is a tough one. A blog that must be written with infinite care. People I love
are involved, and the subject is painful to think about. The overarching
essential question: What are our real purposes in educating children in America--what
are we preparing them for?
that question to my personal circumstances at the moment, however, it comes out
like this: Are we increasingly focused on the wrong goals in our schools? Have
we stopped paying attention to the qualities and competencies that really
matter in shaping healthy adults, in favor of empty credentials, data targets
and media spin?
week, my son's good buddy, Erik, died of catastrophic injuries sustained in a
car crash. Erik was more than Alex's confidante, cruising companion and
photography partner. He was a long-time Friday night basement dweller, chez
Flanagan--part of a tight-knit group of "car guys," who survived and
thrived in high school by creating their own society (and making my basement
smell like Teenage Boy for approximately five years). When Alex was in 10th
grade, he spent $50 of his own money to buy a huge, ugly sectional sofa at a
garage sale, which the guys creatively re-arranged into a kind of subterranean bunkhouse
for six. I gave up making them pancakes and smoky links on Saturday mornings
somewhere around the time they got driver's licenses, also the point at which
they began sleeping past noon. These boys are like brothers to each other and
sons to me; many of them were also my students in middle school.
played the trombone in my middle school band. His wonderful parents (and often,
his grandparents) attended concerts, traveled with the band on field trips and
supported Erik in all his academic and extra-curricular goals. Erik was affable, genuine, kind and
responsible--he took care of our dogs when we went on vacation. The accident
occurred the day before Erik's 22nd birthday. He was living at home. He was
tight with his older sister, traveled with his family, and hunted and fished
with his dad. He took photography classes at community college. He also held a
variety of jobs since high school.
never failed to first say hello to us, Flanagan's parental units, when he was
over. Last summer, he stopped en route to the basement for a little chat while
I was working at the computer. He told me he was currently employed spreading
asphalt, part of a construction crew. "That sounds hot and boring," I
said. He stood up and struck an Abercrombie pose--thumbs in the belt loops, jaw extended. "But haven't
you noticed how buff I'm getting?" he said, and broke into a grin. A job
was a job--and I had to admit that he was lookin' good, all right.
worst part of losing Erik is what he will not become: a great husband, a
terrific dad, a good neighbor, a productive and reliable career-employee. All
of the best parts of Erik's adult character were already established; he just
needed more time. It was painful to see the sad and stricken faces of his
friends, home from their current lives at school and work, shockingly adult in
their dark suits. What lessons can they take away from this loss? Quoting Jackson Browne: Nothing survives, but the way we live our lives. And as my Lutheran pastor friend says--grief is the price we pay for loving someone.
a cliché to ask what you would do today, if you knew you had only 24 hours to
live--but that thought ran through my head constantly over the past week. If
you knew your child's life would be rudely cut short just as he approached
adulthood, what would your priorities be? Would it be pursuing the traditional school
model of success--grade points, honors night, stress over the right competitive
numbers to leverage his place in the next academic institution or workplace? Or
would it be spending more time with friends, sharing family events and stories,
working and playing, enjoying and exploring life's possibilities?
we work with children, we have no idea how they will turn out--a truth that
ought to be both obvious and humbling, but is routinely ignored by educators.
We don't know who will be rich, who will be malicious, who will have great
power and influence--or who will unexpectedly be lost to bad fortune. All we
can do is try to stay focused on what matters most. Tonight, I am thinking that
a joyful life, no matter how long, is a life well-lived. The rest is unimportant, in the long run.
Image: Alex (l.) & Erik (r.)