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.

The Real Culprit

I’ve begun a regular practice of one-on-one lunch meetings with students. And while spending so much time in the cafeteria has changed my views on a lot of things (for example, unlike in the movies it’s quite civil in there and the food is actually decent), it has only solidified my view on something else.

One of the questions I ask my students — specifically those who are struggling — as they attempt to jam a spicy chicken sandwich in 11 minutes: What is the main reason you are not achieving what you are capable of achieving?

Not “The work is too hard.” 
Not “I have a new girlfriend.” 
Not “I’m too busy with sports.”

You guessed it: “I spend too much time on my phone.”

To be fair, ask any adult and if they’re honest, this statement would apply to them as well — the average person checks his/her phone between 50 and 200 times per day. Consider the learning, the productivity, the attention, the ability to connect with people, the deep thinking, that is lost when we are constantly jumping like Pavlov’s dogs to a tiny glowing box that probably has nothing consequential to show us.

Ironically, the founders of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other tech behemoths are vigilant about their kids and phones; one of the reasons for their success is that they were able to stay hyper-focused for long periods of time. For more on this, check out The Wait Until 8th pledge. Don’t our kids deserve the same?

A 2017 grad who is now at U of M told me he leaves his phone in his dorm room, then leaves the building to study. How many of us could do that without triggering some anxiety?

I’m not suggesting that phones are inherently evil, or that they don’t offer some fantastic benefits. They save me those annoying trips to the bank, for example. They’ve also allowed me to bow out of a dinner party without an awkward conversation.

But let’s be real about what is lost when our students, at a time when their brains are most malleable, choose Youtube, Snapchat, FaceTime, etc, when there is studying to be done and, more importantly, a living, breathing world to experience.

For a deeper dive into how screen time is affecting our kids and what you can do about it, please join us on March 6th at 6:30 for a special screening of the acclaimed film, Screenagers. Details here.

In the meantime, I’ll be making kids put away their phone at lunch so they can focus on our conversation…and not choking on that chicken sandwich.