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.

 

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.

Go to Start


    It isn’t usually about a student’s learning style or a professor’s eccentricities. It’s generally unconnected to too much work or too little resources. And it often has little to do with a student’s inability or an assignment’s difficulty.
 
    
When my students fail to complete their assignments or don’t do them well, the one commonality at its root can be summarized in a single word: procrastination.  

    
That isn’t to say that there’s not often a whole lot of other stuff that gets in the way of their start-to-finish. The roadblocks to the boys I know often come by way of a party; with the girls, it’s the drama.

    But for all of them, they get caught up in it. And often to the exclusion of all else.

    
Instead of buying the supplies or starting the research or making the phone call or doing the interview or drafting the outline, or any of those many tiny steps that could set them on go –they don’t. They stay still. 

    
Well, not still exactly.

    They’re generally moving, just not in the direction of the project or the paper.

    They’re battling in video worlds or chatting on Facebook walls. They’re making it to Zumba class and Wings Night. They’re taking road trips and pizza runs and pit stops to the mall. Going out to lunch or dinner. Heading to the gym, going for a run, cleaning their rooms. They’re helping friends through crises. Taking time with families.

    But in all that doing, what they’re not doing is that small pile of work relegated to the back corner of their desks or hidden in untapped files on their computers. And the longer they tap past it, the more the pile grows. Until eventually it seems to expand with the rate of a Youtube post gone viral. Out-of-control and unavoidable.

    And so they finally begin the assignment in crisis mode. 

    Not the best way to do one’s best.

    There’s a price to be paid for the putting-it-off. Not just in a ditched assignment, shoddy work, or a bad grade. There’s actually a point to most of the work their professors assign. And they’re missing it.
 
    T
hat isn’t to say that sometimes it’s not worth it. That in the throes of  procrastination, they might not discover rewards of another kind.

    My student may better remember the time she had with her friends than she will any real-world benefit she got from that one botched Research Methods paper.

    But then, maybe not. I’m not sure how much she actually remembers from that particular  night.

    That’s not the point.

    The point is that they procrastinate at the peril of their accomplishments.

    But we all do it.

    I’m doing it right now. I post to this site at the sacrifice of the should-dos and have-tos in my real-world life. And that’s a bad thing.

    But.

    In another way, I’m doing what I am supposed to do. This is an exercise of sorts. A means of keeping a finger in a craft where my whole hand should be. Because at least it’s a finger.

    But I am doing this instead of a whole lot of other stuff. Like my students.

    Many years ago I took a pause from my to-do list to join my uncle on his boat pulling lobster traps from Boston Harbor. The crazy cousin who regales with his stories and spends with a generosity that contradicts his ability to pay offered a philosophical take on the day. 

    This is the kind of day that is immeasurable in its value. You couldn’t give me a million dollars to take a pass on it.

    For all its aura of inaction, sometimes procrastination is exactly the right action to take.

    And the pile grows.

Diminishing Degrees

    I had a student inform me towards the end of last semester that she was thinking about continuing on to grad school.


Considering the academic environment in which I work, maybe I should have reacted differently. But I know this young woman.   

     Grad school  -really? Huh?

grade inflationThen I posited an even worse response: Is this just to avoid the plunge into that real world about which you’ve heard so much?

She laughed.

And admitted that, yes, that was indeed the real reason.

There are plenty of good reasons to get a master’s degree. Your future profession requires one. Hers won’t. You have an intellectual passion for a particular subject matter. She doesn’t. The degree will translate into a real world salary increase. Unlikely.

   So for her, I suggested that maybe she didn’t need to get a master’s degree. At least not right away.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for continuing education. Not just in the short term, but, well, forever.

I corresponded for decades with a woman who was a passionate learner. In her 90s and taking a course at NYU, she informed me that any day she learned something new was a good one. What a great philosophy.

My student’s philosophical bent isn’t quite the same.

But she’s not alone.

If you believe Conan O’Brien’s Dartmouth commencement speech statistics (you shouldn’t), 92% of Americans get college degrees. His point, though comically rendered, is that a college diploma today is no big deal.

Higher degrees? Also a lot lower in value than they once were.

But we laid this path out early on. The crowded classes of Advanced Placement courses in high school are a glaring example.

When I was in school, there might have been a dozen kids in AP English, and that from a class of nearly 400. Same for AP Bio and History. The students in those classes were there because it touched on a passion or laid a foundation for specific college study.

Today, they’ll let anyone in.

Maybe not quite, but literally millions of American students are plopping down in desks in AP classes. And most of them don’t belong there.

