Lanyards

Their successes aren’t mine.

But I do get to live vicariously.

Whether they’re my own kids (organic, as one of my peers suggests) or my students (inorganic), I get to share in momentous happenings on a timeline from which I’m pretty far removed. Even as adults, these young people I know are still going through a lot of firsts.

With school, and jobs and significant others. With life.

Will wants to make our recent meeting a monthly event. Erica updates me through text. Lisa just got a promotion –again.

These are the graduates.

But this week I’ll start with a new crop of freshmen. And even as I know that most of what they’ll be going through as individuals, I’ve likely seen before, I can’t help but get caught up in those firsts.

First times are awesome.

But scary.

And I still get that.

So whether they’re excited or worried, or confused, or just plain afraid, I’ll tell them that it’s okay. That it’s normal. And that in spite of the outward appearance of their fellow classmates, they are not alone.

Some of my students inadvertently flaunt their newness with the bright green beacons they wear around their necks in the form of id-toting lanyards. Others are outwardly confident, sapping from stored supplies of high school popularity, probably not understanding how quickly it can drain. But most are quietly cautious, just trying to navigate this new terrain without tripping onto a land mine, without making any mistakes.

We all make mistakes, though.

Maybe that’s the first lesson freshmen should learn, loud and clear.

Sure, we want them to succeed, not to do anything really stupid that winds them up in trouble—or worse—their first days on campus. But even if they screw up, it’s not like they will be the first ones to have done so.

I won’t tell them that –not initially anyway.

And I won’t share my own stories –probably ever.

But it’s those stories I pull from to gather empathy.

Because once upon a time, I was young. And on occasion (rare), I probably did something stupid.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.


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.