Welcome to The Club

Last year, in passing, Hayden mentioned the “100s Club”. It recognizes students who earn 100+ points for reading books and passing reading comprehension quizzes. As a third grader, Hayden wanted to earn a spot in the group. I contacted a few people to find out a bit more and I was told that it’s very difficult for students to make it to the 100s club and that since very few students achieve that goal, it really might be best not to pursue it. Because last year was a year of struggle and Hayden was already feeling fairly vulnerable I let it go and so did Hayden. Hayden finished out her 3rd grade year having scored just 14 points.

This year Hayden decided to go for it. She set a goal for herself and every month we tracked her progress, both in terms of books she read independently and books we read together at bedtime. By March it was clear that reaching the 100’s Club was going to be a challenge. Most of the books she was reading on her own were only worth a few points and they took a long time for her to read. But, she soldiered on. Then, in early May I watched something change for her. She started to come home talking about books she was reading independently at school, books that her friends were reading too and recommending. Her friends are all readers and they would recommend and share books regularly. But, those books had always been far above Hayden’s independent reading level and it was a source of frustration for her. But, now she was chatting with friends about the latest Lemonade War book and making suggestions based on her own reading.

That “thing”, that “flipping of the switch” that her reading specialists have talked about for the past year is starting to happen. She is reading grade level books independently, understanding them and seeking out new titles. My girl is a reader. She has always liked reading, but now reading is starting to like her back.

On Wednesday Hayden was welcomed into the 100s Club, having scored 120+ points. Pizza and cupcakes were served and all of the readers got to gather together to celebrate their accomplishment. For many of those kids reading is as natural as breathing and I’m sure for some of them the 100s Club is an opportunity to have a party and a picture in the yearbook for something they would be doing anyway. For Hayden it represents a milestone. Now, to be fair, around 50 of those 100 points came from Harry Potter books that we read together night after night for months on end, but that leaves 50 points that she earned through reading on her own, in school and outside of our regular bedtime routine. This is something that she simply could not have done a year ago. Honestly, I don’t think she could have done it six months ago.

It’s not just the increase in reading fluency to be celebrated though.

The 4th graders are reading Out of My Mind right now; a book about a girl with a significant, life-altering disability. The class was talking about disabilities and the teacher invited them to share information about various disabilities that they know about. Hayden told me that she raised her hand and she told the class that she has a disability called dyslexia. She went on to explain what that is and how it impacts her.

That afternoon when she told me about the discussion I asked her how she felt about sharing that information (this, coming from a 40 something who still hides her own challenges from most people). She said it felt good to be able to put a name on it and explain it to people. She told me that the topic of her last “Passion Project” of the year will be dyslexia, because she wants to understand it better and share that information with her classmates and teachers so that they can understand it too.

I love that she can finally put a name to this challenge she’s been facing for so long, and I love that rather than feeling limited by it she feels empowered to find ways to overcome some of the roadblocks she’s been facing. It’s not an easy road, to be sure, and all summer she and her sister will spend 16 hours a week working with specialists to keep gaining ground, but it’s paying off and she knows it. It’s not a journey I ever expected to be on, but I’m so inspired by both of my girls as they navigate the challenges they face; I can only imagine what the future holds.

Test Scores

Last night Brian and I met with the director at the Seacoast Learning Center to go over the girls’ recent battery of tests to determine what progress they’ve made since starting the reading program for dyslexic learners. They’ve been attending the SLC twice a week, every week for nine months, and they’ll be attending all summer, all of next year and the following summer if necessary. They are allowed to miss two classes per year (not per semester….per year) and if the program doesn’t seem to be a good fit they can be asked to leave in order to make room for another student. The program is fully funded by the Masons and I did the math recently – out of pocket an equivalent level of intervention by a trained Orton-Gillingham tutor would cost us over $17,000, and that’s if we could find a tutor trained at the level the girls require.

The end of year meeting is something of a “moment of truth” where the director looks at the level of dedication of the family (attendance, punctuality etc.) as well as the scores to determine if it’s a good fit. In our case, we all know it’s a great opportunity but, in the end it comes down to progress.

