One in Three

The college counselor at our high school shared what seemed like an astonishing statistic: one in three students don’t graduate from the college they first attend.

We thought: That won’t be him.

We were wrong.

He only ever wanted to attend one school, and he only ever wanted one major with one career outcome. We asked all the questions, of him, of everyone; we visited the school and attended orientation; we took out the loan, proving we would do everything possible to back his dreams.

He called, sobbing, after his first class: “Mom, I’ve made a terrible mistake!”

It should have been the perfect school for him. Instead, he weathered the perfect storm of all the things that could go wrong–the roommate from hell with the toxic girlfriend who essentially moved in; the injury that kept him from playing his sport, his physical and emotional outlet; the advisor who suddenly seemed less supportive; the “friends” who proved to be anything but… We weathered the storm with him as he called several times a week, sometimes crying, other times, just to talk.

We listened. We prayed. We sent more mail than ever before in our lives. But we couldn’t change his circumstances. He needed to learn to advocate for himself, to set his own boundaries, to work harder, to develop persistence.

It was difficult for all of us, but he stuck it out. At one point he said, “I should have listened to you. I should have gone to community college.”

I responded, “No, this was your path. If we had insisted that you stay local, you would have been angry at us. You needed to discover some things for yourself.”

Today was Day 1 of Year 2, now at our local community college. Leaving his first choice also meant leaving his major, not readily available elsewhere. Instead he will experiment with classes in different majors as he explores what he might like to do with his life. The low cost of community college plus living at home equals low risk.

Over breakfast, he had only the to-be-expected first day jitters: traffic, meeting new people, and hoping for enjoyable course content. After school, he seemed relaxed, even happy. He had quickly established a relationship with both professors and engaged in helpful ways with the material, something that doesn’t easily happen when you have 500+ classmates. He immediately got online to order books, then ran out to purchase a few supplies. He jumped on homework like he never did in high school.

Did he make a terrible mistake? Absolutely not! We are grateful for his out-of-state freshman year. Do we wish things had worked out differently, that he had stayed at his first choice? Of course! When he went back for second semester, I challenged him to do everything necessary to redeem the situation so that, at the end of the year, he could say: “That was hard, but I did it. Here’s what I learned, and here’s how I’m a better person for it.”

He did it. He learned a lot–about himself, what he likes and wants and doesn’t; about others with different interests, personalities, and backgrounds. He learned he could stick through overwhelming circumstances, and that his family will always have his back.

Are we glad to have him back? For sure! He is stronger, more mature, differently centered. Our relationship has changed as we function less from the driver’s seat and more as passengers. We have become advisors offering encouragement rather than supervisors offering direction. And we will continue to cheer him on as we watch to see where he goes from here.

Thankful Thursday – Middle School Music

bandWhen my kids were in elementary school, I’m not sure I could have predicted how much I would enjoy middle school band concerts. Teen skipped school music altogether, but Tween got bit by the band bug, particularly the trumpet. He loves it, he seems to have aptitude for it, and he’s got two pretty incredible teachers: one at school for five instructional hours plus after-school jazz band; and another, a professional jazz musician and a funny, generous guy who musically hangs out with Tween a few times a month.

This week I attended the spring band concert. Due to a work commitment I got there late, just as the 6th grade band (Tween’s group) began their final piece. Still, I smiled ear-to-ear through the 7th & 8th grade band performance.

There’s a big jump between elementary music (one hour a week) and middle school music (5+ hours a week). Whereas before we strained to hear music between squeaks, now we hear melody and harmony. And the similar jump between 6th grade band and 7th/8th grade band sounds tremendous.

I love watching kids develop creativity. Seeing pimply, gorgeous, awkward kids count furiously and focus ferociously. Wiggle just a little because the rhythm moves more than their instruments. Kids learning about art and together creating beautiful music; learning to express their thoughts, heart, soul, drama through a productive medium. Music has created a safe place for the one kid in a sea of white shirts who forgot and wore blue instead; for the darling who wears a tiara because she is royalty; for the hipster who wears a fedora because: jazz.

Tween is exceptionally bright but not yet easily suited to classroom achievements. He’ll get there, but he’s only in 6th grade. For now, I am thrilled he gets excited to go to school because he has Band 1st period. For at least one hour of every school day, he works cooperatively with teacher and classmates to create something bigger than each individual contribution. No tests, no pressure, just FUN. Well, maybe some pressure, as he has to do his part, and sometime his part is a solo. Still, making music is mostly just fun. He’s learning so many valuable life skills beyond music while simultaneously learning to appreciate, enjoy and play fantastic music. It makes the other, harder, less fun parts of a middle school day bearable.

Because: music.

And I am so thankful!

The Final Fieldtrip

Tween’s amazing teacher asked me to chaperone the last field trip of the year. And of Tween’s elementary school career. I said yes.

Fortunately, Tween kicked to the curb his vomiting cycle just in time and awoke on field trip day feeling back to normal.

Destination: The County Courthouse and Detention Facility.

As field trips go, it was unfortunately one of the dullest. And yet… education and experience should not go to waste.

Interesting fact: our county courthouse was founded on the Sacramento River delta during the 1849 Gold Rush, when miners wanted legal documents to prove their right to mine on their land – to prove the gold was theirs – and to prevent others from trying to mine the veins on their property. I had no idea our county had such obvious ties to the Gold Rush (then again, I grew up in SoCal, and Gold Rush country felt so, so, so far away).


And so 23 students, Teacher, and 4 parent chaperones spent the day learning first-hand about the American judicial system.

First stop: Snack on the courthouse steps. Because a full tummy aids education.

Next stop: Security. How fun that the empty-handed kids go in first so they get a behind-the-scenes view of the security screens as the chaperones’ purses go through (no advance warning, but then again, the most disturbing thing in any of our purses might have been feminine hygiene products which no security guard would dare point out to a group of school kids).

