Let’s Check In

Schools are closed. We are asked to flatten the curve by staying home. Things are changing so quickly that by the time you process one big change another one comes around. I am 38 years old, and this is a hard pill for me to swallow.

I wondered how many of them are Googling, “What is a pandemic?”

I couldn’t help but wonder how our young people are doing. Are they self-monitoring how much news and information they are taking in? I wondered how many of them are Googling, “What is a pandemic?” Or how many of them are actually talking to their parents about what they’re feeling.

I am a public speaker and speak to over 25,000 Texas students every year. Many of them follow me on Instagram. This week, I reached out through Stories and asked, “How are you today?” The responses and messages came flooding in. Students are worried. They are sad, grieving, angry. And they are nervous. Thankfully, they are also very resilient.

This mandatory pause button on the school year looks different depending on who you ask. Some kids have settled in and found comfort just hanging out in their rooms for the duration. For some students, this has been devastating. Musicals were about to open; UIL competitions were all underway; sports tournaments were being played; and prom dresses were being bought.

The hustle and bustle of the school year was full steam ahead until it all abruptly came to a stop. Many dreams were deterred in a few short days. I know this is bigger than prom. I know this is bigger than seeing friends or throwing a birthday party. I know this, but I am also 38 years old. Grown folks have weathered storms long enough to see the bigger picture. To our young people, THIS was their world, and it is now on hold. They are grieving, and it’s not okay.

As the grown people, we need to lean in and listen to these kids. We need to acknowledge that this is happening to them in a different way than it is happening to us. We need to reassure them, but more than anything, we need to listen. Last night, I leaned in to listen.

This is what I heard.

“I have been saving for my senior trip for over a year and it’s cancelled. I won’t get money back and I won’t get a senior trip. LAME.”

This is lame. I can only imagine how disappointing that must be. The senior year is supposed to be THE year memories are made. It is also a yearlong goodbye to life as a child under the protected watch of your parents and school. Imagine having that taken away suddenly.

“I had to share a frozen dinner with my brother. My mom is a waitress. No tips. We don’t have grocery money.”

For some students, school is where they receive food. Even though districts are working hard to implement programs to help feed these students, the immediate uncertainty is scary for them. I let this student know what her district was doing, and she was thankful to be told. She didn’t know because she is 12.

“I’m really scared.”

So many of our children are afraid, worried, or anxious. We need to open communication with our own kids, even if they haven’t asked questions, and encourage them to check on peers.

“I’m mentally exhausted. Anxious.”

I feel this. I had to implement a self-care program for myself: getting up at a normal time, showering, getting ready, going for walks. I know personally that when I don’t have a schedule I begin to unravel. Self-care is so important, and it looks different on everyone. One of my kids centers herself by creating. When she gets stressed or worried she pours herself into art. Another of my kids has a tight network of close friends who work through problems via Facetime. I normally have pretty stringent rules about how long they can be on their phones, but this week, I pulled back a bit. I know that self-care for her means communicating with people.

The Class of 2020 may be a graduating class like no other graduating class before it.

This has been an upside down week. We need to reassure our young people that life will resume. We’re on pause, not on stop. One thing I know for sure: this generation of kids will create so much beauty from these challenging days. They are going to come together and create big things. They are going to teach us so many lessons about patience and gratitude. The Class of 2020 may be a graduating class like no other graduating class before it.

This is a bump in the road. A sizable bump. But in the meantime, as we are wading through these uncharted waters, lean in and listen. Ask your student, “How are you doing today?” We are all in this boat together. Let’s check in.

Check Your Blind Spots

Each one of us is fighting a battle that no one else knows about. Battles come in all sizes, from small to immeasurably big. Sometimes I hear about them from a fourth-grade boy who doesn’t look up from his shoes when he speaks. Or from an eighth-grade girl who hugs and doesn’t let go for a minute or two. Or even from the high school athlete who doesn’t seem to have a care in the world, except he does.

I present an anti-bullying/pro-kindness workshop to over 20,000 Texas students each year. It is my goal to speak to as many educators, students, and parents as I possibly can. It is also my hope that I can motivate kids to make changes themselves. I am inspired by this incredible generation of students and how they are going to change the world. I hear so many amazing stories of kindness, generosity, empathy, and acceptance. I also hear of heartbreak and hurt. It is a constant reminder that growing up is astonishingly hard.

One story has stuck with me for years. I met him as I was leaving a campus to grab a cup of coffee before my afternoon workshop. I had my hand on the door to leave when I heard a deep voice calling my name from behind. When I turned around, I had to look up. “Jonah” towered over me at six foot three. He asked, “Would you have lunch with me? I am one of the kids you talk about. I am one of the kids who sits by themselves at lunch.” I sat down across from this young man at an empty table in an otherwise chaotic lunchroom. He informed me no one would sit with us. No one sits there but him. The rest of the cafeteria was standing room only. The thunderdome of high school played around us as he spoke. Jonah shared that his bullying situation got worse in middle school. Everyone always made fun of him for being poor. They would make fun of his clothes and his mother’s car. They would call him dirty even though he would take special care to shower before and after school every day to make sure he wasn’t.

By the time Jonah entered high school, some of his bullies started to throw handfuls of pocket change at him because they knew he would pick it up. Jonah told me he would usually ignore the pennies and nickels, but he would always pick up the quarters. He hated picking them up, but he knew it cost thirteen quarters to wash his little sister’s clothes and that maybe, if he could wash her clothes, no one would call her dirty or gross either. Maybe no one would know she was his sister. Maybe no one would know she was poor. As we sat in an otherwise crowded lunchroom, no one stared at us or stopped to say hi. No one sat at our table, even though there were few other seats. I felt like we were invisible.

