Saturday, September 5, 2015

Making a Life vs. Making a Living: Rethinking the Goals Set for Our Teens

It has been a long week and a half. On the third day of school, AJ, my sixteen year old, (He's in the picture above.) was slammed with a particularly intense migraine. It took an office visit, two trips to urgent care - one for shots and one for IV meds - and, finally, a trip to the hospital for the really nasty IV meds to break it. While, after that, liquids stayed down, it took another three days before he'd eat anything at all, a total of nine days.

He slept a lot. He was super light-sensitive, so I spent a lot of time keeping him company, either in his dark room or in dark medical rooms. We've had more time to visit and talk (in hushed tones) in those six days than in the last six months. I learned a bit.

What's any of this to do with teaching? More than you might think. Oddly, on the day his migraine began, I did my annual talk with my students about goals, and that their first goal should always be to be happy. I show this TED talk by an awesomely poised and confident 13-year old, who talks about making a life vs. making a living, and what education's role should be in that endeavor. I buy into every word he says.
AJ is a high school junior at an affluent school loaded with high achievers. His strongest academic subject is science, and he does very well in school. He's been looking at colleges like Baylor and UNC-Chapel Hill with an eye toward med school or biomed research. These are not unreasonable goals. He's got a tough schedule this year, with every class honors or AP-level. He'll be taking his third year of Chinese next semester because 'Everybody takes Spanish. That's no fun.'

He's also a beautiful baritone. AJ sang before he talked. He spent several years in our city's children's choir and is a well-trained and self-disciplined music student. He'll be auditioning for a Young Artist in Residence position in the Charlotte Oratorio later this month. He loves to sing, but has always seen it as a side item. Science is where the money is, and the boy has expensive tastes. (He has a job, too, to deal with that.)

So, while we were curled up in the dark this week, he said, "Y'know, Mom, I've been thinking a lot, and while I'm really good at science, it's still work. Music isn't work. I think what would really make me happy is being a music teacher."

Wait. What?
My mind reeled. Sure, he's been influenced by a few really good music teachers, but those jobs are few and far-between. Even if he added a second major in performance, he'll have to search hard for employment. Seriously? He's never leaving my house!  If he wants to think musical theater, he's got a challenge, because he can't dance! He knows how teacher paychecks work... Maybe a minor in a science would be a good idea, because then he could teach that if he had to...

...and here I am, pushing my child to make a living, rather than a life. Nice. I advocate one thing for my school kids, always working toward 'what's best for children', but not for my own? Time for a gut check.

Because want I want my child to BE is happy. What he wants to DO ought to be part of that, and he should be allowed to build a life worth the living.  Sadly, high schools have become mini-colleges, with children pushed hard to make difficult life choices while they're still so young. Smart kids are told they're underachieving (and you'll never get into the right college with the right scholarships) when they try get into things they might want to do, just for fun. That stuff gets in the way of what it seems they have to do. Even extracurriculars have to have a purpose. I'm not talking smack, because I've been riding that hamster wheel, too.

 So, when he finally goes back to school Tuesday, he'll drop down to college prep chemistry and math and keep the honors and AP English/History/Chinese/Choir courses. Those are the things at which he excels because they speak to him. He'll still take AP bio down the road, because biology really is easy for him (and AP pays you back) but we'll take a different approach to the big picture. Oh, and UNC-Chapel Hill has a bang-up music program, too. (Even if it is entirely the wrong color of blue...) 

Just for fun, he's here singing with part of his choir. This isn't their best, most artistic piece, by far, but it shows the joy he feels in singing. You'll recognize him on the first row. It's okay to laugh. :)

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