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. 



Brand Loyalty

coffinMy friend’s dad passed away recently. Sad, but at 84, he’d lived a good, full life and leaves a legacy of family, friends and service. 

At the bottom of a lengthy obituary, I read that the wake would not be held at the local funeral home with which we’re all most familiar. I asked my friend –why not? After all, her parents had called our town home for nearly 50 years. They were both public school teachers, avid churchgoers, active in their community. And this other funeral home was in a town to which they had no affiliation or allegiance, no connection. 

But for one. 

See, the funeral home was owned by Lou’s friend. A childhood friend. 

Nuf said. 

Her dad and mine grew up in Eastie, stood on different street corners of the same small neighborhood of a big city. Graduated from East Boston High, married Eastie women. Had Eastie friends. And they took a piece of that culture with them wherever they went. 

They went far. 

Both sets of parents quite literally travelled the world. 

But home was still home and roots were set deeply. And friendships were forever. Just like family. 

So of course Lou would honor his friend by choosing the alternate location. Fully his decision, it made total sense to anyone who knew him or men of his generation. 

I hate when people make sweeping generalities. 

But I’m about to. 

The generation of young adults with whom I deal every day cannot comprehend that kind of loyalty and they never will. 

They may be members of teams, schools, and communities, but those connections never become as intrinsically a part of who they are as it did for the generations before them. My parents’, and even my own. 

I’ve asked my students and my own kids if they think I’m giving their generation short shift here. They don’t. Even those who quickly vouch for the genuineness of their own friendships are still reluctant to say that their peers and they have anything resembling what I and my parents have had –friendships which have lasted a lifetime. Relationships with people who can revel in your successes at the same time that they put you in your place. People who will stand by you regardless of the missteps you make. People who have your back. 

Sure, these kids haven’t lived as long as we have. Only time can truly test my premise. 

But then time may also be the culprit at the crux of where the roads of allegiances diverge. 

From the time our children were impatiently interrupting our phone conversations—and we allowed it—these kids have demanded immediate gratification. And as parents we enabled this warp-speed mentality by enlisting them in every sport, club, activity, that came along. 

And then came the internet -making the world smaller, while at the same time exacerbating isolation. 

When they spend hours faux-chatting with people they don’t acknowledge in daylight; when they can “unlike” someone by the click of a mouse; when more of their relationships occur online than in-person, it’s easy to see why their interpersonal skills might be underdeveloped. 

I frequently drive by bus stops, or walk by kids on campus who have their eyes glued to handhelds, intensely involved in their cyber-relationships, while ignoring the real people in their lives and by their sides. 

Maybe they’ve got something there. Maybe fast and furious is an easier path. After all, face-to-face requires effort and planning and interaction. It’s time consuming. It can be difficult and messy –and it can’t be ignored. 

On the other hand, no lol comes close to belly laughs shared with longtime friends; L can’t replace tears, and nothing feels quite like a hug.

 

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.


Skittles



    I don’t care what color his skin was. 

    
I can’t get past the rainbow of color in his pocket.




    Rainbow Skittles.




    Because those skittles say more about who he was than the dark hoodie that lent him a temporary tough-guy persona.




    He was just a kid -with candy in his pocket.




    A teenager.




    I know a thing or two about teenage boys.




    I’m often surrounded by them. And most of the time, I actually like them.




    They’re smart and funny, idealistic and passionate, silly and sweet. 
    
    
Unlike girls of their age, the boys are comedy instead of drama, action instead of words. They don’t adhere to a hidden agenda or look for the subtexts in a message. They don’t hold grudges or take offense where none’s intended. They’re much more what-you-see-is-what-you-get than the girls, simpler in a lot of ways.

    
But not in all ways. 

    
While raging hormones can reduce girls to hysteria, similar hormonal havoc can turn boys from mild-mannered to mad-mouthed. Instead of tears and tantrums, there’s a bubbling bravado that can spew forth like lava without provocation.




    And if they’re provoked? Well, they’re easily provoked.




    That’s where it all gets complicated.