Hayden began the program in September as a fourth grader reading at a first grade level in every area except comprehension, where she tested at 2.4 (second grade level). We were told from the start that her prognosis wasn’t spectacular because of the way the brain develops as we grow and the fact that she wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until the start of third grade. Our goal was a year of growth in as many of the 11 subsections of the test as possible.

Out of the 11 reading tests, Hayden advanced by at least a grade level in all of them and in some, she flat out soared. Comprehension went from 2.4 to 6.3 (She’s now comprehending at a 6th grade level) and her CTOPP (another test of reading) went from a 2.5 (second grade level) to 6.0 (sixth grade level). In several other areas she has hit grade level. I asked the director what she thinks the prognosis will be by the time Hayden finishes the program. I was hoping that she’d finish a year behind overall (which would still represent an enormous gain). The director told me that based on what she’s seeing she feels that Hayden will finish the program reading at grade level with her peers. This represents herculean effort on Hayden’s part to work on her reading all the time, including being pulled of class for an hour a day, working at the SLC with specialists twice a week outside of school and just working, and working and working. Without the program in Rochester though I know there’s no way she would have made these gains in a year.

As for Kaya, she started out less impacted; her scores show that she started off the year reading at a first grade level too, but as a second grader this didn’t represent as large a gap. In her case, she also went up in all areas and her strengths turned out to be Word Attack (reading nonsense words – this shows decoding strategies since none of the words would be easily recognizable sight words) where she went from a 1.3 (fist grade, third month) to a 4.5 (fourth grade). Three other tests out of the 11 tests placed her solidly at the 4th grade level as well. She now only has two areas where she’s testing below grade level, and one of them is timed rapid naming of words, which she may or may not ever be great at (since rapid recall is a slightly different skill that has a lot to do with processing speed).

It’s a great feeling when something that’s challenging and time consuming brings such great rewards. The girls give up so much, including most of their summer –
the summer program is three hours a day, four days a week and Rochester, with the commute is another 2.5 hours twice a week – but, seeing the growth that’s coming from it makes it all worthwhile. I honestly don’t know what we’d do without the resources we have access to, both inside and outside of school. They both have a long way to go, and for Hayden especially, it’s going to take enormous effort on her part to “make it” , but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and it feels so good to be heading toward it.

The elementary school has something called “The Hundreds Club” where students who score 100 or more points for reading are rewarded at the end of the year. Two years ago I was told by Hayden’s teacher not to even encourage her to try; that it was a goal for none but the most ambitious, strong readers. This year, as of early May, Hayden is at 85 points. Just 15 points to go and a month to reach her goal. She’ll make it. It won’t come easy and it won’t be taken for granted. My girl is working hard for this and she’ll get there. As much as I hate that so much is a struggle for her, I love the larger lessons that it teaches. That kid doesn’t. give. up. Not even a little bit, and it will serve her well in life. She’ll make it to the Hundred’s Club this year and God willing she’ll read at grade level with her peers by the end of next year. But, no matter what, there are lessons here that we’re all learning about dedication, striving, and ultimately about accepting who we are amidst the challenges we face. There’s probably a lesson in there for all of us.

My Little Big Secret

So, some of you already know, and some of you undoubtably have figured it out along the way. You have seen it crop up here and there and you’ve been polite and you haven’t said anything, or you’ve been kind and you’ve gently pointed it out. Some of you haven’t seen it at all either because of the nature of our correspondence or because it hasn’t shown itself. I didn’t think I was ashamed of it, I didn’t even think I was hiding it really. Not until I asked myself, “Then, why don’t you tell your students? Why do you just avoid writing on the board, but offer no explanation?” The answer is simple really. I just didn’t know how to say it. How to put it into words.

Yesterday I was writing vocabulary words on the board. They were already on the board in one place, I was just rewriting them in categories to help the kids. I think they noticed that I had to stop and focus on each word before I rewrote it. And then I had to go back and look at it again. And again. And still I couldn’t tell. I had never said the words before and I felt like it was time, not for them, but for me. “I have to keep looking,” I said finally, “because I’m dyslexic and I can’t tell if what I wrote is correct”.

