I Blame Tony Hawk

skateboardOkay, so maybe Tony Hawk was only mildly complicit.

When my kids were little and all avenues were open, I often told them that they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up. I was passionately entrenched in the do-what-you-love camp and touted that message from their earliest days.

Hawk hit his 900 aerial skateboard spin when Michael was just a little guy but the feat and his life’s journey were a shining example of an alternate path. Apparently Hawk was one of those bright hyperactive kids who wasn’t going to sit still in a classroom and recite multiplication tables.

Neither was Michael.

But it was pretty clear to me that Michael wasn’t going to be a Tony Hawk clone. He also wasn’t going to follow in the footsteps of Doug Flutie or Pedro Martinez or a bunch of other uberathletes.  I didn’t tell him he couldn’t, but really, he couldn’t have.

Instead, I gave a caveat to the anything-you-want mantra. If you want something badly enough, you can make it happen; if it doesn’t happen then you didn’t really want it badly enough.

Thus when Alex was showing real promise on the soccer field, I nudged her to add a little extra effort. I’d offer to sit in net and let her take shots or urge her to put in personal practice time after team time. She would –sometimes. More often, she’d look for the next sport or activity to pack into her already jam-packed schedule. Alex was passionate about everything.  No single subject or sport could hold her attention for long.

Michael was a different story. When he took up an endeavor, he became fully immersed. Getting him to transition away was a monumental task.

He wasn’t much of a reader but when he got into Harry Potter, he really got into it. I wasn’t surprised when I had to wrest the book from my third-grader’s hands at 2:00 AM on a school night/morning. How could he be expected to wait to find out what happened next? And there was no question that weight limit or not, all 600 hard-covered pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were coming on our rafting trip even if the nine-year old boy had to carry his own duffle.

Really though, it was science that held him fully captive. He took things apart. Sometimes he put them back together. He made creations in his mind, built stuff with his hands. He set rockets off into the clouds. He entertained and entranced the neighborhood kids and taught them lessons he probably shouldn’t have. He explored –everything.

Clearly Michael and his curious mind were heading to MIT someday.

Not so clearly, after all. A couple of bad science teachers in a row collided with teenage hormones to set Michael on a decided detour. The curious kid with the sharp intellect soon came to hate school. I knew how horribly askew  from academic excellence he’d veered when he told me at the close of one summer vacation that the impending start of school was the time of year in which he stop learning.

He may have slammed the door on schoolbook science, but his passion remained intact. And while he never found his place in a classroom lab again, he did find a home at school: in the music department.

Michael began to breathe music. He took lessons on one instrument, taught himself another and said yes to whichever next instrument the band director asked him to learn. He had bandmates and all his playdates became jam sessions. Music was ALWAYS emanating from our house. The good news for the neighbors was that it was generally really good music. These kids were a bunch of talented musicians. And they weren’t just kids. I answered the door one afternoon to a saxophone player with decades of gigs under his belt telling me he was here to jam with the kids.

Eventually Michael merged music with science. He stepped from center stage to behind stage –or at least behind a board. He recorded, mixed, mastered. He landed a two-month internship at one of Boston’s top recording studios and stayed four years –and counting. He bought equipment. And when he couldn’t find—or afford—that equipment, he built it himself. The kid who hadn’t cracked a textbook for the bulk of his senior year in high school was pleasure reading physics texts, design schematics and books on integrated circuitry and operational amplifiers. He was all in.

Still is.

I’ve heard a lot lately of young adults who followed a more traditional route to their careers. Some of them like their jobs, but more of them do not. In fact, many of them hate their jobs –the long hours, the monotony, the infinity of it all.

Michael works crazy long hours but views that infinity with fervor. The idea that he could spend the rest of his life doing this thing that he loves means more to him than the titles and trappings that some of his peers covet.

Michael’s always been pretty comfortable in his own skin, always known who he is, what he’s wanted to do –even if how he might make that happen wasn’t crystal clear. Maybe it’s still not. But he’s already hit a few 900s of his own.

