Saturday, April 2, 2011

One Essential Question

Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to the Class of 2012
I am swimming up steam against a formidable current.  I can hear my support team cheering from the  distance, providing me with sustenance, but for right now I am alone with my mind.  Life is so grand, and that is not something I can tell anyone else… it has to be felt.  And this current of which I speak is growing at an exponential rate, as more and more data is being cast upon Gen Y-Not?, most of which is skewed to appear incredibly dismal.  “Ms. Berman, I am worried because I haven’t studied enough for the SAT and the ACT,” L. said to me yesterday.  “Not all students have to take a prep course,” I replied, “just sit down with a review book and take a couple of practice tests and see how you do.  You are busy on the weekends pursuing the arts… Do you really want to attend a college that wouldn’t accept you because you made this a priority?”  Over and over again, I am having these conversations, trying to convince students that how they spend their time should be driven by their passion… but the societal supposition is prevailing, and I often feel as if I am the sole dissenter.
My assertion is not a qualitative assumption, but is based upon the understanding that life is not just about getting into college, but the experience therein and thereafter.  This realization manifested at a cost, and remains a poignant and painful memory associated with my early teaching years… 
Alex (not his real name) came from a family of 3 children, all of whom were fathered by different men who then abandoned their children.  His mother did sewing/mending to support the family.  Alex desperately wanted to attend the UC Santa Barbara Summer Pre-College Program, and thus I rallied the staff together to raise the money so he could live in the college dorms and attend classes for six weeks.  His older brother had just joined an East LA gang and Alex needed an escape.  Fast.  Alex excelled in all of his coursework at UCSB.  More important, he met other college-bound students from all over the country who filled his head with new ideas about the possibilities of the future.  Upon his return, Alex decided his “reach” school would be Harvard University.  For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that Alex landed a full ride to Harvard, graduated four years later with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and then moved to Oakland to pursue his graduate studies at UC Berkeley.  Looking back on this period in my life, as a new teacher in my twenties, I made a cardinal error.  As I communicated with Alex during his college years, I would ask him about his coursework, his family, his health and goals, but I failed to ask a pivotal question: “Are you happy?”
After Alex began his studies at Berkeley, we lost touch.  Years later, when I heard his story from his former high school guidance counselor, I realized, regardless of our intentions, we had all misguided Alex in our collective quest for his success… In the midst of his graduate research in Engineering at UC Berkeley, after he was married to the love of his life, Alex had an emotional breakdown.  You see, Alex never wanted to be an engineer.  He had taken a class at UCSB because I had suggested he try it out, and he had been successful in the course.  He then continued in that field because he knew it would provide him an income that would enable him to later care for his family, would make the high school teaching staff proud after all we had done for him, and he would finally achieve his ultimate dream of success.  But there was a kink in his plan.  It was never his dream.
Alex wanted to be an artist.  Four years at Harvard.  Two years at Berkeley. A wife who adored him.  Six months in bed.  Alex learned to look within himself to find his passion. 
Today I know that whether a student is aiming for Santa Barbara City College or Stanford University, there is only one essential question educators should be asking: “What is your passion?”   I was young and naïve when I was mentoring Alex, caught up in the hype of doing what everyone had told me was “the thing to do” in education.  Push kids to reach their potential.  Get them into college.  Tell them to make their parents and teachers proud.  Period.  But an adolescent is much more complex than this.  It is not my role to push, get, nor tell, but rather to provide support.  It is obvious to anyone who truly knows me that I live my life with passion, and that is precisely why I view it as grand.  Students should be afforded the same opportunity.   And thus, no matter how formidable this current grows, I will just have to be a stronger swimmer… for all of my students, but today I am swimming in honor of Alex.
Alex is currently living in San Francisco, working in the field of graphic design.


  1. Why does everyone make college seem like such a big universe that is not parallel, but perpendicular to the one that we live in today? Graduating, going to college, it does not meaning letting things go. That is one of the things stressing me out and scaring me the most. I don't have to go far away to "view the world". San Diego is my hometown and I am proud and happy to stay here. I will hold dearly to the things and people that mean the most to me and take possession of my own destiny.

  2. In response to "view the world"

    What a wonderful attitude you have! Adulthood doesn't need to equate with letting go of what you hold dear to your heart; it is about undergoing new experiences. My older daughter went to SDSU for college and loved her college years, which included family time. The stress and fear you referred to may be the result of comparing your plan to others. Your path is your own. You are blessed that you have figured this out and should look forward to the future with confidence!

  3. I love this. As a parent of four kids, I finally came to the conclusion many years ago, DON'T TALK TO OTHER PARENTS. At one point in time, we had four children in four schools. People questioned me taking the kids OUT of a fancy private school and putting them into urban public schools. What they did not realize is that we wanted our children to understand that thirst for their passion. Their private school was all about SAT, ACT and the first 20 colleges posted in US News...the lacking of pursuing "passion" did not exist. We see it in out eldest son. His passion throughout middle school and high school was film. After graduation from college in film, he took himself to New York and is living his passion. "Do what you love, the money will come," my father use to say. There is a wonderful Stanford Graduation 2005 speech by Steve Jobs founder of Apple. He talks about love and loss and finding ones passion. He dropped out of Reed College to pursue his passion. Then lost it all at 30yrs...and then got it all back. It is a terrific 15 minute speech about pursuing passion. We tell our kids, if you live your dreams and passions, you will never feel like you are working. Ms. Berman,your words are so right on. We have to support our kids and lift them up with our love. At the end of the day, they have to make the choices about their own lives. My job as a parent is to give them enough support that I can let go, like a butterfly in my hand. The ultimate paradox is that the more we let them go and just "BE" the more they want to just be "home."

