Teenagers: Tears, Fears and Warnings

Young people cry at funerals. Old people cry at weddings. The tears reflect fears. We know too much. Everyone cries at graduations because we know too little. No one knows what’s around the bend for the young grads anxious for the next chapters in their lives. Last Saturday presented a perfect bright and warm morning with the sky a brilliant, cloudless blue. Although my responsibilities are such now that I didn’t need to be there, I watched a hundred young people graduate from a prestigious Ontario private school. I watched tears and at one moment felt the welling of my own. But I knew the question that had me wiping my eye.

All schools do graduations well. They are worth the pomp. This one takes place every June on a massive lawn under a big, sparkling white tent. Parents are seated to the left of the front long tables with graduates and next year’s grads to the right and staff and faculty at the back. As speakers speak it is always fun to watch the three groups react differently. I listened, sort of, but my mind wandered and as I scanned faces I wondered.

I wondered how many of the seventeen-year-olds sitting in their sharp jackets and striped ties realized just how proud the group behind and beside them were of their efforts and of them. They were all more beautiful and healthy than they will ever be, shining in their youth and bursting with potential. Yet they sat largely oblivious to the fact that by graduating from this place, with their families, in this country, at this time in history, they were already on second base without even having swung the bat. But that’s okay. The dumb luck circumstances of their births had nothing to do with them but neither was it their fault.

The parents and teachers knew that and more. They understood that the young people had earned a right to be a little self-satisfied today for, after all, teenage years are tough.

Teenagers- Tears, Fears and Warnings

Here they are still searching for identity while their bodies continue to change and often betray them. Here they are with brains still not fully wired and therefore unable to fully and accurately read people and situations but being held to adult standards. Here they are stuck in our society’s drawn-out childhood when for thousands of years and in other places they would be an adult with adult decisions and responsibilities. Here they are being forced to pick university courses that will determine their futures when they really tell us what they want to be when they grow up only so we’ll stop asking.

It’s amazing that with all of that, and for many of them much more, they keep going, smiling and trying. They made it all the way to this moment. For many of them, after all, and especially for far too many girls, high school is not a sanctuary but a battlefield. Too many people put teenagers down for the actions and attitudes of a few. It doesn’t matter where the teenagers attend school or who their parents are, hormones don’t care and society’s dangerous messages and temptations don’t discriminate.

I would rather accept that there are a few unfortunate teenagers just as there are many unfortunate adults and instead consider the many. I am in awe of the vast majority of teenagers for their generosity, energy, intellectual curiosity, and goofiness. I admire the resilience they muster in the face of so much and so many stacked against them.

Resilience, in fact, was the theme of one of the speeches that I found particularly poignant. The headmaster spoke of failing forward. The notion, he explained, is that we learn more from failure than success. We learn what works and what doesn’t. We learn of our own character as it deepens through our growing ability to adapt to circumstances without sacrificing values. Anyone, the headmaster said, can experience a failure. Only if you refuse to learn, accept responsibility, or try again do you become a failure.

It was an excellent point to make and especially to those gathered that day beside parents with the financial ability to have constructed a net beneath them of sufficient strength that any failure or fall would be recoverable. I wondered how many of the young people really absorbed the message. I guess I wondered, as I do when I see wedding day tears staining wrinkled cheeks if winter can ever warn the spring.

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A Speaker’s Rules on Speaking

I’m all about words. With the proper motivation, I’ll write them, speak them, and even sing them. I have long respected the transcendent power of the spoken word and studied public speaking to become better at it. As an author, book promotions have taken me across the country and I’m always humbled by an audience’s attendance and attention and moved by invitations to return. This is what my study and experience have taught me:

  1. The Backside Dictum: As with plays, concerts, and movies, the second you become aware of your ass, the best end has passed. Speakers must respect their audiences. Rather than doing myriad other things, people have opted to devote a sliver of their lives to you and must never regret the decision. Nearly all audiences are captive but must never feel like it. It is the feeling in their end that in the end will have them wish for the end and, consequently, that they should never have come.