And he’s doing what he loves.

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Vital Signs

vital signsPulse rate, blood pressure, temperature. Vital signs give clues as to what might be going on inside our bodies. Sometimes those physical symptoms even hint at what’s going on in our heads. Too bad, not always.

Even without medical training, I could usually tell when something was off with my own kids. A tug at an ear, a loss of appetite, a blank stare into space. I knew when they were hungry, tired, sick or sad. Most of the time.

Early on, I also learned to read the signs with my students. Even with new-to-the-fold freshman, I could quickly figure out when something was amiss in their new worlds. It hardly took the mind of a rocket scientist. Or even a psychologist.

When my student confessed that she hadn’t eaten in 36 hours (apparently she counted them), I knew that anything I thought we’d be discussing about classwork was no longer important. I also knew that her not eating wasn’t really about the crappy food or her meager bank account.

She eventually ate –and not just because I began to bring food to our sessions.  She also began to talk. She introduced me to a few of the demons with which she regularly grappled. She had made some bad choices, but then she made good ones. And then a few more. She hit a few potholes, took a detour or two, but eventually got back on the road and found success, in school, in life. And I was never her only resource. She had others who were competent to help her dig deeply, ask tough questions, find some answers.

That first student was the bellwether of things to come. I just didn’t know it at the time. She taught me, though, to look for signs.

I had a student who took naps. Lots of them. Who doesn’t like a good nap? But these sleep habits weren’t restorative; they were wholly depressive. Another student would mention in a text that her hair was greasy; it meant she hadn’t showered. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, or that she didn’t need to. She just couldn’t.

I never signed up for—nor am I in any way qualified to be—de facto therapist to my students. On the other hand, before I can direct them to the very competent people who are trained, they share with me. Sometimes it’s laid bare with crystal clarity. But sometimes I have to look for signs.

I’ve become pretty good at it, too.

But now, instead of waiting for the obvious to unfold, I ask questions early-on. I’m sure with the newbies, those questions seem pretty innocuous. Some of my veterans, though, have figured out that their answers to benign questions about roomies or trips off campus might reveal too much.  They dole out answers with reluctance, put up barriers. Some of them avoid me, altogether.

Eventually, though, they come back around.

And then I have to look for signs all over again.

Don’t Lie to Me

truthKids lie.

I’m thinking that’s not the first time I’ve led with such a radical notion. Apparently the trend continues.

Students do, as well. Sometimes it’s a 21st century version of the dog ate my homework:  my printer broke/computer crashed/files were lost. But sometimes it’s eyeball-to-eyeball utter defiance, you’d-swear-they-were-telling-the-truth.

I’d like to believe that my students and I have developed such great relationships that they would never lie to me. My boss’s response would likely be: Ha.

She knows the job. Knows my students. Knows me.

My students have lied.

Often, those lies come in the form of omissions, not bald-faced lies. If I don’t phrase the question in the exact right manner, then the fuzzy answer they supply isn’t technically, actually a lie. Right?

Sometimes it is.

One of my students came in early with a lie. I never fully trusted her after it. Interestingly, she became more honest as the years passed. By the time she graduated, I could depend on her for a candidness that many of my other students would never provide.

But the one student who I honestly felt was incapable of lying, eventually did.

Wake up call. All bets were off.

I don’t demand complete honesty from all of my students. Truth is, there’s a whole lot of stuff I’d rather not know, so I specifically don’t ask some questions, side-step away from a few difficult conversations. Often, my students are way more comfortable with sharing than I am, but I leave the TMI phrase as a thought bubble in my head and let them talk about things I don’t need to know.

There’s a whole lot I don’t need to know. And I’m okay with that.

Until I need to know. And ask.

I called out a student not long ago. It was close enough to a lie.

I gave a choice. I got complete honesty or I got out.

These aren’t my actual kids. I can (sort of) abandon ship any time. This one had reached the high water mark long ago, and I was ready to bail. I could have, too.

