My day begins with 17 seniors, continues with 23 more, and ends with another 20. I am immersed in college apps and senioritis. Last week my ducklings followed me obediently to the library where we filled out FAFSA forms and applications. Some had to call home for Social Security numbers, others had already visited 8 college campuses. I loved every minute. The best part of teaching seniors is watching them transform from children to adults. It is exciting, terrifying, and I am just along for the ride. I can shout directions when they miss a turn, but I don’t have the wheel.
Spending hours a day with seniors has given me many things: a crass sense of humor, a vast knowledge of pop culture, a healthy dose of patience, and a heart for the futures of a yearly band of almost-adults. But I have also learned three things I feel I should share:
Share your beginnings If you have kids of any age, you know that frequently they have unrealistic expectations. How many kids ask year after year for a pony for Christmas, even though they live on a postage stamp city lot? Yup, unrealistic. Seniors frequently say they want to be a musician and have a summer home on Lake Michigan….ummm, 90 percent of the time those are mutually exclusive. I have to say that I, as a parent, am sometimes guilty of breeding these unrealistic expectations, and you likely are too. If you have worked hard over the years and are now enjoying some of the fruits of your labors- nice cars, a large house, exciting vacations- your children are seeing those fruits, but they may have missed the labor part. Nick and I bought the ugliest house in a decent neighborhood in a good city when we first were married. We dubbed it the “poop smudge on the corner” for its hideous brown paint job. Over ten years (10!) we lovingly remodeled it. All our kids were born there,but they won’t likely remember it at its worst. Now we live in a much nicer house. Our kids, like my teenage students, are likely to believe that they will graduate college and buy a nice, big house, because that is what they are used to. But that is not likely, or even necessary. Nick and I have very happy memories of our poorest times together. I don’t want my kids to miss that, so I’m going to talk about it. Students should know that even the humblest of beginnings is a step toward success, AND that it takes hard work, time, and sacrifice to reach those dreams of expensive vacations or material wealth.
Dream with them Being realistic about expectations does not have to be separate from dreaming big. I love to read a story by Kristi Yamaguchi to my kids called, “Dream Big, Pig”. It is silly, but that little pink pig experiences her dreams by working hard and trying different things. I want my kids to be dreamers. I want them to hope for the unlikely and root for the underdog. I hope my kids see me pursuing dreams of mine and are encouraged to do the same. I feel the same about my seniors. They have some awesome dreams. And sometimes, I have been fortunate enough to see their dreams become reality. I have students living across America working in film, marketing, and music industries that probably felt like unlikely prospects when they were sitting in a little classroom in little old Plainwell, Michigan. As parents, we have a dual role of teaching reality and fostering dreams. The reality is the boring part of parenting, like teaching chores, but the dreaming, that is the fun part! Ask your kids what interests them. Travel with them. Watch inspirational movies. Be part of the cultivation of their dreams, even when they are almost adults and seem too cool to talk about them.
Let them fail (safely) It is all the rage today to talk about helicopter parenting and its many pitfalls. And I can tell you from my many days with seniors, their biggest hurdle to success is that they don’t know how to fail. I teach the A kids mostly. You know, the ones who only know that one letter in the alphabet. If they earn a C, they are crying, asking for extra credit, pointing fingers. But if there is one piece of advice I would pass on to them, it is to fail NOW. I sailed through high school, then spent an entire fall semester at college crying over my open chemistry book. I didn’t know how to ask for help, I didn’t have well-developed study skills to fall back on, and I was miserable. I almost lost a $4,000 academic scholarship over it. I wish I would have had that experience in high school. The money wasn’t on the line then, and I think my high school teachers would have been much more amenable to help me than my college chemistry professor. If you are going to help your children dream big, be prepared to watch them fall. And after they do, feel free to kiss their boo-boo, pat them on the back, and get them back on the bike, so to speak. But don’t follow them around with a safety net and a box of band-aids. I guarantee you, they will find you when they need you, and when they don’t have you right there, they will learn what other resources to fall back on.
While I love my job with seniors, I do not look forward with anticipation to raising them in my own home. These almost-adults are a landmine of emotions, ideas, and needs. But, if we stick with them through this last phase, they will go out and change the world we live in.