No Plan B

Julia head shot2   One of the perks of a private prep school is that the on-staff academic counselors do a pretty good job of plotting clear paths to college for their students. As antithetical as it may be to most incoming freshmen, the counselors start early on asking their young charges to think long-term.

  So Julia’s advisor may have missed a key point in their recent meeting. Julia was thinking long-term; just because that long-term vista didn’t neatly align with the square peg dictates of the woman’s role doesn’t mean Julia doesn’t have a plan. On the contrary, she does.

    My guess is that those incoming meetings generally last a good 20 to 30 minutes. Jules was outta there in five.

    So what career do you hope to pursue someday? What are you plans?

    I’m going to be a supermodel.

    Fly-on-the-wall –can’t you just picture the juxtaposition? The slightly cynical stare of a parochial pedagogue, sans even a trace of makeup, being full-frontally faced with the wide-eyed certainty of youth.

   From behind her desk, perhaps there was a knowing nod, a hidden eye roll, a stifled chuckle.

Well, what about your Plan B? In case that supermodel thing doesn’t work out for you?

    I don’t need a Plan B.

    And the thing is –Julia doesn’t.

    In the wake of Steve Job’s passing, there’s been a small flood of his life’s philosophy via writings and speeches he gave. When he rejoined the company he founded, he set in motion the Think Different campaign with a letter to the public reminding the masses, among other things, that “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

    Perhaps also then it is the people with no Plan B who possess the perseverance to bring their first choice lives to fruition.

    Jump out into the great unknown without a safety net and you damn well better make sure your first choice plan works.

    Michael doesn’t have a Plan B, either.

    Which would be fine but for the probability that he may not have a Plan A.

    That’s not to say he doesn’t have a vision or even a goal. I just haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence that he has an actual plan on how to reach it.

    I could be wrong here. Communication is sparse.

    In a trickle of words last year, he informed me that just because he wasn’t going about things in a way with which I might be familiar didn’t mean that he wouldn’t get to where he wanted to be.

    I can’t argue with that. Partly because, truth is, I don’t really know the path he should take.

    I only know the level of frustration I feel when I watch him close doors which I think are better left open.

    And he looks at me as if I haven’t a clue; as if I don’t want him to pursue a dream.

    But I do.

    And that’s why I’d like him to have a plan.

    Not a Plan B, but a single, missile-focused Plan A.

    The kind he can pursue, without a parachute, to the sacrifice of most everything else. Because it’s his passion, his dream, his calling.

    I’m all for not having a Plan B.

    I’d just feel a whole lot better if there were at least a Plan A.

 

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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. 



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.


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.

Firefly Light

firefly light   I’ve been going about it all wrong.

    I keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, some blazing sure sign that everything’s going to work out for the kids I know.

    As if life comes with that sort of guarantee.

    It doesn’t.

    Instead of allowing myself to be engulfed by the darkness, then, maybe I need to embrace a little night vision. As if I’m stepping in from the blinding white of snow, perhaps all it requires is an adjustment of perspective.

    Because the light is there, even if I can’t always see it.

    So I’m going to start looking for small flashes of light -from wherever they may come.

    When my student agrees to lay off the partying for awhile and seems to be following through, there’s a blink of light. And when I see the little girl who clung to her mommy’s leg as if she were gripped there with adhesive, now self-advocate as a teenager –again, I see that spark of light.

    My son’s hits of light may seem more moth-to-fame to his mother. Maybe with Michael it’s a little more difficult because he’s mine. Too many of the traits that frequently frustrate are those which are also too familiarly my own.

    But still there are flickers.

    Even if I sometimes have to be reminded when they occur.

    When I recently started a story with my sister-in-law, “Michael and I had a conversation-“ she stopped me mid-sentence. She wanted me to note it for the pleasant anomaly that it was.

    We had a conversation.

    They’re fairly infrequent. And should be appreciated.

    I might have missed it for the glimmer of light that it was.

    So here-on-in, I’m looking for light, however brief and undramatic. It likely won’t hit with lightning bolt clarity; I’ll have to pay attention.

    I’m not going to look to be bedazzled by the ten thousand degree flash from a star. Instead, I’ll lay in wait for those pinpricks of light, like the eye-catch of white that comes with firefly flight.

    So when Michael exits the car and leans in to give me a kiss on the cheek as if it’s still habit, I’ll note the spark. But I’ll also remind myself not to reach out for the flutter of light, lest I risk dousing the flame and turning it to ash.

 

Breach of the Levee



    Their barriers are better fortified so the floods are less frequent. It may also be that, stuck on an unbreaking weather front for so long, I now miss the nuances of atmospheric change that could predict an impending deluge. The monotony of the climate has impaired my instincts for meteorological shift.



