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. 



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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.


Firefly Light

firefly light   I’ve been going about it all wrong.

    I keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, some blazing sure sign that everything’s going to work out for the kids I know.

    As if life comes with that sort of guarantee.

    It doesn’t.

    Instead of allowing myself to be engulfed by the darkness, then, maybe I need to embrace a little night vision. As if I’m stepping in from the blinding white of snow, perhaps all it requires is an adjustment of perspective.

    Because the light is there, even if I can’t always see it.

    So I’m going to start looking for small flashes of light -from wherever they may come.

    When my student agrees to lay off the partying for awhile and seems to be following through, there’s a blink of light. And when I see the little girl who clung to her mommy’s leg as if she were gripped there with adhesive, now self-advocate as a teenager –again, I see that spark of light.

    My son’s hits of light may seem more moth-to-fame to his mother. Maybe with Michael it’s a little more difficult because he’s mine. Too many of the traits that frequently frustrate are those which are also too familiarly my own.

    But still there are flickers.

    Even if I sometimes have to be reminded when they occur.

    When I recently started a story with my sister-in-law, “Michael and I had a conversation-“ she stopped me mid-sentence. She wanted me to note it for the pleasant anomaly that it was.

    We had a conversation.

    They’re fairly infrequent. And should be appreciated.

    I might have missed it for the glimmer of light that it was.

    So here-on-in, I’m looking for light, however brief and undramatic. It likely won’t hit with lightning bolt clarity; I’ll have to pay attention.

    I’m not going to look to be bedazzled by the ten thousand degree flash from a star. Instead, I’ll lay in wait for those pinpricks of light, like the eye-catch of white that comes with firefly flight.

    So when Michael exits the car and leans in to give me a kiss on the cheek as if it’s still habit, I’ll note the spark. But I’ll also remind myself not to reach out for the flutter of light, lest I risk dousing the flame and turning it to ash.

 

A Perfect Son



    He is the perfect young man.

    
I can say that without hesitation. For two reasons.

    
First, he isn’t mine.




    Second, he isn’t actually perfect.




    But then that makes him more perfect, still.




    He’s made his share of bad choices. He’s done things for which I am sure he is not proud. Some of them not quite legal. But he always comes back around to who he always was.




    In kindergarten, when the teacher allowed circle time to be about the children’s requests to Santa, his peers were likely asking for Furbies and Beanies, games and gadgets. He had bigger needs. 

    
Perhaps he already had a sense of how the world worked. In his little kid view, Santa must have loomed large as the go-to guy. Santa had connections.




    So when it was his turn, he had a simple request. He didn’t want a toy or a game. He didn’t want anything. The gift he wanted wasn’t even for himself –it was for his friend.

    
He must have figured Santa was high in rank on God’s payroll because he had a favor to ask of the big G. He wanted Santa to ask God to give his friend one chance, one moment, a single phone call –to the boy’s dad.  More than anything he wanted for himself, he wanted his friend to have the chance to talk to his father, a man whom the boy had never met, who had died just before he was born.

    
Santa didn’t come through. Neither did God.

    
Apparently he forgave them both. He still prays. He still believes in a higher power.

    
He and his faith have been often tested –too many times for someone so young. 

    
The college at which I work doesn’t have too many hard-knock-life stories. And most of the kids seem to get it that they’ve got it pretty easy. But I find that even here, it’s those who are asked to shoulder the most who seem most able to gather the strength to handle the weight –same holds true for the adults I know. It’s the sentiment of a saying my mom hates –that God only gives you what you can handle.

    
I understand why she takes umbrage at it. Doesn’t seem fair to me either that a benevolent God would punish you for being strong. My mom’s pretty strong; she’s be duly punished.




    My young man is also pretty strong and he’s again being tested, being asked to step up.

    
Mother Teresa was quoted as saying, “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle.  I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”

    
The boy who is now an adult is too well trusted.



    By powers beyond here and by those of us who know him well. We know he will meet this next challenge as he has met so many in the past –with inner strength, quiet grace.




    I just wish he didn’t have to. It isn’t fair. And he shouldn’t be punished for being a good person.





Breach of the Levee



    Their barriers are better fortified so the floods are less frequent. It may also be that, stuck on an unbreaking weather front for so long, I now miss the nuances of atmospheric change that could predict an impending deluge. The monotony of the climate has impaired my instincts for meteorological shift.



    Still, when stars and clouds align, I can sometimes become receptacle to a warm and pleasant shower of conversation from my children. Even Michael.




    Alex has always been more the flash flood sort. Her sharing comes in loud bursts of information, full of pelting details. There’s immediacy and urgency. Pay attention and take cover. I can’t always be sure what’s coming, but I’ve learned to ride out the storms; they usually don’t last long.




    Until the year he stopped talking (to me), Michael’s showers were constant and consistent. Like those sleep aid sound boxes that generate rainforest background noise. I could predict their content and clutter. There wasn’t much I needed to do to inspire the rains; little I could do to forestall them.




    He and I have been in a drought for awhile, though. I rarely feel the pulse of quenching wet weather.




    But pulled away from the stresses of his life, Michael can sometimes fall to old weather patterns. I can’t change the storm’s path or direct its flow. In fact, the wrong questions from me can dry up the conversation entirely. If I’m careful, though, I can listen, bask in the cooling waters, and learn.
 
    
Back from Boy Scout camp, and trapped in the car with me for over an hour, Michael could have settled into sleep as he often does. And he did. But not until he shared stories of his adventures –for nearly half the trip.

