A False Dichotomy: Following Money vs. Following Passion

Notes from a meeting with a student

“So, what’s next? What are you going to do with your life?” How are you going to earn money?”

As seniors conclude their 12th year of formal schooling, they’re being bombarded with the same questions we fielded years ago.

I remember struggling with these on the eve of my open house, where my parents’ friends were about to write me a check to help fund a trip through Europe. I felt a little guilty accepting money without having clear-cut answers to those questions.

As I’ve been talking to seniors about future plans these past few months, the same stark dichotomy has emerged; it’s one they’re getting from our culture, their peers, and well-meaning adults.

“Follow your passion.”


“Follow the money.”

At first glance, the two camps seem to be clearly demarcated. On one side we have the right-brained, romantic “feelers.” On the other, the left-brained, logical “analyzers.”

The passionate folks argue: “What’s the point of a bunch of money if you hate what you do every day?” The logical folks: “What’s the point of doing something you love if you can’t pay your bills?”

So I have a student who is reluctant to major in film because it won’t make her any money, and a student who is opting out of college because he hasn’t found his passion yet.

I think the passion/money dichotomy is insufficient, if not harmful.

For those who will listen, I’ve tried to reframe the dilemma by asking three key questions:

1. What do you enjoy doing and/or learning about?

2. What are you good at?

3. What does your community or the world need?

I met with a sophomore this week who said she wanted to be a coroner (see image).

Her answers:

1. Crime shows, science, writing

2. Science, writing

3. Helping victims’ families after a tragic loss.

Of course, the engine behind all of this is a love of learning. The more we learn about a subject, the more we become passionate about it, the more our skills develop, and the more we understand how it can help our community or world.

For the student who wants to be a YouTuber, I would challenge them on that third question: Does the world need more YouTubers? For the student who wants to be a dentist because “dentists make a ton of money,” I would ask, “Are you passionate about looking into people’s mouths all day?” And for the student who wants to be a neurosurgeon, I would ask: “Do you enjoy school enough to go for another 13 years?”

Granted, many students are unable to answer all (if any) of these questions even by the time they’re seniors. And should we be surprised? Their brains still have at least another seven years before they’re fully developed.

But in my experience working with students, if they continually grapple with these questions (preferably with guidance from experienced adults), most of the time they end up exactly where they belong.

The New TikTok Challenge

For the impossible task of choosing a film for movie night with my kids, I’ve resorted to Googling “Best kids movies of 1984” so I can force them to watch what I watched as a six-year-old. They give it twenty minutes before they can turn it off. Last Friday I chose The Neverending Story, a film about a young boy, Bastian, who finds a magical book in which he becomes part of its story. The primary villain in Fantasica (the fantasy world within the book) is what is referred to as “The Nothingness.” It’s not a monster or robot or evil dictator. It’s a sense of emptiness that pervades Fantastica and swallows up its inhabitants, one by one. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fantastica can only survive if humans foster their sense of imagination and hope.

I’ve been wanting to write this for several months now, but I didn’t want to be the old guy with the tired argument about “kids these days” and their obsession with technology. You’ve read that essay before. But last week, when a student showed me her iPhone screen time and I saw 24 hours on TikTok for the week, I broke.

Social media has become “The Nothingness.”

And I want to be clear that I don’t think all kids have a problem. Some are able to manage it quite well. But most, like most adults, cannot. Former Google executive Tristan Harris said it best:

“Every time you open an app, there are 1,000 people behind the screen being paid really well to keep you scrolling.”

How can one person, much less a teenager with a developing brain, combat this kind of power?

A colleague made the argument that compared social media to candy. She said she made the mistake of banning candy in her house, and now her grown daughters are both addicted to sweets. It’s an understandable comparison, but not an apt one.

(Side note: her kids did not get into social media and they are flourishing right now).

I (and most neuroscientists) contend that smartphones in general and social media apps, in particular, are more like cocaine than candy. I don’t think anyone would say “We need to expose our kids to cocaine when they’re young so they know how to manage it later.” Candy is finite, french fries are finite, even TV is finite. But a smartphone provides an infinite world of possibilities, many of them not healthy.

And of course, we all know as parents that it feels impossible to manage something that we cannot see, let alone understand. My son begs me to take him to the library to play Minecraft (that’s a whole other essay) and I struggle to drag him off so we can read a book. Yes, I recognize the horrible irony in this.

To be sure, misuse or overuse of social media is not necessarily always the problem. It may be more of a symptom of a deeper problem – boredom, fear, loneliness, isolation, depression. But having it readily at hand does not help.

There is hope. For one, my kids sat through all of The Neverending Story and loved it. We even got the book from the library (after Minecraft). Also, I met with another student last week and when she showed me her screen time (see image below), my heart sang. When I asked her why her screentime is so low, she answered flatly: “I have too much other stuff to do.”

For the student who has spent a full day on TikTok, I issued the Mr. Hughes TikTok Challenge: Delete the app for a full week. Although she only lasted two days, her TikTok time was down to eight hours. What did she do with that 16 hours? “Maybe some schoolwork, but mostly I slept.” To me, and to most pediatricians, psychologists, and neuroscientists, that’s a win.

At the end of The Neverending Story, Bastian’s love of reading, expansive imagination, and hope for the future ultimately defeat The Nothingness, and Fantastica is saved.

Everybody with me now…let’s join Bastian. Take out your phone, find your favorite social media app, press down your finger, and click the red “X.” There is something waiting to take its place.

Perhaps it’s imagination. Or hope. Or simply, in the words of my student, “other stuff” more worthy of our attention.

This seems reasonable.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

Happy about the tooth, not about the compensation

A few weeks ago, my 6-year-old yanked out his loose front tooth, leaving a trail of blood droplets on the floor. That night, the tooth fairy did her thing and I went to bed smiling, excited to see the joy on Sam’s face when he woke up the next morning. Like most of us, he likes money.

Before leaving for work, I popped into Sam’s room to say goodbye. He woke up, rubbed his eyes, reached under his pillow, grabbed two dollar bills, and frowned.

“What is this, dad? Two bucks? Charlie from Kindergarten got 12.”

I was aghast. Had I become the dad with the snobby, ungrateful kids?

“Well that’s how they do things in their house,” is the best response I could muster, not realizing that I may have blown the cover on the tooth fairy.

And so begins the incessant comparisons of what we have versus what others have. Now that Sam’s going to his friends’ houses, I’m getting a lot of this:

“Their house is so much bigger.”

“They have way more toys.”


