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.

 

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving

        The greeting is neither the product of a senior moment nor of an early imbibing. Rather at the close of the old year and onto a new one, I am doing a bit of mental aerobics that has me looking back—and forward—at the same time.

     From the tiniest of human interactions to the biggest, boldest occurrences of life and nature, it can be a complicated world. Particularly at the close of 2012, newspaper print and Twitter tweets, alike, seemed to have sent out the resounding message that there’s much for which to be saddened and
sorrowful. So many events left us shaking our heads, sighing, wiping away tears and asking why?

     But

     There’s always something for which to be thankful.

     So rather than ring in 2013 with only ideas of what could be better, and what needs improvement, I’ll first reflect upon all in the world and in my own life that isn’t so bad.

     Starting with my kids.

     Fodder for the often apropos site’s title, they are nonetheless the people in my life for whom I am most grateful. I have a beautifully resilient and optimistic daughter who texts me pictures of rainbows and happily includes me in her world, at every turn. And I have a son who is strong and sensitive and passionate -about love and life and work. He’s set on a full throttle ride with intellect and fight and heart -always with heart.

     The other kids are family and friends and students.

     It’s probably because I am so fully surrounded by them all that I look to kids when I think of the new year and new beginnings. For all the reasons that the lot of them can give us justified sleepless nights, I still believe in them.

     I believe that the foundation we’ve all set will stick. That the kids in our lives will take what we’ve taught them, tweak it to fit -maybe even improve upon it- and then make it work.

     I believe in them.

     And the New Year.

     Happy New Year everyone.

     But especially to the kids in my life.

 

 

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.

 

It Could Always Be Worse

 After pounding rains hit the area a few years
back, I casually commented to a neighbor –It could be worse.
Not for me, she replied. 

From that single statement, I knew. We would
never be friends.
 

Her home had been severely flooded, much of
her basement’s furnishings ruined. But seriously, it couldn’t have been worse?
 

Of course it could. 

It could have been sooo much worse. 

Regardless of how little may be in my glass,
I always regard it as half-full. And generally, so do the people with whom I
surround myself. Even when my friend plays out every imaginable scenario to
reach worst-case, she comes to the conclusion that it’s something with which
she could live. It may be horrible –but it could be worse.
 

I sometimes deal with students whose vision
of the world is so narrowly focused that they cannot see a bigger picture. When
they find themselves lost in a battle on campus or at home, rather than fortify
their efforts to strengthen a position, they crumble.
 

To a large degree, I believe that resilience
is something with which we’re born. When the parenting experts were not long
ago penning books teaching resilience, I passed on a purchase. My friend noted
the resilience in my own daughter and asked how’d
you do that?
I quickly admitted –It wasn’t me. Alex came that way.
 

And she had. 

Those first few hours of her life were some
pretty powerful foreshadowing of things to come. Regardless of the challenge –she
would meet them—and succeed or fail—move on to the next one.
 

I can’t teach my students resilience, but I
can sometimes talk them off the ledge. With my just-outside-their-lives
perspective, I can usually prove that the reality with which they’re dealing
isn’t quite as bad as they think it is. Or –sometimes it is. And then, I can
only offer assurances that they will come out the other side of it. It’s
interesting that the ones who have been so fully tested by calamity seem also
to be those with the most positive life view.
 

My friend is again dealing with one of those
real calamities of life. In a ten minute conversation she expressed a range of
emotions usually associated with the stages of grief: denial, anger,
acceptance. And one most wholly associated with her: resilience.
 

She will come out the other side of this. She
knows. Not because she’s been handed some guarantee, but because she sees the
glass as always half-full and she still believes -it could always be worse.

 

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.



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.


Skittles



    I don’t care what color his skin was. 

    
I can’t get past the rainbow of color in his pocket.




    Rainbow Skittles.




    Because those skittles say more about who he was than the dark hoodie that lent him a temporary tough-guy persona.




    He was just a kid -with candy in his pocket.




    A teenager.




    I know a thing or two about teenage boys.




    I’m often surrounded by them. And most of the time, I actually like them.




    They’re smart and funny, idealistic and passionate, silly and sweet. 
    
    
Unlike girls of their age, the boys are comedy instead of drama, action instead of words. They don’t adhere to a hidden agenda or look for the subtexts in a message. They don’t hold grudges or take offense where none’s intended. They’re much more what-you-see-is-what-you-get than the girls, simpler in a lot of ways.

    
But not in all ways. 

    
While raging hormones can reduce girls to hysteria, similar hormonal havoc can turn boys from mild-mannered to mad-mouthed. Instead of tears and tantrums, there’s a bubbling bravado that can spew forth like lava without provocation.




    And if they’re provoked? Well, they’re easily provoked.




    That’s where it all gets complicated.




    Teenage boys are straddling a thin line between boyhood and manhood, with unsure footing.




    In bodies they don’t yet fit, these straddlers are dealing with some weighty expectations –the world’s, and their own. Many of them are pretty confused, adrift, lonely even when they’re surrounded by friends. Often simmering beneath the surface of who they’re trying to become is a noxious mix of angst and anger. They have control of neither.

    
But for their age and gender, it’s unlikely that Michael has much in common with Trayvon Martin. Michael doesn’t look like Trayvon Martin. 

    He couldn’t be the victim of racial profiling.




    In our tiny town, though, Michael also doesn’t quite look like everyone else. That factor alone doesn’t usually get him in trouble.




    On the other hand, it does garner him a bit of attention.




    Walking down the street one evening, my son was stopped by the cops. It was 8:30. He was in the company of two girls. They were carrying a small yellow bag of Swedish fish.




    Pretty suspicious behavior.




    The cop asked the teens to show them what they had in the bag and they obliged. They didn’t have to; Michael knew this. I wonder if he had been accompanied by teenage boys instead of girls, if he would have been so willing to reveal the contraband.




    Because I’ve seen Michael’s anger. I’ve also seen him keep it in check. Luckily.




    Our teenage boys encounter authority figures –parents, coaches, teachers, principals, police officers-hundreds of times in a week without incident. The kids respect the authority; the adults don’t abuse it. However, in a head-to-head battle between man and teenage boy, it’s up to the adult to keep his head. Because as difficult as it may be for a man to maintain control in the face of an insolent teen, for a teenage boy to keep that same composure may be a taller order than he’s able to handle.