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.

 

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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.



Peer Review

    Now they transition from being reviewed by their professors to being reviewed by their peers.


    But then, they’ve always been judged by their peers -often disconcertingly so. 


    Ever since the first mom posited the query –if all your friends were jumping off a bridge?….peer pressure has been given a bad rap. 


    It’s not too difficult to see why. After all, peer pressure is at the root of much that is wrong with our kids’ self-images and their actions.   


    On the other hand, there’s something to be said for being put in your place by your peers instead of your parents. By being held accountable now by those who will do so into your future, and for your whole life. 


    In the college where I work, seniors are given a yearlong Thesis project that begins with a lit review and ends with independent research. No shock that the students aren’t fans of the assignment. It’s long, arduous and requires work. They want short-cuts, easy answers and all through the process, they just want it over. 


    I offer up solid arguments as to its scholastic merit and real-world value, but I suspect the few who nod are doing so just to forestall any further cheerleading on my behalf. 


    One of the universally detested (among many) portions of the project is the second semester peer reviews. Despite the fact that they’ve just spent months reading dozens of articles, intently filtered by that “peer review” label, they still balk at the concept when it comes to their own work. 


    On peer reviews days, they must critique the work of their fellow classmates. For some of them, the task is daunting. They’re often not fully confident in the quality of their own work; certainly, then, they don’t feel qualified to pass judgment on another’s.  Ah judgment -they really don’t want to judge; lest they be judged. 


    But they should –on both counts. 


    The feedback we get from our peers is unlike any other. It hasn’t the unconditional support of a parent, or the inherent threat from a boss. It isn’t generally tied to reward or consequence, like a grade or a raise. In its best form, it’s simply unbiased review. We did something well –good job. We messed up –whoops. 


    Because little of who we are and what we do exists in black and white, peer review can be convoluted and complicated. But offered with clear vision and good intent, peer criticism can also be priceless.


    That is, if we’re willing to accept it. 


    While my students readily receive even my harshest critique of their work, they’re less inclined to do so from their peers. 


    So far, anyway. 


    I’ve warned them of an upcoming evolution where their career peers (and even their bosses) will begin to look a whole lot like them. I’ve also urged them to embrace the network they already hold with that soon-to-be-reality in mind. 


    I am lucky to work with peers I consider capable, intelligent, good-intentioned. Because of the nature of our work, though, most of what we do is independent. As peers, we can choose to interact often, minimally, or even not at all. 


    No surprise, I fall somewhere in the middle. 


    On occasion, I have both sought and offered peer counsel. I like to think I’ve given good advice; I know have received it. Real critique, however, is a bit harder to come by. 


    I have told my kids and my students too many times that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. I really believe that clichéd sentiment. If I screw up and hear about it from my boss (and I have), clearly it carries weight. However, if a peer lets me know I’ve messed up, it may mean even more. 


    Most of my students are pretty confident. They’ve been well supported by family, friends –and me. We all tell them they’re smart and capable. We tell them they’re wonderful. 


    Sometimes, it’s only their peers who will truly tell them when they are not.



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.


Freudian Foreshadowing



    They make it to the blog frequently enough so you probably get that I work with college kids (oops, I chastised one just the other day for using that term; I mean adults). And also that I like what I do. And that I like them (most of them, most of the time).

    
What may not be clear, however, is that I haven’t really been working with them all that long. In fact, my first batch of babies (adults) will be leaving this spring. Flying out of the nest, so to speak, off into the great beyond.




    And I have mixed feelings about their noteworthy transition.




    Many of my own friendships are older than these students I tutor, so I get that four years can be but a blimp in a relationship’s foundation. On the other hand, I’ve spent some serious “quality time” with these young adults. They’ve shared much with me. Way more than you’d think. Way more than I ever imagined they would.




    When I recently found out that a student of mine had cut class before she’d had a chance to fess up to me, I asked her if she would have been forthcoming with the info.




    “I tell you everything,” she said.




    And she just might.




    Not in the every-detail-of-every-day sort of tell, but in a kind that matters a whole lot more. She’s been through a lot in these past four years. And the thing is, I’ve been through most of it with her.

    
Now, she’s at the threshold of the other side -where she should be, where she deserves to be.




    She’s arrived with grace and resilience and I’m proud of her and who she is today. I am proud of my other students, as well. They’ve turned from teenagers to adults, and as they graduate, they seem to be truly prepared for the next phase of their lives.




    I’m happy for them.




    I’ll also be sad to see them go.




    Changing the subject (not really).




    I’ve been, on occasion, technically challenged. The combination of an utter lack of knowledge about what it exactly is that runs the computers that run most of our lives and a sometimes senseless sense of speed are  often a poor mix. 

    
Case in point.




    I don’t delete the emails and text messages most normal people might. There’s a history here which I won’t go into. Anyway, among the non-deleted text messages on my cell phone were a few (several) from my students.

    
The messages weren’t left merely to clutter the inbox; they’d been intentionally undeleted.




    And then, in a too quick moment of parsing the list, I said yes when I didn’t mean to and every message was gone.




    Poof!




    I wonder how long they would have remained, had I not make the mistake.




    I don’t know. But now they’re gone –for good.
    
    
And soon too, will be the kids who texted them.




    Because they are ready, perhaps even more than I am, to separate. From their school, from their roommates and college friends -and from me.




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.

Fleeting Encounters, Lasting Impressions



    I told Kelley that I’ve finally stopped looking for answers as to where my students fit into my life and exactly how I belong in theirs –or for how long. I’ve foregone analysis in favor of acceptance, and given into the strange arrangement that has linked our lives.




    She needs, now, to do the same.




    Hers may be a taller order, though.
 
    
While odd attachments are a particular specialty of hers, this latest connection comes with an enormous weight –and an ongoing obligation. 

    
And yet, it’s one that has been placed upon her before. Perhaps that’s why she understands the fullness of the responsibility and shuns its forever commitment.




    She’s reluctant to take it on.




    But I know her.
 
    
She will.

    
She has no choice but to accept the weighty request. And we both know that. I also know that she will, as expected, rise to the task. 

    
We’ve covered this territory before –this interconnectedness which doesn’t always make itself immediately apparent. It’s an attachment of one life to another like the thread of a web, barely visible, but for the glint of sunlight that shows itself only from a certain afterward perspective. It’s often difficult to see where one span meets another, where filaments cross and then connect. Only sometimes, and at just the right moments, from an exacting vantage can you see how the fibers fit and that they do indeed belong together. 

    
That of course they do.

    
Somehow.




    Even if only briefly.

    
The students with whom I started at this little college are now seniors. They’ll be graduating in May, going off to their lives.

    
As they should.

    
A couple of them will keep in touch.




    For a little while.




    And then they won’t.

    
Kelley’s young charge will likely be a part of her life for a bit longer.




    But she can’t know that for sure.

    
Still, she’ll make the full investment in another’s life, and ask nothing in return. Because she can’t not. 

    
We both take our unanticipated roles as mentors more seriously than we should. With sincerity, we offer them “forever” and don’t expect a reciprocal return. It’s a one-sided arrangement.

    
In a good return on our investment, we’ll receive a thank-you. In a better one, we may truly make a difference in a life or two. In the best scenario, though, someday our young friends will give back. To someone else. If only briefly. 

    
To another person, they’ll promise to be there always, unconditionally, and not ask or expect the same in return.

    
And our invisible legacy will live on.




    Even if we never know that it does.