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.

 

Foreign Languages

        I don’t have a natural affinity for foreign language. Six
years of publically taught French, a semester of college Italian and I can confidently
say in both languages: Je parle français; io parlo italiano.

But I don’t.

In either.

I do, on the other hand, speak a wide variety of Kid.

When they were little, I translated body language and
syllables into needs and wants. As they got older, I inferred meaning from
actions.  And alongside them, I learned the
varied languages of their newfound interests.

Pitch, box, yellow card, red card.

Horse stance, knife strike, sensei, gi.

When Alex started playing soccer, I had to learn an unfamiliar
game with its own lexicon. Same with Michael and Karate. My limited knowledge of
his sport had been gleaned from the first Karate Kid. Nothing in that flick,
though, had hinted to the forthcoming acrobatic practice strikes performed in my
kitchen or the proudly growing pile of hand-broken boards in his bedroom.

These were new and odd languages, but I soon became fluid.
Adapted. Got interested. Because my kids were.

I didn’t speak baby or toddler until I did. And I
certainly had had no effective tutelage to teenage.

That language, in particular, was set in code. Especially
as (not) spoken by my son. Years of incessant chatter had given way to sullen
and sometimes seething silence. There were piercing looks and shoulder shrugs.
Grunts, monosyllables. I had to master intent and outcome from a whole lot of
words not being said, decipher a new vocabulary without translation guide or
codebook.

But like the results from a language immersion class, I
got it. Because I listened. And because I was willing to follow the instruction of native speakers.

Michael’s been teaching me again. A new vocabulary, a new
language. Hookups and pickups (not the kind you think), capacitors and
compressors, reverb field and phase cancellation, C12s and Telefunken U47s.

It’s his language.

And if I listen -allow him to be the teacher- I’m in.

It’s not so much a difficult lesson, as it is one that can
be a bit disorienting. Dizzying, even.

But it is learning and I still love to learn.

I actually don’t understand how others do not.

I learn a lot from my students. I think it’s supposed to
be the other way around. But if that were the only paradigm I was willing to
consider, I also think I’d be worse off. We all would be.

Although most buck the concept, some of my students understand
the merit of peer evaluation. They get the idea of learning not only from their
professors, but also from their classmates. A few of them, anyway. Fewer still
believe that their own ideas can be instructive; that they can be both student
and teacher at the same time.

As parents, maybe we should embrace a bit more of this fluid
concept of instruction. We’ve got a lot of lessons to teach, wisdom to impart.
But we can also learn from our kids and the other children in our lives.

We just have to listen and be willing to twist our
tongues around a new syllable or two.

 

I-Dream

Our generation has been telling the next since the day they were all born: do what you love.

I think they’ve gotten the message loud and clear.

Unfortunately, as we were setting a bright beacon on which they could universally focus, we didn’t necessarily include instructions on how to reach the star. We failed to offer them much of a map or for that matter, a real destination.

Ooops.

Big oops, actually.

We told them all—over and over—to find the one thing they loved to do above all others –as if it would hit with epiphany-like clarity, as if there were a single answer to their single selves.

Talk about setting them up for disappointment.

My college has jumped on the bandwagon we’ve all driven as parents by bringing onto campus The Dream Share Project. While the mission of the endeavor—to empower young people to chase their dreams—may seem a noble goal, more than a few of my students came out the other side of the presentation with an enough-already plea.

See, the problem with telling our kids to chase their dreams is that if they don’t quite know what those dreams are, they feel like losers. So, they grab onto something, anything, just to fit in.

One of my students recently said that she was no longer sure of her major but was too afraid to switch because the decision could affect the rest of her life. Rather than upset the status quo, she was going to stay on a forward path, with no regard to the inevitability that it might not
allow her to reach a dream which hadn’t quite become clear to her yet.

She’s not alone. Too many kids measure their goals by a furiously ticking clock which demands they decide right NOW what they’ll be doing 20 to 30 years hence. And it’s not just the college kids with this mindset; it’s high schoolers and younger. Kids not through puberty are planning
strategies now to assure some ninth grade ideal of a future success. Instead of taking chances, they’re taking courses; rather than exploring, they’re bent on securing the next rung on the imagined upward ladder –even if they’re not quite committed to the top of the climb.

Of course we want our kids to follow a passion, find a dream, do what makes them happy. But there’s a backfire in forcing the ideal down their throats. In making them choose too soon, we set some kids trotting along well-worn paths with blinders on against intruding distractions. And those distractions aren’t just of space and scenery; they’re opportunity and experience and life. While following a straight path may indeed be the quickest route to a good job, the truth
is, our kids’ dream jobs may not even exist yet. So many fields—think social media—weren’t even imagined 10 years ago. Who knows what the future holds? While dreamers of the past may have been accused of having their heads in the clouds, today’s kids may well find their dreams jobs in iClouds and beyond.

