Tigger Teacher

tiggerOn her first trip to Disney, we searched high and low for sightings of her favorite character. Unfortunately, Pooh Bear wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous on location as he was in our own home.  I knew how desperate we were becoming when
daddy considered greasing palms for access to the furry fellow.

Pooh was finally sighted, at first from parade distance, but later at a breakfast where the dreamed of full-fledged, flesh-to-fuzz hug could be completed. We could have left Mickey and company right then and there with mission accomplished euphoria.

Who doesn’t like Pooh?

But really, I wondered, why wasn’t my little girl seeking out the character with whom she most clearly identified?

Watching my exuberant toddler bouncing around the office one day, I asked Alex if she was Tigger.

She looked at me with a “duh” expression more befitting a teenager than a two-year-old. Then, with a thumb in the air gesture to her back and rapidly nodding head, she said, “see my stripes?” as if, how could I not?

Alex has always been a Tigger.

I love that about her.

To say she’s had reasons NOT to be would be a full recoloring of her personal history. But from the moment she emerged healthy from Brigham & Women’s NICU, Alex has always managed to find a way to bounce back. Over and over again.

I wish I could say the same for the other kids in my life. I think I know way more Eeyores, or perhaps more likely Piglets –a mass of fretting fatalists, feeling small, ineffectual, and always worrying.

Convincing them that there’s less to worry about than they think can often be one of the most challenging parts of my job. Interestingly, I don’t do it by telling them all’s right with the world and that everything’s going to be okay. I can’t always make that promise. Instead, I ask them simply to consider –what’s the worst thing that could happen?

It’s an exercise not all of them embrace. For the zero-to-ninety few who escalate too quickly, having them consider the worst imaginings of their mind can set them in a tailspin. However, for a few of my overly anxious kiddos, walking them through the unlikely steps of their worst case scenarios is an exercise in reality. It helps them pause, step back and understand that the worst stuff doesn’t usually happen. And sometimes—when the worst thing is a bad grade or missed assignment or even a failed class—maybe it’s not so bad, after all. Even when the bad is really bad, I can sometimes get them to step outside of their insular lives and understand that they still may have more to be thankful for than most.

Pooh Bear might be a pretty apt philosopher. His simple-minded, but kind musings stand clear as a reminder that being nice is pretty good way to go. However, when the one person the kids have trouble being nice to is themselves, I’d opt for a little Tigger tutelage. Because when the
going gets tough, what they really need to do is –bounce.



Got your back


The job title of one of my peers is “reputation manager.” Her responsibilities include a host of duties but her big picture task is to keep an eye (ear, nose, computer) out for potential problems that our clients might encounter with regard to their brand image. She’s their first line of defense
against online insult.  She offers them sound counsel and guides them toward good decisions. But she’s in their corner regardless of the choices they make.

kittyShe’s got their backs.

I don’t know her well, but I think her career focus probably says something about the kind of friend she might be: a good one.

She probably watches out for her friends the way she watches out for our clients.

I understand the premise. My own friends get to make fun of my idiosyncrasies, call me out when I make mistakes, laugh at me, as well as with me.

Because they’ve also got my back.

Over the years, my friends have literally stepped in-between me and perceived threats. Even when I don’t need protecting, their instinct is to protect.

It goes both ways. I’ve got their backs, too. And they know it.

I wish the kids I know had such assured relationships. They don’t. This isn’t my perception; it’s what they tell me all the time.

One of my students turned to me in a medical emergency. She had lots of roommates she called friends, but none of them stepped up when she needed them. She defended their inaction; I couldn’t.

There’s a give and take, of course. I don’t know that the kiddos with whom I become so very close necessarily have what it takes to be really good friends themselves. With blinders on, I want to believe they do, but I’ve seen evidence to the contrary.

The milennials have universally been pegged as lacking the work ethic of the generation before them.  This may go hand-in-hand with their dearth of binding friendships. Relationships take work –lots of it. And if their instinct when the going gets tough is to get going in another direction, they’re missing out.

On the other hand, I sometimes side in their corner with regard to self-preservation. Friendships—particularly those among women—can present a rocky, messy mass. My instincts on their behalf often err on the side of caution, my own sort of protectionism kicking in. While part of me is urging them to put themselves out there, take a chance, make a friend, I’m secretly hoping that they don’t get hurt. Even those with inner resilience can only take so much being knocked down before they no longer have the strength to get up. And once rejected (or twice, or more), it’s super hard to be super forgiving.

The road to lifelong friendships is littered with landmines and I don’t know if these young travelers have the agility to make safe passage. I’d suggest some protective armor, then, but still a forward progression. Because the risk of a bit of flying shrapnel is more than worth the territorial reward.


