A Note to Graduates 

May 13, 2017


Dear Graduates,

The month of May is possibly my favorite. I love the weather — summer is trying to shove its way in with welcomed warm breezes, yet spring is holding its own, providing crisp mornings and pleasant evenings. Birds chirp outside my open window at dawn, and a late-inning baseball game glows on my television screen at dusk. There is a freshness in the air that makes me feel renewed. Life is grand.

Perhaps the best part of May, however, is school letting out for the summer. I think back to my own school days and can vividly remember the feeling of sheer excitement and joy as that final bell rang each year. Having kids of my own and working in a school now, I must admit I still feel it — maybe for different reasons — but there is still that sense of adventure that lurks at the start of each summer.

For you, this year truly is the final bell. It’s the endless summer. Social media is filled with photos of you in your caps and gowns. Smiles are plastered across your faces and invincibility twinkles in your eyes. Many of you are heading off to college, while some will opt to go find jobs. You will become our next generation of doctors, teachers, farmers, politicians, steelworkers, lawyers, carpenters, and accountants. The world needs all of these and one is no better than another — remember that. You “kids” will be taking care of the rest of us just a few years down the road. And believe me, kids, the years will go fast. So fast.

I don’t know much, but I’ve managed to figure out a few things along the way. I’d like to offer you some simple advice. I’ll keep it short, as I know you have better things to do:

1. Advance your education beyond high school. Whether it’s a certificate from a trade school or an advanced degree from a university, education gives you power and promotes the freedom to change jobs and careers. Do it now, because going back to school when you have a wife, kids, a job, and other responsibilities is really hard (trust me). Take your education seriously.

2. Happiness isn’t expensive. Yes, you need to make some money to reach a certain level of happiness and to give you and your family some opportunities. But be very aware there is much more to life than striving to “be rich” and possessing material things.

3. Despite everyone telling you who and what to be, please do what makes you happy. You may not even have a clue yet what you want to do with your life. That’s okay. You may think you’ve figured it out, then change your mind. That’s okay, too. Whatever you end up being, be a great one. Trying to be your best self will make your life better in many ways.

Look, kids, I know you’re not really paying attention. I’m trying to give advice to 18 year olds who already know everything. I used to be as smart as you all are… If nothing else, remember that regardless of our age, we are all writing our own stories. My generation has already written many chapters, and you may be searching for the right words to get started, but none of our stories are complete. No matter how much or how little we have written, no matter how many failures, hardships, and disappointments we face along the way — and there will be many — as long as we are alive, we get to keep writing. So make your stories long, fill them with love and kindness, include many crazy and wonderful adventures, and — most of all — make sure you keep writing until you are happy with the ending. It’s never too late for any of us to change our tale.

Now get out there and make a difference. Each one of you can alter the world in at least some tiny yet amazing way. We are counting on you. 

Sincerely,

A Friend

 

Photo Credit: Audrey Bowers

There’s a good chance that you haven’t heard about today being National Teacher Appreciation Day, which is a shame and a bit ironic. I’ve been working as a substitute teacher all school year. I’ve been to a number of different schools, and have interacted with many teachers. What have I learned? We are so lucky to have teachers, and should never take them for granted.

The majority of uninformed people seem to think teachers have it pretty easy. They mostly babysit all day and get summers off. Sure, they don’t make much, but why should they? If you fall into this category, let me try to enlighten you a bit.

Being a teacher is a largely thankless job. A teaching degree with a state teaching certification usually requires more than four years of college (without a Master’s Degree, which is highly recommended), classrooms are typically too full, resources are almost always very limited (many teachers buy classroom supplies with their own money and are not reimbursed), oh and yes, the pay is not very good. So bad that many work a second job in the summer.

Teachers are educators, mentors, and friends. Sometimes they are more involved than parents in their students’ lives. They spend evenings and weekends planning lessons and grading papers. They deal with bullies, offer a shoulder to cry on, break up fights, inspire our next generation, and get vomited on. Teachers are expected to keep students in line and well-behaved, yet routinely get harassed by uninformed parents for mistreating their kids. It’s all in a day’s work. Oh, and the pay is not very good.

How bad is the pay? Depending on the source, an average elementary school teacher makes about $44,000 a year. To put that in perspective, let’s look at the average pay of a few other professions:

Accountant – $66,000

Physical Therapist – $82,000

Chef – $53,000

Computer Systems Analyst – $86,000

Podiatrist (yes, a foot doctor) – $121,000

Cartographer (correct, a map maker) – $61,000

Teachers are largely responsible for preparing our children for adulthood, yet they make significantly less than a cartographer. By the way, no one with a cell phone uses a map anymore.