“They get to watch Youtube.”

“They get to play video games.”

Project this out, and he’ll be asking for a nicer bike, then a nicer pair of shoes, then a nicer car. And so on, until he’s stretching himself to buy the nicest house he can afford in the nicest neighborhood on the nicest block in the nicest city he can find.


What comes after “Unless” has a lot to do with how Andrea and I respond in these situations. Unfortunately our culture is not going to be much help. In fact, our culture and our economy depends on this “Keeping up with the Joneses'” mentality. Honestly, I don’t know how to respond. Any insight is much appreciated.

Conversely, this comparative lens has been less prevalent in our class of 2022. They’re speaking differently than in years past. They’re not as focused on what everyone else is doing and what everyone else has. Some recognize that even though they’ve dreamt of attending college out of state, what’s best for them is to stay closer to home. Some are just fine with starting at community college, where previously they might have been embarrassed. Others, who have done well in an extremely rigorous college-prep program, have recognized that trade school is a better fit.

I don’t know if the isolation of the pandemic forced students to reflect more deeply on what’s best for them, or if the times are just changing. Or maybe it’s just maturity. I hope Sam will get there.

In the meantime, I need to have a chat with Charlie’s parents.

A Million Tabs Open All The Time

This guy always takes it one wing at a time.

When I started my daily old man walks a few years ago, I looked forward to them because I could listen to a podcast while getting exercise. It felt like I was cheating; I was getting smarter and more fit at the same time. A few months ago, my old man ears started throbbing as a result of excessive headphone use on Zoom and phone calls.

Since then, when I go on walks, I just walk. No podcasts, no music, no phone calls. There’s a lot of thinking (clearing out the day’s frustrations, solving problems that seemed unsolvable), and plenty of observation (the trees, the houses, the dogs I’m secretly afraid of). For those 30-45 minutes each day, I become the ultimate monotasker.

Multitasking, on the other hand, is the standard. Talking on the phone while driving. Scrolling through Instagram while eating. Listening to music while working. Responding to emails in the middle of a Zoom meeting. Watching TV while folding laundry. Checking football scores while ordering food. Transferring money while crossing the street. Checking the weather while brushing teeth.

In fact, if we think about everything we do, it probably involves doing something else at the same time. We believe we’ve cracked the code on the limits of time: We can “get more done” when we do multiple things at once. Why wait to get home to buy those tickets when we can buy them at the stoplight? That frees up more time when we get home! So when we get home we can text our friend about the tickets we bought while we ask our kids about their day at school. That will free up some time to walk the dog a little earlier so we can catch our mom on a phone call before she goes to bed. And so on.

See where this is headed?

Multitasking is a fallacy. Our brains are designed to do one task at a time, and if we try to do more than one, both suffer.

I’m guilty too, but I’m trying to be more conscious. Even if I’m listening to the radio while I cook, I know I’m either missing some key content from the interview or dinner is not going to taste as good. When we do pizza and movie night, the kids ask to eat in front of the TV. Andrea and I, beaten down from a tough week, occasionally give in by rationalizing they’ll go to bed earlier if we eliminate the 30-minute dinner slot. But it never works in our favor; they end up getting distracted by the movie, don’t eat enough, then come out of their bed hungry at 9:00.

I can’t totally blame us. There was a time when our only option was to do just one thing.

On road trips for example, we could read a book, listen to whatever my parents were listening to on the radio, take a nap, play a game, or talk to each other. It was really hard to look out the window and read a book at the same time. Monotasking was the default. Now it feels like the world is just one big browser with a million tabs open.

Our students assert that “Listening to music makes me concentrate better,” and “I need my phone next to me in case I need to look up a definition.” Mounds of research refute this; here’s a study that concludes how, during a 3-hour study session, students who listened to music were distracted, on average, 35 times for a total of 25 minutes. If you study nine hours a week, that adds up to about 50 hours of distracted time over the course of a school year. So yes, you might be able to get schoolwork done while listening to music – in the same way someone might be able to drive home after drinking a six-pack – but it doesn’t make it a good idea.

So what’s a parent or educator to do?

First, we need to help shatter the myth of multitasking. Our kids need to understand that it simply does not work, no matter how much they want to convince themselves that it does. If they’re getting the research from enough sources, it might start to sink in.

Second, let’s help them become aware every time they choose to do two things at once. I’m not suggesting they can’t listen to the radio while driving, but just being conscious of it can help in those moments when they default to multitasking mode. So for example, they can avoid answering the phone while driving with loud music on.

If we see them jam in Airpods as they crack open To Kill A Mockingbird, ask them if it’s instrumental music or white noise (even better).

One strategy I’ve been using that has been super helpful at work: I turn my phone on silent and put it in my coat pocket, 15 feet away. It rings every hour, on the hour, all day, so when the alarm goes off I’m permitted to check my phone for a few minutes. Beginning Monday, students who work in my space will be required to do the same.

These are just some of the ways we can close the proverbial tabs. I’m sure you have some others. If so, please email them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to finish answering emails, fire off a few texts, close my tabs, close my computer, turn off my phone, turn off my Fitbit, and go for a walk.


1. “Multitasking: Switching costs.” https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.

2. “What else do college students “do” while studying? An investigation of multitasking.” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360131514000384.

An Unambitious But Potentially Transformative New Year’s Resolution

They make it look so easy.

I’ve always been a New Year’s Resolution guy. And by that I mean I’ve always made them. Each year, I sit down with a notebook and sketch out the habits I’d like to break and to form, and all the goals I’d like to reach. I’ve consumed countless books, articles, and podcasts on the topic. I’ve divided resolutions up into categories (physical, mental, financial, emotional, spiritual, relationships). I’ve reduced them to quarterly and monthly goals. I’ve started and stopped gym memberships, adopted and abandoned diets, downloaded and deleted apps, and become a total bore to my friends and family in the process, regaling them with all my grandiose plans for improvement, only to fall apart by the third week in January.

For 2022, I’m keeping it much simpler. It doesn’t sound groundbreaking, or even very ambitious, but if I can do this, the benefits will be immeasurable:

Eight hours of sleep. Every night.

Consider the drawbacks of not getting a good night’s sleep: fatigue, irritability, weight gain, taking longer to make decisions, “cognitive rigidity,” mood swings, and other really bad stuff (anxiety, depression, and psychosis are not far behind).

Disclaimer: I’ve had my bouts with insomnia and they are awful. I don’t wish them on anyone, and I’m not suggesting there is anything easy about getting eight hours of sleep, even if you make time for it.

