You Can Only Go Wrong In Life If You Sell Yourself Short

Our youngest has always been a big-picture, future-focused thinker. As a child, he would draw scenes on pages of printer paper and then tape them to the wall to create an epic battle scene or an entire city. At seven he famously told us that he was ready to “get a wife, have some kids, and just get on with his life.” So it didn’t really surprise me much today when he mentioned during an admitted students day at Reed College that he first learned about Reed in 8th grade. I did not know this. I first learned about Reed College when our oldest was entering his junior year and I found it listed among schools in the book Colleges That Change Lives. It was that book that prompted me to suggest a trip to tour four colleges in the Pacific northwest in one trip. As we toured Reed, both Joe and I knew immediately it was not the place for him. We both agreed, however, that it might be a great fit for Luke. As he headed into senior year, Luke told us that Reed was his top choice school.

As I learned more about Reed, I got a little nervous. Reed has a reputation for being a highly rigorous college. One article I found online claimed that Reed is among the top ten most challenging colleges in the US, along with Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and MIT. Among the social sciences and humanities, Reed produces the second most PhD candidates in the country. They produce the third most PhD candidates in the sciences and math. It’s a tough school. I began to wonder if it was the right choice for Luke. While he is intellectually curious and hard working, he also has anxiety. My concern kicked in. I told Luke these things, and I think it stressed him out too. So he switched his top choices to a couple other schools, including Whitman College where his brother is a sophomore.

Still, we encouraged him to apply to Reed anyway. Of the colleges he applied to, it had one of the lowest acceptance rates, so we called it a “reach” school. He applied Early Action and received his acceptance email in late December while we were on vacation. When we returned home, his official acceptance letter was waiting for him along with their welcome gift, a book, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. For our dyslexic son who has worked so hard to become a prolific reader, it seemed like a sign. So we came to Portland for an official tour so he has all the necessary information when May 1st rolls around and he needs to sign on the dotted line for the college of his choice.

As we sat through the presentations today and walked around campus on the tour, I could see Luke’s interest and excitement. I have to admit that I started to get excited about Reed too. It’s a different type of liberal arts college. For starters, while students receive letter grades for their work, they are not shown those grades. Instead, professors give qualitative feedback on papers. In their required freshman course, Humanities 110, students meet with their professor for a paper conference where their work is discussed with them one-on-one. It’s through this type of feedback that Reed is able to encourage student growth. There is no “teaching to the test” at this institution. There are no collegiate athletics and no Greek system. Students are required to complete some physical education credits, but these can be obtained through classes like bowling or archery. It’s a school for students who like to sit around and discuss who had better ideas, Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle. They have a yearly conference that lasts for a week where students teach hands-on classes on any topic they choose. In short, it’s a school for eggheads who enjoy learning for the sake of learning. And it’s safe to say Luke is that egghead.

At one point today, I found myself thinking about what advice I wanted to give Luke about his tough choice ahead. How does he decide which school will be the right one? Does he go with a still challenging but safer bet or does he push his boundaries and see where his drive will take him (even if it brings him more stress in the short-term)? While thinking about it, I became teary eyed. When I was choosing a college for myself, I went with the safe bet. I chose the closest school with the best academics where I had a chance of being accepted. I sold myself short. I got bogged down by the cost of college and the introvert terror of being somewhere new and not knowing a single soul. I let fear make my choice, and I’ve spent the rest of my life wishing I’d been brave enough to take a chance on myself. So, I told Luke tonight over fries at Red Robin that he can’t go wrong with any of the schools he applied to. They are all wonderful institutions with many positives to offer. Then I told him to believe in himself and pick a place where his big-picture, future-focused mind will be challenged to reach the heights he dreams of. You can always choose an easier path if the harder one you start down becomes unbearable, but it’s difficult to convince yourself to reach for something bigger when you’ve already made yourself believe you aren’t capable of more. You can go with your gut or with your imagination. Your imagination will always take you further.

Books for the required Humanities 110 at Reed College

Imagination Or Not, A Shark Is Not a Plane

In a world of his own
In a world of his own
I caught our son Joe out behind our house the other evening and snapped this photo when he wasn’t looking. As much as he loves hanging out with friends, sometimes his deep thinking mind needs space. When that happens, he heads outside by himself for a while. This night he was out near the open space on the dirt path with a small, metal plane that his brother bought from the school store. Sometimes, when he can’t find his favorite plane, he uses a stand in…a Lego creation, a rubbery toy shark, a game console remote. I’ve even seen him use a pen taken from a hotel room as his imaginary ship. I’ve often wondered what he’s thinking about when he’s out there. For as much as he talks about Pokémon, I assume that he retreats into that world. But, he’s also a kid who reads atlases for fun, so there’s that. And he recently mentioned, out of the blue, a documentary he watched about a year ago on Netflix about transgender individuals and their struggles. Though he is honest and straight-forward about so many things, his mind is a lockbox. Try though I might to understand him, he remains a mystery to me.

