Deer in the Headlights

teenage boys are like deerThe other night –

Okay, I say night, but if you’re from these parts (New England) you know that a summer night can still yield bright sunshine. Seriously bright sunshine. That’s why the deer which darted out in front of me-alone-was an actual anomaly.

No, deer aren’t unusual. In fact, with the plethora of McMansions sprouting around here like daylilies on roadsides and evicting the creatures from their natural habitat, deer are downright plentiful. However, they seem to fill the fields in accordance to some patterned path of behavior. I like to believe that those black and yellow deer postings are akin to our crosswalk signs and that the deer actually do agree to cross the roads within those human-set boundaries. They seem also to follow the safety-in-numbers motto; they travel in groups. They like early mornings, late dusky days and ridiculously late evenings. If you drive the back roads of our suburban neighborhoods at night you understand that you’re more likely to hit a deer than another car. In fact, you’re more likely to see a deer before you encounter another human. It’s the nature of the environment.

But there he was, forcing me to slam brakes, utter curses, and wonder where the heck his mother was.

Oh, it was most definitely a boy.

And somewhere behind him was a worried doe. He was darting from the fold and into the surely-forbidden roadway in the heat of some testosterone-induced fit of fury, no doubt.

Why did the deer cross the road?

Likely, a girl on the other side.

Or judging from my own experience with teenage bucks of the human variety, it might have been some young stag tête-à-tête. A doe enticement might trump and triumph over a gathering of the same-sexed-species, but a party in the woods is still –well, a party.

And so they run into the festivities, roadways and regulations be damned.

In the deer’s case, an easy, albeit life-threatening hurdle, past my car accomplished his mission.

In my son’s case, I am also the impediment. Well, I, or my ridiculously constructed obstacles. Let see –there’s homework and chores –not much competition there. But then there are all those other mindlessly delaying (and utterly unnecessary, from his point of view) questions. Stupid ones like: Where are you going? With whom? And the worst –What time will you return to the herd?

Annoying is the term he most often uses to summarize my intrusions into his life. In less generous vocabulary, he’ll actually admit that he prefer if I didn’t speak at all. And there are times, I wish I could oblige. Certainly, setting him off to wander in the woods and the world on his own would entail less argument. Cutting him loose might indeed be freeing –for the both of us.

I understand freedom. I can’t tell him that, though. I can’t tell him that my sometimes faltering memory doesn’t yet include memory erasure of my own adolescent yearnings for freedom. I wouldn’t suggest that my own reply to “where are you going?” was generally the same as his: “out.” To which, by the way, his grandfather would always retort: “out’s a big place.” Which then also meant that I wasn’t really going out anywhere until I handed over details. Nor can I reveal too many of my own tools of circumvention.

My father loved the fact that the parlor grandfather clock granted gonging confirmation of just how late his little girl returned home from an evening out. And with all the times he carefully pulled those chains to assure accuracy of his beloved timepiece, you would have thought his gaze might have noted the “silence” option on the clock’s face and done some teenage math.

His most soundly sleeping nights, I believe, were not because I had come in early, as requested, but rather because they were uninterrupted by any gonging at all. In preparation of a late night out, I would always set the chimes to “silence.”

But I can’t tell Michael that I was once young. He wouldn’t believe me, anyway. I also can’t tell him that my tethering questions aren’t strictly motivated to constrain. It isn’t his freedom I fear so much, as it is everything else. I can’t tell him that at the end of any horror play of a parent’s imagination, her child is victim to more than his mere bravado against the boogeyman.

In rational moments, I do the math. Statistically speaking, Michael will be fine. We’ve safely skirted the childhood abduction scenarios simply through his own growth. He’s a big boy. And we don’t live in a danger zone where gang recruitment pulls from the alleyways.

In the sanest of days, I know all this. The days are rational. The nights –not so much.