 

Babies

We had the perfect vantage point from which
to watch the robins hatch, feed and fly. Nestled in the prickly holly tree just
outside our dining room window, they seemed safely shielded from weather and
predator, alike. Mama bird had chosen well, and given us ample opportunity to
chart their progress –from baby blue eggs to fluffy fuzz balls of feathers.
 

-Until that day when frantic tweeting,
screeching and the break of feathers through leaves sent me running to the
seeming scene of an attack.
 

Empty next, panicked squawking and the
nails-on-chalkboard scream of a predator hawk. Upon that flurry of activity—parental
robins vs. hunting raptor—I drew my own conclusion. Even if there were no trace
of baby bird or his brothers.
 

And another conclusion, too. 

As well as she may have built it and chosen
her nest’s location, when it came to her babies’ exit from it, she got it
wrong. All wrong.
 

No way were those tiny puffs of air ready to
fly, never mind able to fend off the perils and predators of their hostile home
turf. They were just babies.
 

I get the desire to kick the kids out of the
nest. Believe me –I do. But not at such a steep price.
 

Sometimes they’re just not ready. And our
push can lead to peril.

 After following most of my students from
freshman to senior year, I‘m being granted an opportunity to start anew –with
babies.
 

While calling these young adults babies may be
exactly the wrong message to send, I can’t help but view them in that light. Not
only because my own “baby” is their age, but also because I’ve already been
through the stages that pull them to the other side.
 

Now that I’m starting it over, I know better of their journey. They’ll go far. But for now, they really are just babies. Surrounded
by potential friends, they often feel alone. Excited to take on new challenges,
they’re still scared to take a first step. When they do take those first movements
forward, they often stumble and fall. Then, vacillating from cocky confident to
illogically insecure, they sometimes cling to doubt even when they should be
most sure. And although they crave independence, sometimes, they still just want
their mommy.
 

Inevitably, just after the start of fall,
they’ll come to me –tired, sad, confused, homesick. Overwhelmed.
 

In my academic role, I’ll offer
encouragement, strategies, some workable advice to get them on-track to meet their
college expectations. They’ll nod, agree to give it all a shot.
 

But in that other, less well-defined role, I’ll
try to offer them something else.
 

I get it now—finally—that it’s that “other”
for which I’m really here.
 

When one of my students was quite justifiably
falling apart, but still clinging to a hold-it-all-together mantra, I gave her
the I-don’t-care-about-grades speech. Weird, she probably figured, coming from
her tutor.

 But I knew that the last thing she needed
from me was another push in an effort to reach some letter-grade measurement of
her worth.
 

So instead of asking her about her classes
and coursework, I asked about her. And she told me. A lot.
 

 I like
when my students excitedly show me a paper or text me an A trailed by
exclamation points. I enjoy sharing in their successes. But I also understand
that sometimes sharing in their lives is far more important. And that unless they’re
well—physically, mentally, emotionally—it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll do
well.

 Sure, I care about their grades, but mostly
because they do. Interestingly, when I tell them I don’t, when I take some of
the pressure off, they do a little bit better. With that one student in pieces,
when I pulled the plug on grade expectation, her grade went from an F to a B+.

 No, it doesn’t work that way with everyone.
And that’s a part of it, too. Some kids are ready for college straight-out-of-high-school.
Some are ready for life straight-after-college. And some leave the nest –just fine.
 

A day after the attack, I saw a tiny clump of
feathers at the base of our tree –breathing, chirping, hopping. And mom not far
afield, keeping an eye and bringing her now out-of-nest baby a mommy-prepared
meal.
 

Hmm, well at least he’s out of the nest.

 

Toddler Triathletes

Truly successful athletes have a winning combination of ability, drive and opportunity. That particular
trifecta is what propels the best of them to the big time—be that college-level play, the Olympics or the dance floor of pro athletics. The possession of all three of those oft illusive components are what separates Michael Phelps from the kids at the other end of the pool.

          I get that.

          I also admire it.

          And will likely be watching as top athletes from 204 countries step to center stage at the 2012 Olympics. I’ll marvel at their ability, revel in their accomplishments, get caught up in the pomp and circumstance. I’ll still get choked up when they raise our flag to the rafters, understanding not only the pride in a final full-win, but also all that must have come long before it. The work, the sweat, the dedication.

          Whatever the games’ outcomes, the ripple effects across the pond will surely yield an uptick of participation among young, would-be athletes. For the love of a sport, in the thrill of competitive play, kids will take to fields, gyms and arenas. There’ll be new swimmers and gymnasts; new interest in soccer, volleyball and fencing.

