In school, children in this country are losing ground every day. Parents struggle to understand links, upload protocols, Zoom rooms, mute buttons and why YouTube is now an educational channel. They’re called on to help with assignments they can’t even comprehend. It reminds me of my own powerlessness in high school when I was forced to solve for “x” — being humiliated by Mrs. Liebman, our Algebra teacher:
“Phyllis, how can you get a 60 on the test and a 54 on the RETEST?”
Damned if I knew. I just wanted to get the hell out of high school as fast as possible. Although I’m deeply grateful for the people who taught me to read and add, after sixth grade it was pretty much a blur and I graduated without knowing much about anything practical in life, like how to handle immense frustration, ignorant people, government forms, pay taxes, avoid debt, build community, and solve REAL problems (not what time a train leaving Chicago at 60mph would arrive at Union Station with three stops along the way).
Albert Einstein didn’t know his own phone number. When asked for it by a reporter, he got out the phone book, wrote it down and said:
“Why should I memorize something when I know where to find it?”
As we fret about our middle and high school students “not learning anything,” let’s reflect on the crucial skills and life lessons we can teach them right now, in real time.
1. CHANGE IS INEVITABLE
Who would’ve thought we’d grind to a halt in a global pandemic? Seriously, did any one of us think a year ago — as we breezed through the Fall, shopping and eating — that we’d be masked up and in a shitstorm in a year? No. Change is the only thing we can absolutely count on, and what better time to shepherd our young people through this inevitability? Normally (ha, as if that’s even a word anymore) we resist and fear change. 2020 came at us like a death star and it’s one thing after another — if you resist or fear change life must be unbearable right now.
This moment feels like a brilliant opportunity to teach your children how to accept and embrace change because, like death, it’s the one thing we can count on. I wish I’d learned this when I was 16 and my parents were going through a brutal divorce. I thought there were things I could count on, like their love and stability. Nope. And look at what our kids are seeing today: death, destruction, blood in the streets, calamity, ignorance and the rug of comfortable consumerism being ripped out from under us. All grist for the mill to teach your children crucial life skills.
2. LIFE IS A MIXED BAG, HONEY
Joy and sorrow — we get plenty of both in a lifetime but when you’re a young person, who helps you see this? One reason adolescents are often so hard to handle is because they are literally assaulted with biological and neurological states that can swing from elation to despair in a heartbeat. With some luck, the brain and hormones regulate and we find equilibrium eventually but really, being an adolescent never ends. Life is a rocky road, right? And not the good Ben & Jerry’s kind.
Pre-Covid maybe we convinced ourselves we were “happy.” That mindset seems pretty ridiculous right now. Happiness is a variable state, often dependent on external circumstances like money or food in your belly or, oh, I don’t know, a world that’s not being routed by illness, violence, and evil despots. We’re seeing it all right now. Let’s point this out to our kids: life is all of this: an ocean of joy, despair, hope, grief, sorrow, wonder, death, hilarity, beauty and ugliness. We can teach them how to ride the waves and the truth of what older people know: this too shall pass.
3. IMPROVISE, ADAPT, AND OVERCOME
I love this; it’s one of the Marine Corps’ cardinal rules and right now it feels like advice from warriors is warranted. Some days every step we take feels like we’re in a minefield. What do soldiers do when they never know what will happen? When something seemingly terrible does happen? They improvise, adapt, and overcome. What a great maxim to teach our kids as technology fails and bank accounts shrink. Live creatively. Improvise, adapt, and overcome.
Semper fi, baby.
4. WORK SMART, NOT HARD
Most of what we’re asking of kids in this hybrid/online/in-person educational system (broken and ineffective well before Covid) is busywork. It’s boring, repetitive, time-wasting nonsense. By the way, the system has done this for decades, reducing our creative and talented kids to clerical workers filling out endless paperwork. Then we send them off into the world where they will no doubt land jobs that force them to do the same thing. And we wonder why people drink so much.
We still have this puritanical work-hard ethic engrained in our U.S.A. DNA. It may have served us decades ago, but it’s ineffective and not necessary in a world — as Einstein pointed out — where you really just have to know how to find trusted resources to learn anything. Truly successful people don’t work hard. They work smart. They start at the end, and work backwards; for instance: what do I need to do to get to the goal, to thrive, flourish, prosper, and learn? Then they do that.
I wish teachers would stop with the soul-crushing crap and just teach kids how to think critically, solve problems, ask questions, and use the other 90% of their brains. We don’t need teachers to be the Sage on the Stage, spouting irrelevant facts. Bright young minds and hearts need a Guide on the Side, just enough adult guidance that they discover the joy in learning new things.
5. LOVE IS STRONGER THAN FEAR
So many of my adult friends are quaking with fear right now. Anxiety is everywhere, especially with the impending election and threats of violence coming from the White House. Since Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram incite violence and riots, ugliness, and aggression — intentionally and for profit — if we engage with these sources in any way, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of terror and despair.
Show your kids how to not succumb to the profit-driven fear machine that is all media right now. Turn everything off. Jaron Lanier is considered the founder of virtual reality and an internet sage extraordinaire. He believes that every social media account should be deleted immediately, and that “Funding a civilization through advertising is like trying to get nutrition by connecting a tube from one’s anus to one’s mouth.” We actually have the power to stop eating this shit, and lead our young people back to Love.
The Beatles were right about a lot of things and their greatest truth is this: love is all you need. Love moves mountains, upends evil, inspires healing and growth, powers us through depression and disease into light and a fear-less existence where all that matters is that we help each other out.
These incredible times provide us with limitless opportunities for teaching and learning. Almost everything that is happening right now presents a profoundly teachable moment. Don’t fret about what worksheets your child is or isn’t uploading back to the server that may or may not work. Please don’t miss this amazing opportunity to help your children gain the wisdom they’ll need to navigate the endless storms they’ll meet in a lifetime on this earth. Love them well, and show them the way to flourish against all odds.