And then the air pulsed – no kidding, something changed as the building hushed and the cameras zoomed in. The guards explained that a female juvenile prisoner was being escorted into a courtroom for trial. The screen showed a dark-haired young woman, hands cuffed behind her back. I glanced at the screen, to the kids, to the screen, and for a moment choked back tears.

Statistically speaking, out of 23 kids, it’s possible that she foreshadowed the future for some watching. Maybe not, as these kids have advantages so many American youth lack. And yet, having worked with kids and adolescents for much of my adult life, I have seen shifts in attitude and behavior, in circumstance and lifestyle, that could step-stone that path. Then again, accidents happen to the best of us, and even accidents have consequences. Sometimes, unimaginable consequences.

I’m not sure the kids got it. At day’s end, I was certain my own kid hadn’t understood most of the day – it was too long, too sit-still, too talk-at-them to take it all in. But my own heart broke just a little, for her, and for them. Lord, have mercy.

Continuing on: In-session criminal court room. As we arrived a defendant stood next to someone from the DA’s office. He had been arrested for a second DUI. The judge spoke to him with compassion, with kindness. She asked him about AA, and he responded that he’s finding it helpful so far. She leveled strong but fair penalties, and he accepted them with appropriate humility.

Case closed but we weren’t done; we remained in the courtroom for about an hour as the judge moved through at least 20 more cases, one right after the next. However, that first defendant was the only one free to stand in the courtroom. The rest had been escorted through the tunnel from the detention center next door and had to stand behind bars in a walled-in room; we could see only their faces and hands.

And that’s if the defendants even showed up, which several did not, forcing the judge to issue bench warrants along with hefty fees starting at $1,000. Maybe I’m naive, but I’m surprised that a) so many people do really stupid stuff, and b) once caught, they don’t take responsibility for their actions. I guess that’s human nature, and maybe they came from a background that lacked some of the (to me) basic operating instructions for human life (do what you’re supposed to do // don’t break the law // accept responsibility for your behavior), but seriously, people! One person who didn’t show had four open cases against her; another received a penalty of $30,000, which of course he won’t be able to pay.

Once she had cleared her docket, the judge gave the kids a few minutes of her lunch hour to talk about court. Several kids had questions about her gavel, but she doesn’t use one – her voice is her authority (awesome role modeling, especially for girls), although she did share a story of another judge who, when a defendant lost control and charged the bench, chucked his gavel and hit the defendant in the head to stop him.

They asked the most common reason someone comes to court, and she responded: Drugs. Almost all crime comes down to that one issue. People are doing drugs, buying drugs, selling drugs, stealing things to sell things to buy drugs, or fighting over drug-selling turf. Hey, kids: Don’t. Do. Drugs!

The judge enjoys her job and feels like she is giving back to the people. She smiled a lot and laughed at the sweet simplicity of the kids’ questions. She seemed to genuinely enjoy having them in her courtroom; she thanked them for coming.

Before we moved on, the court room Deputy showed the kids his “tool belt,” and explained that the gun comes last – he’s never had to fire it in court – and that mace and the tazer both inflict a whopping punishment should he be forced to use them. His most effective tool is his radio – as in all things, communication is a powerful tool.

Almost done: Dentention Facility lobby. Two women, each with children, quietly waiting; one, the docent explained, was putting money into what looked like an ATM machine so that her loved one in prison could have some money to spend on candy, or toothpaste, or whatever he needed from the prison store. Imagine, kids, not being able to earn your own money, not being able to so much as buy a pack of gum without someone’s help. Well, okay, that’s true for most children, but we’re talking about adults. Adults who can’t so much as walk out a door without permission, who occupy one small room – likely not much bigger than the full-sized beds some of kids sleep in – for 23 hours a day, until they get their one hour “out” to shower, or visit the store or library, or walk outside. Bleak.

The Finale: The kids got to do a mock trial in a real trial court room during the court’s lunch recess. They were assigned parts – judge, clerk, attorneys, bailiff, witnesses, and jury – and took their places. The case involved a woman accused of car theft. A police officer pulled over a woman driving a stolen car, and her finger prints were on the keys in the ignition. She, however, claims that someone else stole the car and invited her to take it for a drive; that he told her he stole it, and from where, and she was on her way to return it. [Going with the stupid people theme from the live court room, I’m not sure what’s worse: stealing the car, getting in a car with an admitted car thief, or actually trying to return the stolen car].

court room

And that was that. We ate a late lunch on the bus on our way back to school and arrived just as the end-of-day bell rang.

All three 5th grade classes took the same field trip on different days. I heard other parents questioning whether the trip had been age-appropriate, whether kids understood what they were seeing and hearing, or how it fit into the curriculum (American history).

I understand their concerns – so much did fly straight over kids’ heads – but I’m glad the kids got out of the classroom. Education involves a process of repeated exposure and experience. No one “gets it” the first time around, and I know for certain kids in this school district will hit it again in 8th and 12th grades at least. I hope they debriefed in the classroom the next day, and I’m glad I was there to be able to continue the conversation with Tween (one misunderstanding: he couldn’t understand why we were in court for an hour when we only saw one trial… He didn’t understand that those behind bars were also defendants, and that prisoners may not be allowed to stand in court).

A few quirky lessons I learned:
Eat a little something.
Keep a clean purse.
Be kind to everyone, child and prisoner and stupid person alike.
Don’t be stupid: take responsibility for your actions.
Live humbly.
Enjoy your job and you’ll do a good job.
Think fast! (You never know when you might have to use a gavel to defend yourself).
Take time for conversation.
Everyone needs someone – choose wisely.
Always keep learning, no matter where you are.