Keep faith. Find joy. Make art.

I made a video last week, one of a series of short and somewhat silly attempts to keep a human face in front of my school community, a reminder that we’re all in this together and even separated by the pandemic our ACMA spirit is very much alive. It was, as nearly all my videos are, unscripted and unrehearsed. A friend of mine, Scott, a videographer in San Diego, used to kid me about my single takes and lack of notes. This short kept to that tradition.

And…

As a fellow who likes words, the more I thought about the message of that short message, the more I felt like I wanted to expand on it a little, flesh out my thoughts, add an example or two. That fleshing out is this, a post with the heartfelt, modest message: Keep faith, find joy, and make art.

Restrictions about social gatherings in person, and the fact that we have been away from school since last March have many of us feeling more isolated and apart than we’ve ever felt. One of my counselors compared what we’re experiencing with astronauts journeying out into space. “The difference,” she told me, “is that the astronauts know when they’re coming back to earth.”

So while it’s easy to feel overwhelmed sometimes, to look up from a day of Zoom meetings and just feel tired, to realize after a day or two that you haven’t left the house in a day or two … it’s important to keep faith. We not only will get through this, but we are getting through this. 

Right now, as difficult as it is to be separated from friends, to be away from school (for teachers as well as students), and to live with an uncertainty about when things will be a little less strange, we are doing our best. Every day we’re a day closer to students returning to classes. Every day we’re a day closer to welcoming friends and family into our homes. Every day we’re closer to vaccinations and celebrations. Every day.

There’s a line in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” And while the road has darkened in the past few months, our faith in a world improved need not disappear.

And while we work hard and do all we can to make the most of this imperfect present, it’s also important that we find joy. This could be as simple as petting our cat or dog, strumming a ukulele, or listening to music. It could be texting a friend, playing Minecraft, or going for a walk. I dig reading, others like reality TV, still others want to dance, sing, and write poetry. Yes. Yes. And Yes.

Because even as we understand that our world is not yet the world we would like it to be, and that challenges beyond the pandemic are there waiting for us to face them, it’s okay to take a deep breath and have a cup of hot chocolate. 

Finding joy will help to keep us buoyant enough to meet the hardships that we will face. Sharing joy, when we’re able, will help our world overcome those hardships.

Faith, joy, and art. It’s that third one that might really serve as a call to action right now. You see I work at an art school, filled to the brim with creative souls. I miss their smiles, their flair, their way of being in the world every day we’re not on campus, and…

I’m inspired to know that they are still making art. I see it when I visit classes, when I host open mic nights online, and when I walk into the foyer of the school and see the carts with clay, paint, and finished sculpture projects on them (dropped off by students and fired by our amazing ceramics teacher). I saw it in the shirt designed by one of my students, a vision of our school as a human, sensibly wearing a mask. And I feel the truth of a quotation by British novelist Iris Murdoch that I used to have hanging in my classroom:

“Art is not cozy and it is not mocked. Art tells the only truth that ultimately matters. It is the light by which human things can be mended. And after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing.”

Age has led me to believe that art might not be the only thing that matters, but I do believe that art and artists do change the world. Today, as I looked back on that little video I thought of the students, staff, and parents who make up my school family and I was filled with faith, joy, and the desire to make art.

announcementreminderplea

One of my amazing teachers, a relationship builder who has been working remotely since last March, emailed me ahead of a staff meeting to ask if she could make an announcement at the meeting. She needed to ask the staff to share some information with students in their Ohanas, our name for homeroom, and she wondered if she could have a minute or two for an “announcement/reminder/plea” to the teachers. She knew the answer, of course; I try to always say “yes” when a teacher asks for something (with the huge caveat that sometimes that isn’t the answer I can give). This time a yes was easy.

And as I replied to her email I removed the forward slashes from her request and sat back pleased with a new word that feels like it should be part of the pandemic lexicon: announcementreminderplea.