Still, it’s en vogue among my peers to brag about their lack of sleep (if you have a small child, you’re excused). This badge of honor comes just under how “busy” their life is. But if I must choose exhausted or busy, I’ll take busy.

Simply, eight hours of sleep every night will make me a better person. I will be more engaged in my job, more connected to my family, more likely to exercise and socialize, more likely to eat healthy, more likely to engage with my kids at 5:30 pm after a long day of work and a stressful commute.

And now we turn to our students, who are, along with American adults, in the midst of a sleep crisis. Many of my students go to bed around midnight (at the earliest) and wake up at 6, often with their phone on the bedside table (or worse, under their pillow) so they don’t miss a notification. Then they slog through the school day, sometimes catching a nap, rinsing and repeating for the next day, all the while irritated, distracted, foggy, and emotionally volatile. This pattern is at best unsustainable, at worst catastrophic.

As an educator, nothing would make me happier than interacting with well-rested students all day, given all of the aforementioned benefits.

So what can you do?

You could have your child write a book report on Matthew Walker’s 368-page book, Why We Sleep (fascinating read).

Or you could share these tips:

  • Limit screens in the bedroom
  • Exercise
  • Cut out the caffeine
  • Do not binge eat before bedtime
  • Have a good routine
  • Create a sleep-friendly bedroom
  • Talk through any problems before bed
  • Avoid sleeping in too much on the weekend

Full explanations here.

Happy sleeping!

A Flicker of Light

Something I’ve always loved about working in education is the school schedule. The start of the year always brings about a sense of hope, followed by the seemingly endless October-November stretch. Just when it feels like I’m at my wit’s end, Thanksgiving hits and I exhale. Then it’s a sprint to the Holidays, highlighted by an excess of carb-rich foods, family time, meaningless sporting events, and a pervasive feeling of joy and gratitude.

At the same time, there is an underlying melancholy in the holiday season. I’ve dealt with some serious personal challenges during the holidays. The cold air and somber church hymns conjure painful memories that remain mostly dormant for the rest of the year.

But having a chance to sleep in, watch my kids unwrap presents, gorge on sausage biscuits and cinnamon rolls, always manages to assuage my sadness.

For many of our students, there is no escape from the sadness. Some lost grandparents during the holidays. Some lost parents. Some spent time in a mental health facility. Some aren’t eating big, decadent Christmas dinners, nor are they opening expensive presents. Some aren’t eating at all. Some aren’t opening any presents. For many, the holidays can be two weeks of pure hell, compounded by the fact that so many people around them seem so joyful.

While their peers are celebrating the break from school, they’re dreading it. They miss the social outlet, the caring adults, the consistent schedule, the guaranteed meal.

A student came in yesterday and I asked him my stock question for the day:

“Favorite Thanksgiving side dish?”

His response: “Nothing.”

After some joking and prodding: “Come on man, you didn’t eat anything at Thanksgiving?”

He mumbled: “My grandfather died.”

This time of year will always bring about a tinge of pain for this student, such that an Algebra quiz or World History project isn’t going to mean a whole lot.

December 21st marks the Winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. For many of us, Christmas movies will light our big screens and Amazon packages will fill our porches; we probably won’t even notice the darkness. For others, the darkness inside will be almost unbearable.

We often forget that one statement, one question, one smile or nod, can provide that flicker of light a child needs to move through the darkness.

I hope that you give and receive light this Holiday season.

The Case Against “Smart”

Sure they like to read. But can they screw in a lightbulb, unlike their father?

What does “smart” mean, really? Within the context of formal education, it seems to indicate some variation on the phrase “good at school.” But when we break it down, does that mean you’re a good reader? A good writer? A Math whiz? A test-taking machine?

Oxford’s etymology:

“… related to the verb, the original sense (late Old English) being ‘causing sharp pain’; from this arose ‘keen, brisk’, whence the current senses of ‘mentally sharp’ and ‘neat in a brisk, sharp style’.”

“Causing sharp pain” resonated, as I recall as a child my mother saying “Don’t get smart with me, young man,” which often came a few hours after a well-meaning teacher directed a “Nice job on that test, Rory! You’re a smart little guy!”

So when we talk about a smart student, what do we actually mean? They process information quickly? They’re creative? Their insights in class discussions are more sophisticated than their peers’? And then what if none of this translates to good grades? Then bring on the cliche: “He’s so smart; if only he applied himself!” And what does that mean for the kid who works incredibly hard, but is not as “bright.” Do we label her as “successful” even though “she wasn’t that smart”?

And once you’re labeled a smart kid, watch out. Any behavior deemed “not smart” yields double punishment. “Hey, why’d you do that? You’re supposed to be one of the smart kids.” As if that label exempts you from being human. Worse yet, there’s the entitlement for kids who’ve been told how smart they are their entire lives. Any criticism comes as an affront to their identity and can spin them into a cycle of self-doubt. I know this all too well as a “smart” kid myself and the coordinator of a program of, you guessed it, “smart” kids.

In many areas of my life, I’m not smart at all. I have a Master’s degree, but I’ve got a grill that’s been sitting unfixed on my deck for two years. I barely know how to use a leaf blower. And anything with pipes or wires is totally off-limits.

If you were to add up all of my “smarts,” Master’s and all, I would probably be pretty average, as would most PhDs. Even a medical doctor is plenty “smart,” but if you’ve ever had one with poor bedside manner, you know many lack social intelligence.

Meanwhile, one of my students, Devin, buys and sells car parts and builds engines from scratch. Who’s smarter, Devin or the doctor? Depends on if you need a new heart or a new engine.

The “smart” label probably causes more harm than good, especially when we’re dealing with adolescents who are hyperfocused on where they fit among their peers. So let’s replace the “smart” label with something else, although I’m not sure what. Any ideas?

Sorry, I’d help – if only I were smart enough.

Give It Some Time

Sam’s totally not ironic first day of school picture

“Extraordinary benefits accrue to the tiny minority of people who are able to push just a tiny bit longer than most.” -Seth Godin

When I asked my son Sam about his first day of kindergarten a few weeks ago, his response literally made me gasp: “That was boring. What was the point of that?”

My wife Andrea, also a teacher, was mortified. We gave it another day. The next day was worse. And the following day was even worse. By the end of the first week, Sam’s tone had changed from “School is boring” to “I hate school and I don’t ever want to go again.”

