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.


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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……

 

Good Drivers

   car I’ve seen hundreds of stage productions. Musicals, comedies, concerts, dramas, ballets, recitals. Professional and amateur, and somewhere in-between.

     Lots of exposure –to lots of stuff.

    You might assume, then, that I’d make a pretty good arts critic, what with having seen the best and worst stages have to offer.

You’d be wrong.

    I certainly have my favorites –A Chorus Line five times, The Phantom of the Opera, six. And those which I’ve sat through only in justification of the ticket’s cost –The Iceman Cometh cometh to mind. I don’t love every one, but with few exceptions, I like all of them. In each production, I find something to enjoy. I can never fully dis the bands in the house, the actors on stage, the singers under the limelight, the orchestra in the pit. I find some redeeming value in each effort, even if it misses the mark.

 
Same goes for most people I meet.

    Mostly, a good thing.

    Not always.

If you ask ten people, nine and a half would probably tell you that they’re good drivers. Regardless of the number of accidents they’ve been in, contributed to, caused, they’ll swear that they are, nonetheless, good drivers. Likewise, most people claim to be good judges of character. Are often emphatic about it.

    Me, too.

    For the most part.

    On the other hand.

    Not long ago, a woman prophesized that someone would take advantage of me. A particular someone. She suggested that I keep up my guard, that I be cautious.

 
I mulled her warning. She might be right, I concurred. But then I decided that if the person was indeed taking advantage of me, it was my own fault. I’m a big girl and if I can be that easily manipulated, more the shame to me than to the manipulator.

    This philosophy aligns to that universal belief in being a good judge of character. From instinct, experience and interaction, I’ve concluded that this is a good person. It follows easily, then, that she wouldn’t purposefully take advantage of me. I’m relying first on my skill at judging her character, but also in an overarching and sometimes blind belief in the innate goodness of most people. I trust myself. And I am trusting her to prove me right.

    I could be wrong. I’ve seen glimmers to suggest that she’s less than perfect.

    Hmm.

    But I am a really good driver.

 

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.

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.