I recently had an experience that helped focus some thoughts I've had for a while now. Let me start by describing the experience.
Our big school musical was the week of Valentine's Day. During that time, I saw some wonderful things, both on and off-stage. But there is one particular that moment that sticks in my mind.
During our final dress rehearsal, one of the performers gave what I can only describe as a flawless performance. It was simply perfect, from the inflection in her lines to her choreography, to the energy and feeling with which she infused everything she did.
Watching her brought me such joy--partly because I was proud of her, but partly because she was in her element. She reminded me of an otter swimming or a bird flying. She was doing what she was born to do, and doing it with joy and verve. It was a wonderful thing to watch and it had a profound impact on me. The audience loved her, and she enjoyed great success--in addition to the internal satisfaction of a job well done.
As I watched her, I thought back about the journey that had brought here to that point.
She had come to a summer theatre camp as a rising 6th grader. She had a nice, sweet voice, and at the end of the week, I suggested to her mother that she start taking voice lessons, and she did.
For the next three years, this student and I worked almost every week. During our lessons, I corrected her breathing, the placement of her vowels, and posture. We worked and worked worked. She practiced, came and got critiqued, practiced some more, got critiqued again...and on and on.
This student worked on her vocal technique and she continued to come to theatre camps. In fact, she attended just about every camp she could. She worked and worked and worked. For years. And years.
This student put in hours that cannot be counted, and gave a consistent effort that cannot be calculated. Hard work and effort turned talent into skill, and skill into instinct.
Beyond her hard work, she showed a consistently good attitude. She was cheerful and focused, never causing any problems, or drama in any way (nor did her parents, and that's quite important as well). She was part of the team, never showing any kind of attitude or entitlement. She supported her peers and always gave 100% to whatever she part she was given. Large or small, she performed it as if it were the most important role in the play.
In fact, when we had try-outs for this part, she wanted a different role, and wanted it badly. I know she was disappointed when the casting was announced. But she had formed habits over those years--habits that now directed her actions.
And that is what I want to focus on. Her tremendous success was the result of years and years of hard work, and of hundreds of good choices made consistently. These choices and work created habits that made her success a natural outcome.
And so, part of my joy was seeing her succeed so beautifully. Part of my joy was that of a teacher seeing a student succeed. But part of my joy was seeing how years and years of effort and good choices had paid off.
To be clear, hard work and good choices are not always rewarded with such great public success. However, great public success does not ever seem to come without them.
If you are the parent of a girl, there is much for you to celebrate. Because of the nature of the subjects I teach (music and theatre) the reality is that most of my students are girls (with some notable, wonderful exceptions) and working with them is a wonderful joy. They are organized and mature, and full of something I can only describe as life and light. When I think of my female students as parents and teachers (which I think of as the highest callings as they are what I do) and leaders of companies or governments, I rejoice. Their intelligence, competence, energy, and deep goodness will be assets to the future and I believe they will change the world in many good ways.
Talking about girls and boys in education is fraught with danger. You are almost sure to offend someone. Sadly, many of these discussions are politically charged and highly polarized. While I welcome civil debate and dialogue, I'm not in the mood for an argument. So, if you want to disagree, you are most welcome. But if you leave a charged, accusatory comment, just know I'll probably delete it. It's sad that we have to throw out so many qualifiers and caveats, but here we go. I want my students of both genders to live happy, fulfilling lives. I think that right now in our culture, boys and girls both face a lot of challenges that could keep them from this goal. Some challenges are general to their age group, while some seem specific to their gender. I think being a parent and a teacher means that you need to be aware of these challenges and act accordingly. I hate the idea that if you try to help your girls, you are anti-boy, or that if you are worried about boys, you are anti-girl. Hogwash. Good teachers and parents care about all of their students equally and are concerned about anything that might rob them of happy lives.
But being equally concerned does not mean that you are concerned about the same things. In large measure, my girl students face one set of challenges, my boy students another. If we are to help them, we have to be honest about this and understand that different cultural phenomena have disparate impacts. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule and anything I write about girls could we usefully applied to some boys. And vice versa. But at some point, you can get so tied up in knots that you end up not saying anything. And I think this is important.
There is an old cliche about the military--that they always want to fight the last war. I think that to some extent, teachers and parents do the same thing. During the 90s there was a lot of concern about various issues with girls. These issues were discussed and an on-going effort was made to address them. I'm not saying we're done. But at the same time, I think that we're still focused on fighting some of the battles from 20 years ago and are oblivious to some newer threats.
