The Unknown Number


One day recently a number with a 202 area code appeared on my cell phone screen. Since I had taught in several schools in the Washington, DC area, I felt comfortable in answering the call from the DC area code.

The caller was a past student of mine, and we spent twenty-eight, delightful minutes “catching up.” We discussed her work at NIH under, her mother, her school classmates that we know, her family in New Orleans, and much more. During the chat, I asked her how old she now was, and when I guessed that she and her classmates would be about twenty-five or so, she laughed and responded, “I wish! I’ll soon be thirty-one.” She then went on and said, “Barbs, [my nickname with them]] “it [life] goes so fast.” She then added, “And its [life]so hard.”

Her pronouncements about life engendered a discussion concerning her present situation and what she desired. She assured me that she was pleased with where she was, and I felt happy that she realized these two truths about life, but sad that she, a graduate of a prestigious prep school and university was just now learning these lessons. We continued to share how well her high school had prepared her for the coming academics of university, but had ignored some of the ways she and all the other girls of her school could have be better tempered for life outside  the “golden ghetto” of her high school.

This past student is, by all measures of society, a success–sound education, good employment, and financial security. And all of this during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she is now learning what I think are some of life’s most valuable lessons and ones that perhaps her school could have helped her with before entering university.

As we talked, I recalled how teachers would always praise the students in our school. Expressions like, “She is so talented.” “She’s got it all.” “A superb student.” “One of the best.” were uttered in faculty meetings, at teacher lunch tables, and at other times and places. Those words expressed an almost worshipful attitude of students and their various skills in academics, arts, and athletics. That deep-felt awe of how well  students did in the bubble of our elite preparatory school life presented itself later as a large hurdle for some of our students.

In 2001 Wendy Mogel wrote a book titled, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee. As can be surmised from the title, the book is a guide for any adult who cares about children and how they are reared. Following the publication of her book, Dr. Mogel became a much sought-after speaker to groups, especially those in schools.  However, it seems to me that her message, while applauded for a while, has been forgotten. It now needs to have a Lazarus-like revival.

Parents are, I know, the primary teachers of their children, or they should be. But our culture has parents who, while present, are not teaching their children lessons needed for ethical lives. In Flint, Michigan, a mother, her husband, and son confronted a store guard because he had earlier “disrespected” the mother. Her twenty-three-year-old son shot the guard in the back of the head, killing the father of eight children. A lesson taught well, if the son is graded by his action of not allowing anyone to “disrespect” his mother.  My past student was admitting difficulty with the “hard” parts of life, the parts like sharing an apartment, managing finances, being joyful, seeing the possibilities of life, all of that. While her mother taught her as did her school, she now needed the skills to manage equations much more difficult than those of calculus.

Every railroad track needs to be graded. It needs curves and grades to be softened as much as possible. Tunnels need to be created through tall mountains. Bridges built over long expanses. Parents and schools need to be like those builders of a railroad track, but we should not remove all obstacles nor make grades too level. A bit of difficulty is good for our children. My high school mentor and wrestling coach Bob Mauldin shared at a gathering how he had flunked 7th grade. He used that word-flunked– to share with the group attending his being awarded North Carolina’s highest civilian award. It seems he had not given an oral book report, so he flunked. Such consequences are not allowed in today’s educational system.

My past student is still learning and that gives me joy. I know that she will be, in the larger scheme, fine. And I am glad that she has learned those two lessons. I just wish we all had helped her to be better prepared. We made too much of her and her classmates. That fact came forward later in her life when she encountered those situations where her intelligence or skills or looks or whatever were no better than everyone else’s. She soon realized that she was, like us all, one of many.

The COVID-19 virus gives every parent an opportunity to teach children that life is not fair, it is not even just. Life is hard at times. Life goes quickly, no matter how it seems while living with the virus. Those, and more are good lessons to teach. But so are the lessons of joy, fun, integrity, respect, and more. After all, the pain of a skinned knee will fade into the lesson learned. That’s a well-lived life.

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