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. 



Do not touch

 

 hugs   I’ve never been much of a hugger.

    Although I often greet family and friends with a peck on the cheek, that’s a custom borne more of habit than from anything innately warm-and-fuzzy on my behalf.

    On the other hand, I do understand the benefit of human touch. I know that simple hand-on-hand has power to heal. That there is something inexplicably beneficial in person-to-person physical contact.

    In a conversation with my boss not long ago I referenced the “holding their hands” job we do for our students with the disclaimer that I was speaking figuratively.

At her raised eyebrows, I admitted that sometimes it is literal, rather than figurative. She gets this because she knows the students, understands our relationships with them –has a few of her own chickadees (as she frequently refers to them).

Sometimes more than the answers to a quiz, an academic query or even a bit of life advice, what they really need is a hug.

    I didn’t quite get this, at first. Or feel comfortable offering it.

    Until I did.

Because there is something instinctual, even for me, about reaching out to someone in need, particularly a child. Even when she’s not your own.

The first time one of my students dissolved into a puddle of tears, I escorted her quickly from our very public setting to one where she could talk (and cry) without being overheard. Then, I fought the impulse to give her a hug, vacillating between the instinct of what I knew she needed and the lines I thought I shouldn’t cross. I settled upon a lamely placed hand to her knee, a listening ear and some heartfelt reassurance.

    What she really needed, though, was a hug.

I’ve learned since that encounter to give into instinct. To risk appearance in favor of action, to offer my students the human connection they sometimes crave.

I get to do this because I have an advantage over other teachers. First, the kids with whom I work are adults. Second, my relationship with them is built, one-on-one, over years, not by class or semester. I know these students well.

Today’s teachers can’t follow my rubric (not that I really have one) with good reason. Gray doesn’t blend well into big public school settings.

    Still, it’s too bad.

    So many good teachers are hamstrung by the misdeeds of some sick individuals who have crossed clearly emblazoned lines. As good educators and mentors strive to build real rapport with their students, they have to be constantly aware of appearances. They necessarily worry that their good-intentioned actions could be misconstrued. One-on-one tutoring, a closed door conference, the squeeze of a shoulder, a pat on the back -is all suspect now.

 
I read recently about new coaching rules being put into place in the wake of the UPenn scandal. Some of it sounded like common sense reform which shouldn’t need to be spelled out, at all. Yet apparently, it does. But much of it was just enough over-the-top micromanaging to make me shake my head in sad acknowledgement of this very different world in which our children live.

 
As we force good people and good role models to back off, those we should be afraid of may be pulling into the shadows, but still they watch from the sidelines.

 
Some of our kids are desperate for adults to step up and into their lives. They want to be counseled and coached, given both a metaphorical pat on the back and an actual one. Given a bit of human contact.

 
If we scare off all the people who genuinely care about kids, I wonder to whom our kids will turn to fill the void and where they will go when they need a shoulder to lean on and maybe the occasional hug.

 

 

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.

 

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.




Pay It Forward


    I’m translating her advice into my words: better to do something more than you should, than to not do enough.


    And so I blame Kelley, in part, when I perhaps did again –more than I should have.


    Because it’s still good advice.


    I think.


    I’ve been warned to the contrary.


    Kelley and I both have been scolded for being “too nice.”


    Sometimes -maybe.


    Not such a horrible moniker, though, is it?


    Kelley is also one who tells me frequently that I’m doing just what I was meant to do. Finally. With the whole writing thing, of course, but also at the little college where I play life coach and tutor to semi-adults trying to navigate through their lessons and their lives. And it’s in this setting where I inch too close to that more-than-you-should.


    I don’t care.


    I can handle the consequences of too-much much better than I can the what-ifs which arise from not doing enough.


    My guess is that the roots to the philosophy go pretty deep.


    Our holiday dinners offer apt metaphor. You might see it all as too much food; I see it as always enough. No chance of us running out of anything –ever.


    And you gotta love the leftovers.


    Maybe human interactions can also result in the spillover of thoughtfulness, with ample to share.


    So when I do for my students –even if admittedly more than I should- I don’t look for payback in reciprocal reward. I don’t really require return on an investment of kindness.


    Maybe what I hope for, though, is a sharing of leftovers.


    Paying it forward.


    It wasn’t a literary gem or a blockbuster movie. But what a blockbuster message. And so simple.


    But the concept was ingrained in me as ideology long before the book’s publication. I think because there was always that lesson of reciprocity. You were given a gift, you gave one in return. You were invited to dinner, you invited in kind.


    But when the deed was immeasurable –and the thank you a trifle for its intended worth, the return impossible, how to repay?


    Not.


    So then to the answer of paying it forward.


    Not a bad responsibility with which to shoulder a younger friend.


    Or legacy to leave in the corner of one’s life.


    So if I do for them, perhaps they’ll do for someone else –some day.


    Maybe.


    I don’t know.


    I get a lot from these young adults I’ve come to know too well.


    I’m not entirely sure what.


    It doesn’t matter.


    I know I teach them a bit, too.


    I wonder, though, if they’ll understand the lesson of leftovers if I leave it to instinct instead of instruction. When they’re out in the world, as real grownup adults, will they intuitively sense an ongoing obligation when it’s their turn to act in kind, and in kindness?