The pomp following the circumstances

Jake_Davis_Proof_07Today’s the day. Like so many other eighteen-year-olds since practically forever, my son gets to walk across a stage, shake his principal’s hand, look sheepishly into the crowd for his family, and flip the tassel on his mortarboard from right to left. At about 12:15pm, my firstborn will be a high school graduate.

Big freakin’ deal, right? At least, that’s what I thought when I was in school. High school was something I HAD to do. It wasn’t a choice; it was a rite of passage. Year after year, schools churn out young (oh, how young!) adults who are ready to take on the world, kids who only recently learned to drive a car and maybe became eligible to vote–or to be drafted. And whether someone struggled with homework or breezed through classes, the result was the same: the band playing Pomp and Circumstance in a gym filled with family and friends who come to bear witness to this “accomplishment.” Yeah, yeah, let’s just get to the party and have some fun–where’s the cake.

You won’t often hear me say this, but I was wrong. Yep, I. WAS. WRONG.

As a parent, I get it now. As I think about my favorite son walking across that stage in a few hours, I don’t see just another kid, barely discernible from the other 600 around him in the same blue cap and gown. I see all the “moments” of the last twelve (thirteen, if you count kindergarten) years. The circumstances that brought us to this pomp.

I see his pride in mastering chapter books in first grade and his voracious hunger for more.

I see the days when the light in his eyes started to dim and sputter–at age seven–and a teacher who left him to struggle on his own.

I see the third grader who begged me to take him out of accelerated classes because he just wanted to nurse his wounds–and the teacher who reassured me and gave my boy room to find himself.

I see the boy who established a pattern of not caring and not doing and then trying desperately at the last minute to fix it–and a fifth grade teacher who appreciated his sense of humor and intelligence but didn’t let those things get in the way of holding him accountable.

I see high test scores and low grades.

I see the kid who desperately looked for things he could control when so much of his life was in others’ hands and rocking his little world.

I see the middle schooler who wouldn’t turn in homework, whose posted daily grades sported more zeroes than a gazillion.

I see the seventh grader who wouldn’t do his homework because it was “stupid” and he had “already done it a million times in class and the teacher already knows I know how.”

I see the kid who wanted to go to Harvard and then didn’t care if he went to college at all.

I see the second-to-last runner in a middle school cross country meet of more than 300 boys, ambling along because his mom wouldn’t let him quit during the season and he really didn’t want to be there.

I see the kid who tried out for the basketball team in seventh grade and came out of the school crying when the coach told him he would have been the next one if he could have taken one more.

I see the kid who threw himself into wrestling because, well, screw that basketball coach!

I see the lean eighth grader whose cross country coach didn’t recognize him on the first day of practice because he had changed his physique and his work ethic so drastically over the summer–the same kid who immediately earned a spot on the varsity roster. The same kid who finished in the top 25 at the same meet where he had finished next-to-last the year before.

I see the cut-up who decided to pee on the soccer field in the middle of gym class, earning him an out-of-school suspension and a sputtering phone call from his angry PE teacher to his parents.

I see the disinterested freshman from whom his dad and I had to threaten to take away the love of his life–wrestling–if his grades didn’t improve from failing to at least Cs.

I see the kid who finally got me to allow him to back off the honors classes because I was so tired of fighting.

I see the sophomore who, when he finally had some breathing room, began to realize that maybe he was smart–and for the first time ever and with not a lot of effort posted report cards with nothing lower than Bs (and even a few As).

I see the smile that spread across this kid’s face when I informed him that a deal I made with him way, way, way back in middle school about earning a semester’s worth of As and Bs would earn him a weekend trip anywhere he wanted to go–and the joy on his face when he picked the B1G Wrestling Championships only three hours away in Columbus, Ohio.

I see the kid who gained the confidence in himself to add AP and dual credit-eligible classes back into his schedule and then breeze through them.

I see the kid who made dumb mistakes and bad decisions and took the consequences like a gut punch, but took them nonetheless.

I see the panicked junior who walked away shaking from his first college fair when he realized the choices he had already made–and the bad grades that proved them–had a huge effect on his options for college.

