Becoming Our Personal Bests

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I was driving home in the dark after spending the evening helping my grandsons complete a Geometry test review. It had been a long day and I was quite tired so I needed some sound in the car to keep me alert during the fairly long journey. I keep my radio tuned to NPR and just as I had hope there was an interesting program on the air. All of the guests were speaking about the idea of giving humans a small nudge to motivate them to do something difficult. It seems that there is a right way to get people to take risks and a wrong way that makes them complacent and uncomfortable with trying new things. Unfortunately much of the parenting and guiding and teaching that we tend to do is often exactly the opposite of how best to inspire humans,

As a mom, grandmother and long time educator I found myself instantly fascinated with the topic, so I turned up the volume and listened intently to a parade of experts giving pointers on how to create adults who are willing to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. It seems that every single theory was grounded in the idea that making mistakes can be a powerful tool for learning as long as it happens in the right kind of environment. If the emphasis is on personal growth rather than ranking, an individual is far more likely to demonstrate a willingness to venture into uncharted waters. There is something in our human natures that wants to be adventurous, but we throw on the brakes of caution whenever we realize that we are being compared and judged. We don’t want to be embarrassed by our mistakes and so all too often we quietly give up rather than endure the pain associated with failure.

One of the guests discussing this issue spoke of an horrific childhood experience that she had with a teacher who seated children in the classroom in order of IQ, from highest to lowest. Aside from the personal humiliation associated with such an arrangement she noted that it created artificial barriers to learning in which those lowest in the ranking began to believe that they didn’t have a chance to improve or master new concepts. It also segregated the students from one another by making them believe that those at the front of the class were smart and part of an exclusive group and those at the end were hopelessly doomed to uninteresting lives. The woman who was subjected to this horrible situation still shudders at the psychological damage it did to her and her peers.

My own high school experience was not much better. We were grouped according to an entrance exam and previous grades. Each six weeks a list noting our class rank was posted on a bulletin board in the main hall. We gathered together each time it appeared to determine where we were in the order, trying not to look at the very bottom because we somehow understood that there was indignity associated with being last. To this day I shudder at the idea of such shameless and ignorant humiliation that the listing created and the fear that it planted in me.

As humans we are born with a willingness to try different things. As babies we innocently explore and develop. Nobody thinks it odd that each little one grows at his/her own pace. It is the natural way of things and generally there is no worry unless the child shows signs of some type of extreme difficulty. In those early years our curiosity is at a peak. We want to know about and try everything. Learning is natural and fun. It is only when we begin to impose the artifices of tests and grades and competitions that many children begin to waver. When they feel that they are being judged badly because they are not quite as good as their peers, they sometimes slowly become and less and less inclined to participate in the process. In fact, even those at the top reach a certain comfort level and sometimes stop exploring lest they fail and lose their status.

As adults we want to encourage our young to be the best versions of themselves and so whenever they succeed at an endeavor we tend to praise them not so much for the attempts as for the outward judgement of their accomplishment. In other words we celebrate a good grade more than we cheer on effort. We pin our hopes on winning rather than a willingness to try. There is a kind of invisible ranking by IQ or ability that destroys a young child’s natural instinct to try things out. It deadens their souls just a bit, and in the worst case scenario convinces them that their possibilities for life are severely limited.

Sometimes it has the most deleterious effect on those children who started out at the top. They become so accustomed to being the best that they come unglued at the first sign of a challenge. They question themselves and withdraw from the race. They choose easy pathways that allow them to maintain their status, but their interest in reaching higher and higher is stifled. This is particularly true whenever a child suddenly fails after a lifetime of seeming perfection. We sometimes neglect to show them how to rebound from disasters.

The world will no doubt always be competitive but during the formative years the ideal is to instill a growth mindset into our young. We must strive to praise hard work and progress as much as mastery. We need to break learning down into doable chunks and celebrate the achievement of reaching particular milestones as much as we do high marks.

