The Academics of Life

     Someone recently reminded me that my job title is academic tutor. In that capacity, I’d like to say that I’m at least marginally qualified to impart some sort of knowledge onto my students. On the other hand, I’d also be the first to admit that I may be completely ill qualified in most other areas in which I offer counsel to them.

whiteboard  When we set out in the semester, my fellow learning consultants and I are supposed to outline the student support program, explain the requirements of participation and tell the students what they can expect from us. Each year, I’m quickly able to click through the points and offer my assistance on a host of academic, organizational and campus navigational tasks without hesitation. 


     Until the last one.

Be a mentor.

My first year, I balked at what I thought was a pretty presumptuous offering. Of course, I understand that anyone can be a mentor, that it requires no degree or specialized training. I get that even I am vaguely qualified.


I didn’t even know these kids, yet. And, more importantly, they certainly didn’t know me. Why would they sign on to take counsel from a stranger more closely aligned with their parents and professors than their peers. How could they say yes to a pretty big trust connection with such a blank slate?


Luckily, my students aren’t nearly as jaded as I.

    Lucky also, that my boss is a bit of a sorceress. Not only does she perform a pretty neat trick with regard to the space-time continuum –accomplishing way more hours of work than should reasonably fit in a day- but she also seems to possess some intuitive knack for fitting tutee to tutor. At first glance, she’s merely linking business students with business tutors; communications kids with the likes of me. But there’s something more to the doweled fit she seems to construct.

Kelley would likely not allow me to attribute the pairings to the mere technical savvy of my supervisor. Rather, she’d be more apt to point to a grand scheme for the universe in which I am supposed to be doing just this job at this point in my life and with these particular kids. What I try to lay off on coincidence, she sets before a higher power. A concept over which, I have learned not to roll my eyes. Not only because I truly respect from where she comes, but also because she seems to have some sort of belief in me –that perhaps I still can be taught. And in weaker moments, she does have the ability to suck me in. 

And I understand now, that this is a good thing.

     For me.

    But also for my students.

    And for my own children. Because of all the jobs I have held, the one for which I often feel most inadequately prepared is parent. And sometimes also this position as mentor.

    But with voices other than my own in my head, I take a breath and try to listen to the universe. And rather than assume myself ill-fitted to any role, I think to all of the people who would have been considered such a mismatch to my own life. And thank that they were there.

The woman for whom I babysat should have remained only a neighbor and a reliable source of funds. Instead, in the fuzzy friendship we forged as I stepped into adulthood, she helped me become the person I was supposed to be. An unlikely pairing, believe me. Had we been the same age, our paths would not have crossed and we would never have become friends. But we did.

So when my daughter’s high school years were in turmoil and I was one of her closest friends, rather than fret over the time she spent with a woman I barely knew, I stopped and tried to believe. In the goodness of people. In my parents’ creed that what goes around, comes around, and in the idea that a good kid deserved someone good in her life. And it worked.

    I owe an immeasurable thank-you to that woman of long ago and to the woman who helped pull my daughter back to the surface.

    And I owe something to these kids I supposedly tutor. Because I often think that they’ve given me more than I have given them. 

Or maybe not. They thank me often and text me with good grades and give me credit that I don’t deserve. They share their work and their accomplishments and pieces of their lives. And they trust me.

I am an academic tutor, and I’ve tried to set some pretty clear boundaries –the most ironic of which might be exampled in a recent interaction with one of my students. I told her that if she ever felt compelled to text me in the middle of the night because she was under-the-gun with regard to an assignment, that I would indeed be angry. However, I added that I would be angrier still if she neglected to make the call when it had nothing to do with academics at all.

Fade to Grey

    Black and white is easy. 

I come from black and white. I don’t live there anymore, but it is where I started.

    Growing up, I had an ironclad vision of the expectations that were placed upon me. Black and white. Wrong and right. Not a whole lot of in-between.

    I’m sure at the time I probably didn’t view it all that favorably.

    Now I do.

    But it isn’t just nostalgia.

