Do not touch

 

 hugs   I’ve never been much of a hugger.

    Although I often greet family and friends with a peck on the cheek, that’s a custom borne more of habit than from anything innately warm-and-fuzzy on my behalf.

    On the other hand, I do understand the benefit of human touch. I know that simple hand-on-hand has power to heal. That there is something inexplicably beneficial in person-to-person physical contact.

    In a conversation with my boss not long ago I referenced the “holding their hands” job we do for our students with the disclaimer that I was speaking figuratively.

At her raised eyebrows, I admitted that sometimes it is literal, rather than figurative. She gets this because she knows the students, understands our relationships with them –has a few of her own chickadees (as she frequently refers to them).

Sometimes more than the answers to a quiz, an academic query or even a bit of life advice, what they really need is a hug.

    I didn’t quite get this, at first. Or feel comfortable offering it.

    Until I did.

Because there is something instinctual, even for me, about reaching out to someone in need, particularly a child. Even when she’s not your own.

The first time one of my students dissolved into a puddle of tears, I escorted her quickly from our very public setting to one where she could talk (and cry) without being overheard. Then, I fought the impulse to give her a hug, vacillating between the instinct of what I knew she needed and the lines I thought I shouldn’t cross. I settled upon a lamely placed hand to her knee, a listening ear and some heartfelt reassurance.

    What she really needed, though, was a hug.

I’ve learned since that encounter to give into instinct. To risk appearance in favor of action, to offer my students the human connection they sometimes crave.

I get to do this because I have an advantage over other teachers. First, the kids with whom I work are adults. Second, my relationship with them is built, one-on-one, over years, not by class or semester. I know these students well.

Today’s teachers can’t follow my rubric (not that I really have one) with good reason. Gray doesn’t blend well into big public school settings.

    Still, it’s too bad.

    So many good teachers are hamstrung by the misdeeds of some sick individuals who have crossed clearly emblazoned lines. As good educators and mentors strive to build real rapport with their students, they have to be constantly aware of appearances. They necessarily worry that their good-intentioned actions could be misconstrued. One-on-one tutoring, a closed door conference, the squeeze of a shoulder, a pat on the back -is all suspect now.

 
I read recently about new coaching rules being put into place in the wake of the UPenn scandal. Some of it sounded like common sense reform which shouldn’t need to be spelled out, at all. Yet apparently, it does. But much of it was just enough over-the-top micromanaging to make me shake my head in sad acknowledgement of this very different world in which our children live.

 
As we force good people and good role models to back off, those we should be afraid of may be pulling into the shadows, but still they watch from the sidelines.

 
Some of our kids are desperate for adults to step up and into their lives. They want to be counseled and coached, given both a metaphorical pat on the back and an actual one. Given a bit of human contact.

 
If we scare off all the people who genuinely care about kids, I wonder to whom our kids will turn to fill the void and where they will go when they need a shoulder to lean on and maybe the occasional hug.

 

 

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Team Spirit


    I play softball.


    Not often, or well. But I still play.


    Which means I’m part of a team.


    At this point in my life, that means something much different from what it once did.


    It’s also something different from the kind of teams to which my kids and neighbor’s kids have belonged over the years.


    For the obvious reasons, sure.


    My team likes to win, but we’re not too upset when we lose. This isn’t a competitive league. We’ve got no umps, we don’t keep stats.


    And an injury (or even the threat of one) pretty much trumps athletic effort. We don’t so much give it our all as we do just give it a go.


    But we play games, keep score, do try to round the bases. We have opponents we like to best, and others we cheer on with the same enthusiasm we offer to our own teammates.


    It’s touted as a friendly league. And it is.


    At one point or another, both my kids have been members of teams. They have been part of something bigger than just themselves, and have contributed. In very different ways, both have had an impact on their teams.


    And their teams have had an impact upon them. And for the good and bad of it, so have their coaches.


    The best of those coaches taught, supported, encouraged  -and still demanded. They loved the game and wanted to share their passion. They sent messages about camaraderie and sportsmanship, about how to treat one another and their opponents and about how to handle winning and losing, as a team.


    The worst of them also sent some pretty powerful messages. Like the good guys, they demanded a certain level of play from the kids, but their means were often warped. They taught the basics of the game –but just barely, assuming that the “real” players already knew the fundamentals- and worked more on strategies and tricks. Win-at-any cost attitudes filtered through to little kids feeling big pressure.
 
    Some of those coaches scolded, ranted, belittled. Some cheated. I saw coaches ignore any sense of fairness, keeping  “good” players in long past their due, then demean them when they didn’t perform as expected. They scouted their baby opponents and then gave their own team members a heads-up on weak links. These were big guys coaching little kids to beat their buddies, at whatever cost. I remember hearing one coach advise a 12-year old pitcher barely in control of his blazing fast ball to “brush ‘im off the plate.” And hearing another coach greet his top player as he stepped onto the game field by asking “Are you going to strike out again?”


    And that was the “coaching” offered to the good players.


    But on the sidelines, the worst of those coaches were praised. Parents jockeyed to get their kids under the tutelage of the guy with the winning record.


    Seriously?


    Why?


    We live in a small town. Think big fish-small pond analogy. I always wondered about the parents who couldn’t see what I thought was so obvious.


    Easy stuff, like –it’s supposed to be fun. And that winning really isn’t EVERYTHING.


    And that their kids weren’t going to make it to the pros.


    Turns out I didn’t really have to tell them that their kids weren’t getting athletic scholarships; a lot of those kids didn’t even make the high school cut.


    But I do wish someone had said something to a few of the raving lunatics on the sidelines and in the dugouts. Because too many kids were losing, for the sake of winning. In the name of hollow victory, they were missing all the good stuff that being part of a team can teach.


    Michael had a pair of coaches who believed pretty whole-heartedly that the kids on their team had to respect the game and one another. They coached and taught the kids to play with a sense of equity. Everyone played; no one was stuck in right field for the season.


    Funny thing about that team –they won. A lot.


    I like my team. We win, too. On and off the field. Because I measure the true success of our team by who we’ve become over a lot of years batting a ball around and playing a bit of catch.


    I only wish my kids and their friends had had the same opportunity as me to learn a bit more about what it can really mean to be part of a team.