There is one threat that concerns me a great deal because I worry it will rob the girls I teach of the ability to live a happy, successful life. In fact, there are a few things that sometimes keep me up late at night worrying about my students. And this is probably the biggest fear I have for my female students. But I don't hear it spoken about much. I should also note that some boys struggle with this as well, but I don't see it with them nearly as often. I did 20 years ago, but now not so much. Instead, I see this with nearly all my girls.
Let me start by saying that I define success as living a happy life, engaging in productive activity of some kind, helping others, and fulfilling the goals you set for yourself. To me, success is dying someday thinking, "I had a good life."
Imagine a hypothetical middle-class girl coming of age in today's world. Statistics suggest that if she simply follows the cultural mainstream and there are no interventions of any kind, she is likely to do well in school, go on to college, probably advanced degrees, get a job, and will most likely achieve some degree professional success depending on her level of ambition.
The reality today is that a girl who simply floats in the cultural mainstream will most likely be taught in many ways that she should be ambitious, that her ambitions are good, and that she should focus on fulfilling her dreams and goals.
However, this is where things begin to get tricky. There seems to be a lot of attention paid to achieving goals and following dreams, but less so to prioritizing and deciding which of those goals and dreams are worth the effort. Assessing whether it's healthy to do everything. In other words, we are saying very loudly, "You go, girl!" But we are not providing very good roadmaps or direction on exactly where to go or what to do along the way.
I recently read an article about a new phenomenon being observed more frequently: young women in the corporate world, mostly-unmarried and childless, are burning out by the age of 35 or 40. These were women with bright career futures, women who were not generally dividing their efforts between home and work. Experts were at a loss to explain it (although many tried).
I don't pretend to know all the factors, and I'm sure there are many I don't understand. But I have an educated guess at one of the factors.
Many of my female students have difficulty participating in an activity and simply enjoying the intrinsic benefits. Instead, there is an almost frantic focus on achievement and success, as signified through external metrics. For example, every year, I encounter a growing number of students for whom being in the play is not simply an artistic and/or social experience. Rather, it is an important stepping stone. It is a box to check on the resume, and it is important to quantify it. Therefore, having a lead is important, or having an official title.
People have always wanted leads. That is not new. People wanted them for various reasons in the past: personal glory, the excitement of a challenge, personal growth, etc. But now, I feel that students want them because it is important to excel, to achieve and this is one way to denote that. I feel that this is especially true with young women.
In recent years, titles, awards, and other markers of success have been increasingly important. I perceive that students are participating in many activities, not because they are inherently rewarding, but because there is a drive for girls to achieve and excel and to have that measured and quantified in some way.
This is driven, I think by many things. I have noticed that there is a very steady and consistent pressure on young women as early as elementary school. Some of that is parental pressure and I think that comes from three sources. First, I see parents who are justly proud of their daughter's maturity and competence. In celebrating these traits, however, they unwittingly create a situation where their child to prove this over and over. A steady pressure builds, with each success not being celebrated as much as creating a ratcheting effect where the pressure mounts for the next big thing to be equally or more successful. Secondly, some parents are very focused on having their daughters have a resume filled out for college. Thirdly, some parents seem to feel driven that their daughter will compete with any possible boy in any possible endeavor--which means she must excel in every possible activity and endeavor.
Pressure is also exerted by a culture which increasingly tells women they can and should have it all. Many girls seem to have absorbed this cultural message, without ever receiving any guidance that might balance, channel, focus, or help them contextualize it.
So, I see bright, wonderful girls achieving, achieving, achieving at younger ages. At first glance, it's exciting to watch. It's gratifying for parents and teachers and I'm not arguing that we should impose artificial restraints or discourage achievement.
But I do think we need to teach wisdom and balance, provide guidance and context.
Eventually, life teaches us that you can't always be the best. You can't do more and more and still give everything 110%. You can't be valedictorian and the lead in the play and feed the homeless every night and be a champion kick-boxer. At some point, you will wear out and burn out. Energy is a renewable resource only when used carefully. Time, while renewable, is finite and limited.
It used to be that we recognized that some children were good at math. Some were good at art. Some were great at reading. And so on. Now, we seem to want every child (especially girls) to be academic superstars, stand-outs in every subject. While playing travel soccer, doing Tae Kwon Do and saving sea turtles. That sounds exhausting to me.
