Angels in Odd Places

    We got Michael an angel.


    It’s a good thing, too. Because he really needed one.


    They’re not easy to come by, either.


    I’ve been looking for years, to no avail.


    But I think this one is going to stick.


    It doesn’t hurt that Michael’s angel bears a pretty close resemblance to Dennis Franz’s Nathaniel Messinger character from City of Angels.


    Both Michael’s angel and Franz’s do some real-world preaching. I don’t remember Messinger’s message, but Michael’s angel seems hell-bent on teaching him a thing or two about where Michael could go wrong or do right.


    Okay, so maybe the guy’s not an actual angel, but he is that other thing Michael’s been craving: a mentor.


    For all the reasons that adults are reluctant to take on such roles, I’d counter that in spite of its work-to-pay ratio, there are many more reasons to say yes. In fact, maybe because of its pay scale. That is, as long as you don’t measure reward solely in dollars and cents.


    Part of my job description is to be a mentor to my students.


    Seriously.


    It’s actually written down on a to-do list for tutors.


    While I can’t speak fully to my qualifications as such, I certainly know the level of commitment the role can require.
 
    
Because I am fully committed. In ways I don’t have to be. But, at the same time, can’t help but be.


    At its barest minimum, for a kid to have a mentor in his life is a plus; it has to be a good thing to know someone else believes in your success. Not in the way of family and friends or even teachers and coaches. 


    But in another way.


    My students do fairly well, academically. Last semester I cared enough for a nano-second to tabulate the average of their GPAs -3.33- not bad.


    But I don’t really care about their grades. At least, not in the way they think I do. Or maybe not even in a way I’m supposed to. See, I’d opt out of the A in exchange for a sense that they actually cared about a subject, or caught a flicker of contagion curiosity, a spark to learning.


    Sometimes  I give it the ‘ol college try 
(yawn -theirs, not mine) and offer an explanation about why their professors might be saying what they are. I defend an occasional assignment as not “useless” and try to connect it to the real world, even their world.  


    Most often, it falls upon deaf ears, I know.


    Still, I try.
    
    
But away from academia, I try harder still. Because way more than I care about the grades or the subjects or the learning or even that spark I hope to see, I just care about them.


    Even if he didn’t know it, Michael had been on a search for someone like that.


    Someone who gets him. Who thinks he’s a good person. Who sees potential.


    And who’s willing to put in some time and effort on his behalf.


    Because Michael’s mentor is a businessman, I
ve suggested to Michael that he’s being looked upon as an investment. His mentor is willing to commit, but he needs to believe that the end result will be a good one. Certainly, he’s not expecting the same return on his investment as he does in the financial world, but he’ll expect a positive return, nonetheless. And he’ll make a demand or two, expect Michael to hold up his end of the deal.


    When the man stepped away when Michael wasn’t stepping up, I think Michael got the message.


    The mentor is back onboard. And so is Michael.


    Michael has a mentor, not an angel.


    I know this.


    Still, I’ll be on the lookout for wings.


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Un-Education


    I moved to a tiny town because its school system had a big reputation. 

    
In the belief that education was a sure pathway to success, I considered performing due diligence with regard to a school system as a vital parental role. Particularly with regard to middle school and high school, I believed my kids deserved the “best.” So in buying my new house, I was also buying into the school’s reputation, believing that its ranking and ratings made it better than others, that its priorities would align with mine and that my children would be well-served.




    I couldn’t have been more wrong.




    Over the years, I have watched my nephews, my kids and the children of my friends left behind by the cookie-cutter dictates of a school that values its false reputation more than the kids it’s supposed to serve.
 
    
While the school can promise that most of its grads will attend college and that some of its alum will even go on to Ivy League schools, what it doesn’t tell is much more telling.




    Left behind in the wake of its success stories are the “other” kids from whom no one hears. Because they simply don’t have a voice.




    There are kids being physically and verbally abused as they watch their perpetrators go unpunished. There are students ostracized from the lunchroom community seeking refuge in bathroom stalls and hidden classroom corners. Young girls forego skimpy fashion styles, not for modesty’s sake, but because long sleeves hide the trace evidence of their cutting. And a legion of boys hides in a haze of reefer smoke because they feel so desperately alone. There are recreational drugs and alcohol, but also a boatload of prescriptive medications, all with the intended goal of making kids fit in. Kids with their whole lives ahead of them are thinking about ending them. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, thoughts of suicide  –they’re becoming less and less the exception.

    
Every school has to wrestle with problems like drugs and alcohol, bullying and cheating, sexual identity and harassment.  There isn’t a single right answer, no magic remedy. However, there are so many wrong answers.




    Like resting on a reputation instead of building a better one. Or choosing expediency over effort. Or accepting the status quo simply because it’s easier than challenging a wrong reality.




    Because the reality is an achievement warped by hypocrisy. We toss out trophies like confetti, then set unrealistic standards where every student is expected to be good at every subject. Students who don’t take honors courses are made to feel stupid and AP classes, once reserved for those passionate about a particular subject, are now being overpopulated by sub-par students who can’t handle the workload. In this alternate universe, average students no longer exist, but even the overachievers are barely getting by.




    When the message is to excel at any cost, that cost is too steep.
 
    
And our students are paying an exorbitant price.




    Low self-esteem, mounting anxiety disorders, depression. Anger at a system by which they feel betrayed.

    
And worse.




    Even the kids who are making the grade are sometimes getting there through shadowy shortcuts or by outright cheating. 

    
But it’s not their fault; at least not entirely.




