I'm asked from time to time (mostly, I think, because some people are curious but reluctant to ask) what it's like to be in my particular spot in life. Retired from teaching, sixty-one years old, raising two babies about thirty years after I raised two other babies-- as my wife and I have said at various times over the last decade, we are kind of off the map here.
So my honest answer is that I'm figuring out what it's like, trying to grow into it. But here's what I know, and I promise, beyond this navel gazing, there's a point about education.
With the twins, I can feel all the usual things-- the checking and rechecking of the developmental mileposts and getting anxious when it seems as if, maybe, they're lagging. And there is no doubt in my mind that this is far, far worse than it was thirty years ago. I already knew that-- I spent the tail end of my career teaching students who were pulled out to a high-tension stretched-thin level of anxiety driven by the certainty that they had to be on The Path or their lives would be desolate and disastrous. It's not their fault. Their parents are panicked, and why not-- there shrinking of the comfortable middle class means that folks are increasingly likely to end up either rich or poor, winner or loser, feast or famine. Despite that, I suspect we spend too much time anticipating disaster that could destroy us around every corner.
At any rate, I can feel that pull with the twins. They're about twenty months-- why isn't their language development further along? Are they too clingy and fragile? Should we re-try the thousand-and-one techniques for getting them to sleep in their own beds all night? They're almost two-- should we start looking for a pre-school, because lord knows we need to get their math and reading skills going here. After all, time's a-wasting.
I feel all of that, but at the same time I know that we will turn around a few times and they will be young men. Before you know it, they'll live on the other side of the country and we'll be futiley trying too get them on the phone. They'll have families of their own, with their own struggles and challenges, occurring (if life in this small town runs true to form) some place beyond our immediate reach. I know it will happen, because for me it is happening already.
American society has always leaned into the hustle, but we now live in desperate haste, and we have successfully communicated both the haste and the desperation to our children. Kindergartners must do what first graders, even second graders used to do. Why? What benefits will come from it? Don't ask-- just get moving. Go! Go! Go! Now! Now! Now! Make sure that four year old is learning letters-- you don't want to be left behind.
There's nothing wrong with learning early. One of my grandsons, a preschooler living oh so far away, has discovered that he can use letters to spell words, and no scientist in the history of the world has been as excited to discover anything. But nobody pushed him. Nobody sat him down at a desk and said, "You can go play when you've written your own name five times."
If there's anything we routinely ignore in education, it's that people get where they're going in their own way in their own time. That doesn't mean that people don't benefit from a push, a nudge, a little pressure. But to try to push everyone down the same track at the same speed to the same place is a fool's game.
So when a son demands to be held off his nap, or has to curl up in bed with us (and by "curl" I mean "fling his legs around like a sleeping kung-fu master") there is always a voice that says to push him to be more grown up, but that voice is drowned out by the one that says, "I would swear it was just yesterday that I held my daughter like this, and now she's thousands of miles away and busy enough that I'll be luck to catch her on the phone this week." And I leave the child right where he is.
One of the great mysteries, for me at least, of education reform is how much energy is directed toward eradicated childhood, how little trust there is in our children. We must push and contrive and control their "educational achievement," as if they were not already natural learning machines of great and terrible beauty. As if they were not built to grow, quickly and soon, despite our best efforts.
I have always described the business of education as that of helping people become more fully themselves, learning to be what it means to be fully human in the world, and seeing my four children-- two on either end of that business-- only makes me more acutely aware of awesomely mysterious, brutally challenging, and heartbreakingly swift the business is.
I've watched people caught in the middle, teens working their way through, my whole career. It's messy. It's filled with obstacles (and obstacles are not always bad-- they're the weight against which we build our strength). And it flies by on its own; why some folks feel the need to accelerate-- well, why be in a hurry to get to the end?
Education is part art, part science, but it is not a job for technicians. You cannot engineer tiny humans as if they were toasters. They are not machinery on which you can press button to reliably achieve result X. They are also not mysterious wisps at which you vaguely wave your hand and somehow they transform in magical ways, but it's the button pushers, the technicians, who hold sway in education these days.
Are there secrets that I learned from my first two children that I can apply now? Ha. I'm older now, and if not wiser, at least less of an ass. Like every other parent, I've learned that the secret is there's no secret; love them, pay attention, listen, hold them while you can, let them go and grow when you must. Be with them as they are and not as you wish they were. Do not rush the time; it will move swiftly all on its own.
Teaching is not that different. Meet them where they are. Care about them. Respect them. Help them. Support them. Push them, but don't be a jerk about it. If you must think of education as a technical engineering problem, then let me phrase my concern this way-- do not try to force what cannot be forced. This is where we are now-- technicians who are frustrated that their beautiful machine is not cranking out perfectly formed meat widgets fast enough have decided that the problem is the raw material, the tiny humans, and so we must move backward to a point before the manufacturing process, back to when the raw materials, the tiny humans, are being first formed, and commandeer that process so that the system can have raw materials that better serve the system. And so the dehumanization of education marches on, and policy leaders eye my twins with suspicion because they just might not be getting enough test preparation soon enough.
If I were a first time parent, it might be possible to scare me. But I taught for thirty-nine years and raised two wonderful human beings through a divorce and, in one case, more than a little conflict. My wife and I will get things wrong and get things right, and there will be no way to be certain ahead of time which things are which. But most of all I know that time is short, life is fleeting, and there is not only no need to rush, there is a need to not rush. Every day is a day you don't get over, and every moment may very well be the last of its kind.
Breathe. Focus. Listen. Hold on.