Misguided Confidence

In answer to a prompt I asked early on last semester about what they “believe” one of my students alluded to the success he would
achieve because he had confidence.


number one

Self-confidence is a great trait to own.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help wondering if he wasn’t putting the proverbial cart before the horse. It was great that he could
display confidence on that internship or job interview, but about what, exactly, did he have to be confident?

Now maybe at the ripe old age of 18 he’s already scaled great
heights of which I’m unaware but he didn’t hint at any. The only thing it seemed he was bringing to the table was that confidence.

He’s not alone. 

According to last year’s survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 57% of hiring managers say the millenials come off as overconfident in interviews.

While I know this can’t be shocking news—we’ve been telling
the members of Gen Y they’re wonderful since the day they were born—when I interact with these kids one-on-one, the story is a bit more complicated.

Some of them are indeed confident where they don’t deserve to be. But many of them use the guise of confidence to mask gripping
insecurities. They’ve donned the illusion of self-confidence to shirk
self-reflection. They’ll act the role of confident applicant, but deep down they don’t believe it.

But they also won’t let on.

I’ve run afoul of new students more than once when I critique
their work. They act indignant when I suggest that maybe they could do a better job, or worse still, when I tell them that they’ve missed the point of the assignment, altogether. They do not like being told that they’re wrong –especially from someone they barely know. Interestingly, once they get to know me, they crave a bit of my criticism. They want some honest feedback –even when I tell them they could do better. Maybe, because they know they can, too.

The flip side to their thinking-they’re-wonderful-when-they’re-not,
is that sometimes they don’t give themselves the credit they deserve. Somebody, somewhere has saddled them with a label or two and they cling to it like it’s their only identity. When I suggest that maybe they’re better, more capable than they think they are, that’s when they truly doubt me.

Really, it doesn’t take me long to convince my students that their papers aren’t as good as they think. It takes me way longer to show them that they are a whole lot better than they think they are.


Reluctant Role Models

sad faceHere’s a disquieting thought. Maybe kids suck….because we do.

What has me pondering the notion isn’t just the startling fall from grace of Michael’s angel or the flash of hurt and anger that fill his eyes when yet another adult disappoints. Because it isn’t just about the kids in my life or the adults I know who don’t measure up.

Athletes willingly accept accolades and actors enjoy adoration. Just as long as they’re not asked to do too much in return.

Those in the public eye who are called upon to serve as de facto role models often shun the responsibility, abhorring its potential pitfalls. In spite of their blessings, they consider the notion of reciprocal obligation above-and-beyond the scope of their jobs.

Rihanna shot back with defiance when a reporter labeled her a toxic role model last summer, noting that it wasn’t the gig she’d signed up for. The dozens of NFL players who’ve landed in ignominy since the last Super Bowl seem only apologetic when their antics are answered with a hit to their paychecks. And politicians and lawmakers step in and out of the limelight with the dexterity of dancers, donning the beacon only when it’s self-serving.

On grand scales and small, few people seem ready to shoulder the role model responsibility.

And if we’re not collectively willing to set a good example or two, why are we so shocked when our kids make mistakes?

The ideal of role models may hearken to simpler times when roles were set in black and white contrast instead of high def color and clarity. Maybe our hyper-vigilant media and instant connect lives do make being a role model a more daunting undertaking than ever before.

But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Parents have no choice. Like it or not, we are our own kids’ best—and worst—role models. They accept or rebel against the examples we set.

But we owe it to more than our own offspring to offer the good (and bad) examples from our lives. We owe it to the next generation to step up even if we get absolutely nothing in return. In fact, we should do it only if we expect nothing in return.

Talk about hearkening back.

Finally (reluctantly), I’ve accepted the moniker of mentor to a few people in my life. I’m less inclined to lock into the notion of being their role model.

I’m lucky that the kids I know are just self-absorbed enough not to ask me the really tough questions. I know I look better to them when they draw their own positive conclusions. The illusion is my own good gig.

But being a role model is another –whether I like it or not.

I can’t offer them a perfect example, but I might be able to impart a lesson or two. And I can hold them up to their own good standards, even when they don’t know how good they can be.

And I can be honest. Insist that they are too –to me and to themselves.

The thing is that they can be role models, too. They don’t want to be. I don’t blame them. But they should be. And we should demand it of them.

Occasionally I get to put peer-to-peer and let them teach one another. They’re not often fans of my manipulations but they acquiesce.

It’s easier at home. Alex knows she’s supposed to set a good example. She doesn’t seem to mind. Older sister, older cousin; she’s a good fit to her position.

Even Michael is tepidly stepping up to the plate. When his little cousin crossed a line that he wouldn’t, he felt compelled to share her disrespect. There was a time, in the not so distance past, when Michael as role model would have seemed a scary precept; not any more. It’s his turn to set a good example or two, to offer someone younger or newer a bit of sage advice –even if it is from a 19-year-old kid. Already, Michael has a lot to offer as a role model.

