An Internship in Life



    Musing upon the what-ifs that lottery jackpots often spawn, someone recently asked me what I would do if money wasn’t a factor. I can’t remember who. That’s an issue lately, but I digress. I do that too -again, another issue.

    
Back to the windfall that grants dreams, though.




    My answer was too quick, too honest, too sappy. But it explains a lot.




    Like why I work with kids (okay, technically they’re adults) and love it even though it was never part of the plan.




    And why I can sit for hours tweaking writing for which I don’t get paid and spend much less time on the kind of writing that pays (little, tiny) bills.

    
If I could do anything at all for work, I’d do exactly what I’m doing right now. 

    
In different proportions, perhaps. Squeezed in-between travels around the world. But –I’d still work. I’d still write. I’d still hang around college kids.

    
Which brings me to the ill-titled blog which generates an unexpected number of monthly hits.




    This week marks Kidssuck’s one year anniversary.




    I didn’t know what it was going to be when I started it. Most days, I still don’t. But I’m still having fun with it. And you’re still reading it.

    
Thanks for that.




    Thanks also for allowing me to be less of a hypocrite when I advise my kids and my students to choose a job to do because they love it.




    With the certainty one might observe that the tide will rise, Kelley once told me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing –this writing thing. It took me decades to put my work out there, longer still to call myself “writer” when someone asked what I do. Odd, really. Because it’s as much a part of who I am as is my heritage, the color of my eyes. I can’t change it.

    
I tell everyone of the next generation who will listen: Do what you love. Don’t worry about the money.

    
It wasn’t the advice I received as a kid.




    Doesn’t matter. 




    I pretend I’m not as old as I am and I’m finally following my own advice. 

    
It’s like I’m on internship now, trying on pieces of a profession or two for size, adjusting their fit as I go. Every new job, new client, new story seems to produce another; they’re self-propagating. 

    
Instead of following a traditional path for someone my age, I’m forging one of my own. 

    
Maybe that’s why I get along so well with the college kids. On many days, I still feel like I’m just starting out. I make mistakes, ignore reality a lot, think about what-ifs far removed from lottery winnings.

    
And write.




    So, thank you. For being with me on the site’s anniversary. For joining me in these stream-of-consciousness jottings. And for giving me someone for whom to write -besides just me.






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Diminishing Degrees

    I had a student inform me towards the end of last semester that she was thinking about continuing on to grad school.


Considering the academic environment in which I work, maybe I should have reacted differently. But I know this young woman.   

     Grad school  -really? Huh?

grade inflationThen I posited an even worse response: Is this just to avoid the plunge into that real world about which you’ve heard so much?

She laughed.

And admitted that, yes, that was indeed the real reason.

There are plenty of good reasons to get a master’s degree. Your future profession requires one. Hers won’t. You have an intellectual passion for a particular subject matter. She doesn’t. The degree will translate into a real world salary increase. Unlikely.

   So for her, I suggested that maybe she didn’t need to get a master’s degree. At least not right away.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for continuing education. Not just in the short term, but, well, forever.

I corresponded for decades with a woman who was a passionate learner. In her 90s and taking a course at NYU, she informed me that any day she learned something new was a good one. What a great philosophy.

My student’s philosophical bent isn’t quite the same.

But she’s not alone.

If you believe Conan O’Brien’s Dartmouth commencement speech statistics (you shouldn’t), 92% of Americans get college degrees. His point, though comically rendered, is that a college diploma today is no big deal.

Higher degrees? Also a lot lower in value than they once were.

But we laid this path out early on. The crowded classes of Advanced Placement courses in high school are a glaring example.

When I was in school, there might have been a dozen kids in AP English, and that from a class of nearly 400. Same for AP Bio and History. The students in those classes were there because it touched on a passion or laid a foundation for specific college study.

Today, they’ll let anyone in.

Maybe not quite, but literally millions of American students are plopping down in desks in AP classes. And most of them don’t belong there.

    In a survey conducted a few years ago, AP teachers admitted that most students coming into AP classes were in over their heads. Ninety percent of those teachers said that students were coming into the classes to beef up their high school resumes. And 75% said that there was an institutional push for AP classes to improve academic rankings and reputations.

    Great messages we’re sending our kids.

    I often wonder what ever happened to average kids? And why we punish students who are stellar artists and scientists and musicians by insisting that they be good everything.

