Metaphors

Recently, I had the opportunity to try my hand at making pottery—wheel-throwing, to be exact. In truth, I think I did this once or twice as a kid, but it was long ago. I remembered only the feeling of wet clay slipping between my fingers, the gentle prodding of the clay to create the desired shape, and the uneven feeling of lopsidedness on the wheel.

This time, I had the benefit of a patient and experienced instructor, who led me—step by step—through the process. I threw the clay onto the wheel, missing the center by more than I’d like to admit. The instructor adjusted the clay, pushing it closer to the center, and started the wheel. He demonstrated how I should hold my hands to gently push or pull the lump of clay into the center, shaping it and rounding it out. The clay resisted. I pushed harder, using some muscle to move it beyond its resistance. I was a bit surprised at the muscle necessary to move this inanimate, shapeless lump.

I smoothed the edges into a disk, and I pulled up toward the center, raising the height of the nameless object on the wheel. I used the side of my hand to flatten the clay and push it into the center. I repeated this process of centering until I had a flat disk resembling a hockey puck.

I began to work the center, slowly and gently pressing my thumb into the clay to create a hole from which I would begin to sculpt the vessel. From here, the process became one of gentle pressure—make an indent and watch it slowly become deeper and wider. The next steps would take an increasingly gentler touch as I steadied one hand against the other to work the sides upward and outward. The farther out and up I went, the more I could feel a slight off-centeredness of the piece. While I wanted to pull it back in, I didn’t want to exert too much force.

In the moments before I declared my piece “done,” and the wheel was turned off, the metaphor of potter and clay was not lost on me. The fact is, it’s not easy to mold a shapeless lump of clay into something both beautiful and useful. The clay resists. It won’t stay centered, and if it’s off center, it will become increasingly lopsided until it ultimately spins out of control and falls apart. Sometimes, it takes greater force from the potter to coax a piece back to the center. Perhaps sometimes, when we get too caught up in our lives, we are particularly unyielding and need to allow ourselves to be pulled back to center.

Ultimately, I added a spout to my piece. I not only wanted a vessel that could be filled up, but I also wanted one that could be poured out. One that would easily contain and distribute ingredients. It will take some time for my bowl to be dried and fired, glazed and re-fired. At the end of this month, it will arrive, beautiful and useful. I can’t wait to see the finished product and recognize the steps—and the patience—necessary as the potter molds the clay.

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Classroom Etiquette

As a teacher, I spend some time in the front of a classroom. Because of the nature of my full-time work—one-on-one academic support—I generally teach only one face-to-face class each year, but it is enough for me to track the changes in educational engagement through the years. Or is it?

As I stand in front of the class, with students working away on their computers, I (used to) make the assumption that they are taking notes or otherwise engaging in educational activities that will ultimately enhance their learning. That’s what I want to believe, so I create that reality in my head.

Fast forward to this summer, when I am taking a face-to-face class. This is the first time I have been a student in a physical classroom in many years, though I won’t say how many. I mean, I have attended various trainings (as recently as this past February) which mimic a classroom situation, but in those “classrooms,” it always seems as though people are interested in learning the material so they can bring it back to their own workplaces and put it to use.

This week was my second class in a summer-long Masters-level research class. I am not in a degree program; I am taking the class because I have research I want to conduct, and I don’t really know the best way to start. At this week’s class, one of my work colleagues was seated on my right. She and I were actively taking notes, discussing the topic, and beginning to get excited about our research projects.

On my left sat a fellow classmate, a young woman I have seen before, but I don’t know. She arrived right before the class started, took out her computer, and immediately picked up a message stream that she had left mid-conversation. To her credit, she also opened a document window where she could take notes during the 2+ hour class.

Class began, and she continued to occupy herself with messaging. Somehow this new generation of students hasn’t learned that they can say, “Hey, I’m in class right now. I’ll message you later,” and they don’t find it important to do so.

But this woman wasn’t engaged in class at all. Before 4:30, she removed a glass container from her bag and opened it on the desk. Inside was a nice looking dinner salad. She removed another container from her bag, opened it, and poured dressing onto the salad. Then she spent the next fifteen minutes crunching away on her dinner. (Did I mention this is a two-hour class? Have a snack before class, and you can have dinner at 6:15). When she was done, she dropped her metal fork into the glass container (not even attempting to be quiet), snapped the cover on, and put the container back in her bag. Then, she promptly returned to messaging her friend.