I have learned from watching my grandsons in swimming and track that each effort that they make is measured in personal improvements that may be little more than a tenth of a second. The focus of competition is with themselves. They understand that by beating their own records they move closer and closer to besting those who run with them. Races are generally won with very small but important differences. My grandsons work hard to close the gaps and they begin with themselves. Even if they do not gain a medal, they feel excited when they learn that they have shaved just a bit more time off of their own records. Improvement is a slow but focused process that they keep chasing because they are willing to stay in the race.

We can do so much much better with our young, but for now it is a difficult battle as long as tests are used to rank them, their teachers, their schools, and their communities. We are killing the natural instincts and curiosity one mistake at a time. Instead of encouraging our children to develop a love of reading we force them to submit to comprehension tests having little to do with how we humans enjoy the written word. We make the world of mathematics terrifying and far more difficult than it needs to be. We mystify science and insinuate that only a select few will ever be bright enough to work with its principles. We categorize children before they have even had the opportunity to explore and enjoy the wonders of learning. By the time we are adults we have boxed ourselves into rigid mindsets from which few of us ever escape.

It’s time for an overhaul of how we guide and teach our children. We have the know how and potential to use our most precious resource to the fullest. We just need to begin.

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Make Waves

Waves.jpgWhen the waves of life crash down on you, pick yourself up, get ready for the next one, and ride it like you own it!!!

I’ve enjoyed living only fifty miles or so from the beach for all of my life. While Galveston Island, Texas doesn’t compare to the grandeur of Destin, Florida or La Jolla, California it has definitely been adequate enough to bring me decades of pleasure. When I was still a young girl there was hardly any adventure that I enjoyed more than riding the waves of Galveston Bay. I loved how the water would lift me off of my feet and propel me in directions over which I had no control. The laws of physics created a ride that made me squeal with delight and I would spend literally hours repeating the process of floating and bobbing like a piece of driftwood over and over again until my mother demanded that I come back to shore lest the sun blister and burn my skin.

There is something liberating about freeing ourselves from the constraints of gravity and just letting go. When we allow ourselves to be one with the waves of the ocean we become part of a great cosmic ritual that ties us to the universe. It is a primal pleasure that gives us both a sense of our own power and the reality that we are but a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things. Somehow our worries and cares don’t seem to matter as much when we surrender to the surge of water that washes over us. We learn that thrashing and fighting against the tide may cause us harm, but simply floating and enjoying the ride will provide us with a rush of pleasure and happiness. Life is so much like that. There are things that happen to us that we can command and others over which we have little or no control. Knowing the difference will help us to lead much more joy filled lives.

A couple of weeks ago the skies darkened to a leaden gray as we finished our dinner outside on our patio. Within minutes the wind was gusting at fifty miles per hour. Our phones warned us to find shelter because tornadoes had been spotted in the area. Rain came crashing down on our roof. We were lucky. The storm blew over almost as quickly as it had come, but not far down the road it was a different story. Most of the community was left without power. Eighteen wheeler trucks had been blown on their sides. Trees were down and shingles from roofs littered the ground. The people were left with great damage and a terrible mess that needed cleaning up. They had been blasted by one of those waves of horrible luck that none of us ever want to face. By morning they were calmly doing what we all have to do in such circumstances, assessing the damage and planning the repairs. In other words, they bravely carried on.

It is in our natures to take on the blows of the outrageous fortunes that knock us off of our bearings. Somehow we find the courage to get back up and do our best to take charge again and again. We find silver linings even in the middle of storms. Whether it be losing possessions or people that we love, we bear our sorrows and eventually find our way back to seeing the best in our lives.

I have often thought about the tragic souls who were sent to the Nazi concentration camps. I can think of no more hellish situation than the one that they endured. They witnessed horrors that nobody should ever see. Many of them managed to stay alive and be freed only to find that their entire families had been murdered. It seems impossible that any of those people might have been able to go on to lead happy and productive lives, and yet most of them did. They managed to find a slice of normalcy and perhaps to celebrate the rising of the sun each morning in a way that none of us might ever understand. When all but your own beating heart has been stripped from you, maybe you develop a defiant courage and a realization of what is most important. Freedom becomes a treasure and you squeeze everything you can out of it.

