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.

 

 

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.

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.




Keys to the Time Machine



    The keys are more likely to land in the laps of my children these days, but I doubt they notice the weight or understand its value. I’m sure the offerings would earn a much more worthy reaction if they came attached to a logo-emblazoned key chain.


    But they don’t.


    So it’s likely that the kids and their cousins miss the lead-in nuances. That they don’t sense movement of the vehicle until they’re fully onboard.


    Once strapped in, though, they’re in for the full ride. Usually, quite entranced and willing.


    I’m still a kid in the eyes of the next generation up, so I’m able to enjoy an occasional trip on the time machine, myself.


    Always a treat. Often a surprise.


    One of my students was recently assigned an audio project whereby he would record an interview with someone who had been a “witness to history.” His particular task was made more difficult because he didn’t have a means off campus.


    No worry, I assured him, among my peers and me, surely we could find a witness or two.


    Not so easy.


    The lot of us proved just a little too young, and a little too lacking in the pulse-of-the nation experiences that might have set us front-and-center at a few world events. Collective minds together, we came up with the one person who perhaps had the right resume.


    It worked. Norm at least had the college campus recollection of listening to the somber toll of bells that indicated President Kennedy had been assassinated.


    When I shared this story in a family setting, my mom, aunts and uncles, offered their recollections of where they were the day that Kennedy was shot. They each remembered. Vividly.


    But it was my uncle’s nonchalant memory of his buddy rushing to retrieve him with the statement,  Jack’s been shot. C’mon we’ve got to get back to the White House.


    What? Huh?


    You were in D.C. when Kennedy got killed?


    A shoulder shrug.


    How did I not know this? How did WE not know?


    (I called my cousin on the way home; she had no idea.)


    Let me explain. My uncle is not some political stalwart. He’s not a diplomat or a dignitary. This was merely one of those place-and-time situations. He was stationed in D.C. Just happened to be there as history unfolded.


    (Btw, he also attended the funeral, but I’m getting too far astray of the time machine message.)


    My uncle and his siblings hold keys.


    Last Thanksgiving, the same uncle regaled with stories of the Lavadora man, who rounded the streets of Boston selling his magical bleaching water. Holding court around a table full of food and family, he took us all back. To another time, to a different era.


    It was as if Einstein’s musings on the fluidity of time travel were being tested outside the lab, fueled on a satiated hunger, a bit of wine, and a rapt audience.


    The kids were enthralled. Some of the big kids were, as well.


    I wonder that we don’t appreciate the treasure chests available to us all while we still have access to their keys. What’s so easily unlocked with a small prod or a simple question can also be too easily lost. Unless we’re wise enough to grab a hold of the keys and give the time machine an occasional spin.







   




Firefly Light

firefly light   I’ve been going about it all wrong.

    I keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, some blazing sure sign that everything’s going to work out for the kids I know.

    As if life comes with that sort of guarantee.

    It doesn’t.

    Instead of allowing myself to be engulfed by the darkness, then, maybe I need to embrace a little night vision. As if I’m stepping in from the blinding white of snow, perhaps all it requires is an adjustment of perspective.

    Because the light is there, even if I can’t always see it.

    So I’m going to start looking for small flashes of light -from wherever they may come.

    When my student agrees to lay off the partying for awhile and seems to be following through, there’s a blink of light. And when I see the little girl who clung to her mommy’s leg as if she were gripped there with adhesive, now self-advocate as a teenager –again, I see that spark of light.

    My son’s hits of light may seem more moth-to-fame to his mother. Maybe with Michael it’s a little more difficult because he’s mine. Too many of the traits that frequently frustrate are those which are also too familiarly my own.

    But still there are flickers.

    Even if I sometimes have to be reminded when they occur.

    When I recently started a story with my sister-in-law, “Michael and I had a conversation-“ she stopped me mid-sentence. She wanted me to note it for the pleasant anomaly that it was.

    We had a conversation.

