Kindergarten Cool

        Even in kindergarten, Kurt was one of the cool kids.

        Michael –not so much. He was a science kid with some
quirky habits and an incessant need to chatter. His best friends were the girls
listening raptly of his latest creations; not the boys tossing footballs and
playing tackle.

Easy to understand, then, that Kurt and Michael were not
going to be soul mates.

On the other hand, their relationship could have played
out much differently than it did over the years.

But early on, I caught a glimmer of things to come.

Tapped as photographer for his third grade class, I was in
charge of taking candid shots one morning when I was privy to a single
schoolyard conversation that would foreshadow Michael’s station among his peers
throughout his school years.

A few boys were building a snow fort at recess. I couldn’t
fully assess the group dynamic, but Kurt was clearly in charge. At least a head
taller than his peers, Kurt was a formidable presence on the playground and
when he spoke, the kids (and often adults) listened. When construction was
being hampering by too many hands at work, the boys scattered the newcomers from
the project.

Then Kurt spoke –except,
Michael. He can stay; he’s good at this stuff
.

And the boys listened.

That early stamp-of-approval was telling. Of both boys.

In spite of star-sponsored campaigns against it, bullying
remains an insidious presence on school grounds across the country. Rarely a
month goes by without headlines offering the worst-case-scenario results of unchecked
tormentors.

In a parallel universe, Kurt could have been a bully;
Michael a victim.

But Kurt wasn’t a mean kid. And Michael was always comfortable
in his own skin.

He was also funny and smart and honest. Regardless of how
far astray Michael’s interests were from many of his peers, the kids left a
spot for him –on the playground, in the classroom and even on their teams.

A few years later, one of the not-so-nice kids on
Michael’s team had him aside, away from the safety of teammates and coaches. I watched
the encounter from a distance, with apprehension; I’d seen and heard this boy
in action. But when I later asked Michael why he’d been singled out, Michael
said his teammate had been giving him some batting pointers. Hmm.

I like those sorts of surprises. They make me think that
our kids often do better without us. That off of our interceptive radar, they don’t
disappoint.

Truth is –bullies aren’t born; they’re created. More
often than not, they are the offspring and fully woven cloth of their parents.
Apples, trees –an old lesson, but a telling one, nonetheless. Genes collide
with circumstance and the results are what produce those headlines: bullies and
beaters and cheaters and worse –rapists and killers.

In classrooms and playgrounds and high school hallways, we
can teach our students to follow the golden rule, to respect their peers and
their teachers. We can craft handbook rules and laws of punishment. We’d be
better off, though, starting at home, modeling the behavior we expect of our
children. By giving them praise only when they deserve it; offering punishment that fits the crime, and by stepping back sometimes and allowing them to receive the
results of a few natural consequences.

Sure, teachers need to be disciplinarians; it’s in their
job description. And laws of protection—even when they seem common sense—need to
be clear and enforceable. But sometimes back-to-basics isn’t such a bad idea:
do unto others, love thy neighbor, and maybe -just be a good person. 



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Guns in the Cupboard

After the tiny town school, Alex moved on to the tri-town middle school. We both did.

The thing about a small town is that even when you’re not trying, you become connected to the community. You learn addresses not by roadways and street signs, but rather by who lives in a particular neighborhood.
For the good and bad of it, you also learn which kids and families receive the parental thumbs up -and down.

I was never a particular fan of the system. It seemed overly judgmental to label a kid as persona non grata based on a kindergarten infraction. I was equally suspect of the kids and families others were clamoring to get near; I didn’t necessarily see their appeal.

On the other hand, it was easy to learn which parents turned a blind eye toward bad behavior; which houses were vacant at peak kid hours, and which parents said yes more often than no.

Middle school parents, however, were the unknown entity. They were from those other towns. It
was like starting all over again and required effort.

Upon her first invitation to go to the home of a new friend, Alex and her easy assent to the invite was temporarily thwarted by her intruding parent: me. The truth is that my kids learned early on that I’d be
asking a whole lot of questions, making calls, climbing doorsteps. If they minded it terribly, they didn’t let on. Perhaps they took to heart my oft stated quip that one of my parental perks was embarrassing my offspring and were reluctant to test its boundaries.

