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.

If you enjoyed this, please share it with others and even seeing my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com

Honour in All Work and the Worst Jobs

All work is honourable but some jobs are awful. The luckiest among us marry jobs and passion and often have smaller houses but broader smiles. The saddest folks labour only for money and many end up struggling to fill holes in their soul with stuff. There is something to be learned from all work and perhaps the best lessons are offered by the worst jobs.

My worst job was not the winter I laboured as an Esso gas station attendant. Besides changing oil, cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the place, and occasionally swiping stale chocolate bars, I would have made Pavlov grin when at the ping of the ding I jumped into coat and hat to leap to the pumps outside. With the temperature often far south of zero, I became quite adept at yawning hoods and checking oil in mere seconds and at kicking the frozen pail of ostensibly un-freezable blue goop to squeegee windshields. I had a cold all that cold winter. I received one tip – fifty cents.

My worst job was not the two summers with the Peterborough parks department. I enjoyed one morning each week when I drove the golf cart to ball diamonds around town to drag the angle iron in circles and then chalk baselines. But I also pierced garbage with a broken hockey stick with a bent nail in the end. In a hard hat and steel-toed boots, I ignored my allergy to freshly cut grass while pushing a lawn mower in circles around trees and up and down hills and other places the big tractors couldn’t go. I nodded obediently when my suggestion for punctuation was ignored and then dutifully erected thirty signs that read: No Golf Playing Motorized Vehicles. They were certainly effective because after that I didn’t see a single motorized vehicle playing golf.

When it rained, the three crews of university students were gathered under the Hunter Street Bridge where we sat in a large bunker-like room on makeshift seats with traffic rumbling above and covering us with dust. Against one dank and filthy wall lay a mountain of tulip bulbs. For several chilly, soggy days, hour after excruciating hour, we peeled each bulb and placed it in the correct bushel baskets: large, medium, small, and rotten. There were bulb wars and songs and jokes and one afternoon a guy entertained us with Penthouse letters; he inserted the word blank for the nasty bits, making each depraved offering seem even nastier still.

My worst job lasted only one night. My friend Chris and I were fifteen when we saw the ad in the paper and showed up at the Towers Department store parking lot that night at 9:00. At the yelp of the crew-boss, we boarded the ancient yellow school bus, gasped at the smell, and tried not to make eye contact with any of the scary looking people around us. We bounced in silence beyond the city’s lights to a rural golf course that in the inky darkness was as creepy as our workmates. Given no instructions, we followed the others and secured miner’s lights to our foreheads. Using big elastic bands we fastened empty juice cans to our ankles and scooped a handful of sawdust into the left one. We began following the safest looking man but in a truly impressive demonstration of the manner in which the “F” bomb can be noun, verb and adjective in a single, complex sentence he suggested that we find our own spot. It took a while, but we finally wandered to an empty fairway.

We had been promised a cent a worm. Chris had calculated how much we could make in only one night and all afternoon we couldn’t wait to begin. But now that we were there, stumbling through the chill and darkness, we couldn’t wait to earn our first penny.

We couldn’t find a worm anywhere. It was nearly thirty minutes before I lunged at my first victim. I missed him. It was another thirty before we mastered the plunge and yank needed to can one, as we began calling it. We jumped and ran when the automatic sprinklers clicked to life but then smiled when worms began appearing on the wet grass that glistened black under the August moon. We learned to time the rotations. We’d run in, can a couple, and then scamper back without getting too wet. The sawdust on our fingers kept the slippery buggers from sliding away and we learned to be quick. With a slip on the wet grass I lost nearly half my catch but we kept going.

Honour in All Work

We worked hard all night and at the horn’s blast returned to the bus. We were stiff and dog tired but stood proudly in line to present our haul to the crew-boss who sat behind a long beat-up wooden table. Some of our work mates had earned the money that we had dreamed about but I had managed to pick only one full can – 250 worms. The tough looking women with the Ukrainian accent counted out two dollars and fifty cents. Chris earned just a little bit more.

We napped on the dirty bus and stumbled out bleary-eyed and filthy. The city was shaking itself awake with cars piercing the morning mist as we shuffled across the street to the neon glare of the donut shop. We bought donuts and chocolate milk until our night’s pay was gone. Later that afternoon, Chris called and we agreed that one night of worm-picking was plenty.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of resumes but I never listed worm picker. Perhaps I should have. This evening, when I slide between clean sheets, I’ll afford a thought for folks who will spend the night standing guard, serving coffee, buffing floors, dumping garbage, and yes, even hunting worms. There is honour in all work. Perhaps there is even more in work that needs to be done but most of us would rather not do and when we would rather not do it and all for wages we would rather not accept.  Maybe it is in that work, at three in morning, with folks doing the best they can for the families they love, that lies the most honour of all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others. You might even check out my books such as my latest, Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front.