At the beach there are also moments of low tide when the ocean is almost placid. It’s not nearly as much fun as when the waves are roaring, but there is a remedy for the lack of action. That is when you must make your own waves by kicking and stirring up the water with your hands. It takes a great deal of effort and energy to make things happen, but it can be done. So too are there moments when we somehow know that it is up to us to speak out in the name of all that is right and just. We can’t simply sit on the sidelines waiting.

My generation had a reputation for being trouble makers. We prefer to think that we were more like change makers. We spoke out against long accepted policies that had become the status quo. We had grown up in the shadow of segregation even while our minds told us that it was wrong. We watched our peers being sent to a questionable war and we began to ask why. We made waves and changes slowly began to take place.

We are in a new era with new problems. The wave makers are still at work and that is not a bad thing. It is from those willing to kick up a froth that we often realize the reforms that we must all make, and history is replete with individuals who were willing to take action. Galileo certainly whipped up a frenzy. Harriet Tubman risked her own safety and freedom. Today various people and groups also ask us to consider new ideas and ways of living. We don’t have to agree with them, but we should respect their courage in speaking out, for ours is a nation founded on the idea of providing everyone with the freedom to voice their concerns. It’s important that we protect that right with all of our might.

I’ve gotten myself into a bit of trouble now and again by standing up for my fellow workers or particular students. Some of my superiors have not appreciated my boldness, but others have seen my willingness to make waves as a sign of leadership. They understood that my goal was not to defy them, but to introduce them to slightly different points of view that needed to be heard. I did not always get their approval but I  usually won their respect.

The whistleblowers and protesters, editorialists and reformers are important to our progress as a nation. Any organization that does not have those who are willing to push back when things don’t seem quite right is doomed to failure. We need to hear all of the opposing philosophies. The day that we all walk in tandem and total agreement is the day that our way of life is on the verge of collapse. It’s up to each of us to know when it’s time to speak out and when we must kick as hard as we can to make waves.

Whoop!

18195028_10212752944999176_1547173858954972621_nI was working at South Houston Intermediate when a messenger came to me with news that my eldest daughter had gone to the hospital to deliver her second child. Luckily I worked for an understanding principal whose instant reaction when I asked if I might leave was to tell me to go immediately. I contacted my husband who worked nearby, and the two of us met up at home where we hurriedly packed a few items and then rushed off toward Beaumont where my girl was living at the time. We raced as fast as the speed limit would allow and completed our ninety mile journey in record time, literally running into the hospital to find out where the birth was taking place. Unfortunately there were two hospitals in Beaumont and we had gone to the wrong place. We retraced our steps to the car and set off once again in search of the correct location. We found our way to the right spot and literally ran to the labor room only to encounter our son-in-law exiting our daughter’s room with a big smile and the announcement that Jack Michael Greene had been born minutes before. We were allowed to peek inside and see our elated daughter and her newborn son who appeared to be strong and husky. Thus began a journey of eighteen years with a most extraordinary young man.

Jack Michael Greene was named for my father, Jack, and my husband, Michael. It was a noble name representing the two men who have meant the most to me in my lifetime. It suited the youngster quite well for as he grew it became apparent that he possessed an exceedingly loving and gentle personality along with a multitude of talents much like his namesakes. He was so sweet that he rarely even cried and he brushed off injuries and slights with smiles. His easygoing ways helped his mother to cope with an ever expanding family. He was always that kind of child who just rolled with the punches and adapted to change without fanfare.

He was a wiggly and active little boy who always seemed ready to take on life with his trademark grin. He tumbled and danced his way into our hearts, embracing the world and all that it had to offer. There seemed to be nothing that he was not willing to try and so he ran on the soccer field and then became a tough defensive player in football. He dove into swimming and eventually taught his younger brothers how to do the various strokes. He took knocks and bruises and disappointments in stride, always viewing challenges as a necessary aspect of living.

There was a serious side to Jack that people didn’t always see. He was a deep thinker who quietly surveyed the world and asked questions about things that bothered him. He loved to hear the silly stories that I invented and when I slightly changed them in any way he reminded me of the correct way of telling them. He wanted to be brave and courageous so he forced himself again and again to do things that were difficult and frightening. He was bold in a quiet and unassuming way.