So while I can swallow my caveats when Michael relates an after-the-fact-adventure, and attribute the harrowing details to youthful hyperbole, the replay of it all in my dreams is another matter. I bite away the criticisms I might render to keep the conversations coming –his words are now dispersed, as if from an eyedropper, in drips.

But I can’t overlook a blown curfew or a communication blackout. Especially when daylight can burn like a two-ended candle. The question of whether I am wasting precious time with inaction lurks like a skulking figure shadowed by the torch of media-lit klieg lights. If only, if only, I imagine, as I watch the eleven o’clock news recaps of the horrific turn-of-events that could have been forestalled by action –if only.

I try to rely on the math.

I do.

But then, from a family who cared and had the means to save him, how could he have fallen so deeply into the bottle? Why did another drugs from his friends as if they were gift-wrapped treasures, rather than the death knell they would become? A taken chance, a wrong split-second action, and gone –an airline ticket away to retrieve a body, instead of a boy. A motorcycle accident, a car crash. If losing a single child to a freak accident was such an aberration, then how was it possible to lose a second to an accident that could only, when set against his brother’s, be described as impossible?

These are the impossibilities we fear. They happen. They couldn’t, they shouldn’t, they do.

And that’s why the metaphor.

Somewhere there’s another young buck, on a mission.

And in the immortality of his soul and the passion of the moment, he tries to hurdle an accelerating automobile –and misses.

 

I Blame Tony Hawk

skateboardOkay, so maybe Tony Hawk was only mildly complicit.

When my kids were little and all avenues were open, I often told them that they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up. I was passionately entrenched in the do-what-you-love camp and touted that message from their earliest days.

Hawk hit his 900 aerial skateboard spin when Michael was just a little guy but the feat and his life’s journey were a shining example of an alternate path. Apparently Hawk was one of those bright hyperactive kids who wasn’t going to sit still in a classroom and recite multiplication tables.

Neither was Michael.

But it was pretty clear to me that Michael wasn’t going to be a Tony Hawk clone. He also wasn’t going to follow in the footsteps of Doug Flutie or Pedro Martinez or a bunch of other uberathletes.  I didn’t tell him he couldn’t, but really, he couldn’t have.

Instead, I gave a caveat to the anything-you-want mantra. If you want something badly enough, you can make it happen; if it doesn’t happen then you didn’t really want it badly enough.

Thus when Alex was showing real promise on the soccer field, I nudged her to add a little extra effort. I’d offer to sit in net and let her take shots or urge her to put in personal practice time after team time. She would –sometimes. More often, she’d look for the next sport or activity to pack into her already jam-packed schedule. Alex was passionate about everything.  No single subject or sport could hold her attention for long.

Michael was a different story. When he took up an endeavor, he became fully immersed. Getting him to transition away was a monumental task.

He wasn’t much of a reader but when he got into Harry Potter, he really got into it. I wasn’t surprised when I had to wrest the book from my third-grader’s hands at 2:00 AM on a school night/morning. How could he be expected to wait to find out what happened next? And there was no question that weight limit or not, all 600 hard-covered pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were coming on our rafting trip even if the nine-year old boy had to carry his own duffle.

Really though, it was science that held him fully captive. He took things apart. Sometimes he put them back together. He made creations in his mind, built stuff with his hands. He set rockets off into the clouds. He entertained and entranced the neighborhood kids and taught them lessons he probably shouldn’t have. He explored –everything.

Clearly Michael and his curious mind were heading to MIT someday.

Not so clearly, after all. A couple of bad science teachers in a row collided with teenage hormones to set Michael on a decided detour. The curious kid with the sharp intellect soon came to hate school. I knew how horribly askew  from academic excellence he’d veered when he told me at the close of one summer vacation that the impending start of school was the time of year in which he stop learning.

He may have slammed the door on schoolbook science, but his passion remained intact. And while he never found his place in a classroom lab again, he did find a home at school: in the music department.