This posed a problem, considering Sam had at least another 12 years of formal schooling ahead of him. Worse, he’s generally a happy kid who loves to learn and relishes new experiences. Now, he was visibly down and anxious.

We were on the edge of panic, but before doing anything drastic like calling a meeting with the principal or switching schools, Andrea and I started asking around to friends and colleagues with older kids who had been through this. I even called my mom, who had removed me from Kindergarten after a teacher verbally assaulted me for drawing an apple on the wrong side of the paper (to this day I’m afraid to draw in public).

Everyone had the same advice: Give it some time.

Coincidentally, I’m having similar conversations with current students struggling with AP classes and former students having a tough time during their first semester in college. “It’s just too hard,” they say. “I don’t think I have what it takes.”

Oftentimes, our biggest challenge is knowing when to quit – and there certainly are times to do that. But our students, like Sam, don’t need a free pass to quit whenever things get difficult; rather, we need to truly listen to them, ask probing questions, and help them work through their concerns. Although sometimes quitting is the best option, it’s rarely the only option, and we must avoid kids building a habit of giving up at precisely the moment they need to push through.

I’m happy to report that Sam is now enjoying Kindergarten (especially drawing), and some of those students who initially wanted to bail on an AP course are starting to catch on. Many are even enjoying the challenge.

Making Big Decisions

With the May 1st college decision deadline quickly approaching, I’ve been talking to seniors a lot about plans for next year. Consider this familiar scenario: A student has been accepted to their dream school out of state, but will have to pay $20,000/year. They’ve also been accepted to a great school that was third on their list, but will pay nothing. While you may have your own ideas about the “right” decision, in reality there are compelling reasons for both. Some would argue the more expensive dream school is a worthy investment for the experience, the reputation of the school, and the chance to realize a lifelong dream. Others would say it’s foolish to turn down a full ride to any 4-year institution, and that your college experience is what you make of it. Both are sound arguments. Neither is wrong.

These hard choices pervade all of our lives: Do I leave a job I love for a large pay increase at a job I might hate? Do I move to a city with higher taxes but much better services? Do I allow my son to work while he’s still in school? Do I encourage my ailing parents to move into assisted living?

According to Ruth Chang, a Ph.D. in Philosophy, we struggle with big decisions because the way we frame them is problematic. Some reasons just can’t be quantified. For instance, in the initial example, there’s no way to assign measurable value to four years at your dream school; nor can you assign specific value to zero college debt. The better way to look at these decisions is to acknowledge that while they may not be equal, they are, in Chang’s words, “on a par.”

Framing big decisions like this allows us to be more open about which path to take. So instead of being paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong decision, we can say, “These are both good choices. I’ll be fine either way. Let me consider what I really want for my life right now and in the future.”

And as many of us parents know, the decisions we make about our kids only get bigger with time. “Should I let her climb on that playset” becomes “Should I let her go on Spring Break with another family” becomes “Should I pay for a new trombone” becomes “Should I tell her I don’t approve of her fiance.” But if we can reframe the way we approach these decisions, we and our kids can make better choices and live better lives.

Although many seniors have already made their decisions about next year, several are still grappling with it, and of course, the events of the last year have made things even more complicated. But if we can help alleviate their fears about making the wrong decision, they will be freed up to make the best, right decision for them.


Chang, Ruth. “How to Make Hard Choices.” TED, www.ted.com/talks/ruth_chang_how_to_make_hard_choices?language=en.

Image (upper right): from https://thenounproject.com/

What Kamala Harris Means to My Boys

I’m not really not one for ceremony or even national tradition. I don’t talk to my kids enough about what goes on in the government and I may regret it someday. But on January 20th around 11:45 am, I yelled to my boys who were upstairs building a fort: “Sam! James! Get down here! You have to see this!”

Kamala Harris was about to be sworn in.

Although the refrain about this historic occasion has been, “This is a huge moment for little girls, especially little black girls,” I was also thinking, “This is a huge moment for little boys, especially little white boys.”

There is no debating the importance of kids seeing people who look like them ascend to the most powerful positions in this country. But it’s also important that we normalize it for those who have seen themselves in those positions for millennia.

When I tried to explain to Sam and James the historic nature of this inauguration, they were confused. “Why were girls or people with brown skin not allowed to be vice president?” For them, this just didn’t seem normal. Sam’s principal is a black man and one of James’ teachers is a black woman. So why couldn’t the vice president be a black woman?

I have a lot to learn about institutional racism. I’m also not a psychologist. And yes, we have a long way to go in terms of equity in this country. But I do know that something different is going on in my boys’ little brains than was mine at age four or five. They are internalizing something that should be normal for all of us. So while Harris certainly is going to make mistakes and will probably be disproportionately criticized for them, I hope, thanks in part to her, my kids never use race or gender as a reason to question someone’s leadership.

80% of our Eagle Scholars are black girls, and they are an impressive bunch. These are girls who will be arguing big cases in court, leading Fortune 500 companies, teaching my children in schools and treating my children in hospitals. They will be, as they are now, leaders in their ever-expanding circles. Thanks in part to Kamala Harris, perhaps one of my boys will work for them some day. And there will be nothing extraordinary about it.

21 Hopes for the Class of 2021

There’s a line from my favorite show of 2020, Ted Lasso, in which one of the characters shares a common British idiom, “It’s the hope that kills you.” It’s an extreme version of our “Don’t get your hopes up” and one that certainly fits 2020. During a pivotal scene in the show, Ted, a small-time college football coach turned British Premier League soccer manager (trust me, it works) challenges this claim. He argues that hope is what keeps us going.

So for 2021, in the spirit of Ted Lasso, I’d like to offer 21 hopes that I have for our class of 2021.

  1. They hang out together a lot, in person.
  2. They continue to spend time outdoors.
  3. They make college and career decisions based on what’s best for them, not what society expects.
  4. They continue to speak and act out for racial justice.
  5. They continue to unleash their creativity (for those of you who attended Ms. Bomphray’s poetry showcase, you know what I’m talking about!)
  6. They have mature conversations with people from different backgrounds and with different worldviews.
  7. They use credible sources.
  8. They cite their sources.
  9. They engage in the political process.
  10. They read books.
  11. They value compassion.
  12. They seek out challenges.
  13. They don’t wish away their childhood.
  14. They thank their friends, families, teachers, and coaches for their help.
  15. They do things for the sake of doing them, not to check a box or make themselves look good.
  16. They find a career they love.
  17. They cherish their experiences as much as (or more than) their possessions.
  18. They laugh a lot.
  19. They experience a relatively normal graduation ceremony.
  20. They don’t suffer any more losses.
  21. They remember that what they experienced in 2020, cliche as it may sound, will make them stronger.

