Snowflakes

In an effort to give solace to my stressed out students, I recently offered a bromide that probably rang hollow.

I told them that they are not alone. That there are kids on campus, even in class, who are likely going through some of the very same stuff they are. I also said that for a whole lot of reasons—one being that I’m just plain old—there’s probably nothing they could share that I hadn’t already heard.

snowflakeI know on one level this notion may have caused more consternation than comfort. They want to believe—as their parents have always told them—that they are completely unique. That they and their problems aren’t some same-old, same-old that stand commonly bland aside their peers and some of the bigger picture issues in life. They want to believe—even when it’s horrible, bad, stuff—that they are different.

But they’re not.

Not really.

In spite of what they’ve been told, their accomplishments aren’t all grandiose and their failures aren’t completely catastrophic. Someone, somewhere has been through what they’re going through and has gotten to the other side. They likely will, too.

It used to be that this assurance gave comfort or at least offered an emotional platform from which to build a conversation.

Not anymore.

I knew a student who had suffered a horrible, calamitous event. She felt rightly devastated and alone and expressed her grief appropriately –whatever that really means. But -I watched her behave with a similar sense of       devastation when the loss wasn’t nearly as big. A bad grade, a horrible day, a poor interaction with professors and peers often garnered the same kind of emotional response.

And from where she came—from where they all come—it probably makes sense. If they’re completely unique in their universe, why shouldn’t they feel completely alone? If they always feel compelled to shine as brightly as the sun, maybe even a little darkness really does seem like the end of the world.

But what if there were others like them? Just like them. What if they weren’t totally alone in a bleak universe, but rather shining stars among many?

I’ve often wondered upon the claim of snowflake uniqueness. How can we be so certain that no two are truly alike? Sure the quintillion plus water molecules that make up a single snowflake may form in a gazillion different ways, but that formation occurs in a fully formed flake. Apparently even scientists agree that those early developing snowflakes are pretty darn similar; just six-sided prisms, virtually indistinguishable, one from the other. It’s only with time and age that snowflakes branch out, grow and become truly unique.

Our kids should believe that they’re unique and wonderful and special. But there’s also a benefit in believing that in some ways –they’re just like everyone else, that they have more in common with their fellow flakes than they might think. And that maybe, just maybe, if they turn to each other in the storm, they’ll find some shelter.

 

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You Already Know the Answer

3d white people leaning back against a question mark

I know I frustrate my students. In the midst of a project or paper or in my position as other side to their argumentative debate, I often answer their questions with questions of my own.

C’mon, just tell me the answer, they sometimes say aloud.

I could.

Most of the time, I don’t.

Instead of answers, I try to set them on a path, leaving a breadcrumb trail of academic hints to where they need to go. I try to take them about halfway. Not all the way.

I can’t really say they appreciate my process. It’s likely that they don’t.  But on (rare)
occasion, they seem to get what I’m trying to do, even get caught up in the game.

After a particularly vexing exercise, one of my students—having finally arriving at an answer—said she liked when I made her do “this.”

I said: What, think?

A smile, a nod.

Ahh –that’s what this is all about.

I confront them less with my antics when we stray off the curriculum and into the ocean of their lives.

They let me in –in a flood of information. Maybe more than they intend to, maybe more than they should. But once we’re both in the deep end, they often reach for any debris in the water to stay afloat.  In that panicked instant, sometimes I’m all they’ve got. Captain of their sinking vessel is not a role I relish, but one I can’t seem to avoid.

And when they feel fully engulfed by a rising tide, near drowning, I certainly don’t play a game of hide-and-seek with the life raft. Still,I try only to throw them a line or hold their head above water as I remind them –they already know how to swim.

My students often forget what they already know. Instead of relying on their own instincts, they ask me questions as if I might have all the answers (ha, if they only knew). While my position at the helm of my own life may allow me to sight obvious obstacles more clearly than they, I’ve hardly got omnipresent access to all the what-ifs of their lives. But I get that what they often need to do is to just talk through the problem at hand.

Sometimes it actually is school-related. How to get a better grade or work with a professor they don’t particularly like or handle a group project when they seem to be the only one in the group doing any work.