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.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and perhaps check some of my others at http://www.johnboyko.com

Two Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

You should never try to teach a dog to whistle for it will result in nothing more than frustrating yourself and annoying the dog. Similarly, there are questions that you should never ask a teenager. The two most important are these:

Question One: What were you thinking?

Last Saturday evening I was leaning on a railing enjoying the majestic view of the river and parliament buildings from Ottawa’s beautiful Major Hill Park. Then, far below, a young man had missed the Frisbee thrown by a friend and they were staring forlornly into Rideau Canal’s shallow, stagnant water fifty feet down.

The taller, skinnier one was suddenly climbing down the lead used by boats in the summer. A small crowd gathered at my railing. We were too far away to intervene but some giggled, some shook their heads, and, like me, others held their breaths.

Two Essential Questions to Never Ask Teenagers

Rideau Canal from the park (www.tripadvisor.com)

At the bottom of the cable, the young man found himself six feet or so from his little yellow toy. He clamoured back up. Soon he had descended again, had a leg linked over the bottom of the cable, and was precariously dangling upside down. He’d gone Cirque du Soleil on us. His friend then dropped a long stick that he miraculously caught. He used it to snag the Frisbee and then sailed it back to the top. Clearly exhausted, he slowly climbed out with his legs visibly shaking. Our little crowd dispersed as our two heroes commenced a spirited victory dance.

Why did he do what could have led to a serious injury or death? It was his brain’s fault.

You see, the last part of our brains to become fully functional is the pre-frontal cortex. It is just behind the forehead. It is the area responsible for being responsible. It links cause and effect. The incomplete wiring renders teenagers not unwilling but unable to fully comprehend situations that adults would consider socially awkward or inherently dangerous. As a result, teenagers often embarrass or infuriate adults or take what an adult would consider crazy risks like, for instance, climbing into a deep, concrete canal.

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

(Photo: sharpbrains.com)

The nucleus accumbens is another part of the story. That is near the back of our brain and is the first to develop. In teenagers, the impulses flowing through that wiring work overtime. It is the pleasure seeking, reward loving part of the brain. It is the part that inspires action not because it would be right or safe but only because it would be fun. With no frontal cortex to warn of risks, the teenagers are off to the party, into the fast car, skipping away from class, or, like last Saturday, lowering themselves down canal walls.

I wish I had been closer so that I could have warned our young friend about what he was about to do. I could have done as good parents and teachers do and, like a computer’s remote hard drive, acted as his remote pre-frontal cortex. But we spectators were all too far away. And it was just as well there were no adults waiting at the top when he emerged to ask our young climber what he was thinking. His honest answer would have been, “I was not thinking at all.”

Question Two: What do you want to be?

This question is dumb for three reasons. First, it implies that the teenager is nothing now. That’s insulting.

Second, the question is probing for a profession. The problem is that most teenagers don’t know and so will just proffer an answer likely to please. Why encourage lying? Further, according to Forbes magazine, teenagers today will have 15 to 20 jobs in their working lives. So why ask the question left over from the days of gold watches? Plus, one or more of those occupations will likely involve a job that does not now exist. So how can a teenager know what their job or jobs will be?

Most important of all, though, is that the question perpetuates the sad habit of defining oneself by a job. It’s the game show mentality of defining questions: what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do? It’s what crushes the souls of the un- and underemployed, led to baby boomer suicides after the 2008 crash, and makes retirement difficult for far too many. What am I if I am not the teacher, lawyer, or whatever? If a person is more than their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, ability, and body shape, then are they not also more than their job?

So if an adult asks a teenager what they want to be, a good answer would be this: “I hope to be an engaged citizen, a person of good character, a responsible parent, and a person who loves and is loved.” In fact, that would be a good answer for even those of us with fully wired brains.

For now, let’s avoid both questions. Instead, let’s enjoy our non-whistling dogs and the teenagers who are doing the best they can.

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Honour in the Worst Jobs

All work is honourable but some jobs are awful. The luckiest among us marry jobs and passion and often have smaller houses but broader smiles. The saddest folks labour only for money and many end up struggling to fill holes in their soul with stuff. There is something to be learned from all work and perhaps the best lessons are offered by the worst jobs.

