Sunday, June 26, 2011

What's the Point?

Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to my brother, Michael, for keeping the memories alive

“Ms. Berman, sometimes I wonder, what’s the point of life?  I am not depressed or anything; I'm really just trying to figure it all out.  Right now it seems as if all we do is work hard in high school so we can get into an amazing college.  But then we will have to work hard in college in order to get into grad school, and then after that, we will be working our butts off to earn a living (or so we are told).” 

Knowing that I owe this student a satisfactory explanation, and he is a right-brained thinker, I decided to frame my response as an analogy:  If we were to compare a person’s life to a two hour movie, I started to explain, the singular moments could be thought of as the snapshots within that movie.  Although the bigger events within the life of a teenager, planning for college, career, and possibly later, a family, are all important, they are the infrastructure which affords a person the opportunities to have the best case scenario of snapshots throughout his/her developmental young adult and later years.

How do we know when we have experienced a meaningful/successful/positive snapshot?  Let me begin by addressing deprivation and disappointment.  We, as humans, go to great lengths to avoid both of these situations for ourselves and for our loved ones.  If you think about it, however, when has food tasted better than ever?  Often when eaten after too many hours of going without.  When does success feel the most rewarding?  Often after repeated failures were experienced prior to achieving such success. The point being that it is only the contrast of the positive and negative experiences in our lives that allow us to recognize the beauty of the good.  Rather than feeling shame for our negatives, it would be better to view them as a baseline of comparison by which we learn to appreciate all that is exemplary around us.

In reference to the snapshots of life, I am talking about the short-lived moments, or even a period of days, in which our actions, or those of another person’s, have a subtle, but profound impact on our personal happiness and well-being.  These snapshots occur every day and are unique to each of us, as our personalities guide us in our human gestures.  As a young child my Grandma told me: “You don’t know the number of people whom you will affect on this earth.  Be kind to everyone, for the person who is the least kind to you, is probably in the most pain.”  And thus the recognition of snaphots began in my life, following the wisdom and faith of this half blind woman who could still “see” twice as much as the rest of us.  It is typically best if societal snapshots, in which we are primarily giving to others, are balanced with personal snapshots, in which we are in the giving/receiving mode.  For me, my societal gestures vary but are usually based upon listening to a stranger telling me their “life story.”  My family and closest friends tease me that I have a “tell me everything” sticker on my forehead, and perhaps I do.  None-the-less, I tend to bring out the more personal side in people, as the thing that they crave most is to be listened to and validated.  

                My most significant personal snapshots, however, revolve around my family and close friends.  I have seen too many friendships and families torn apart by internal squabbles over money, control, jealousy, etc. and I avoid letting those issues destroy my relationships.  So whether it be participating in the July 4th Fun Run with my 24 year-old daughter, discussing philosophy with my son, taking the dog for a walk with my husband of almost 30 years, planning a trip to a winery to celebrate my younger daughter’s 21st, or enjoying a day at the beach with my girlfriends, I cherish the moments that I spend with the most precious people in my life.  These personal snapshots cannot be bought for any amount of money, nor are they dependent upon what college I graduated from.  These are the snippets of life that matter the most to me, as they bring me the deepest kind of joy and satisfaction. 

                It is important to note that no matter where you are within the context of your movie, know that you are making a difference along the way, even when you don’t think that you are.  So continue planning the script for your movie, but be sure to savor those shapshots.  These sacred moments are what give most of us our sustenance.  Remember life is about the sharing of ourselves with everyone with whom we come in contact, in order to bring a collective support system to our society at large.   And that, my student, is the point!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Effective Communication Isn't Easy