The kids didn’t bat an eye. They didn’t care. They just wanted the words down so they could study. But for me it was a milestone. I had never put it in words to my students. And, for as much as I would chastise anyone for feeling this way, it was for one simple reason, I was embarrassed. I have always thought that being a dyslexic teacher made me somehow a little bit less. Not subpar, not unqualified, but a little bit less. How can one teach the mechanics of language when that language has always been both a companion and a curse?

The first time I became aware that I was “different” was in seventh grade. I was a strong writer and my seventh grade teacher loved my writing. But, on every paper she’d write some variation on the theme of, “I wish I could give you the A that you so sorely deserve but I can’t because of your spelling. Use a dictionary!” (That’s a direct quote). Here’s a thing though, a dictionary would do no good, I knew it then and I know it now. I didn’t care back then, grades meant nothing to me and it never occurred to me to explain to her that a dictionary is useless for someone like me because nothing looks wrong. If I spell “like” “lkie” it looks completely the same. My mind moves the letters around (I guess) until it looks like what you probably see when you look at the word. Nothing looks wrong. You know that internet meme that goes around every so often? Well, when I first read that I had no idea what the point was. That paragraph looks completely normal to me. I had to reread it several times to understand why it was a “thing”. That’s what dyslexia is for me.

“It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae…”

In college I made sure that I “dumbed down” my vocabulary in all of my exams. Sure, I could use the word “esoteric” but because I couldn’t be sure that I could spell it properly and I’d never know, I’d default to “complex”. I avoided writing notes to professors because I worried that they’d judge me based on my spelling, so instead I was sure to attend office hours.

Even now, as a teacher, I don’t write on the board and I don’t grade students’ papers by hand. Everything is electronic because I can count on the faithful red line to tell me if something isn’t right.

I always just accepted that about myself and I never really thought I was intentionally hiding anything. Technology is a useful way of corresponding with students after all and writing on the board makes for a less student-centered class. These are things I told myself but really, I didn’t want to face the reality that something happens in my brain that makes me process words differently.

Not every dyslexic is the same. Letters don’t dance or jump on my pages and I’m actually an extremely fast reader (perhaps because my brain isn’t bothered by things like the order of letters in a word), but I do switch “b” and “p” quite often when I’m tired and if I’m writing by hand it’s likely that around 40% of my words will be misspelled (example…I just misspelled “misspelled”). And, most frustrating to me, words just don’t “look wrong” so I always run the risk of looking functionally illiterate when I write by hand.

So, why am I putting all of this out here now? Why “come out” when I have effective methods for navigating my world? I think it’s because I still struggle with the stigma. If I as a teacher with two masters degrees who is a published writer and who has been successful in a world that relies on the written word still feels ashamed of this part of myself, then what does that likely say about all of the others out there? How do our students feel when we write them off as “lazy” and we make claims about their effort when really they are working harder than 80% of their peers just to hit the same bar? How do our kids feel when we send them the message that maybe they’re just not college material because no matter what they do they simply can’t seem to achieve the same (arbitrary) levels as their peers in the same way? Are we sending them messages that empower them and are we looking for ways to help them or are we simply taking the easy way out by writing them off as unmotivated so that we don’t have to do the difficult work of untangling their challenges and finding ways to help them?

I would contend that one of the biggest challenges we face when confronting dyslexia is that the vast majority of dyslexics are very intelligent so they (we) find ways to compensate for our challenges. This is a fantastic skill, but it doesn’t really help when it comes to getting assistance in working through some of those challenges. And, let’s face it, it’s easier not to address one more thing in our already overtaxed classrooms. If a student is doing mostly okay-ish and is pretty compliant that child is pretty likely to fall through the cracks, or to get interventions that, while well-meaning probably aren’t going to help a whole lot. This isn’t because teachers don’t care, it’s just not an area that most teachers are trained in or fully understand and it’s always easier to pass the buck back to the kid.

As for me, I don’t know. I find it empowering to be able to give voice to what my world looks like rather than always trying to hide that reality. But, I also know that people do make judgements, I see it all the time, and I know that acknowledging one deficit means raising the bar in five other areas just to balance it all out to prove that you’re not “flawed” in some way.