I see the determined young man who told the admissions officer at his then first-choice college that yes, his GPA was pretty low, but he was going to fix it–and then proceeded to do just that.

I see the little-boy-turned-almost-man who decided to make up for all his bad academic decisions and earned six consecutive semesters on the honor roll, with three of those on the distinguished honor roll.

I see the kid for whom I gladly sat through eighteen hours of wrestling in each of two more years at B1G tournaments because he kept earning the trips by posting good grades. (Even when we had to drive to Iowa City in the middle of the night!)

I see the kid who was presented the school’s economics award for outstanding performance in the subject.

I see the young man who juggled a job and school and sports and even earned employee of the month honors in the middle of it all.

I see the athlete who earned six varsity letters, four for wrestling and two for cross country.

I see the teenager who once didn’t care whether he passed or failed become riddled with angst because he wanted the A instead of the B.

I see the kid who not only understands but also models for others the true meaning of self-discipline.

I see the kid who applied to nine colleges and received acceptances to all nine–including the institution where he told the admissions counselor he would bring up his GPA.

I see the kid who brought his GPA from a 2.7 after four semesters to a 3.4 at the end of his high school career–and nearly a 4.0 for those last four semesters.

I see the kid who is EXCITED not only about college, but about learning.

I see the boy who stuck his head back inside the door as he was leaving this morning and asked, “Mom, they’ll give me my honors sash at graduation practice, right?”

Every one of us parents has a story. Those kids with the goofy hats may all look alike, but each journey across the stage is only the end of a much longer walk. Whether high school and all that led up to it was easy, hard, or anywhere along the continuum, this is an accomplishment. It means something. It may be a rite of passage, but it isn’t necessarily a right of passage.

We–yes WE, my son and I–worked hard to get here. There were many, many, many days when I thought we’d never see this day, but here we are. My bub is more than ready. I am so proud of what he has learned. It has been a long and winding road and it probably won’t get any straighter, buy you’re darned tootin’ that I’m going to be celebrating this afternoon.

That’s my boy up there on that stage.

I love him so much.

 

 

The fork in the road

fork in the roadMy son just spent weeks, months even, agonizing over his college choice. Even after he finally came to a decision, he still agonized. Had he made the right decision? When I checked in with him the next day (ready to cancel my deposit and put it on the other school if he had any regrets), his resolution had become firm. I’m good, Mom. I had second thoughts at first, but I’m good now.

It turns out that a call to his dad had given him the assurance he needed to move forward confidently. To paraphrase his paraphrase, his dad told him that  now that he had made a decision, it was by nature the right one. He shouldn’t second guess it; now it’s all about making it happen. I puzzled over that a bit, but I was glad it had helped.

Fast forward a couple of days, and the daily sayings calendar on my desk greeted me with “Decide what you want. Do that.”

Suddenly it all came together for me. Whatever the issue, too often we wait until we “figure it out.” That’s usually a cleverly disguised moniker we use as we wait–hope–for some kind of sign. We want someone, something to give us the answer, or we think that we’ll have some magical epiphany that will lead us in the “right” direction. Instead, we need to just decide, then do.

What if I make the wrong decision, you ask? What will I do then?

That’s easy. Just decide to do something different. Then do it. You’ll have plenty of time, now that you’ve given up all the hours, days, weeks, months, YEARS you used to spend vacillating between your choices.

I hope I can effectively convey this concept to my kids. Don’t wait to figure it out. Pick your direction and forge your path. You’ll get farther faster, build your confidence, and learn a lot along the way. And since you’re already forging a path, you can build it in any direction you want.

So when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Maybe Yogi Berra knew what he was talking about after all.

Land of the free

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States

The internet is blowing up with Colin Kaepernick’s recent decision to remain seated during the playing of the national anthem.

What a jerk, people say. If he doesn’t like it here, he should leave, they say.

Well, my friends, that same flag you’re protecting—and the Constitution it represents—gives him the right to show his displeasure. Just as it gives you the right to protest his behavior.