So in this instance, Alex didn’t mind the call –didn’t stay in the room for the conversation.

Didn’t hear when I asked if there were firearms in the home.

The woman was surprised by the question, but liked it.

I’ve never thought to ask that, she said.

She put it on her evolving to-do list when sending her own daughter off on a new-people play date.

When the Journal News published the names and addresses of gun owners in three New York counties,
there was an immediate and very vocal backlash. No surprise. Claiming a right to publish under the Freedom of Information Act, the newspaper not only stood by its decision, but is now broadening the scope –ready to out more gun owners in additional counties. Get ready for an avalanche of hate tweets and I-threats.

While part of me lauded the notion of such easy—albeit lazily obtained—access to the gun info, the ethicist in me cringed at the publication of names and addresses of citizens who had committed no crime nor been embroiled in any story involving them as individuals. The journalist in me, likewise, remembered long ago common sense rules of how to properly handle stories—and more importantly—the subjects of them. The ideal of simple fairness came to mind.

Although I am no longer sending my own children off on play dates, I nonetheless still consider knowledge about guns in homes as need-to-know information for parents. We have a right to know a little something about the other adults to whom we’re entrusting our kids, what may be in their cupboards and how securely their contents are set.

The trouble with the Journal’s unveiling is that it did more to inflame than aid. When rage boils over in the aftermath of horrific events, many of us grab to anger as if it’s a life ring instead of a weight. When we are most threatened, we’re also most passionate. And while this passion can yield action, it doesn’t do much good when met by similarly passionate opponents.

The answer, then, isn’t to take sides, but rather to take the side of our kids. Thousands of children are killed each year in the U.S. from gunshots. Thousands.

There is a middle ground. For the sake of our kids, it’s time we find it. Before it’s too late.

 

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving

        The greeting is neither the product of a senior moment nor of an early imbibing. Rather at the close of the old year and onto a new one, I am doing a bit of mental aerobics that has me looking back—and forward—at the same time.

     From the tiniest of human interactions to the biggest, boldest occurrences of life and nature, it can be a complicated world. Particularly at the close of 2012, newspaper print and Twitter tweets, alike, seemed to have sent out the resounding message that there’s much for which to be saddened and
sorrowful. So many events left us shaking our heads, sighing, wiping away tears and asking why?

     But

     There’s always something for which to be thankful.

     So rather than ring in 2013 with only ideas of what could be better, and what needs improvement, I’ll first reflect upon all in the world and in my own life that isn’t so bad.

     Starting with my kids.

     Fodder for the often apropos site’s title, they are nonetheless the people in my life for whom I am most grateful. I have a beautifully resilient and optimistic daughter who texts me pictures of rainbows and happily includes me in her world, at every turn. And I have a son who is strong and sensitive and passionate -about love and life and work. He’s set on a full throttle ride with intellect and fight and heart -always with heart.

     The other kids are family and friends and students.

     It’s probably because I am so fully surrounded by them all that I look to kids when I think of the new year and new beginnings. For all the reasons that the lot of them can give us justified sleepless nights, I still believe in them.

     I believe that the foundation we’ve all set will stick. That the kids in our lives will take what we’ve taught them, tweak it to fit -maybe even improve upon it- and then make it work.

     I believe in them.

     And the New Year.

     Happy New Year everyone.

     But especially to the kids in my life.

 

 

Brand Loyalty

coffinMy friend’s dad passed away recently. Sad, but at 84, he’d lived a good, full life and leaves a legacy of family, friends and service. 

At the bottom of a lengthy obituary, I read that the wake would not be held at the local funeral home with which we’re all most familiar. I asked my friend –why not? After all, her parents had called our town home for nearly 50 years. They were both public school teachers, avid churchgoers, active in their community. And this other funeral home was in a town to which they had no affiliation or allegiance, no connection. 

But for one. 

