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.

 

Through Someone Else’s Eyes

mardis gras 2On occasion my kids have made me crazy doubt my parenting skills. From the choose-your-battle incidents of their toddler years to the sleepless nights of teen-hood, they’ve both left me wondering at one time or another what the hell am I doing wrong?

Luckily, my version of them wasn’t the only one to which I was privy. I had other people, other eyes, to remind me that the personalities I was getting to know weren’t necessarily those they were showing to the world.

One of my friends who worked in the schools knew Michael on a kid-in-the-classroom level and she often assured me long after he’d graduated from grammar school, that buried beneath his teen bravado was still a good kid. Same for Alex, when people who knew her from the local bagel shop would tell me they adored her.

It’s not that I hadn’t seen lots of signs on my own that my kids didn’t actually suck; it’s just that in the heat of a bad moment, those shining examples fell to dust. That’s why it was so nice for Michael and me to step out of our world for a little while and reconnect in another. On our recent trip to New Orleans, Michael got to interact with a wide cast of colorful characters and I got to look at him through their eyes. And it was good –for both of us.

I often serve as that other set of eyes for my students.

Sometimes I give them a reality check –tell them that their work could use some work, that they’re not going to sail through yet another class on good looks and charm alone, and that it may be time to step up, even to grow up a bit.

I’ve had students balk at the notion that they were less than perfect, jump ship early on because of the truth I was trying to tell.  But those who were willing to hang in there with me came to appreciate my honesty –even insist upon it.

And because I told them that they sometimes fell short, they were more inclined to believe me when I bestowed the occasional compliment.

More likely, but not always.

They’d pretty easily hear my good job, or I’m proud of you after an academic assignment was checked off their list, but they were often less willing to believe me when I placed the admiration more squarely on their shoulders, instead of their work.

I’ve found a puzzle in dealing with this generation of kids. The very students who come in with an edge and an attitude of entitlement are often those who don’t easily accept an earnest accolade. When I offer my outsider’s view of who they are in a positive light, I sometimes hit a brick wall of skepticism. Even after I remind them of the many times I’ve been willing to tell them they’re wrong, they doubt me when I tell them they’re right.

That’s the paradox of the millennials I know. They come in ready to conquer the world with a hell-bent bravado, but after a first skirmish, they’re often left scarred and retreating, unwilling to take up arms for another foray into battle.

And I know why.

The same parents who told these kids they’re wonderful are also those who’ve provided instruction on how to get a better grade with a conversation instead of a revision, how to make the team without the tryout, get the job before the interview. All the time those parents are providing short-cuts to some misguided version of success, they are also sending a loud and clear message to the kids that they won’t get the grade, can’t make the team, don’t deserve the job.

If every time a kid faces a challenge, he’s given a crutch instead of chance, why wouldn’t he choose the shortcut over the long road? Some of the smartest, most able students with whom I’ve worked are also those who fight near debilitating angst and anxiety. They don’t believe they can do it, make it, earn it, because their parents don’t.

I get to be another set of eyes, telling them that they’re good, they can, they will.

I tell them, time and again, even if I can’t get them to believe it.

If only I could, then maybe they really could conquer the world.

Teaching Children

(Thinkstock)My boss is a teacher. Not the one who works at the college and who is an actual teacher. The other one.

I doubt, though, that he lists that title or its corresponding skillset on his CV or resume. He probably doesn’t pitch it to clients, either.

Maybe he should.

Because it may be that single talent that serves his clients better than all others.

When he plays Socrates to his young staff, he isn’t just teambuilding; he’s inducing them to think more critically and to be more creative. At the same time he asks them to think inside the box—to use analysis and numbers—he also encourages them to step outside of it, to take a chance, ask a question, find a new answer.

He’s a teacher—and an effective one—even though his job description
doesn’t allude to it.