I’m not saying I agree with his decision. In fact, I was sad to see it. I’ve always stood for The Star Spangled Banner, even though there are many things going on in this country that break the heart my hand is covering. Still, if I would choose to sit in quiet protest, I have a right to do that.

Both my grandfathers and my father fought for this country. They didn’t just serve, they fought. With guns and grenades and bombs. They placed themselves in mortal danger and were even wounded doing so, and I love them all the more for it. And yes, I hope all our citizens respect that kind of service and honor their commitment to perpetuating the liberties we all enjoy.

Including the liberty to express one’s opinion.

Like Colin Kaepernick.

Think about it, folks. This country was founded on the right to speak out. In fact, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights (the first amendment of which is the one we’re discussing here) represent a fundamental protest against government. Our freedom of speech exists today because a bunch of powdered-haired (white) dudes went rogue and told their rulers they didn’t like what was going on.

It’s not important whether you agree with CK. It’s not important whether he’s right or wrong or whether you think he is. What IS important is that, like it or not, our founding fathers and every soldier who followed fought for this guy’s right to sit down during the national anthem.

If we tell this guy he can’t express himself, what are people going to be able to tell YOU you can’t do or say?

Which means you can continue to protest, just like he can continue to sit. The same First Amendment supports you both. Think about it.

Burn, baby, burn

Fire flames isolated on white background

Every day (mostly), I write a quote on the dry erase board that hangs on the door to my office. Some are inspirational, some are motivational, some are snarky, and some are just downright funny. Each one of them speaks to me in its own way, and some of them stick with me longer than others. I’m still chewing on Tuesday’s maxim.

Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.

I was feeling a little snarky when I found that one, and it seemed to fit my mood pretty well. I didn’t give it much thought as I scribbled it onto my board, but two days later, I can’t stop thinking about it. Each time I turn it over in my head, I think of it differently.

I had someone in particular in mind when I selected that quote, and my initial reaction was, Darned straight. That person doesn’t deserve my consternation. (Okay, my actual thoughts were a little more colorful, but you get the point.) Once the steam started dissipating, the mental revolutions commenced.

First revolution: Don’t get all jacked up for someone else’s cause. Yeah, I’ll buy that. I’ve got to buy in all on my own or it doesn’t really matter. I don’t want to be a lemming.*

Second revolution: Don’t ruin yourself trying to fix someone else’s problems. Sounds good to me. It’s not that I don’t care, but I’ll be no good to anyone if I break myself in the process.

Third revolution: Don’t sacrifice yourself to help others. Hmm. A little self denial for someone else’s benefit never hurt anyone. In fact, I would argue that in many cases, it builds character–and it’s the right thing to do.

Well, crap.

I wanted to nurse my irritation, not untangle it. I wanted to wallow in the darkness, not see myself illuminated in the mud. Sure, it doesn’t make sense in the long run to wind up so depleted that I can’t help anyone, but how often does that really happen? Putting my needs (read: wants) aside to help someone else is a noble endeavor. It’s the difference between being focused on the bigger picture and being self-centered.

Here’s the caveat, though.

Every fire needs fuel. If you don’t feed it, eventually it will burn out.

So those times when I feel snarky and just, well, done? Those are signals that I need to pull back, take care of myself, and re-energize. Refuel. Find my zen. Untangle the knots. Maybe even dump the lost causes. Whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t mean quitting–it means taking a break to get healthy and strong so I can get back at it. Someone once told me, The wounded can’t carry the stretcher. It doesn’t mean we don’t need stretcher-bearers; rather, we need stretcher-bearers who won’t drop the darned thing.

And that leads me to the fourth revolution:  It’s not about NOT setting yourself on fire. It’s about not letting fire consume you. Do good. Take care of yourself. Do more good.

Don’t burn out; burn bright.

*Side note on lemmings: be careful when you follow the masses. Sometimes the ‘m’ is silent.

Mother-Teresa-Quotes-Do-Your-Best-Anyway-1

When I grow up

208247_5887814934_3245_nWhat do you want to be when you grow up?

How many times were you asked that question as a child? How many times have you asked it? Do you know the answer?