    Parenting in today’s 3D Digital world can be deeply disorienting at times.

    It makes me long for an era when the rules were simple and clear. And laid out by somebody else. Sometimes I think that the only thing scarier than the fact that my friends and I are in charge is the thought that someday our children will be.


    And what tools have we given them to handle that responsibility?

    On off days, I think –not nearly enough.

    But then I look to the black and white world my parents gave me and wonder how grey became my favorite color.

    Like my parents, and theirs before them, I’ve tried to add to what they built.  My own structure may look different and feel unsettlingly unstable at times, but the foundation of it was long ago set. I started from the same premise they did –to give to my kids more than I had. Just a little bit more. And in some ways, I have. I’m just not sure I’ve always chosen the right ways.

    Our literal house is bigger and our town smaller. We have more land and less worries about it. We’ve taken more vacations. I’ve spent more time on fields, in parks and on playgrounds. More time in my kids’ classrooms. I’ve had memberships to the library, the PTO, the museum. My children have had a lot of lessons, and teams and coaches. My daughter orders her clothes online as if it’s a part time job. My son thinks Zildjian cymbals are the only kind worth having and so he has them. My kids have had access to a whole lot of stuff. Material things –lots of them.

    But they often don’t make their beds. And have to be reminded that dishes go in dishwashers. And clothes go on hangers that hang in closets. Their rooms are messy and they don’t share them with anyone else. They’ve never had paper routes or shoveled snow or washed cars to make a buck. My daughter forgets to make those birthday thank-you phone calls. My son goes to bed without saying goodnight.

    Something’s off-kilter. How is it that they do less, and get more?  How is it that I –and I don’t think I’m alone- have allowed this to happen?

    It’s different.

    Sounds like a cop out, huh? But isn’t it different? I want to say that times are different; were different. But then, that phrase sounds too reminiscent of my parents: Those were the days. You don’t know how lucky you have it. You have it easy. It sounds too much like my parents sounding like theirs. And I don’t want to lay blame on a past that’s faded by hues of nostalgia.

    Instead, I place the blame on myself. And I don’t think our parents did that. They might have known guilt, but not doubt. At least not when it came to raising their children. Black and white. Simple.

    I often think that my muted tones don’t measure up.

    But then I look to my own beginnings and realize that my parents laid some solid ground work. And I have built upon it. And in spite of the shaky ground on which it sometimes seems to stand, I’ve got to believe that it can withstand even the seismic activities of late.

    Because its pillars are made of some pretty powerful stuff.

    Pillars of strength -and love. Trust and belief. Respect and encouragement. Kindness and warmth. Family. And food. . .

    A few weeks ago, my daughter texted me a rainbow. There’s a story behind it, but that’s not important. What is is that she knew that sending it to me would make my day. I kid often about how we’ve all lowered the bar with regard to the expectations we place on our children. But the rainbow wasn’t low. It was pretty high, actually. She looked up to the sky, appreciating a specter which many do. Then, she snapped a photo from her phone, and forwarded it along. To Me. Because she knows me. In a way that I may not have known my mother.

    So I’ve been thinking. If I had settled upon only the black and white I knew, I probably would have missed a whole lot of rainbows.

Unjustified Paranoia

    I had a friend in high school who warned me of the dangers of committing anything to paper.

There were a few things wrong with this right advice.

    First, she was talking to the writer of the group. Really? Don’t put anything down on paper?

    Second, writing notes was our version of texting. We all did it. It was a clandestine escape in boring classes, a lifeline in harried hallways.

    Third, her message that anything I put down on paper had the potential to come back to bite me, smacked of paranoia. As it turned out, although I don’t think she was so afflicted, her father was. Perhaps that was at the root of her cautionary note.

    Lastly, she didn’t take her own advice. Years after we had gone our separate ways, I found notes and letters authored by her. She poured out her heart and soul in every passage.

    Interestingly, I never did. In this regard, I know I was in the minority.

    And I still am.

    Even in emails and text messages, I edit. And reedit.