“A simple act of kindness might not change the whole world for everyone, but it can change at least one person’s world.”

The next day I met with students from the school determined to make their campus a softer place. They formed a Kindness Club and we spent the afternoon brainstorming youth-led kindness initiatives. The air was electric with positivity and hope, but I couldn’t shake Jonah’s story. I asked one of the leaders of the group if they knew Jonah. They paused and then recalled he was in their English class the year before. I asked them to tell me about him. They shrugged and said the only thing they knew was that people threw change at him. As the words left their mouths, I saw realization wash over their faces. Their indifference had made Jonah seem invisible. The students on campus saw the behavior towards Jonah day after day and remained silent. It was just something that happened. It just wasn’t happening to them. It was just part of the thunderdome.

I often tell students, “If you say nothing, it means you approve.” So often the least likely person to do or say anything about bullying is the person being bullied. How different would it have been if maybe the very first time someone threw change at Jonah the best friend of that person told them to stop? How different would it have been if someone paused to help or reported the behavior? How different would it have been if someone sat down at that empty lunch table once in a while?

The students from this campus were incredible kids. They desperately wanted to change the world in such huge ways. Hearing their dreams on how to make a kinder world was inspiring. It was shocking to them that they didn’t need to look much further than their own backyard or lunch table. They just needed to shed their indifference and open their eyes to the blind spots.

I encourage students all over the state to check their blind spots. A simple hello, a borrowed pencil, or being a friend are all ways to create a softer space. A simple act of kindness might not change the whole world for everyone, but it can change at least one person’s world. If we all take a moment to look around and check our blind spots, we will discover that no one is invisible and the change we want to see in the world might be as simple as sitting down at a lunch table.

As we begin another school year, sit down and talk to your students about the importance of kindness. Talk to them about people who may be different. Talk about ways to be kind. Talk to your students about how to confront their friends if they make hurtful decisions. Some of these conversations are tricky to navigate. But we, as parents and teachers, owe it to our children to have them. By enabling our children to be the same kids who say hello or sit at the lunch table, we are helping to transform all campuses into softer places.

Growing up is hard work. There is no instruction manual. We have to write it as we go along. But for me, Jonah’s story became its own chapter.

The Beauty of Boredom

Summer! The word immediately brings back memories of snow cones, chlorine, backyard grills, and being so bored that I would volunteer to sit with my dad while he got the car inspected. We look forward to summer as soon as the holiday lights come down off the house. And that last week of school feels like an eternity. But then BOOM! There it is, summer. The first few weeks are a glorious fog of staying up late, sleeping in, and eating frozen burritos. Then what? You lay in bed at 10 am on a Wednesday. You stare at the ceiling fan in your messy room thinking “there is nothing to do” but dare not mention “there is nothing to do” to your mother out of fear she will suggest you pick up your messy room.

When my kids were younger, I made the choice to stay home with them during the summer months. Though staying home meant loads of time with my girls, it also meant foregoing a paycheck for three months. I so badly wanted their summers to be memorable, but there was no way we could afford a fancy vacation. Despite this snag, I was still determined to create a fun and memorable summer for them.

The summer when my girls were three and five years old, I made a giant checklist of things we could do. One week in and we were all exhausted and I was broke. My dream of a fun-filled summer was quickly fading because tiny things for tiny people add up to not so tiny amounts of money.

“Summer burnout happens and boredom creeps in, but it can be beautiful.”

Undeterred, I planned something to do nearly every day. At the beginning of June, there were playdates and trips to the museum. By the end of June, we were going to free movies. And by mid-July, we tapped into household errands for added excitement! (Until my kids turned ten and the car wash no longer served as a drive-thru water park.) Summer burnout happens and boredom creeps in, but it can be beautiful.

One of my favorite summertime mom memories was when my girls were five and seven. That was the summer the girls could go downstairs, prepare breakfast, and turn on cartoons without needing to wake me up. One morning shortly after this new phase of our lives began, I rolled out of bed 45 minutes after first hearing the pitter patter of little feet. When I got downstairs, the television had already shut off (automatically after 30 minutes) and the girls were side by side drawing in a sea of post-it notes all over the living room floor. They were drawing tiny food and meticulously cutting them out like paper dolls. There was even a paper fridge … adhered to the floor with packing tape. For hours they worked on a replica of our fridge and all its contents. Boredom had led to this unguided, unplanned creative play. Like so many times before, I learned a lesson from the girls. Boredom can be beautiful … and packing tape is near impossible to remove from laminate flooring.

My girls are older now and paper fridges have given way to more complex arts and crafts. The television still shuts off after 30 minutes, maybe an hour if I’m feeling generous. And of course, we still go to museums and the movies and there’s always someone sleeping over who doesn’t live here. I just don’t feel the need to schedule fun like I used to. I now just take a deep breath and let summer wash over us like a wave, pushing us in the direction we need to be. So infrequently in life do we give ourselves permission to move slowly.

Summer is our slow season.

Part of me used to wish that their childhood was filled with exotic travel and adventure. I so badly wanted their summers to be memorable. I sometimes felt that our lack of fancy vacations was a failure on my part. Maybe a big trip would have been financially possible if I didn’t choose to stay at home in the summer.

A few years ago, I was cleaning the living room for my oldest daughter’s “End of Elementary School Party”. We were preparing for a lot of kids so I moved the couch. As I was sweeping, I noticed tiny bits of tape still stuck to the floor. We may have not made it to Disney World, or Europe, or taken a cruise to a faraway island, but we had a refrigerator on our living room floor. We made movies and turned a shed into a tiny house. We dressed up in formal attire for no reason and went to the grocery store. We had many, many parties. We went on a queso tour. We had lemonade stands. We were together. And that memory will last even longer than packing tape on an old laminate floor.