“I’m Him!”: Thoughts on being an example to children

04It never ceased to amaze me how many lessons I would learn from teaching young children. Not too many years ago, I discovered something quite fascinating about kids that I believe to be universal. I guess I should say, something occurred to me, because I’m sure I didn’t discover it.

Early in my career in public education, I was an elementary school music teacher. I enjoyed my job, traveling from room to room with my guitar in one of the inner city schools of Elizabeth, NJ. The students always greeted me with such enthusiasm, probably because they only saw me once a week, and I wanted to give them something new whenever I came to their room to teach. I wanted them to be exposed to as many experiences of music as they could get in the time we had together. I liked to change things up, and they were always game for something new.

One day, I was showing a video to my students in one of the first grade classes. It was a video with real human characters, as opposed to animated, and right from the get go, the kids, one by one, started to call out, “I’m him!” or “I’m her!”

That really struck me. The first thing they felt compelled to do was stake their claim on who they wanted everyone to see them as being. Every student wanted everyone else to identify them in some way, and that was how they articulated it.

I say they wanted everyone else to know because every declaration was out loud and quite clear.  Some, of course, made the same claim to a character as another, and that caused some difficulty before I could reel everyone in.

“I’m him!”

“NO! I’m him! You’re her!”

“I’m not a GIRL!  MR. SCOOOOOTTT!!”

“Whoa! Ok kids. Let’s chill. Relax. We can all just be ourselves today. How’s that sound?”

Children look to anyone, everyone and everything for some kind of guidance on how to be.  I realized that teachers are on the front lines on a daily basis.  Who do our children want to be?  Not “what” do they want to be, but “who” do they want to be?

Learning how to be is sort of like buying a pair of shoes: quite a few people wear your size, but you try on a pair that you think look good. If they feel good, you wear them and break them in with the way you, and you alone, walk. Then, after a while, they truly become yours. No one else can wear them because you’ve got them just the way you like them for your feet.

I thought to myself how it would be nice if my students would point to me and say, “I’m him!” I’ve just got to make sure that I’m as prepared as I can to be a worthy example. Whether I want it or not, kids may look at me and want to try me on for size.

I look at kids now and wonder: How would I fit? 

Follow Scott on Twitter- @scotylang

All I want for Christmas is your two front teeth

princetonxmasI’ve been working in a local bookstore for some supplementary income, lately.  It’s Christmastime, and shoppers are searching for that special gift for their loved ones who enjoy a good read.

Add freezing temperatures and snow that periodically continues to fall before its ancestral flakes that have come before have had the chance to melt away for good to the usual Christmas shopping craziness, and you’ve almost got yourself a good ol fashioned Christmas panic!

Most of the people I see coming into the store have very serious looks on their faces.  They need something, some not sure what it is when they first come in, and this weather, coupled with this time of year, raises the bar on the Stress-O-Meter to almost unbearable heights.

Everyone feels it.  The air is thick with it–tension, stress, weariness.

But all of this heaviness in the air can be lifted as easily as the lightest of Christmas turkey feathers by the simplest thing in the world.  The simplest and most glorious gift that we each have to give, and one that can be given over and over without ever running out.

A smile.

I didn’t come to this realization on my own, I can assure you; it took a little girl to remind me.  She couldn’t have been more than 8 years old, and came into the store with her mother to shop for a gift to give her friend.  When they found just the right book, they brought it up to the counter for me to ring up.  She was so excited, the girl, smiling from ear to ear in anticipation of giving this amazing gift to her pal.

Then, as if things could get any better than that, her mother asked me if I could gift wrap the book.  I said, “Of course!  We have three types of paper to choose from.  Which of these would you prefer?”

I pointed to the three choices, and the little girl came closer to the counter for a better look.

“Ohhh! The snowflake one will be perfect!” she said.

“Snowflakes it is, then, ” said I.

I took my time, wrapping carefully.  When I finished, I held it up to see if it would do.

“Oh, Mommy!  Molly is just going to love this!”

Her mother looked at me and smiled a smile of her own.  “Thank you, so much.  Have a wonderful Christmas!” she said, as they headed out into the snowy day.

“It was my pleasure,” I answered.  And it was.

As I watched them through the window, they crossed the street and disappeared into the afternoon.  I caught a glimpse of myself in the window’s reflection and realized that I, too, was now smiling.

Outside the snow began to come down with a greater determination, promising a treacherous drive home, but for that moment, everything was just as it should be.

A Picasso underneath

picassoBack in the day when l was an elementary school music teacher, I was continually stunned at how much content and information children can take in. I was always underestimating what the kids could do and comprehend. I would be standing up there talking to the class, and I would just have to stop.

It was like I could almost smell the smoke from the spinning gears inside their little brains. I would stop and look out and stare back at them for a moment.

“What did I just say?” I would ask, expecting no one to be with me at all.

To my surprise, virtually every hand would raise. They had all been listening. They had all been with me. They were simply taking in all of what I was giving them, downloading the information like some pint-sized PC.

