Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Homies, Of Thee I Sing

Imagine a high-school production of “Hair,” the school newspaper taking on an insensitive principal, the robotics team working late into the night in Dr. Frankenstein’s workshop.

What do you see? (Check all that apply.)

O - The Goths and stoners who are luring your innocent child to the dark side.

O - A chart on the wall in the robotics lab indicating the maximum number of volts/amps the human body can survive.

O - Your child sitting out his three-day suspension stoically, blogging about the totalitarian administration at his school.

O - You, wondering whether a three-day suspension for civil disobedience (didn’t that used to be a good thing?) will kill his chances at colleges.

Beware of cute girls wearing lace gloves
We have only ourselves to blame, right? We can’t wait to take them to Mommy and Me, arrange play dates, sign them up for violin lessons. Wouldn’t you rather be doing [fill in the blank] than sitting around home? we say.

And then, sure enough, they would.

I’ll give you a ride home after the play. No thanks, Dad. We’re striking tonight. (Who knew they had unions?) Well, call me and I’ll pick you up later. I’ll just bike. (Or, worse: Aaron will give me a ride home---Aron who you’re sure probably has a few DUIs and no parents, as much time as he spends at the theatre). But it will be midnight. I’ll be fine.

But dad isn't fine. You sit up waiting (midnight is way past your bedtime by then), occasionally going out on the sidewalk to look up the street to see if you see his bike light coming down the road, one ear listening for his singing, the other for ambulance sirens.

You begin to think maybe he should just skip the play, robotics season, school newspaper, whatever, and stay home and concentrate on his studies, which you have become convinced are being undermined by his fierce new passion.

It’s good training, though---for us, that is. Just wait until he walks out the door for college. Then you have no idea what the heck he’s doing. The school doesn’t call to say he missed a class. You don’t see his grades every few weeks. If he walked into a bad part of town late at night, maybe with no ID on him, he could be lying in some hospital for days before you even knew about it. Yikes.

We put ourselves on this roller coaster because we know our kids need friends. More than that, they need pals who like to do what they like to do, home boys in the play “West Side Story” rather than in a real-life gang. Friends like that can be hard to find, though.

If your child is a good athlete, he’ll likely be on a sports team. Sports teams are great (except for all the sports-team metaphors the rest of us have to endure), but not every child is a jock. So here she is, your amazing daughter, starting in a new school, high school, where some of her pals are going, but where there will also be a lot of kids she has never met. She doesn’t have a particular passion yet. She’s a good student, but she’s a bit of a loner. What about her?

Kids in tribes are a kind of organic life form. They give each other emotional nutrients we can’t give them at home. There is the stuff we hear all the time about learning to work with others, but the main thing is that they are a place to belong. They are an affirmation to a child that he has worth, that he fits in somewhere other than in his family. They are a first foray into the big wide world.
The robotics tribe
(Gangs fit this tribal model, too, of course. They are a kind of default option for kids who want to feel that sense of belonging but have no constructive alternatives, none they would be caught dead trying, anyway.)

Looking back, I think the experiences that shaped my children the most were the ones they shared with peers in pursuit of a (usually legal) common objective: an autonomous robot; a musical about being themselves through being someone else; getting out the school newspaper on deadline; recruiting new members for the chess club and taking it on the road. These are the places where they learned who they were. Not who I told them they were, but who they themselves could see they were, the reflection of themselves in the eyes of others who valued what they had to contribute.

We’ve had some stressful times here in our community over the past few years. Several high-school students have committed suicide, and we are all trying to understand why and what can be done to make things better for the kids. Many think the academic stress, the pressure for achievement, imposed by parent and student alike, is too great. I don’t know if that’s true. It might be. I think it depends on the kid. But I do know this. We all feel better about ourselves when we feel we are part of something, when we feel like there is a place where we belong. That sense of belonging, of knowing who we are, is more important than any grade or test score. It’s the first step toward finding a place for ourselves, and from there, how we might make a difference.

After my youngest sons graduated from high school, I wrote the local superintendent of schools and suggested that the two high schools in our district encourage one-hundred percent participation by students in extra-curricular activities. I would go so far as saying that joining a club or team or student enterprise of some sort should be mandatory, like P.E. is now. Why not build into the curriculum exercise for self-esteem the same way we insist upon exercise for the body?

And if participation is required, everyone has to try it, even the shy kids who might not otherwise. (Or even the reluctant gang-banger, who can tell his buddies he didn’t want to try hip-hop dance, or art, or saxophone, the school made him.) Just getting them started might be enough to make a lifetime of difference.

I also suggested that every teacher be required to be the faculty liaison for a student club. I remember when one of my sons was taking the baton for the chess club, the teacher who had been the faculty liaison retired and my son had a struggle finding a replacement. Without one, the school wouldn’t support the club, and yet it did little to help him find somebody. Having teachers work with students after school, even casually, helps both sides understand one another better by showing each that the other cares about something besides homework and pop quizzes.
Taking it on the road
There is nothing quite like a gang of high-schoolers on a mission. All that energy and passion. It’s an ecosystem that feeds all those who come into it, a kind of controlled environment in which they can practice the skills they will need when they are released into the wild.

One last encouraging note: When they do go off to college, even though you know they are staying up too late and doing god knows what else, you actually worry less. I’m not sure why. Out of sight out of mind, maybe. Or perhaps it’s hormonal (ours, not theirs), an enzyme triggered by not having to negotiate bedtime every night, nature’s balm to help us let go.


  1. Thank you so much for this one, Mac. I agree 100% about the enormous value of extracurricular stuff, for the pleasure of community that comes with such activities. I love your idea of schools requiring something extracurricular. Of course, in my ideal school, "extra"- curricular would be at the center of the curriculum!!

  2. I like your idea, too--about mandatory extracurricular activity (on school grounds!) I think I would have been one of those rebels who could have learned a lot from this.

    And BTW, it's amazing how much more involved parents are with their children now then thirty years ago.