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.

 

 

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Ownership




    Shouldering responsibility even when it may not be fully mine to carry (see previous post) may seem a throwback to an earlier and wrong-minded blame-the-victim philosophy. In some ways, maybe it is. The mindset, however, could be a generational thing. My parents, my peers and I have generally held to the belief that we are fully the authors of our own lives. Responsibility, ownership –these are the beacons to which most of us charted our courses.




    It’s an admirable ideal. The flip side of it, though, may be that in addition to accepting our own failings, we sometimes take on the failings of others –especially our offspring. A dangerous habit. Certainly the practice has the potential to be difficult for us, but its cost to our kids may be much more damning.




    Because we’ve allowed it, too many of our children are quick to place blame outside their own sphere. The trajectory may start at home but it follows them out and up into the world. It’s the teacher, the coach, the professor, the boss. Not them.




    This it’s-everyone-else’s-fault mantra sets them on course to an unsustainable climb. Eventually they may find themselves at a precipice without a parachute. And the climb down from such inflated heights can be treacherous, a fall disastrous.




    But it’s our fault.




    Hmmm




    I once opined in a newspaper column that we spend the first years of our children’s lives placing them at the center of the universe and then are shocked when they turn into teenagers and start to agree with the positioning.




    This isn’t to say that our kids aren’t wonderful.




    They are. They have so much to offer. All of them.




    They’re just not all wonderful at everything.




    And when we pretend that they are, and then they fail, it’s pretty easy for them to grab to a life ring of blame; it just has to be the fault of someone else. Because we’ve told them too many times -they’re wonderful.




    The thing is, just like we probably learned a whole lot more from our missteps than from any of our easier accomplishments, our kids would likewise benefit from the occasional reality check. After all, how exactly are they to identify success if they’ve never considered failure?




    My own kids have stumbled on occasion. I’ve had opportunities to step in to soften the blows. A phone call, a small intervention, a push in an alternate direction might have changed the outcome, averted a full-out failure. It was hard to watch my kids hurt, difficult to resist the temptation to intervene. Usually, I did it anyway. It’s too early to tell if it was the right decision.




    Michael will soon to be out of high school. His road has been a much different one than his sister’s. From an outside perspective, it may appear that he’s suffered more failures. But not necessarily. His choices, as misguided as they sometimes appear, have been his own. If he hasn’t exactly excelled at an endeavor, it’s usually entirely of his own choosing. Seriously.




    This isn’t to say that I haven’t seen Michael brush blame from his own shoulders and onto another’s. He’s hardly perfect. On the other hand, he usually acknowledges his shortcomings, owns up to many of his mistakes. 

    
Michael is off on an alternative journey and passionately so. His climb has been a whole lot rockier than those of his peers but he knows every inch of the terrain. And because he’s forged such a unique path, when he does stumble –as he will- he may be better prepared to pick himself up, reassess his direction and continue on.

Freudian Foreshadowing



    They make it to the blog frequently enough so you probably get that I work with college kids (oops, I chastised one just the other day for using that term; I mean adults). And also that I like what I do. And that I like them (most of them, most of the time).

    
What may not be clear, however, is that I haven’t really been working with them all that long. In fact, my first batch of babies (adults) will be leaving this spring. Flying out of the nest, so to speak, off into the great beyond.




    And I have mixed feelings about their noteworthy transition.




    Many of my own friendships are older than these students I tutor, so I get that four years can be but a blimp in a relationship’s foundation. On the other hand, I’ve spent some serious “quality time” with these young adults. They’ve shared much with me. Way more than you’d think. Way more than I ever imagined they would.




    When I recently found out that a student of mine had cut class before she’d had a chance to fess up to me, I asked her if she would have been forthcoming with the info.




    “I tell you everything,” she said.




    And she just might.




    Not in the every-detail-of-every-day sort of tell, but in a kind that matters a whole lot more. She’s been through a lot in these past four years. And the thing is, I’ve been through most of it with her.

    
Now, she’s at the threshold of the other side -where she should be, where she deserves to be.




    She’s arrived with grace and resilience and I’m proud of her and who she is today. I am proud of my other students, as well. They’ve turned from teenagers to adults, and as they graduate, they seem to be truly prepared for the next phase of their lives.