Class of 2021 and everyone else, here’s to hoping in 2021, even when it seems foolish.

The Power of the One-On-One

Last Sunday, my son Sam went up to his elementary school for a socially-distanced meetup with his Kindergarten classmates, who to that point had only been iPad avatars. While I usually jump at the chance for his little brother to experience the super-combo of socialization and outdoor activity, I suggested Andrea take Sam on his own so I could take James, with whom I’d been having a tough time connecting. Three hours later, I said, incredulously, “Why don’t we do this more often?”

Anyone with children can relate. It’s something that comes up frequently in conversations with other parents: underappreciating the value of exclusive time with their children. We notice the small things in these interactions that are hard to pick up with other kids or partners around – the nervous laughter, the furrowed brows, the long pauses, the seemingly out-of-nowhere questions that reveal something important. It’s as if we can actually hear our kids thinking.

Turns out there is some logic around why one-on-one interactions are so powerful. “Relational Load” is a phenomenon that suggests that the more people involved in an interaction, the more taxing it is. Consider that in a one-on-one, you are only tracking the communication between you and one other person. Once you add a third person, the “load” increases to three, because now you’re tracking your communication with each person, plus their communication with each other. At four the load becomes six, at five it becomes ten, and by the time you get to eight people, the load is 28! No wonder you are so exhausted after a staff meeting or your student is exhausted after a day at school.

The one-on-one loses much less in a virtual setting than the large group interactions. My one-on-one conferences with students have never been more productive, honest, and focused. With no other students present, they have no choice but to engage. This is in stark contrast to my larger online presentations, which are essentially me trying to entertain a giant black hole.

So for your student, if they’ve had enough of you (or even if they haven’t), encourage them to reach out to a teacher or counselor for a one-on-one. They could also connect with an aunt or uncle or anyone else in a mentoring role who can provide that increasingly rare jewel we call “undivided attention.”

TOP: James and his grandma in a one-on-one


“Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient* with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.”

–Lao Tzu

*Patience: the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble or suffering without getting angry or upset.

I didn’t understand the true meaning of patience until I had kids.

Not only is patience paramount in parenting, but it’s also most critical at precisely the moment you have none left. Take bedtime. By 7:30, I’ve been through a full day of work, cooked a meal my kids won’t eat, run a few frustrating virtual errands, and sunken into a hazy food and stress-induced coma.

Right when the patience-meter is almost zero, James refuses to brush his teeth, Sam asks for a different dinner, and they both pick my least favorite, 30-page book for storytime. At this moment, although I have the “capacity to tolerate (this) trouble,” it’s really hard to do so “without getting upset.”

So by the definition I gave at the beginning, by the end of the day I am not a patient person.

As much as I marvel at the patience of adults in the current school setting–watching my wife breathe deeply as she re-teaches 25 4th-graders how to mute their mics for the 60th time, for example–because I interface mostly with students, they’re the ones who have me in awe right now.

Students are learning Calculus while watching their siblings. They’re rewriting assignments when their wifi dies. They’re teaching their parents how to use Canvas. They’re respectfully emailing teachers when they need extra help. They’re showing up on Fridays at voluntary study groups. All of this with a global pandemic and a historic election in the backdrop. Like our own children, students can certainly be frustrating, they can be absent-minded, they can be obstinant, they can even be ungrateful. But we cannot call them impatient.

With the pandemic and the election dragging on indefinitely, we’ll have to go deep in our reservoir for patience, not only as we wait for the outcomes, but as we relate to our opponents. Let’s turn to our students for inspiration on how to be patient at such a difficult time. In fact, let’s turn to them more often in general.

We may as well get used to the young people leading us. Soon enough, we’ll have no other choice.

Joke’s On Me

A month ago, my boys thought iPads only worked on airplanes. In light of the growing body of research about the dangers of kids and mobile devices, I was in the Anti-Tech-for-Young-Kids-Except-For-TV-Because-Hey-I-Gotta-Stay-Sane camp. So when my son’s school informed us he’d be receiving an iPad for Pre-Kindergarten, I was apoplectic. I had spent Sam’s entire life teaching him that iPads were evil.

I wouldn’t even utter the word “iPad” when it arrived. It’s a “learning pad,” I said, “and it only works during school time.”

So you can guess what happened after Sam had spent just ten minutes is his first Zoom meeting. “Dad. I can’t look at the screen anymore. I have to turn this off. You know screens are bad for me.”


I’d spend five years railing against something that we would need to rely on for the next several months, if not longer. The joke was on me. Suddenly I didn’t feel so high on my horse as Mr. Fishing and Golf Dad.

What I had perceived to be an advantage for Sam had now become a disadvantage, at precisely the time he needed to feel a sense of efficacy and belonging: his first experience in school. This reinforced a lesson I’ve been learning and relearning over the last six months: Embracing change, even when it goes against the very core of my being, is inevitable, and it’s probably healthy.

What I used to think was surrendering my values is now simply accepting reality.

Every day Andrea and I alternate between encouraging Sam to engage in this bizarre online Kindergarten world (25 5-year-olds singing “The Hello Song” with bad audio, for example) and telling him it’s okay to take a break. We want to instill the importance of education and of honoring commitments, but we also know a 5-year-old should probably put down the screen occasionally to wrestle with his brother.

So whether it’s Sam on his iPad, your 9th grader blaring his French horn in front of a Chromebook camera, or your 6th grader working on a project without ever meeting her group members, remote learning is forcing all of us—parents, educators, and students—to surrender what is ideal for what is real. It’s a hard lesson, and one especially young people often don’t learn until much later in life, but the optimist in me believes they will all be stronger for it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shut off the learning pad.

Looking Beyond the Lost Senior Year

This post originally appeared at Nerdy.com: https://www.nerdy.com/blog/2020/looking-beyond-the-lost-senior-year

If your house is home to a recent high school graduate, you’ve probably seen articles like this one, whose author argues that the truncated school years of millions of high school seniors will have a long-lasting, deleterious effect. No prom, no College Decision Day, no in-person graduation—none of the quintessential milestones and traditions that define the American high school experience. 

Many of my own students have used the term “lost” to describe their senior year. It’s sad. It’s unfair. It’s unprecedented and often traumatic. But what if there’s also something of a silver lining?

