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The Founder Generation

We are entering a new and exciting time when generations are being bridged by technology, not in spite of it.

“What’s most notable is not that this generation favored “founders” but that they did so at the tender age of fourteen. How frightened of these young people should we be? History is unkind to the losers, but it’s crueler still to the Olds, whose ideas about social order, technological apocalypse, and dancing have a way of looking ludicrous through the scrim of time. Should we fear the rise of a master race of friendly capitalists who launch businesses left and right, while weaning us off Social Security and cold-shouldering those who can’t afford the premium, Zendesk-supported nursing homes that they will no doubt found?’Nathan Heller, The New Yorker

 If it walks like a curmudgeon and talks like a curmudgeon, it’s probably Nathan Heller from The New Yorker. This quote hails from a 2015 article written in response to MTV’s documentary that asks American high school students to coin a new term for their generation. Overwhelmingly, students chose the term “The Founders”, likely because of the implicit nod toward creativity and innovation. As it would appear, not everyone is pleased with the selection. Nathan Heller outlines some of his concerns in the aforementioned article, but I have a few theories of my own as to why my generation (X? XY? Millenial? Z? Whatever.) may have some reservations about this label.

 

Technology is seen as a shortcut.

We’ve all heard some variation of the “In my day, we walked uphill both ways in a snowstorm…” story. We all listen to them sourly, ignore the lesson, then eventually end up retelling our own. My own story is about taking notes in high school and college. I usually feel it creeping out during vocabulary units in my classroom, when all of the students are gathered around the SmartBoard taking photos of the words on their cell phones. I’m bitter. It’s lazy! Come on, guys! Writing is a form of interaction, and it takes at least three interactions to engage your memory, etc. It all seems so silly and unnatural, but you know what? It’s a shortcut that works. Those same students put the words into an app that cycles through them in a review game or generates a quiz. It’s an instance when I have to admit that my reaction is dictated by a lack of opportunity. That would have saved my grade in Spanish I. So, as inconceivable at it sometimes seems, those shortcuts through technology are the kinds of brilliant innovations that give our next generation the opportunity to go further and learn faster. It’s an advantage, and it would be silly not to use it.

Face-to-Screen interactions are not real interactions.

This is a popular critique of The Founders: They are so connected to their devices that they’ve lost the ability to communicate in real life. Their social development is stunted. They don’t understand people. They can’t empathize. And so on. Here’s the problem—we do not have the capacity to articulate somebody else’s experience. The feeling I get when I take that first sip of coffee in the morning is not universal; you will never understand the ecstasy I feel when my toddler finally falls asleep for her nap. Likewise, I will never truly grasp the ways in which you love your wife, or mother, or brother. What I’m saying is this: the reality of an experience can be determined only by the people involved. We may not understand it, but that does not change its value. This generation is feeling and communicating just as passionately as we did. They just may have the option to delete some of their thoughts before they become regrets.

Documenting does not equal Experiencing.

Finally, a point that I’ve seen made almost daily across a variety of memes (ironically!) is that our next generation is too busy documenting the super awesome lives they live and are forgetting to actually live them. It’s an easy criticism to make, and the thought is ever-present in the more important moments of my life. I feel an odd aversion to having my camera out, or having a camera on me, when big things are happening. When my now-fiancé proposed in front of forty people at our family Christmas celebration, there were at least ten cameras recording my response. Absolutely no part of me wants to see one of those recordings. Why? Because that moment is sacred to me. It exists as completely as I want it in a memory, and seeing it again would alter something that is already perfect. My feeling this way, however, does not invalidate the millions of teens who DO feel the need to document experiences in their lives. They are asked to validate their lives every day through social media, a platform we are asking them to learn in order to more fully compete in a global economy, and telling them now that they’re too busy documenting and are missing out seems like a cruel joke.

If we can find it in ourselves to accept that this new generation just may be more innovate, more creative, more free-thinking than the previous ones, well….it’s a tough pill to swallow. The biggest hurdle is getting past our own insecurities about the changing world we inhabit. I can take a photo with dog ears or a flower crown, but I don’t actually know how to send a Snapchat. My mom knew how to create a Pinterest board before I even had an account. We are entering a new and exciting time when generations are being bridged because of technology, not in spite of it. So, give them a chance to surprise you, Heller. If you’re lucky, The Founders will be ready and waiting to assist you when your wi-fi goes down and your web article is due.

 

Islands

The most difficult part of teaching is accepting that there are times when you are truly alone. Everything is burning, you can’t escape, and nobody can help you. It’s the same idea that excited you throughout college, or maybe even during your student teaching experience—at some point, all of this will be mine, you think. I will be the master of this domain.

Then your students are 10 minutes into a 45 minute exam. You have to pee but can’t leave the room because Johnny/Lauren/Trevor/Etc. will shout the answers across the room and someone will invariably tattle. (Yes, tattling still happens with 17-year-olds.) Then you have to make a parent phone call. Over your lunch break. Which is 25 minutes long.

Then you look to the back of the room and see a single hand raised when you didn’t ask a question.

“Yes?” you ask supportively.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, miss, but Ryan just cut off a bunch of my hair and glued it to his root word packet.”

Then the class erupts during an innocent game of Scarlet Letter Jeopardy. Nate claims to have buzzed in first, but Chris chose Sarah to answer instead. Nate gets upset. Chris tells Nate to relax, this is just a *%&@! game in $%##$^ English class and nobody’s winning a &$*(#&$# car it’s just to $(*&#$*&^^* learn something.

Then you have strep throat and a fever but are working because it’s impossible to find a substitute who doesn’t hate children and can turn on a DVD.