While I was trying to pay attention to the professor and concentrate on the material, I had developed a deep curiosity as to this woman’s non-stop in-class extra-curricular activities. Weren’t these activities just as effective when done from one’s couch in the comfort of one’s living room? Why would someone commit the time and money to a class when she wasn’t going to exert any effort beyond being physically present?

When I looked at her computer screen again, she was browsing the Crate & Barrel website, scrolling through dishes. The woman sitting to her left was commenting on the ones she liked best. In class. While the professor was lecturing. Clearly, taking a class means something different to these women than it does to me.

Perhaps I have an archaic notion of classroom behavior, left over from my student days long before the advent of portable computers. However, I don’t believe that respect for someone teaching a class has completely gone by the wayside. And I know for certain from all the studies I read that the best way to learn is to actively engage with the material.

We are only two classes in, and this experience has been eye opening for me. When I stand in front of my class in September—a class that is designed to help students make connections, discover how to learn, and serve as a foundation and resource for college life—I will tell my students that our classroom will be technology-free. Because sometimes, the best way to learn how to make connections is to disconnect.

The Problem with Millennials…

A couple weeks ago, as we were driving home from who knows where, my daughter started a conversation with me about millennials and the unfair treatment they receive in the media and the greater society. The impetus for this discussion was a spot run by the morning radio deejays in which they spent their air time slamming the entire millennial generation. I had heard the radio spot that morning, but as with much of what the morning deejays say, it only registered as background noise.

The truth is, the deejays were not being very kind in their talk about millennials, which seemed odd since this generation likely makes up at least a portion of their listening audience. The gist of their discussion centered on how millennials have become notorious for being lame and useless, lazy and entitled, and living in their parents’ basements. The deejays claimed these young adults don’t want to work; they whine all the time; they expect rewards for showing up; the list goes on…. The deejays even had people calling in to tell their own stories of dealing with this particular group of individuals. To be blunt, the feature was rude, and demonstrated more about the adults who were perpetuating the generational stereotype than it did about millennials.

My daughter then raised an incredibly insightful point. “Mom, it was your generation that made millennials this way. Your generation was the one that raised us and gave out the trophies. You can’t now blame millennials for expecting to be rewarded.” This parenting truth of is one I see played out often as I go about my job, a job that involves working with millennials.

[Let me briefly say, I am not now—nor have I ever been—a helicopter parent. I have increasingly allowed, encouraged, and even required my children to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for those decisions. Have I failed in more ways than I’d like to admit? Absolutely. But I would definitely not be considered a coddler.]

Perhaps my own aversion to coddling is due to the fact that I have been working with young people in one capacity or another for most of my life. I have dealt with more parents than I can count, and I have seen parenting behavior that makes me cringe. Every now and then, I experience parenting that is worth writing about, but I usually keep my thoughts to myself.

But on this day as I drove, my daughter’s words hit me as the raw truth. We cannot expect children or young adults to behave in a way that we have not trained them to behave. If we have done everything for them and constantly protected them as they have moved through the world, of course they are going to wind up back in our homes where they feel protected, comfortable, and … well, at home. And then there’s the fact of the frightening economy into which we are attempting to launch these newly minted adults—many of whom are already drowning under the weight of student debt.

So for a moment, think back to your own youth. Remember when you were a teenager, and your parents—their friend, the world, etc.—complained about you and your friends? When I was a teenager, we (as a group) were supposedly lazy and mooched off our parents. Sound familiar? Maybe young adults haven’t really grown lazier and less motivated, but adults simply need a place to lay blame, and throwing young people into one stereotypically lazy group is easy.

What would happen if we started treating kids as individuals rather than lumping the entire generation into one humongous group? Maybe the fundamental problem with millennials is not millennials, but rather our attitude toward them and our lack of expectation for them. Perhaps, we have forgotten what it is like to be young and floundering as we pursue our dreams. Perhaps we have forgotten that with increased responsibility comes increased independence, and we fail to give kids enough responsibility to facilitate positive growth and development. Most importantly, we have forgotten that when we are senior citizens, today’s young people will be our surgeons, our lawyers, our politicians, and the creative minds that will effect positive change in the society.