I ask many of the teachers I meet if they like what they do. Almost all of them say yes. Not one has ever said they like their job because they get the summer off. They don’t usually mention that they wish the pay was better (although I know they do). Most admit it can be very frustrating. However, I can’t think of an instance where a teacher hasn’t mentioned that their job is rewarding.

I was talking to a younger, male teacher about a month ago. “I could go make a lot of money and probably still enjoy my job — maybe even like it more,” he said. “But I’m doing this because I have a chance to make these kids’ lives a little better.” I believe this to be how most teachers feel, and think it helps define the type of person that most teachers are. As a father of two school-aged children, it certainly makes me feel a little more at ease.

Teaching may be an underpaid, largely thankless profession, but teachers seem pretty happy to me. They should be, they have the opportunity to genuinely make the world better. On National Teacher Appreciation Day — and every other day — I’d like to offer a very sincere “thank you.”

Girl Power!

May 1, 2016

  
I believe one of the most important responsibilities I have as the father of a daughter is to instill a sense of confidence and belonging in her. Sadly, we live in a world where women are still often treated as second-class citizens. Even in the good ol’ USA, women make less money than men, still can’t join certain clubs and organizations, and continue to be the butt of inappropriate (yet widely accepted) jokes. I hope things change by the time my six-year-old is an adult, but I want her to be prepared to stand up for herself and expect nothing less than equal treatment in the future.

My son is twelve. He’s a great kid, but he’s also at an age where he tends to occasionally be a jerk. As a matter of fact, he’s usually a jerk and is exceptionally good at it. As older brothers (and sisters) tend to do, he picks on his much younger sister quite often. I picked on my little sister at that age (and maybe still do a little now), so sometimes I don’t do as good of job of getting on him about it as I probably should. I do, however, try to consistently remind my daughter that she should stand up for herself at all times, regardless of the circumstances. That being said, she typically gets upset and simply tells on her brother when he is mistreating her in some way.

Today was different. My youngest hadn’t even had a chance to take a bite of the banana with peanut butter (a rare healthy snack that she actually loves) that I had just made for her, when the jerk grabbed it and took a bite. My daughter stood up from the table, narrowed her eyes on her big brother, and sternly said, “Listen, if you want some of this there are bananas and peanut butter right here in the kitchen. Make yourself one, but stay away from mine!” My son and I were both totally taken off-guard. “Um, okay, I’m really sorry,” he genuinely muttered. I was just speechless. Slowly, my daughter turned her fierce gaze towards me. “This is girl power, dad. Get used to it.” Luckily I was able to keep from laughing — as it was very funny — but I couldn’t hide my pride. This kid’s gonna be just fine. 

There’s a quote By William James that I like to keep in mind when it comes to parenting:

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”

I truly hope my fellow fathers of daughters are doing all they can to empower their young girls. Our generation has an opportunity to make great strides towards equality for our children. Let’s work together to make it happen.

  
Not so long ago, a little girl named Rose was growing up in an old, run-down, dirty neighborhood. It seemed like it was always cloudy. Her neighbors were grumpy and rarely came outside.

As Rose walked to and from school each day, she passed a vacant lot near her home. Her parents had told her about the lot many times. There used to be a beautiful house here, with big trees and a colorful flower garden. But now it was just a patch of hard, cracked dirt with only some weeds growing.

Walking home one day, however, Rose noticed something different in the lot. Something other than weeds was coming from the ground. As Rose got closer, she realized it was a small bush with one tiny flower. It was a rose.

“Look, a rose, just like me!” she said aloud.

The rose was wilted and in terrible need of help. Rose ran home and returned with a large cup of water, which she slowly poured around the bush. The water flowed through the cracks in the dirt.

The next morning Rose woke up early and hurried to the lot. She couldn’t believe what she saw. The little rose had grown — and there was a second flower, a daisy, growing next to the rosebush!

Every day when she got home from school, Rose filled a watering can and headed to the lot to water her flowers. Every morning there were more flowers to see. Red ones, purple ones, yellow, green, pink, orange — so many beautiful colors that were nowhere to be found in the neighborhood. There were roses, daisies, daffodils, tulips, and some strange types of flowers that Rose had never even seen before.

After just two weeks, there were far too many flowers for a watering can. Rose’s dad gave her a long garden hose that she would lug to the lot each day. And with more water came even more flowers!

People started to stop and stare at the new flower garden. Rose’s mom found an old bench in her basement, and painted it bright yellow. She put the bench on the sidewalk in front of the garden so people could relax and enjoy the scenery.