More often, it’s life stuff. Social stuff. Boyfriend, girlfriend stuff. Life and death and big question stuff.

Scary stuff –for both of us.

I talk a lot when it’s those big ticket items, but I try to listen even more. Because I don’t have the answers.

Not really.

But I do have one.

And it’s that if they’re honest and open and willing to dive into that really deep end of their inner waters,  it’s they who have the answers. They just need to listen -to themselves.

 

 

Guitar Strings

My peers and I were looking for answers long before we had any idea at all about the questions we would really be asking as parents. I read a whole bunch of books but didn’t get a whole lot of anything from a single tome. Instead, I grabbed desperately at whatever selective pieces that happened to fit me and my offspring at the time. I think it was the same for my friends. Some of what everyone said made sense, just not all of it.guitar strings

I found some comfort in the conflicted offerings from Get Out of My Life but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall. At the time, I don’t know that I fully understood why author Anthony Wolf couldn’t give me the hard-and-fast answers for which I was searching. Even then, though, I think I got that his hands-in-the-air attitude might not be far from where we’d all end up eventually.

Trash barrel day at Wolf’s house was Wednesday. It’s the same for us, but unlike the happy ending at Wolf’s home, I still can’t get Michael to acknowledge the barrels’ curbside presence and miraculously return them to their garage home without prompting.  Ever.

On the other hand, in Michael’s expanded world, he seems to be catching on to some of the logic behind the pick-up-after-yourself mantra that I’ve espoused since the day he was born.

And it isn’t just the restaurant dishwasher who doesn’t measure up to his standards of clean. Even paying studio clients–as few and needed as they may be–receive a small measure of his disdain. The fact that a recent client was a legit name in the industry and pretty high up on the musical food
chain didn’t prevent Michael from sharing with me what a slob he thought the guy was. I’m not talking about spilled beers and cigarette butts. That’s more reminiscent of my day than his. Rather, at the top of the list of unacceptable offenses was that the guitarist in the session had replaced his strings and left the littered remnants scattered about the studio.

Considering how many times my vacuum cleaner has been felled by an errant guitar string or two, I could have easily noted the hypocrisy of Michael’s complaint. Instead, I listened, agreed and we talked about some respect-for-everyone studio strategies that might work into the future.

Michael doesn’t put the barrels away and he collects water glasses in his bedroom like they’re souvenirs. I did note, however that Michael changed guitar strings recently.

And the leftovers were neatly tied together and tossed in the trash.

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.

 

Kindergarten Cool

        Even in kindergarten, Kurt was one of the cool kids.

        Michael –not so much. He was a science kid with some
quirky habits and an incessant need to chatter. His best friends were the girls
listening raptly of his latest creations; not the boys tossing footballs and
playing tackle.

Easy to understand, then, that Kurt and Michael were not
going to be soul mates.

On the other hand, their relationship could have played
out much differently than it did over the years.

But early on, I caught a glimmer of things to come.

Tapped as photographer for his third grade class, I was in
charge of taking candid shots one morning when I was privy to a single
schoolyard conversation that would foreshadow Michael’s station among his peers
throughout his school years.

A few boys were building a snow fort at recess. I couldn’t
fully assess the group dynamic, but Kurt was clearly in charge. At least a head
taller than his peers, Kurt was a formidable presence on the playground and
when he spoke, the kids (and often adults) listened. When construction was
being hampering by too many hands at work, the boys scattered the newcomers from
the project.

Then Kurt spoke –except,
Michael. He can stay; he’s good at this stuff
.

And the boys listened.

That early stamp-of-approval was telling. Of both boys.

In spite of star-sponsored campaigns against it, bullying
remains an insidious presence on school grounds across the country. Rarely a
month goes by without headlines offering the worst-case-scenario results of unchecked
tormentors.

In a parallel universe, Kurt could have been a bully;
Michael a victim.

But Kurt wasn’t a mean kid. And Michael was always comfortable
in his own skin.

He was also funny and smart and honest. Regardless of how
far astray Michael’s interests were from many of his peers, the kids left a
spot for him –on the playground, in the classroom and even on their teams.