Written by Ms.Berman
Dedicated to my inspiration, Lizzy.  
Communication:  no one said that it is supposed to be easy.  Many people consider themselves to be adept at this skill.  If a person is forthright with her/his feelings and is clear on his/her thoughts , does this ensure that they will be communicated effectively?  The answer lies in point of view.  It is not only the intent of the message that is essential, but how it is perceived.  Taking the time to check for clarity and understanding isn’t something that comes naturally to most of us. 
Point of view and misinterpretation, however, are at the core of many conflicts between individuals and groups of people, and should be considered when tension arises.  Unnecessary angst and hurt feelings often crop up from a mere misunderstanding of the meaning behind a particular statement.  Being that it isn’t realistic to check the intent behind every statement that may come off as offensive, here are some life rules to help you navigate when communicating.
1.   Understand that people’s behavior, including their verbal communication, is primarily a reflection upon them, and to a small percentage, a reflection upon you.  As human beings, we tend to personalize every situation to be about us.  In reality, a person’s words and actions normally represent what it going on in their world, not yours.  When someone is hurtful towards you, think of yourself like a mirror… and let it bounce back toward them.  You don’t need to be rude.  However, no one can make you feel badly about yourself without your permission.
2.   Remember that you cannot control another person’s words or actions.  The only thing that you can control is you, and how you react to him/her.  You’re best off remaining as least reactive as possible.  People tend to say and do more outrageous behaviors to others whom they can elicit the greatest responses from.  Neutral reactors are of no value to attention seekers and will no longer be their target.
3.   Set a time limit as to how long you will dwell over your missteps.  We all say and do things that we regret.  Share your regrets, either verbally with a trusted friend or in writing by journaling, but then after an allotted time period, move on.  You cannot change the error, and wasted energy worrying about such a mistake detracts from a more productive use of your personal resources.
4.   Establish a “no guilt” policy.  If you ask someone a question, they should be able to answer honestly, without feeling guilty, even if it is not the answer that they know you would prefer to hear.  This may take some practice, but becomes easier over time, and makes for a more honest and meaningful relationship.
5.   Establish a “don’t fester” policy.  If someone is saying things that are hurtful to you, tell them at the moment it is occurring.  Chances are some of these messages are subject to interpretation and aren’t coming off in the way in which they were meant to.  The speaker and recipient may be on completely different pages.  Letting things fester makes for further misinterpretation and a build-up of bad will.  Oftentimes this leads to an outburst of angry comments when these hurt feelings are finally communicated. 
Feelings are complicated, and manifest on multiple levels.  Communication requires patience, diligence, humility and, most important, a desire to connect with your loved ones in an honest and meaningful manner.  The human connection, the ultimate result, is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  Effective communication, as with most things that provide the greatest of rewards, is rarely going to be easy.