I know this all sounds pretty negative. The truth is that teaching is a career that demands sacrifice, which nobody would argue. The truth is also that we could politely decline that sacrifice at any time. It’s weird, but we continue burning the candle no matter how small it gets because we can’t not.

When I get into these funks about the outrageous demands of my chosen career, I take a time out. I read a poem by Zach Schomburg that I have posted on the inside of my desk drawer and sulk for a minute. To be honest, I’m pretty sure the poem is about choosing isolation over a relationship, but it’s applied to my situation in teaching more than once:

 

THE THINGS THAT SURROUND US

The entire world was there. The magnetic north pole was there. Prince Patrick Island was introduced to Prince of Wales Island and these were not the only islands being introduced to other islands. One room was completely filled with the space around all the islands. When you asked me if I was an island I told you that I was not. When you asked me to join you in the drawing room, I told you that I could not, that I was in fact an island and that I couldn’t join anyone anywhere. Saddened and resigned, you revealed to me that you were not the two things that jut outward into the sea as I had assumed, but the little bit of gray sea between them. Then I told you I was actually the entire Arctic Ocean sometimes.

It’s one of the embarrassing rituals that gets me through the hard stuff. I fail at something pretty much every day, and probably in grand and impressive ways. There are also thousands of people in this world who know at least one thing now that they didn’t know before because of me. In that way, I am infinite, and teaching has given that to me.

Teaching may in fact be the hazy sea between two places, and I may in fact be alone in the water, but it’s a destination, and every day I choose it.

What I Learned about Raising a Toddler by Teaching Teens

I try not to get smug about parenting things with my partner, but it just happens sometimes. I have a lot to bring to the table as a Mom; I’m fairly young and progressive and I like to try new things to keep our lives interesting. For the most part, I maintain my cool and see every challenge as an opportunity to reestablish the expectations I have for our daughter. She loves me and, frankly, I’m good at it.

But I haven’t always approached parenting with that kind of clarity. It was a particular experience in my classroom that reshaped my attitude.

In the shower one evening, where I do my best thinking (probably because it’s the only 5 minutes when I’m alone), I was decompressing after an especially challenging day. My daughter had misbehaved all day long. She was being the kind of kid I see exhausting some other parent at Target. She cried about everything, argued about everything, wouldn’t pick up toys, wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t sleep. I felt defeated, exhausted, and pretty hopeless about the type of kid she was becoming. I was as unprepared for raising a toddler as I was for instructing a room full of teenagers, which begged the question—how do I keep a room full of hormones stable when I can’t even get my two-year-old to pick up her socks?

I thought back on the biggest challenge I’d had throughout the week at school. On Monday, my most difficult student, N, managed to somehow offend the entirety of his class by wearing a Trump shirt and unabashedly claiming that he saw homosexuality as “unnatural”. The whole class was in an uproar, arguing ensued, he was flexing his muscles and getting louder…how did I handle that moment? With a student like N, I knew it was never going to work to call him out and ask him to leave. We had a relationship built on mutual respect that was an important one in maintaining structure for the rest of the class. So, I made eye contact with each student that was visibly rattled by the comments to let them know, “Yep. I see you. I know.” I approached N and said simply to the entire class, “New conversation”. When the other students became focused enough to continue their group work, I looked at N and said, “Hey, how’s the job going?”

We chatted until lunch; we even somehow ended up on the topic of his brother being sick and of how afraid he was for him. As he walked out the door, he turned and said, “Do you mind if I work in the cool down room after lunch? I don’t wanna distract people anymore today.” Naturally, I agreed that that was an excellent idea.

This was nothing new in terms of my relationship with N. We had a hundred moments like this, moments that would have escalated if I’d shown how disappointed I truly was. For the first time, however, reflecting on those moments made me realize some of the things I was doing so right in the classroom and so wrong with my own daughter.

N didn’t always need me to tell him when he was saying or doing something I didn’t like. It was compulsion for him sometimes, and changing the subject was enough for him to know that it needed to stop. I gave him space to make his own choices, with the exception of any choice that was physically harmful to himself or others. In those moments, I was stern, and later reminded him quietly that he was important to me and that I didn’t want him doing something stupid and ending up hurt. If he felt like he needed to say something, I let him say it. When he needed to just walk it off and get frustrated, I let him go.

That’s it, I thought. I turned off the water in the shower and heard my partner grumbling in bed about how hard the day had been with our daughter.

“You know, I do this stuff every day for a living”, I said, “convincing kids to act in their own self-interest when they really just want to deconstruct.”

I’m pretty sure he laughed, rolled over, and went immediately to sleep, but it was an important moment for me as a Mom. I had to be okay with giving students the space to make mistakes and choose differently in my classroom because they were teenagers and this was part of the process, but it never occurred to me that my toddler was testing her limits and learning her own strength in the very same ways that a 17-year-old was.

The next morning when my daughter threw her sippy cup because she wanted chocolate milk instead of juice, rather than telling her “No” and asking why she was acting that way, I just stood there and let it happen. I waited. After a few moments I asked, “Are you okay?”

She took a deep breath (Thanks, Daniel Tiger) and said, “Okay, Mommy. I feel calm.”

I waited her out, I gave her space, and with that space she did what I’d hoped. Obviously, we have our days. I am sometimes still the embarrassed Mom I pity in public, but reshaping my attitude with my daughter has made me view our challenging moments as a growing pain from learning to live together. More often than not, she acts the way I expect because she chooses to and not because I am banging my head against the wall trying to make her.

Or, as I tell my partner, “She’s just better for me. I can’t help it.”