The more I examine my own world the more I wish that my young self had had a name for all of this. I think that knowing that it was an actual thing would have gone a long way toward making me feel whole and competent. But, who knows. Labels hold stigma too, and they can be limiting. Would I have pursued writing and teaching if I had allowed myself to say the word “dyslexic” out loud? I’m not sure. I’ve know for a long time that that was the word for it; it’s one of my strongest family traits, and in my mind I’ve said it thousands of times. But out loud? That’s different. That’s a level of ownership that you can’t pull back from. But, there it is. I am dyslexic and I come from a long line of dyslexics. I can spell my name backward and it will still look like it’s mine. And, I am going to do my best to own that part of myself and to not be ashamed of it, because I have daughters who count on me to model for them the ways they should see themselves, and because I am not flawed. And really, the one who needs to hear that most is me.

What’s at Stake

I know, I’ve been talking quite a bit about the swarm of education bills swirling around right now. And, for people who don’t live in the world of education a lot of this is probably a bit confusing and it’s easy to just sit back and try to ignore it all. But, we really can’t. The latest, and by far the most dangerous education bill out there right now is HB610, and I’m going to do my best to explain what’s at stake if this one passes.

The stated intent behind HB610 is to give families the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice (public, charter, private, home school etc) and to let their tax money follow them to whatever school they choose rather than having it stay in the public schools. On the surface this probably sounds great and it’s easy to throw words like “choice” and “options” out there (because, who would want to deny kids the choice of the education that suits them best?). But, here’s where it gets tricky…

Say we have 4 families, each with one child. All of them get voucher money to use for whatever school they want. Say the voucher covers $5,000 a year (this would be high, but for the sake of simplicity let’s use this figure). Great right?

Kiddo #1 has a stay-at-home mom and a dad with a good job. They send their kid to a private school that’s 15 miles away, but mom can drop off and pick up the kids (no buses to private schools). Their $5,000 doesn’t cover the full cost of tuition, but they can cover the rest out of pocket. So, they’re all set. They love the voucher because they’ve been paying for the whole tuition out of pocket and now they don’t have to. They love the vouchers, and the system works for them.

Kiddo #2 – Working class parents. They choose a local Catholic school. Transportation is an issue, but they can figure out how to carpool. The tuition difference is an issue, but the school is willing to work with them to make it happen. The challenge is that their kid ADHD. The school makes it clear that they don’t have the resources to help their child and they need to sign a waiver saying that they are willing to give up their special education services since the school can’t provide them. The parents are hesitant to do this because they know their kid needs services, but they really like the idea of a Catholic school and they love the idea of choice, so they do it. A month later the school tells them that it’s just not a good fit. Their kiddo can’t stay at the school – his issues are too severe and they don’t have the resources. He goes back to the public school. By law, the Catholic school keeps that voucher money even though he was only there for a month. (So, even though he’s at the public school now, his money isn’t. So, the money he needs for his services aren’t there anymore).

Kiddo #3 – Single mom limited income. She would love to send her kid to a different school, but she doesn’t have the flexibility to drive the child to and from the local charter school,and she can’t make up the difference in tuition for the other schools (not that she could provide transportation) so her child has to stay at the public school. He was relying on breakfast and lunch programs to get healthy meals at school but those have been cut by HB610 so now the food he’s getting is processed, high in fat and sugar and not giving him the stamina he needs. He’s also not getting breakfast anymore. He can’t focus as well and behavior issues are a problem. He’s at the public school.