Michael began to breathe music. He took lessons on one instrument, taught himself another and said yes to whichever next instrument the band director asked him to learn. He had bandmates and all his playdates became jam sessions. Music was ALWAYS emanating from our house. The good news for the neighbors was that it was generally really good music. These kids were a bunch of talented musicians. And they weren’t just kids. I answered the door one afternoon to a saxophone player with decades of gigs under his belt telling me he was here to jam with the kids.

Eventually Michael merged music with science. He stepped from center stage to behind stage –or at least behind a board. He recorded, mixed, mastered. He landed a two-month internship at one of Boston’s top recording studios and stayed four years –and counting. He bought equipment. And when he couldn’t find—or afford—that equipment, he built it himself. The kid who hadn’t cracked a textbook for the bulk of his senior year in high school was pleasure reading physics texts, design schematics and books on integrated circuitry and operational amplifiers. He was all in.

Still is.

I’ve heard a lot lately of young adults who followed a more traditional route to their careers. Some of them like their jobs, but more of them do not. In fact, many of them hate their jobs –the long hours, the monotony, the infinity of it all.

Michael works crazy long hours but views that infinity with fervor. The idea that he could spend the rest of his life doing this thing that he loves means more to him than the titles and trappings that some of his peers covet.

Michael’s always been pretty comfortable in his own skin, always known who he is, what he’s wanted to do –even if how he might make that happen wasn’t crystal clear. Maybe it’s still not. But he’s already hit a few 900s of his own.

And he’s doing what he loves.

Best. Day. Ever.

riverAlex only really scared me once. It was really serious –life or death.

We got life.

Michael, on the other hand, managed to raise the fear factor on a regular basis when he was in high school.

I cared less when it was dad who was blowing things out of proportion and worried that his only male offspring might be dead on a river somewhere. Probably partly because dad’s first over-the-top panic reaction occurred simultaneously during a rare, less-than-a-weekend getaway in which all I wanted was to be family-free.

He called me 28 times. Seriously.

Michael was fine.

He just hadn’t bothered to communicate that fact to his father.

When Michael went on a similar river journey with me sort of at-the-helm, the worry-meter shifted. By nightfall, I was ready to call out the U.S. Coast Guard.

Unfortunately, I may have been mildly complicit at the start of his errant adventure. I might have nodded some tepid assent when he told me that he and his buddy were going canoeing again (this was a regular pastime) and this time they’d make it. By “make it,” I refer to a canoe trek from river to ocean.

Before you think that I’d totally lost my mind with such a blasé response to my teenage son’s planned adventure, you really, really have to understand the river. This is NOT Lewis and Clark exploring uncharted territory along 19th century untamed rivers. The Ipswich River is less than 40 miles long and can run to barely a trickle in some spots. You actually may need to pick up the canoe along a few low water sections. This is hardly a raging river. On the other hand, it does, as rivers must, let out in an ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. In this one area, perhaps I should have taken him a bit more seriously.

But, I wasn’t at the drop off, wasn’t the parent privy to this particular trip’s details—or lack there-of. His friend’s dad had dropped off the boys and wished them well. Whether or not the return time or location was made clear is still up for debate.

My own instructions to Michael were mostly about lunches and lifejackets, both he had. Both he agreed to use. But also included were pretty specific warnings about how and why he needed to communicate. I even handed off a plastic bag to make certain that cellphone-in-the-river wouldn’t be an excuse for losing contact.

It wasn’t.

Instead, somewhere along his journey, Michael decided that shutting the phone down entirely to preserve its battery was a good idea.

Ugh.

The last I heard was –We made it to the ocean.

Then his phone went dead.

The other boy’s dad said the agreed meet time was 6:00 pm.

It was well after 6:00 when I drove absently to various sections of the river and started shouting his name. Yes, I know how absurd this sounds. How ridiculous it was. But my baby’s last point of contact was somewhere along that little river –which now seemed really, really big.

We didn’t call the Coast Guard. But we did call the cops.

Eventually, sometime just before 10:00, the two explorers were found, alive, on land, walking from the beach. They’d made it to the ocean without killing themselves. Even if they had nearly killed their parents with worry.