Hint: Before approaching the podium, take pen in hand. On your left palm write BB and on the other write the time that your talk should end. BB stands for the primary principle of public speaking: Be brief and Be seated. If you discretely observe your palms throughout your talk you’ll be fine. After all, at the bar afterward (remember I mentioned proper motivation) you want to overhear, “I could have listened all night” and not, “it went on too long.”

A Speaker's Hints on Speaking

  1. The Three Rule: Western society rests on three. Every TV show, movie, or play you have ever seen is based on three. There is the introduction of setting and characters, then the conundrum, and then the resolution. Abner Doubleday understood when he, sort of, invented baseball – three strikes and you’re out and three outs and your team’s out. The three rule applies to public speaking for just like people can only remember seven numbers (that’s why phone numbers are structured like that) they can only remember three arguments. Every good speaker makes three points, not two, and certainly not four or more.

Hint: Whatever you are talking about, boil it down to three points. Each has evidence but never cite more than three. Be blunt. Say clearly that there are three points and number them as you speak. Tell them what you will tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them – that’s the three hint within the three rule. Of course you know more about whatever you’re on about but always remember that you want them to remember and they will never remember more than three points.

  1. The Show: The best way to demonstrate that you have something to say worth remembering is to remember it yourself. Never read. Reading is for politicians or others whose words are written by others. They are not really speakers at all; they are readers. Recall that the last half of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech – the whole part about the dream – was off script. Robert Kennedy’s moving speech to an African-American audience in which he reported King’s assassination, one of the best speeches in American history, was extemporaneous. Recall every TED talk.

Hint: Memorize your opening lines. Memorize a few sound bites and, of course, your three points. After that simply explain what you know so well. If you think this stuff is interesting then the chances are they will too. Always ask for a lapel mic for without ties to a script you can move around the stage or among the audience. Without reading you can make better eye contact and your moving will force them to shift in their seats a little and that goes back to the backside dictum. Smile. Always be reading the room and silently editing. Make digressions like TV commercials, little breaks before the next part begins. Remember that those who don’t understand the marriage of speaking and entertainment understand neither. Finally, never say um or ah. Any such guttural sound indicates you have forgotten where to simply be silent for a moment suggests thought.

There is more but I remember the three rule. People crave the spoken word. It’s part of who we are. The spoken word pokes memories of bedtime books and the safe murmur of adult voices as we nod asleep. Its power rests gently in the poetry of persuasion. A good speaker honours childhood memories and adult intellectual curiosity. A good speaker understands that it’s the words and ideas that matter and so becomes like a good singer who never gets in the way of the song.

I’m off doing more speeches this week and will try to remember my own rules. Hopefully our paths will cross and you can tell me how I made out. Meanwhile, if you enjoyed this column, please consider sending it to others and checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com

Small Kids – Big Lessons

A while ago I was asked to lead a full-day program on the 1960s for the Peterborough Centennial Museum. The call caught me in a good mood and I believe museums are an essential part of our communities that deserve support and so I agreed. As the March Break date approached, I wondered what I had done to myself.

Last Friday morning, I stood before 21 kids, aged 5 to 11, with the squirming, giggling, wrestling lot of them exploding with energy. By day’s end – harried, tired, but still smiling – I was surprised by what I had learned.

Colouring: Among the best selling books right now are adult colouring books. Adults have come to understand the meditative peace derived from keeping between already drawn lines and the absence of technology. Kids have always understood.

I began the day with a brief introduction and the application of washable ‘60s tattoos. Thank goodness for the dollar store. I then noted that many people in the ‘60s chose new names. They each picked a page from the Flowers and Animals colouring books I had purchased and cut up and were soon transformed into Hibiscus, Fox, Tulip, and more. The oldest boy didn’t want to play until I assured him that the seahorse he had picked for his hippy name could be sea monster – with a grin, he was in. And then they coloured. I marvelled at their scrunched noses and furrowed brows as they silently scribbled and shaded with not a screen in sight.

