Goodbye –forever

    I related a story to my son the other day. 

    Don’t laugh –I do this sometimes. I speak, he sort of stands there. I pretend he’s listening. Like when I read him these blog posts. He may not appear actively engaged, but he doesn’t, on the other hand, flee. I consider this a good sign. 

    The story had one of those sledgehammer messages. (I’ve learned that subtlety is overrated when dealing with teens.) But behind the most obvious point I was trying to make was another with a more universal message, which he may have missed. 

    Maybe not. 

    Because teens live more in the instant than in anything long-term, it’s hard for them—or many of us, for that matter—to think far-off. Because we don’t sometimes plan for the inevitability of the future, we often miss chances in the here-and-now that we later regret. 

    It’s a hard lesson, and one most of us have probably learned in the hardest of ways. Only in retrospect do we realize that we had a chance, but let it pass. 

    Most of the time we don’t know it’s the last time we’re saying goodbye to someone–until it’s too late. 

    Sometimes we have to scratch at our memories to even think to the when of a last encounter. Often, we can’t recall those last words we spoke as we were leaving. 

    And then there’s the leaving. 

    One kind of leaving is like the distant voyage away from a shore. The people, the buildings, the horizon simply become less. They slip from our sight, become specks in our memories. They’re like the healing of a wound, the fading of a scar. 

    Another leaving comes when the end is inevitable. There’s a chance, an opportunity -for those of us willing to take it.  A way to say goodbye. 

    Maybe the worst is the kind that hits like my sledgehammer message. A lightning bolt out of a blue sky; a chirpy ringtone heralding a  horrible message. 

    My story was one of those. A death. But one that had that magic goodbye and one last I love you. 

    We don’t always get those. 

    And it’s not always about death. 

    My son has been saying goodbyes to classmates and friends. I don’t think he thinks any of them will be a last time. He’s unlikely choosing his words with forever in mind. 

    As my seniors left after our last time together, they gave me thank-yous and gifts and goodbyes -and promises that they’d keep in touch –for sure. 

    I chose my words more carefully than they. 

    Be we
ll, be happy -have a good life.
 

    Michael’s more apt to offer a quick see ya later. Because he assumes he will. 

    I’m less sure. 

    Maybe then I should treat those goodbyes with a little more respect. Because until it’s upon us, we really don’t know if it’s a goodbye-til-later or goodbye-forever.




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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.





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.



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.




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.