See, the funeral home was owned by Lou’s friend. A childhood friend. 

Nuf said. 

Her dad and mine grew up in Eastie, stood on different street corners of the same small neighborhood of a big city. Graduated from East Boston High, married Eastie women. Had Eastie friends. And they took a piece of that culture with them wherever they went. 

They went far. 

Both sets of parents quite literally travelled the world. 

But home was still home and roots were set deeply. And friendships were forever. Just like family. 

So of course Lou would honor his friend by choosing the alternate location. Fully his decision, it made total sense to anyone who knew him or men of his generation. 

I hate when people make sweeping generalities. 

But I’m about to. 

The generation of young adults with whom I deal every day cannot comprehend that kind of loyalty and they never will. 

They may be members of teams, schools, and communities, but those connections never become as intrinsically a part of who they are as it did for the generations before them. My parents’, and even my own. 

I’ve asked my students and my own kids if they think I’m giving their generation short shift here. They don’t. Even those who quickly vouch for the genuineness of their own friendships are still reluctant to say that their peers and they have anything resembling what I and my parents have had –friendships which have lasted a lifetime. Relationships with people who can revel in your successes at the same time that they put you in your place. People who will stand by you regardless of the missteps you make. People who have your back. 

Sure, these kids haven’t lived as long as we have. Only time can truly test my premise. 

But then time may also be the culprit at the crux of where the roads of allegiances diverge. 

From the time our children were impatiently interrupting our phone conversations—and we allowed it—these kids have demanded immediate gratification. And as parents we enabled this warp-speed mentality by enlisting them in every sport, club, activity, that came along. 

And then came the internet -making the world smaller, while at the same time exacerbating isolation. 

When they spend hours faux-chatting with people they don’t acknowledge in daylight; when they can “unlike” someone by the click of a mouse; when more of their relationships occur online than in-person, it’s easy to see why their interpersonal skills might be underdeveloped. 

I frequently drive by bus stops, or walk by kids on campus who have their eyes glued to handhelds, intensely involved in their cyber-relationships, while ignoring the real people in their lives and by their sides. 

Maybe they’ve got something there. Maybe fast and furious is an easier path. After all, face-to-face requires effort and planning and interaction. It’s time consuming. It can be difficult and messy –and it can’t be ignored. 

On the other hand, no lol comes close to belly laughs shared with longtime friends; L can’t replace tears, and nothing feels quite like a hug.

 

Learning New Tricks

A long
ago traveling companion became a lifelong—hers, not mine—pen pal of mine and I
looked forward to her annual Christmas notes with the same sort of relish that I
have for those catch-up conversations I share with close friends. Her Christmas
letters didn’t at all resemble the photocopied family newsletters which often flutter
to floors from cards sent out en masse to friends and strangers, alike. Rather
her notes, often squeezed within the confines of the greeting card itself, consisted
of hand scripted prose that first asked after me and my family and then told of
her latest adventure.

Each year
she recounted global travels which beckoned of worlds beyond my reach. It was
as if I had a firsthand correspondent bringing to life the travel pages of newspapers
and magazines which I was reading with longing. Often inviting a grandchild or
two along on her trips, Bea embraced the other countries and cultures she
visited. She seemed gloriously sure that there would always be something new
and wonderful just around the next bend.

Even when
it was only her own city she was exploring, there seemed within her an unquenchable
thirst for knowledge. Into her 90s, Bea took a class at NYU and wrote to me
that any day she learned something new was a good one.

What a
wonderful life philosophy.

Because I
work in a college environment, I have ample opportunity to test the premise.
Although I’ve yet to sit in on a catalogued course, I often read what my
students are reading, watch what they’re watching. I look at professorial
Powerpoints, consider rubric specifications, flesh out and interpret
assignments, follow their progression. I ask a lot of questions; seek out answers
for my students and myself.

But the
real learning often comes in other forms.

Sometimes—being
the digital natives that they are—my students do some unknowing teaching of
their own, guiding me from Facebook to Foursquare, Twitter to Prezi.