Oddly, things began to change in the neighborhood. People started painting their houses, fixing broken windows, cleaning up trash, and planting flowers of their own. Before long the old gray neighborhood had color everywhere. People who used to keep to themselves inside were now outside working on their lawns, playing with their kids, walking their dogs, and saying “hello” to people they passed on the street. The neighbors were getting to know each other and were becoming friends. Someone — no one was exactly sure who — even put another bench, this one painted red, in front of the flower garden. So many people were coming to admire the garden, that one bench just wasn’t enough.

Rose continued her watering every day. More and more flowers grew, until you couldn’t see the ground at all, just flowers everywhere! Kids and grownups alike came from all over the town to see the garden. They also noticed how nice the rest of the neighborhood looked. Soon, other neighborhoods were doing the same thing, until the whole town become something to see. It wasn’t long before people started coming from far and wide to see the flower garden. They then went home and started their own gardens.

Folks from all over the map started adding color and beauty to their own towns. They were working very hard, yet they were happier than ever before. People had something to be proud of.

All because of one little Rose.

Oh No…Puberty! 

September 25, 2015

“Hey, Dad,” my son, Jack, hollered. He was slightly out of breath after rushing out of the house to meet me as I pulled into our driveway last night. “I’ve got some great news — I’m becoming a man…”

Jack has always been mature for his age. His first complete sentence was, “Quite frankly, this pureed chicken in a jar is barely edible.” (Or something like that.) For the most part, he’s been smarter, taller, faster, stronger, and more emotionally advanced (not necessarily in a good way) than many of his peers. He has also always been self-conscious, anxious, and worrisome.

This fall Jack started middle school. Over the summer between 5th and 6th grade, some major changes took place among the tweenage boy population. Suddenly Jack is one of the smaller kids. Some of the boys sport a thin hipster-esque mustache. A few of his friends sound like they might be Barry White’s illegitimate children. For the first time in his life, it seems my son is feeling a little inadequate. 

Man or woman, I think we can all agree that middle school was at least awkward at times, if not generally horrific. It’s a time of change and uncertainty. Besides the growth spurts, facial hair, and changing voices, there are also zits, gym locker rooms, and body odor. Not to mention a newfound attraction to the opposite sex. These are key ingredients in a recipe for crippling anxiety.

By far the biggest problem for the guys, however, are the sudden, Viagra-like erections. Ok, it’s not that “big” of a problem, but trust me when I say that panic attacks occur when you are sitting with a boner, and you realize that class is about to end. The more you worry about it, the “harder” (sorry) life becomes. As a result, every dude is forced to learn the fine art of casually walking down the hall while clutching a Trapper Keeper against his junk, should the bell ring at the wrong time. Under really bad conditions, there is the ol’ “re-tie the shoe(s) trick,” which more physically developed kids may need to opt for. The bell ringing isn’t the end of the world, though. In fact, it can be a blessing. Far worse is the fear that you will be called up to the blackboard during class for some reason — without a shield. This is the definition of pure terror.

For the most part, these things haven’t been an issue for my kid. He is very impatient to catch up to his friends, or so he thinks. He’s in for a rude awakening.

“Come on, I gotta show you this,” Jack continued last night.

Intrigued, I followed him in the front door. As soon as we entered the living room, Jack dropped trow. “Check it out!”

Confused, both about what was happening and what he could possibly be happy about, my immediate reaction was to console him. Don’t worry, buddy, it’ll eventually get bigger, I considered. I bit my tongue. “What exactly am I looking for?”

“Look, right there!” I strained my eyes. Then, I saw it, just as he declared, “It’s a pube!”

And so it begins. My baby boy will never be the same. Soon he will have a peard (pubic beard, of course) down there, and other things, which I don’t even want to think about, will start happening.

This morning I walked past the bathroom, where Jack was naked; closely examining his nether regions.

“Start shutting the door,” I pleaded. “In fact, start locking it.”

Wish me luck. Better yet, wish Jack luck.

My son starts middle school tomorrow.  This truly seems impossible, as I have such a vivid recollection of trying to console my sobbing wife after we dropped him off at daycare for the first time.  That was nearly twelve years ago.  I know from experience and from the words of people older and wiser than me that time isn’t going to slow down any.  On the contrary, it will most likely seem to accelerate.  If I had the middle school years to do over (and I’m glad I don’t), these are five things I would want to consider, so I will share them with my son.  I’m sure he won’t want to listen, but between the eye-rolling and sighing, maybe something will stick.

