Best. Day. Ever.

riverAlex only really scared me once. It was really serious –life or death.

We got life.

Michael, on the other hand, managed to raise the fear factor on a regular basis when he was in high school.

I cared less when it was dad who was blowing things out of proportion and worried that his only male offspring might be dead on a river somewhere. Probably partly because dad’s first over-the-top panic reaction occurred simultaneously during a rare, less-than-a-weekend getaway in which all I wanted was to be family-free.

He called me 28 times. Seriously.

Michael was fine.

He just hadn’t bothered to communicate that fact to his father.

When Michael went on a similar river journey with me sort of at-the-helm, the worry-meter shifted. By nightfall, I was ready to call out the U.S. Coast Guard.

Unfortunately, I may have been mildly complicit at the start of his errant adventure. I might have nodded some tepid assent when he told me that he and his buddy were going canoeing again (this was a regular pastime) and this time they’d make it. By “make it,” I refer to a canoe trek from river to ocean.

Before you think that I’d totally lost my mind with such a blasé response to my teenage son’s planned adventure, you really, really have to understand the river. This is NOT Lewis and Clark exploring uncharted territory along 19th century untamed rivers. The Ipswich River is less than 40 miles long and can run to barely a trickle in some spots. You actually may need to pick up the canoe along a few low water sections. This is hardly a raging river. On the other hand, it does, as rivers must, let out in an ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. In this one area, perhaps I should have taken him a bit more seriously.

But, I wasn’t at the drop off, wasn’t the parent privy to this particular trip’s details—or lack there-of. His friend’s dad had dropped off the boys and wished them well. Whether or not the return time or location was made clear is still up for debate.

My own instructions to Michael were mostly about lunches and lifejackets, both he had. Both he agreed to use. But also included were pretty specific warnings about how and why he needed to communicate. I even handed off a plastic bag to make certain that cellphone-in-the-river wouldn’t be an excuse for losing contact.

It wasn’t.

Instead, somewhere along his journey, Michael decided that shutting the phone down entirely to preserve its battery was a good idea.

Ugh.

The last I heard was –We made it to the ocean.

Then his phone went dead.

The other boy’s dad said the agreed meet time was 6:00 pm.

It was well after 6:00 when I drove absently to various sections of the river and started shouting his name. Yes, I know how absurd this sounds. How ridiculous it was. But my baby’s last point of contact was somewhere along that little river –which now seemed really, really big.

We didn’t call the Coast Guard. But we did call the cops.

Eventually, sometime just before 10:00, the two explorers were found, alive, on land, walking from the beach. They’d made it to the ocean without killing themselves. Even if they had nearly killed their parents with worry.

My dad’s friend had an oft repeated mantra: If your kids don’t kill you, it’s not because they’re not trying.

I was one of those “kids” at the time so the sentiment was lost on me then. I get it now.

The thing is, I know Michael’s intent wasn’t to actually kill me (that’s just a side perk). His wandering water voyage had absolutely nothing to do with me at all. In the most literal sense, it was about exploring –his world and himself. And all that exploration is a good thing.

Even if the missing-at-sea adventure took a few years off my life, Michael’s interpretation of the event was entirely different from mine. What was a really, really bad day for me, not so much for him. His Facebook post the next day: Best day ever.

He’s had days since that he probably counts as even better. I like that. I like it even more that some of those best days ever now belong to us both.

 

Snowflakes

In an effort to give solace to my stressed out students, I recently offered a bromide that probably rang hollow.

I told them that they are not alone. That there are kids on campus, even in class, who are likely going through some of the very same stuff they are. I also said that for a whole lot of reasons—one being that I’m just plain old—there’s probably nothing they could share that I hadn’t already heard.

snowflakeI know on one level this notion may have caused more consternation than comfort. They want to believe—as their parents have always told them—that they are completely unique. That they and their problems aren’t some same-old, same-old that stand commonly bland aside their peers and some of the bigger picture issues in life. They want to believe—even when it’s horrible, bad, stuff—that they are different.

But they’re not.

Not really.

In spite of what they’ve been told, their accomplishments aren’t all grandiose and their failures aren’t completely catastrophic. Someone, somewhere has been through what they’re going through and has gotten to the other side. They likely will, too.