Kiddo #4 – Middle class parents. They have no issues with transportation and they can make up the difference in voucher money. They want to send their kid to the Charter School. But, their child his physical disabilities. The local Charter school is in a renovated building and while it’s “mostly” ADA compliant, the wheelchair doesn’t fit into the bathroom, the upstairs rooms aren’t accessible and he can’t access the playground because of the layout. The Charter school tells the parents they don’t think it would be a good fit and they worry about liability. Plus, they just don’t have the resources to give him the help he needs (OT, PT, Speech, etc.). The private school won’t take him (he doesn’t meet academic standards) and neither will the Catholic school (they don’t have the resources to help him)

So, now, of the four kids, only one can take advantage of the voucher. We’re left with three kids, all of whom have special needs of one sort or another (because of poverty, learning disabilities and physical disabilities ) but only funding for two kids (because that one spent a month at private school which ate his voucher). Because the kids who were able to make use of their vouchers and find another school have done so, no “able bodied” kids are left to subsidize the kids who need extra services, and the schools are left unable to provide those services. (This doesn’t happen right away because most public schools are actually quite strong academically, but as more and more kids leave with their money and funding becomes scarce programs dry up.) So, now the public school becomes a dumping ground for the disadvantaged with no resources to give them a quality education (And the legal requirement to give them a high quality education was taken away by HB620).

Family #1 is breathing a sigh of relief that they got their kid out of a “Failing Public School” and they feel empowered by the fact that as they suspected, public schools are failing and thank God they had an alternative. They rest easy with the knowledge that their child gets a quality education thanks to this new law. They can’t imagine how anyone in their right mind would feel otherwise.

Those other three families? They have no options and the school that used to serve their kids is no longer able to. They have been thrust backward decades in terms of education and there’s nothing they can do about it.

For those of us who are the lucky ones who have the money, the flexibility and the ideal child candidate to make vouchers work , we owe it to our society to look beyond ourselves to see the larger picture. As a country we have always taken pride in educating all of our children; it has set us apart from other countries since our inception. Now isn’t the time to turn the clock back and leave our children behind.

For those of us who represent those other groups – the kids who have special needs, the parents who can’t afford to make up the difference and all of those other families, we need the support of everyone to help our children to keep a quality education.

We are better than this. We need to be.

Diary

When I was in fourth grade I received my first diary as a Christmas present. That diary became my best friend, my confidant and the audience for my musings. On the first page I transcribed my favorite Mark Twain quote, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” At the time I saw no great lesson to be learned by reading what I wrote. I saw little of value in it at all. But I wrote. I wrote every night and I wrote to an audience. I wrote to “you” and “whomever is reading this”. I wrote with the intention of someday being read. And now that’s happening.

Hayden is in fourth grade. Over Christmas break I told her about the diary and I told her that together we could start reading it. And, we have.
It’s difficult to describe the surreal quality of hearing my young self speak directly to my young girl. I have chosen to simply step aside and let the two of them converse. Hayden has learned that when I was her age I didn’t sleep, at all. Most of my entries were logged between 2am and 4am. I didn’t express my sadness directly, but I wrote extensively about teachers who didn’t understand or care about me, other kids who thought I was weird, and all sorts of other issues that collectively show that I was a very lonely child.

Hayden isn’t a lonely child. She has a solid social network and if anything she is the polar opposite of who I was at that age. While my fourth grade self was aligning to the “bad kids”– kids who smoked, cut class and got in trouble, Hayden is shocked that she has a mother who got a B- in art. “It’s art, Mom! I mean, really, are you my mother?!”. I love that she is able to see who I was at that age and that what she sees is a flawed, often confused girl attempting to navigate a challenging world.

I worry a bit about the door I have opened, because there’s no way to close it now. That door will lead to first loves and first heartbreaks, to choices that I hope she never makes, as well as choices that led me to the life I have now, which I wouldn’t change for anything. That door leads to the world of who I was an ultimately, who I am. I don’t know if I made the right choice by opening that dialogue now, many people hide their diaries until they die, or they burn them before they find their way into anyone’s hands, but we live in a crazy world; I watch the parents of my students as they attempt to find connection with their kids and to help them to navigate their challenging worlds. I don’t really know how to do that, but maybe my young self does. So, I’m going to stand back and listen to what my young self has to say.

Tests

I just spent the day at a seminar where we learned how to read, process and discuss standardized test results in order to direct our instruction. It’s best not to think too hard about all that this implies about the future of public education. Suffice it to say, it was an exhausting day. It would have been an exhausting day if I had gone through it with my “teacher hat” on, but, as luck would have it I was wearing my parent hat for the day and that made it so much harder.