1.  Don’t take things too seriously:  Despite what you might hear, there really is no “permanent record” at your age.  You are going to make mistakes, make bad choices, and make a fool of yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up; learn to laugh at yourself instead.  If you do this, it will be much harder to be hurt when others laugh at you — and they will.  When you stumble, make it part of your dance.  When you fall down, pick yourself up (with a chuckle).

2.  Be yourself:  I know this will sound crazy, but please don’t worry about being one of the “cool” people.  Being yourself, instead of trying to be someone you think people want you to be, is one of the secrets to finding true happiness.  You are a great person, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.  By being yourself, you are giving people a great opportunity — the chance to know the real you.  By the way, many of the so-called nerds, dorks, freaks and geeks will grow up to be much more interesting than the current “in crowd.”

3.  Be kind and compassionate to everyone:  Kids will be mean, but you don’t have to be.  Everyone you meet will be worried about something, sad about something, and will have problems similar to yours — or possibly much worse.  Set an example by treating these people the way you want to be treated.  It’s just that simple.  Remember that the best way to get rid of enemies is by becoming their friends, and that the best kind of popularity is to be admired for your kindness.  People will notice kindness.

4.  You can talk to me and Mom about anything:  Your mom and I are extremely interested in what’s going on in your life.  We want you to be happy to talk to us about all of the good things, and to be totally comfortable coming to us with any questions or problems.  You will go through times when you feel like there is no one to listen, but we are always ready and willing.  Yep, we are your parents, so there may be times when we get upset or are disappointed.  Regardless, we will always have your back.  Don’t forget that we were your age — and it wasn’t that long ago.  We had the same questions you will have, and we made the same mistakes you will make.  Let us in.  Please.

5.  Be a kid as long as possible:  High school, dating, driving, getting your first job…  These are all things you’re excited about, I know.  Trust me, though, that one day, which will seem way too soon, you will look back and ask where your childhood went.  For now just have some fun.  Play hard, laugh loud and be silly, ride your bike with no hands, and do cannonballs off the high-dive.  You will have plenty of time to be older, but you will never be younger.  Bottle some of that youth up, however, because the good news is that you are never too old to act young.

Hopefully my son will heed at least some of my advice.  Come to think of it, I should too.  We all should.

  
“Dad, whatever you do, please don’t embarrass me!”

These were my daughter’s words before her boyfriend came over to pick her up for the first official date of her life.  I wish.  Okay, I certainly don’t wish she was dating, but that would make a lot more sense.  She actually said it before going to meet a former preschool classmate for a play date.  You see, she’s only five years old.

Silly, crazy, ridiculous, over-the-top, annoying, please stop, you’re embarrassing me, you’re embarrassing yourself…  These are all words and phrases that my tweenage son (and quite possibly my wife) might call me or say to me at any given time.  I admit that I might (definitely) tend to overdo it on the jokes, and that my sense of humor is sometimes (usually) a little (very) bizarre.  Personally, I think I’m very funny.  I crack myself up on an hourly basis.  Maybe I need to chill out a bit, though?

Perhaps I shouldn’t sing along (in my falsetto voice) to the horrible pop songs that my son insists on listening to — when his friends are in the car with us.

It might be best if I didn’t ask the costumed mascots to hug my kid at every high school, collegiate and professional sporting event we attend.

I probably shouldn’t, after dropping the boy off for school and letting him enter the mob of kids waiting to get in the front door, holler, “I forgot to say I love you!”

That time, during the back to school sale at a Target packed with similarly aged “cute” girls, maybe I shouldn’t have yelled from way down the aisle, “Hey bud, I found that Justin Bieber notebook you were looking for.”  Yes, in retrospect, that definitely wasn’t cool.  

But alas, I have done these things, and many others that are possibly (without a doubt) worse.  Too many to remember them all.  Is it bad that I don’t want to stop?  Won’t it make my son less embarrassed by the awkward moments he encounters in the future?  I’d like to think so.  Or, maybe I just selfishly enjoy the pleasure it gives me.

But hold on, now my five year old daughter is already paranoid that I might do something wrong.  The writing is on the wall, I really ought to take it down a notch.  I, myself, am a little embarrassed that she feels this way (but also secretly pleased).  

Okay, I’ve made up my mind, I will try to be better.  When that first date does finally come around, I want my daughter to insist that I meet her boyfriend, and even keep him company while she finishes doing her hair.

“Have a seat, pal,” I will politely say.  Then, rather than saying something embarrassing about my daughter and putting the fear of God into the young man, I will only choose the latter.  If this causes any embarrassment for anyone, so be it.  I never made any promises, I only said I would try.