It’s a word that’s hard to read, or understand, at least at first. It isn’t sure what it needs, though the truth may be in there somewhere. It feels hurried, almost frantic, and like it could apply to much of what I do as an educator: kids turning on cameras, teachers posting assignments in a uniform way, parents taking a deep breath before pouncing on a perceived mistake …announcementreminderplea. Please do.

The past few months have reminded us how much a people business education really is. Not that we didn’t know, but it has underscored the importance of the little interactions (at lunch, in the hallways, before and after class) and how profound it is to read body language, hear a sigh, or get that feeling that something is off.

Teachers and students alike have reached out to me as the principal with announcementreminderpleas around engagement, not feeling heard, and uncertainty about how to navigate these rough waters of remote learning. In every case they want to do well, and so often there seems no clear answer on exactly how to do that.

I’ve made more than a few announcementreminderpleas myself, to staff, to parents, to students, and our school community as a whole. Sometimes these feel like I’m shouting into the wind; sometimes I’m surprised at the overwhelming response I’m blessed to receive. Almost always I have a moment of uncertainty about how my message will land, something rare when we could see each other’s faces in the same room.

And yet we marshal on, teachers teaching, students learning, parents comforting, cajoling, and all of us doing our best. Sometimes it works. Sometimes.

So to end this short post I’ll pull out an announcementreminderplea that has been a part of my own vocabulary as an educator since long before any pandemic. It’s a line I’ve said a thousand times and believed almost all of them. “All will be well.”

Is that an announcement? A reminder? A plea? Yep. And it’s something I still believe.

Big Hands I Know You’re the One

When I’m a walking I strut my stuff
And I’m so strung out
I’m high as a kite
I just might
Stop and check you out
-Violent Femmes

Our parents were worried about us when we were teenagers. And if you got the reference alluded to in the title of this post your parents had every right to be.

Our parents’ parents were worried about them when they were teenagers, and the naughty influence of Elvis Prestley, John Lennon, or the Rolling Stones, depending on the era and what was seen as dangerous (hips, trips, or lips). They had every right to be.

This consistent concern makes sense; we remember what it was like to be a teenager and heaven knows we should be worried about these not-yet-adult-humans who are living in our house. We don’t understand everything, we’ll admit it (who is Megan Thee Stallion?), but we know enough to know that we really ought to be worried. 

Have you heard their music? 

To be honest, probably no more than our parents really heard ours.

But beyond rock and roll, or whatever it is “kids today” have on their playlists, there are some real reasons for parents today —those same parents, like me, who listened to the Violent Femmes in our own misbegotten youth— to stay awake worrying more than we’d like.

When those nights pile up, and they do even for educators like me who are in the business of teenagers, it’s important to look for allies who can help us make sense of this thing called parenting.

Sometimes those allies are fellow parents, whose own experiences can help us understand that we are not alone. There is a power in those four words, a power we all would do well to tap into more often. Sometimes it’s educators, counselors, therapists, or other professionals who can help provide support and perspective; seeking out professional help feels more important now than ever. Sometimes, particularly in those times when we don’t have someone to call or talk with, books can help.

This winter I picked up Dr. John Duffy’s Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety. It’s a quick read, but worth it, and while I’ll confess to not agreeing with 100% of what he has to say, I really appreciated his approach to helping parents understand (as he puts it): “your child’s stressed, depressed, expanded, amazing adolescence.” His frank and thoughtful perspective was what I needed this January, both as a principal and as a dad.

Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety begins with the idea that while all of us were teenagers, “And yes, to an extent, we can relate. … the truth is, you were never this teenager.” Duffy goes on to explain that our adolescent worlds (before smartphones or the internet, back in the days of basic cable and a reliance on older siblings to curate pornography) were not the world our teenagers live in today.

Duffy even questions the accuracy of the term “teenager” to describe 21st century adolescents. “Now, we are going to find that the ‘teen’ designation is no longer entirely valid, certainly not the way it has been used historically. Because of a combination of unlimited access to information, the advent of social media and other technology, rising academic pressures, and other familial and social stressors, the teen years as we think of them have stretched to well before thirteen on the early end, and beyond nineteen on the back end.” 