When we do our jobs right, whatever those jobs may be, we all have the opportunity to teach. Whether we’re educating those who report to us, our coworkers or clients, there’s much to be said for imparting a little of our own hard earned wisdom unto others. It robs us of nothing and has the potential to enrich those with whom we share and ourselves.

I think many of my students have figured out that the real stuff I’m teaching them has little to do with what augments their readings and assignments. They do like that I can often pull from the trove in my head to quickly solve their academic queries (I’ve got a few of them snowed –they don’t understand that it’s less intelligence and more age that gives me such easy access to answers). They like it even more when I can settle a life crisis with a tempered response, although I know that the blasé been-there-done-that mode with which I operate sometimes frustrates them. They’re used to
drama-matching-drama so when I meet their crazy with calm, it takes some
getting used to. Many of them do –not all.

It’s taken me awhile to acquiesce to my role as teacher, but my resistance makes little sense. After all, as parents, the first time we see our bad habits on handy display at family functions, we know exactly from whom our offspring got it. For better or worse, we taught them.

We are forced to be teachers as parents; we should embrace the role as people.

In any encounter, there is opportunity to teach –and learn.

I’d be kidding myself if I thought the teacher-student paradigm only went one way. I learn a whole lot from my students. They keep me connected, both figuratively and literally if you count how often we text. And they allow me access to their sometimes foreign mindset and a generational world I would otherwise only see from afar.

I’ve always liked foreign travel—once upon a time I did it a lot—so now even if I never leave our eastern shores, I’ll willingly take passage on the sometimes rocky ride my students provide and be thankful for some pretty awesome tour guides.

 

Imaginary Lover

Who
could have foreseen that a 70s song could so aptly foreshadow 21st century
relationships? Imaginary lovers never
disagree. They always care. They’re always there when you need, satisfaction
guaranteed.

Can
it really be so shocking, then, that Manti Te’o opted for imagination over
reality? In fact, maybe it’s more surprising that his peers aren’t doing the
same.
 

Or
maybe they are.
 

For
all the accurate images of college life picked up and portrayed by the media, a
foot-on-the-ground stroll across an American college campus might be more
telling. Particularly if you get the full tour. Weekdays and weekends included.
 

From
my mini-view on my little campus, the numbers from the studies seem sound:
three-quarters are hooking up. The boys with more partners than the girls, but
the ladies are nonetheless hot on their heels.
 

The
weekends are wild, with the majority of students pretty willing to lay themselves
naked -just not metaphorically so. When it comes to weekdays and daylight,
there’s much less of laying themselves bare.
 

In
Monday morning classrooms, they interact not with one another, but with smart
phones and laptops. Avoiding eye contact is its own art form and they’ve got it
nailed. Their eyes are glued instead to their screens, tapping and texting, but
not talking.
 

When
my students share stories—and they always do—I often have to interrupt. So was
this an actual conversation or a
cyber chat? They rarely differentiate. But as they relate their tales, they
include an ascribed tone and intent for the sender. My suggestions that they
may be misreading their text readings are usually soundly dismissed. They heed
my interpretive warnings only with regard to student-professor correspondence.
 

Of
course it’s generational.  I get that
they communicate differently than we do. But it seems not to be just a
different means of a communication, but 
a
lack of one. Rather than face-to-face interaction, with real-time dialogue,
they’re texting and waiting, and filling in the spaces. They read between the
lines and create gaps where there are none, mistaking humor for insult, lust
for love, a casual friendship for a meaningful relationship.
 

I’d
like to support my kids and this written word connection of theirs, but they
seem to have it all wrong. In the brevity that allows them to leave out so much
out, they’re missing out on too much. Then, when they do share—often alcohol
fueled and impulsively sent—it’s too much with too many. They’ve jumped in the deep
end with no arm band floaties.
 

And
then too there’s that other part of human connection –the actual connection. Eyeball-to-eyeball,
hand-to-hand. You can’t read body language in a Tweet; words can’t replace touch,
and in spite of the emoticons to the contrary, you really cannot send a hug via
text.