Jack has always been so much fun that people sometimes ignore his intellectual side. He was taking Algebra I in the seventh grade and he walked from his middle school to the neighboring high school in the eighth grade to take Geometry with high school students. He excels in subjects like Physics and finds coding software programs to be as much fun as playing a game.

When Jack was in about the fourth grade he asked his mother to sign him up for an acting classes. He was a natural and landed a role in the musical Annie Get Your Gun. It seemed to have been just one more thing that he wanted to do, but he had been bitten by the bug. When he reached high school he enrolled in theater as a freshman and continued with the troupe for all four years. He starred in musicals and dramas and found friendships along with his voice.

A few years back Jack accompanied me and Mike on a vacation trip to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park. We had an enchanting time and Jack threw himself into enjoying himself with the same level of enthusiasm that has always been his trademark. We had the opportunity to engage in some exceedingly thought provoking conversations and to experience moments that will be special to all of us forever. I realized at that time that Jack has layers and layers of intelligence and sensitivity. He is truly a man of substance.

Jack will graduate with honors from George Ranch High School tomorrow. He has packed a great deal of hard work and energy into the last four years. He was a varsity swimmer, an actor, and he enrolled in virtually every advanced placement class that his schedule would support. He also earned the rank of Eagle Scout and served as a leader of his patrol. He completed hundreds of hours of community service all while holding down a job delivering pizza and Italian food. Somehow in spite of having a mountain of responsibilities he maintained the same calmness and sunny outlook on life that has defined him since he was a tiny boy.

I have favorite Jack moments that remain forever in my memories. I see him dancing exuberantly and confidently when he was a toddler as though he is the happiest person on the planet. In another treasured recollection he is a smiling boy wearing a Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat at Disneyworld. I’ll never forget staying awake until an ungodly hour watching Forrest Gump with him. Then there was the time that we walked among the giant sequoias of Yosemite speaking of what is most important in life. Finally are those times when I watched him miraculously transform himself into other characters on stage, bringing a stunning sensitivity to his performances.

In the fall Jack will be a freshman at Texas A&M University which seems fitting since his namesake, my father, graduated from there. He was selected to be in the Honors Program and plans to major in Computer Science. I find comfort in knowing that Jack will be at Texas A&M. My father loved the school so. He often spoke of the grand times that he had as a student there. I suspect that like my dad Jack will immerse himself in all that the school has to offer just as he always has with everything that he has done. It is in his nature to experience life in its fullest.

I am bursting with pride and love for Jack Michael Greene. He is and always has been rather amazing. I suspect that there are many exciting adventures in his future, and it will be fun watching as his life unfolds. He has become as wonderful as I always knew he would be.

Not So Strange

66.0.0Watching television in the summertime can be a dreary affair. The hundreds of available channels tend to pack their schedules with reruns or replacement programs of dubious value. Most of us are too busy enjoying travels and the long hours of daylight to really care about the dearth of decent options but when rain is dampening plans we sometimes reach for our remotes hoping to find something interesting and worthy to view. Sadly our options aren’t always promising.

The summer Olympics in Rio have been fun but somehow NBC manages to go into overkill with certain events and completely ignore others that might be interesting. I have found myself tuning out every time that they showcased yet another beach volleyball game. Don’t get me wrong. Those competitions are fast paced and even have the potential to be exciting but when they seem to be part of the programming every single day they soon get old. On the other hand we never get to see much related to soccer or rugby or basketball. I thoroughly appreciate the finals in swimming and track but don’t really need to see every event leading up to those matches. I’d much prefer a montage of the many different sports and not just those that NBC has selected for my viewing pleasure. I suspect that I am not alone in my thinking because ratings for the Olympics are down.