          All good. All fun.

          But as millions of baby runners and divers and fencers and kickers and players jump into pools, and onto fields and into arenas, it’s important to note that the vast majority of them won’t make much of a splash. Eureka results from the gold rush of competitive athletics are discovered for precious few. Tenacity can’t replace talent and even the most gifted of athletes often fall short of their own goals.

          That’s not to say the bar shouldn’t be high and that those with a passion shouldn’t pursue it. They should. And I’m certain that most every Olympic athlete competing in London will avow that their sacrifice was worth it.

          Passion and sacrifice are a good combo toward success, but not when the passion belongs to the parent instead of the kid and when the sacrifice is a childhood. 

          Modeling itself upon the adult version of the event, there’s a new kid sport in town: triathlons. Its proponents tout it as a low-key version of the anything-but real-deal events. They say it’s good
exercise, that it’s a swim-bike-run for fun.

          But by its very definition, a triathlon isn’t for the uninvested. It’s intense. As it’s supposed to be. But do our kids really have to be? Already?

          When I read of a six-year-old training at a local Y, I couldn’t help but think: kids shouldn’t be training; they should be playing.

          And when a trainer said, “just to finish a triathlon, for a 6-year-old, is a big deal,” I thought duh.

          So is skimming a stone, or mastering the splash of a cannonball or spinning around in circles without toppling over.

          Or laying in a summer’s grassy field and imagining dragons in the clouds.

 

Learning New Tricks

A long
ago traveling companion became a lifelong—hers, not mine—pen pal of mine and I
looked forward to her annual Christmas notes with the same sort of relish that I
have for those catch-up conversations I share with close friends. Her Christmas
letters didn’t at all resemble the photocopied family newsletters which often flutter
to floors from cards sent out en masse to friends and strangers, alike. Rather
her notes, often squeezed within the confines of the greeting card itself, consisted
of hand scripted prose that first asked after me and my family and then told of
her latest adventure.

Each year
she recounted global travels which beckoned of worlds beyond my reach. It was
as if I had a firsthand correspondent bringing to life the travel pages of newspapers
and magazines which I was reading with longing. Often inviting a grandchild or
two along on her trips, Bea embraced the other countries and cultures she
visited. She seemed gloriously sure that there would always be something new
and wonderful just around the next bend.

Even when
it was only her own city she was exploring, there seemed within her an unquenchable
thirst for knowledge. Into her 90s, Bea took a class at NYU and wrote to me
that any day she learned something new was a good one.

What a
wonderful life philosophy.

Because I
work in a college environment, I have ample opportunity to test the premise.
Although I’ve yet to sit in on a catalogued course, I often read what my
students are reading, watch what they’re watching. I look at professorial
Powerpoints, consider rubric specifications, flesh out and interpret
assignments, follow their progression. I ask a lot of questions; seek out answers
for my students and myself.

But the
real learning often comes in other forms.

Sometimes—being
the digital natives that they are—my students do some unknowing teaching of
their own, guiding me from Facebook to Foursquare, Twitter to Prezi.

In other
ways though, they teach me even more.

They are
twenty-something in the 21st century.

They
serve as a sort of guide to a world to which I’d be privy only as a parent, but
for the access they grant me.

That’s
mostly rewarding –sometimes disappointing.

I wish my
students were less entitled, more impassioned.

I wish
that of the other kids I know, as well.

On the
other hand, they’re happy and funny, honest and resilient. They may not have
passion for the sorts of things their parents and professors deem important,
but many of them are nonetheless passionate. For a boy or a girl, quite often.

But sometimes,
for something more.

On
occasion, I see a flicker, that other spark –of interest. In something beyond
themselves.

I’ve
enjoyed the vicarious ride I get to take with the kids in my life. In the best
of days, I see something good and real. I see the glimmer of a future. Not just
theirs, but ours as a country and a world. I see hope.

Even on
days that disappoint, though, I take something from our encounters. I learn a
little something.

And any day I
learn something new, is a good one.



Goodbye –forever

    I related a story to my son the other day. 

    Don’t laugh –I do this sometimes. I speak, he sort of stands there. I pretend he’s listening. Like when I read him these blog posts. He may not appear actively engaged, but he doesn’t, on the other hand, flee. I consider this a good sign. 

    The story had one of those sledgehammer messages. (I’ve learned that subtlety is overrated when dealing with teens.) But behind the most obvious point I was trying to make was another with a more universal message, which he may have missed. 

    Maybe not. 

    Because teens live more in the instant than in anything long-term, it’s hard for them—or many of us, for that matter—to think far-off. Because we don’t sometimes plan for the inevitability of the future, we often miss chances in the here-and-now that we later regret. 