So it is my belief that young people need two things: opportunity and mentorship. When I was young and just starting out, someone had faith in me to do a job and to do it well, and they gave me a chance. [As I look back, it was more like a string of someones who recognized that I was good enough, smart enough, skilled enough to do the job.] We owe it to these kids to give them the same chance to prove what they can do.

As a teacher, I have experienced the incredible passion, determination, eagerness, and conviction that millennials possess. Take a chance on a young person; reach out and offer your support. My guess is, they may need some encouragement and guidance along the way (as we all do), but there is little doubt the time you take will be worth it.

{Photo illustration by my amazing daughter}

Student Emotion

I was walking through one of the study areas at work yesterday, and I passed by one of my student tutors. She was sitting at a computer desk, her homework spread out around her. The non-work items on the desk were few since it was a public space, but she had a brightly colored box of tissues next to her. The box sported pictures of cartoony-looking fish from Finding Dory, giving me the impression it was not the nondescript pattern typically associated with institutional tissue boxes. Because we are (hopefully) emerging from the thick of cold and flu season, I pointed to the box. “Are you bringing your own tissues to work with you now?”

She looked up at me from behind the large the desk where she sat. “Yeah. It’s that point in the semester.” She blinked sad eyes for effect. “I brought them in case I need to cry.” Her face was more serious than usual.

I stopped abruptly. “Oh!” I studied her face. “Are you all right?”

She smiled. “They’re not really mine.”

“Okay,” I released a relieved sigh. “That sounded just like something my daughter would say,” I added.

“Yeah. It’s a girl thing,” she shrugged. But then she considered what she had said. “No, maybe not. I think it’s an age thing.”

I studied her face for a moment. In it, I could see hints of my daughter, of several of the students I work with, of so many people I know, young and old. “Maybe,” I pretended to accept this explanation as I turned to walk away, but I was certain it wasn’t an “age thing.”

What I really wanted to say was, “I think it’s a life thing!” But some things are better left unsaid.

Saturday Wanderings

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Back when he was in fifth grade, maybe sixth, my son created a simulated Black Hole for a project for science. Now, this was not just a table-top diorama. No. When my kid creates a Black Hole, it is going to be a big one.

He thought long and hard about how he would complete this project. On Amazon, he discovered that he could purchase a large sheet of black lycra. He set about to create a frame for the material, and he used PVC pipe and joints.

Actually, the finished product was pretty impressive. He carried it to school unassembled in his sister’s duffle bag. When he put it all together, it was three feet tall and four feet from one side to the other. His teacher was impressed. But as impressive as this project was, it is not the point of this blog post.

Fast forward to this past fall. The large sheet of lycra had been hanging around my house for awhile. We all knew it belonged to W, but it was in the living room; it was in the bedroom; it was in the basement. It really hadn’t found a home. After it had kicked around for too long, W picked it up one day and said, “Do you think I could make a hammock out of this?” And the next thing I knew, I had a hammock hanging from the beams above the ceiling tile in my basement. The best part was that the ceiling tiles had to be pushed aside to make this work.

But then he decided he wanted to make it into a real hammock rather than just a piece of lycra tied to some rope tied to the beams. He spent the better part of a day pleating the material and stitching it together on my sewing machine. The parts that were too thick—where he looped the lycra over and connected it to the rope—were sewn by hand. His newly reconfigured hammock passed the basement test with flying colors.

So last weekend, he took the hammock on a camping trip to test it out for real. Yes, it is February, which means that here in New Hampshire, it is the middle of winter. Personally, I am not sure if I would rather sleep on the frozen ground or in a hammock at this time of year. When I was discussing this issue with my daughter, she had the same first response I had. “Bridges freeze first!”

(And that, my friends, is a clear indication that if nothing else, my daughter learned one important fact in her Drivers Education class, and it is one that she will never forget!)

The argument on whether it’s warmer to sleep on the ground or in a hammock (if you must sleep outside in the dead of winter) is still out for debate, but here’s what I did learn. Getting out of a hammock in the middle of the night in the dead of winter to use the latrine is not too much fun.

[Image credit: FreeImages.com / Orlando Alonzo]

Snow Day Hyperbole

 

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Tuesday was a snow day for us. When I woke up in the morning, the radio mentioned school cancellations, but I was half asleep and didn’t believe it. Through my five a.m. fog, I reached for my iPad, pulled up the local television station website, and scrolled through the cancellations. Sure enough, our town had cancelled school. The town in which I work had also cancelled school, though there was nothing yet from the university.