A few nights ago I had a meeting at the school that the kiddos attend twice a week to work on their reading. The specialists there run a battery of tests at the start of the year to get a baseline for the kids so they can measure progress throughout the year. I knew Hayden’s tests would come back low; they always come back low. But, after a year of working with a specialist for an hour a day five days a week and all of the work we do at home with her I thought I’d have some great, shining moment when I saw the most recent battery of tests.

Not so. She’s still solidly stuck three years behind grade level. This, in spite of the interventions, in spite of the dedicated work by an incredible team, she’s still profoundly behind the “norm”. I asked the director of the program what she thought about her potential development as a reader and she said, “Looking at her test results, it doesn’t look great. The statistics tell us that we missed the window. She’ll never be a fluent reader.”

As an English teacher, a devoted reader and a parent this struck me like an anvil in the chest. It didn’t hurt in the same way that it did last year when I first heard this diagnosis, because the raw newness of it is no longer there. But, it was still profoundly, deeply saddening and it left me with all of the same “what ifs” that I had a year ago. What if we were in a position where Montessori had been an option? What if we had fought harder sooner? What if, what if, what if?

But, that ship has sailed. Now we’re left in a world where certain aspects of education are stacked against her. It doesn’t mean that we’re not looking to beat those odds, of course we are. But, in the meantime, I sit in trainings where we look at the need for “increased rigor” and for complexity of reading and where the world turns on the axis of standardized test scores. They tell us where we succeed and fail as teachers and where our children succeed and fail as well. It’s all illusion, of course, none of it is real. We have incredible thinkers who can’t bubble a scantron to save her life and we have solid test takers who can’t critically think their way out of a paper bag. None of it means anything really, and yet it does. The weight hangs heavy on us all.

I don’t care that Hayden might not score well on arbitrary standardized tests but I do care about the message those tests send. I see how kids internalize those scores and how those results categorize them both in terms of the academic tracks we place them on an in terms of the internal groups they place themselves in. Hayden knows that she’s creative and that she’s smart, but the tests don’t bear that out and I don’t like the message that sends her way.

I hate that when Elementary National Honors Society invites go out later this year she won’t make the list, not because she doesn’t represent the dedication, the work ethic or the values that the society embodies, but because she doesn’t meet the somewhat arbitrary academic benchmarks that indicate “success”. I hate that I’ll have to comfort her in the wake of awards ceremonies that equate high test scores with “hard work” in spite of the fact that there’s no real correlation between the two, and in spite of the fact that she arguably works harder than most at her age. She dedicates hours of her week to the work of reading. A forty minute drive each way and an hour with specialists twice a week, missing out on Girl Scouts, on after school activities and so much else. She never complains, because she sees the value of it, but those test scores, they may or may not respond accordingly, and I hate that for her.

There’s a place for standardized tests, I’m sure there is. But, we’ve placed them at the pinnacle of this illusion of achievement and at the end of the day, those of us who sit through seven hour long training seminars where we learn to “look at data” know the truth. They are one tool, nothing more, and, if we’re honest, they’re not a particularly good one. I just hope that’s a message I’ll be able to impart on Hayden before the world takes hold and tries to tell her otherwise.

No Do Overs

There are no “do overs” in life. I know this of course, and while today in no way qualifies as a “do over” I was given the chance to say something that needed to be said to someone who needed to hear it.

I have a student who I see with a small group a few times a week. Up until last week there were eight girls and two boys in the group. But, then Jack died, and that left one boy. One boy who now sits alone at the table he shared with his friend, listening to music and tuning out the sounds of a group of wonderfully ambitious senior girls who talk about college essays and common applications and plans, and plans, and futures.

Yesterday I sat down to talk to him – I sit with him every time I see him now, since I can’t handle the gaping void left at his table, and because he lets me. I asked how things are going and he shrugged. “It’s not going well. It’s going perfectly shitty”, his shrug said. “My friend is dead, I’m failing my classes and I’m surrounded by talk of next year when I’m struggling to make it to next week.” He didn’t say any of this, of course. He shrugged and said nothing.

