You can do it

As the beginning of a school year approaches, I hear from many families whose children are not as eager as those shown in back-to-school advertisements. So many young people are downright dreading it.  When asked for a reason, they’ll say it’s stressful, or boring, or both.

A common response from adults is: “You can do it!”

We say this with the best of encouraging intentions. What we mean is “You’re great, and strong, and we believe in you.”

While that is likely true, it’s an answer to a question they may or may not be asking. (Not to mention that it neglects the question of at what cost.) If a young person says “I don’t know if I’m smart enough,” then some version of “you can do it” is appropriate and plenty.

But as a response to “I don’t want to go to school because it’s boring/stressful/ boring and stressful,” it misses the mark. Mostly, I think we use “You can do it” because we don’t really have time to address what these young people are actually expressing, and even if we did have time, it would be hard to know where to begin. (I say this not to suggest laziness on the part of adults but rather as a reflection of experience, after more than two decades at work on the problem!) But it’s also possible that we’re just mis-hearing what young people are actually saying; that we think this expression of satisfaction or unhappiness is actually a lack of confidence.

Either way, it’s a good idea to try to move beyond cheering kids on, to look more closely at what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. I think that in our role as caretakers and guides for young people we don’t like to get into this kind of territory unless we have solutions at the ready. And sure, they wouldn’t mind a solution, but to have their communications actually received can go a long way, even in the absence of solution. A longer way than we probably realize.

Especially if we want young people to keep talking to us, to keep telling us what’s not working for them, to keep honing the ability to express what they’re experiencing and use it to navigate what’s ahead.

a few things about smallness

The other day I thought maybe it might be time for me to try calculus again.  I didn’t take it in high school the way I might’ve if I’d been born a bit more recently, because there wasn’t a year left for it after 9th grade algebra, 10th grade geometry, etc.  And then I didn’t take it in college because, I think, I was tired.  Or didn’t get along well with the teacher?  I can’t really remember.

But there it is, out there, this un-learned mass with the fancy name. One of the young people I know, with whom I have been doing math for several years because she likes it and doesn’t “need” a tutor but likes having one, is nearing the end of pre-cal.  She and I are really more like math buddies than tutor and tutee.  I help her when she needs help, but a lot of the time we find interesting problems to try to solve together. Now, there she is, about to start calculus, and not only will I not be able to help anymore, she’ll likely be too busy with her calculus to do math with me much anymore.

So I’ve been brushing up on my pre-cal, looking for gaps and rusty spots, and considering  calculus texts.  I’m a Martin Gardner fan, and my library had a copy of Calculus Made Easy, the Silvanus Thompson text with revisions by Gardner, so I tracked it down in the 515s and opened to the table of contents. Thompson’s first chapter is called “To Deliver You from the Preliminary Terrors.” I immediately texted the words to my mom, who is still terrified by most math and went to all sorts of lengths to avoid passing her fear on to her female child.

I didn’t have terrors, per se, but I can’t resist this sort of language.  In this chapter Thompson delivers us from our preliminary terrors by explaining that to learn the two principle symbols d, meaning a little bit of, and ∫, meaning the sum of all the little bits. (He mentions the fancy language as well, but uses the plain to explain.) The second chapter is called On Relative Degrees of Smallness. I will admit that I was so enamored of this title that I had to stop reading for awhile. But then I resumed.  Here’s how the chapter begins:

We shall find that in our processes of calculation we have to deal with small quantities of various degrees of smallness. We shall also have to learn under what circumstances we may consider quantities to be so minute that we may omit them from consideration. Everything depends on relative minuteness.

Here I had to stop reading again and stare out the window.  Who knew this was going to be a philosophy book?

I recently had occasion to look up the word pico.  I have always been partial to words that mean lots of different things and pico is, among other things, the Spanish word for peak (or beak), an island in the Portuguese Azores, an acronym for a method of  locating relevant clinical literature, and a prefix denoting one trillionth. 10−12.  0.000000000001. Very, very little.

The other night I heard about Erika Christakis’ new book The Importance of Being Little.  This book is about very young children, and the way the world view of such people could inform the way we older bigger people interact with them.

This is an awful lot about smallness in one week, I’ve been thinking.  A little hard to ignore.  Also, my father, who is recovering from a massive stroke, cannot remember things I have just told him.  To find the patience and presence to dial back a lifetime of conversational habit in order to sustain an exchange with someone who can cast backward and forward only a few moments is at once an enormous thing and a very very small thing.

I’m not sure how far I’ll get with the calculus, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a terrific thing every time we consider smallness in great depth.

opportunity to communicate a need

I went to a concert yesterday in a church sanctuary. The concert was unrelated to the business of the church, but the materials (bibles, hymnals, etc.) remain in place no matter what is happening in the space (services or otherwise).  A stack of cards in a box on the back of each pew read “Welcome.  This card may help you communicate a need or provide information.”

I had this thought: What if we gave cards like these to children in school? What if young people had an ongoing opportunity to communicate, on paper? When I read the card, I got the impression that my experience mattered, that I was being invited to participate.