Not every goal is going to be of value to every life path. I am constantly amazed and delighted by how much young women can do. They have tremendous capacity. But that needs to be carefully watched. Stewardship and judgment are called for. They have long lives ahead. Their childhoods and adolescence should be times of preparation and growth, developing the intellectual, emotional, and physical resources for a long and happy life. Middle and high school should not be the culmination.
Achievement in the early years, should be, I think, a by-product of pursuing joyful activities, and not so much an end in and of itself.
It sounds exhausting to me to begin at a young age and start worrying about achieving and defining success almost solely by external measures. Instead of having a childhood, many female students seem to be having an intense, extended internship. So, yes, if you start being a super-achiever at 10, or younger, then I can see why you would start to burn out at 40. That seems very predictable to me.
I'm all for kids achieving amazing things. I directed my first full-length musical (91 kids) at the age of 15. It set me on my current path and continues to be a point of satisfaction. But I didn't do much else, including homework. And I did it because I wanted to. It grew organically out of my interests. It wasn't about creating a resume (although that was a happy side benefit).
I think that we should help them any child learn to ask some basic questions. 1) Do I really want this? 2) Is this worth the inevitable sacrifices and trade-offs? 3) What are those trade-offs and sacrifices (in my experience, neither girls nor boys at this age have much concept of what these are likely to be). 3) Is this something that is going to bring me joy or am I simply doing it because I to achieve something? 4) Does this move me towards the goal of living a balanced, happy, life? 5) Do I want to do this, or am I trying to please someone else, or prove something? 6) Are my reasons for doing this fundamentally intrinsic or extrinsic? Again, all of this is true for boys as well--I just don't see such a push for them to always be stand-outs in everything.
I think one of the best things that a parent can do to help a daughter prepare for long-term success (and by that, I mean the ability to live happily in the life she chooses) is to help her relax a bit. Parents might want to relax a bit, too. Life is more than a college application. Remind yourself that your daughter is a child. She doesn't have to be CEO yet. Yes, she may have tremendous capacity. But as an adolescent, she is, by definition, young and immature. She needs to develop perspective, balance, and emotional maturity. I wish more people understood that being mature in one domain (being organized, for example, or responsible) does not mean that the child is equally mature in all other domains and facets. Some very organized students might not have a lot of emotional resilience, for example.
That fact that she gets good grades and is mature in many ways for her age does not mean that she's done growing and ready for the adult world yet. The fact that a red wagon can carry some loads successfully does not mean it is ready to be used as a moving van. If you keep heaping more weight on it, it will collapse one day. I think children (both boys and girls) need longer, more protected childhoods, and that childhood is the best preparation for happy, productive, adulthood.
Help her realize that not every test and assignment is make-or-break. Help her realize that there are, and always will be, trade-offs. Help her learn to pursue activities for their inherent value, not because one must always be "successful" as defined by very external, narrow markers. One does not need a formal title to enjoy an activity or to feed one's soul. Being goal-oriented can be a good thing, but not everything can or should be measured in goals. At a minimum, goals should be carefully chosen to focus on personal growth as opposed to fairly limited notions of achievement.
It seems to me that this approach is far healthier, and far more likely to lead to a satisfying and joyful life lived on one's own terms, instead of a a joyless life of box-checking, resume building, and eventual burn-out.
Opening night was last night and, my goodness, I was so proud of those kids! It really went incredibly well. To the point I'm a bit nervous about tonight. To see these kids in all their adolescent glory--dealing with all the concerns and vexations and worries they have--out in front of everyone singing and dancing their hearts out is really quite amazing. Knowing them as I do, and knowing just what it took for some of them to do that, and the sacrifices they've made, makes me love them all the more.
I'll post photos in a few weeks when I get them back, but the sets and props and costumes were really something. Our community, led by some amazing parents, has poured heart and soul into making the kids look great. And the kids seem to have absorbed that and used it as a springboard to a greater performance.
I often feel a bit guilty when I see how much time people devote to doing costumes or scenery or props or selling tickets and so on. Theatre is notoriously transient and fleeting. We work for months and then it's gone after three days. Is it worth all the time and trouble? All the disruption in people's lives and routines?
I always ask myself that question and towards the end of rehearsals, I always start to waver. But then, on opening night, I always come to the same conclusion. Yes, it's worth it.
It's worth it for the pride the kids feel. It's worth it because it makes them feel important and special--that they are worth that effort. When you are an adolescent, that's a helpful message. It's worth it because it's beautiful and helps make the audience happy and have an enjoyable experience for a few hours.