As the principal of a 6th through 12th grade art school I can attest to this point of view, though I’d offer that the differences between an eleven year old and seventeen year old is still profound, and it’s with this professional perspective that I read all of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety, often agreeing and always prompted to reflecting on what Duffy had to say.

Duffy subtitles Part One of the book “Painting the Picture” and as he shares his own clinical experience working with adolescents he brings up some uncomfortable truths about the challenges of being a parent (and of being an adolescent). The picture he paints feels both accurate and sobering.

Duffy reminds us more than once that “none of this is your child’s idea. As far as she is concerned, it has always been this way.” Our kids don’t remember a time before smartphones or the internet. The water they swim in is different from the ocean of our youth.

I’m fortunate to work at a school where students seem comfortable sharing their concerns with adults. Our counselors, teachers, and classified staff build strong relationships with kids and are often the people students turn to when they’re struggling or have a friend in crisis. Often, but not always, and not always first. As Duffy explains, adolescents tend to lean on each other, serving as “default counselors” in times of stress. This puts great pressure on the kids, and can lead the student who is supporting her friend to feeling in over her head. And it happens all the time.

“You may wonder,” Duffy writes, “why our children talk to each other, especially when they feel emotions that may be life-threatening. I’ve asked a number of kids that very question, and the answers are unequivocal, and strikingly consistent. We parents are too often afraid of their fears, depression, and anxiety. Further, our kids are fully aware of our fear. So they often go elsewhere.” 

This made me think of three things: 1) the acknowledgement that it’s understandable that we parents are afraid for our kids, uncomfortable, worried, and scared. We’re human after all and love our kids. 2) There’s a line in an old Johnny Cash song: “and a frightened child won’t hold a trembling hand.” 3) We can all find the strength we need to be there for our kids, to stop trembling long enough to be a support (as long as we find support for ourselves). 

Duffy explains it this way: “When we feel that inclination to shrink away from our child, or that draw toward anger because they are presenting us with some powerful negative emotion we feel we cannot control, we need to turn directly toward them. We need them to know they can come to us when they feel their worst.”

Easier, I thought to myself reading that paragraph, said than done.

And that was the line I danced on as I read Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety; I agreed with the presentation of the challenges, which included a litany of very real issues our kids face, and I knew that for me as a parent (and for many of the parents I work with as a principal) I needed more help with how best to “turn directly toward” the powerful emotions those challenges bring up.

I also felt like the approach in the book was best suited to those not in the acute crises that can come to families around very real issues that impact our kids. Suggesting more athletic activity really can work, and I’ve seen first hand the value of sports in kids’ lives, but as profound as this can be, there are kids and situations that overwhelm advice like this, and those situations are less rare than some of us would like to believe.

That said, Duffy provides some solid ideas about helping our kids find balance. Volunteering, getting engaged in activities, and increasing their time off screens all help adolescents can all help, as can parents increasing the number of positive to negative interactions with kids (he suggests five positive to one negative) and he stresses that parents’ “need to find empathy, with some degree of urgency.”

I think anyone reading this book is probably feeling that urgency, and that helping our kids empathetically is something we’re ready to do.

Helping us have the understanding of how to do so, Duffy outlines a series of challenges including family, school, and societal pressures. In a section that I found particularly helpful he defines “Identity Traffic” and the stress this puts on kids. Exacerbated by, but not confined to, social media, adolescents often feel like they’re performing in a world in which they’re changing costumes and makeup multiple times a day.

Duffy suggests that a parent “ask calmly and curiously what it is like for her to carry, manage, and navigate through these different identities. Ask which feels most authentic to her, and which feels most artificial. She may tell you that, when you peel away all the ‘false selves,’ she does not like herself very much. You will likely hear that she feels lonely a lot of the tie, even when she is with people, and particularly when she is on social media.” He adds, “You want to be a safe, reliable holding place for these emotions. The space is so curative for the incessant identity traffic kids suffer.”

The importance of this space extends beyond “Identity Traffic” and in Part Two, “Addressing the Issues,” Duffy gives enough examples to give pause to the faint hearted. 