    It’s a hard lesson, and one most of us have probably learned in the hardest of ways. Only in retrospect do we realize that we had a chance, but let it pass. 

    Most of the time we don’t know it’s the last time we’re saying goodbye to someone–until it’s too late. 

    Sometimes we have to scratch at our memories to even think to the when of a last encounter. Often, we can’t recall those last words we spoke as we were leaving. 

    And then there’s the leaving. 

    One kind of leaving is like the distant voyage away from a shore. The people, the buildings, the horizon simply become less. They slip from our sight, become specks in our memories. They’re like the healing of a wound, the fading of a scar. 

    Another leaving comes when the end is inevitable. There’s a chance, an opportunity -for those of us willing to take it.  A way to say goodbye. 

    Maybe the worst is the kind that hits like my sledgehammer message. A lightning bolt out of a blue sky; a chirpy ringtone heralding a  horrible message. 

    My story was one of those. A death. But one that had that magic goodbye and one last I love you. 

    We don’t always get those. 

    And it’s not always about death. 

    My son has been saying goodbyes to classmates and friends. I don’t think he thinks any of them will be a last time. He’s unlikely choosing his words with forever in mind. 

    As my seniors left after our last time together, they gave me thank-yous and gifts and goodbyes -and promises that they’d keep in touch –for sure. 

    I chose my words more carefully than they. 

    Be we
ll, be happy -have a good life.
 

    Michael’s more apt to offer a quick see ya later. Because he assumes he will. 

    I’m less sure. 

    Maybe then I should treat those goodbyes with a little more respect. Because until it’s upon us, we really don’t know if it’s a goodbye-til-later or goodbye-forever.




Graduation 2.0

    It’s graduation.


    Again. Or still. I’m not sure which it is. The celebrations and ceremonies are starting to blur together. 


    No wonder Journalist Fareed Zakaria decided to replicate his Duke speech to use at Harvard’s commencement exercises. Who could blame him, after all?


    Hasn’t it all been said time and time –and time again? 


    I hope not. 


    Shame on him for trivializing what was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for his young audience. Just because he wears the jaded hat of time doesn’t give him a pass on giving a full effort to his accepted responsibility. 


    He got to speak at Harvard, for God’s sake. How does that not warrant a bit of all-out? And I don’t care how many other speakers have followed his MO. 

    
It’s lazy; it sends a bad message; it’s just not okay. 


    Perhaps I’m holding Zakaria to a particularly high standard because he is a writer. It irks me to think that someone from my profession would take such a short cut and use recycled materials for speeches at Harvard, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Brown and Yale. 


    If he couldn’t come up with an original idea or two –or ten for that matter- he should have opted out of the commencement speech circuit. 


    Zakaria got the Duke invite first and then said he “just couldn’t say no” to Harvard. 


    Cool. I get that. Who says no to Harvard?


      But, then, who thinks second-rate when they hear the name Harvard? 


    Michael’s graduation ceremony was the culmination of a whole lot of wow-aren’t-they-wonderful activities that make up senior week. I’d vote Baccalaureate as the best, but the graduation itself was still pretty sweet. 


    In spite of the been-there-done-that aura that can seep into commencement exercises, I get sucked in every time. After a rousing performance of their student-selected class song, I was onboard to the notion of theirs as the “best ever.” Add to that the self-deprecating and humorous speech by the class officer and the teary-eyed words from a principal with whom Michael has never seen eye-to-eye, and I am easily transported away.


    Not necessarily to my own graduation day, or even to an earlier time of my life; but rather into that other world of youthful potential –where all things are possible. 


    Because they are. 


    And that’s exactly the message we need to tell our kids. Over and over again. 


    They really are the future. Ours, theirs, and jump-into-the-next-decades, their kids’. Yikes! How’s that for scary? 


    Less scary, though, if we give them the best we can offer. Our love, our support, our old ideas and encouragement of their new ones. 


    Sure, some of what we tell them is going to sound like we’ve said it a hundred times. Well, we probably have. But on the big issues and in the big picture realm of their lives, we have got to be willing to look at their world, their day, their time in a new way. 


    In spite of the of déjà vu lessons we teach, we need to resist the urge to view their lives through the scope of our narrow focused lens. Theirs is a different world than the one in which we all grew up. And they are not us. We do a real disservice to them when we fall into a trap of same-old-same-old, because so little about their world is the same as ours.

    
These kids really can make a difference. 


    That is, if we give them some tools and fuel for their fresh ideas. Recycling yesterday’s words for the sake of a big-ticket invite doesn’t just proffer a diluted message, it threatens the integrity of all those that follow. 


    Imagine what our kids could do if we bequeathed them the few original ideas we still have left, with the only strings attached being that they use them ….to change the world.





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.