Skittles



    I don’t care what color his skin was. 

    
I can’t get past the rainbow of color in his pocket.




    Rainbow Skittles.




    Because those skittles say more about who he was than the dark hoodie that lent him a temporary tough-guy persona.




    He was just a kid -with candy in his pocket.




    A teenager.




    I know a thing or two about teenage boys.




    I’m often surrounded by them. And most of the time, I actually like them.




    They’re smart and funny, idealistic and passionate, silly and sweet. 
    
    
Unlike girls of their age, the boys are comedy instead of drama, action instead of words. They don’t adhere to a hidden agenda or look for the subtexts in a message. They don’t hold grudges or take offense where none’s intended. They’re much more what-you-see-is-what-you-get than the girls, simpler in a lot of ways.

    
But not in all ways. 

    
While raging hormones can reduce girls to hysteria, similar hormonal havoc can turn boys from mild-mannered to mad-mouthed. Instead of tears and tantrums, there’s a bubbling bravado that can spew forth like lava without provocation.




    And if they’re provoked? Well, they’re easily provoked.




    That’s where it all gets complicated.




    Teenage boys are straddling a thin line between boyhood and manhood, with unsure footing.




    In bodies they don’t yet fit, these straddlers are dealing with some weighty expectations –the world’s, and their own. Many of them are pretty confused, adrift, lonely even when they’re surrounded by friends. Often simmering beneath the surface of who they’re trying to become is a noxious mix of angst and anger. They have control of neither.

    
But for their age and gender, it’s unlikely that Michael has much in common with Trayvon Martin. Michael doesn’t look like Trayvon Martin. 

    He couldn’t be the victim of racial profiling.




    In our tiny town, though, Michael also doesn’t quite look like everyone else. That factor alone doesn’t usually get him in trouble.




    On the other hand, it does garner him a bit of attention.




    Walking down the street one evening, my son was stopped by the cops. It was 8:30. He was in the company of two girls. They were carrying a small yellow bag of Swedish fish.




    Pretty suspicious behavior.




    The cop asked the teens to show them what they had in the bag and they obliged. They didn’t have to; Michael knew this. I wonder if he had been accompanied by teenage boys instead of girls, if he would have been so willing to reveal the contraband.




    Because I’ve seen Michael’s anger. I’ve also seen him keep it in check. Luckily.




    Our teenage boys encounter authority figures –parents, coaches, teachers, principals, police officers-hundreds of times in a week without incident. The kids respect the authority; the adults don’t abuse it. However, in a head-to-head battle between man and teenage boy, it’s up to the adult to keep his head. Because as difficult as it may be for a man to maintain control in the face of an insolent teen, for a teenage boy to keep that same composure may be a taller order than he’s able to handle.

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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.

Sweet Music



    Alex wasn’t a napper. Although she slept through the night early-on, she was up most all of the day.




    So, to get the occasional daylight break from my very active infant, I needed to be creative. After much new-parent experimentation, I discovered that the most effective trick in my toolbox of sleep techniques was placing Alex in her swing and playing a selection from Phantom of the Opera.

    
If you’re familiar with the musical, there is a beautiful love song that closes the first act. Alex would eventually learn All I Ask of You on piano as a gift to me. Offering protection and the soothing of wide-eyed fears, the piece makes for a beautifully resonate lullaby.

    
All I Ask of You, however, wasn’t the tune to which my daughter settled to sleep. Instead, the one surefire song that sent my baby to slumber was the powerful and loud instrumentation of the overture. To the music of a bellowing organ, a bass-heavy assortment of orchestra brass and woodwinds, a flourishing accompaniment of strings and a powerful selection of percussion that included a loudly vibrating timpani, Alex would nod off.




    A fit to her personality in many ways, but also perhaps a supporting
argument for the unwitting influence of invitro activity.




    Convinced that having babies might put a damper on my frequent theatre treks to New York (big understatement), I had to see Phantom before delivery. Paying a premium for the seats (Alex’s dad still doesn’t know just how much I shelled out for those tickets) and flying to New York when perhaps I shouldn’t have (apparently airlines discourage women from flying too close to their due dates), I made the trip, saw the play, was captivated by the music.

    
And apparently so was my unborn child.

    
Phantom wasn’t the only musical backdrop to her young life, however.




    I love music. I’ve shared that love and the full assortment of my musical library and tastes with my children.




    Soon, they began to return the favor. 

    
First it was the music of their laughter, belly giggles that bubbled from deep in their tiny bodies and spilled over in sparkles from their eyes. Then there were the school-learned ditties they performed in public and private recitals, over and over -and over. Still later, it was the litany of their conversation, a multitude of newly-found syllables and sentences. 

    
But finally, it was their own selection of radio stations and CDs that wrested away my full control of the musical sounds emanating from the stereo and the car radio.