My dad’s friend had an oft repeated mantra: If your kids don’t kill you, it’s not because they’re not trying.

I was one of those “kids” at the time so the sentiment was lost on me then. I get it now.

The thing is, I know Michael’s intent wasn’t to actually kill me (that’s just a side perk). His wandering water voyage had absolutely nothing to do with me at all. In the most literal sense, it was about exploring –his world and himself. And all that exploration is a good thing.

Even if the missing-at-sea adventure took a few years off my life, Michael’s interpretation of the event was entirely different from mine. What was a really, really bad day for me, not so much for him. His Facebook post the next day: Best day ever.

He’s had days since that he probably counts as even better. I like that. I like it even more that some of those best days ever now belong to us both.

 

Giving Up

San Fransicso FlowerI have a difficult time giving up on people. It’s a quality but also a bit of a curse. There are times when it’s just right to walk away. But for my students, my persistence may be just what they need.

I’ve had an assortment of challenging students over the years who’ve made giving up on themselves a regular habit. At some point in their past they bought into the notion that they weren’t good writers, or readers, or mathematicians or students –or people.

The advantage to getting to know these kiddos as fully formed adults is that they have no past with me. I get to draw my own conclusions as to their abilities, qualities and faults. It’s interesting that my assessment often doesn’t align with their own versions of themselves. Like the girl who told me she was an awesome writer –not so much. Or the boy who looked at me with astonishment when I told that him he was a good writer. No one’s ever told me that.

I had a student who had a particular talent for manipulation. I never called her out on it but when she’d again gotten away with something she shouldn’t have, I said that her intelligence wasn’t serving her well. She ignored the negative part of the message to say that she liked being called smart, that she wasn’t used to it, except for hearing it from you.

I was never a high school cheerleader and my long-time friends wouldn’t ever call me warm-and-fuzzy. On the other hand, I’ve always been a more-than-half-full kind of person. That means that in marketing I can spin a simple story of success into something bigger than it may appear at first glance. And it means that when my kids at the college do something wrong, I can also look at what they did right.

We start from here.

It’s my go-to bromide, but its triteness doesn’t diminish the genuineness with which I deliver it. Some students hear it way more frequently than others. Not a good thing. Still, it’s the only way I know how to approach the mess-ups that they sometimes consider catastrophic. I can’t magically fix their screw ups or take back the bad decisions they’ve made. What I can do is tell them to move forward.

I try to make that first step in the right direction start with an honest acknowledgement of what they did—or more likely, didn’t do—and look for a way to make bad things better, turn something wrong into something right. We work out a plan to accomplish whatever the tasks or goals they need to, and I nudge them forward with a pep talk.

While they steadfastly hold on to all they can’t do, I remind them of what they can do. And they buy in. Every time. Regardless of how many times we’ve been down this same road or how formidable the obstacles in their path.

We don’t always get the results they want. Sometime it doesn’t work. Some of their stuff really is too big for either of us to handle. Still, they seem to like the idea that someone believes in them –even if they don’t always believe in themselves.

No Plan B

Julia head shot2   One of the perks of a private prep school is that the on-staff academic counselors do a pretty good job of plotting clear paths to college for their students. As antithetical as it may be to most incoming freshmen, the counselors start early on asking their young charges to think long-term.

  So Julia’s advisor may have missed a key point in their recent meeting. Julia was thinking long-term; just because that long-term vista didn’t neatly align with the square peg dictates of the woman’s role doesn’t mean Julia doesn’t have a plan. On the contrary, she does.

    My guess is that those incoming meetings generally last a good 20 to 30 minutes. Jules was outta there in five.

    So what career do you hope to pursue someday? What are you plans?

    I’m going to be a supermodel.

    Fly-on-the-wall –can’t you just picture the juxtaposition? The slightly cynical stare of a parochial pedagogue, sans even a trace of makeup, being full-frontally faced with the wide-eyed certainty of youth.