But instead, I got honesty.

So I’m still in.

Maybe good for the student. Not so sure that it’s good for me.

 

A Boss Example

A few years ago it occurred to me that I was probably among very few employees whose first response to an email from her boss was a smile and a pleasant anticipation. I knew that regardless of the challenge that her email might also include, it would be embraced with warmth, respect and always a bit of humor.

endicottWhen Kathy indicated at the beginning of last semester that I might not expect to have her at the helm if I agreed to take on additional students –I didn’t. I love my job and the students. But I know that both sentiments are likely true only because of her steadfast and wise leadership. I never would have been allowed to forge such close relationships with my students without her trust.

Kathy cares passionately about all of the students under her charge, but also believes in the ability of her staff to make good decisions, on their own. The fact that I might not have always followed a college-scripted, by-the-book path wasn’t lost on her.  But she understood that I—and most all of us—always placed the best interest of our students as our top priority. Just like our boss did; we had an awesome example to follow.

She did our jobs—along with her own—for many years so she remained fully in the trenches even as she led the charge. She always understood exactly what we might be going through, because she was often going through it herself.

The you have no idea phrase is ill-suited to account for the myriad scenarios that too closely resemble fiction with regard to some of our students’ antics. But as fabricated as the tales may have sounded, Kathy believed –in what we were telling her, and way more importantly, in the students and all their potential.

She also believed in our abilities to weather whatever student storm came our way and never lost a chance to tell us. I can’t count (seriously, the number is too high) how many times her emails offered appreciation and accolades for the jobs we did.  She never took us for granted, ever.

As to the job(s) she was doing? Amazing doesn’t come close to describing her own job performance. Not only did she know each and every student by name; she also knew their personalities, their parents, their issues, their majors –often even the classes they were taking and what might be tripping up their chance at success.

If her first priority was helping them attain that sometimes illusive success, her second one was loyalty to her staff. She always had our backs. When I first started at the college, a parent contacted me directly with news about her daughter. Kathy made sure I knew that it shouldn’t happen again; parent contact was her department, not ours. It wasn’t because she was worried about what I might say or do, but rather that she knew just how crazy-involved millennial parents could be and wanted to always be a protective buffer against them. She’d handle the crazies if we handled the students.

But when handling the students sometimes got out of hand, we always knew we could turn to her. No matter what she was doing, when it came to her chickadees, everything else could be put on hold. When I switched to nights and began to touch base at the close of her day, I felt a ping of guilt for keeping her from an easy exit out the door. It didn’t stop me, but I knew I was delaying her day’s ending. She never seemed to mind. Whatever she was doing, she stopped. And gave me—and my students—her undivided attention.

To say her departure will leave a gaping hole, is crazy understatement. Her higher-ups are likely unaware how much worse off their cozy little college will be without her. Someone will step into her role –more likely more than someone—but no one will ever fill her shoes. Her staff will miss her beyond words. But the void that will be most profoundly felt, even if only in a reverberating resonance, will be with the students. To those lucky enough to have known her, she is irreplaceable. But even for those who will never know her, she will likely remain a phantom presence, one of hope for their futures and in an unwavering belief in them—all of them—to accomplish great things and become great people.

I believe

Kids lie.

If your immediate response to that statement was duh, you’re probably pretty far along the path of parental evolution.

pinnochioMy own introduction to the concept came early, then often, when my toddler was regaling anyone who would listen with over-the-top anecdotes she swore were true. Today, Alex’s “stories” are more in the white-lie vein as I recently discovered when she gave an immediate—but untrue—response in defense of an action I hadn’t quite yet taken. That her “gotcha back” effort came wrapped in one of those little-white-lies was only mildly disconcerting. At least she wasn’t lying to me.