It is undeniable that many people have been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. Many individuals have lost jobs, lost family members, and experienced a suffocating pall of anxiety and depression. COVID-19 will go down in history as one of the defining events of our generation. In no way am I suggesting that this is, overall, good for people. Instead, I’m highlighting what might be some hopeful outcomes for high schoolers.

Let’s begin with the fact that American teenagers already experience anxiety and depression at a disproportionate clip. Two of the primary causes are being overscheduled and losing a close connection with their parents. Sleep deprivation among teenagers has reached staggering levels, with less than 9% of teenagers getting enough sleep. Here’s a typical schedule for a high school senior:

  • 6:30 a.m. — Wake up.
  • 7:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. — Attend school.
  • 3:00-5:00 p.m. — Attend an extracurricular. 
  • 5:00-9:00 p.m. — Work.
  • 9:00 p.m.-12:00 a.m. — Do homework and chores.
  • 12:30 a.m. — Go to sleep.

Somewhere in the day, your student might find the time for two potentially nutritious meals, often while multi-tasking and not always with their families.

Many high schoolers try to “catch up” on sleep on the weekends, but the notion that you can bank enough rest in two days to make up for five days of exhaustion is a fallacy. Even if they could catch up, they’re operating at a suboptimal level for five days, only to crash for two.

The schedule outlined above leaves no room for the spontaneous activities that are critical to mental health—time in nature, time with friends, and perhaps, yes, time with video games. I’m not advocating that your child loafs around all day. 

“But a brain is like any other muscle. Without sufficient rest, it will be pushed to the limit and torn apart.”

Basic neuroscience teaches us that a healthy brain, teenage or not, needs idle time so the subconscious can do its important work of background process learning. If it means they’re happier and healthier, so be it. Maybe daydreaming should be considered a legitimate extracurricular activity.  

Another fallacy in America is that teenagers are hard-wired to be rebels, that they want no part of their parents once they reach puberty. On the contrary, this is exactly the time when your child wants to communicate more. In many other countries and ancient societies, the teenage years are and were a time to engage with elders in order to learn how to navigate adulthood.

In The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, Ned Johnson and William Stixrud talk about home as a safe base, “[where] they can go to seek a respite from it all, where they feel safe and loved unconditionally, where they can fully relax, so that they can gather the energy to go back out.” For some families, the COVID-19 pandemic may have created a desperately needed extended time for seniors at their safe base. 

I spoke with a mother of one of my students, who, despite acknowledging the challenges of being stuck at home with three children, admitted, “I feel blessed to be able to spend this time with my (senior) daughter before she goes to college. Before, she was going to practice, to work, to all kinds of extracurriculars. And right now she is going through a bit of a personal crisis. So it’s really important to connect.” Pre-quarantine, this mom may have sent her child off to college without addressing things that only mom and daughter can suss out together. Another mother told me pre-pandemic she was lucky to have family dinners a few times a month. Now it’s every night.

Jogging around my neighborhood, I see teenagers and parents talking to each other. At the state park near my house, a normally sleep-deprived, annoyed son was out kayaking with his mom, smiling and enjoying the outdoors together. It’s as if stripping away all of the trivialities of daily life has reminded parents why they love their children—and vice versa. 

Take note: I’m not suggesting that a shelter-in-place order is what students need for the foreseeable future, or that there haven’t been some trying moments for all families. Kids need their friends, they need to get out of the house, they need to engage with teachers and counselors and coaches for a sense of identity and belonging. 

Yes, losing some of the most fun and important parts of senior year is a bummer. But let’s not forget that in March 2020, we already had a crisis on our hands, one that has been brewing for years: the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of our teenagers. 

From here, from this Great Pause, perhaps we can build a new model for the quintessential American teenage experience. 

What is Essential?

The COVID-19 crisis has, in short order, reframed the way I view myself, my family, my community, my work, and my world. Although as of this writing no one in my family has been stricken with or died from the virus, several students and colleagues have lost family members. Several more will follow.

I’ve reached out to students to see how they’re doing, several of whom are likely not responding because they are dealing directly with this crisis in some way. Of those responding, one is working long hours at a grocery store, another is babysitting her brother while her mom works overtime at Amazon where someone recently tested positive, and another is being kept from his mother and grandmother who are in the hospital with Coronavirus.

As an educator married to another educator, I am acutely aware of how fortunate we are to be working from home and in good health. Although I am an advocate for public education, it is debatable whether my job is essential right now.

Which begs the question of what is actually essential: medical workers, first responders, police officers, grocers, delivery drivers, pharmacists. In the words of governor Whitmer, people who work in industries that “protect and sustain life.” Three weeks ago that list would have looked much longer: lawyers, investment bankers, pro athletes, filmmakers, YouTubers. No offense to any of those professions, but they are not essential right now. Valuable in many ways, yes. Essential? No.

What is essential is what we can’t live without.

So in the context of this national crisis, how might this change our students’ answer to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Might this be a chance to inspire our students not to pursue careers that earn the most money, but that are the most “essential?”

In a prophetic moment, a few weeks ago I polled our Eagle Scholars (graphic in the upper right) about potential career paths. I was stunned by the results: public service was the most popular response, over STEM, Business, the Arts, and Humanities.

Maybe this crisis will elevate farmers, small grocery store owners, nurses, first responders, police officers, and delivery drivers to a higher status. In short, jobs whose primary goal is not to profit from others, but to serve others, pandemic or not.

When we come out of this – and we will come out of this – perhaps it will have inspired a new generation driven not by rugged individualism but social responsibility.

I hope we’re all here to see it.

What is the Universe Telling me?

COVID-19 is forcing us to the right.
(Image Credit)

Regardless of age, health or location, the smartest people I know have self-quarantined. On their counsel, I’m also home with my wife and two boys working remotely and working harder domestically. Between looking for ways to keep Sam and James occupied, checking in with friends, and talking to my parents over the fence in a bizarre Home Improvement meets Every Body Loves Raymond scenario, this question is on a loop in my head:  What is the universe telling me right now?

Consider the education system.  With classes going online for several weeks (or months), parents, teachers, and administrators are rethinking everything we do and how we do it. Suddenly high stakes testing, class size, and evaluations are meaningless.  Soon enough, we are going to have some strange bedfellows: public, charter, private, and online education.

What is the universe telling me?

If we get this right, we could be looking at the biggest positive change in the history of American education.

A month ago, I bragged about having my head in the sand.  I was in a state of blissful myopia, ignoring social media and the news, mainstream and otherwise. Now? Being uninformed is not only irresponsible, it can be deadly. As someone young enough to not be at high risk and old enough to know better, it’s incumbent upon me to know what’s happening so I can act accordingly.