Luckily there is a bright spot in the vacuous desert of summer programming. Stranger Things is yet another Netflix original limited series that demonstrates how a great story, taut writing, a perfect cast and stunning production can elevate a simple idea into a winner. Stranger Things is so nineteen eighties and that is a very good thing. The tale weaves a tapestry of mystery with characters right out of the movies that we so loved in that era. Subtle but powerful touches include a soundtrack of eighties favorites that illicit memories of MTV with starring roles for once young actors and actresses who have settled into middle age. The formulaic themes so common in the golden age of the eighties are all there but with twists and turns that keep us on the edges of our seats. Stranger Things is a romp through the past that seems to have elements of Goonies, E.T., Sixteen Candles and Alien. In other words, it is great fun, especially for those of us who so enjoyed that glorious time.

When I think of the eighties I get a huge smile on my face. It was a decade when everything in my world was going well. I loved my job and had few worries. I lived in a great neighborhood and enjoyed adventures with so many wonderful friends. My two girls kept me busy but I loved every moment with them. I was still in my thirties, a time when I was confident, energetic and still rather nice looking. We traveled all across the United States as a family and created memories that are vividly exciting even to this day. The world itself seemed safer and less complex. We lived contentedly at the end of a cul-de-sac thinking that life would always be as perfect as it appeared to be back then. We were so busy enjoying our little slice of heaven that we hardly noticed the changes that were brewing just as they inevitably do.

We would all grow older. Family members and dear friends would die. Our children became adults who left our little nest to begin their own sagas. The world seemed to evolve into a more dangerous place. Our nostalgia for the good old days increased and yet if truth be told these are good times as well.

The reality of life is that it is in constant motion. As the Bible so beautifully tells us there is a season for everything. How we react to each stage of our existence will color the way that we view our past, present and future. With the right attitude we are able to accept and enjoy our status even with the many changes that alter the way we live. True joy comes in embracing the moment and finding the blessings that most surely are right in front of us.

My mother was masterful at enjoying the simplest of things. She had very little money but she never complained. She received as much joy from a McDonald’s sausage biscuit as she might have had from breakfast at Brennan’s. The simple act of waking up each morning was a grand miracle in her mind. Each day was precious to her and she packed her hours with generosity and love. Whether she looked backward or forward at her life she was filled with optimism. She loved the eighties like me but she appreciated all of the other decades as well and they spanned from the twenties of the twentieth century to the teens of the twenty first. She had a way of finding the silver lining even on the darkest of days and constantly assured us that every problem has a way of working itself out if we are willing to be patient.

Watching Stranger Things reminded me of one of my favorite times but it also made me think of just how wonderfully far I have come. I now have seven grandchildren who weren’t even part of my imagination back then. I have met so many remarkable people in the days since dresses had more padding than a football uniform. The inventiveness of humankind in the last thirty years has made virtually every aspect of my existence far easier than it has ever been. I can tutor my granddaughter or visit with my grandson without any of us leaving our homes thanks to technology. I am daily reminded of how lucky I am and of the goodness of most of the world. It is with a sense of anticipation that I think of what may lie ahead. I suspect that wondrous things are on the horizon and that’s a good thing.

The best thing about life is how creative we humans are again and again. We adapt and thrive and carry on because it is in our natures to build rather than destroy. We laugh and enjoy the adventure of a good challenge. The bonds that tie us all together weather the test of time and there is nothing strange about that.   

The Simones

simone-biles-simone-manuel_mq9r77ikg0jq1jtwm8xlwuccrThe Houston Metropolitan area sprawls over more than five hundred square miles. It’s as flat as a pancake making its resemblance to a patchwork quilt rather striking. It is home to the most diverse population in the United States partially because of its proximity to a busy port but mostly due to an abundance of jobs and moderate housing prices. Even with its humid sub tropical climate, air conditioning makes it a great location for living and working so that people from all parts of the world have chosen it as a place to raise their families.

On any given weekend Houston area parents are out in force watching their little ones participate in sporting events. The sound of cheering resonates from soccer fields to baseball diamonds, natatoriums to gymnasiums. As a grandmother and godmother to very active children I have traveled from the Houston suburbs of Sugarland to Magnolia to watch the youngsters compete. I’ve watched them race around a track and get their noses crushed into the dirt of a football field. I’ve sat through days long swim meets and on occasion carted them to and fro from practices. I’ve watched them grow and mature into the sports of their choosing as they specialize and become more and more adept.