    I’m happy for them.




    I’ll also be sad to see them go.




    Changing the subject (not really).




    I’ve been, on occasion, technically challenged. The combination of an utter lack of knowledge about what it exactly is that runs the computers that run most of our lives and a sometimes senseless sense of speed are  often a poor mix. 

    
Case in point.




    I don’t delete the emails and text messages most normal people might. There’s a history here which I won’t go into. Anyway, among the non-deleted text messages on my cell phone were a few (several) from my students.

    
The messages weren’t left merely to clutter the inbox; they’d been intentionally undeleted.




    And then, in a too quick moment of parsing the list, I said yes when I didn’t mean to and every message was gone.




    Poof!




    I wonder how long they would have remained, had I not make the mistake.




    I don’t know. But now they’re gone –for good.
    
    
And soon too, will be the kids who texted them.




    Because they are ready, perhaps even more than I am, to separate. From their school, from their roommates and college friends -and from me.




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.




Gloves



    I wear gloves. 

    
Out in the weather that calls for it, but also when I wash dishes. Always, when I wash dishes.

    
I’m sure this wasn’t always the case, though.




    My mother’s hands, which look just like mine, seem however to lack the nerve endings that denote pain. In my childhood home, I never recall actually seeing a pair of latex gloves. Even scrubbing toilet bowls at the motel, I don’t remember protective gloves being an option.




    But the first home with my name on the mortgage was old and its original plumbing was installed long before the notion of anti-scald. Not having inherited my mom’s ability to withstand oven-hot heat with bare hands, I opted for gloves. With toxic-burn temps, I would have risked serious injury if I even rinsed a glass or bowl without the gloves. I understand that a more rational person might have taken the time to find that sweet middle spot on the faucet that denoted warm -not me.




    So I donned gloves. Really good, rubber gloves.

    
And the idea stuck.




    Now still, to rinse a single glass or cup, I put on my yellow gloves and wash away. Those observing the procedure often note that it takes me more time to retrieve the gloves from under the sink and put them on than it does to wash the item. True.




    Still, the gloves endure.




    I have a set for New Hampshire. I use the hidden trove in Maine.




    Where am I going with this?




    Well, first off, you’ve got to understand (by now) I never really know for sure.




    And second –I just washed something without the damn gloves.




    And discovered something.




    Without the gloves, not only did I feel the not-unpleasant warmth of the water (this newer plumbing doesn’t answer with third-degree burns) but I also felt what I missed on the utensil –the bit of cheesy dough left behind.

    
If you’re still following –all this was a set up.




    With or without rubber gloves, I’ve always known exactly what to do to protect myself. 

    
Thus, I get it when I watch a few of my students do the same.




    Not so much with me –they seem to come gloveless to our sessions. But in their lives, with their friends, in a classroom, some of them don their own protective shields.

    
I can relate.




    I don’t always understand the connections I have with these young adults. Kelley instructs that it isn’t necessary that I do. Informs me that I may never understand why or how I fit into their lives.




    On the other hand, I acknowledge that a connection does exist and try occasionally to light a path if where they’re headed seems familiar.

    
I’d say this then to those wearing gloves.




    Sometimes, you have to risk the feel of that searing heat, getting scalded, knowing first hand pain –to get to the details of your life you could be missing.

    And the pleasant warmth that you can only feel when hand touches hand -and risks it all.


Keys to the Time Machine



    The keys are more likely to land in the laps of my children these days, but I doubt they notice the weight or understand its value. I’m sure the offerings would earn a much more worthy reaction if they came attached to a logo-emblazoned key chain.


    But they don’t.


    So it’s likely that the kids and their cousins miss the lead-in nuances. That they don’t sense movement of the vehicle until they’re fully onboard.


    Once strapped in, though, they’re in for the full ride. Usually, quite entranced and willing.


    I’m still a kid in the eyes of the next generation up, so I’m able to enjoy an occasional trip on the time machine, myself.


    Always a treat. Often a surprise.


    One of my students was recently assigned an audio project whereby he would record an interview with someone who had been a “witness to history.” His particular task was made more difficult because he didn’t have a means off campus.