 

But more I worry about a system that teaches kids how to foster the illusion of success instead of its actuality. At the top of the class are often students who may not always know how to do well but do always know how to look good. They learn what clubs to join, what service to offer, what sports to play –all in an effort to pad their resumes.

The most recent big scandal in our small town revolved around drinking and graduation this year. Big shocker. When the students were called in for discipline, those who fessed up and admitted that yes, they had indeed been drinking, were denied the privilege of walking with their classmates and receiving their diplomas at graduation. The kids who said they hadn’t (wink wink) been drinking got a pass.

    Again, nice message. Punish a bit of integrity. Reward a lie.

    Politicians still take kickbacks. Academics fudge data to bolster their research. And the Wall Street wizards seem unapologetic for bringing the country to its economic knees.

    Our kids should fit right in.

There’s No Such Thing As Normal


    I suspect that my 20-year-old self would be aghast at the notion that this other version of me would pine for just plain old normal. Boring, even.




    Ahhh –how time does play with the perceptions of life.




    Once upon a time I had no idea of the twists and turns one’s journey could take. Now, I understand all too clearly that a world view can easily be skewed by the prisms of a differing  vantage point.




    I love the Whoopi Goldberg quote –Normal is in the eye of the beholder.




    How true.




    I also love when the young people with whom I work and live try to tell me of the oh-so-out-there exploits of their friends and families.




    Because I often think, OMG –you have no idea.




    There are secrets in every family and fold. And there are stories that veer so far from normal that I wonder of the word’s constraints. I looked up its origin –made in accordance to a carpenter’s square- and thought to the confining nature of squares and boxes. No wonder so many of us don’t fit to normal. It’s a shame that too many of us pretend we do.




    A little crazy is a good thing.




    The campus on which I work and the community in which I live both squeak a little too loudly with that hollow echo of normalcy. Pretty houses, pretty people. Good kids, good grades. Standards and squares. Lots of squares.




    Yikes –how did I end up here?




    And what ever made me think that this idyllic setting would be such an ideal one for me and my family?




    Michael could look and act just like all the other kids. If he chose to. He doesn’t.




    I would love to fully support his conscious efforts at non-conformity, his unique view of the world and of himself. I want to high-five his many talents and the philosophical bent that assures me that just because he’s not going about it my way, doesn’t mean he won’t eventually get to where he’s meant to be. I want to remain his number one fan, cheerleader, the one who “gets” him more than anyone else.




    But he makes it hard. Really hard.




    It’s not just the disdain with which he often showers me. Or that his teen angst can explode like messy carnage.




    It’s more the gravity pull of expectations. My own and those of others. And it’s because without the rose-colored glasses I may once have worn, it’s hard not to see the doors he’s closing around him. With clear-eyed vision, it’s too easy to think of wasted time and talent, of lost potential. It’s frustrating and discouraging –even sad.




    Normal would be easier.




    Even if I don’t believe in it.




    I have seen behind the curtains of those picture-perfect windows where dysfunction functions in disguise. And I know the outward reflection can be pleasantly distorting. But not at all real. And I think real is better.




    And Michael is, if not anything else, real. And honest. Beguilingly, candidly, painfully honest. He’s also bright and funny and capable.




    The parent of one of his friends recently made it a point to offer a positive picture of my son.




    He’s a good boy,
she said.




    Well, that’s something.




    When parents of today are queried about what they want for their children, the go-to response is that they want them to be happy.




    I do, too. Of course I do. I want him to pursue his dream, to find something fulfilling to do with his life. I want him to be happy.




    But I also want him to be a good person, a man of whom he –and his family- can be proud.




    We have a bit of a family joke when it comes to the young men who pursue my daughter, that they often look good on paper.




    I see a lot of kids on campus and in town. Most of them look good on paper. And some of them are good kids, good people. But some of them are only the ink of their resumes and not its heart. And quite a few of them willingly tilt their “honest” answers to fit the questions and the questioner. It’s probably why I so appreciate it when one or another will quite candidly state that no, they didn’t bother to read the assignment or attend the class. My favorite assessment came from a student who when asked about a poor grade he’d been given by an oft-maligned professor, admitted –it wasn’t her fault. I deserved the grade. An honest answer –a good boy.   




