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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Babies

We had the perfect vantage point from which
to watch the robins hatch, feed and fly. Nestled in the prickly holly tree just
outside our dining room window, they seemed safely shielded from weather and
predator, alike. Mama bird had chosen well, and given us ample opportunity to
chart their progress –from baby blue eggs to fluffy fuzz balls of feathers.
 

-Until that day when frantic tweeting,
screeching and the break of feathers through leaves sent me running to the
seeming scene of an attack.
 

Empty next, panicked squawking and the
nails-on-chalkboard scream of a predator hawk. Upon that flurry of activity—parental
robins vs. hunting raptor—I drew my own conclusion. Even if there were no trace
of baby bird or his brothers.
 

And another conclusion, too. 

As well as she may have built it and chosen
her nest’s location, when it came to her babies’ exit from it, she got it
wrong. All wrong.
 

No way were those tiny puffs of air ready to
fly, never mind able to fend off the perils and predators of their hostile home
turf. They were just babies.
 

I get the desire to kick the kids out of the
nest. Believe me –I do. But not at such a steep price.
 

Sometimes they’re just not ready. And our
push can lead to peril.

 After following most of my students from
freshman to senior year, I‘m being granted an opportunity to start anew –with
babies.
 

While calling these young adults babies may be
exactly the wrong message to send, I can’t help but view them in that light. Not
only because my own “baby” is their age, but also because I’ve already been
through the stages that pull them to the other side.
 

Now that I’m starting it over, I know better of their journey. They’ll go far. But for now, they really are just babies. Surrounded
by potential friends, they often feel alone. Excited to take on new challenges,
they’re still scared to take a first step. When they do take those first movements
forward, they often stumble and fall. Then, vacillating from cocky confident to
illogically insecure, they sometimes cling to doubt even when they should be
most sure. And although they crave independence, sometimes, they still just want
their mommy.
 

Inevitably, just after the start of fall,
they’ll come to me –tired, sad, confused, homesick. Overwhelmed.
 

In my academic role, I’ll offer
encouragement, strategies, some workable advice to get them on-track to meet their
college expectations. They’ll nod, agree to give it all a shot.
 

But in that other, less well-defined role, I’ll
try to offer them something else.
 

I get it now—finally—that it’s that “other”
for which I’m really here.
 

When one of my students was quite justifiably
falling apart, but still clinging to a hold-it-all-together mantra, I gave her
the I-don’t-care-about-grades speech. Weird, she probably figured, coming from
her tutor.

 But I knew that the last thing she needed
from me was another push in an effort to reach some letter-grade measurement of
her worth.
 

So instead of asking her about her classes
and coursework, I asked about her. And she told me. A lot.
 

 I like
when my students excitedly show me a paper or text me an A trailed by
exclamation points. I enjoy sharing in their successes. But I also understand
that sometimes sharing in their lives is far more important. And that unless they’re
well—physically, mentally, emotionally—it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll do
well.

 Sure, I care about their grades, but mostly
because they do. Interestingly, when I tell them I don’t, when I take some of
the pressure off, they do a little bit better. With that one student in pieces,
when I pulled the plug on grade expectation, her grade went from an F to a B+.

 No, it doesn’t work that way with everyone.
And that’s a part of it, too. Some kids are ready for college straight-out-of-high-school.
Some are ready for life straight-after-college. And some leave the nest –just fine.
 

A day after the attack, I saw a tiny clump of
feathers at the base of our tree –breathing, chirping, hopping. And mom not far
afield, keeping an eye and bringing her now out-of-nest baby a mommy-prepared
meal.
 

Hmm, well at least he’s out of the nest.

 

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.


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.

 

 

Freudian Foreshadowing



    They make it to the blog frequently enough so you probably get that I work with college kids (oops, I chastised one just the other day for using that term; I mean adults). And also that I like what I do. And that I like them (most of them, most of the time).

    
What may not be clear, however, is that I haven’t really been working with them all that long. In fact, my first batch of babies (adults) will be leaving this spring. Flying out of the nest, so to speak, off into the great beyond.