Diversity: Throw a net over a random group of 21 adults and you would nab the same range of personalities as my young charges. When split into groups for various activities there were clear leaders and troublesome narcissists. I watched the gravitation toward those seeking a consensus and the rejection of the ego-driven and bossy. There was smart but shy. There was a bully. Mostly there were fun lovers – eager to risk playing and suspending belief, being goofy, and making new friends.

Kids arrive at school and to the museum that day as we arrive at work. Like us, they tote all the baggage, good or ill, from home. They bring their maladies and anxieties, fears and dreams, and ever-shifting concepts of self. Like a boss at work or teacher at school, I knew I was not one person. For the 21 of them, I was 21 people.

Fairness: Like us, kids intuitively understand power and recognize injustice. Also like us, they swallow the stress of powerlessness when unfair things that should be changed are not. Ask those in a Donald Trump crowd. Ask those repulsed by Donald Trump crowds.

I explained that in the 1960s, a lot of people protested things they thought unfair. Their brainstorming was cute and revealing. Kids shouldn’t have bedtimes, shouldn’t have to go to school, and should be able to have as much candy as they want. One girl said adults should never be mean. Another said grownups should not be allowed to yell. The ideas flew, the leaders led, and they finally determined their cause and slogan: Everything Free For Kids!

The charged up lot were quickly on the floor plying markers and stickers to create their protest signs. They practiced their chant and then marched upstairs to the museum staff area: Everything Free For Kids! Everything Free For Kids! They burst into the offices and circled desks to smiles and applause. I didn’t ask how many of them actually pay for anything.

Everything Free For Kids

Kenzie Leads the Protest (Photo: Peterborough Examiner)

Forbidden Pleasures: I wanted the kids to leave thinking that museums are cool. In the morning, I led a tour of the permanent collection but after lunch, to show that museums preserve as well as display, I’d arranged a tour of the warehouse of artefacts that are locked up and closed to the public. I gathered the kids in a tight circle, got down low, and whispered that if they really wanted, we could go to a secret place, a place nobody ever sees, a place where kids are forbidden. Who is interested, I asked. Guess.

With hands in pockets or folded “grumpy-like” over chests, we moved slowly through the aisles of towering shelves of artefacts that resembled Heaven’s Costco. Their oohs and ahs told me when to stop and tell a story. How could a family have only one telephone and turn that wheelie-thing to dial? How could people sit before those big radios and just listen to shows and not watch anything? How could people actually wear those hats? And then my question at the end: When you are old like me, do you think there will be kids looking at your toys and clothes in a museum like this?

Music: When performing with my little rock ‘n’ roll band, I always watch for people singing along with particular songs. Sweet Caroline, improbably, is a hit with everyone. Spirit in the Sky always sparks dancing. What is true at the Canoe and Paddle Pub was also true with kids at the museum. The Beatles transcend generations.

After reading a couple of stories and talking about the Canadian flag created in the 1960s, the kids designed new flags with more symbols. With guitar in hand I sang the Beatles Yellow Submarine. They all knew it! Every one of them! We used the tune and symbols we’d gathered to write a new national anthem and they were soon belting it out with such gusto it would have burst McCartney’s buttons.

The day was delightful. Maria, the Trent-Queen’s student, and Faryn, who runs the museum’s education programs, and Susan with the artefacts (even a cup and saucer from the Titantic!) were invaluable. The kids were great. They left with tie-dye t-shirts, arms full of crafts, and faces awash with peace signs, stars, and flowers. Nearly all said a smiley bye, and there were some hugs and a few thanks.

As I rubbed my eyes and stretched my back I thought that I have no idea how much elementary teachers earn but whatever it is, they deserve a raise.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. For a few more pictures of the day and a brief clip of the protest march, click here: http://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/2016/03/19/march-break-campers-feeling-groovy

Teachers, the Taught, and F*#k Week

Fuck Week taught me well. You see, the first school at which I taught was for teenagers troubled by significant difficulties with learning, families, or the law. Many others were newly arrived immigrants suffering the effects of bad education systems or culture shock. Most kids were great but fights, gangs, weapons, and threats were commonplace. And there I was, fresh from teacher’s college and only about five years older than my charges.