    Teenage boys are straddling a thin line between boyhood and manhood, with unsure footing.




    In bodies they don’t yet fit, these straddlers are dealing with some weighty expectations –the world’s, and their own. Many of them are pretty confused, adrift, lonely even when they’re surrounded by friends. Often simmering beneath the surface of who they’re trying to become is a noxious mix of angst and anger. They have control of neither.

    
But for their age and gender, it’s unlikely that Michael has much in common with Trayvon Martin. Michael doesn’t look like Trayvon Martin. 

    He couldn’t be the victim of racial profiling.




    In our tiny town, though, Michael also doesn’t quite look like everyone else. That factor alone doesn’t usually get him in trouble.




    On the other hand, it does garner him a bit of attention.




    Walking down the street one evening, my son was stopped by the cops. It was 8:30. He was in the company of two girls. They were carrying a small yellow bag of Swedish fish.




    Pretty suspicious behavior.




    The cop asked the teens to show them what they had in the bag and they obliged. They didn’t have to; Michael knew this. I wonder if he had been accompanied by teenage boys instead of girls, if he would have been so willing to reveal the contraband.




    Because I’ve seen Michael’s anger. I’ve also seen him keep it in check. Luckily.




    Our teenage boys encounter authority figures –parents, coaches, teachers, principals, police officers-hundreds of times in a week without incident. The kids respect the authority; the adults don’t abuse it. However, in a head-to-head battle between man and teenage boy, it’s up to the adult to keep his head. Because as difficult as it may be for a man to maintain control in the face of an insolent teen, for a teenage boy to keep that same composure may be a taller order than he’s able to handle.

Ownership




    Shouldering responsibility even when it may not be fully mine to carry (see previous post) may seem a throwback to an earlier and wrong-minded blame-the-victim philosophy. In some ways, maybe it is. The mindset, however, could be a generational thing. My parents, my peers and I have generally held to the belief that we are fully the authors of our own lives. Responsibility, ownership –these are the beacons to which most of us charted our courses.




    It’s an admirable ideal. The flip side of it, though, may be that in addition to accepting our own failings, we sometimes take on the failings of others –especially our offspring. A dangerous habit. Certainly the practice has the potential to be difficult for us, but its cost to our kids may be much more damning.




    Because we’ve allowed it, too many of our children are quick to place blame outside their own sphere. The trajectory may start at home but it follows them out and up into the world. It’s the teacher, the coach, the professor, the boss. Not them.




    This it’s-everyone-else’s-fault mantra sets them on course to an unsustainable climb. Eventually they may find themselves at a precipice without a parachute. And the climb down from such inflated heights can be treacherous, a fall disastrous.




    But it’s our fault.




    Hmmm




    I once opined in a newspaper column that we spend the first years of our children’s lives placing them at the center of the universe and then are shocked when they turn into teenagers and start to agree with the positioning.




    This isn’t to say that our kids aren’t wonderful.




    They are. They have so much to offer. All of them.




    They’re just not all wonderful at everything.




    And when we pretend that they are, and then they fail, it’s pretty easy for them to grab to a life ring of blame; it just has to be the fault of someone else. Because we’ve told them too many times -they’re wonderful.




    The thing is, just like we probably learned a whole lot more from our missteps than from any of our easier accomplishments, our kids would likewise benefit from the occasional reality check. After all, how exactly are they to identify success if they’ve never considered failure?




    My own kids have stumbled on occasion. I’ve had opportunities to step in to soften the blows. A phone call, a small intervention, a push in an alternate direction might have changed the outcome, averted a full-out failure. It was hard to watch my kids hurt, difficult to resist the temptation to intervene. Usually, I did it anyway. It’s too early to tell if it was the right decision.




    Michael will soon to be out of high school. His road has been a much different one than his sister’s. From an outside perspective, it may appear that he’s suffered more failures. But not necessarily. His choices, as misguided as they sometimes appear, have been his own. If he hasn’t exactly excelled at an endeavor, it’s usually entirely of his own choosing. Seriously.