It used to be that this assurance gave comfort or at least offered an emotional platform from which to build a conversation.

Not anymore.

I knew a student who had suffered a horrible, calamitous event. She felt rightly devastated and alone and expressed her grief appropriately –whatever that really means. But -I watched her behave with a similar sense of       devastation when the loss wasn’t nearly as big. A bad grade, a horrible day, a poor interaction with professors and peers often garnered the same kind of emotional response.

And from where she came—from where they all come—it probably makes sense. If they’re completely unique in their universe, why shouldn’t they feel completely alone? If they always feel compelled to shine as brightly as the sun, maybe even a little darkness really does seem like the end of the world.

But what if there were others like them? Just like them. What if they weren’t totally alone in a bleak universe, but rather shining stars among many?

I’ve often wondered upon the claim of snowflake uniqueness. How can we be so certain that no two are truly alike? Sure the quintillion plus water molecules that make up a single snowflake may form in a gazillion different ways, but that formation occurs in a fully formed flake. Apparently even scientists agree that those early developing snowflakes are pretty darn similar; just six-sided prisms, virtually indistinguishable, one from the other. It’s only with time and age that snowflakes branch out, grow and become truly unique.

Our kids should believe that they’re unique and wonderful and special. But there’s also a benefit in believing that in some ways –they’re just like everyone else, that they have more in common with their fellow flakes than they might think. And that maybe, just maybe, if they turn to each other in the storm, they’ll find some shelter.

 

Foreign Languages

        I don’t have a natural affinity for foreign language. Six
years of publically taught French, a semester of college Italian and I can confidently
say in both languages: Je parle français; io parlo italiano.

But I don’t.

In either.

I do, on the other hand, speak a wide variety of Kid.

When they were little, I translated body language and
syllables into needs and wants. As they got older, I inferred meaning from
actions.  And alongside them, I learned the
varied languages of their newfound interests.

Pitch, box, yellow card, red card.

Horse stance, knife strike, sensei, gi.

When Alex started playing soccer, I had to learn an unfamiliar
game with its own lexicon. Same with Michael and Karate. My limited knowledge of
his sport had been gleaned from the first Karate Kid. Nothing in that flick,
though, had hinted to the forthcoming acrobatic practice strikes performed in my
kitchen or the proudly growing pile of hand-broken boards in his bedroom.

These were new and odd languages, but I soon became fluid.
Adapted. Got interested. Because my kids were.

I didn’t speak baby or toddler until I did. And I
certainly had had no effective tutelage to teenage.

That language, in particular, was set in code. Especially
as (not) spoken by my son. Years of incessant chatter had given way to sullen
and sometimes seething silence. There were piercing looks and shoulder shrugs.
Grunts, monosyllables. I had to master intent and outcome from a whole lot of
words not being said, decipher a new vocabulary without translation guide or
codebook.

But like the results from a language immersion class, I
got it. Because I listened. And because I was willing to follow the instruction of native speakers.

Michael’s been teaching me again. A new vocabulary, a new
language. Hookups and pickups (not the kind you think), capacitors and
compressors, reverb field and phase cancellation, C12s and Telefunken U47s.

It’s his language.

And if I listen -allow him to be the teacher- I’m in.

It’s not so much a difficult lesson, as it is one that can
be a bit disorienting. Dizzying, even.

But it is learning and I still love to learn.

I actually don’t understand how others do not.

I learn a lot from my students. I think it’s supposed to
be the other way around. But if that were the only paradigm I was willing to
consider, I also think I’d be worse off. We all would be.

Although most buck the concept, some of my students understand
the merit of peer evaluation. They get the idea of learning not only from their
professors, but also from their classmates. A few of them, anyway. Fewer still
believe that their own ideas can be instructive; that they can be both student
and teacher at the same time.

As parents, maybe we should embrace a bit more of this fluid
concept of instruction. We’ve got a lot of lessons to teach, wisdom to impart.
But we can also learn from our kids and the other children in our lives.

We just have to listen and be willing to twist our
tongues around a new syllable or two.

 

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. 



Imaginary Lover

Who
could have foreseen that a 70s song could so aptly foreshadow 21st century
relationships? Imaginary lovers never
disagree. They always care. They’re always there when you need, satisfaction
guaranteed.