By the end of the first month I had grown weary of the word fuck being used as verb, noun, adjective, and, most commonly, punctuation. I made a deal with a grade 12 class that if they could erase the word from our classroom for four days straight there would be pizza and music on Friday. It took several weeks, but a Friday finally celebrated booming bass, greasy hands, and wide smiles. While cleaning up I suggested that next week we could try eliminating the word shit. An earnest boy asked, “Sir, does that mean we can say fuck again?”

Teacher, the Taught and F#*k Week..

(Photo: www.uni.edu)

The question taught me the power of humility and importance of small victories. Reflecting upon that lesson brings to mind two men who played significant roles in my career. A sage and inspirational leader named David Hadden once told the story of a father urging a lost son to find his way home. The son confessed that he lacked the strength to make the whole journey. Don’t worry, assured the father, go as far as you can, I will meet you there, and we’ll complete the journey together. Another of my mentors, John Potts, once observed: “The most important thing to remember when you’re working with kids is that you’re working with kids.”

Beyond those important ideas, my years have also taught me this:

  1. Essence

New technology and pedagogy that enhance teaching and learning should be sought and welcomed. However, a group of teenagers in a room with an adult in 1980 is, at its core, the same as a group of teenagers in a room with an adult today. Blackboards to smart boards, encyclopaedias to Google, and binders to laptops don’t matter. Never confuse the art with the tools. Relationships and reciprocal respect are what counts. In fact, they are all that counts. True, valuable learning only happens when they are present and is never possible when they’re not.

  1. Fads

Early in my career I had Grade 11 students learn to write, research, and create persuasive arguments by learning to write an essay. After a few years the education ministry in our province determined that all students needed to complete an independent study. I had my kids write an essay. Then, it was decided that students needed to complete a cumulative assignment. I had them write an essay. Then teachers were told to flip their classrooms so students would learn certain tasks at home while allowing for in-class support and collaboration. I had them write an essay. Teachers need to embrace positive change and base their pedagogy on established and current research. However, they must also trust and be allowed to trust their professionalism to avoid surrendering to transient fads, authors, or obfuscating vocabulary.

  1. Fun

Anyone who believes that teaching does not involve entertainment understands neither. Teachers must always allow kid’s voices to be heard more than theirs. However, teachers still call the shots and set the tone so while curiosity and questions must be the two-lane road down which every lesson travels, fun should be the vehicle. Without fun, kids may memorize but not really learn. They will attend but not engage. Teachers must always take their jobs seriously but never themselves. Their training should involve comedy and improv workshops.

  1. Partnership

Teachers are an essential part of the education of a young person but only one part. Parents are a crucial part of the team. Further, in every good school, everyone, whether typing letters, mopping floors, keeping accounts, or providing administrative leadership know they are serving students. Students win only where we/they and leaders/led are absent from language and perspective, where characters and character are celebrated, and where all adults respect the hard work done by all others while sincerely seeing themselves as members of one team.

My career has taken me from that tough inner-city vocational school to what is widely accepted as among Canada’s finest independent boarding schools. I am proud to have contributed to one and of my continuing contribution, albeit outside the classroom now, to the other. Along the way I have reinforced my conviction that all lives are better in a society of readers, critical thinkers, and life-long learners. We all benefit through sharing a basic understanding of our culture, geography, and history. A country is better and democracy stronger when young people are instilled with an intellectual curiosity that burns insatiably throughout their lives.

If any of this rings true, then this is equally true: teaching is a honourable profession. It is an invaluable profession. Teachers are honourable people. Let us celebrate the best and encourage the rest because all children are our children.

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The Power of Reinvention

When I was a young Dad, my favourite books to read with our daughter were from the create your own adventures series. Even as a child she had a rapier wit and daring sense of wonder. We would arrive at the parts where the protagonist was presented with options and she would pick one but often we would invent more until we were legless with giggling. Later, I explained that the books were existentialism instruction manuals.

You see, my brow has always furrowed at the notion of Christian providence. After all, if God has a master plan for the universe, and even for me, then is prayer not presumptuous? Why should my puny, clasped-hand demand throw Him off his game? Is His plan that negotiable?