Tonight, out of sheer curiosity after looking again at the photo I took on my iPhone, I asked him what he’s thinking about when he’s out there flying whatever it is he is flying. He told me he is making up stories, and the planes, game remotes, Lego ships, and even the pens are the impetus for the stories. They are the aircraft in his make-believe world.

“So…when I saw you out there with the rubber shark earlier today, was that an airplane too?” I asked. This made perfect sense to me because every other item he’s used has been a plane.

“No. It’s a shark. That would be ridiculous,” he replied.

“Of course,” I answered. “How silly of me.”

Sometimes I forget who I am talking to. Joe is creative, but he is also a bona fide intellectual working on becoming more so each day. When he was 5, he was talking to me about God and shared this bit of hopeful wisdom. “I’m not all knowing yet. But I am knowing.” And that he is.

He’ll be 14 in less than a month, and I turn into a weepy mess whenever that thought enters my head. In five years, I will be throwing a graduation party for him. I’m not sure where the time has gone, but damn if that kid hasn’t taught me more about volcanoes, reptiles, prehistory, geography, sharks, and love than I ever thought I could know. The part about sharks not flying, though? That part I knew on my own years ago, before he even mentioned it.

Casual Conversations Between A Shark And Justin Bieber

Everything you can imagine is real. ~ Pablo Picasso

A shark talking to Justin Bieber on the phone...imagine the conversation.
Justin Bieber on the phone with a shark in the back seat. Think Justin could turn the shark into a Belieber? I doubt it.

Today we took the boys to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I won’t ruin the movie for you if you’ve somehow managed to escape the myriad trailers this holiday season, but I will warn you that it may make you want to travel. After the film on our way home, our boys who, like Walter Mitty, have very active imaginations, began having crazy phone conversations in the back seat of our car using some old telephone handsets they found in the cargo area. I was only half listening while talking about the film with my husband, but at one point I believe Joe was a shark and Luke was Justin Bieber. I love my sons’ imaginations, and it’s in precisely those moments that I deeply appreciate our left-brain dominant boys and their non-stop creativity. The other night we were discussing what life might be like if we had to exist in the present with Tyrannosaurus Rex looking into our second story windows as we were getting ready for bed. Adults never have conversations like this. It’s a shame too because it would make dinner party conversations far more interesting and it would keep us from bickering about politics and religion.

Thinking about Walter Mitty and his daydreams I keep coming back to one thing. Creativity and imagination are far too underrated in this world. You have to dream it before you can do it. Someone imagined flying before the Wright Brothers actually flew and someone envisioned walking on the moon before Neil Armstrong ever did it. American society praises innovation and creativity as if we were the first upright beings to employ them. One look at our schools today, though, and you see that we talk a good game but we don’t play it. There is little room for imagination, creativity, and out-of-the-box thought at our public schools, which are instead consumed by standardized tests meant to make sure all kids measure up to the same rubric like faceless automatons. We’ve somehow determined that this is the best way to get ahead in the world, by engineering our future generations to a measurable standard. It’s sad, really. The kids who think differently are passed along because no one wants to deal with them. Their skills are undervalued and lost. We are systematically eradicating they very things that make us uniquely human…artistry, creativity, and independent thought. We squash imagination in the name of forward progress, but imagination is the one thing that allows progress in the first place.

My dyslexic kids might not fit into traditional schools because they think differently than other kids, but because of them I see possibilities. I see life and the world differently than I used to. I think “why not” instead of “we can’t.” And, maybe it’s crazy, but I sure would like to see that conversation between Justin Bieber and a great white shark realized. Somehow I think that could only make the world a better place.

We Need To Go Old School Again

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” ~Fred (aka Mister) Rogers

My boys engaged in free time play

Lisa, my dear friend who happens to be a high school English teacher, shared a link to an intriguing Psychology Today article the other day. The article discusses the steep and steady decline in the creativity of our nation’s children over the past twenty to thirty years. Studies have shown that as we’ve become a society more focused on test scores, our children have lost their ability to think creatively. The more we’ve restricted free time and free play (through both increased school work and increased extracurricular activity), the more heavily these creative losses are felt. While I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised by the article’s revelation, I was a little shocked by the statistics behind the assertion:

“According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984.  Yikes.”