  4. Thank you for sharing your passion and your example, as well as Alex's with us.
    I was relieved to hear that Alex had the courage to shift gears and follow his heart.
    To me, he is a hero.

    I deeply appreciate your caring expressed in so many ways, this blog being just one. Our
    son was blessed to receive not just your teaching, but your dedication to his, and all the
    student's best well-being.


    Dana Terrell

  5. I absolutely love what you've written. That's exactly why maps were created. The destination may be New York City but we are free to take any number of routes to get there...

  6. While this contains some polemics against elite universities, I have nothing against them and recognize that there are people who want to, need to, and should attend these colleges. But there are also a lot people who don't need that environment and just don't realize it.)


    I got in! I got into the college of my dreams, a well- respected private college!

    Alas, I couldn’t afford the college of my dreams. Instead, I went to a local community college, then a state university. And I’m so glad I did!

    At my community college and university, I had small classes taught by professors dedicated to teaching… unlike at many universities, where classes are often large and taught by graduate students or professors more interested in doing just about anything besides teaching lowly undergrads. Indeed, I had lots of excellent, passionate professors whose focus was on teaching me and who helped me pursue my passion. I didn't have to go to some exclusive college to find that.

    Twenty years ago this month, I was on the verge of graduating high school. If you had told me then that I would become an engineer, a teacher, some kind of technical analyst, or a social science researcher, I would’ve believed you. If you had told me that I would become a park ranger, I probably would’ve burst out laughing. Now, I help lead Yosemite National Park’s bear management program.

    My best and most influential professor always said that a bachelor’s degree was merely a license to learn. In college, you can’t imagine that just several years after graduating, you will forget almost everything you learned, including the details of the topics most interesting to you. But you will. What you will keep is the ability to inquire, to evaluate, to contemplate, to learn. This is what gives you the flexibility to pursue your passion and achieve success and happiness, even as your passions change.

    I have a friend and fellow park ranger just a few years out of college who got into Harvard. She attended a state university instead (where she studied anthropology). I don’t think she could possibly be happier with where she is in life right now (and she isn’t doing any anthropology work, yet is glad she studied it). I have another friend who did what society told her to do: she was good with numbers, so she studied accounting and got a good accounting job. She hated it, so, after several years of misery, she recently quit to become a volunteer in Yosemite. This was a life-changing course correction from the path society laid in front of her. Soon, she’ll probably be a very happy park ranger inspiring people to learn about nature and history (and not accounting). And I can’t tell you how many other people I talk to who say they wish they had rejected the obvious path—the one they took and remain on—and had instead become a park ranger. (I try to tell them that it’s never too late…)

    The division I work in had an all-employee meeting a few years ago. By way of introducing everyone to each other, we had to say what our dream job was. Almost everyone said they already had their dream job! At how many workplaces can people say that? While some of my coworkers have gone to Harvard and Yale, Stanford and Berkeley, most haven’t. Where we went to college didn’t define where we ended up. In many cases, where we thought we’d end up when we were in high school isn’t where we are. And we’re glad.

    Figuring out your passion doesn’t stop when you get into college, and which college you attend doesn’t define your passion.

    Do you want to be a highly stressed, underappreciated employee, disillusioned with the job that isn’t what you thought it would be? Or do you want to have the best job in the world and be surrounded by happy, fulfilled coworkers? You don’t have to go to Harvard or Yale or Berkeley to follow your passion and be happy. You just have to go wherever your passion leads you, and then you can find that perfect job for you, too. You don’t need to get into the college of your dreams to have the life of your dreams.

  7. Hi Tonia,

    I just read your posting, and as one of your early students I wanted to tell you, you did ask what was our passion. The problem was I had no idea. I still have no idea. I wasn't like Sharon who knew exactly what she wanted to do. Sharon's wanted to study water quality and be a professor since she was 12. But when people asked me what my passion was, I couldn't say.

    But I did want to remind you what you gave me. You gave me a friend; someone who believed in me more than anyone else at that time. I know my parents believed in me, but not in the same way. You listened. You heard me. You mentored me. You cheered me on. That was priceless.
    It's funny. Here I am 6 weeks away from graduation wondering what my passion is. I want to do something that mixes technology and gerontology together. I'm not sure how I am going to do that. But I believe I will do something good because special people like you believe in me. I will believe because you believe. I feel like I am 21 again. I am leaving school not sure exactly what I am going to do. Again I am trying to get my resume together and trying to get ready to sell myself. But to who? Most people tell me that what I am interested in won't really be needed for 3-5 years. I say it is needed now.

    I know my strengths don't show up on paper. I know in this tough economy that a job isn't guaranteed. But I know that I will find something and I will do that job to the best of my ability. And I know that because of teachers like you and others at LACES that took me under your wing and showed me that I was worth it. I will always be indebted to you for that.
    All my love,

  8. Taking it on... that's what all of us IS kids and teachers do everyday. We take it on, head on too. And what it does for us is that it makes us prepared as people. I feel more prepared that I think I ever will in life.

    Stress and late nights is what i live for at the moment but i know that when I am older i will look back and think to myself. Wow those long nights have payed off. I don't care if i go to a fancy college or even if I get into my college of my dreams, because that's my future, and IS is my now.

  9. I also believe that in life you should peruse what makes you happy. I had a cousin who had a full ride at UC Berkeley he wanted to become a doctor. As the years went by at one point during his education he no longer felt happy with what he was doing. So he graduated three years early then he was supposed to. Now he is works for the San Diego Fire Department has a wife and two boys. Our family can tell that he is now truly happy with his life.

    Miguel Preciado