Monday, June 13, 2011

When Stellar Isn't Good Enough

Written by Ms. Berman

"The graduating class of 2011 was the most successful group of students in the history of UCLA; they just keep getting better every year."   These words, spoken at last Friday's graduation at UCLA, are still resonating with me as I am reflecting upon the momentous weekend.  I am quite sure that my response to this comment was atypical.  Naturally, I am proud as heck of my daughter for all of her achievements, but I am also thinking about the bar that has been set for the students who will be following her.  This baseline of comparison, so to speak, has been gradually creeping up every year of my teaching career, and the impact is as follows:  Stellar students with amazing accomplishments now often view themselves as "normal" or "average."  Extraordinary is no longer readily acknowledged nor recognized because the students who indeed are in this top percentage of our student "pool" tend to cluster with other students like themselves.  Thus, their  baseline for comparison is a warped and inaccurate representation of the norm.
The fall-out of this dilemma, odd as it may sound to an outsider, can be low self-esteem.  Yes, some of my highest achieving students feel the most downtrodden and disappointed in themselves because they have set their personal standards so unreasonably high that they have difficulty achieving them.  In addition, rather than merely striving to be the best one can be, our test-driven and numbers-based society makes it all too easy for students to feel compelled to compare themselves to each other on every level, after every test, project, presentation, as if each of these grades defines who they are as a human being.   Even the best of friends may secretly be in constant competition to be the best, as if that will give the "winner" internal power over the group.  It is an unhealthy reality in the lives of many students, and not one that they should be blamed for. No one would choose to be this anxious and self-deprecating. 
As educators,  mentors, guidance counselors, parents, and friends of young adults, it is unconscionable for each of us not to address this critical issue.  Taking the time to focus upon a young adult's strength of character, moral stance, creative mind, and kindness of heart should be a priority for all of us.  After all, do any of us adults choose our friends because of the GPA that they earned in college?  It is enticing to get caught up in the societal definition of what makes the perfect teen, but what is it that we really want for our children and who do we want them to become when they are adults?  This quest for achieving "beyond extraordinary" has no end in sight.  Taken in the literal sense, the goal is infinite, and can never be attained, and thus will always leave a person feeling inferior and unfulfilled.
So the moral of this story is that, students, you are good enough, just as you are.  Every year when I start to work with the Seniors on their college applications, some of my top students have difficulty sharing their strengths because they don't view themselves as spectacular, but they are.  You are.  Juniors, don't worry about what everyone else around you is doing.  If you are navigating your way through IS, then you are doing just fine.  End of story.   Sophomores, this is a year of transition.  The courses become more challenging, the homework load increases, and the goal should be to focus upon time management.  The rest will fall into place.  It may not feel like it at the beginning of the school year, but if you stay on top of your work, everything will be okay. 
Parents, help your child focus upon his/her talents, no matter what are.  Not all students shine in the same way.  What a boring world it would be if they did!  Help your child stay organized.  Eight classes is a lot to keep track of.  Celebrate the successes and try not to dwell on the failures.  Our students need our support more than ever.  Think about what brings your child joy. 
High school educators, consider not grading on a curve.  There will be plenty of time for that competitive game later on in life.  Setting high expectations and clarifying how they can be attained should be sufficient for most courses.
Finally, and most important, all adults should show our teens some respect.   Our students are hard working, they are resilient, and they are loving.  All that they want is acknowledgment for their efforts.  Perhaps if we adults provided our children with more encouragement, they would stop looking to their peers as a baseline of comparison, and feel more confident celebrating their individual attributions.  Perhaps they would realize that there is an element of extraordinary inside each of us, and that we should all define stellar in our own unique way.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Rejoice in the Luba Citrin

Written by Tonia Berman
Dedicated, with love, to Ginny Shabatay

A butterfly garden.  I am not sure if I even knew this sort of exquisite venue existed.   None-the-less, Heidi and I found ourselves amongst a group of 15 people from all over the world, each person equally in awe of the most beautiful of creatures.  Our guide released two butterflies that were flying side by side. They immediately landed on the ankle of a dark-skinned, stunning young woman who was standing close beside me.  And thus, the human connection began.   We all stood mesmerized, watching the most basic of life's ritual, two butterflies mating.  We quietly hypothesized why they chose this particular woman for their perch, and decided it was probably her scent.  Everyone clustered around, shooting pictures with all types of cameras and smart phones.  At that moment, we were unified as we stared in wonderment at this most simplistic, yet significant, representation of the cycle of life.
Our guide proceeded to show us a moth that had just emerged from its cocoon.  “They undergo metamorphosis for a period of seven months,” he said, “but once they exit the cocoon,  their adult life consists of five days.”  I couldn’t get past the fact that this was merely a moth, and felt sadness for this creature whose life was cut short.  Perhaps, I justified, the time spent in the cocoon was so enjoyable that it compensated for this injustice.
The final pair of mating butterflies landed on the blue and white striped shirt of an older woman’s sagging breasts.  Finding himself caught up in the moment, her husband starting shooting pictures from all different angles.  The crowd followed, no longer caring that this would normally be considered a rude invasion of privacy, and a rather unappealing background for a picture.  The focus was on the butterflies, however, and the typical societal norms were renounced.
Following the tour, I needed some time alone, to meditate upon all of the butterflies surrounding me.  People, fortunately, started to clear out and I kept my eyes focused on my favorite… the Luba Citrin (the blue butterfly).   I walked around the farm and waited, determined to capture this most miraculous creature on film.  At last he stopped, and spread his wings for me… I could swear he was posing as he waited until I got a clear picture of him.  I experienced a sense of serenity that I haven’t felt for a very long time.  Such a simple moment of beauty, and yet, so riveting.
It is for these moments that I love to travel.  Not only do I stop setting an alarm clock, wearing a watch, paying bills, and worrying about my loved ones, but I take the time to explore the most random of places.  This is when I witness the strong human connection during the most unexpected of moments.  This is when I find myself unwind long enough to rejoice in the mere existence of the Luba Citrin.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Turquoise Ocean Waters