When I was a child, my mother would hand us a piece of paper on which she had drawn random squiggles, lines, or shapes. Our job was to create a picture incorporating the designs she had already placed onto the paper. While my mother’s impetus for giving us this little exercise was most likely to acquire some uninterrupted free time for herself, what she was actually doing was helping us develop our creativity. As it turns out, this simple exercise my mother used to engage my sisters and I when we were children is the exact test that researchers use to measure the Creative Elaboration mentioned in the above paragraph. The goal is to have the child take what exists on the paper and expound on it in an original, meaningful, and possibly humorous way.

As I reflect on the amount of homework my boys do, on the assignments they have in school, and on the advanced level to which they are asked to work in their educational environment, it’s really no wonder that my eldest will sometimes come home in tears, lamenting the knowledge that he won’t have much free time to play after school. It’s heartbreaking, really. I did homework when I was in grade school. I know I did. But, I didn’t have much of it, maybe 30 minutes in fifth grade. Maybe. I did most of my work in class, including studying for exams, and the work I did at home was largely reading and practicing some spelling words. Joe has thirty spelling words in fifth grade, including ten vocabulary words for which he must memorize definitions. This week, on Joe’s list, appear the words hypotheses, phenomena, and memorabilia. I know adults who can’t spell those words. Joe also does 28-30 analytical, multi-step math problems a night, none of which he has time to do in class. It’s no wonder he’s stressed out.

In grade school, a million years ago when I was a child, we did fun, creative things. I remember one lesson we did for Social Studies. Both sixth grade classes were assigned an imaginary culture. We were told what the people in our make-believe country prized and how they lived their lives. We practiced acting within the boundaries of our assigned culture. Then, the teachers opened the doors between the two classes and we were prompted to interact with the other culture. One culture was entirely money-based while the other was entirely love- and affection-based. It was a hand-on lesson in culture shock. In sixth grade at my elementary school, we also studied a unit on the ancient Egyptians. With the research we had done in the library, we constructed “artifacts.” From cardboard we fashioned headpieces, Anubis likenesses, and even a sarcophagus. And…get this. We did all this work in the classroom. None of it was homework. Then, believe it or not, we dressed like the Egyptians and took the children from the other grades on a tour of our ancient Egyptian tomb, which was conducted in the school’s basement crawl space. I’m not kidding. Can you imagine the potential lawsuits from that type of activity today? Kids ducking their heads and walking around in a darkened, dusty, uneven, underground space in the school guided only by sixth graders? But, I will never forget that experience because we had to be creative to carry out our project. Our teachers, given the necessary freedom, taught us to be enthusiastic scholars. Today, my son got in my car in tears over tonight’s homework load.

I’m not a policymaker in Washington. I don’t hold a PhD in education. I’m just a mom who is home with her children. But, it seems clear to me that what our schools need more of is freedom to make learning a creative exercise and fewer standardized tests for which our children spend the entire year preparing. If we want to be the country that others imagine us to be, full of that American ingenuity we are constantly praised for, then we need to rethink our educational system. Let’s use some of the creativity we developed through the free time and play that we were allowed back when we were children to reinvent a landscape where our children are rewarded for thinking outside the box and solving problems ingeniously. Not only would it make the future of this nation brighter, but it would make our present time with our children more enjoyable and less tearful as well.

Our Kids Are Just Kids

My boys decked out for battle this morning

Yesterday was our sons’ annual well check at the pediatrician’s office. I never know exactly what to expect at these check ups because my kids are loose canons. When the doctor asks them questions, I’m never sure how they’ll respond. When Joe was five, he told the doctor that I fed him only bread and water and that he had no bed time. While the no bed time comment was true because he would never follow an actual schedule, I was in fact feeding him decent foods on a regular basis. Luckily for me, pediatricians are used to all sorts of weird answers from children, so the doctor lets my boys’ weirdness slide. I’m sure he goes home at the end of our visit, however, and tells his wife the crazy things I say immediately after my children make some random declaration of child abuse: “I do feed him. I swear I do. Bread and water are his favorite foods.”

Now that the boys are school age, the questions are a bit different. The doctor yesterday asked them what grades they were going into, what school they attended, and how they were doing in their studies. He then asked them the question I dread the most.

“So, what sports do you guys do?”

“Ummm…we don’t do any sports,” Joe replied.

“I don’t like sports,” was Luke’s immediate response.

“Well, what do you do when you’re outside then?” the doctor tried again.

“Nothing,” Joe said.

“Play with friends,” Luke said.

“I think he means what kind of exercise do you do,” I prompted.

“We don’t like exercise,” Joe replied.

“But, they do get exercise,” I back pedaled. “They hike, ride bikes, and swim in the summer. We snowshoe and hike in the winter.”