Can
it really be so shocking, then, that Manti Te’o opted for imagination over
reality? In fact, maybe it’s more surprising that his peers aren’t doing the
same.
 

Or
maybe they are.
 

For
all the accurate images of college life picked up and portrayed by the media, a
foot-on-the-ground stroll across an American college campus might be more
telling. Particularly if you get the full tour. Weekdays and weekends included.
 

From
my mini-view on my little campus, the numbers from the studies seem sound:
three-quarters are hooking up. The boys with more partners than the girls, but
the ladies are nonetheless hot on their heels.
 

The
weekends are wild, with the majority of students pretty willing to lay themselves
naked -just not metaphorically so. When it comes to weekdays and daylight,
there’s much less of laying themselves bare.
 

In
Monday morning classrooms, they interact not with one another, but with smart
phones and laptops. Avoiding eye contact is its own art form and they’ve got it
nailed. Their eyes are glued instead to their screens, tapping and texting, but
not talking.
 

When
my students share stories—and they always do—I often have to interrupt. So was
this an actual conversation or a
cyber chat? They rarely differentiate. But as they relate their tales, they
include an ascribed tone and intent for the sender. My suggestions that they
may be misreading their text readings are usually soundly dismissed. They heed
my interpretive warnings only with regard to student-professor correspondence.
 

Of
course it’s generational.  I get that
they communicate differently than we do. But it seems not to be just a
different means of a communication, but 
a
lack of one. Rather than face-to-face interaction, with real-time dialogue,
they’re texting and waiting, and filling in the spaces. They read between the
lines and create gaps where there are none, mistaking humor for insult, lust
for love, a casual friendship for a meaningful relationship.
 

I’d
like to support my kids and this written word connection of theirs, but they
seem to have it all wrong. In the brevity that allows them to leave out so much
out, they’re missing out on too much. Then, when they do share—often alcohol
fueled and impulsively sent—it’s too much with too many. They’ve jumped in the deep
end with no arm band floaties.
 

And
then too there’s that other part of human connection –the actual connection. Eyeball-to-eyeball,
hand-to-hand. You can’t read body language in a Tweet; words can’t replace touch,
and in spite of the emoticons to the contrary, you really cannot send a hug via
text.

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving

        The greeting is neither the product of a senior moment nor of an early imbibing. Rather at the close of the old year and onto a new one, I am doing a bit of mental aerobics that has me looking back—and forward—at the same time.

     From the tiniest of human interactions to the biggest, boldest occurrences of life and nature, it can be a complicated world. Particularly at the close of 2012, newspaper print and Twitter tweets, alike, seemed to have sent out the resounding message that there’s much for which to be saddened and
sorrowful. So many events left us shaking our heads, sighing, wiping away tears and asking why?

     But

     There’s always something for which to be thankful.

     So rather than ring in 2013 with only ideas of what could be better, and what needs improvement, I’ll first reflect upon all in the world and in my own life that isn’t so bad.

     Starting with my kids.

     Fodder for the often apropos site’s title, they are nonetheless the people in my life for whom I am most grateful. I have a beautifully resilient and optimistic daughter who texts me pictures of rainbows and happily includes me in her world, at every turn. And I have a son who is strong and sensitive and passionate -about love and life and work. He’s set on a full throttle ride with intellect and fight and heart -always with heart.

     The other kids are family and friends and students.

     It’s probably because I am so fully surrounded by them all that I look to kids when I think of the new year and new beginnings. For all the reasons that the lot of them can give us justified sleepless nights, I still believe in them.

     I believe that the foundation we’ve all set will stick. That the kids in our lives will take what we’ve taught them, tweak it to fit -maybe even improve upon it- and then make it work.

     I believe in them.

     And the New Year.

     Happy New Year everyone.

     But especially to the kids in my life.

 

 

Learning New Tricks

A long
ago traveling companion became a lifelong—hers, not mine—pen pal of mine and I
looked forward to her annual Christmas notes with the same sort of relish that I
have for those catch-up conversations I share with close friends. Her Christmas
letters didn’t at all resemble the photocopied family newsletters which often flutter
to floors from cards sent out en masse to friends and strangers, alike. Rather
her notes, often squeezed within the confines of the greeting card itself, consisted
of hand scripted prose that first asked after me and my family and then told of
her latest adventure.