What is the universe telling me?

Blissful ignorance is selfish.

I checked in with my friend Chris over the phone for our longest call in years.  After acknowledging the gravity of the situation, he cut the tension with a story about heading to Kroger in a Hazmat suit to buy salad dressing for his 80-year-old neighbor. For the first time in months, I was literally rolling on the floor laughing. 

What is the universe telling me?

Seek out opportunities to laugh really hard with other people.

As a sports fan, March and April are truly the best time of year: March Madness, opening day in baseball, The Masters, the NFL draft, the NBA playoffs.  Typically most days have been full of options for escape, even during my darkest times, since childhood. No more.  Time to read, write letters, exercise, meditate, call people I haven’t called in awhile, engage and be fully present with my family. In other words, be Dionysus, not Appollonius (see graphic above).

What is the universe telling me?

Slow down, breathe, move inward. When this passes, we will all emerge more whole.

What Cordell Taught Me About Diversity

Cordell (far right, suit), Me (middle, offensively unstylish turquoise shirt)


1. ethnic variety, as well as socioeconomic and gender variety, in a group, society, or institution.

2. A cliché term used in mission statements, tag lines, sales pitches, and school websites to show that an organization is more than just a bunch of people who look the same.

On the first day of first grade at Cook Elementary School in Flint, I noticed I was one of three white kids. I was too young to recognize the novelty of my situation but old enough to feel uncomfortable. Some time that first day, a smiling, stout little kid with glasses approached me and asked if I wanted to be his friend.

Turns out we lived a block from each other and ended up spending countless afternoons hanging out, laughing, talking sports, and having deep, seemingly endless conversations about things that mattered.

We both enrolled in Flint’s Magnet Program in elementary school, a place where true diversity of thought, creed, class, race, existed. Cordell and I were lynchpins in a posse of class clowns whose mission was to earn As and Bs while acting like complete imbeciles. (Apologies to Ms. Butler, Mr. Butler, Mr. Debevec, and Ms. Hearn for all of our indiscretions, and thanks for being truly amazing teachers).

Though we remained in contact, Cordell and I parted ways in middle school (I moved across town to a whiter, more affluent area) and then reunited for high school. I remember heated debates in 9th grade English about controversial, complex social and political issues like race and class. Cordell’s bellowing, full-bodied laugh always cut the tension of these arguments. I longed for that laugh because I often left these arguments feeling as uncomfortable as I did that first day at Cook. I found myself questioning my beliefs, and wondered if Cordell thought, no matter how close we were, I would never really understand him. After all, I was just a privileged white kid.

Since those days in Flint, which we still reminisce on as some of our best, Cordell and my paths have converged and diverged: he studied African American History with plans to become a teacher and is now working in the private sector; I studied journalism and ended up in public education. Cordell coached baseball in Dexter; I coached golf in Redford. He’s a bachelor; I’m married with two kids. He moved back to Flint; I live in Ann Arbor. He believes in the power of social media; I’m convinced it’s a hellscape of broken dreams. He’s got a deep understanding of the history of Black oppression; I’ll probably never truly get it.

A few days ago, I shot Cordell a text (unfortunately that is now our primary form of communication) to get his take on the presidential elections. In a few words, he challenged me, then shared an article about the folly of the “Everyone needs college” argument. I read the article, processed it, and shared it with several people. Again, I began to question the foundations of my belief system, partly because of what it said mostly because of who shared it with me.

So what does this all have to do with diversity? I believe diversity (of thought, creed, race, political views, etc) holds the most power when it’s set in common experiences and deep relationships. Yes, there is value in reading about other people’s experiences in interacting with people of diverse backgrounds. But it’s only because I see Cordell as a complex human with nuanced (and sometimes fluid) ideologies and values, that I can learn and grow from him and actually change my mind.

Last month, we brought 50 students to U of M Ann Arbor for a tour that focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. When I looked at the pictures of this visit, I felt like I was looking at the Flint Magnet Program all over again: bright, thoughtful young people with diverse backgrounds sharing a common, powerful experience (see pictures below).

During panel discussions, U of M students and staff talked about the importance of learning to study with, break bread with, and live with people whose backgrounds were vastly different from their own. At one point, I teared up, overcome with a unique emotion – some combination of nostalgia and pride. While many first-gen, minority, and rural students struggle mightily with this transition, because of the common, diverse experiences and deep relationships, I believe our students will be just fine. That is a credit to the program, the school, our staff, but most importantly the students and you, the parents.

Cordell, if you’re reading this, thanks for being such a good teacher all these years.

* A giant thank you to my good friend and Flint Magnet product Mischa Boardman, Kat Walsh, Alesha Montgomery, DJ Hawkins, Catalina Ormsby, Laura Saavedra, DJ Jackson, Antonio Junior-Robins, and everyone else affiliated with U of M’s Center for Educational Outreach who made this possible. It was truly an amazing experience and one that created several future Wolverines.


“Educated Fools.” Thomas Geoghegan. The New Republic.https://newrepublic.com/article/156000/educated-fools-democrats-misunderstand-politics-social-class

Dear Friend Who’s About to Have a Kid: Life is About to Get Simple

Dear Friend Who’s About to Have a Kid,

As an expectant father, most of what you’ve been told is that parenting is really hard. Other synonyms: difficult, tough, challenging, life-altering, impossible, a grind. But “hard” seems to be the adjective of choice for the modern, unsolicited advice-giving parent, usually along with a sigh and a head shake.

Sleepless nights, maddening carseat scenarios, nightmare plane rides, strain on marriage, strain on space, strain on body, strain on professional life…just a lot of strain, really.

So I’m not going to sit here and regale you with the countless other reasons why having a child will be the hardest thing you do. On the contrary, I’d like to make the case that, on balance, parenting will actually make your life a lot simpler.

Some reasons:

You will always have an excuse to arrive late, leave early, or not show up at all.

No more hemming and hawing when you get these texts:

Colleague: “See you tonight at the Christmas party?”

Boss: “Can you stay late to finish the project?”

In-laws: “Wanna pop over to watch the latest Meryl Streep’s vehicle?”

Friends: “Moving again. Help me lift the couch?”

A simple “Can’t make it. Kid thing” will suffice. No explanation necessary. Keep responses vague and you don’t even have to lie.

Best part is you can always hedge with something like: “Gonna do my best to make it, but if so, will probably need to leave early. Kid thing.”

