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. 



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.



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.