    They’re fairly infrequent. And should be appreciated.

    I might have missed it for the glimmer of light that it was.

    So here-on-in, I’m looking for light, however brief and undramatic. It likely won’t hit with lightning bolt clarity; I’ll have to pay attention.

    I’m not going to look to be bedazzled by the ten thousand degree flash from a star. Instead, I’ll lay in wait for those pinpricks of light, like the eye-catch of white that comes with firefly flight.

    So when Michael exits the car and leans in to give me a kiss on the cheek as if it’s still habit, I’ll note the spark. But I’ll also remind myself not to reach out for the flutter of light, lest I risk dousing the flame and turning it to ash.

 

Motley Crew


    My brother and I were standing at the back of the room when I looked to the people gathered around the family members.


    What a motley crew, I whispered to him.


    He glanced up, nodded and chuckled.


    We weren’t being unkind or inappropriately disrespectful in such a somber setting. It was merely an observation.


    And an accurate one, at that.


    Surrounding the casket of Mikey Fat (seriously –his lifelong nickname) were an assortment of my father’s childhood friends. Among the dignitaries were a construction worker, an accountant, a bachelor who’d managed to live unemployed until his forties, an attorney who’d gone afoul of his clients and the law, and the now-passed Mikey Fat –a much overweight gentle soul whose idiosyncrasies would have had him diagnosed with server neurosis if such  a term were used in his day.


    The commonality for these men was the corner in Eastie on which they all stood as boys. Hanging out, shooting hoops, shooting-the-shit, as my father might have said.


    That my father’s loyalties to this mismatched mix of men never wavered said something about the time in which he grew up. It said, I think, more about him.


    I remember my dad asking me to pen a letter in his name on behalf of the lawyer friend. The fact that my father’s own moral compass couldn’t have tolerated such a transgression didn’t matter. His friend was in trouble. You do for your friends. Like you do for your family. You stand by them, no matter what rules they had broken, no matter what mistakes had been made.


    The ideal may sound quaint in today’s world of ever-altering alliances.


    But I wonder often about that very simple premise –of standing up for and by someone, of having his back. And why it is today on such infrequent display. I see so little evidence of it in the world, in general, but more sadly in the generation of children who have become adults under my watch.


    When I asked one of my students recently how many of her college friends she expected to keep after graduation, she said she wasn’t sure, then quickly turned the question back to me –how many had I continued to call friend?


    None.


    Not the answer she had expected.


    Nor was its addendum –probably because I kept my high school friends.


    The fact that many of the people who remain most important in my life have known me since I was a kid probably says something about me. I’m not sure what. Am I unadventurous because I live within a 25 mile radius of where I was born and hold onto the connections that geography makes easy? Does my still dependable circle of friends indicate that I’m loyal or lazy?


    Hmmm.


    My friends would likely form a line alongside allegiance. But they can hardly criticize my long-term fidelity without calling into question their own.


    My father, my mother, my brother –all share this bent toward long-lasting relationships. Even my oldest brother, who traveled the world, brought along with him on his life’s journey a few of his closest hometown friends. I think he was better for it.


    I think we all are.


    My kids and my students seem to understand the bond of family. They get the idea of unconditional love from/to a parent or a sibling. I don’t know, though, if they see the potential for it elsewhere. Or rather, maybe they think they do –but then are too often disappointed. They either feel first-hand betrayal, or are themselves too quickly willing to forego effort for expediency.


    Maybe it’s all part of their hyper-connectedness beyond small circles. These digital natives seem to communicate well with the world. They do less well, however, communicating across a room. And the speed with which they do most everything seems to foster impatience.


    And if a relationship is truly going to stand the test of time, it demands a certain measure of patience.


    And perseverance -and loyalty.


    I  understand that  my young charges cannot fully fathom the notion of having friendships that have lasted as long as they have been alive.


    Makes me sound old. And maybe a bit naïve –because I still hold dear to a long ago ideal of loyalty that my father taught me so well.