Teaching Children

(Thinkstock)My boss is a teacher. Not the one who works at the college and who is an actual teacher. The other one.

I doubt, though, that he lists that title or its corresponding skillset on his CV or resume. He probably doesn’t pitch it to clients, either.

Maybe he should.

Because it may be that single talent that serves his clients better than all others.

When he plays Socrates to his young staff, he isn’t just teambuilding; he’s inducing them to think more critically and to be more creative. At the same time he asks them to think inside the box—to use analysis and numbers—he also encourages them to step outside of it, to take a chance, ask a question, find a new answer.

He’s a teacher—and an effective one—even though his job description
doesn’t allude to it.

When we do our jobs right, whatever those jobs may be, we all have the opportunity to teach. Whether we’re educating those who report to us, our coworkers or clients, there’s much to be said for imparting a little of our own hard earned wisdom unto others. It robs us of nothing and has the potential to enrich those with whom we share and ourselves.

I think many of my students have figured out that the real stuff I’m teaching them has little to do with what augments their readings and assignments. They do like that I can often pull from the trove in my head to quickly solve their academic queries (I’ve got a few of them snowed –they don’t understand that it’s less intelligence and more age that gives me such easy access to answers). They like it even more when I can settle a life crisis with a tempered response, although I know that the blasé been-there-done-that mode with which I operate sometimes frustrates them. They’re used to
drama-matching-drama so when I meet their crazy with calm, it takes some
getting used to. Many of them do –not all.

It’s taken me awhile to acquiesce to my role as teacher, but my resistance makes little sense. After all, as parents, the first time we see our bad habits on handy display at family functions, we know exactly from whom our offspring got it. For better or worse, we taught them.

We are forced to be teachers as parents; we should embrace the role as people.

In any encounter, there is opportunity to teach –and learn.

I’d be kidding myself if I thought the teacher-student paradigm only went one way. I learn a whole lot from my students. They keep me connected, both figuratively and literally if you count how often we text. And they allow me access to their sometimes foreign mindset and a generational world I would otherwise only see from afar.

I’ve always liked foreign travel—once upon a time I did it a lot—so now even if I never leave our eastern shores, I’ll willingly take passage on the sometimes rocky ride my students provide and be thankful for some pretty awesome tour guides.

 

You Already Know the Answer

3d white people leaning back against a question mark

I know I frustrate my students. In the midst of a project or paper or in my position as other side to their argumentative debate, I often answer their questions with questions of my own.

C’mon, just tell me the answer, they sometimes say aloud.

I could.

Most of the time, I don’t.

Instead of answers, I try to set them on a path, leaving a breadcrumb trail of academic hints to where they need to go. I try to take them about halfway. Not all the way.

I can’t really say they appreciate my process. It’s likely that they don’t.  But on (rare)
occasion, they seem to get what I’m trying to do, even get caught up in the game.

After a particularly vexing exercise, one of my students—having finally arriving at an answer—said she liked when I made her do “this.”

I said: What, think?

A smile, a nod.

Ahh –that’s what this is all about.

I confront them less with my antics when we stray off the curriculum and into the ocean of their lives.

They let me in –in a flood of information. Maybe more than they intend to, maybe more than they should. But once we’re both in the deep end, they often reach for any debris in the water to stay afloat.  In that panicked instant, sometimes I’m all they’ve got. Captain of their sinking vessel is not a role I relish, but one I can’t seem to avoid.

And when they feel fully engulfed by a rising tide, near drowning, I certainly don’t play a game of hide-and-seek with the life raft. Still,I try only to throw them a line or hold their head above water as I remind them –they already know how to swim.

My students often forget what they already know. Instead of relying on their own instincts, they ask me questions as if I might have all the answers (ha, if they only knew). While my position at the helm of my own life may allow me to sight obvious obstacles more clearly than they, I’ve hardly got omnipresent access to all the what-ifs of their lives. But I get that what they often need to do is to just talk through the problem at hand.

Sometimes it actually is school-related. How to get a better grade or work with a professor they don’t particularly like or handle a group project when they seem to be the only one in the group doing any work.

More often, it’s life stuff. Social stuff. Boyfriend, girlfriend stuff. Life and death and big question stuff.

Scary stuff –for both of us.

I talk a lot when it’s those big ticket items, but I try to listen even more. Because I don’t have the answers.

Not really.

But I do have one.