    Not so the legions of girls and young women of today with their up-to-the-second technology and lightning fast fingertips. They text with abandon, and with utter disregard for the backspace which could give their thoughts pause. The speed with which they communicate has rendered the delete key virtually obsolete.

    Thus it is that I hear from my students, while in class with an overseeing professor, immediately of the just-received grade on the test or the essay. Although I admonish them at the inconsistency of texting their tutor while in class, I have to admit I like when they share good news.

    And they do. A grade, a completed assignment, a pushed back deadline.

    But in the immediacy of their media-driven lives and hyperquick blip of their messaging, they share much more. So much more.

    In the jotted lines of their texts, I’ve been granted access to their world. And in the spaces in-between, into their lives. I know I wouldn’t give to them what they give to me. At least not in writing. The content is often akin to the stuff which we might have shared with a trusted friend through the lines of a telephone. It’s immediate and funny and potent and raw, and at times, heart-wrenching. And almost always -urgent.

    I wonder what it is about my young friends and my daughter that their messages seem so fully fraught with this sense of urgency. Even when it’s my daughter’s question about a song’s artist that comes from the midst of a party she’s attending, she needs to know –now.  Never mind that her phone has a direct link to the Google gods who could answer her much more quickly than I and my scattered brain. The question arises. She texts me her query. And I answer.

    In a different scenario, this would be called enabling. Maybe it still is. And maybe I and those of my kind are part of the reason our kids crave immediacy and lay bare so much out in their cyberworld.

    Facebook has hoards of detractors. And anyone advising students stepping into the workforce has warned and doubly warned of the dangers of revealing too much to the world through the site. I’ve done it countless times myself.

    But lately I’ve been rethinking the message. Just because I couldn’t have put myself out there the way my girls do, doesn’t mean they can’t. Or shouldn’t. It is, after all, their world.

No, I’m not advising that FB uploads of them taking ice slide shots through something resembling the male anatomy while wearing their bathing suits is the stuff that impresses future bosses. Instead, I’m saying that perhaps we can find middle ground. There are just too many of these less-than-perfect photos opps out there to expect anyone to come off as perfect. There’s also something a bit inauthentic about a college kid donnig a cap at the end of four years that too closely resembles a halo. I can’t imagine that anyone is served by an all antiseptic version of another’s life. It’s not terribly believable. Or likeable.

    So I liked the story of the young woman running for office in Virginia last fall who went on national television to confront her own FB photos. I actually thought they were pretty tame. (but then, as I’ve mentioned –my kids share A LOT, so maybe my view is skewed) However, she brought up a good point. If the only people who run for office from her age group are those who’ve never been caught in a bad photo, the ranks of the running are going to be pretty slim. And grow slimmer with time.

    I also liked her name: Krystal Ball. Seriously. Maybe she is one and maybe, despite her loss in the election, she’s giving us a bit of foreshadowing. If we continue to try to find perfect people, we’re likely to be perfectly fooled.

The Most Honest Person I Know


           Alex was still a toddler when it dawned on me that her version of honesty and mine might be divergent concepts. At first I deemed it storytelling. But it soon became clear that I was being too euphemistic.


            She was lying.


            Sometime at the start of her childhood I had informed my daughter I could always tell if she was lying by looking into her eyes. A claim, by the way, I would not recommend making. It may have given the tiny toddler pause, but it also set her on a path to perfect the art. And lying is an art.

But in the early days, she was not its artist.

We were on our way to a daytime adventure when I asked her if she’d brushed her teeth; she said yes.


           But her toothbrush, set on my vanity, was still dry, the toothpaste unmoved.

I asked again. Yes, she said.

You’d lie about brushing your teeth? I just don’t get it.

Patience, I told myself.

So I bent to her three-year-old stature, gazed into earnest brown eyes and asked her one more time:


          “Did you brush your teeth?”


           She insisted she had.  But this time with eyelids tightly shut.

Of course.

Mommy clearly couldn’t tell if Alexandra was lying if she couldn’t see into her eyes.