I stumbled to the kids’ rooms in the dark to turn off their alarms, trying my best not to disturb them more than necessary. I went back to bed, armed with my phone to take the “alert” calls that would inevitably come. Nowadays, it is so easy to tap into the school cancellation list, and with multiple schools and school districts involved, that can be a good thing.

But later that morning, when I finally looked outside, we had about two inches of snow. Two inches. And a snow day? Clearly, this must have been an oversight on someone’s part. A day off means, the kids will have an extra day tacked on to the end of the school year. Sigh.

In a text to my sister, I told her I suspected the world had grown wimpier since we were kids. I remember schlepping through snow up to my thighs (though I will admit, I was a bit shorter then) to get to school. Occasionally, my boot would become lodged in a snow crater when I tried to step, and I would have to reach my arm all the way into my leg-long footprint to retrieve it. Once, a storm closed school for two consecutive days, but that was a memorable spring storm one April when winter was supposed to be over. That storm dumped three feet of snow, and I can still tap into the feeling of wonder and excitement I had walking through the labyrinth of shoveled pathways.

On days when the world seems wimpier than in years past, I tend to become one of those parents, just like my parents before me, and their parents before them. You know the ones I mean…. Back in my day when life was simpler, we trudged through three feet of snow every day to get to school. Maybe it was a two-mile walk to get there. And it was definitely uphill both ways. And maybe it was 10° below zero every day during the winter because back then, it was commonly believed we were entering the next Ice Age.

Or maybe—just maybe—I tell hyperbolic stories because here in northern New England, a snow day for two inches of snow feels ridiculous, and it’s not something responsible adults feel the need to encourage.

And even though my children roll their eyes at my stories, there is no doubt that 20 or 30 years from now, they will be telling their own hyperbolic childhood stories to their own children, their nieces and nephews, their students. Because this…. this is the way we express to the next generation that we think they are getting too soft around the edges and too wimpy in the middle. And this is the way we let them know that maybe, just maybe, things aren’t quite as bad as they like to believe.

This Moment

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[I began this post last week, right before my son left for college, but I wasn’t able to finish it. Until today.]

The car is packed and sits waiting for the inevitable morning drive to college for freshman drop off. I stare out the window, watching the silent car sitting in the drive, wondering if I will be able to sleep.

Over the past few days, I have lived in a state of internal panic. My mind is bombarded with all of the wisdom I have neglected to impart to my son, the lessons I didn’t remember to teach, the “teachable moments” that have slipped by as I carelessly thought, Next time, I’ll teach that lesson. As a single mother, the burden of guiding and teaching has fallen solely on me, and I know there are things (many things) I have forgotten.

Yet, this day is one that has been looming on the horizon since the birth of this child. It has been talked about, planned for, worked toward, and encouraged for as long as I can remember. As long as my son can remember. My son, my first-born child.

This is the child who taught me how to be a mother. When he was born, the weight and solidity of his tiny infant body in the transition between womb and world was unexpected to me. In the early days and subsequent weeks—months… years—he taught me to sleep lightly, so I could hear the murmurs and cries when he woke. By sleeping lightly, I could hear the disturbances, the coughing, the bad dreams, and the nonsensical phrases uttered in the depths of sleep.

He taught me to watch carefully to protect him from dangers. He taught me to stay a step or two away, so he could explore on his own with me always ready to catch him—physically or metaphorically—if he fell.

I pushed this child gently, urging him to step away when he held tightly and wouldn’t let me out of his sight in his first days of preschool.

He taught me to be brave in the pediatrician’s office—most notably when the doctor was painstakingly and painfully placing four stitches into his three-year-old lip late one February night.

He taught me that my instincts for him, for all of my children, were as valid as a single teacher’s decree. When his preschool teacher advised me to hold him back so that someday he might be a leader, I chose to keep him with his age-peers. He became a leader on his own schedule.

He taught me to love fiercely because childhood is just a blip on a parent’s radar.

This child is the one who taught me how deeply a parent can love.

I now realize that over the years, this child has been teaching me to let go, a lesson that will continue through his college years and beyond. Now, this child is teaching me one of the toughest lessons of all: to say good-bye. Again and again.

Now, it is my job to step back, get out of his way, and watch him continue to grow, with guidance from afar, as he gains independence and finds his path.

This child…. This young man…. This moment.