    This isn’t to say that I haven’t seen Michael brush blame from his own shoulders and onto another’s. He’s hardly perfect. On the other hand, he usually acknowledges his shortcomings, owns up to many of his mistakes. 

    
Michael is off on an alternative journey and passionately so. His climb has been a whole lot rockier than those of his peers but he knows every inch of the terrain. And because he’s forged such a unique path, when he does stumble –as he will- he may be better prepared to pick himself up, reassess his direction and continue on.

Sweet Music



    Alex wasn’t a napper. Although she slept through the night early-on, she was up most all of the day.




    So, to get the occasional daylight break from my very active infant, I needed to be creative. After much new-parent experimentation, I discovered that the most effective trick in my toolbox of sleep techniques was placing Alex in her swing and playing a selection from Phantom of the Opera.

    
If you’re familiar with the musical, there is a beautiful love song that closes the first act. Alex would eventually learn All I Ask of You on piano as a gift to me. Offering protection and the soothing of wide-eyed fears, the piece makes for a beautifully resonate lullaby.

    
All I Ask of You, however, wasn’t the tune to which my daughter settled to sleep. Instead, the one surefire song that sent my baby to slumber was the powerful and loud instrumentation of the overture. To the music of a bellowing organ, a bass-heavy assortment of orchestra brass and woodwinds, a flourishing accompaniment of strings and a powerful selection of percussion that included a loudly vibrating timpani, Alex would nod off.




    A fit to her personality in many ways, but also perhaps a supporting
argument for the unwitting influence of invitro activity.




    Convinced that having babies might put a damper on my frequent theatre treks to New York (big understatement), I had to see Phantom before delivery. Paying a premium for the seats (Alex’s dad still doesn’t know just how much I shelled out for those tickets) and flying to New York when perhaps I shouldn’t have (apparently airlines discourage women from flying too close to their due dates), I made the trip, saw the play, was captivated by the music.

    
And apparently so was my unborn child.

    
Phantom wasn’t the only musical backdrop to her young life, however.




    I love music. I’ve shared that love and the full assortment of my musical library and tastes with my children.




    Soon, they began to return the favor. 

    
First it was the music of their laughter, belly giggles that bubbled from deep in their tiny bodies and spilled over in sparkles from their eyes. Then there were the school-learned ditties they performed in public and private recitals, over and over -and over. Still later, it was the litany of their conversation, a multitude of newly-found syllables and sentences. 

    
But finally, it was their own selection of radio stations and CDs that wrested away my full control of the musical sounds emanating from the stereo and the car radio.




    Being older, Alex held sway with her idolizing younger brother for a bit. Then, he fell under the more musically diverse influences of his older cousin Jonathon.




    A war ensued. And I was left to straddle a demilitarized zone between a battle-of-the-bands conflict as the clash of their tastes played out from side-by-side bedrooms. Their versions of what constituted “good” music were vastly different from one another, and neither of them had a problem with upping the amperage in an effort to drown out the musical competition next door.


 


    Michael emerged the victor. In part, because he is the truer musician, but also in a nod to the diversity of his tastes. The performers who flavor his musical palate are too numerous to list: Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder, Victor Wooten, Dave Matthews, Radiohead, The Beatles, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The list is varied, wide and willingly and continually expanding.

    
Not only does he fill up and often control the IPod dock; he replicates the music of his favorite artists and creates much of his own.

    
He plays -just about everything. And brings in his friends to jam with him.




    Our house has an open floor plan. There isn’t a room from which you can escape the sound of the music.




    But then, I don’t really try.




    With the exception of his occasional drum solos, I embrace the tunes, dance and sing (poorly) along. Because, the thing is, it’s really good music.

    
I’ll admit I miss the melody of giggling babies, questioning toddlers, curious little kids. I miss my son’s voice in meandering conversation. I miss the connection, the words, the interaction.




    But for now, I’ll have to accept their alternative.
 
    
Because even in the dearth of conversation, I still hear traces of who my son is in his music. If I listen closely enough, I hear Michael -in his music.

    
Sweet, sweet music.


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.