A few years later, one of the not-so-nice kids on
Michael’s team had him aside, away from the safety of teammates and coaches. I watched
the encounter from a distance, with apprehension; I’d seen and heard this boy
in action. But when I later asked Michael why he’d been singled out, Michael
said his teammate had been giving him some batting pointers. Hmm.

I like those sorts of surprises. They make me think that
our kids often do better without us. That off of our interceptive radar, they don’t
disappoint.

Truth is –bullies aren’t born; they’re created. More
often than not, they are the offspring and fully woven cloth of their parents.
Apples, trees –an old lesson, but a telling one, nonetheless. Genes collide
with circumstance and the results are what produce those headlines: bullies and
beaters and cheaters and worse –rapists and killers.

In classrooms and playgrounds and high school hallways, we
can teach our students to follow the golden rule, to respect their peers and
their teachers. We can craft handbook rules and laws of punishment. We’d be
better off, though, starting at home, modeling the behavior we expect of our
children. By giving them praise only when they deserve it; offering punishment that fits the crime, and by stepping back sometimes and allowing them to receive the
results of a few natural consequences.

Sure, teachers need to be disciplinarians; it’s in their
job description. And laws of protection—even when they seem common sense—need to
be clear and enforceable. But sometimes back-to-basics isn’t such a bad idea:
do unto others, love thy neighbor, and maybe -just be a good person. 



Guns in the Cupboard

After the tiny town school, Alex moved on to the tri-town middle school. We both did.

The thing about a small town is that even when you’re not trying, you become connected to the community. You learn addresses not by roadways and street signs, but rather by who lives in a particular neighborhood.
For the good and bad of it, you also learn which kids and families receive the parental thumbs up -and down.

I was never a particular fan of the system. It seemed overly judgmental to label a kid as persona non grata based on a kindergarten infraction. I was equally suspect of the kids and families others were clamoring to get near; I didn’t necessarily see their appeal.

On the other hand, it was easy to learn which parents turned a blind eye toward bad behavior; which houses were vacant at peak kid hours, and which parents said yes more often than no.

Middle school parents, however, were the unknown entity. They were from those other towns. It
was like starting all over again and required effort.

Upon her first invitation to go to the home of a new friend, Alex and her easy assent to the invite was temporarily thwarted by her intruding parent: me. The truth is that my kids learned early on that I’d be
asking a whole lot of questions, making calls, climbing doorsteps. If they minded it terribly, they didn’t let on. Perhaps they took to heart my oft stated quip that one of my parental perks was embarrassing my offspring and were reluctant to test its boundaries.

So in this instance, Alex didn’t mind the call –didn’t stay in the room for the conversation.

Didn’t hear when I asked if there were firearms in the home.

The woman was surprised by the question, but liked it.

I’ve never thought to ask that, she said.

She put it on her evolving to-do list when sending her own daughter off on a new-people play date.

When the Journal News published the names and addresses of gun owners in three New York counties,
there was an immediate and very vocal backlash. No surprise. Claiming a right to publish under the Freedom of Information Act, the newspaper not only stood by its decision, but is now broadening the scope –ready to out more gun owners in additional counties. Get ready for an avalanche of hate tweets and I-threats.

While part of me lauded the notion of such easy—albeit lazily obtained—access to the gun info, the ethicist in me cringed at the publication of names and addresses of citizens who had committed no crime nor been embroiled in any story involving them as individuals. The journalist in me, likewise, remembered long ago common sense rules of how to properly handle stories—and more importantly—the subjects of them. The ideal of simple fairness came to mind.

Although I am no longer sending my own children off on play dates, I nonetheless still consider knowledge about guns in homes as need-to-know information for parents. We have a right to know a little something about the other adults to whom we’re entrusting our kids, what may be in their cupboards and how securely their contents are set.

The trouble with the Journal’s unveiling is that it did more to inflame than aid. When rage boils over in the aftermath of horrific events, many of us grab to anger as if it’s a life ring instead of a weight. When we are most threatened, we’re also most passionate. And while this passion can yield action, it doesn’t do much good when met by similarly passionate opponents.

The answer, then, isn’t to take sides, but rather to take the side of our kids. Thousands of children are killed each year in the U.S. from gunshots. Thousands.

There is a middle ground. For the sake of our kids, it’s time we find it. Before it’s too late.