    So when Michael declines to answer a prodding question of mine because he says he doesn’t want to lie, I back off. At the base of the man I hope for him to become I want there to be a solid foundation of honesty. With the often earthquake activity in our pretty house, at least I am  -so far- still assured of his one true beginning.



When It’s Theirs to Give


    Encouraging volunteerism in our young people is a great idea. Unfortunately, like so many good ideas which came before it, I think the execution of it has missed the mark.
 



    Several years ago, when the notion of making community service a requirement for graduation was still in its infancy, I attended the commencement exercises of a small high school in an affluent town north of us. Very small. There were 85 students donning caps and gowns.


 


    The ceremony was beautifully touching, belying the intimacy of kids who had known each another their whole lives. The feel of it all was more reminiscent of family than formality. And these students’ comfort level with one another and with themselves offered a glimpse of all that could be right with an educational experience. Bright futures for all.




    But in a right-minded idea, the high school had decided that all of these privileged children should give back. That they should have an idea and appreciation of what it means to volunteer. So they insisted that they do just that.




    My guess is that the new policy was well-received, quickly approved and met with acquiescence by all.




    All but one, as it turned out.




    It seemed that the class valedictorian, who had actually done quite a bit of unprompted community service on his own, didn’t like the oxymoronic bent of forced volunteerism. Emphasis on moronic.




    He refused to participate in the new requirement.




    Even with the threat of a withheld diploma, he stuck to his principles.




    And so on graduation day, when the classmates with whom he had shared twelve years of school and life shook their principal’s hand and received their diplomas, he did not.




    Volunteering is such a good idea. It’s a shame we’ve allowed it to become just another peg in the light bright picture of that perfect package being built for college admission. Too many students (and lets face it, their parents) look at every move and moment in high school with their eyes on transcripts that will be eyed by admissions officers. It’s become less about doing good and  more about looking good.




    In addition to the misplaced motives of indentured servitude in the guise of community service, there’s also something disquieting about the price tag that comes attached to some of these volunteering opportunities. It seems giving is its own thriving industry. But it’s not really the kids who are doing the giving.




    Sure, they’re likely a great help to that far-flung village or orphanage or hospital.  But c’mon, who among us would pass up free travel and full life exposure for a little work among the downtrodden? Particularly when it’s not junior who’s footing the bill for his foray into famine, it would seem that there’s more of a nod to self than selfless in these volunteering expeditions.




    Something’s off kilter. 

    Have we so perfected the art of hypocrisy that we can’t see that it’s not volunteering if they have no choice? We cry foul at the tricks played on us from atop Capitol Hill and in the shadows of Wall Street, but then allow our kids to begin resume padding in middle school. I think the reason Adam Wheeler’s Harvard scam went so far is because we’ve let all of our children go a little too far in the build-up of their bios. Instead of being met with an awe of disbelief, his well-packed Phillips Academy transcripts, perfect SAT scores, and 4.0 MIT GPA were likely greeted with a ho-hum hyperbole that had him standing alongside a lot of other outstanding scholars. I read that if someone, somewhere along Wheeler’s conned path had taken a moment to do a bit of math, it would have been pretty evident that there simply weren’t enough hours in his academic days to do what he claimed to have done. 

    But it seems that over-the-top is the new norm. So included in all those resplendent resumes are now hours and hours of saving-the-world work by kids who are somehow still maintaining grades, playing sports and musical instruments, and socially mingling with their four thousand friends on Facebook.


    Hmm. How many hours are in their days?


    And why is it that so few of these altruistic adolescents are opting to pull up their sleeves and do a bit of hard work at the most local of levels -at shelters and food pantries? When was the last time that a kid shoveled out his neighbor’s drive without a community service form and pen in hand? Sure, they’ll be good citizens. As long as they get credit for it.


    Nice message.


    Maybe it’s time to repackage the message, then. Time to get back to basics a bit. Instead of sending them off with the sense that there’s a whole lot of free out there, maybe it’s time to make it clear that not much is. Before they give, maybe they need to earn. A part time job teaches a whole lot about effort and value. Then, if they choose a worthy cause to support, it can come from their pockets instead of mommy’s pocketbook. And if they decide to give up a Market Basket shift and its corresponding pay to serve meals because they want to rather than have to, they’ll likely have a better notion of what service is all about and what it really means to be a part of a community.