    When a system embraces conformity at the cost of individuality, kids see the highest common denominator as minimal expectation. Measuring themselves against such a distorted norm, they can either choose to jump on the ever-accelerating treadmill or step off and out.




    And those often-quirky kids pulling out of the race are some of the brightest, most passionate learners the school has. But rather than grabbing a hold of those who stand out, it berates them for their alternate view of the world. Because it measures success with such a narrow scope, it lets them fall and fail; it abandons them.

    
Our school is supposed to educate, not alienate; support its students, not shut them out. We should be sending a resounding message that when we allow even a single kid to slip through the cracks, all of our students are the worse for it. Instead, our school touts its rankings and ratings and numbers. It’s all about the numbers.




    There’s only one problem with such a misguided mission: our kids aren’t numbers.

Gloves



    I wear gloves. 

    
Out in the weather that calls for it, but also when I wash dishes. Always, when I wash dishes.

    
I’m sure this wasn’t always the case, though.




    My mother’s hands, which look just like mine, seem however to lack the nerve endings that denote pain. In my childhood home, I never recall actually seeing a pair of latex gloves. Even scrubbing toilet bowls at the motel, I don’t remember protective gloves being an option.




    But the first home with my name on the mortgage was old and its original plumbing was installed long before the notion of anti-scald. Not having inherited my mom’s ability to withstand oven-hot heat with bare hands, I opted for gloves. With toxic-burn temps, I would have risked serious injury if I even rinsed a glass or bowl without the gloves. I understand that a more rational person might have taken the time to find that sweet middle spot on the faucet that denoted warm -not me.




    So I donned gloves. Really good, rubber gloves.

    
And the idea stuck.




    Now still, to rinse a single glass or cup, I put on my yellow gloves and wash away. Those observing the procedure often note that it takes me more time to retrieve the gloves from under the sink and put them on than it does to wash the item. True.




    Still, the gloves endure.




    I have a set for New Hampshire. I use the hidden trove in Maine.




    Where am I going with this?




    Well, first off, you’ve got to understand (by now) I never really know for sure.




    And second –I just washed something without the damn gloves.




    And discovered something.




    Without the gloves, not only did I feel the not-unpleasant warmth of the water (this newer plumbing doesn’t answer with third-degree burns) but I also felt what I missed on the utensil –the bit of cheesy dough left behind.

    
If you’re still following –all this was a set up.




    With or without rubber gloves, I’ve always known exactly what to do to protect myself. 

    
Thus, I get it when I watch a few of my students do the same.




    Not so much with me –they seem to come gloveless to our sessions. But in their lives, with their friends, in a classroom, some of them don their own protective shields.

    
I can relate.




    I don’t always understand the connections I have with these young adults. Kelley instructs that it isn’t necessary that I do. Informs me that I may never understand why or how I fit into their lives.




    On the other hand, I acknowledge that a connection does exist and try occasionally to light a path if where they’re headed seems familiar.

    
I’d say this then to those wearing gloves.




    Sometimes, you have to risk the feel of that searing heat, getting scalded, knowing first hand pain –to get to the details of your life you could be missing.

    And the pleasant warmth that you can only feel when hand touches hand -and risks it all.


Pay It Forward


    I’m translating her advice into my words: better to do something more than you should, than to not do enough.


    And so I blame Kelley, in part, when I perhaps did again –more than I should have.


    Because it’s still good advice.


    I think.


    I’ve been warned to the contrary.


    Kelley and I both have been scolded for being “too nice.”


    Sometimes -maybe.


    Not such a horrible moniker, though, is it?


    Kelley is also one who tells me frequently that I’m doing just what I was meant to do. Finally. With the whole writing thing, of course, but also at the little college where I play life coach and tutor to semi-adults trying to navigate through their lessons and their lives. And it’s in this setting where I inch too close to that more-than-you-should.


    I don’t care.


    I can handle the consequences of too-much much better than I can the what-ifs which arise from not doing enough.


    My guess is that the roots to the philosophy go pretty deep.


    Our holiday dinners offer apt metaphor. You might see it all as too much food; I see it as always enough. No chance of us running out of anything –ever.


    And you gotta love the leftovers.


    Maybe human interactions can also result in the spillover of thoughtfulness, with ample to share.


    So when I do for my students –even if admittedly more than I should- I don’t look for payback in reciprocal reward. I don’t really require return on an investment of kindness.


    Maybe what I hope for, though, is a sharing of leftovers.


    Paying it forward.


    It wasn’t a literary gem or a blockbuster movie. But what a blockbuster message. And so simple.


    But the concept was ingrained in me as ideology long before the book’s publication. I think because there was always that lesson of reciprocity. You were given a gift, you gave one in return. You were invited to dinner, you invited in kind.


    But when the deed was immeasurable –and the thank you a trifle for its intended worth, the return impossible, how to repay?


    Not.


    So then to the answer of paying it forward.


    Not a bad responsibility with which to shoulder a younger friend.


    Or legacy to leave in the corner of one’s life.


    So if I do for them, perhaps they’ll do for someone else –some day.


    Maybe.


    I don’t know.


    I get a lot from these young adults I’ve come to know too well.


    I’m not entirely sure what.


    It doesn’t matter.


    I know I teach them a bit, too.


    I wonder, though, if they’ll understand the lesson of leftovers if I leave it to instinct instead of instruction. When they’re out in the world, as real grownup adults, will they intuitively sense an ongoing obligation when it’s their turn to act in kind, and in kindness?