Her brother doesn’t either. And no, this isn’t head-in-the-sand, my-kid-would-never bravado. Have you read the blog’s title? I hardly think my kids are perfect. But a long time ago Michael and I came to an understanding about truth-telling. If I asked him a question he didn’t want to answer, he got a pass as long as I didn’t get a lie. Judging by the number of times he’s literally left the room when I’ve posited a pointed question, he’s adhered to our original bargain. Either that or he just bolts when the line of questioning gets too perilously close to a full blown conversation of which he wants no part.

Early on, I placed my students into similar they-do/they-don’t categories of lying. Unfortunately, once I put them in those neat little compartments, I often left them there. Wrong move. When the one student I truly believed was incapable of lying did, he turned my black and white notions into a blaze of psychedelic color. And the kid who was painstakingly honest used an à la- Michael mode exit strategy whenever I got too close. No lies, but also no contact –sometimes for days.

I hate that.

And I hate lies.

I want to take what the kids in my life are saying at face value, not just because honesty is a great foundation upon which to build a relationship. But also because I know that much of what they tell me is already tainted by the perceptions of their own world view. Even when they believe what they’re saying is gospel-true, it’s likely stretched through a prism of distorting color. And that’s when their intentions are the best.

When deception is their goal? Well it’s not often pretty and, by the way, they’re not often very good at it. But I hang in there for the full share, however unbelievable or unpalatable.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

My boss recently shared a bit of her personal philosophy with regard to her (and our) students. It’s rare (she’s been at this awhile) but even her chickadees occasionally surprise her with the little white lie (or the great big whopper, who am I kidding?). She said that even when she doesn’t believe them, she still believes in them.

And I’m right there with her.

Because even when they’ve given me reason to mistrust, cause to question my place in their lives and outright justification to fully abandon their lilting ships, I still believe. That the sails will right, that the oceans will calm and that they’ll survive yet another storm. I believe in them and their potential to do great things and become great people –even better than the people they are now. And I believe in their ultimate success –not in the academic, I-got-good-grades sort of success, but in the way more important, I’ve-got-a-handle-on-this-life-thing sort of success.

It’s taken me awhile, but I don’t always believe what they say, but I do believe in them. I have to, because of who I am and also because of who I hope they’ll become.

Cheering for Failure

GradesI meet most of my students when they’re freshmen, unsure and uneasy about the demands of college life, in and out of the classroom. I follow them through senior year, onto graduation and even beyond, and witness their personal growth with pride and pleasure.

I like to think that I’ve helped more than a few of them cross the stage at graduation with a little more knowledge, competence and confidence. I suspect they consider me a cheerleader to their success, audibly shouting from the stands, but more silently relishing in all that they have accomplished.

I wonder if they know, though, that I’ve also rooted for their failure.

When one of my students had atypically gone a full week without showing me any of the work she’d done on a soon-to-be-due paper, I confronted her.

I passed it in.

Huh? I hadn’t caught a glimpse of it yet. This from a student who once worked back-and-forth with me on more than a dozen revisions to a single paper. On the one hand, this is exactly the trajectory I hope for. Eventually, students hand in papers on which they’ve worked hard and long and feel confident enough to put their best work before their professor for a grade –without any assistance from me whatsoever.

In this case, with this girl, I was thinking there was another hand. I asked her why I hadn’t seen it.

She looked me straight in the eye and said, Because it sucked.

The one quality I always loved about this kid was her honesty.

She went on to explain to me that she just didn’t want to do the work I would make her do and that the paper she passed in would earn her a B; she was fine with that. In truth, the paper probably didn’t even deserve a B but she knew the professor. She also knew I held her to a higher standard than he did.

I never saw the paper. She got a B.

I wish she hadn’t.

Just as I’d hoped for that C another student received in final grades instead of a B-. And was glad for the 10 point penalty for the late paper.

Don’t get me wrong. I like receiving those texts with the got an A followed by exclamation points. I really do cheer on their successes –that is when they deserve them.

So many times they don’t.

They take short-cuts, make excuses, do shoddy work. None of it at all surprising. Some of my own college papers were less than stellar. The difference though, was that I usually received grades commensurate to my effort. Lots of work and lots of effort got me a well-earned A. Not so much work got not-so-good grades. No excuses. I got what I’d deserved.