I have two grandsons, Benjamin and Eli, who have excelled at every athletic effort they have tried. They have been outstanding swimmers since they were barely five years old. Early on they were members of the Greatwood Gators summer swim team in Sugarland along with their older brothers who taught them all of the strokes and the secrets to diving into the pool. The two boys showed such promise that they decided to join the First Colony USA swim team where they now practice at least five days a week rain or shine, hot or cold. Their calendars are full as they participate in meets and camps across the region and the state along with the friends and role models that they have made along the way. It was in this way that they met another swimmer who was like a big sister to them. Her name is Simone Manuel and she has at times both helped and inspired them as they have slowly risen through the ranks of competitive swimming.

Benjamin and Eli understand as well as anyone how much dedication and hard work is needed to become a champion. They strive continually for the possibility of shaving hundredths of a second off of a race time. They compete not so much with others as with themselves. They are individuals and members of a team that encourages one another and celebrates victories together. Last night one of their own swam in the Olympics in Rio. They and their whole family and all of Sugarland and the Houston area were cheering Simone Manuel as she won the gold with an Olympic record, becoming the first African American woman to medal in swimming. I can only imagine how breathtaking and motivational this moment was for them. Simone had shown them that a hometown girl can become the best in the world. 

It was an exceptionally emotional moment for Simone and the rest of us weren’t that far removed from her feelings. Many of us cried along with her. We knew full well how much courage and effort it had taken for her to reach this pinnacle. We understood how much sacrifice she and her family have made. We also knew that she was a champion for our city as well, representing the true spirit of our town. It was a stunning victory that lit up Facebook and Twitter all across the city of Houston.

Simone Manuel’s feat of daring might have been reason enough to celebrate had she been the lone winner from the Houston area but on the very same day another Simone  was also in contention for a medal. Simone Biles lives in Spring, a northern suburb of Greater Houston, with her mom and dad. She is a tiny five foot eight ball of strength and delight. Since she was a small child she has been tumbling and honing the skills of a gymnast. She demonstrated a natural talent early on but it was her fierce dedication to the sport that made her a standout. Slowly but surely she rose through the national and then the world rankings until she had become known as perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time. Yesterday she proved once and for all that she is indeed the best of the best. She easily clinched the gold to be named the best all around women’s gymnast in the world.

Just as with Simone Manuel, all of the Houston area was cheering unabashedly for Simone Biles. We marveled at her athleticism and the sheer poetry of her skills. She seems to fly higher than any of her competitors. She is a whirling dervish who is able to leap and spin and twist and turn as easily as the rest of us walk from one spot to another. She is a miracle in our midst, a tiny but mighty young woman who seemingly defies gravity and all the rules of physics. Mostly though she makes us all so very proud to be Houstonians and Americans.

Simone Biles and Simone Manuel, the two Simones, represent the very best of who we are as people. We certainly need them at this stage of history. Of late it has been all too easy to become cynical and discouraged about the future of our country. When we witness two such remarkable individuals we recall all that is so very good and important about our nation. We are reminded by them of the work ethic that makes us all great. We realize the love and support from their parents that helped them to reach the pinnacle of their endeavors. Yesterday we witnessed irrefutable evidence that the future of our city and our country is still in very good hands in little corners all across the land. We celebrate with the two Simones not only because they are indeed great but also because they have restored our faith at the very time that we may have needed it most.

Last night’s Olympic games were “must see t.v.” I can’t think of another time when I have felt so elated by a sporting event. I cried with Simone Manuel as she won and as she stood on a pedestal while the national anthem played and our flag was so proudly flew. I cried again with Simone Biles when she realized the dream of a lifetime. I cried for the happiness that spread like wildfire through my hometown. Greater Houston was on the map and bigger than ever last night as two of its most remarkable citizens showed the world what the people here are really like.

I have always maintained that Houston is perhaps the very best place to live in all of the United States. What it lacks in scenery and good weather it makes up for in its people who all in all are a grand bunch of loving and hard working individuals. We live and work together here. We are focused on our children and our neighbors. Ours is a big city with a little town feel. Now we have two heroines to make us even prouder of this crazy wonderful place we call home.