I thought about the young people I know and wondered what each of them might write on such a card.  The first person who came to mind is in sixth grade. He might write “Most of the time I’m confused when we’re doing math.”  Another would likely say something like “I’m really interested in invasive species; can we learn more about that?”  Two high school students I know might say “Is there any way you could punch holes in our handouts before you give them to us, or keep a hole punch in the room so we could punch them ourselves? That would help me keep my binder from getting so messy.”  Another might say “I’m really not trying to be a brat, but I’m bored, and it’s so frustrating when we spend so much time going over the homework that is exactly what we just did in class the day before.”  Given the chance, I think they’d tell us all sorts of things that would be helpful to know.  Things that would help us understand their behavior, things that would help us provide the best possible support for them, things that would help us know them better.

My guess is that there are some teachers and schools who have something like this in place, some way for students to communicate with teachers and administrators that does not require trying to get an adult’s attention verbally, or reveal his or her need or information to all those within earshot.   But in general, I think we expect that young people will speak up if there’s something they need to say, and I think mostly they don’t.

Some might abuse an “opportunity to communicate a need or provide information” in an anonymous fashion, as one quick look at the internet will tell us.  It might be worth the sifting and sorting it would take to manage that, though, if it would make it possible for us to hear more from  young people who are sitting quietly not communicating with us, and, too, many of the ones who aren’t sitting quietly but aren’t going to say theirs out loud either.

Even if none of them wrote anything down, I think they’d get that message that I got when I read the card sitting there in the pew of a church I don’t even attend – that if I was there, I was invited to communicate and thus to participate.

strangers

When I was in first grade I spent an afternoon in the school office, just chatting with the secretary.  I wasn’t there for a rule infraction.  I was there because it was the day my class was learning about the dangers of talking to strangers, and my mom knew that she didn’t need to worry about me talking to strangers.  What she needed to worry about was me getting so scared by stories of what could happen at the hand of a stranger that I’d have trouble sleeping, and have nightmares. So she sent me to school with a note requesting that I be excused from the classroom talk.

I thought of this the other day when I was out for a walk in my neighborhood.  One of the rental houses on the next street over is usually occupied by short-term visitors, and usually it’s a couple.  The house is tiny, has just one bedroom.  So I was surprised to see a young child out on a scooter in the driveway.  “Hi,” I was about to say when I saw her.  I made a note to mention to my young neighbors (who also have scooters) that she was there. If I’d spoken to her I might have mentioned it to her too.

But you aren’t really supposed to talk to kids you don’t know.  It’s not a rule for adults the way Don’t talk to strangers is a rule for kids, but it’s sort of understood.  Because you know that kids are taught not to talk to strangers, it’s sort of a courtesy to not put them in a position to have to do the not talking to.  It’s weird, and seems unfriendly, but in the context of the talking to strangers rule, it’s kinder to not talk to kids if you are, to them, a stranger.

For me this is such a bummer.  I like talking to kids.  I find them more open and aware and awake than many adults (including me).  But I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, or worry them, or worry their parents if their parents are nearby.  I could have said hi to the kid with the scooter in the driveway, because that’s about as much as it’s OK to say to a kid you don’t know, but I didn’t.  I was too busy regretting that it has to be this way.  And wondering about the impact it has on a person’s experience of the world.

The intent of the Don’t talk to strangers bit is obvious and good.  We put it in place in hopes of preventing strangers with ill intentions from bonding with children such that they can then more easily victimize them in some way.  The problem is that as a result, many children get the message that strangers are dangerous, which mostly, we aren’t.  Some strangers are dangerous.  Some are in fact extremely dangerous.  Most strangers, though, are not dangerous at all.  Don’t talk to strangers makes no allowance for this, and kids are left thinking that it’s the strangerness that’s dangerous.  It’s not the strangerness that’s dangerous.  It’s just that some people are dangerous.  And of course we know that it doesn’t take being a stranger to be dangerous.

It seems so much harder to try to communicate with kids about the nuances of things than to just make a decision for them and then try not to worry about the side effects.  It’s much harder to say something like “There are some people who could hurt you, and so we need to talk about how to decide whether or not it’s OK to talk with someone you don’t know or to do something that an adult tells you is OK even if you do know them” than to say “Don’t talk to strangers.” Like many things we do with and ostensibly for kids, I think it’s born mostly of tiredness and overextension.  We don’t have time or energy to get into all that nuance and the questions that kids will have.

When I was a child, I was very good about giving the silent treatment to anyone I didn’t know.  Now I’m an adult, and I pretty much still don’t talk to people I don’t know.  I know intellectually that most of the people I pass on the street are not harboring ill intentions toward me or anyone, young or old, nearby.  But I still relate to them, as a group, as though they probably are.  Not everyone grows up feeling this way, and I don’t lay the blame for this condition in myself solely on the admonition that I not speak with strangers.  But I know it had an impact. I know it set a tone for the way I experience the people who are new to me.  If that’s true for me, I bet it’s true for others too.  And if it is, if many of us are scooting around shaping our worlds around even the remnants of a belief that mostly people are dangerous, I think it might be worth rethinking the stranger rhetoric.