Similarly, I’ve never understood science’s determinist ideas of nature and nurture. If one the other or both are so powerful then why am I the only one of four brothers to attend university, write a book, play an instrument, sing, and live where we grew up. Those things don’t by a long shot make me one whit better than any of them, after all, one brother is tougher, another handier, and the other smarter than I will ever be. But do our differences, and we are all quite different, not dispute the determinism?

Religion says things occur because God makes them happen. Science says things occur because natural laws make them happen. Existentialism says shit happens. I kind of like that. It invites us to write our own adventures. I find that a bold and empowering notion.

I was the first of my extended family who did not work in one of Hamilton’s two steel mills. That decision, again making me no better and in many ways dumber and affording a life less secure, was at its least a declaration of reinvention. In university I thought I’d invent myself as a lawyer. After some research revealed that lawyers spend most of their days doing things far removed from the exciting stuff I’d seen on TV, I scotched that idea and became a teacher.

Teaching was challenging and fun. There is nothing in the world like working with a student and suddenly seeing the light flicker on; not to whatever subject is at hand, subjects are just vehicles, but to suddenly cotton on to the idea that she is smart, and can learn, and that learning is fun.

I was being groomed to become a principal in one county before we moved home and then it happened again. I took neither the bait nor the necessary course. I said no to bosses who encouraged me. I saw some principals doing good work but too many forced to be clerks pushing paper and firefighters addressing the conflagration de jour. Besides, it’s an odd system that increases pay with every step taken away from the reason we’re there – interacting with kids. Reinvention, I guess, demands sincere commitment or its just change.

Instead, I continued to do the best job I possibly could but began reinventing myself as an author. I had written a textbook and had it published by Oxford University Press but that was a fluke. I had no idea what I was doing. So I wrote another. This one dealt with the history of Canadian racism and I was thrilled when Winnipeg’s Shillingford Press published it. It’s ironic that Winnipeg has just been tagged as Canada’s most racist city.

Boyko

Shillingford published my next book too, the one that looked at the right wing attacks on Tommy Douglas and the CCF. For the next one I upped my game. I secured a literary agent; the hard working and marvelous Daphne Hart. She secured my next book, a biography of the misunderstood and under-appreciated Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, with a much bigger publisher – Key Porter Books. I felt like I’d arrived.

However, just as Bennett was building, Key Porter was caught in a whirlwind of reinvention itself and, like many other publishers, went bust. The good people at Goose Lane picked up the paperback edition. My next book was about Canada and the American Civil War and Daphne had it placed with Canada’s biggest house – Random House. I could not have been happier. It did well in Canada and the US and has even been translated into French – I’ve now written a book I can’t read! My next book will be with them too and film rights have already been secured.

I’m out of the classroom now but not really. The shameless book promotion that is now essential for all authors has taken me from coast to coast speaking at events and doing radio and TV. After speaking engagements I am often asked how I can talk for 40 minutes, wandering the room with my lapel mic, and all without a note. I confess that after dealing with a room full of thirty 16 year olds, that being with two hundred adults is easy. It calls for the same skills and tricks: know your stuff, make it fun, tell stories, and sneak learning in the back door when they’re not looking.

The craziest question I’ve ever been asked was by a Calgary interviewer on live radio. “Of all Canada’s prime ministers,” he said, “which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?” No dead air allowed. No time to think. What would you say? Again, the dancing I’d learned in the classroom made it easy.

boyko-at-commemoration-of-death-of-sir-john-a

So my latest reinvention is now complete; I am an author. I write books, this Monday blog, book reviews, op. ed. columns in newspapers and magazines, and enjoy speaking engagements. I have created my own adventure. I once read that our greatest fear is not that we have no power but that we have all the power we need to do what we wish. For me, and for those who believe in existentialism’s liberation, that is no fear at all. I wonder what I’ll do next?

If you enjoyed this, please share it with others or even consider checking out one of my books at http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/home/search/?keywords=john%20boyko