In other
ways though, they teach me even more.

They are
twenty-something in the 21st century.

They
serve as a sort of guide to a world to which I’d be privy only as a parent, but
for the access they grant me.

That’s
mostly rewarding –sometimes disappointing.

I wish my
students were less entitled, more impassioned.

I wish
that of the other kids I know, as well.

On the
other hand, they’re happy and funny, honest and resilient. They may not have
passion for the sorts of things their parents and professors deem important,
but many of them are nonetheless passionate. For a boy or a girl, quite often.

But sometimes,
for something more.

On
occasion, I see a flicker, that other spark –of interest. In something beyond
themselves.

I’ve
enjoyed the vicarious ride I get to take with the kids in my life. In the best
of days, I see something good and real. I see the glimmer of a future. Not just
theirs, but ours as a country and a world. I see hope.

Even on
days that disappoint, though, I take something from our encounters. I learn a
little something.

And any day I
learn something new, is a good one.



Graduation 2.0

    It’s graduation.


    Again. Or still. I’m not sure which it is. The celebrations and ceremonies are starting to blur together. 


    No wonder Journalist Fareed Zakaria decided to replicate his Duke speech to use at Harvard’s commencement exercises. Who could blame him, after all?


    Hasn’t it all been said time and time –and time again? 


    I hope not. 


    Shame on him for trivializing what was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for his young audience. Just because he wears the jaded hat of time doesn’t give him a pass on giving a full effort to his accepted responsibility. 


    He got to speak at Harvard, for God’s sake. How does that not warrant a bit of all-out? And I don’t care how many other speakers have followed his MO. 

    
It’s lazy; it sends a bad message; it’s just not okay. 


    Perhaps I’m holding Zakaria to a particularly high standard because he is a writer. It irks me to think that someone from my profession would take such a short cut and use recycled materials for speeches at Harvard, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Brown and Yale. 


    If he couldn’t come up with an original idea or two –or ten for that matter- he should have opted out of the commencement speech circuit. 


    Zakaria got the Duke invite first and then said he “just couldn’t say no” to Harvard. 


    Cool. I get that. Who says no to Harvard?


      But, then, who thinks second-rate when they hear the name Harvard? 


    Michael’s graduation ceremony was the culmination of a whole lot of wow-aren’t-they-wonderful activities that make up senior week. I’d vote Baccalaureate as the best, but the graduation itself was still pretty sweet. 


    In spite of the been-there-done-that aura that can seep into commencement exercises, I get sucked in every time. After a rousing performance of their student-selected class song, I was onboard to the notion of theirs as the “best ever.” Add to that the self-deprecating and humorous speech by the class officer and the teary-eyed words from a principal with whom Michael has never seen eye-to-eye, and I am easily transported away.


    Not necessarily to my own graduation day, or even to an earlier time of my life; but rather into that other world of youthful potential –where all things are possible. 


    Because they are. 


    And that’s exactly the message we need to tell our kids. Over and over again. 


    They really are the future. Ours, theirs, and jump-into-the-next-decades, their kids’. Yikes! How’s that for scary? 


    Less scary, though, if we give them the best we can offer. Our love, our support, our old ideas and encouragement of their new ones. 


    Sure, some of what we tell them is going to sound like we’ve said it a hundred times. Well, we probably have. But on the big issues and in the big picture realm of their lives, we have got to be willing to look at their world, their day, their time in a new way. 


    In spite of the of déjà vu lessons we teach, we need to resist the urge to view their lives through the scope of our narrow focused lens. Theirs is a different world than the one in which we all grew up. And they are not us. We do a real disservice to them when we fall into a trap of same-old-same-old, because so little about their world is the same as ours.

    
These kids really can make a difference. 


    That is, if we give them some tools and fuel for their fresh ideas. Recycling yesterday’s words for the sake of a big-ticket invite doesn’t just proffer a diluted message, it threatens the integrity of all those that follow. 


    Imagine what our kids could do if we bequeathed them the few original ideas we still have left, with the only strings attached being that they use them ….to change the world.





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.