   From behind her desk, perhaps there was a knowing nod, a hidden eye roll, a stifled chuckle.

Well, what about your Plan B? In case that supermodel thing doesn’t work out for you?

    I don’t need a Plan B.

    And the thing is –Julia doesn’t.

    In the wake of Steve Job’s passing, there’s been a small flood of his life’s philosophy via writings and speeches he gave. When he rejoined the company he founded, he set in motion the Think Different campaign with a letter to the public reminding the masses, among other things, that “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

    Perhaps also then it is the people with no Plan B who possess the perseverance to bring their first choice lives to fruition.

    Jump out into the great unknown without a safety net and you damn well better make sure your first choice plan works.

    Michael doesn’t have a Plan B, either.

    Which would be fine but for the probability that he may not have a Plan A.

    That’s not to say he doesn’t have a vision or even a goal. I just haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence that he has an actual plan on how to reach it.

    I could be wrong here. Communication is sparse.

    In a trickle of words last year, he informed me that just because he wasn’t going about things in a way with which I might be familiar didn’t mean that he wouldn’t get to where he wanted to be.

    I can’t argue with that. Partly because, truth is, I don’t really know the path he should take.

    I only know the level of frustration I feel when I watch him close doors which I think are better left open.

    And he looks at me as if I haven’t a clue; as if I don’t want him to pursue a dream.

    But I do.

    And that’s why I’d like him to have a plan.

    Not a Plan B, but a single, missile-focused Plan A.

    The kind he can pursue, without a parachute, to the sacrifice of most everything else. Because it’s his passion, his dream, his calling.

    I’m all for not having a Plan B.

    I’d just feel a whole lot better if there were at least a Plan A.

 

Vital Signs

vital signsPulse rate, blood pressure, temperature. Vital signs give clues as to what might be going on inside our bodies. Sometimes those physical symptoms even hint at what’s going on in our heads. Too bad, not always.

Even without medical training, I could usually tell when something was off with my own kids. A tug at an ear, a loss of appetite, a blank stare into space. I knew when they were hungry, tired, sick or sad. Most of the time.

Early on, I also learned to read the signs with my students. Even with new-to-the-fold freshman, I could quickly figure out when something was amiss in their new worlds. It hardly took the mind of a rocket scientist. Or even a psychologist.

When my student confessed that she hadn’t eaten in 36 hours (apparently she counted them), I knew that anything I thought we’d be discussing about classwork was no longer important. I also knew that her not eating wasn’t really about the crappy food or her meager bank account.

She eventually ate –and not just because I began to bring food to our sessions.  She also began to talk. She introduced me to a few of the demons with which she regularly grappled. She had made some bad choices, but then she made good ones. And then a few more. She hit a few potholes, took a detour or two, but eventually got back on the road and found success, in school, in life. And I was never her only resource. She had others who were competent to help her dig deeply, ask tough questions, find some answers.

That first student was the bellwether of things to come. I just didn’t know it at the time. She taught me, though, to look for signs.

I had a student who took naps. Lots of them. Who doesn’t like a good nap? But these sleep habits weren’t restorative; they were wholly depressive. Another student would mention in a text that her hair was greasy; it meant she hadn’t showered. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, or that she didn’t need to. She just couldn’t.

I never signed up for—nor am I in any way qualified to be—de facto therapist to my students. On the other hand, before I can direct them to the very competent people who are trained, they share with me. Sometimes it’s laid bare with crystal clarity. But sometimes I have to look for signs.

I’ve become pretty good at it, too.

But now, instead of waiting for the obvious to unfold, I ask questions early-on. I’m sure with the newbies, those questions seem pretty innocuous. Some of my veterans, though, have figured out that their answers to benign questions about roomies or trips off campus might reveal too much.  They dole out answers with reluctance, put up barriers. Some of them avoid me, altogether.

Eventually, though, they come back around.

And then I have to look for signs all over again.

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.