Recently, my son came in from playing with his neighborhood buddies. He was wearing an orange Neil Armstrong NASA spacesuit. This isn’t a rare occurrence, as he often goes about daily life wearing a costume. He has a vivid imagination and his own ideas about what is cool. The costumes are one of my favorite things about him, and my wife and I want to hang onto it for as long as possible. But this time he came home on the verge of tears and immediately started to take off his rockin’ costume. My boy is very sensitive and empathetic. He has a hard time with injustice or kids being mean to each other (another trait that I hope he never loses). I asked him what was wrong and he began a story that ended with one of the neighbor kids telling him that his costume was stupid. Uh oh. I had been afraid of this. Up until this point, my nine year old had not felt the crushing pressure of conformity that runs wild in our culture, threatening to squeeze the “special” right out of kids. The source of my son’s hurt was two-fold. First, someone else was seeking to define for him what was acceptable and it was a different frame of reference than to what he had been accustomed. Second, he had been betrayed by a friend in a place where he had always felt safe. His neighborhood had been a place where he could count on acceptance and now the sand was shifting under his feet.
So often school is like this. We promote sameness for students in the name of education. Common core, general education, etc. We forget that most high schools are still using the factory/assembly line model that was born out of the Industrial Revolution. It’s a model that makes sure that every student has read To Kill a Mocking Bird, but it’s not a model that promotes the asking of why. This is where counselors have a gift. This work is a blessing because we get to ask questions. We get to engage the mind in a way that is both pragmatic and philosophical. We broker in curiosity, culture and contribution. We can ask a student what make them special and why they are proud of that trait. We help them find the places that will prepare them for the next step on their way to changing the world. If you look close enough, you’ll find that most kids still want to wear that orange spacesuit that makes them stands out. They want to be noticed and accepted. They don’t need excuses on how their grades might have been better and they certainly don’t need to be rescued from every potential failure. They need advocates–people who will help them own their choices, people who will stand up and say that it is these choices that make them an interesting, thoughtful and productive applicant. They are still dreaming and you get to help mine and cultivate those dreams. Don’t miss these chances. You can be another adult in a long line of adults that asks them to fall in line and do what they are supposed to do. Or you can embrace the messy, exciting and rewarding work that will promote the asking and solving of our biggest issues.
I’m sad about what happened with my son. It’s not about protecting him from adversity or conflict. Although, I hate it when the people in his life (including his parents) let him down. I was sad because his first instinct was to come and take off the costume. I was hoping that he would wear it just a little while longer. I hope the next time that something like this happens he will have the courage to not let someone else define him or conditionally accept him. Be a part of giving the same gift to your students. They are not defined by their ability to fill in bubbles or even by who accepts or denies them. They are defined by their ability to think, arrive at conclusions and then act.
By Jeff Morrow