    And I have mixed feelings about their noteworthy transition.




    Many of my own friendships are older than these students I tutor, so I get that four years can be but a blimp in a relationship’s foundation. On the other hand, I’ve spent some serious “quality time” with these young adults. They’ve shared much with me. Way more than you’d think. Way more than I ever imagined they would.




    When I recently found out that a student of mine had cut class before she’d had a chance to fess up to me, I asked her if she would have been forthcoming with the info.




    “I tell you everything,” she said.




    And she just might.




    Not in the every-detail-of-every-day sort of tell, but in a kind that matters a whole lot more. She’s been through a lot in these past four years. And the thing is, I’ve been through most of it with her.

    
Now, she’s at the threshold of the other side -where she should be, where she deserves to be.




    She’s arrived with grace and resilience and I’m proud of her and who she is today. I am proud of my other students, as well. They’ve turned from teenagers to adults, and as they graduate, they seem to be truly prepared for the next phase of their lives.




    I’m happy for them.




    I’ll also be sad to see them go.




    Changing the subject (not really).




    I’ve been, on occasion, technically challenged. The combination of an utter lack of knowledge about what it exactly is that runs the computers that run most of our lives and a sometimes senseless sense of speed are  often a poor mix. 

    
Case in point.




    I don’t delete the emails and text messages most normal people might. There’s a history here which I won’t go into. Anyway, among the non-deleted text messages on my cell phone were a few (several) from my students.

    
The messages weren’t left merely to clutter the inbox; they’d been intentionally undeleted.




    And then, in a too quick moment of parsing the list, I said yes when I didn’t mean to and every message was gone.




    Poof!




    I wonder how long they would have remained, had I not make the mistake.




    I don’t know. But now they’re gone –for good.
    
    
And soon too, will be the kids who texted them.




    Because they are ready, perhaps even more than I am, to separate. From their school, from their roommates and college friends -and from me.




Fleeting Encounters, Lasting Impressions



    I told Kelley that I’ve finally stopped looking for answers as to where my students fit into my life and exactly how I belong in theirs –or for how long. I’ve foregone analysis in favor of acceptance, and given into the strange arrangement that has linked our lives.




    She needs, now, to do the same.




    Hers may be a taller order, though.
 
    
While odd attachments are a particular specialty of hers, this latest connection comes with an enormous weight –and an ongoing obligation. 

    
And yet, it’s one that has been placed upon her before. Perhaps that’s why she understands the fullness of the responsibility and shuns its forever commitment.




    She’s reluctant to take it on.




    But I know her.
 
    
She will.

    
She has no choice but to accept the weighty request. And we both know that. I also know that she will, as expected, rise to the task. 

    
We’ve covered this territory before –this interconnectedness which doesn’t always make itself immediately apparent. It’s an attachment of one life to another like the thread of a web, barely visible, but for the glint of sunlight that shows itself only from a certain afterward perspective. It’s often difficult to see where one span meets another, where filaments cross and then connect. Only sometimes, and at just the right moments, from an exacting vantage can you see how the fibers fit and that they do indeed belong together. 

    
That of course they do.

    
Somehow.




    Even if only briefly.

    
The students with whom I started at this little college are now seniors. They’ll be graduating in May, going off to their lives.

    
As they should.

    
A couple of them will keep in touch.




    For a little while.




    And then they won’t.

    
Kelley’s young charge will likely be a part of her life for a bit longer.




    But she can’t know that for sure.

    
Still, she’ll make the full investment in another’s life, and ask nothing in return. Because she can’t not. 

    
We both take our unanticipated roles as mentors more seriously than we should. With sincerity, we offer them “forever” and don’t expect a reciprocal return. It’s a one-sided arrangement.

    
In a good return on our investment, we’ll receive a thank-you. In a better one, we may truly make a difference in a life or two. In the best scenario, though, someday our young friends will give back. To someone else. If only briefly. 

    
To another person, they’ll promise to be there always, unconditionally, and not ask or expect the same in return.

    
And our invisible legacy will live on.




    Even if we never know that it does.