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There may be no right or wrong answers, but I’m not sure the unopinionated life is worth living

I don’t hear much talk any more in education about “values clarification,” in which teachers are supposed to facilitate discussions around personal ethics, keeping strict neutrality and never advocating for any particular point of view. One can, however, still obtain plans for classroom activities which “emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers, only opinions” (a direct quote, including emphasis, from http://www.advocatesforyouth.org). Thank divinity or non-divinity there are only opinions, and that although majority opinion rules, majority opinion can easily be manipulated so we can have some sort of progress, which is all we really need. And opinion can’t really hurt anyone, again thank divinity or non-divinity, or economic progress, or whatever.

So in Civics class, for example, we can teach kids how many reps and senators there are and how municipal, state and federal election campaigns and voting work, and encourage everyone to vote (whether they are informed or thoughtful or not). But if we see kids blindly following the voting preferences of their parents, or of their culturally accepted talk radio or news station, and bringing strong opinions into the classroom, we will make sure that “no one will be put down for having (by inheritance or cultural osmosis or guess-and-check, or whatever) a different value than others have.” Not put down, as in “You are stupid/ a redneck/ a flaming liberal” such phrases being always off the table in our schools, but also not, “You are wrong/ misguided/ misinformed/ short sighted,” etc. Who can say who’s wrong, when there are no right or wrong answers, only opinions?

Fortunately, history, social studies, sociology and civics teachers who as college students used to argue late into the night their political, social, ethical viewpoints have been transformed through a process of becoming paid a tax-derived salary into objective, impartial, value-free adults able to fairly facilitate the values clarification process in their students, if indeed they wish to touch on values at all. Leanings, if any, are toward the restoration of balance, which in our town involves emphasizing the contributions of indigenous, Arab and Muslim cultures, female perspectives, the LGBTQ community, and so on. Thank goodness for the big, benevolent edifice of curriculum designers, on whom we can rely to create learning materials that are values-free (other than a a value for domination of the market, which is tough when you can offend anyone but have an economy of scale. All the helpful advice from all the interest groups who indicate their objections to this or that type of angle or literary selections of images reminds these publishers on which side their bread is buttered.

I recently read a treatise by educational historian Diane Ravitch called The Language Police in which she traces the growth of self-censorship by curriculum and standardized test companies because of pressure from interest groups from all over the spectrum. Each of which have very valid points: Don’t portray women mainly in subservient positions. Don’t teach using texts that include violent or destructive behaviors. Don’t show the disabled as lacking abilities or needing assistance. No portrayal of people of color in prison or disadvantaged conditions. Equal numbers of able and disabled, whites and non-whites, males and females, and secular and religious dress in illustrations of  extreme sports, professions, and all other situations (but go light on the LGBTQ for now, as the corporate cost outweighs the benefit still. Except nurses should mainly be male, doctors female and preferably of color, machine operators likewise. No lewd language, no stories in which parents and other authority figures are shown disrespect (or excessive respect, unless they are veterans or progressive-minded elders), no criticism of the American government or its actions throughout history, or portrayal of any attitude that may undermine American patriotism or a belief in the capitalist market economy. When it comes to literature, this essentially boils down to: no literature from before 1970 without revision and/or heavy commentary. And when it comes to appeasing groups with mostly irreconcilable differences, the resulting literary passages and historical accounts are so bland as to be ineffective for igniting any real interest or sense of identification with the characters of the story.

All districts, I believe, have some sort of policy relating to what constitutes acceptable curriculum. Our district commits to:

Curriculum Bias BPS Policy document clip

I’m not sure we came up with this after thorough discussion of our community’s needs, and vision, and the implications to the “elimination” clause–does “instructional materials” include literature from before 1970, for example, and will we be taking out our black markers on the rest, or just having a book sale and buying the specially selected and abridged color textbook versions from Pearson? No, the guideline is borrowed language—a web search makes that clear enough. But I suppose one is entitled to use one’s own interpretation of “bias,” and that professional discretion by teachers allows for the use of “biased” materials in an “unbiased” way.

One could argue that local districts have a right to define that according to local values, arrived at not merely by conservation of past values, but dynamically, face to face, in community as communities evolve. The top-down, paternalistic approach whereby government dictates, beyond the dictates of the Constitution, that is, does not serve a valuing of diversity but opposes it.