And it’s that if they’re honest and open and willing to dive into that really deep end of their inner waters,  it’s they who have the answers. They just need to listen -to themselves.

 

 

It Could Always Be Worse

 After pounding rains hit the area a few years
back, I casually commented to a neighbor –It could be worse.
Not for me, she replied. 

From that single statement, I knew. We would
never be friends.
 

Her home had been severely flooded, much of
her basement’s furnishings ruined. But seriously, it couldn’t have been worse?
 

Of course it could. 

It could have been sooo much worse. 

Regardless of how little may be in my glass,
I always regard it as half-full. And generally, so do the people with whom I
surround myself. Even when my friend plays out every imaginable scenario to
reach worst-case, she comes to the conclusion that it’s something with which
she could live. It may be horrible –but it could be worse.
 

I sometimes deal with students whose vision
of the world is so narrowly focused that they cannot see a bigger picture. When
they find themselves lost in a battle on campus or at home, rather than fortify
their efforts to strengthen a position, they crumble.
 

To a large degree, I believe that resilience
is something with which we’re born. When the parenting experts were not long
ago penning books teaching resilience, I passed on a purchase. My friend noted
the resilience in my own daughter and asked how’d
you do that?
I quickly admitted –It wasn’t me. Alex came that way.
 

And she had. 

Those first few hours of her life were some
pretty powerful foreshadowing of things to come. Regardless of the challenge –she
would meet them—and succeed or fail—move on to the next one.
 

I can’t teach my students resilience, but I
can sometimes talk them off the ledge. With my just-outside-their-lives
perspective, I can usually prove that the reality with which they’re dealing
isn’t quite as bad as they think it is. Or –sometimes it is. And then, I can
only offer assurances that they will come out the other side of it. It’s
interesting that the ones who have been so fully tested by calamity seem also
to be those with the most positive life view.
 

My friend is again dealing with one of those
real calamities of life. In a ten minute conversation she expressed a range of
emotions usually associated with the stages of grief: denial, anger,
acceptance. And one most wholly associated with her: resilience.
 

She will come out the other side of this. She
knows. Not because she’s been handed some guarantee, but because she sees the
glass as always half-full and she still believes -it could always be worse.

 

Babies

We had the perfect vantage point from which
to watch the robins hatch, feed and fly. Nestled in the prickly holly tree just
outside our dining room window, they seemed safely shielded from weather and
predator, alike. Mama bird had chosen well, and given us ample opportunity to
chart their progress –from baby blue eggs to fluffy fuzz balls of feathers.
 

-Until that day when frantic tweeting,
screeching and the break of feathers through leaves sent me running to the
seeming scene of an attack.
 

Empty next, panicked squawking and the
nails-on-chalkboard scream of a predator hawk. Upon that flurry of activity—parental
robins vs. hunting raptor—I drew my own conclusion. Even if there were no trace
of baby bird or his brothers.
 

And another conclusion, too. 

As well as she may have built it and chosen
her nest’s location, when it came to her babies’ exit from it, she got it
wrong. All wrong.
 

No way were those tiny puffs of air ready to
fly, never mind able to fend off the perils and predators of their hostile home
turf. They were just babies.
 

I get the desire to kick the kids out of the
nest. Believe me –I do. But not at such a steep price.
 

Sometimes they’re just not ready. And our
push can lead to peril.

 After following most of my students from
freshman to senior year, I‘m being granted an opportunity to start anew –with
babies.
 

While calling these young adults babies may be
exactly the wrong message to send, I can’t help but view them in that light. Not
only because my own “baby” is their age, but also because I’ve already been
through the stages that pull them to the other side.
 

Now that I’m starting it over, I know better of their journey. They’ll go far. But for now, they really are just babies. Surrounded
by potential friends, they often feel alone. Excited to take on new challenges,
they’re still scared to take a first step. When they do take those first movements
forward, they often stumble and fall. Then, vacillating from cocky confident to
illogically insecure, they sometimes cling to doubt even when they should be
most sure. And although they crave independence, sometimes, they still just want
their mommy.
 

Inevitably, just after the start of fall,
they’ll come to me –tired, sad, confused, homesick. Overwhelmed.
 

In my academic role, I’ll offer
encouragement, strategies, some workable advice to get them on-track to meet their
college expectations. They’ll nod, agree to give it all a shot.
 

But in that other, less well-defined role, I’ll
try to offer them something else.
 

I get it now—finally—that it’s that “other”
for which I’m really here.
 