    Still, when stars and clouds align, I can sometimes become receptacle to a warm and pleasant shower of conversation from my children. Even Michael.




    Alex has always been more the flash flood sort. Her sharing comes in loud bursts of information, full of pelting details. There’s immediacy and urgency. Pay attention and take cover. I can’t always be sure what’s coming, but I’ve learned to ride out the storms; they usually don’t last long.




    Until the year he stopped talking (to me), Michael’s showers were constant and consistent. Like those sleep aid sound boxes that generate rainforest background noise. I could predict their content and clutter. There wasn’t much I needed to do to inspire the rains; little I could do to forestall them.




    He and I have been in a drought for awhile, though. I rarely feel the pulse of quenching wet weather.




    But pulled away from the stresses of his life, Michael can sometimes fall to old weather patterns. I can’t change the storm’s path or direct its flow. In fact, the wrong questions from me can dry up the conversation entirely. If I’m careful, though, I can listen, bask in the cooling waters, and learn.
 
    
Back from Boy Scout camp, and trapped in the car with me for over an hour, Michael could have settled into sleep as he often does. And he did. But not until he shared stories of his adventures –for nearly half the trip.

    
Similar results from the sound recording camp he attended at Salem State University. His enthusiasm –and words- spilled over and out and onto me. And it wasn’t just a soaking of what-he-did, but more pleasing to me was that the conversation included plans of what-he-could-do, who-he-could-be.

    
Because in the tumult of the rains, there’s nothing better to see than glimmers of light, a bit of sun.

    
And the colors of his rainbow.




Binge and Purge


    My 14-year-old nephew has a Twitter account. He also has 1146 friends on Facebook. And apparently, quite a following on both. 

    
When it comes to social media, I’ll admit I’m a few steps behind. Matty might say light years –particularly after he offered a rudimentary tutorial on IPad usage and was receptacle to some pretty 20th century questions regarding a 21st century device. Suffice it to say, he’s there. We’re not.




    Still, I have dipped my toes into the social networking pond, if not its ocean. I’m on Facebook, I have a Twitter account (Okay, so I don’t actually remember my account name or login, but I do have one. Seriously though, how much of a following are my treks to the produce section of Market Basket likely to produce?). 

    
But obviously, I blog.

    
See, I’m almost cool.




    My son would disagree.




    And perhaps he’s right.




    Because, try as I might, there are aspects of the genre to which I still feel an ill fit. Although many of my peers have embraced the connectedness that Facebook offers, I have trouble with one of its most basic premises: friending.




    Now that I think of it, I didn’t foresee the word friend becoming a verb. I am old. Befriend make senses to me. I get to make a conscious choice to be someone’s friend: befriend. 

    
Friending is a whole other animal.




    And quite an aggressive one, sometimes.




    There’s pressure on both the requester and the requested friend. And therein oft lays my dilemma.




    The (poor) marketer in me knows FB is an excellent tool for self-promotion. I get that’s where I’m supposed to go; it’s just hard to get there from where I came. We were taught NOT to speak too well of ourselves. The “me” kids came just after us and we didn’t think much of them.

    
I’m also uneasy with how Facebook has devalued a word I hold in pretty high regard: Friend.

    
Matty can’t possible have 1148 (the number’s risen since I started writing) friends. Not in any sense of the word to which I can relate.

    
One of the sites for which I write recently urged me to join its network. A principal of the company suggested I “friend everyone in the beginning in order to build a following. (You can always ‘unfriend’ later, if need be.).”




    Good advice, I’m sure. But I like neither concept –making friends with strangers. Or unfriending them when I realize they’re wacko.

    
See, in spite of the stream-of-consciousness with which I post here, I’m actually a private person. I choose the people with whom I share my life pretty carefully. Facebook is the antithesis of that philosophy.




    I’m also basically a nice person. Unfriending someone doesn’t sound very nice to me.

    
But as I watch Matty’s friends accumulate, (1151, now)I’ve learned of another trend. Posts to Facebook abound stating more-or-less: if you can read this, you’re still my friend; consider yourself lucky.




    Hmmm.




    Mixed feelings again. It’s a strong ego that feels his/her friends are the lucky ones and not the other way around.




    On the other hand, Facebook purging makes sense when the binging has gone on for too long. Some of my students have shared with me when they’re unfriending their friends. Their decisions usually follow a sound trajectory. And while I might have advocated them choosing wisely from the get-go, I’m all for their newfound selectivity. 

    
Could this be another example of the maturity I’ve witnessed with them through their years at my school?




    Probably.




    While my 20-something students are rethinking who they’re willing to call friend, even on Facebook, Matty’s friend list is at now 1152.




    And climbing.