Living and Learning Butts Up

While I don’t think the good old days were all that “good,” I do think there is something to be learned from them. Our kids today have everything, and yet they often are missing a major component essential to life: joy.

I remember when I was six my grandma had a car with an 8-track and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I felt like the big man because I had a TV with not one dial, but two, and could get the best cartoons by dialing that bottom one to channel 44. Then came tapes, boom boxes, walkmans…finally, the personal computer. Reminiscent of The Graduate, my Career Decisions teacher in high school said, “Kids, computers are the future!” We just rolled our eyes and laughed. In college I remember hearing something about the internet; to me, it just sounded way too big brother, it creeped me out.

And this is just in the last 30 years. When I think of my grandparents, no indoor plumbing let alone a microwave, one room school houses with one pencil to last all year, playing with homemade dolls and gathering kids to play stick ball in the street (with literally, a stick)—it’s almost charming to look back on these days of such simplicity with great nostalgia. After kids ran home from school, they ran to the play yard where things like debating where the foul ball line was could be an afternoon’s discussion. These kids lived life, and they lived it well.

Of course these were also the days when kids like my grandpa, for whom English was not his first language, were told they would likely end up in prison because they certainly wouldn’t make anything of themselves in society. Because he was an Italian with relatively dark skin, he was called names by adults that would be considered outrageous today. At least he got to cohabitate in society with others, however; his darker skin counterparts were sequestered to the outer limits of town, facing much harsher punishment simply for being born with darker skin than he was.

Sitting in quietly in rows and obeying your teacher, facing a smack upside the head if they didn’t, kids were expected to by loyal, respectful and, essentially, seen and not heard. For these days, I am anything but nostalgic. How they found a way to live with such societal hardships is amazing to me.

And yet, in years past there was an essence to young people that was full and rich and just exciting to be around. The world was evolving around them and everything was to be seen as opportunity. Many young people were engaged and involved and motivated. At least that’s how the story goes. In contrast, the story of today’s youth is one of apathy, non-participation, and boredom. With all of the things they have at their fingertips, we hear no excitement from them at all. Or do we? I wonder, are we looking for the right signs? Are we looking at all kids? Are we judging them by current or past standards? And most of all, what are we—the elders, the guides, the coaches, the parents, the teachers—what are we doing to role model and inspire greatness?

***

I thought about this debatable lack of zest for life in our youth this morning as I walked my dog. Mario does nothing halfway; everything is done with nothing less than exuberance.  He runs everywhere and walks nowhere. He jumps and dances and practically wags himself in half when he sees people he loves. Be it a bug or bird or squirrel, if Mario is on the hunt he is full force: leaping into the air and pouncing on to the ground, nose in the rocks or the storm drain or the hole in the ground, butt up in the air.

Ducks are the same way. They wiggle and waddle and flap; they quack loudly, put their beaks in the air and then dive into the water after their morning breakfast. They do so with great enthusiasm, and like Mario, enthusiastically butts up, as if nothing else is more important in the world.

Cats too. We have two girls: Lucy and Indiana. Lucy is a tiny cat with heaps of ridiculously soft gray fur that is almost silver in the sunlight; she is young and playful and quick to love. Indiana is almost opposite in every way; she is old, cantankerous, fickle, and much loyalty and devotion must be proven before she’ll consider coming your way. Nonetheless, when Lucy and Indiana are happy, the joy is evident. They roll on their backs to expose their tummies and show off their long and (not so) lean bodies, they stretch and rub their faces on anything that holds still, they see those birds and bugs just like Mario, as prey. As they study them, silent and still and contemplative, they crouch heads down, butts up, distracted by nothing at all.

There’s a theme here, this butts up routine. It comes to these creatures in their everyday activities of life; nothing is new, same bugs, same birds, same storm drains, same ponds, and yet each and every time whatever it is, it is met with joy and enthusiasm. It reminds me of my children, most especially my youngest son.