It’s a tough question, mostly because we feel limited by the labels in some mythic index of occupations. Besides that, things change. Technology changes. Society changes. Needs change. People change. Very few people carry that same dream forward and can actually present a business card bearing the label they casually (or passionately, in some cases) spouted.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be an insurance salesperson! But I do know people who sell insurance–and even reinsurance–who absolutely love their jobs. They love helping people feel secure and protecting their assets.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be a be a logistics manager! But I do know logistics managers who find tremendous satisfaction in putting together intricate delivery plans to ensure that their customers have what they need, when they need it. They love knowing that their work keeps factories running.

I don’t know a single kid who would have said, I want to be a customer service rep! But I do know plenty of customer service reps who become energized by helping people get what they need. They love solving problems, fulfilling orders, and making connections.

*Cut to real life.*

One of my friends is looking for a job. His life path has removed him from the corporate frenzy for several years, and now he’s looking to rejoin the fray. When we talked about this, I found myself asking, What do you want to do? Of course, I was looking for a label to slap on his forehead so I could drop him into a category. Then I’d know which direction to point him.

He didn’t give me a clear answer, probably because he didn’t have one. Instead, our conversation digressed into the verbal pinpricks we like to inflict on each other. Slightly annoyed, I finally said, “You need to find a way to get paid for exasperating people.”

Boom.

I thought I had landed a jab and we’d move on. Then I started thinking about it. What if he could find a way to get paid for exasperating people? I concocted a plan and pitched it to him:

You could totally sell it. Call yourself a change agent and get hired for short-term gigs by companies that are having a hard time changing “the way they’ve always done it.” Your entire job would be to sit in meetings and be contrary. Force people to think differently by answering your pain-in-the-a$$ questions.

Maybe it sounds like a crazy idea, but I know lots of companies who could use this kind of thing. (And if you label yourself a consultant, they might even buy it.)

Anyway, that got me thinking about how we limit ourselves with labels. Crazy ideas like this don’t come from trying to fit someone in a box–and we need more crazy ideas so we can come up with some good ones in the process. We have to think bigger than labels.

Instead of asking what someone wants to be, maybe the better questions are What do you like to do? What problems do you want to solve? What is your passion? It might be hard to give that destination a name, but I’ll bet you find the journey more fulfilling.

When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life. (Attributed to John Lennon)

Never forget

Humankind-Be-Both-Button-(0127)Yesterday I left my family’s Thanksgiving festivities feeling full, not only of food, but also–and especially–of love and warmth and goodwill. Compared to most of the world, I have a lot. My modest house might need a good cleaning, but it keeps me safe from the elements and has more than enough room for my kids, my dog and me. I live on a budget like everyone else, but my family has never lacked food or clothing or health care. I’ve gotten to see much of the world, Most importantly, I have a big, quirky, loving family with open hearts.

All those things were in my psyche, if not my consciousness, yesterday when I saw a woman standing on a corner not two blocks from the feast I had just left, tapping her wrist questioningly in the universal symbol of “What time is it?” I slowed to a stop, rolled down the passenger window, and leaned across my daughter to tell the woman it was close to 5pm.

She needed a ride to the next bus stop, she said. She wanted to take the city bus downtown to the Greyhound station, where she would catch a ride to Wisconsin and her grandmother’s funeral. She was sad and she needed help.

As my so-called street smarts kicked in and an invisible voice told me “Drive away, Tammy, this is a bad idea,” I heard myself telling my son to make room for the woman in the back seat. I’ll spare you the details, but the ride to the bus stop turned into tears and a donation of $40 for the ticket. By the time I let the woman out of the car to make her way to Greyhound, I felt more than a little uneasy and wondered if I had been the one who had just been taken for a ride. I’m doubtful that the woman actually took that bus trip.

I had helped someone in need, but I felt bad. It bothered me all night long and into today, until I recounted the scenario to my brother.

My big-hearted bro had no words for me but my own. He reminded me that over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve taken offense to the knee jerk reaction of many to recent acts of terrorism, I’ve staunchly supported continuing to help Syrian refugees. All refugees, really. I rarely get into political discussions, but this one is more human than political to me. My deep-seated belief is this:

We can’t sacrifice our humanity for the sake of our existence.