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving

        The greeting is neither the product of a senior moment nor of an early imbibing. Rather at the close of the old year and onto a new one, I am doing a bit of mental aerobics that has me looking back—and forward—at the same time.

     From the tiniest of human interactions to the biggest, boldest occurrences of life and nature, it can be a complicated world. Particularly at the close of 2012, newspaper print and Twitter tweets, alike, seemed to have sent out the resounding message that there’s much for which to be saddened and
sorrowful. So many events left us shaking our heads, sighing, wiping away tears and asking why?

     But

     There’s always something for which to be thankful.

     So rather than ring in 2013 with only ideas of what could be better, and what needs improvement, I’ll first reflect upon all in the world and in my own life that isn’t so bad.

     Starting with my kids.

     Fodder for the often apropos site’s title, they are nonetheless the people in my life for whom I am most grateful. I have a beautifully resilient and optimistic daughter who texts me pictures of rainbows and happily includes me in her world, at every turn. And I have a son who is strong and sensitive and passionate -about love and life and work. He’s set on a full throttle ride with intellect and fight and heart -always with heart.

     The other kids are family and friends and students.

     It’s probably because I am so fully surrounded by them all that I look to kids when I think of the new year and new beginnings. For all the reasons that the lot of them can give us justified sleepless nights, I still believe in them.

     I believe that the foundation we’ve all set will stick. That the kids in our lives will take what we’ve taught them, tweak it to fit -maybe even improve upon it- and then make it work.

     I believe in them.

     And the New Year.

     Happy New Year everyone.

     But especially to the kids in my life.

 

 

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.


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.

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.

Pay It Forward


    I’m translating her advice into my words: better to do something more than you should, than to not do enough.


    And so I blame Kelley, in part, when I perhaps did again –more than I should have.


    Because it’s still good advice.


    I think.


    I’ve been warned to the contrary.


    Kelley and I both have been scolded for being “too nice.”


    Sometimes -maybe.


    Not such a horrible moniker, though, is it?


    Kelley is also one who tells me frequently that I’m doing just what I was meant to do. Finally. With the whole writing thing, of course, but also at the little college where I play life coach and tutor to semi-adults trying to navigate through their lessons and their lives. And it’s in this setting where I inch too close to that more-than-you-should.


    I don’t care.


    I can handle the consequences of too-much much better than I can the what-ifs which arise from not doing enough.


    My guess is that the roots to the philosophy go pretty deep.


    Our holiday dinners offer apt metaphor. You might see it all as too much food; I see it as always enough. No chance of us running out of anything –ever.


    And you gotta love the leftovers.


    Maybe human interactions can also result in the spillover of thoughtfulness, with ample to share.


    So when I do for my students –even if admittedly more than I should- I don’t look for payback in reciprocal reward. I don’t really require return on an investment of kindness.


    Maybe what I hope for, though, is a sharing of leftovers.


    Paying it forward.


    It wasn’t a literary gem or a blockbuster movie. But what a blockbuster message. And so simple.


    But the concept was ingrained in me as ideology long before the book’s publication. I think because there was always that lesson of reciprocity. You were given a gift, you gave one in return. You were invited to dinner, you invited in kind.


    But when the deed was immeasurable –and the thank you a trifle for its intended worth, the return impossible, how to repay?


    Not.


    So then to the answer of paying it forward.


    Not a bad responsibility with which to shoulder a younger friend.


    Or legacy to leave in the corner of one’s life.


    So if I do for them, perhaps they’ll do for someone else –some day.


    Maybe.


    I don’t know.


    I get a lot from these young adults I’ve come to know too well.


    I’m not entirely sure what.


    It doesn’t matter.


    I know I teach them a bit, too.


    I wonder, though, if they’ll understand the lesson of leftovers if I leave it to instinct instead of instruction. When they’re out in the world, as real grownup adults, will they intuitively sense an ongoing obligation when it’s their turn to act in kind, and in kindness?