Each year
she recounted global travels which beckoned of worlds beyond my reach. It was
as if I had a firsthand correspondent bringing to life the travel pages of newspapers
and magazines which I was reading with longing. Often inviting a grandchild or
two along on her trips, Bea embraced the other countries and cultures she
visited. She seemed gloriously sure that there would always be something new
and wonderful just around the next bend.

Even when
it was only her own city she was exploring, there seemed within her an unquenchable
thirst for knowledge. Into her 90s, Bea took a class at NYU and wrote to me
that any day she learned something new was a good one.

What a
wonderful life philosophy.

Because I
work in a college environment, I have ample opportunity to test the premise.
Although I’ve yet to sit in on a catalogued course, I often read what my
students are reading, watch what they’re watching. I look at professorial
Powerpoints, consider rubric specifications, flesh out and interpret
assignments, follow their progression. I ask a lot of questions; seek out answers
for my students and myself.

But the
real learning often comes in other forms.

Sometimes—being
the digital natives that they are—my students do some unknowing teaching of
their own, guiding me from Facebook to Foursquare, Twitter to Prezi.

In other
ways though, they teach me even more.

They are
twenty-something in the 21st century.

They
serve as a sort of guide to a world to which I’d be privy only as a parent, but
for the access they grant me.

That’s
mostly rewarding –sometimes disappointing.

I wish my
students were less entitled, more impassioned.

I wish
that of the other kids I know, as well.

On the
other hand, they’re happy and funny, honest and resilient. They may not have
passion for the sorts of things their parents and professors deem important,
but many of them are nonetheless passionate. For a boy or a girl, quite often.

But sometimes,
for something more.

On
occasion, I see a flicker, that other spark –of interest. In something beyond
themselves.

I’ve
enjoyed the vicarious ride I get to take with the kids in my life. In the best
of days, I see something good and real. I see the glimmer of a future. Not just
theirs, but ours as a country and a world. I see hope.

Even on
days that disappoint, though, I take something from our encounters. I learn a
little something.

And any day I
learn something new, is a good one.



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.

Sigh…..

    Writing short stories as a kid (yes, I was writing even when I was a little kid), I vaguely remember the he-said-she-said dilemma of moving dialogue along in the context of a plot. I’m sure in that way-back-when scenario, I had difficulty coming up with a word to replace the ever-present “said” as character spoke to character.

    While it may sound a simple and easily removed roadblock to writing, the how-to-say-said conundrum is something with which amateur writers truly struggle. Not because there is no better way to say said; rather because there are literally hundreds of replacement words.


He said.

    Or

He shouted, stammered, screamed. She blurted, breathed, bellowed.


She sighed.


Once upon a time, I likely threw in that tiny little word at the close of a sentence with nary a thought.


When I still had no concept of the word, or the potential of its weight.


Driving in the car the other day, I sighed.


I hadn’t realized that I had. Not exactly sure what had triggered it.


But my daughter did not like it. Not one bit.


“Don’t go doing that with me,” she said.


Huh?


Apparently, I do this sighing thing from time-to-time. It doesn’t really bother Alex much. That is, as long as there’s no chance that the sigh of the moment could in any way be connected to her. As long as her brother remains its reliable source, she remains pretty unfazed.

Unfortunately, it was only she and I in the car that day. She came to her own conclusions.


But when did I start to sigh??


I don’t remember my mother sighing.


Then, there’s little chance that Helen would a) take the time to breathe in and out and b) keep anything sigh-provoking to herself.


I should have learned more from mom.


Because there’s nothing particularly satisfying about sighing. It doesn’t compare to the let-out after a lung full capture of fresh air. It is far removed from the breath expelled in the wake of a satisfying cardio workout.


It’s breathing, but barely.


And in my case at least, it is heavily connected to kids.


Who knew that the breathing exercises which served so little function through the horrible childbirth experience with my first baby would be of much more use so long after delivery? Who knew I’d actually need a reminder to breathe, just breathe?


But I do remember, and sometimes audibly so.

What I need also to remember though, as my brain rumbles with its locomotive static of the sigh-inducing detritus of life, is the mantra that everyone with teenagers keeps offering me: this-too-shall-pass, this-too-shall-pass.


Sigh……