But I think there are deeper reasons, lessons I hope my students will absorb. I've decided to try to figure out ways of helping them understand this more consciously. It is profound for students at this age to see people doing work and doing it well. Life is work. If we are normal, we will spend a lot of time working in our lives and doing work well and joyfully, or at least with satisfaction, is one of the keys to happiness.
So, even though I feel a twinge of guilt when I think of all the time the parents are putting in, I love it that the kids are seeing them working hard, working joyfully, working generously, and working well. Doing the job right in spite of how long it will last or the low material reward. Work is inherently worth doing well.
There's another thing I love about this. These parents are all doing this with no compensation. They're doing it because some things aren't about money. The worth and value of some things far exceeds any price that can be affixed. That's another lesson I hope the students learn, one that is in short supply these days.
And finally, doing big stuff, ambitious things, is tiring. It is exhausting and one needs to be careful not to live an unbalanced life or to just do big things for the sake of doing big things. Small can be beautiful too. But big projects remind us that humans are remarkable creatures. We can do terrible and brutish things, and we can often fail at the good things we try. But we can also do wonderful, beautiful things that we don't always think we can. In a time of so much uncertainty and worry and doubt, I think that is a good thing to remember. Even if it's just a big thing in one relatively small community, for three nights for 135 kids, I like it.
Okay everyone, I'm going to give you a life lesson for free. Let's say you are an aspiring performer. Your school has an active theatre program and you have spent a few years in it. You hope and dream that one day, you'll get the lead (this could be changed, incidentally to be about something else, like starting on the varsity team in a sport, etc.)
Let me give you some advice on this.
If you are flaky and unreliable when you have a small role in the chorus, your director will pr0bably not trust you with a lead. If you goof off and miss rehearsal frequently (unless you are excused) then the director will probably not seriously consider you for a larger role.
Parents: if you grumble about casting choices (don't kid yourself--this stuff always gets back to the director) and if you are half-hearted in filling your obligation to sell tickets or help with props or paint the set or whatever, then you are shooting your child's future chances in the foot.
If you are glib about your child missing rehearsals because of your lack of organization or planning, if you don't live up to the commitment that came with your child being part of the play, then you are sending the director a powerful message that you cannot be trusted.
Sadly, that means your child can't be trusted since your child is dependent on you for rides and logistical support.
If I can't trust you with little things, I will not trust you with big things. Far too many people work too hard on a play to take a chance on someone I can't fully trust.
You don't get the lead and then develop responsibility. You act responsibly with small things, earn trust, and then (assuming you also have talent) you get the lead. So many people want to do this in reverse. But life doesn't work like that.
I would add that while I'm talking about the context of theatre, this applies to many other things in life--sports teams, jobs, and so on. If you can't be trusted with little things no one will give you greater responsibilities.
This seems so obvious, and yet I am always astonished at the number of people who don't understand--and act--on this principle. I get that adolescents might not realize how this works, but I am surprised more parents don't get it.
Every year I'm shocked by the people who are shocked that they (or their children) didn't get big roles. Sometimes they haven't prepared adequately or worked to refine and stretch and develop their talents to the point that they could be seriously considered. Other times, perhaps most often, someone is talented but has goofed off a lot. Or a parent has been scattered, unsupportive, and not very good at making sure their child was where they needed to be.
Believe me, future stars, this makes a big, big difference. Trust me on this. I begin looking at potential lead material years and years in advance, watching carefully to see who has talent, but who has a good work ethic, who can focus. Who cares enough to try. And which parents will support them. I know other directors are the same in this regard, and I that that coaches are, too.
So, there it is! Free advice that will change your life. You are welcome.
I haven't done much blogging lately. Part of that is because I've been really busy in the yard and garden since March. Since that's the bulk of what I'm doing these days--and since it is one of my favorite places to be, I thought I'd post some random photos.
Here is our house. I named it Mockingbird Cottage because of all the mockingbirds that roost in our trees. It's small, but we like it. You can see wisteria climbing up the porch and some day lilies in the front bed. The other plants there are irises that I need to cut down.
I am a real fan of day lilies. They bloom and multiply every year, providing weeks and weeks of color for very little work and money. I have them all over the place.
This isn't a great picture, but it shows the long sloping backyard. Gosh, I love it. Sitting on the back deck as the sun goes down over the trees, or at night when the fireflies are out makes me think I'm in heaven. The grass rolls into the woods, which continue for quite a while on our property. It makes me feel like an English country squire.