Better yet, don’t respond at all and no one will hold it against you. No one gets the benefit of the doubt like a parent.

You won’t need to set an alarm.

It can be glorious when they shuffle in with bed-head and snuggle you on a Saturday morning. It can be maddening on a Monday when you were up with them until 3 am and you’re trying to get 20 more minutes of uninterrupted sleep before a full workday. Regardless, it’s one fewer item you need to worry about. Congratulations, your wife will birth the world’s most sophisticated alarm clock.

You will become more efficient.

My folks watched my boys the other day and I accomplished more in three hours that my pre-kid self would have in two weeks. Something about having finite amounts of time that ramps up your productivity.

You won’t need motivation to get (or stay) in shape.

There’s a reason we’re built to have kids in our twenties: millenials can eat nuclear waste between Fortnite binges and still stay fit. At 40, a trip to the post office saps most of my energy. But for the first few years, 90% of parenting is getting your kid tired enough to sleep, so physical fitness is as important as emotional resilience. If I don’t stay in shape, the nightly game of “Dinosaur King on the Mountain” in my basement could put me back into physical therapy.

You will never need motivation to go to work or to stay at your job.

Mouth to feed = “I don’t need this job.” Mouths to feed = “I can’t lose this job.”

You will become a better person.

Imagine life with a parrot on your shoulder and a mirror in front of your face, both reminding you, incessantly, of your faults.

Actual exchange from this morning in the van:

Sam: “Dad, can you put on the Superman song?”

Me: “Buddy, I can’t use my phone while I’m driving.”

Sam: “Why?”

Me: “Because it’s not safe.”

Sam: “But you just did it back there when you turned on the Batman song.”

Me: “I know buddy, but…(stammering). Hey, look at that excavator over there!”

It’s not even that you become a better person because you necessarily want to become a better person. It’s just less of a hassle.

So friend, as you await this miracle, take comfort knowing that just because something is more challenging, doesn’t mean it’s more complicated.

I leave you with the words of one of my favorite minimalists, Henry David Thoreau:

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

Fatherhood will afford you to let alone pretty much everything.

Except what matters.

— Rory

Wanna hear interviews with dads? Check out The Detroit Dadcast.

Swimming Lessons: A Microcosm of Parenting

Last month I signed up my three-year-old son for swimming lessons at the local YMCA. One of my 2019 goals is to make sure both of my boys are semi-proficient swimmers, and I knew if I didn’t pay up front, it was never going to happen. Most of my friends are Goldfish Swim School zealots, but the one time I went there I was freaked by the bizarre, flourescent setup in which parents ogle at their kids through a window while checking Instagram and paying bills.

No, I wanted to be a good citizen and do lessons through the YMCA, a community organization that overcharges me for adequate services.

My wife and I prepped Sam throughout the week with the typical feigned excitement when you want your kid to do something you’re pretty sure he’s not ready to do. “It will be awesome, buddy! You love swimming!” But we knew it wasn’t the swimming part that was going to be a problem. It was the part about handing him to a strange person in a large body of water amidst cacophonous echos with elderly women AquaZumba-ing in the deep end.

It’s a lot to take in for a marginally-adjusted adult like myself, let alone a 3-year-old.

Nevertheless, we loaded the car and headed to the Y, me with high hopes, Sam with other plans.

I’m going to pause the story to share with you the emotions I felt, in order, from the time we left the house to the when we got home.










This was in a 45-minute time frame. I defy you to name anything, aside from the second half of a Detroit Lions game, that can evoke this range of emotions.

Here’s what happened.

Excited: As we drove down to the Y, I made up some cheesy song about swimming lessons and noticed Sam crack a smile. “I’m winning him over,” I thought.

Nervous: Upon entering the building, Sam clinged to my leg like an oversized slug and started crying, “I don’t want to do swimming lessons, daddy.”

Hopeful: We got him dressed in the locker room and he started to peel himself away from my leg and giggle a little. “We’ve got this.”

Frustrated: Because it was our first time there, I didn’t know the protocol. There were no clear signs and no one to direct me where to go; I could sense Sam feeling my uncertainty. “Damn it, should’ve gone to Goldfish.”

Horrified: When I finally sorted out where to go, I walked over to the side of the pool with Sam and tried to hand him to the poor teacher, whose other two students were already in the water, frolicking around with no anxiety whatsoever. Then, Sam let out a blood-curdling scream so loud that I’m certain everyone underwater heard. This scream quickly morphed into an all-out hysterical cry, and I could feel the 100+ people in the pool area, the folks in the cardio room on the second floor, as well as the folks in the lobby staring through the giant windows (actually worse than Goldfish, upon reflection), at which point I was overwhelmed with

Regret: For being so selfish, for projecting my 2019 resolution on my kid, who just may not have been ready for this.

Sadness: So Sam and I sat on the ledge watching the other kids enjoy their lesson, while I was careful not to make eye contact with the other parents — there was nothing I was going to say that wouldn’t be somewhat hurtful to my son, even if he didn’t understand it. I was sad for me for thinking I could make this work, sad for Sam that he couldn’t enjoy the lesson. After the silence, Sam looked up and said, “Dad, can I still watch Transformers?”

“No, son. Remember you had to do the lesson. You didn’t even get in the water.”

I could see his little brain humming. I thought he might react with another wave of tears, but he just nudged a little closer.

“Maybe you could show your teacher how you can jump in?”

This negotiation continued for the entire 30-minute lesson, all the while I was holding out hope that he might join the other kids, if only for five minutes.

Pride: He didn’t. He did, however, in a Toddy Gurley-esque burst of speed, make a hard buttonhook cut to the right, sprint to the edge of the pool and launch himself so confidently and violently that you would’ve thought he knew how to swim. The teacher darted over to grab him as I caught the eye of the lifeguard whose omnipresent “I’m bored as hell” look became “That kid’s got balls.” The teacher helped Sam out of the water and handed him to me, at which point I said, “Sorry about that. I bet you’ve seen it all.”

“Not that,” she said.

In the car, I cried. I’m not sure if it was the sadness or the pride, or just the overwhelming love I felt for Sam. I think part of the reason I cried is because I knew this was just the beginning in a long series of experiences in which I’ll have to navigate the space between forcing Sam to do things that are difficult and letting him wait until he’s ready. Perhaps parenting is 90% that sentence and then a bunch of miscellaneous stuff.

Lesson #2 is next Saturday, 10:45 sharp. I’m beginning to think the lesson may not be his.