And then I did the worst thing I could have done. I, unable to handle the reality of the question I had asked and the depth of the answer he couldn’t give, asked him how his common application process was coming. I hated myself as soon as I asked. It’s not what I wanted to ask. I wanted to tell him that I miss Jack too, and that I think about him every day, and that I can’t stop reliving the last conversation I had with him when I asked him that same worst question of worst questions, “What are your plans for next year?” But, I couldn’t say that. So I asked him about his future. And he shrugged. The bell was about to ring, and there was no time to fix things, to have the conversation I so desperately wanted to have with him. So, I told him that I’d be in the cafeteria the whole next morning and if he’d come by I’d help him with the whole process. He said he’d come, but I think we both figured he was lying.

Today I was assigned the task of helping seniors with the college application process and as soon as I sat down, he came over and sat next to me.

“They told me you weren’t here,” he said, “and I was really upset, but then I saw you.”

I knew this was likely the only uninterrupted time I’d have with him before other seniors came over for help with those last minute tweaks on already perfect applications. So in that brief quiet moment, I turned to him and I told him everything I wish I had been able to tell Jack. I told him that really, none of this is real. We talk about college because it feels like a natural path but we act like it’s the only path, and then to make matters worse we act like only one kind of college path is the right path (that Community College doesn’t “count” somehow, or that if you don’t get into the “reach” school you’ve somehow failed). I told him that college is fine, but so is going off to Colorado and being a ski bum for a few years or taking a different path that life lays out. I told him that as long as it’s done with intention and not out of fear, it’s the right path. And, I told him that I really needed him to hear what I was saying. I told him that this was a conversation I always meant to have with Jack, but didn’t. I told him that I needed him to hear that really, honestly, it will be okay. College or no college, 3.8 GPA or 1.4 GPA, it will be okay.

Then, I told him that I was his for the morning. If he wanted to work on the common app, we would. If he wanted to chill out and listen to music, that was okay too. And I’d respect either choice. He smiled and told me he wanted to work on his application. So, we did. We spent the next three hours putting together his application and when he didn’t need my help I helped other kids. But, I made sure he knew that I was there for him and that my goal was to make sure he got what he needed.

We finished the morning with everything filled out except for his social security number (because he’s 17 and it’s not yet seared into his brain) and his religious affiliation because, “That’s just too deep a question to think about right now” (fair enough).

He left at the end of the morning and while I can’t say he seemed less sad or even less lost, I felt like the words that I so selfishly needed to say were heard.

I’ve spent the past week thinking quite a bit about what we tell kids and the pressures we put on them, and I’ve been struck so often by just how fortunate I was. My high school years were spent in the company of a crew of intelligent slackers. I love them all very much, and I don’t say that as in insult. Not in the slightest. We were all capable of more than we put out there, but we all lived comfortably in the knowledge that we’d all be okay. We knew some college was out there if we wanted it, but we also knew that wasn’t the only path, and it wasn’t the path all of us took. We looked out for each other and supported each other but we didn’t push each other, and the only competition I can remember were mental chess games between my brother and his friends.

I lived in a world where my parents supported my choices, whatever they were. They encouraged me to be a writer and photographer rather than pursuing the law career that I was considering. Either would be a solid choice, but they recognized that life is short and passions need to be followed. And, those passions can lead down unexpected paths, even, as it turns out, to teaching.

By telling our kids that college (and not just college but the “right” college) is the only option, we close so many doors to them. We close the door to adventure, to travel, to the dreaded opportunity to “find oneself”, which, let’s be honest, some kids need more than a four year degree on the heels of high school. But beyond that we send the message that if they don’t fall on that one path there’s no place for them in this world. And the consequences of sending that message can be tragic.

The conversation I had with my student today was totally self-serving. I needed to say those words to him because watching his face this past week I see the shadow of a boy we lost, and my soul can’t bear that kind of loss again. Not without at least saying those words. I don’t know if he’ll go off to college or become a ski bum in Colorado or work at Home Depot. And I don’t care. None of us should care. If he goes off to live a life that gives him more happiness than sorrow than that’s success. If he survives and finds his way out of this maze of stress and pressure that he’s in now, it will be success, no matter where the next road leads.