When one of my students was quite justifiably
falling apart, but still clinging to a hold-it-all-together mantra, I gave her
the I-don’t-care-about-grades speech. Weird, she probably figured, coming from
her tutor.

 But I knew that the last thing she needed
from me was another push in an effort to reach some letter-grade measurement of
her worth.
 

So instead of asking her about her classes
and coursework, I asked about her. And she told me. A lot.
 

 I like
when my students excitedly show me a paper or text me an A trailed by
exclamation points. I enjoy sharing in their successes. But I also understand
that sometimes sharing in their lives is far more important. And that unless they’re
well—physically, mentally, emotionally—it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll do
well.

 Sure, I care about their grades, but mostly
because they do. Interestingly, when I tell them I don’t, when I take some of
the pressure off, they do a little bit better. With that one student in pieces,
when I pulled the plug on grade expectation, her grade went from an F to a B+.

 No, it doesn’t work that way with everyone.
And that’s a part of it, too. Some kids are ready for college straight-out-of-high-school.
Some are ready for life straight-after-college. And some leave the nest –just fine.
 

A day after the attack, I saw a tiny clump of
feathers at the base of our tree –breathing, chirping, hopping. And mom not far
afield, keeping an eye and bringing her now out-of-nest baby a mommy-prepared
meal.
 

Hmm, well at least he’s out of the nest.

 

Graduation 2.0

    It’s graduation.


    Again. Or still. I’m not sure which it is. The celebrations and ceremonies are starting to blur together. 


    No wonder Journalist Fareed Zakaria decided to replicate his Duke speech to use at Harvard’s commencement exercises. Who could blame him, after all?


    Hasn’t it all been said time and time –and time again? 


    I hope not. 


    Shame on him for trivializing what was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for his young audience. Just because he wears the jaded hat of time doesn’t give him a pass on giving a full effort to his accepted responsibility. 


    He got to speak at Harvard, for God’s sake. How does that not warrant a bit of all-out? And I don’t care how many other speakers have followed his MO. 

    
It’s lazy; it sends a bad message; it’s just not okay. 


    Perhaps I’m holding Zakaria to a particularly high standard because he is a writer. It irks me to think that someone from my profession would take such a short cut and use recycled materials for speeches at Harvard, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Brown and Yale. 


    If he couldn’t come up with an original idea or two –or ten for that matter- he should have opted out of the commencement speech circuit. 


    Zakaria got the Duke invite first and then said he “just couldn’t say no” to Harvard. 


    Cool. I get that. Who says no to Harvard?


      But, then, who thinks second-rate when they hear the name Harvard? 


    Michael’s graduation ceremony was the culmination of a whole lot of wow-aren’t-they-wonderful activities that make up senior week. I’d vote Baccalaureate as the best, but the graduation itself was still pretty sweet. 


    In spite of the been-there-done-that aura that can seep into commencement exercises, I get sucked in every time. After a rousing performance of their student-selected class song, I was onboard to the notion of theirs as the “best ever.” Add to that the self-deprecating and humorous speech by the class officer and the teary-eyed words from a principal with whom Michael has never seen eye-to-eye, and I am easily transported away.


    Not necessarily to my own graduation day, or even to an earlier time of my life; but rather into that other world of youthful potential –where all things are possible. 


    Because they are. 


    And that’s exactly the message we need to tell our kids. Over and over again. 


    They really are the future. Ours, theirs, and jump-into-the-next-decades, their kids’. Yikes! How’s that for scary? 


    Less scary, though, if we give them the best we can offer. Our love, our support, our old ideas and encouragement of their new ones. 


    Sure, some of what we tell them is going to sound like we’ve said it a hundred times. Well, we probably have. But on the big issues and in the big picture realm of their lives, we have got to be willing to look at their world, their day, their time in a new way. 


    In spite of the of déjà vu lessons we teach, we need to resist the urge to view their lives through the scope of our narrow focused lens. Theirs is a different world than the one in which we all grew up. And they are not us. We do a real disservice to them when we fall into a trap of same-old-same-old, because so little about their world is the same as ours.

    
These kids really can make a difference. 


    That is, if we give them some tools and fuel for their fresh ideas. Recycling yesterday’s words for the sake of a big-ticket invite doesn’t just proffer a diluted message, it threatens the integrity of all those that follow. 


    Imagine what our kids could do if we bequeathed them the few original ideas we still have left, with the only strings attached being that they use them ….to change the world.





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.


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……