    No worry, I assured him, among my peers and me, surely we could find a witness or two.


    Not so easy.


    The lot of us proved just a little too young, and a little too lacking in the pulse-of-the nation experiences that might have set us front-and-center at a few world events. Collective minds together, we came up with the one person who perhaps had the right resume.


    It worked. Norm at least had the college campus recollection of listening to the somber toll of bells that indicated President Kennedy had been assassinated.


    When I shared this story in a family setting, my mom, aunts and uncles, offered their recollections of where they were the day that Kennedy was shot. They each remembered. Vividly.


    But it was my uncle’s nonchalant memory of his buddy rushing to retrieve him with the statement,  Jack’s been shot. C’mon we’ve got to get back to the White House.


    What? Huh?


    You were in D.C. when Kennedy got killed?


    A shoulder shrug.


    How did I not know this? How did WE not know?


    (I called my cousin on the way home; she had no idea.)


    Let me explain. My uncle is not some political stalwart. He’s not a diplomat or a dignitary. This was merely one of those place-and-time situations. He was stationed in D.C. Just happened to be there as history unfolded.


    (Btw, he also attended the funeral, but I’m getting too far astray of the time machine message.)


    My uncle and his siblings hold keys.


    Last Thanksgiving, the same uncle regaled with stories of the Lavadora man, who rounded the streets of Boston selling his magical bleaching water. Holding court around a table full of food and family, he took us all back. To another time, to a different era.


    It was as if Einstein’s musings on the fluidity of time travel were being tested outside the lab, fueled on a satiated hunger, a bit of wine, and a rapt audience.


    The kids were enthralled. Some of the big kids were, as well.


    I wonder that we don’t appreciate the treasure chests available to us all while we still have access to their keys. What’s so easily unlocked with a small prod or a simple question can also be too easily lost. Unless we’re wise enough to grab a hold of the keys and give the time machine an occasional spin.







   




It’s a Long Story

    That’s the precautionary statement I often use with my students to forestall a sidetrack that will delay the work at hand. It’s also effective at keeping the already blurred lines of our relationships in check.



    I know they’ll shun a long story, so the simple statement erects an easy and unnoticed barrier.




    But they do all seem to be long stories these days.




    Perhaps because I’m getting old.




    Or maybe it’s just a creep of color into the gray backdrop of a life spent trying too hard to see all sides. 

    
Still, all my stories seem to have stories within them now. They can’t be told in a few sentences.

    
I always used to opt for the short answer. An easy explanation to extricate myself from further questions.




    (Hmmm. I wonder from where my son gets it.)




    But now, it seems disingenuous to answer with yes and no when the real story is so much more complicated.




    We’re all so damn complicated.




    And without a bit of background, a lot gets lost in translation. Sometimes I feel compelled to fill in the blanks with the brush of color.




    We are, after all, a pretty colorful bunch.




    Still, I resist.




    When my student happily shared her covert plans to burn scented candles in her room, I told her not to. I pointed it out as the obvious dorm violation it was. I extolled the dangers. I asked her to reconsider.



 


    Nothing.

    
Then, I told her that I’d lost a friend in a dorm fire.

    
A moment of stunned silence. 

    
She acquiesced; the candles weren’t worth it.

    
But see, there was a time I would have opted out of sharing that info, avoided the memory. Easier for me, really.

    
But not worth it.

    
There’s a perception, I think, when I line up behind administration, that I’m just another of them. I’m worried, I’m cautious, I’m careful.

    
I’m none of the above.

    
But they don’t know that. Because I don’t generally tell them.

    
So when I give them the longer story –they listen. A little.

    
I can’t always teach them, though, of the interconnectedness of all of our lives. I can’t make them understand the Disney-esque message that it really is a small world. 

    
I understand the tapestry of people and their crisscrossing lives. I can see where the woven threads link, how they connect each to the other.

    
They can’t.

    
Not yet.

    
I could tell them. From the lessons of my own life, I could teach them much about the path they’re on and where it may lead.

    
Sometimes, I do.

    
More often, I take a pass.

    
I could try to explain why. 

    
But it’s a long story.