We all do.



Snowplows and Teacups

Helicopter parents are so yesterday’s news apparently.

Now those same parents are snowplowing their children’s woes out of the way, so the kiddos don’t have to feel the crush or cold of the snow.

shattered teacupSee that’s probably part of my problem. I actually like snow.

Okay, so maybe I’m not wild about driving in it and I’m not exactly bouncing around in it barefoot. Oh wait, I actually have walked around barefoot in the snow. And it was cold. Duh. Point is, I figured it out. And bad mommy that I am, I’ve often let my own kids learn those kinds of lessons by themselves. Even my students are forced to claim their own consequences with the hands-off approach I sometimes take. I’m there to help (I think) but I don’t tell them that they (or their work) are wonderful when they’re not.

Bella English of the Boston Globe did a good job of laying out a powerful imagery in her juxtaposition of monster snowplows protecting fragile little teacups. These snowplowing parents think they’re doing their kids some kind of protective service but they’re not. Unless those snowplows plan on never breaking down, they’re more likely creating mountains with their meddling than any sustainable clear path to the future for their children.

Sorry, but it snows –and rains. Stuff happens. Horrible, tragic, impossible-to-get-over stuff happens.

Impossible-to-get-over, that is, because some of them have never learned how.

I know a few of those teacups. It seems they can’t hold too much before they overflow and become so easily broken.

Or maybe not.

I have a story about the bone china teacups in my own dining room cupboard.

Wait –that has nothing to do with where I’m going.

Did you know that genuine bone china is actually made from calcified bone? It’s bone ash mixed with clay to create something delicately beautiful. Even if you ignore my totally sledgehammer rising-from-the- ashes metaphor, I’m hoping you won’t miss the powerful notion of resilience.

My little teacups have often been through stuff. Those mega-engine plows have been unable to prevent the storm or whopping wallop fall of snow to the teacups entrusted to their care. Those porcelain babies have been pelted –and hard. But they are weathering the storm. Somehow, regardless of how translucently bare and vulnerable they appear, they’ve figure it out.

They’ve gotten through to the other side -in spite of the weather and of those stupid snowplows which hold the power to protect, but sometimes shatter them to shards.


Facebook Funeral

I’m going to die.

coffinNot any time in the near future, hopefully, but it’s going to happen.

And when it does, I don’t want the people I love, those near-and-far, to hear about it first from Facebook –or Twitter, or Instagram, or Snapchat (or whatever else is next coming ‘round the bend).

I want face-to-face time. I want somebody 1 to sit with somebody 2 and tell them I’m gone.

This request isn’t self-serving –it isn’t about me. How could it be? I’m not even here in this scenario.

And I’m not being old (okay, well maybe I am) or anti media.

It’s also not meant to inflict pain. But it will.

I’ve been both people; the person giving the news, the person getting the news. I like neither role. But in the old days (apparently, I am old), there was a visit or at least a phone call with a live, breathing voice at the other end of the line. The message wasn’t sent out to friends and frenemies, alike. And the person receiving it wasn’t blindsided without a buffer.

There was expression, sound -a knitted brow, maybe, a catch in the throat.

And there was touch. Flesh on flesh or weighted woolen hugs through layers of fabric that still felt humanly warm.

Social media makes it easier to spread bad news. And super fast. Certainly, it’s easier for the person sharing. A message is typed, then texted, or posted or tweeted or merely sent. And it’s out there. Exploding into the universe. Collateral damage be damned.

Maybe this new mode is also less difficult for the recipients –alone or in public, they can privately process. Before they have to suffer the presence of human contact.

We avoid human contact a lot, these days, often virtually present, but fully absent in real-life encounters.

I get it. We humans are pretty messy.

Life is messy. 

Grief is messy.

Being alone is cleaner, more sterile, less complicated.

It’s easier.

Until it’s not.

Because there are times when we’re just not meant to be alone.

I wish my students would embrace this tenet a little bit more. Safely set in the cocoon of their rooms, they’re often constantly connected with their virtual friends. But less truly connected with the real people in their lives. They get sucked into dramas playing out on the internet instead of being present in the many more genres their real lives could offer –if they’d let them.

Super-connected in cyperspace, they’re less connected in personal spaces.

And they’re missing out.

On all that icky, messy human stuff.

All the sad stuff, all the bad news.

But they’re also missing out on a whole bunch of good stuff that flies too fleetingly fast on iclouds and in viral bursts.

News of first jobs and new babies, of graduations and marriages, of singular and simply happy days, is all posted and past –in an instant.

We see it –it’s right in front of us. Quick –look, feel, react.

It’s almost like we’re there.