My students seem less likely to acknowledge that their instructors aren’t giving them grades so much as they themselves are (or are not) earning them. They don’t often appreciate that C- as the gift that it is. Really, they want the B.

One of my students bemoaned a poor grade saying the professor could’ve cut him some slack. He likely didn’t appreciate my dude, you’re in college comeback. But called out, he gave me a reluctant admission that he could have submitted better work. Then, he flashed his winning smile. He’ll go far on that alone –he’s counting on it. And today, he may not be wrong.

Maybe my students know better than I. Many of them seem to be doing just fine with minimum effort and maximum manipulation of a system they have a better handle on than I do. They often get the grades they want –even when I wished they hadn’t.

So I’ll keep wishing them ill. Or at least a handful of them.

It’s only the students who are most capable for whom I truly cheer for defeat. Because they may know all the short cuts, but I know all the scenery they miss when they don’t take the full ride.

 

 

Butterflies

They’re more than just butterflies. For most of the students I know the transition back to school doesn’t merely cause a gently uncomfortable fluttering in their stomachs. It’s more like a Molotov cocktail mix of emotion creating tumultuous explosions in their brains. While many of their peers experience a sort of nervous excitement at the beginning of a new fall semester, my kiddos are struggling with amped up anxiety that can be nearly debilitating.

Precedent (and I) reminds them they’ll get through this transition –again. They’ve managed. They have found success.

Still, this is not an easy time of year.

butterflyLong after I had no reason to worry about the upcoming first day of school, I still fought off flutters. Into adulthood I had dreams of roaming hallways, missing classes. Then it was the vicarious connection to my own children that left me sleepless before that first day of school.

In spite of the reasons she had to hate back-to-school, Alex has always been fairly unfazed by transition. When she was a toddler and I woke her to tell her we were going to Disney World, she didn’t miss a beat. Years later, when her little brother was given a similar sort of surprise, he kicked at the Contemporary Hotel room door in an effort to escape. Disney, Mickey and the whole army of animated friends he’d come to love were no enticement. He wanted to go home and sleep in his own bed.

For a lot of years, school was a sort of home for Michael. He was blessed with good grade school teachers who were more captivated by his intellect and humor than intolerant of his quirkiness. It didn’t last. An ominous sort of foreshadowing came when, with grade school in his rearview mirror, Michael told me that back-to-school was the time of year he stopped learning.

My students don’t always embrace learning. But their reluctance to reenter the rat race of college life often has little to do with what they are taught in the classroom. It’s all that other stuff.

It’s too bad they couldn’t step back and remember—if only for a second or two—that the classroom stuff is actually why they’re at school. Mom and dad and they may have too fully embraced the notion of an elusive “college experience.” Coursework and learning sometimes take a backseat to the life lessons college students are allegedly learning on campus. I’m all for some big picture ideals but what exactly is wrong with that other learning –you know, the one for which they’re paying the big bucks?

I’ve met all levels of learners and have seen the good and bad in educators. I sometimes harken back to Alex’s fifth grade teacher who was clear in her high expectations for all her students. She raised the bar and –regardless of their innate abilities—her students met it. They were often able to do better than they thought they could –probably because someone believed that they could, too.

I believe my students are ready and able—even if they’re not always willing—to succeed. I confess, though, that I have a particular fondness for the smart kids. (Did I mention that rarely do the smart ones receive the best grades? And no, I am not referring to Michael right now.) I cut some students a bit more slack than I should because I believe, in spite of much reluctance on their part and evidence to the contrary, they’ll get it. They’ll find something worth learning, whether it’s in or out of the classroom, and go full throttle in the direction of their passion. They’ll head toward an abyss of knowledge and plunge into its depths.

So maybe the students who are most frightened by the fall transition are dead-on accurate. Just imagine how scary it must be for them to stand at the precipice of their full potential.