There’s no accounting for what might fascinate one child and bore another.  Sometimes it makes no sense why a particular student will take to a certain book or piece of music, or develop a passion for a certain sport, or a love for cars. They just seem to be available at a particular time. Kids are open-minded. And I mean that in the most wonderful sense.

I’m not talking “open minded” as in an I see your point of view, but I’ve got my own so, thanks, but no thanks kind of way. I mean, children are canvases that are being painted on by many different artists in many different ways, most of whom don’t even realize they’re painting, and the children just soak up all the paint.

The brush strokes stay. They soak in, and it’s not only that impressions are formed, lasting portraits are painted, sometimes masterpieces, sometimes devastating failures.  Every detail is permanent. You may be able to cover over the surface, but the details are underneath the layers for a lifetime.

I love watching that show on PBS where people find old paintings in their attics or garages, and they bring them to this guy to tell them about what they’ve had under their noses all this time without knowing it.

On occasion, it turns out the home owners have a painting that seems pretty much worthless hanging in their living room. It’s like dogs playing Texas Hold’em or something, but that’s only the top layer. It turns out, when they take a look a bit deeper, they find that someone, perhaps several people, have been painting over other paintings on this canvas.  After about three layers or so have been taken away, the experts discover a lost Picasso, and it’s worth some ridiculous amount of money.

I’m not suggesting that a child’s value or worth is measured monetarily, but that there are layers upon layers of art that go into what a child becomes. Sometimes the more valuable looking art may be masked by the abusive father or the mother who’s never home to tuck them in, or the older brother who goes to prison way too young.

All of these things paint the canvas, and all of the paint is permanent.

Dig a little deeper and you just might find the priceless treasure you never knew existed.

A tad bit overstimulated

Waa-cry-baby2It wasn’t too long ago. I was sitting in the food court of our local mall, waiting to pick up one of my children from some activity I can’t recall, when a young woman rolled a baby stroller up to the table next to the one at which I was sitting. Inside the stroller was a baby boy (if one can tell by the color and style of clothing these days), perhaps a year old, at most.

It turns out this was the lad we all heard screaming his head off throughout the mall for at least the thirty minutes prior. He was silent now. All cried out. Who knows why he carried on so?

His mother had positioned the stroller so that he was facing me. I looked over at the boy and, for a moment, our eyes met. Now, I have big eyes, so maybe that’s the fascination but, for some reason, small children like to stare at me if we have made some sort of eye contact. This child was no different. He just stared at me and I stared back. I wondered what had been troubling him. I wondered if he had been overstimulated by all the goings on at the mall that afternoon.

“Is it just too much for you, little fellow?” I thought to myself. “I know how you feel. Sometimes everything just goes way too fast for me, too. I mean, it seems like everybody wants a piece of you and you try so hard to give them what they want, only to find out that you’re coming up short anyway, no matter how hard you try. Your kids are growing up too fast and you’re never going to get this time back. Your wife is amazing but you never feel like you actually deserve her, let alone have the ability to take care of her the way you should. You’re not the athlete you once were and, just because you play in an ‘organized league’ doesn’t mean you can play like you did when you were 18 and not feel it for days. What’s more, you don’t need to be reminded that you’re no longer just ‘flirting’, you’re being a bit creepy. You know what I’m saying?”

We sat there, just looking at each other. I wondered what he was thinking. Maybe his mom knew.

“A bit overstimulated, was he?” I asked his mother.

“Just hungry. After I fed him, he just calmed right down.”

I looked over at Junior and he smiled that puffy-cheeked smile.

“I guess he’s a lad who knows what he wants,” I said, not actually intending it to be out loud.

I winced, knowing that was probably one of those “creepy” moments. Just then, the baby burped. I turned and saw him smiling again. I could have sworn he winked as well.

My wife is a knitter with a captial K

knitting-handsMy wife loves to knit.  She’s been doing it for about 10 years now.  She even reads knitting blogs!  Two, in particular, are her favorite– The Yarn Harlot and Mason Dixon Knitting. To be honest, it’s gotten to be a bit of an obsession.

She took a trip down to “South Jersey” to meet “The Yarn Harlot” herself a few years ago.  I wasn’t aloud to come.

“Oh, you wouldn’t want to come anyway!”

“Yes I would!  What are you talking about?  I like what you like!  I’m happy when you’re happy!” etc…

I’ve learned a thing or two in the 21 years we’ve been married.

“Well forget it.  This is MY THING!”

“Geeze. Well, alright… You know… have fun.  Call me?”

Anyway, my point is, my wife doesn’t just knit, she’s a “Knitter”.

I hear you asking it right now, “There’s a difference?”

Yes, Virginia, there sure as shootin is! It’s kind of cool, too, to be honest.

She’s great at a whole bunch of things, but she’s about a genius at this! She made this baby blanket for the daughter of our dearest friends and it’s absolutely amazing!  She was able to give something to a child and that child’s family that will be something they will cherish and hold dear for that child’s entire life.  What an impact!

For our daughter’s senior year in high school last year, she knitted this awesome bag.  Our daughter carried it the entire year!