But we’re not.

Learning Curves (and bumps)

I have a new job. And I’m learning.

I love learning.

I wish I could say my students were all as equally passionate about the notion.

But the learning curve for some is steeper than others. I’ve noticed there’s a particularly rough grade for freshmen. Generally, though, the incline has little to do with what’s happening in the classroom. It’s all that other stuff.

Whether they fully believe it or not, they (and their problems) aren’t so unusual and they’re not nearly as unique and special as mommy and daddy have told them.

I don’t often offer up that reality-check, though.

The truth is that when they’re in the midst of their stuff, I’m right in there with them. I can’t trivialize the parts of school and life that tie them in knots. I get that in the moment, it—whatever it is—is the whole world. It’s inwardly turned hyperfocus on steroids, but myopically blurred. And even if my vantage point affords a clearer vision of where they stand and where they might be going, I can’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t. For starters, I can only help connect the dots beginning where they are now. I don’t have the full picture, don’t fully know where they’ve been.

In spite of all they share—and they share a lot—whatever I learn is filtered through the rainbow prism of their eyes. That’s a bad thing. And a good one. Bad because it’s completely skewed. Good because it is fully their version of their own lives, the only one with which I really need concern myself. Their egocentric view helps me connect better to the tilt of their plane, helps me decide on how hard to push. I wish I could say the solution was as neatly set as a2 + b2 = c2. It isn’t. I have no surefire mathematical equation on which to rely. There aren’t any hard and fast rules in their simply complicated lives.  

Instead, I puzzle together answers from questions they can’t always articulate.

What I do know is that before they can start the research or writing or—not often—math and economics, they need to clear some space in their brains. They need to start somewhere—maybe at the edges—before they can link pieces from piles of disconnected colors.

When I first started this job I didn’t know clutter clearer would be one of my roles or that my vision might help my students see more clearly. We work together, one piece at a time, and then maybe a step away. And then back—to see the picture slowly emerging—of who they are and who they are becoming.

We all start at the base of our own learning curves. How well we scale the peak and how circuitous our routes can be pretty varied, but there is no singularly right way. At least not from my vantage point.




Transitioning Away


In the time-capsuled crevices of my life are youthful certainties about the people who would forever be a part of my world. Ah, but for the punishing erosion of time, perhaps they would have remained thusly so.

Jump forward too many years to count and I am again at graduation. My students’, my son’s and, in a way, my own. But now I know -perhaps too much.

Amy’s been capturing moments like butterflies, trying to turn memories to permanence through pictures and music. At only 17, she’s already viewing portions of her life through the nostalgic prism of time passed and seeing too many lasts. Last concert, last banquet, last time. Because she articulates it better than the boys, I know she’s feeling a mix of transitional emotions. She’s so ready to let go, move on, grow up. And yet.

There are people to whom she desperately wants to hold on.

Michael is one of them.

I’m glad of that.

Still, she knows there are no guarantees. And I cannot offer her full assurances to the contrary.   

Doubtful it occurs to my students that I take attendance. It’s a paperwork requirement of the job.

Simple. But this year, also telling.

I have two students who have had strikingly dissimilar attendance records over the years I’ve known them. One is past perfect; she has come to see me even in unscheduled snippets, has frequently extended an hour of time into two. The other has offered up dozens of my-dog-ate-my-homework reasons to miss our sessions.

This semester, though, my young friends have reversed their courses.

The truant comes early and often, texts me with grade and life updates. The other has been MIA more than ever before, has even “forgotten” to come to our meetings at all. Seriously?

And I am reading into their role reversals.

They are each leaving this slice of their lives behind them, but doing so in divergently different ways. One is hanging on; the other is pulling away.

I have an idea or two about whom among my students may keep in touch when they leave our little campus. My premonitions are exactly the opposite of the way I once would have viewed our partings. I’ll likely hear from the less-likely considered. For awhile, at least. And then, maybe, from no one at all.

I wonder if my students can fully fathom leaving their friends behind, if they can imagine disconnection from people to whom they feel so completely connected. I can only do so, because I’ve already done so.

Over the years, I have let so many people slip from my life, like grains of sand through time’s hourglass. I am sorry for their absence. On the other hand, still alongside me on my sometimes stumbling journey are adult friends who knew me as a child. I am thankful for their presence.

With the passion of youth and the impossible distance of time, it was once easy to think in terms of forever friendships. The notion faded with the years and checks of reality. But now, decades into our relationships, my friends and I, who rarely stray to the sentimental, admittedly acknowledge that since we’ve been friends this long, we probably will be forever.

I can’t tell my students, my son or his friends who among their friends will remain in their lives. I can only offer the evidence of time that some people do. And that sometimes, if you’re both fortunate and determined, there really are always and forevers.