Making time for “the moments”

Last Sunday, I woke up to a note from a student I taught at Lower Canada College 15 years ago.  And it made me wonder – what makes a student wake up and write to an old teacher?  What are the moments that stand out, years later?

Ryan was part of a student trip to China that Kevin and I lead one March break, and we got to know his group of friends really well.  You tend to bond when you experience places like the Great Wall and the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (home of the terracotta warriors).  But he didn’t write about our trip.  Ryan was a very good student, and I taught his brother and got to know his parents as well.  But he didn’t write about anything that ever happened during a class.  The truth is, if you had asked me years ago, to identify the student who would write to me out of the blue 15 years later, I am not sure that Ryan would have topped the list.

So why did a former student wake up in February and write to an old teacher?  With his permission, I share it here:

Hi Mrs Kee,

I was thinking about our long-term character flaws you asked us to work on.

Pete was compassion, Dave was chill, I was leadership and Joe was step up. I wonder how we all did on our various projects. I asked Dave and he said he is not much more chill. I think Joe has certainly stepped up as he is going to medical school which is quite a challenge. Not sure about Pete’s compassion (although he did send me a very nice note when he skipped my wedding).

With regards to my trait of leadership, I would have been even more specific and said that I needed to work on assertiveness (an element of leadership).  Sometimes I have the tendency to be too passive instead of grabbing the bull by the horns. I probably have improved since grade 11 though.

Hope you are doing well at the new school. Patti MacDonald sent me your new email address.

If you still want, I can try to organize a reunion (I can take the “lead” on that).

Best,

Ryan

He is writing about a conversation that we had had, along with his group of friends.  It was actually a moment I also remember well, as does Kevin, which is remarkable given all of the students in both of our lives over the years.  This is a conversation that happened for two reasons – we knew each other well and we had opportunity to talk about something meaningful.  Time is key here.

I’m reading the new book by the Heath brothers, The Power of Moments, and they ask a question that I find compelling – what if a teacher could design a lesson that students would remember twenty years later?

Ryan’s letter is a good example of the power of moments.  I’m not sure, however, that moments are easily created.  I would not want curriculums all over the world to include a “life conversation”, thinking you can create a meaningful connection as if there was some kind of superficial magical formula.   The Heath brothers are talking about Disney; I am talking about having the kind of talks you can only have with people who know each other, over time.

For teenagers, what they want – and need! – are adults who get to know them and take the time to challenge their thinking.  In the case of my conversation with Ryan, it was authentic – and clearly turned out to be memorable – because you had people spending time together and actually speaking to one another about real issues that mattered.

We are all busy.  Most of us feel that we are too busy.  But this email is a powerful reminder that we need to slow down, put our phones away, and spend time connecting with each other.  And then for the moments to really be memorable?  We need to connect again and again, so when the chance to have a life conversation happens, we won’t even know it is a life conversation, because it is just what we do.

Thank you, Ryan, for this reminder.

With Gratitude

(Below is the talk I gave in chapel on Tuesday evening).

When my kids were little, I read somewhere that developing gratitude was important for children’s development.  So the Kee family had a routine before bed – we would sing three songs:  You are my sunshine; Hush Little baby; and the Lord bless you and keep you – and then I would ask them to tell me three things for which they were grateful.  It just became – what are your three things.  As children, they would find it easy to come up with a list, and it often included what they had for dinner that evening, or more likely, what they had for dessert.

As an aside, when Jacob and Kathleen came to Lakefield, I would text them all kinds of questions and they would rarely give me more than a one or two word response.  Early on, I would text – how was your day?  And the most popular response, of course, was…. good.  It would drive me crazy.  Don’t do that to your parents.   Then I got clever, and I would text them and ask – what are your three things?  I am so smart.  I started to get multiple word answers.  I would be grateful if you would send multiple word messages to your parents.  Parents love multiple word texts.

Back to my children, when they were children. There came a day, when I was tired and although I hate to admit it, I was frankly just going through the bed time motions, almost rushing them so I could get on with my evening and go to bed early.   One night, I remember being close to wrapping up the night, when one of them asked me for my three things.

I thought – oh my gosh… I am too tired.  I have had a long day.  I really had nothing to be thankful for.   But there they were, looking right at me, anticipating that I would enjoy this new aspect of our ritual.  I had to come up with something.

And so it began.

As often as possible –  I would love to say every night, but I just sometimes forget – I end my day, before I got to sleep, by thinking of the three things for which I am most grateful.  I wish I could tell you that I can easily think of three things.  But I have realized that it requires work. Not just one thing, but three things can be tough.

Finding three things to be thankful for on any day is important.  When you are grateful, you have no room in your life for self-pity. But here’s the thing – finding three things on a bad day is even more important.  The ups and downs of life can sometimes eclipse an attitude of gratitude – but the more we can focus on gratitude, the happier and healthier we are.   I try to make gratitude a habit or a discipline.  I find it helps me with perspective.

