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. 



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.

 

Goodbye –forever

    I related a story to my son the other day. 

    Don’t laugh –I do this sometimes. I speak, he sort of stands there. I pretend he’s listening. Like when I read him these blog posts. He may not appear actively engaged, but he doesn’t, on the other hand, flee. I consider this a good sign. 

    The story had one of those sledgehammer messages. (I’ve learned that subtlety is overrated when dealing with teens.) But behind the most obvious point I was trying to make was another with a more universal message, which he may have missed. 

    Maybe not. 

    Because teens live more in the instant than in anything long-term, it’s hard for them—or many of us, for that matter—to think far-off. Because we don’t sometimes plan for the inevitability of the future, we often miss chances in the here-and-now that we later regret. 

    It’s a hard lesson, and one most of us have probably learned in the hardest of ways. Only in retrospect do we realize that we had a chance, but let it pass. 

    Most of the time we don’t know it’s the last time we’re saying goodbye to someone–until it’s too late. 

    Sometimes we have to scratch at our memories to even think to the when of a last encounter. Often, we can’t recall those last words we spoke as we were leaving. 

    And then there’s the leaving. 

    One kind of leaving is like the distant voyage away from a shore. The people, the buildings, the horizon simply become less. They slip from our sight, become specks in our memories. They’re like the healing of a wound, the fading of a scar. 

    Another leaving comes when the end is inevitable. There’s a chance, an opportunity -for those of us willing to take it.  A way to say goodbye. 

    Maybe the worst is the kind that hits like my sledgehammer message. A lightning bolt out of a blue sky; a chirpy ringtone heralding a  horrible message. 

    My story was one of those. A death. But one that had that magic goodbye and one last I love you. 

    We don’t always get those. 

    And it’s not always about death. 

    My son has been saying goodbyes to classmates and friends. I don’t think he thinks any of them will be a last time. He’s unlikely choosing his words with forever in mind. 

    As my seniors left after our last time together, they gave me thank-yous and gifts and goodbyes -and promises that they’d keep in touch –for sure. 

    I chose my words more carefully than they. 

    Be we
ll, be happy -have a good life.
 

    Michael’s more apt to offer a quick see ya later. Because he assumes he will. 

    I’m less sure. 

    Maybe then I should treat those goodbyes with a little more respect. Because until it’s upon us, we really don’t know if it’s a goodbye-til-later or goodbye-forever.




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.





Peer Review

    Now they transition from being reviewed by their professors to being reviewed by their peers.


    But then, they’ve always been judged by their peers -often disconcertingly so. 


    Ever since the first mom posited the query –if all your friends were jumping off a bridge?….peer pressure has been given a bad rap. 


    It’s not too difficult to see why. After all, peer pressure is at the root of much that is wrong with our kids’ self-images and their actions.   


    On the other hand, there’s something to be said for being put in your place by your peers instead of your parents. By being held accountable now by those who will do so into your future, and for your whole life. 


    In the college where I work, seniors are given a yearlong Thesis project that begins with a lit review and ends with independent research. No shock that the students aren’t fans of the assignment. It’s long, arduous and requires work. They want short-cuts, easy answers and all through the process, they just want it over. 


    I offer up solid arguments as to its scholastic merit and real-world value, but I suspect the few who nod are doing so just to forestall any further cheerleading on my behalf. 


    One of the universally detested (among many) portions of the project is the second semester peer reviews. Despite the fact that they’ve just spent months reading dozens of articles, intently filtered by that “peer review” label, they still balk at the concept when it comes to their own work. 


    On peer reviews days, they must critique the work of their fellow classmates. For some of them, the task is daunting. They’re often not fully confident in the quality of their own work; certainly, then, they don’t feel qualified to pass judgment on another’s.  Ah judgment -they really don’t want to judge; lest they be judged. 


    But they should –on both counts. 


    The feedback we get from our peers is unlike any other. It hasn’t the unconditional support of a parent, or the inherent threat from a boss. It isn’t generally tied to reward or consequence, like a grade or a raise. In its best form, it’s simply unbiased review. We did something well –good job. We messed up –whoops. 


    Because little of who we are and what we do exists in black and white, peer review can be convoluted and complicated. But offered with clear vision and good intent, peer criticism can also be priceless.


    That is, if we’re willing to accept it. 


    While my students readily receive even my harshest critique of their work, they’re less inclined to do so from their peers. 


    So far, anyway. 


    I’ve warned them of an upcoming evolution where their career peers (and even their bosses) will begin to look a whole lot like them. I’ve also urged them to embrace the network they already hold with that soon-to-be-reality in mind. 


    I am lucky to work with peers I consider capable, intelligent, good-intentioned. Because of the nature of our work, though, most of what we do is independent. As peers, we can choose to interact often, minimally, or even not at all. 


    No surprise, I fall somewhere in the middle. 


    On occasion, I have both sought and offered peer counsel. I like to think I’ve given good advice; I know have received it. Real critique, however, is a bit harder to come by. 


    I have told my kids and my students too many times that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. I really believe that clichéd sentiment. If I screw up and hear about it from my boss (and I have), clearly it carries weight. However, if a peer lets me know I’ve messed up, it may mean even more. 


    Most of my students are pretty confident. They’ve been well supported by family, friends –and me. We all tell them they’re smart and capable. We tell them they’re wonderful. 


    Sometimes, it’s only their peers who will truly tell them when they are not.