Like Mario, Tommy meets life with great gusto. He too never walks anywhere, it’s full speed or not at all. When he learned to crawl he even did that fast, pounding his knees and slapping his hands on the hard floor to sap every bit of joy out of his crawling experience. When he was learning to walk, like most kids he was very intolerant of it at first. He saw no point in struggling to walk when he could crawl fast; besides, if he took too long the cat he was chasing would get away and he’d have no opportunity to body slam it, (God bless our departed Zazu) grabbing and giggling and giving it a huge kiss.

Now he’s four, learning to write and draw and color in the lines. Everything he does that he loves, he does with his tongue out, his brow crinkled in concentration, and his butt up in the air, leaning onto the table with his feet on the chair and his elbows propping him in front of his work.

Most kids are like this as young children, so what changes the older they get? The cliché answers include: hormones, attitude, rebellion, and of course the catch alls like apathy and disinterest and disengagement. When and why do kids stop going “butts up?”

When we give up on them, that’s when.

I realized this while watching some of my colleagues in our math department teach some years back. Almost any math class at my school has their favorite descriptor, “butts up math,” happening at some point of every day. In Math! When I took math it was nothing like this at all, yet there, it’s the norm. What’s the trick? I took this question away with me as I went back to my classroom, pondering how it is I can create “butts up government” and history and psychology and women’s studies. If they can do it with math, surely I can do it with social studies.

That’s when I realized I had kind of given up on my kids. I was judging them by old standards, teaching them with old methods, expecting that somehow all kids would get on board with their studies simply because of my exceptional personality. Truth be told, they never acted up because they knew I respected them and loved them and they felt the same about me, but the inspiration of academics was only happening for the kids who loved social studies; the others were just respectfully exercising patience for the bell to ring.

And yet in math, a subject most kids I know hate, at my school most kids I know love. Their teachers are amazing, as am I if I do say so myself, their content is easily accessible to some and very difficult to others, as is mine, so what is the difference?

My first answer was relevance. Most of what we are told to teach kids in school has very little relevance to either who they are and/or who they want to become. We have to break out of decades long expectations of what is important to teach and find a way to teach topics that are relevant. When standards can’t be changed, they must be massaged and updated to meet the needs and interests of the kids. When that is done to its fullest potential, there is one more piece to the puzzle: organization of material and delivery.

What I started to do was look at every lesson as an opportunity for reorganization. For example in government, instead of lecturing how a campaign works, I created a problem-based activity that put them at the center of a campaign, recreating the experience itself. In addition to reading about how a bill becomes a law, we created a simulation of the two houses and bills passing back and forth. The result: butts up government, twice in two weeks, an hour and a half without breaks each. For me and for them, this was a huge success.

I’m clear about the logistical limits on activities like this, most notably two: it takes an immense amount of time to plan, set up, and break down and, in the time it takes to do a simulation, I could have disseminated ten times the content by more traditional means. It brings me back to the almost daily struggle between breadth and depth of content, between topics and activities kids love, and what I have time and am told by the state to do.

With test scores and political pressures so readily in the faces of educators in recent years, the propensity to give up, burdened by overwhelming expectations is strong; many of us find it easier to give up the fight for the game of blame, the state, the parents, society, whatever is in reach. Because so much of our society is fixated on the sound bite solution and tied to the “what has always been,” the propensity of them to blame the kids themselves is even stronger.

Even with my own children, their draw to the TV and their sports video games is so seductive that they often don’t have any idea what to do with themselves when their time limit with those things has been reached. Is it their job to monitor themselves? To inspire themselves? To create butts up opportunities for themselves? Absolutely not.

Kids of earlier generations were creative and resourceful not because of the year in which they were born, but because of the opportunities for creativity and resourcefulness they were given. Our job is not to sit back and judge our kids for their lack of zest for life; our job is to inspire that in them. Our job is to create opportunities not for them to be obedient and quiet and seen and not heard, but to live and love and thrive, just like Mario and Indiana and Lucy and the ducks by my house and my young son, Tom. Our job is to lose our own apathy, reengage ourselves, participate in our communities and role model what we expect from our kids. The time of kids doing something just because we expect them to is long over.

The time now, is to find your own joy, your own high level of engagement, your own attention to what is relevant and inspiring. It’s catching you know; finding yours will help them find theirs. And then, the story will be told not of American apathy, but of American butts high in the air as they engage in finding real solutions for the real problems of today.

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