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  • Writer's pictureLiz Gardner

Intrepid, Beautiful Explorers

The New York Times recently ran a beautiful, powerful piece about how young people have been navigating this past pandemic year, with all their vulnerability and strength on full display. In pictures and words, they describe their experiences of having had to face the disruption head on, sharing the challenges, struggles, losses — the darkness — and the small mercies and triumphs, too. For many students, including my own, finding the light in all of this — building over time resilience and grit and quite often, a new understanding of themselves that has been seasoned with solitude and creativity and the courage to sit with the discomfort of the times — has enabled them to transfigure it into something meaningful for themselves. For others, though, who have been floundering in a vat of online-school-wasteland that has reduced their academic and social livelihood to a series of lifeless Zoom classes — video and audio turned off — there's the sense that they've lost themselves in all of this, that they've missed out on far too much to get any of it or enough of it back, that they are having a hard time moving on because so much feels incomplete.

My heart goes out to our collective young people, who have been so impacted by this pandemic — and who've had the most to lose.

As the school year winds down, mercifully, I continue to be so impressed by how my own students have so bravely navigated so much difficult terrain this past year. They all got through. They kept at it. They learned to appreciate the gifts of solitude, of slowing down, of getting out into nature more. They were able to reconsider so much of school culture — in particular, the comparison culture that so often defines high school — and realized what was most important to them.

I think just making it through should be considered a major triumph for each and every one of them.

And yet, I know many students and parents alike (okay, mostly parents) are fretting about their grades this year — that usual measure of academic "success" and performance that feels utterly incompetent and out of place right now. I am sensing some panic, as parents rush to assess their child's performance within the old framework, without considering the greater context at work, and the hidden, more important growth that lies just underneath. There really should be a giant asterisk next to this entire year — in fact, from March 2020 on. There's been so much potentially traumatizing loss, disruption, and impact on essential developmental growth, that to expect students to shine in all the ways they typically do or would is ridiculous, unfair — cruel, even.

Can we talk about the idea of success for a minute? This pandemic changed everything for students. Many no longer had access to the kind of opportunities and experiences that typically would have given them a chance to "succeed." Most were stuck at home for hours, days, weeks, months on end, without being able to head out and do what they were supposed to be doing as teenagers: experimenting with the ongoing re-invention of self, of how and who they are; meeting up with study buddies; taking chances and trying new things — and separating, achingly, from their families while spending more time with their peer group. Instead, most were stuck in front of a screen, in their bedrooms, their friends cordoned off, each marooned on their own desert islands, set adrift without access to the very things that typically ground them — and set their wings in motion — in their adolescent journeying. Extracurriculars and activities, both in school and out, were very nearly put to a standstill. For many, there were no classroom discussions. No conversations in the cafeteria. No chance to shine on the playing fields, the stage. Soulless online learning and endless months of isolation at a time when they were supposed to be off galavanting into their own burgeoning individuated selves left many flatlining, detached, unable to breathe. Grades? Really? How can we possibly hold kids accountable for grades, when so many of their classes lacked any of the usual vim and verve, presence and interaction, creativity and interest, that typically engages them and drives the learning process? Students have endured an endless succession of losses — for many, no sports, no plays, no performances, no prom, no graduation ceremonies and parties, no public life, no closure. How to move on when you feel like you haven't been able to experience all the usual aspects of school life that are supposed to enable growth, college readiness, and the most essential things — independence, confidence, and that ever-burgeoning sense of self?

How, then, do we measure success during a time of such disruption and uncertainty? How do we measure growth? What's most important?


“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”

In my work with my students — and with myself — and in my role as a mother, too, the subject of success comes up a lot. I remember well conversations with my own mother about what success seemed to mean to her — and what I wanted it to mean for me. Not always the same, as it should be. My sons' exploration of what success means to them has also inspired my own. In turn, my own definition of success has continued to sharpen as I get older and continue to grow — become more me.

An essential part of growing up is figuring out what success means to you — and then working to create your own path towards building a life that meets your own criteria. This is not always easy to do in this world. There exist many predetermined paths and programs for each of us, the majority of which are not of our own making; our task is to be aware of the messaging we've been subjected to, shed the old habit energies, and make our own.

David Orr's quote above has been a driving force for the way I work with my students for many years. I recognize that the building blocks of a happy, healthy life — and the more intrinsic rewards that go with that — aren't necessarily found in the usual parameters of "success" as our culture so often defines it, but more often at the core and along the outer edges too of the ongoing individual growth that happens from the inside out.

A large part of my work with students involves helping them build their own tool kits to not only help them know themselves, yes, especially as they unfold into a new sense of becoming and belonging, but also to cultivate skill sets and design strategies, mindsets, systems, and daily rhythms that can help them engage authentically in their lives, stay open and connected — and feel capable of achieving whatever possibility they choose to create for themselves. This is often the more systematic rigor, the incremental changes that can become the foundations of long-lasting, deeply powerful growth and transformation — those intrinsic rewards that often lie just beyond the more raucous, shiny external medals of our presentational, comparison culture.