I’m reading this book – I recommend it – it’s on the best seller list this Christmas season.  It is Oprah’s book called The Wisdom of Sundays.  She includes an entire chapter on Gratitude.  (Read two sections – page 152 and 165.)

So whether you practice gratitude in the evening, in the morning, or in the moment you are least grateful, I hope you will take a moment before you leave Lakefield for your holiday and think about the three things you are grateful for.  The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said – If the only prayer you say in your entire life is thank you, that will be enough.

That’s my first hope for you.  But there’s more….Feeling gratitude and not expressing gratitude, is like wrapping a Christmas present and not giving it.

The greatest gift is feeling gratitude AND expressing it.  That’s my second hope for you – that sometime this week, you will express gratitude to someone… anyone!  But find that courage deep down and express it.  See how that feels… It is not happy people who are thankful; it is thankful people who are happy.  And now, I would like to express my gratitude to you.

Four days per week we spend our time here in chapel, and I am thankful for three things that you do here in chapel.

  1. I love when we sing all together, thanks to our most talented Syd (spelled with a Y) and I love when our choirs sing, with the help of our most talented music teachers. I also love when those of you with special talents sing on your own and/or play musical instruments. I love that you get up in front of your peers, who are not an easy audience by the way, and you sing and play music. We have enjoyed a lot of performances this fall, and I appreciate all of you who share your talents.
  2. You may be surprised by this second one, but I also love our Lakefield approach to Standards. It is not like any other school.  I wish there were not as many standards announcements, but I absolutely believe in the way students deal with discipline and the way students share the stories with each other in chapel.  We are a small community here and stories spread quickly, so I am thankful that we have a system to minimize gossip.  We are respectful of each other in our community, and I really appreciate the time we give to support each other.
  3. And number three – I am thankful for chapel talks. It takes courage to get up here and be vulnerable and speak.  I think it is one of the most valuable traditions of this school.  To have the opportunity to listen to our grads as they share stories of their thoughts and lessons learned, and as they express gratitude for their family and friends… it is becoming a real highlight of my days.

Michael Bernard Beckwith wrote – Begin to notice what you have in your life that you are grateful for and when you look at life through the lens of gratitude, you don’t see as many obstacles or hindrances. You see potential, you see possibilities.  Then you become an open vehicle for more inspiration, more wisdom, more guidance, coming from the spiritual part of your being.

I’m so grateful to be here at Lakefield, and I am grateful to all of you for being here with me.

I hope you enjoy your holiday.  I hope you make time to practice gratitude and express gratitude, especially to those you love.

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Confessions of a recovering helicopter parent

I sometimes worry that my daughter lacks ambition…. That she should think more often about her future…. She is a smart and outgoing girl who will do well in life, so just imagine what she could do if she just worked a little bit harder and aimed a little bit higher.

I confess that this is one of my tensions – I want the best for her. But what does best mean? I want her to be happy, but I also want her to be successful later in life. I think that in order to be successful, there are some things she could start doing now. So with this in mind, I will share my conversation with her this week.

Over dinner, the kids asked if they could do an out of school activity this year. They know that Kevin and I can be somewhat anti-evening activity – we believe that kids need down time with their families in the evening – but I was pleased with their ambition. I suggested that they find something that combined their passion and excellence. Kathleen confidently stated that she wanted to take gymnastics lessons. Now, my Kathleen is neither passionate nor excellent at gymnastics. So, again, thinking I was being helpful, I suggested that she consider something else. I went so far as to tell her that it is a competitive world and she should really be thinking about something that she could excel at. My daughter got teary eyed, so Kevin and I skillfully switched subjects.

After dinner, alone with Kathleen, I quietly said, “I noticed that you seemed to get a bit sad during that conversation at dinner.” To that, she looked me straight in the eyes and, again, confidently, stated, “I just want to have fun!”

So I read with interest the New York Times review of Madeline Levine’s new book Teach your Children Well, published July 24th, which concluded with the following:

“After all, as Levine notes, the inconvenient truth remains that not every child can be shaped and accelerated into Harvard material. But all kids can have their spirits broken, depression induced and anxiety stoked by too much stress, too little downtime and too much attention given to external factors that make them look good to an audience of appraising eyes but leave them feeling rotten inside.”

In her book, Levine criticizes parents for “cultivating competitive greatness” and has a clear message – that, essentially, everything today’s parents think they’re doing right is actually wrong. She believes that parents must behave differently.

I’m not sure why I feel this need to push my daughter, and I still want to find ways to encourage her to aim higher. But I think Levine is really on to something, and I am guilty.

So I am happy to report that, thanks to my daughter, I am rethinking what it means to be a success. And I am even happier to report that Kathleen will be enrolled in gymnastics this fall.