    
Similar results from the sound recording camp he attended at Salem State University. His enthusiasm –and words- spilled over and out and onto me. And it wasn’t just a soaking of what-he-did, but more pleasing to me was that the conversation included plans of what-he-could-do, who-he-could-be.

    
Because in the tumult of the rains, there’s nothing better to see than glimmers of light, a bit of sun.

    
And the colors of his rainbow.




Boy Scouts



    My son is a Boy Scout. 

    
Not metaphorically. He’d unlikely make the metaphorical cut.




    But he is an actual Boy Scout.

    
Green shorts, olive drab shirt, badge-pocked sash, and all.




    If you saw Michael sans uniform, you probably wouldn’t peg him as a Boy Scout. Doesn’t really look the part.

    
His association with Scouting, though? A terrific metaphor for what Michael is.

    
A contradiction.

    
From the time Michael was in elementary school, his teachers often used an interesting assortment of adjectives and nouns to describe him –the gist of their meaning easily encapsulated in a single word: puzzle (thank you Mrs. Klipfel). 

    
Luckily for Michael, those early teachers liked puzzles.




    Not so much his high school teachers.

    Even I weary of the 
challenge. 

    
And I’ve been known to become puzzle-obsessed ‘til wee hours of the morning. 

    
But the pieces of Michael’s puzzle don’t generally fit neatly to any anonymous manufacturers’ pre-fabbed slots.

    
Then, why should they?




    In some ways, Michael is what I always wished I could have been – a non-conformist. Someone who chooses his path based on his own perception of what fits with who he is and who he wants to become.




    Had I the courage to begin along a similar course when I was his age, I don’t think it’s a path I could have fully followed. There would have been doubts. And then, a turning back.

    
There’s a push and pull for many of us, particularly in those early years when we’re all so damned confused. So many kids -and the kids who we once were- really have no idea what they want to be or do when they shed their childhoods for that next big chapter of life.




    Michael must have his moments, too.




    Boy Scouts, really?




    When Michael decided to quit Scouts, I dropped him off at summer camp with the caveat that we expected him to behave, earn the requisite number of badges, support the Troop, regardless of his future plans.




    That was three years ago.




    He goes back every summer.

    
This year, I overhead Michael’s answer to the Scoutmaster’s encouraging statement/question: “See you in September./?”




    The same guy that once wanted Michael out of the Troop, now wants him to stay.

    
Really.




    “Absolutely,” Michael responded, shaking the man’s hand and looking him in the eye.




    So my son, who doesn’t look the part and listens to the beat of a different drum (a whole jazz orchestra, actually) will, in September, begin anew his commitment to a 100-year old organization steeped in obedience and conformity.
 
    
I try to tell myself that I don’t really need to get it. It’s not my job to fully understand why he does what he does.




    Michael’s always colored outside the lines.




    Maybe it’s time I step back and look at the forming picture from a different vantage so I can better see the image that’s really only just beginning to take shape.

    
(And for all those of you who wonder how Michael feels about being front-and-center in so many of these posts, I’ve always given him veto power. In fact, he’s the only family member who seems at all interested in these rantings, even when they don’t include him. He usually lets me read them to him.

    
Go figure.)



Pet Compassion


    Michael was in first grade when I summoned the strength to make the right decision and put my cocker spaniel down. Nicki was 17, old, sad. I had known much sooner than I acted, that it was time to let go. 

    
I just couldn’t.

    
And then one day, I could.




    And I did.

    
I went by myself, told no one but the immediate family. 

    
I thought I handled it well enough when I told Alex and Michael, when I gave them a chance to say goodbye.

    Maybe not.




    I received a note from Michael’s teacher the next day.




    Apparently during “pretzels” time when the kids shared the likes and dislikes of their day, Michael said that he hadn’t liked when his mother killed his dog.




    Hmmm.




    We had to put our dog down again.




    Technically, this one wasn’t ours. But with only one in the family, we all laid claim to the little guy at one point or another.




    I told Michael what was coming, offered the idea of going by Auntie Dawna’s to say goodbye to Logan.




    He took a pass.




    Logan was a good dog.




    As his aunt, I took on an occasional dog sitting shift or two. Last summer, he and I got in quality time on the beach in Maine. During designated doggy hours, I walked/he ran; I threw/he fetched. We played, made friends –mostly the four-legged kind- and took in vistas of the Atlantic surf that force the deep intake of an appreciative breath. Salty sea air –cures all that ails you.

    
Well, apparently not all.




    Logan left us just before this year’s Fourth of July beach party.




    Appropriate, since he wasn’t a fan of the fireworks.




    We’ve put off fully processing his departure.




    But we did much processing beforehand.




    Somewhere in the midst of those many conversations, I would offer the observation that we often handle end-of-life decisions for our pets far more humanely than we do for the people in our lives. With our pets, we formulate a plan and take steps of action that assure they leave us without pain and with a form dignity intact. 

    
I don’t like to think about dying. I’m one of those without a plan.




    And I should know better.




    There isn’t anything worse than watching someone die.




    I know why Michael didn’t want to say goodbye to Logan. He’s always hated transitions and saying goodbye is the worst sort.  

    
I’m with him there.




    I don’t like that we lose people too soon.




    There are always conversations unsaid, hands not held, hugs not given.




    We want another year, another week, or just a day. A single moment, even.

    
When Logan left us, he could still run the beach, fetch a tennis ball. The last memory we’ll all have of him is likely a happy one. I wish I could say the same was always true about the people in our lives.


 


    Most of us know rationally the steps we could take to offer a compassionate ending to those we love. But we hesitate, just a bit –and it’s usually just a bit too long.



    Our hearts hold out for the chance of that one more moment, even when our heads know it’s time to let go.