Stifling a chuckle I put my hands on her tiny shoulders, turned her about face and marched her into the bathroom to brush.


            In first grade, it was the parent’s conference at which I was surprised to see her teacher’s cuts had healed so well. Toward the end of the meeting when I inquired about Ms. Holbrook’s injury, the perplexed expression spoke volumes. What exactly had Alexandra told me?  With dawning comprehension she asked, “then you probably don’t really own a pet monkey, do you?”


            Of all the character flaws, how was it that my daughter settled upon the one for which mom was least tolerant? If the foundation of our very relationship couldn’t be built upon trust, then where exactly were we headed?


            In sync with my contemporaries, when faced with such a parenting road block, I turned to the experts. The pediatrician, the self-help books, the online networking. This was a dilemma for which some shrewd sage could offer a simple solution.


            Or so I told myself.
            Instead, the conflicting remedies left me with more puzzle than solution. The notion that the tendency in children to lie wasn’t a big deal, was in fact pretty typical, was ludicrous to me.  If I couldn’t get beyond this general consensus of the experts, how was I to take their counsel? They wanted me to accept, ignore and reward; I wanted to admonish, scream and punish. 

Neither of our techniques worked.


            She wasn’t merely told that accepting rides from middle school wasn’t allowed, she was told specifically from whom she could not take a ride. When the bus came home one day and she didn’t, I got into the car. I had driven as far as the next street when I saw her rounding the corner, on foot.  

Why had she been so late?


            Without missing a beat, she asked, “do you want me to tell you the truth?” 


            Against the rules, she had taken the ride and gotten dropped off at the top of the street. It was a truth of sorts, but only forthcoming because she had been caught practically red-handed.

        On the flip side of all her deceptions, however, was an inclination to include me where her peers put up parent barriers.  At times there seemed to be no dam between her brain and her mouth. Filterless comments flung freely. I knew secrets, antics and anecdotes that silently I wondered why she shared. I knew when she did something funny, something stupid, something wrong. I was privy to girlhood dramas and school yard gossip. I knew which kids were doing what and at what ages.


            As I became repository to countless confessions, I was also allowed access to the no holds barred persona that was reemerging on the other side of adolescence. In acquiescence to her Mean Girl encounters, Alex had tempered her exuberant personality to better fit her classroom community. The physical, boisterous and bold tomboy had retreated to a quiet and intimidated little girl.


            So it was with mixed emotion that I received her assertions in high school that she “didn’t care what people thought of her.” I was delighted in the returned confidence and independence; I cringed at the indifference and defiance. For her missteps she offered tepid apologies. On one occasion, when I dissected her betrayal of a friend’s confidence, she concluded that maybe she had been wrong but quickly appended the admission with the statement that her friends should know better: she simply could not keep a secret.


            After each incident, I found my self marveling at my daughter’s forthrightness.  What spilled out of her mouth wasn’t just a snapshot of teenage life; it was a feature length full screen with a borderline R rating.  And I understood that what she shared with me she was sharing with abandon. What she was telling me, she was telling to almost anyone who would listen.


            In contrast, what I reveal isn’t deceptive so much as it is incomplete.  Set in a self-edit mode, it isn’t merely the written word I choose carefully; I often consider consequence even in everyday conversation. What spins in my head rarely makes it out beyond my own imagined play of it. 

And it is from this tainted lens that I have warned Alex of the perils of her honest outlook. It’s one thing to derisively ask mom if I really plan on wearing that outfit; it’s another to offer her friends the same unfiltered criticism. However, all my attempts over the years to instill in her even a bit of wariness have been futile. I’ve watched with apprehension and incredulity as she has faced life’s challenges with porous armor. To the people in her path, she reveals full self, warts and all, every time. Even when her honesty gets her in trouble, she quickly utters an unconvincing “oh well, I’m over it” long before she really is and moves on. She jumps head long and full throttle into every relationship and retreats not battle scarred and skeptical at its conclusion but open and unguarded, ready for the next.


           It is at these times that I wonder just who is teaching whom. And exactly what being honest truly means.