Somehow, this weekend, Cooper celebrated his eighth birthday. While I was shopping for him, I found myself instinctively looking for cards and candles for a six-year old. My mind, nor my heart for that matter, were ready for the fact that he was actually turning eight. The weekend parties went fabulously, with ten friends joining in for bowling on Saturday, and our closest friends and family for the Packer game on Sunday. We won’t go into the results of the game, except to say that the blow was lessened by the fact that we were surrounded by kids being kids. Riding bikes in the sun, throwing footballs and beanbags, sitting and talking on the trampoline, coming up with the next cool game for the kids ages two to fourteen to play, all together.
In front of and behind the bday party weekend, I have had the opportunity to substitute teach middle school. It’s a series of ups and downs, with small breakthroughs followed by tough classroom “management” followed by another smile or glimpse of confidence, followed by math class and just not getting it. I was reminded: teachers really do have to have the goods and patience. Something else I was reminded of: how important the skills of mentoring, modeling and reading are, as well as the nurturing of empathy and confidence. It makes me recall ever-so-slightly the feelings I had in middle-school. I know I wanted to fit in, fit in, fit in.. and often that meant excluding someone in a cruel way.
I just finished the book Absolutely Almost with Albie as the lead (a “book about fitting in and standing out”). Albie didn’t yet have the emotional maturity to know that “cool” wasn’t always a good character trait, and that by ascribing to his classmate’s brand of cool that he was hurting others. But he grew in the novel over a couple weeks time, to backtrack on cool and embrace kindness. He embraced his own kindness, not just because it was natural for him, but because he had a mentor, an influence or three, and a series of circumstances that allowed him to realize this was a gift he could give. The author did an amazing job of showing Albie’s transformation in a subtle manner. Albie wasn’t aware of a “transformation” – and those around him simply saw little glimpses of change which, to the reader, added up to a bit more. The book reminded me how easy it is to be led down a path that doesn’t suit us — and yet how easy it for others to help in redirecting our paths. We can get sucked in, whether it be because of our want to fit in, because we aren’t emotionally ready, or for any number of other reasons.
I look at my kids and see in Greta an impressionable pleaser with a bit of spunk; and in Cooper a natural but shy leader with determination. In both, I see ways they can take a quick turn in the right direction as well as in the wrong direction. It takes teachers, peers, parents, and the community members we meet and engage with perhaps infrequently to help keep that path positive. To redirect, notice, embrace, and celebrate the unique and amazing traits we each possess. I believe each and every one of us, however brief or perhaps persistenly we come in contact, are a part of each others’ journeys. So, thank you for the way(s) you’ve touched and directed mine, and I hope I have done a bit of the same in return for you.
Finally, the novel had one statement that rang true, especially now, as I search and start to define the next chapter in my life, the transformation I am perhaps subconsciously readying for and that those around me are supporting in small but significant ways: “I think the hard thing for you… is not going to be getting what you want in life, but figuring out what that is. Once you know what you want – really, truly – I know you’ll get it.”