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This year, in preparation to send said daughter off to college, she knitted this pillow of the school’s mascot.

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Awesome, yes?

She taught me how to knit a few years ago; basic stuff, of course.  A friend of ours from church had lung cancer, so I decided to knit him a scarf.  I finished it for him and gave it to him in the winter.  He died in the spring.  I cried a lot.

A few years back, my wife knitted a shawl for her dear friend who was also a Knitter and who also had cancer.  The woman loved the shawl and wore it often.  She died too.

I guess all we can really do in this life is try our best to make the moments we have count as best we can.  My wife is good at that.

I want to be like her.

 

I love what I get to do!

lovewhatyoudoCliché…

“If you do something you truly love, you’ll never work another day in your life.”

I complain about clichés, sometimes; mostly because I think we use them to generalize things that can’t really be generalized.  (I’m the guiltiest of all!)

Maybe I could try to be a little more specific…

“If you do something that puts to use your own, special and unique talents in a way that connects with other humans on the planet and contributes something positive to the world, you’ll never work another day in your life.”

Yeah, mine’s a bit more long-winded.  (I can get like that– making things more complicated than they have to be.)  But, I think it makes a difference here.  Doing something you love is awesome, who doesn’t like to do things they love, but what difference does it make?

Seeking out a living where your true talents are on display and people’s lives have the potential to be changed for the better because they encountered you is what we really need to be teaching our children.

No child left behind?  Ok, great. So, why are we leaving so many behind?

Math and Science are extremely important, but how much are we leaving out when that becomes all that matters?  What kind of adults are we making out of our children?  Do they have a purpose?  Are they doing what they were born to do?

It’s not an easy thing to find that career “sweet spot” where you’re full on doing what you love all the time, and I know plenty of people who say, “We can’t always get what we want out of our lives.”

To them I say, “What is it, actually, that you want?”

I know what I want to do for a living: to connect with people in truly meaningful, and potentially life-altering ways when using my God-given talents to the best of my ability.

That’s what I want.  It doesn’t always show up the same way, nor is it an easy pursuit, but on the occasion when all cylinders are firing and the magic is happening, it feels just right.

It feels like this…

 

A Labor Day labor…who’s remotely ready?

mikaelaandme3It was late summer, 1994.  I had just closed an amazing run of “Grand Hotel” and was about to open as John Adams in a beautiful production of “1776” directed by my good friend, Erick Devine.

Malisa and I had been married for two years and things were moving ahead brilliantly, just like we had planned.  She was finishing up her undergraduate studies and I had one more year of graduate school.  Then it was off to New York City!  We weren’t even remotely ready for what happened next.

When Malisa showed me the test strip with the matching red plus signs, I just stood there.  So did she.  This was not in the plan right now.  In a few years, sure, but not now.  We weren’t ready.

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Cut to late summer, 2013…

I’m sitting on the beach in Delaware, looking down to the water and watching my now 18 year old daughter splash in the waves.  I want to get up, run down and hug her.  I want to pick her up and swing her around like I used to do when she was four.  She’s still small enough for me to do it, but I won’t; too embarrassing! (“You’re so weird!!”)

I’m trying not to pay any attention to the date.  If I do, I’ll realize that we’ll be dropping her off at camp (ok, college.  There, I said it!) in less than two weeks.  Of course I’d seen this day coming, but I wasn’t even remotely ready for what happened next.

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Cut to two days ago…

The university she’s attending is only an hour away; one hour, door to door.  It’s nothing to blubber about.  She’s ready.  She’s going to do amazing things in college and in her life.  I’m incredibly proud of the woman she’s become, and I have no reservations about her readiness to leave the nest.  It’s nothing to do with that.

Nobody tells you when you’re learning to change your firstborn’s diaper that one day, when the time comes to let her go, you’ll miss a dear friend.

At every stage of her life, there would be someone older than me who would see us together and would stop me and say, “This is THE greatest age!  It was my favorite age with our daughter!”  People would say that virtually every year.  I took that in and really tried to appreciate every stage of life as she was going through it.  Admittedly, not every stage was a favorite of mine, but that’s life, it’s always going to have its ups and downs

So it was, with all of those stages behind us, and a brand new stage right in front of us, that I gave her one last hug before getting into the car and watching her wave goodbye in the rear-view mirror.

There was nothing else to do but leave.  I’m just in the way, now.  I realized that it was what I was destined to do all those years ago.  My job was to get her to the stage she’s in right now and, truth be told, it’s my favorite.  But, I used to say that virtually every year.

I seem to remember someone once saying something along the lines of, “Just when your children get to the age where they’re actually interesting, it’s time for them to leave home.”

Well, my daughter has been more than interesting at every stage of her growing up with us, and she’s given me more treasures to store up in my heart than a man should be allowed.

I was ready when it was time for her to take her first steps and say her first word (which was “Daddy”, btw!).  I was ready when it was time for her to go off to kindergarten.  I was ready for middle school and high school.

I’m just not sure there was anything I could have done to be remotely ready for what happened next.