“No one else has access to the world you carry around within yourself; you are its custodian and entrance. No one else can see the world the way you see it. No one else can feel your life the way you feel it. Thus it is impossible to ever compare two people because each stands on such different ground. When you compare yourself to others, you are inviting envy into your consciousness; it can be a dangerous and destructive guest.”

― John O'Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Dangerous and destructive guest, indeed, particularly when starting the college process. So many students decry the comparison culture that defines their school experience — and are glad for the times when they've been able to get away from it, opt out, or simply show up in the moment to stand for something that feels more in line with what they believe, with who they are. But that culture still so often defines the college process, from how we think about that all-important junior year to how we think we're supposed to create those college lists. I often hear both students and parents alike frame their decisions around what they think everyone is doing, what they think they're supposed to be doing, and what looks best. "He should take as many AP classes so he can get into a good college." "It'll look bad if you don't take ..." It's all too easy to lose your sense of self in the process, and let that grounding in who you are and what truly matters to you get hijacked by anxiety and the belief that you have to do it this one way, otherwise, you'll doom yourself. When we focus on expected end results, attach ourselves to an outcome rather than the process, we will suffer, indeed, both disappointment and loss. We miss out on so many amazing opportunities to build a more intrinsic rewards-system, one that includes a powerful infrastructure and tool kit, that fosters gratitude for the here and now, builds presence and belonging, and ultimately empowers the individual to enjoy the just being here as well as the getting-there, wherever that is — the walking, exploring, and journeying along the way — and truly shine from the inside out.

“But the beauty is in the walking — we are betrayed by destinations.” ~ Gwyn Thomas

The problem is, we want there to be a guarantee. We crave certainty. But life isn't like that, especially now. There wasn't ever any guarantee, of course, that if we work hard and get good grades, we get to go to a "good college," and then get a "good job," make a lot of money, etc., as if this were the end-all — but our culture sure has tried to convince us that there has been some guarantee, that this track is what life is about, and would somehow brings about contentment. Oy. It's time to reconsider this idea — that we should all be on a linear path, that college is the only way, that every student should try to get into the "best" school possible, whatever that means, and that one's sense of self-worth is determined by all the shiny medals of this world — the accumulation of titles and rankings and scores and material wealth — rather than who and how one is in this world in character, behavior, radiance, in the imprint one leaves on others — and on how one lives "well in one's places."

The other problem is that this kind of thinking, trying to second guess and outwit the system by making decisions based on what you think is supposed to happen, takes us out of the present moment and decimates the possibility inherent in every moment — to cultivate a more mindful, deliberate sense of presence and awareness that nurtures us from the inside out, spills over into our interactions and exchanges with others in the most wonderful way. This is the way of being that can move us along, focused not on any expected outcome but on the process — of learning, of being, of growing, of becoming. This, in turn, engenders some beautiful forward motion on a path of our own making. Isn’t what we want for our kids?

What do you want to build within and for yourself? Who do you want to be? How do you want to be? What's important to you? What do you love? How might you deepen your engagement with the things that matter most to you, with the things you most want to stretch and explore and strengthen in you?

Figuring out what lies beyond high school — whether a two or four year college, trade school, work, service, travel, or something else — takes time and work. And figuring out what you want to get out of any experience requires you to know yourself — and to keep knowing yourself. There is no defined path. Rather than getting stuck on one singular track of someone else’s design, students can be encouraged to do the work to understand who they are and what matters most to them, and to cultivate an honest dialogue with themselves that explores what success means to them, that breaks open the storylines and voices at work in their process so they can tune in more closely to their own intuition and sense of self. It's a learning process — and can be a beautiful one at that. And it allows them to be able to create an ever-growing space that is truly their own, so they can be their own cartographers, mapping out their world one step, one day at a time.

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – American philosopher Eric Hoffer

Parents, of course, can do the same — taking the time to better understand their own storylines and expectations that might be entering, even intruding upon, their child’s journey, and doing some unpacking and healing themselves.

We are at a threshold, after all — we are coming out of a pandemic slowly in this country, and in particular, here in New England, but still hoping for more sustained, continued forward motion globally. We are starting, gradually, to resume our public lives, taking note of the way our public selves have changed over these past months, of how we’ve all, the whole of us, changed — and getting more clear about how we want to spend our time, and how we don’t, who we are and how we want to be. A decided journeying into new possibilities along the spectrum of individual and collective — particularly if we bring a more deliberate mindfulness into our practice of paying attention.

We have an opportunity to do things differently. For our kids, who have suffered so many losses during this pandemic, we can certainly encourage and allow for more growth to happen in new ways that honor the individual, recognize the old storylines that just keep them small, and instead, empower them to open up their map and see lots of different possible pathways. We can loosen our grip on the insistence that grades are everything, and instead, celebrate the small victories and tender mercies in the day to day, focusing on things that are feeling right, on growth and progress, even if it is not linear, even if it cannot be measured and weighed, even if it is elusive, tentative. We can be patient. We can acknowledge how hard this year has been for them, listen to them, see them, support them. We can encourage them to engage with our help in the ongoing process of learning and unlearning and relearning, in exploring their outer edges, in discovering, always, new things about themselves that they can assimilate and respond to with verve and grace and authenticity. To meet themselves where they are, and to trust in themselves, and in the journey...

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