Originally posted at New International Times

I’ve been in a state of unfocused agitation for a couple weeks now.  It happens towards the end of May every year.  It directly coincides with my yard becoming intoxicatingly fragrant with the smell of gardenias.  There are twenty or so gardenia bushes the size of VWs here, old growth planted by a previous owner and when they are in full bloom the sheer weight of the blossoms makes the limbs sag to the ground.  They smell great, but the bushes look like they are going to collapse and die under their own weight.

When the gardenias are in bloom, it means something else to me…the end of another school year and graduation season.  This year, the kids who were incoming freshmen in high school and college in the fall of 2001 are graduating.  These are the classes of 9/11.  Trauma forges strange bonds.  Sometimes shared experience brings people closer and other times, it becomes that unspoken thing.  Is it just a knowing look, shared quietly?  I don’t know.

I know that the end of the school year makes me anxious.  One year closer to my own daughter having to set her own course in life.  I think about how much a college education can either make or break you.  But what is it that we are feeding our children?  Are we doing enough to nurture and challenge their intellects and their sense of compassion?

Her school is great.  It is K-8 and teaches critical thinking instead of the proficiency tests. They are working almost two grade levels ahead of the public schools for the same age group. These are the kids of doctors and engineers and come from all over the world.  The diversity is wonderful. Then there are the locals, the kids of commerce and the law.  She doesn’t belong to either of these groups and is one of the few ’12 month plan’ kids…kids whose parents scrape together tuition and pay all year, every year.

She is different and she knows it.  But her lack of affluence isn’t what truly makes her different, it is her perspective.  She reads the local newspaper, she listens to and understands world news, she has a profound respect for the environment and she stands up when she sees an injustice.  

She was sent to the principal’s office twice this year.  The first was when a history teacher was misrepresenting a current political event, gave her an F on an assignment and called her out in front of the class to explain her work on the assignment.  The teacher did not appreciate being called wrong.  The principal didn’t appreciate me suggesting that the three of them go to the library’s computer lab and allow my daughter to substantiate her work.  In the end, they did and the grade was changed to an A, but no apology or clarification was made to the class as a whole.  The whole episode makes me wonder what else is being fed to our children and not challenged.  

The second occasion was a case of a teacher proselytizing in class about there only being one true god.  My daughter, who does not adhere to any particular religious affiliation confronted this substitute math teacher and advised that her classmates came from a diverse background of religions and that the subject for the day was plane geometry.  That earned her another trip to the office, but it was a short one.  Turned out to be a short trip for that substitute teacher, too, who later in the day was asked to leave after tossing a chair across a room, but not for offending a classroom of kids who are trying, and for the most part succeeding, in being sensitive to each others cultural differences.

So I feel pretty good about my daughter’s vision of right and wrong.  She does well in school, she took the ACT this year as a 7th grader and equaled the state average for graduating seniors.  One of the things I worry about is continuing to challenge her through high school. She was tested for the state’s gifted/talented program and they found her to be smart, but not gifted. That means that in a year, she is destined for her zoned public school which does not offer any honors or advanced placement classes in a college prep curriculum.  I consulted an attorney friend who suggested not bucking the system, but to roll the dice and request a majority-to-minority transfer into the same school that offers the gifted program and just have her enroll in their AP college prep curriculum.  In concept, this works for me, but is far from a sure thing.  I hate gambling with my daughter’s future.

I have a year to sweat this out.  But let me tell you what my daughter is sweating out, and get back to what this long story is about…what does an intelligent, compassionate young person do with their life?  She is just 13 and is terribly over-wrought by a decision she feels she needs to be making.  Having a clear vision for yourself does make working toward a goal easier.  So many of her classmates have decided on being doctors or lawyers and talk endlessly of their college plans and how they will get from here to there.  I asked her if she thought that they were really motivated to do that and she thought that it was what was expected of them, to follow in their parents footsteps.  I asked if she had any inclinations along those lines and she said that she thought that she’d be good at either, but had absolutely no desire to do so.

She just came back from a trip to LUMCON which is a marine research facility in south Louisiana.  For two days, she observed trained biologists in their work and went offshore in one of their research boats.  I was expecting all sorts of wild, starry-eyed stories of adventure when she came back and there were a few.  But the big thing she said has really compounded my anxiety over giving her any kind of sound advice on her future.  She said that all the scientists at LUMCON “looked” like they belonged in their jobs and that you could see the love for their work in their eyes and in the sound of their voices.  That is a strong statement for one so young.

My folks never steered my interests except my dad said there was no way that I was going into the army.  Both of them were sixties idealists who thought that a liberal arts education combined with hard work and integrity were all it took to get ahead.  I know different now, but I don’t know better.  I’ve only had two jobs in my entire adult life and both have suited my problem solving nature, but don’t do much outside providing a not-so-hefty paycheck.  We get by.  I’m challenged intellectually by what I do, but not necessarily satisfied by it.

I need stories to tell her, advice to give her.  

Do you shoot for an education that will provide you with technical professional skills ensuring a living wage in a competitive world economy?  

Do you follow your bliss whatever that happens to be and hope for the best?  

Is there truth to the economist model that you shouldn’t spend more on your education that you’ll make back in the first year of salary?  How can you calculate something like that if you don’t know where you belong?  

Is there any clear benefit of pursuing a bachelor of science over a liberal arts degree?  

Does having an altruistic soul make you more responsible to the rest of the world or do you just look out for yourself?  

Some of these are my questions, but some of them are hers.  

I am hoping dear readers that you will think about the people that you have known that have had it all, a sense of personal and professional fulfillment and tell me a few success stories and how they might apply to this new flat earth we are living on.

To all the inspired minds here:  it does not matter whether or not you have children.

What matters is your personal experience and those you’ve observed around you.  This is a rapidly changing world and it doesn’t matter which context you choose to compare, technology vs. intellectual property, geography vs. economics, etc., I don’t feel well suited to provide any real advice looking forward to the future.  I fell into all of my adult jobs by happenstance.  I can’t “see” how all this change is going to shape the new world.

Combine your reflections on the questions my daughter asked with what you’d consider to be success stories, and I’ll be one happy, wiser mother.  And, thankful, too.

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