Written by Ms. Berman, in Honor of Susan Garner
On my third glass of iced tea in an airport bar, starting to fade, my friend Heidi whipped out her camera insistent that I relive my frolicking moments in the turquoise waters of St. Maarten.  The liberation was instantaneous.  Just hours prior, after a full day of traveling, we were delayed at the last stretch of our journey at LAX, when the pilot of our airplane could not be found.  "Please, I begged the customer service agent, you have to get me on the next available flight; I am going to a memorial at La Jolla Shores in San Diego and it ends at sunset."  The young man tried to work with me, but the computer kept rejecting the request.  Customers noticed tears welling in my eyes and offered to give up their seats, but the stand-by list was rapidly growing.  I had to step back and accept my destiny... knowing there would be a reason for this turn of events, but not yet understanding.
Fixated on the spectacular pictures captured on camera, I thought about Mrs. G, and her memorial that was occurring at that precise moment.  I remembered our last conversation, standing in her front yard following a Teen Life Choices retreat:  "Your son is going to go far in life," I said as I hugged her good bye.    He is a genius you know.  They are the hardest kids to raise." 

"Thank you so much for your kind words, Ms. Berman.  You have no idea how much your reassurance means to me," she replied.  I was only being honest, I thought, as I drove off that Sunday afternoon. 
My reminiscing ended when the young waitress at the restaurant bar approached, asking if there was anything else we needed.  Not an unusual question, but as  I took the time to really look into her eyes, I saw an entire story there.  After teaching for so many years, that happens sometimes, but it is normally after working with a student for awhile.  "Where are you going to school?" I asked her.  She looked at me and hesitated.  I could see that she wanted to talk, but she wasn't sure what my agenda was.  And then the words just popped out...  words from the heart.  "You have a way about you," I said.  "I have been a high school teacher for a long time and I can tell that you are going to go far in life."  Such a random comment... she could have thought I was a nut and just walked away, but she didn't.  She proceeded to talk to Heidi and me, telling us how she had lived through a traumatic experience that had set her back and she was ready to go to college now, but needed someone to help her along.  She then asked for my email address, and wondered if I could be her mentor.  It was all very surreal.
When my plane landed in San Diego, there was an email waiting for me on my cell phone.  It was from my new mentee.  She said that I was the first person to ever tell her that she could make it in college.  Words I have heard so many times before, but they cut to my core every time.  I told her my mother, the college counselor, would work with her on the college process, Heidi could provide her with some therapy, and I could be her online mentor.  The complete package.  All because our plane was delayed, a life will be changed.  But it wasn't until I got home, processing my disappointment over having missed the memorial, that it hit me.  The words that I spoken to the young woman in the bar were the same last words that I had said to Mrs. G.   Both conversations focused upon succeeding in life.  Both were intended to cast forth comfort and motivation.  So although I couldn't be at La Jolla Shores saying my proper farewell,  I was opening a door for a young woman in need.  That was exactly how Mrs. G would have wanted it.  That was the gracious, loving, selfless woman whom she was.  This serendipitous occurrence was an offering of the gift of life in honor of Mrs. G.  A lover of beauty, she would have understood, more than most, that this entire interchange was inspired by the turquoise ocean waters off of the quaint little island of St. Maarten.