    In a survey conducted a few years ago, AP teachers admitted that most students coming into AP classes were in over their heads. Ninety percent of those teachers said that students were coming into the classes to beef up their high school resumes. And 75% said that there was an institutional push for AP classes to improve academic rankings and reputations.

    Great messages we’re sending our kids.

    I often wonder what ever happened to average kids? And why we punish students who are stellar artists and scientists and musicians by insisting that they be good everything.

 

But more I worry about a system that teaches kids how to foster the illusion of success instead of its actuality. At the top of the class are often students who may not always know how to do well but do always know how to look good. They learn what clubs to join, what service to offer, what sports to play –all in an effort to pad their resumes.

The most recent big scandal in our small town revolved around drinking and graduation this year. Big shocker. When the students were called in for discipline, those who fessed up and admitted that yes, they had indeed been drinking, were denied the privilege of walking with their classmates and receiving their diplomas at graduation. The kids who said they hadn’t (wink wink) been drinking got a pass.

    Again, nice message. Punish a bit of integrity. Reward a lie.

    Politicians still take kickbacks. Academics fudge data to bolster their research. And the Wall Street wizards seem unapologetic for bringing the country to its economic knees.

    Our kids should fit right in.

Blame It on the Tooth Fairy


    We certainly didn’t originate the concept, but we are perpetuating it. And inflating it, apparently. My sister-in-law, who works in our town’s K-3 school, says the going rate of a lost tooth these days is five bucks. Wow. For virtue of a throw away to every other species on the planet, our kids are yielding some serious bucks.




    In the name of tradition, we’re padding their pillows with cash and sending a message: minimum effort = maximum return. 

    
Hmm.

    
Before you berate my dis to the Tooth Fairy, consider that Santa at least expects good behavior and that the Easter Bunny demands a bit of hunting proficiency. But not the Tooth Fairy. She doesn’t even grade the teeth, or consider the pain with which they may have been extracted. Based solely upon bodily function –in with new teeth, out with old- she delivers reward. Not a bad pay structure, if you can get it.

    
And they can –because we allow it. 

    
Not just by means of the Tooth Fairy but in so many other contemporary versions of the metaphor. By handing out trophies to everyone, by inflating grades and tossing accolades like confetti. And by telling our offspring that they are ALL wonderful. 

    
And they are. Just not at everything.




    That’s more the message we should be sending. Because the problem with giving them much without getting much from them is that it sets the bar pretty low. Instead of being rewarded for a job well done, they’re just being rewarded. 

    
Back in the 20th century when I grew up (makes us all sound old, huh?), my friend and I had our summers pretty easy. We’d hang in the neighborhood, ride our bikes, hop from pool-to-pool. We’d also play a lot of mini golf, hit the arcade and buy ourselves ice cream cones. But our excursions to the big dinosaur weren’t financed by our parents. Not directly anyway. Before we could head out to the links, we had to earn the cash. Okay, it wasn’t digging trenches, but it was work –we’d wash cars, most typically those of our parents. The interesting thing was that while my mom was a pushover with regard to how well we did our job, my friend’s dad was not. His car needed to be spotless and scrubbed to perfection. Our golf money wasn’t handed over until his car underwent a pretty vigorous inspection. Often, there was a redo involved. We weren’t very happy. But what a good message he sent. We got paid only for a job well done.

    
I relate the story not just in a nod to summertime nostalgia, but also because I wonder how often we demand a redo from our own kids. I know I’m too often guilty of letting things slide. As a toddler, Alex made her bed with tight corners and patted down ruffles; now there’s a tangle of covers heaped in a pile. At one time, every lego and choo choo had a set-in-stone home in her brother’s room. Those toys could very well still be there –buried under the pile of clean clothes Michael pulls from every morning as he gets dressed. Oh, how our standards have slipped.

    
I have an interesting relationship with the professors at my school. Interesting, I say, because I rarely meet them. Instead, I get to know them only through the eyes of their students. I find it particularly telling when two students give me completely opposing viewpoints of the same professor. Says more about the student than the teacher, I know. But from this limited scope, I have chosen the professors that I like best, not for who they are, but rather for how they teach. And, of course, how they treat my students. I like when the expectations placed upon my kids are clear and the deadlines are unwavering. And the other thing I really like –is when the bar is high. Because I know my students can reach it. 

