I know it’s hard right now. I know it’s confusing. I know I’m confused.
But they are confused too.
The schools we have spent a lifetime saying are so important – stay-in-school-slogans important – have sent them home. The clubs they joined to get into college or to find their place or to fill the void or to feel safe or to feel seen or to be challenged or to feel supported have stopped. The competitions they have trained for and the performances they have worked towards and the roles they have earned have evaporated. The food they could depend on and the friends they could confide in and the private lives they got to lead are gone. No goodbyes. Just gone.
It’s confusing. I know I’m confused.
The goalposts have moved. The metrics have changed.
And I can’t help but think of the college senior I knew whose ankle was broken in the middle a Taekwondo match and refused to stop fighting. She couldn’t put her weight on it. The coach asked if she wanted to stop, but she knew this would be her last match. After a lifetime of practice. But what do you do when you can’t put your weight on your foot and need to finish fighting. You use it to kick. And you wince. And you finish what was meant to be your glorious athletic career hopping around and gritting your teeth each time you land a point with your now-broken foot. The season would go on, but not for her. So she kept fighting in the one fight she still had.
She learned in an instant that her last moments as a college athlete had arrived. So she kept them.
And yes, there are more young people walking around the neighborhood than we are used to. And some of them are getting closer than the six feet we want them to. And someone did knock out one of the walls of the park gazebo. And someone did destroy the beautiful tulips at the entrance. And some aren’t getting out of the street when cars approach as quickly as they used to. And many of them seem angry or sad or short-tempered. It’s confusing. I know I’m confused.
Because the 12-year-old kid who is being tasked with being responsible for his younger siblings in the morning while his parents work is also being told he is not responsible enough to make his own decisions in the afternoon. And the 10-year-old girl whose friends are playing too close together outside is getting into yelling matches about not caring about her sick grandmother. And the 19-year-old wandering soul who was supposed to be at college is trying to figure out what to do until the family computer is available for her coursework. And both of that other teen’s parents just lost their jobs, so home is the last place they want to be right now.
You are supposed to write about education, you say. They are supposed to be learning, you say.
They are learning how to cope when the world they know is yanked out of their hands faster than they can even try to hold on to it. They are learning how people treat others when they are stressed. They are learning what happens when someone assumes the worst. They are learning that people can expect too much and too little of them at the same time. They are learning to deal with things much bigger and scarier than anyone wanted. They are learning.
They are learning how easily small actions can bring others great joy. They are learning how thoughtless words can destroy things that took lifetimes to build. They are learning from you. This is your moment. What are you going to teach them?
A lesson? What’s what? It’s tempting, so tempting, to brace our posture and point our fingers and take control of one thing in such an uncontrollable moment. Phrases about knowing better and taking advantage and being dramatic come to the lips with alarming ease.
But behavior is just another form of communication. When a toddler tantrum sends the message “I need better techniques for coping with disappointment” or “I haven’t had enough practice at being patient yet,” I have to breathe. And I have to decide to have the conversation they need rather than the one that might be the most gratifying to have. Instead of enforcing skills they don’t yet have, I try to help them develop the skills they need. I try. I’m not saying I succeed.
Most of us don’t have the skills for this. I know I don’t. Most of us need practice. I know I do.
So I am going to practice. And I am going to start with the young people around me who have been so displaced that the very concept of “behaving” has become a moving target. I will acknowledge the conversation that comes to mind and think about two other conversations I could start instead. If this sounds too hard, I will give you a freebie. One of the conversations starts with, “Hey. Are you okay?”
I will remember the week that confusion on the YMCA website led to families showing up for free swim to a pool packed with lessons. I will remember the frustration and the pointing and the declarations of wasted time. I will remember the kids huffing as their parents huffed, fuming as their parents fumed. And then I will remember the basketball family. They walked into the pool area just like everyone else and froze. The kids looked at their dad. He said, “I guess we will have to play basketball.” The kids were already in swimsuits and said they didn’t have gym clothes or shoes. Their dad shrugged, said he didn’t either, and added “don’t tell Mom” before running off with his kids trailing after him. You could hear their laughter from the hallway. I will remember.
I will remember that they are learning. I will remember that they are learning how to cope and how to take care of each other, just like the rest of us. I will remember that their world may be different than mine, but it is just as full, rich, and real. And the loss of it hurts just as much. And graduation or prom or whatever milestones they were waiting for can still matter, even if they look a little unexpected. And I will try, as often as I can, to start the conversation that will help the most rather than the one that is the most tempting to have.
I am still learning. So it is the best I can do.