My worst job was not the winter I laboured as an Esso gas station attendant. Besides cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the place and occasionally swiping stale chocolate bars, I would have made Pavlov grin when at the ping of the ding I jumped into coat and hat to leap to the pumps outside. With the temperature often far south of zero, I became quite adept at yawning hoods and checking oil in mere seconds and at kicking the frozen pail of ostensibly un-freezable blue goop to squeegee windshields. I had a cold all that cold winter. I received one tip – fifty cents.

My worst job was not the two summers with the Peterborough parks department. I enjoyed one morning each week when I drove the golf cart to ball diamonds around town to drag the angle iron in circles and then chalk baselines. But I also pierced garbage with a broken hockey stick with a bent nail in the end. In a hard hat and steel-toed boots, I ignored my allergy to freshly cut grass while pushing a lawn mower in circles around trees and up and down hills and other places the big tractors couldn’t go. I nodded obediently when my suggestion for punctuation was ignored and then dutifully erected thirty signs that read: No Golf Playing Motorized Vehicles. They were certainly effective because after that I didn’t see a single motorized vehicle playing golf.

When it rained, the three crews of university students were gathered under the Hunter Street Bridge where we sat in a large bunker-like room on makeshift seats with traffic rumbling above and covering us with dust. Against one dank and filthy wall lay a mountain of tulip bulbs. For several chilly, soggy days, hour after excruciating hour, we peeled each bulb and placed it in the correct bushel baskets: large, medium, small, and rotten. There were bulb wars and songs and jokes and one afternoon a guy entertained us with Penthouse letters; he inserted the word blank for the nasty bits, making each depraved offering seem even nastier still.

My worst job lasted only one night. My friend Chris and I were fifteen when we saw the ad in the paper and showed up at the Towers Department store parking lot that night at 9:00. At the yelp of the crew-boss, we boarded the ancient yellow school bus, gasped at the smell, and tried not to make eye contact with any of the scary looking people around us. We bounced in silence beyond the city’s lights to a rural golf course that in the inky darkness was as creepy as our workmates. Given no instructions, we followed the others and secured miner’s lights to our foreheads. Using big elastic bands we fastened empty juice cans to our ankles and scooped a handful of sawdust into the left one. We began following the safest looking man but in a truly impressive demonstration of the manner in which the “F” bomb can be noun, verb and adjective in a single, complex sentence he suggested that we find our own spot. It took a while, but we finally wandered to an empty fairway.

We had been promised a cent a worm. Chris had calculated how much we could make in only one night and all afternoon we couldn’t wait to begin. But now that we were there, stumbling through the chill and darkness, we couldn’t wait to earn our first penny.

We couldn’t find a worm anywhere. It was nearly thirty minutes before I lunged at my first victim. I missed him. It was another thirty before we mastered the plunge and yank needed to can one, as we began calling it. We jumped and ran when the automatic sprinklers clicked to life but then smiled when worms began appearing on the wet grass that glistened black under the August moon. We learned to time the rotations. We’d run in, can a couple, and then scamper back without getting too wet. The sawdust on our fingers kept the slippery buggers from sliding away and we learned to be quick. With a slip on the wet grass I lost nearly half my catch but we kept going.

Honour in the Worst Jobs

(Photo: www.oregonlive.com)

We worked hard all night and at the horn’s blast returned to the bus. We were stiff and dog tired but stood proudly in line to present our haul to the crew-boss who sat behind a long beat-up wooden table. Some of our work mates had earned the money that we had dreamed about but I had managed to pick only one full can – 250 worms. The tough looking women with the Ukrainian accent counted out two dollars and fifty cents. Chris earned just a little bit more.

We napped on the dirty bus and stumbled out bleary-eyed and filthy. The city was shaking itself awake with cars piercing the morning mist as we shuffled across the street to the neon glare of the donut shop. We bought donuts and chocolate milk until our night’s pay was gone. Later that afternoon, Chris called and we agreed that one night of worm-picking was plenty.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of resumes but I never listed worm picker. Perhaps I should have. This evening, when I slide between clean sheets, I’ll afford a thought for folks who will spend the night standing guard, serving coffee, buffing floors, dumping garbage, and yes, even hunting worms. There is honour in all work. Perhaps there is even more in work that needs to be done but most of us would rather not do and when we would rather not do it and all for wages we would rather not accept.  Maybe it is in that work, at three in morning, with folks doing the best they can for the families they love, that lies the most honour of all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others and consider seeing more at http://www.johnboyko.com