    
I have two students upon whom I rely to give me accurate assessments of the professors. Both of them are bright and capable and both of them have received their share of poor grades. What is telling is that when given the recent option to opt for the easy teacher or the one with the reputation of being a hardass, they both chose the latter. Not because they’re type A or because they seek fulfillment from a teacher; they’re not, they don’t. Instead, it’s because they recognize the difference between mediocrity and the reach for perfection. Not perfection. Just the idea of it as a beacon from which to chart a course. 

    
What I’ve discovered is that our kids don’t really mind reaching to high expectations. They just need to know where they are and maybe be given a little guidance on how to get there.




When It’s Theirs to Give


    Encouraging volunteerism in our young people is a great idea. Unfortunately, like so many good ideas which came before it, I think the execution of it has missed the mark.
 



    Several years ago, when the notion of making community service a requirement for graduation was still in its infancy, I attended the commencement exercises of a small high school in an affluent town north of us. Very small. There were 85 students donning caps and gowns.


 


    The ceremony was beautifully touching, belying the intimacy of kids who had known each another their whole lives. The feel of it all was more reminiscent of family than formality. And these students’ comfort level with one another and with themselves offered a glimpse of all that could be right with an educational experience. Bright futures for all.




    But in a right-minded idea, the high school had decided that all of these privileged children should give back. That they should have an idea and appreciation of what it means to volunteer. So they insisted that they do just that.




    My guess is that the new policy was well-received, quickly approved and met with acquiescence by all.




    All but one, as it turned out.




    It seemed that the class valedictorian, who had actually done quite a bit of unprompted community service on his own, didn’t like the oxymoronic bent of forced volunteerism. Emphasis on moronic.




    He refused to participate in the new requirement.




    Even with the threat of a withheld diploma, he stuck to his principles.




    And so on graduation day, when the classmates with whom he had shared twelve years of school and life shook their principal’s hand and received their diplomas, he did not.




    Volunteering is such a good idea. It’s a shame we’ve allowed it to become just another peg in the light bright picture of that perfect package being built for college admission. Too many students (and lets face it, their parents) look at every move and moment in high school with their eyes on transcripts that will be eyed by admissions officers. It’s become less about doing good and  more about looking good.




    In addition to the misplaced motives of indentured servitude in the guise of community service, there’s also something disquieting about the price tag that comes attached to some of these volunteering opportunities. It seems giving is its own thriving industry. But it’s not really the kids who are doing the giving.




    Sure, they’re likely a great help to that far-flung village or orphanage or hospital.  But c’mon, who among us would pass up free travel and full life exposure for a little work among the downtrodden? Particularly when it’s not junior who’s footing the bill for his foray into famine, it would seem that there’s more of a nod to self than selfless in these volunteering expeditions.




    Something’s off kilter. 

    Have we so perfected the art of hypocrisy that we can’t see that it’s not volunteering if they have no choice? We cry foul at the tricks played on us from atop Capitol Hill and in the shadows of Wall Street, but then allow our kids to begin resume padding in middle school. I think the reason Adam Wheeler’s Harvard scam went so far is because we’ve let all of our children go a little too far in the build-up of their bios. Instead of being met with an awe of disbelief, his well-packed Phillips Academy transcripts, perfect SAT scores, and 4.0 MIT GPA were likely greeted with a ho-hum hyperbole that had him standing alongside a lot of other outstanding scholars. I read that if someone, somewhere along Wheeler’s conned path had taken a moment to do a bit of math, it would have been pretty evident that there simply weren’t enough hours in his academic days to do what he claimed to have done. 

    But it seems that over-the-top is the new norm. So included in all those resplendent resumes are now hours and hours of saving-the-world work by kids who are somehow still maintaining grades, playing sports and musical instruments, and socially mingling with their four thousand friends on Facebook.


    Hmm. How many hours are in their days?


    And why is it that so few of these altruistic adolescents are opting to pull up their sleeves and do a bit of hard work at the most local of levels -at shelters and food pantries? When was the last time that a kid shoveled out his neighbor’s drive without a community service form and pen in hand? Sure, they’ll be good citizens. As long as they get credit for it.


    Nice message.


    Maybe it’s time to repackage the message, then. Time to get back to basics a bit. Instead of sending them off with the sense that there’s a whole lot of free out there, maybe it’s time to make it clear that not much is. Before they give, maybe they need to earn. A part time job teaches a whole lot about effort and value. Then, if they choose a worthy cause to support, it can come from their pockets instead of mommy’s pocketbook. And if they decide to give up a Market Basket shift and its corresponding pay to serve meals because they want to rather than have to, they’ll likely have a better notion of what service is all about and what it really means to be a part of a community.