“What do you boys want to be when you grow up?” he tried again.

“I’m not telling you,” said Luke, too embarrassed to reveal that his dream is to be an Ironman-like superhero who designs sets for the Lego company.

“I don’t know,” Joe answered honestly.

“That’s okay,” the doctor told him. “Lots of grown ups don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.”

True enough. The doctor breezed through the rest of the well check, clearly unconcerned about Luke’s refusal to eat vegetables (“He’s gaining weight and his blood tests look good”) and Joe’s split lip (“Throw some Aquaphor on there and give it time”).

While we were on our trip, many of the kids the boys played with asked them about sports. Most of our friends’ sons participate in multiple sports and play in all kinds of leagues. We know soccer players, baseball players, football players, hockey players, and lacrosse players. They have friends who do tae kwon do, swim team, and triathlons. They regularly watch sports on television and have favorite teams. Our boys, on a good day, can maybe tell you the names of the four pro sports teams in Denver. Maybe.

Steve and I were discussing the other day the fact that our kids have shown no interest in activities and sports. We’ve registered them for soccer, baseball, swimming, and sports camps and they’ve whined about having to go. They just can’t bring themselves to care. Honestly, I’m relieved they don’t. Our nights are not hurried to get to and through practices and my weekends aren’t spent sitting on a wet, grassy sideline as it snows on my sons’ games. I don’t miss it.

Prompted by the comments of friends, though, about how our boys need activities to get into college and how by the time they decide they’re interested in sports the other kids will be far better than they are and they will not make the team, I have wondered if we’re doing our sons a great disservice by letting them skip out on sports when they’re young. Then, the other day, hubby said something that made me feel much better about it all.

“You know, they may not be great at sports. But, you know what they are great at? Being kids.”

He’s right. They’re 9 and 11. They have their whole lives to decide what their interests are and what they enjoy. For now, it’s good enough that they like to dress up in crazy costumes and run around carrying plungers and being superheroes. Our boys might be short on discipline, but they’re long on imagination. And, that may serve them just as well if not better in the long run.

The Adventures of Cow Man and Big Muscle

Cow Man and Big Muscle…new superheroes.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all there ever will be to know and understand.” ~Albert Einstein

My boys finished school the other day, but it wasn’t until today that it was obvious that summer had at last begun for them. At 8:15 p.m., they were still outside, tearing around the neighbor’s yard with their neighbor buddies, chasing, yelling, and laughing incessantly. They were so loud I had to close the kitchen window so I could hear the television. I knew it then it was officially summer vacation.

Before they ran outside, they had gone into the basement and put on some ridiculous costumes. Their buddies were also at home donning crazy costumes for what Joe swore was going to be an “epic battle” between good and evil. They’ve been watching too much of The Avengers. Joe’s costume was comprised of pieces from two different Halloween costumes. His bottom half was a ninja and his top half was a knight. The best part was the fuzzy helmet from last year’s Warrior Dash, which gave him horns. He explained that his character was Cow Man. Cow man is half cow/half man and is not to be confused with a Minotaur, which is clearly half man/half cow. Luke’s character was Big Muscle. He was wearing part of a Star Wars costume for Darth Maul. Underneath that muscled costume were two other costumes added to give him the appearance of massive, bulky muscles. Luke’s outfit was completed by an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball cap, which somehow made him look like his two-year-old alter ego, Race Car Man, but I didn’t tell him that. Big Muscle, Luke informed me, is also known one day a year as Big Butt, but he told me that was a story for another time and they rushed out the door to rendezvous with their equally crazy superhero friends.

This morning the boys had their award ceremony at school. It’s one of my favorite events of the year because each child is given an award based on their character. Today Luke was, for the second time in three years, given an award for being “Delightful.” (No doubt in my mind that he wholeheartedly believes that award is well-deserved.) Joe was given an award for being “Tenderhearted,” which aptly describes my deep thinker. While I highly doubt either of my boys will ever earn the highly coveted Principal’s Award, which is given to students with straight A grades and flawless conduct, I like to think that their vast and unbridled imaginations will carry them far all the same. I appreciate their ability to think outside the box, to envision the seemingly impossible, and to dream beyond their reality. When I see Cow Man and Big Muscle, I recognize their potential. I have creative boys who take something like The Avengers and remake it into something all their own. They don’t simply parrot what they see; they improve upon it. My guys aren’t superheroes yet, but I imagine it could happen. When they do become Cow Man and Big Muscle someday and come to visit me, I know Cow Man will leave his cow patties in the backyard and Big Muscle will not discuss his Big Butt at the dinner table. After all, behind every great superhero is a supermom who taught him everything she knows.