Short sections on everything from addictions to abuse provide some perspective for parents, and emphasize the issue of anxiety from the book’s title. While my own experience with some of these topics is limited, my experience as an educator provided me with a bit more familiarity with the topics as a whole, and I could see this section being valuable in providing a baseline of understanding.

Part Two also provides grist for the mill of conversation, one example Duffy’s acknowledgement that parents have more access to how their students are performing at school than ever before, and his advice that “unless your child provides you with specific cause for concern, skip the apps and the portals and the tracking almost altogether. They are a collective trap, drawing you into a situation in which you are, in effect, spying on your child every day as a matter of habit. It’s unhealthy and fundamentally disempowering.”

Wow. Discuss.

And it’s in its potential to prompt discussions like this that Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety may have its greatest power. I look forward to finding ways to talk about these issues with other parents.

…but this post started with the notion that sometimes books provide perspective in times when conversations are hard to come by, and I’ll end it with the thought that Duffy’s book can provide a useful understanding for the parent reading at home, rain falling, the pandemic keeping us from gathering. It’s in Part Three that Duffy really asks us to reflect, and in this section where he offers good advice on how to be thoughtful parents to our anxious adolescents. 

He writes, for example, about the “vibe” we create in our homes. The importance of that “vibe” is fundamental to how we as parents nurture a space that can renew our adolescents and provide them (to borrow words from a musician some parents once worried about influencing the kids) shelter from the storm.

I really appreciated one of his final sections: “What you can do now.” I know it’s the place I’d try to steer any discussion of this book I had with parents; it provides some hope and ideas about what we can try when we close the covers and walk out to the kitchen where our kid is working on homework. Well, scrolling through instagram.

All will be well. That’s part of the vibe too.

I wonder what a book like this would have looked like if it was written when I was in school. Dungeons & Dragons is making your kids worship Satan. Prince is leading the kids down a path to sexual promiscuity. Camel is marketing cigarettes to kids. Wait, that last one… Anyway, I’d encourage any parent to pick up a copy of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety and take from it the lessons and information that are relevant to their own situation.  

Adolescence can be harrowing …for adults as well as the kids, and we can use all the resources we can find (written, professional, and parental) to give us a hand.

Dum-dum-da-de-dum-dum-da-de…

This December I found myself watching Mission: Impossible with my twelve year old and thinking back to a time in my late twenties when a friend and I were over at a third friend’s house playing board games. We’d finished a long game, likely a homemade Star Trek board game that we’d spent years tinkering with together, and had (honestly) polished off nothing stronger than a couple of root beer floats. We’d known each other since college and shared countless meals, cigars, and games (and three decades later still share a friendship that feels close even though we now live in three separate states). That evening I remember that we found three toy guns that shot little plastic discs; I don’t know if they sell such things today, but back at the end of the 20th century they weren’t uncommon.

How we ended up literally running through the house, the theme song to Mission: Impossible blaring on a loop, ducking, rolling, hiding, and shooting each other with plastic discs, I can’t recall, but the laughter, silliness, and joy from that day is something I’ve never forgotten.

Nor have I ever told anyone about that very, very, very silly day.

We were all alleged adults, all teachers, professionals, and I like to imagine respected and respectable. We were also friends, comfortable enough to play.

With this year’s winter break now behind me and the pandemic still keeping us close to home and physically far away from friends, the memory of that Mission: Impossible is particularly dear. It reminds me of the importance of having fun, of allowing ourselves to embrace silliness, and laughing as if life had a jazzy soundtrack from 1960.

That kind of mirth has to look a little different right now, but as the calendar turns to a new year I’m inspired and encouraged to find ways to open the door for fun.

This doesn’t feel like a year for resolutions, but it does strike me as a good time to commit to friends and finding ways to do the equivalent of cranking up the stereo and running laughingly through the house.

What will that look like? Heaven only knows, but remotely, at a safe distance, or (eventually) in person, it’s a mission I choose to accept.

…this post will self-destruct in five seconds…