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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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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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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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?

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Five Lessons from the First Day on the Job

The first day on the job is always hard. It offers equal scoops of excitement and fear. Two first day experiences helped shape the five lessons that I learned and now humbly share.

first day on the job

I was hired to teach History at what was then called a vocational school. It was designed for teenagers who had learning disabilities, had recently arrived in Canada from schools that left them woefully unprepared, and others who were waiting to go to jail or just out, and more who were too bored, angry, or damaged to fit in elsewhere.

On the day before classes began, I was told that I would not be teaching History but Grades 10 and 12 Mathematics. I protested that I had not studied Math in university and was awful at it in high school. I was told I’d be fine. My classroom contained two big stacks of text books; one blue, one yellow. The yellow one had stuff that looked harder so I made it the grade 12 book. I noticed that all my class lists had around 30 kids each but the room only had 26 desks. I was told not to worry, they would never all show up.

On my first day I was told to fuck off twice. The second time was in a marvelous Jamaican accent so it was actually, fuck off, mon. No matter what I did or said in one class, they just ignored me. Bob Hope and Jimmy Carter, I swear, were in another class. I had them sit together, it only seemed right. After lunch another teacher and I broke up a hallway fight. The boy I pulled off another spun and tried to kick me between the pockets – I jumped, he ran.

That evening I told my wife that I had made a terrible mistake in accepting the job and moving us to this city where we knew not a soul. We discussed options. But the next morning, I affixed another of my brand new ties, and went back into the lion’s den.

Several years and three schools later I walked into my first day at one of Canada’s premier independent boarding schools. It’s a school for kids of the upper middle class and rich who can buy their children’s peers and an education and environment that all schools, if properly funded, led, and staffed, could and should provide.

We gathered for the first morning chapel, held in the theatre because the chapel was under reconstruction. I was stopped by the athletic director and told I was the senior soccer coach. I confessed that I had never coached soccer. In fact, I had never played soccer. “Don’t worry”, I heard him say, as if it was a sixteen-year old echo, “You’ll be fine.” The first practice was that afternoon.

The school’s new academic building was also under construction and so I was among several teachers in rented, old and smelly portables. Wex and Alasdair were the first students to arrive for the first period class. They both shook my hand and welcomed me. Wow, I thought, they’re adults. Because each boy weighed well over 200 pounds, they laughed at the tiny desks. They wedged, wiggled and stuffed themselves between the chair and the tiny affixed table. As if on cue, they hopped – all four desk legs left the floor. Wow, I thought, they’re children.

The rest of the students arrived, saw the two hopping about and, of course, joined in. I soon had us lined up for a race. That did it. We were one. The chemistry was among the best of the hundreds of classes I have taught in my career.

That afternoon I was given a mesh bag of soccer balls and met my team. We began practice with a run. I stretched it out as long possible while deciding what I could possibly do next to kill the hour. I put them through a number of hockey drills until it was mercifully over. That evening I took notes as my daughter taught me how many players are on the field, the names of the positions, and the basics of the game. The next practices were marginally better. There were six teams in our league and that season we came second – second in every game we played.

Top Five First Day Lessons I Learned:

  1. It Gets Better: The most underpaid worker is the one struggling through their first day, or week, or month. Things will never get easy but they get easier. I learned to note the good moments and accept the bad as rude instruction.
  2. Character Matters: A good boss hires not a resume but a person. That person’s most important asset is character. I learned to have faith. You will pick up what you need to know soon enough but until then your character is your guide.
  3. Laughter Matters: It is important to always take the job seriously but never yourself. I learned that even the most titanic of stressful, embarrassing situations quickly shrivel to funny little stories.
  4. Client Service: Concentrate on the clients; in my case the students. Overwhelm them with your dedication to their needs. I learned that it is only by impressing clients that anyone ever impresses the boss.
  5. Don’t Water the Rocks: Every workplace has folks eager to sink a sabre into a colleague’s back for some perceived advantage. Ignore them. They trade their souls for ephemeral victories and realize too late that real grown-ups left school yard intrigues long ago and that, in the end, there’s no one keeping score. I learned to waste no time on sycophants or saboteurs.

It all sounds easy. The toughest things always do. I wish I understood the lessons on my first day back at the vocational school. It was my toughest day. I’m glad I had learned them by my first day at the independent school. It was among my best days. While I still dedicate myself and whatever talents I possess to doing the best I can, I have never let my job, title, or employer define me. Work is not life. Work is what I do to have a life. That alone makes any first day, or any day after that for that matter, what it should be, just another day at work.

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