are likely true only because of her steadfast and wise leadership. I never would have been allowed to forge such close relationships with my students without her trust.

Kathy cares passionately about all of the students under her charge, but also believes in the ability of her staff to make good decisions, on their own. The fact that I might not have always followed a college-scripted, by-the-book path wasn’t lost on her.  But she understood that I—and most all of us—always placed the best interest of our students as our top priority. Just like our boss did; we had an awesome example to follow.

She did our jobs—along with her own—for many years so she remained fully in the trenches even as she led the charge. She always understood exactly what we might be going through, because she was often going through it herself.

The you have no idea phrase is ill-suited to account for the myriad scenarios that too closely resemble fiction with regard to some of our students’ antics. But as fabricated as the tales may have sounded, Kathy believed –in what we were telling her, and way more importantly, in the students and all their potential.

She also believed in our abilities to weather whatever student storm came our way and never lost a chance to tell us. I can’t count (seriously, the number is too high) how many times her emails offered appreciation and accolades for the jobs we did.  She never took us for granted, ever.

As to the job(s) she was doing? Amazing doesn’t come close to describing her own job performance. Not only did she know each and every student by name; she also knew their personalities, their parents, their issues, their majors –often even the classes they were taking and what might be tripping up their chance at success.

If her first priority was helping them attain that sometimes illusive success, her second one was loyalty to her staff. She always had our backs. When I first started at the college, a parent contacted me directly with news about her daughter. Kathy made sure I knew that it shouldn’t happen again; parent contact was her department, not ours. It wasn’t because she was worried about what I might say or do, but rather that she knew just how crazy-involved millennial parents could be and wanted to always be a protective buffer against them. She’d handle the crazies if we handled the students.

But when handling the students sometimes got out of hand, we always knew we could turn to her. No matter what she was doing, when it came to her chickadees, everything else could be put on hold. When I switched to nights and began to touch base at the close of her day, I felt a ping of guilt for keeping her from an easy exit out the door. It didn’t stop me, but I knew I was delaying her day’s ending. She never seemed to mind. Whatever she was doing, she stopped. And gave me—and my students—her undivided attention.

To say her departure will leave a gaping hole, is crazy understatement. Her higher-ups are likely unaware how much worse off their cozy little college will be without her. Someone will step into her role –more likely more than someone—but no one will ever fill her shoes. Her staff will miss her beyond words. But the void that will be most profoundly felt, even if only in a reverberating resonance, will be with the students. To those lucky enough to have known her, she is irreplaceable. But even for those who will never know her, she will likely remain a phantom presence, one of hope for their futures and in an unwavering belief in them—all of them—to accomplish great things and become great people.

I believe

Kids lie.

If your immediate response to that statement was duh, you’re probably pretty far along the path of parental evolution.

pinnochioMy own introduction to the concept came early, then often, when my toddler was regaling anyone who would listen with over-the-top anecdotes she swore were true. Today, Alex’s “stories” are more in the white-lie vein as I recently discovered when she gave an immediate—but untrue—response in defense of an action I hadn’t quite yet taken. That her “gotcha back” effort came wrapped in one of those little-white-lies was only mildly disconcerting. At least she wasn’t lying to me.

Her brother doesn’t either. And no, this isn’t head-in-the-sand, my-kid-would-never bravado. Have you read the blog’s title? I hardly think my kids are perfect. But a long time ago Michael and I came to an understanding about truth-telling. If I asked him a question he didn’t want to answer, he got a pass as long as I didn’t get a lie. Judging by the number of times he’s literally left the room when I’ve posited a pointed question, he’s adhered to our original bargain. Either that or he just bolts when the line of questioning gets too perilously close to a full blown conversation of which he wants no part.

Early on, I placed my students into similar they-do/they-don’t categories of lying. Unfortunately, once I put them in those neat little compartments, I often left them there. Wrong move. When the one student I truly believed was incapable of lying did, he turned my black and white notions into a blaze of psychedelic color. And the kid who was painstakingly honest used an à la- Michael mode exit strategy whenever I got too close. No lies, but also no contact –sometimes for days.

I hate that.

And I hate lies.

I want to take what the kids in my life are saying at face value, not just because honesty is a great foundation upon which to build a relationship. But also because I know that much of what they tell me is already tainted by the perceptions of their own world view. Even when they believe what they’re saying is gospel-true, it’s likely stretched through a prism of distorting color. And that’s when their intentions are the best.

When deception is their goal? Well it’s not often pretty and, by the way, they’re not often very good at it. But I hang in there for the full share, however unbelievable or unpalatable.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

My boss recently shared a bit of her personal philosophy with regard to her (and our) students. It’s rare (she’s been at this awhile) but even her chickadees occasionally surprise her with the little white lie (or the great big whopper, who am I kidding?). She said that even when she doesn’t believe them, she still believes in them.

And I’m right there with her.

Because even when they’ve given me reason to mistrust, cause to question my place in their lives and outright justification to fully abandon their lilting ships, I still believe. That the sails will right, that the oceans will calm and that they’ll survive yet another storm. I believe in them and their potential to do great things and become great people –even better than the people they are now. And I believe in their ultimate success –not in the academic, I-got-good-grades sort of success, but in the way more important, I’ve-got-a-handle-on-this-life-thing sort of success.

It’s taken me awhile, but I don’t always believe what they say, but I do believe in them. I have to, because of who I am and also because of who I hope they’ll become.

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.