Here's the corn--which is almost ready and I'm thrilled. It looks like a good crop this year. I've been experimenting this year mulching with newspaper and straw. I have a reason for this but won't bore you with the details.
Here is the view you see of the garden when you drive up. I have big plans for making this quite lovely but ran out of time and money this year. For now, you see the trellises--cantaloupe and cucumbers growing in the boxes which I built myself.
Just in case you wanted to see it, a close up of the cucumbers.
Today I harvested the first of our summer crops--a lovely cucumber. It was really good!
Here's a close-up of the cantaloupe plants climbing. Our soil is really high in a nutrient they love, so I'm hopeful for a good harvest. Sadly, the humid climate brings lots of molds and fungi, though, and sometimes they die before bearing fruit. Keeping my fingers crossed!
Here's a watermelon vine growing out of the cantaloupe box into the rocks. "Hey," you ask, "did you put that drainage ditch and retaining wall in yourself?"
"Funny you mention it," I reply. "Let me tell you about it."
Once upon a time, the ditch looked like this. Except weedier. Water had eroded it into a very irregular shape.
So, I spent weeks--WEEKS--wrestling the earth. You see all those rocks? Well, they came from my digging. Our dirt is almost entirely rocks with a bit of clay.
I dug the ditch out and line it with big rocks. Then, I built a retaining wall for the garden. I dug a three foot trench, lined it and then backfilled it with rocks (I'm still working on getting enough rocks). You can see the long grass at the foot of the ditch--that's where my son needs to weed eat and it's what the whole thing used to look like.
Okay, that's the grand tour. Thanks for stopping by!
My maternal grandfather was a deliveryman for Wonder Bread. He spent his whole working life--basically from the end of WWII to some time in the 80s waking up at 4:00 am and then driving around all day in a non-air conditioned truck lugging those big racks of bread. He did this 12 or 13 hours a day for most of his adult life.
Grandma did not work outside of the home in terms of having a paid job, but she worked. And worked. And worked. She cleaned and canned and cooked and sewed and gardened and volunteered in the community. To give you an idea, they had six kids and didn't have a dishwasher until I was in my teens.
It was not an easy life for either of them. After grandpa's retirement, things got better. For the first time in his life, Grandpa stayed up past 9:00. In fact, he got downright decadent, becoming hooked on "Hawaii-Five-O," which came on after the late local news. But they spent a whole lot of years working in ways that most contemporary Americans (myself included) would consider pretty tough duty. And, even after he was retired, Grandpa went to the parks and did hard physical labor for fun that most of us would consider inhumane were inmates forced to do it.
So, one might expect that at the end of their lives, Grandma and Grandpa would have been tired and beaten down by the sheer hardness of the work they had done as long as they had been alive.
You could assume that, but you would be wrong. In fact, it was exactly opposite. Grandma and Grandpa loved to work. They seriously enjoyed work. On holidays, they would work for fun. The felt that work was ennobling and worthy in and of itself--something one did because it was fundamentally valuable, regardless of the outcome.
I remember a conversation with my Grandma. I was in my early teens and I was helping her clean her kitchen or something. She asked me if I liked to work. I looked at her like she was crazy--I know I looked that way because I felt that way. I told her "No."
"That's too bad," she said. "You ought to learn to work and love it. It will make your life happy."
Like I said, when I was younger, I thought they were crazy. This was due in part to the fact that their daughter, my mother, had absorbed these lessons and was dead-set on making sure her kids knew how to work hard. So, I spent most of my childhood finding strategies to avoid work.
Now I think they are brilliant. Is there anything in life as constant as the need to work? If one could--as they did--come to the point where work was enjoyable, seen as a blessing, then one would always be engaged in something wonderful.
I'm not quite ready to become a bread deliveryman, or a 1950s housewife with few contemporary conveniences, but I've come around to my grandparents' view.
I am grateful--profoundly grateful--to have a job. Not just for the economic benefits it provides (although I'm grateful for them).
I am grateful for a job because I realize that working makes me human. It makes me alive. It pushes and drives me and gives shape to my energy and ambition. It makes physical and concrete what otherwise would be abstract. It refines and educates me, challenges and shapes me. Yes, I happen to like my job, but I am grateful for the concept and necessity of work. I realize that if I didn't have work--at the school, writing at home, gardening--I would be lazy and far less developed as I am. I know people who have lost jobs in this recession. They miss working. Not just a paycheck, but the actual work.
I think I get why the Lord told Adam that he would earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.
Grandma, you were right.
But more on this later.
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