We have to keep helping people, even when there may be danger involved, simply because it is the right thing to do. It sickens me when others use a cry of Never forget! in response to acts of violence or terrorism, not to make the world a better place, but to justify their own prejudices.

And yet I still felt silly for having tried to help that woman. I wondered if I had put my children in danger, if she was really who she said she was, where that money was really going to be spent.

With a gentle nudge, my brother told me, “Anything we do that opens our hearts is not a wasted effort. You cannot control what happens in someone else’s heart, only that you yourself were kind. Why should you ever feel ashamed or foolish for having human empathy and caring for the suffering of others?”

Then I remembered something I had posted on my Facebook page just last week.

To the people who cite our nation’s hungry and homeless population as a reason to close our borders, please tell me what YOU’RE doing to help the people you call “ours.” If you’re just spouting statistics that you found on the internet from the comfort of your warm house with a full belly, I’m not listening.

And if you want to do something about it but don’t know how to help, contact Donnie/Kelly Foster (MISFITS), Street Reach for the Homeless, Samaritan Homeless Clinic (Dayton), or just head downtown with blankets and food.

If you really care that much, let’s do something about it.

You know what? I DID something about it. I don’t know how it turned out, but that’s not mine to judge. I walked my talk, and today I feel good about that. This year, more than anything, I’m thankful for a heart that sometimes has to guide my mind when I try to think too much, and for a brother who keeps me pointed in the right direction.

The next time you hear the words Never forget! be sure that what you’re remembering is how to be a better person and how NOT to let the actions of a few justify anger and hatred, no matter how scared you are.

Never forget that preserving our existence is not worth the sacrifice of our humanity.

Giving back

homestead girls xc 2015Remember that big trophy case in your high school? You know the one; it houses all the awards from sports and band and club competitions. It’s filled with statuettes and plaques and medals and team photos, and you always stop to look at it when you go back for a visit. Heck, my daughter’s school is big enough that it has a trophy case for each sport.

Except hers.

No matter how hard you look, you won’t find any awards on display for the girls’ cross country team, even though the team has historically been successful. Heck, this year alone they placed ninth at the state finals, piling up wins and places along the way. So where are the trophies? Where are the ribbons? Does the school hold girls’ xc in complete disdain?

Nope.

When I attended Awards Night, I saw all the hardware displayed in its shiny glory. One statuette must have been at least two feet high; it stood on the table like a beacon, luring the girls to come back for another season, another success. And that was only one of the awards. The spread on the table would have wowed anyone.

By the end of the night, it was gone.

That’s because the coaches felt that since the girls had earned them, they should keep them. They’ve made it a tradition to present each senior runner with one of the awards from the season, choosing according to some anecdote that matches each girl with a particular race.

These aren’t just the varsity runners; they’re ALL the senior runners. That includes seniors on JV who may never have earned an individual award in their high school careers. By the end of Awards Night, everyone had something to commemorate her contribution to the team.

That’s pretty selfless of the coaches, if you ask me.

After all, they’d have one impressive trophy case if they accumulated all that hardware in a single location. They could revel in their success every time they walked past. Look what we’ve accomplished! Don’t we produce great teams?! 

Instead, they tuck their successes away in their hearts and memories and give the credit to the girls who showed up every day and worked their tails off. To the girls who ran two and three and four hundred miles over the summer to stay in shape. To the girls who collapsed after crossing the finish line because they had nothing left.

Don’t get me wrong. The coaches worked their tails off, too. They poured hundreds of hours into the season–after teaching all day. They ran and biked alongside the girls. They gave up time with their families. They were the first ones there and the last ones to leave every practice and meet. They praised and prodded and encouraged, even when they were mentally exhausted. They earned those trophies, too.

That’s why giving those trophies to the girls means so much. The coaches taught the girls how to stretch, how to eat, how to race, how to persevere, but the most important thing they taught them was how to give back.

We gain so much more from giving credit than from taking it.

Thanks, Coach W and Coach B.