    Being older, Alex held sway with her idolizing younger brother for a bit. Then, he fell under the more musically diverse influences of his older cousin Jonathon.




    A war ensued. And I was left to straddle a demilitarized zone between a battle-of-the-bands conflict as the clash of their tastes played out from side-by-side bedrooms. Their versions of what constituted “good” music were vastly different from one another, and neither of them had a problem with upping the amperage in an effort to drown out the musical competition next door.


 


    Michael emerged the victor. In part, because he is the truer musician, but also in a nod to the diversity of his tastes. The performers who flavor his musical palate are too numerous to list: Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder, Victor Wooten, Dave Matthews, Radiohead, The Beatles, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The list is varied, wide and willingly and continually expanding.

    
Not only does he fill up and often control the IPod dock; he replicates the music of his favorite artists and creates much of his own.

    
He plays -just about everything. And brings in his friends to jam with him.




    Our house has an open floor plan. There isn’t a room from which you can escape the sound of the music.




    But then, I don’t really try.




    With the exception of his occasional drum solos, I embrace the tunes, dance and sing (poorly) along. Because, the thing is, it’s really good music.

    
I’ll admit I miss the melody of giggling babies, questioning toddlers, curious little kids. I miss my son’s voice in meandering conversation. I miss the connection, the words, the interaction.




    But for now, I’ll have to accept their alternative.
 
    
Because even in the dearth of conversation, I still hear traces of who my son is in his music. If I listen closely enough, I hear Michael -in his music.

    
Sweet, sweet music.


Un-Education


    I moved to a tiny town because its school system had a big reputation. 

    
In the belief that education was a sure pathway to success, I considered performing due diligence with regard to a school system as a vital parental role. Particularly with regard to middle school and high school, I believed my kids deserved the “best.” So in buying my new house, I was also buying into the school’s reputation, believing that its ranking and ratings made it better than others, that its priorities would align with mine and that my children would be well-served.




    I couldn’t have been more wrong.




    Over the years, I have watched my nephews, my kids and the children of my friends left behind by the cookie-cutter dictates of a school that values its false reputation more than the kids it’s supposed to serve.
 
    
While the school can promise that most of its grads will attend college and that some of its alum will even go on to Ivy League schools, what it doesn’t tell is much more telling.




    Left behind in the wake of its success stories are the “other” kids from whom no one hears. Because they simply don’t have a voice.




    There are kids being physically and verbally abused as they watch their perpetrators go unpunished. There are students ostracized from the lunchroom community seeking refuge in bathroom stalls and hidden classroom corners. Young girls forego skimpy fashion styles, not for modesty’s sake, but because long sleeves hide the trace evidence of their cutting. And a legion of boys hides in a haze of reefer smoke because they feel so desperately alone. There are recreational drugs and alcohol, but also a boatload of prescriptive medications, all with the intended goal of making kids fit in. Kids with their whole lives ahead of them are thinking about ending them. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, thoughts of suicide  –they’re becoming less and less the exception.

    
Every school has to wrestle with problems like drugs and alcohol, bullying and cheating, sexual identity and harassment.  There isn’t a single right answer, no magic remedy. However, there are so many wrong answers.




    Like resting on a reputation instead of building a better one. Or choosing expediency over effort. Or accepting the status quo simply because it’s easier than challenging a wrong reality.




    Because the reality is an achievement warped by hypocrisy. We toss out trophies like confetti, then set unrealistic standards where every student is expected to be good at every subject. Students who don’t take honors courses are made to feel stupid and AP classes, once reserved for those passionate about a particular subject, are now being overpopulated by sub-par students who can’t handle the workload. In this alternate universe, average students no longer exist, but even the overachievers are barely getting by.




    When the message is to excel at any cost, that cost is too steep.
 
    
And our students are paying an exorbitant price.




    Low self-esteem, mounting anxiety disorders, depression. Anger at a system by which they feel betrayed.

    
And worse.




    Even the kids who are making the grade are sometimes getting there through shadowy shortcuts or by outright cheating. 

    
But it’s not their fault; at least not entirely.




    When a system embraces conformity at the cost of individuality, kids see the highest common denominator as minimal expectation. Measuring themselves against such a distorted norm, they can either choose to jump on the ever-accelerating treadmill or step off and out.




    And those often-quirky kids pulling out of the race are some of the brightest, most passionate learners the school has. But rather than grabbing a hold of those who stand out, it berates them for their alternate view of the world. Because it measures success with such a narrow scope, it lets them fall and fail; it abandons them.

    
Our school is supposed to educate, not alienate; support its students, not shut them out. We should be sending a resounding message that when we allow even a single kid to slip through the cracks, all of our students are the worse for it. Instead, our school touts its rankings and ratings and numbers. It’s all about the numbers.




    There’s only one problem with such a misguided mission: our kids aren’t numbers.

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.