I’m not trying to reawaken the complaint against “political correctness” we raised in the eighties and nineties, crying foul when we were called to tolerate all except the intolerant (those who don’t tolerate all), to ostracize and marginalize those who have standards (a.k.a. discrimination).

There are only opinions, but apparently there are also “ground rules.” And if not, “it might be useful to spend a few minutes getting [discussion group participants] to set some,” says the Advocates for Youth website, and the “Creating Group Agreement” lesson helpfully suggests ten, based apparently on natural law, though as a biologist I have not observed nature really supporting such tolerance and inclusiveness. Any decent teacher of course being able to facilitate the adoption of these rules and making the youth feel that they have developed them by their own consensus. Subtly handling student proposals to choose champions to duke it out on the playground to determine outcomes, to roll dice, or to ask someone in authority so the group remains “on track” (a track they do not even sense their wagon wheels are attached to).

With younger children educators are more honest. These are our rules, they say, in order to have a safe place of learning, and they train the children to obey them. Obedience to rules is indeed necessary for any sort of group to accomplish set objectives. It’s not/should not be the teacher’s desire to perpetuate control of the masses that leads to the teaching of raising one’s hand, asking to go to the bathroom, and lining up to wash hands and go to lunch. I accept these rules as appropriate for group management. I’m glad elementary teachers know how to train their kids in behaviors that enable crowds of kids to learn together safely. But I also expect that by the time students have reached middle school, they are well along are in the process of self-governance and taking reasonable consequences for their choices. I have only a few rules: 1) Be kind. 2) Do quality work. I try to teach them , when necessary, in an organic, personalized, collaborative way, and try to avoid the usual clamping down on everyone when a few make irresponsible choices. When I ask older students to raise their hands and wait to be called on, I explain why, and hope that a more natural pattern of courtesy will evolve. I’m a little embarrassed when a student asks is he or she can go to the bathroom, even though I know it can be important to keep an accurate running tally of those present or missed instruction time. I’d much rather teach the principle of choosing appropriate times to move around and talk than always requiring permission.

The other day, I asked one of my classes what usually happens when a few people take advantage of their freedom to be destructive, irresponsible, or hurtful. They knew–the leaders get more controlling. At least in our small school, with small classes full of students from families who understand interpersonal responsibility, I am very hopeful it will never need to come to that. Even more, I hope that we as a whole community can restore harmony if their’s disruption–not mere conformity, standardization, obedience, but dynamic harmony. That’s a value worth standing up for, in my opinion.

 

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2017 in Education, Ethics, Relationships

 

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Heart on edge

Drove back in my small car with the large windows that admitted in the light of the blazing stars between the dark trees. Had just dropped my son off with his luggage at the team rendezvous for the training trip to the sunny south. For less than a week this time, but what came into my mind was that soon I will be saying goodbye and good luck and I hope you have everything you need for college.

I am not a worrier, nor do I long to keep my children tethered and comfortingly local if such is not their path. Lately I have been happily dreaming about the exciting world of possibilities ahead of them, the joys of advanced study and building their own communities and life paths. I’ve been remembering my own happy college days. But as I drove back home, the stars pinpoints millions of miles away yet able to pierce the weak yellow glow of the streetlights, I remembered the mistakes I made, the painful parts of discovery, and my dark nights of the soul.

It’s not whether he eats right or remembers to separate light laundry from dark, buys in bulk or keeps his grades up that puts my heart on edge for him. It’s the narrow, rocky, dangerous path of wrestling with painful self awareness and essential solitude, the search for fellowship and true friendship, the struggle to master the self in learning personal discipline, the need to deny the self to put others first, the grounding in self acceptance, personal humility, and reasonable confidence wherein the most risk lies. Real risk, of more than life and limb. I hope that he will have guardian angels to remind him not to go it alone, that he is not alone, to whisper hope in the dark like the light of those stars.

 
 

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Essentials

How much of our lives and culture is made out of nothing much? Of stuff, whether practices, beliefs, or physical objects, that in hard times would prove valueless and be soon abandoned? How much of our so-called social progress depends on the breakdown and replacement of these artificially menaingful cultural components and artifacts, and avoidance of permanence, depth, durability, true value?

Think of the contents of the average dollar store, say during some holiday season or other. Count necessities and what’s the total?

Think of what’s in your house, those carefully selected items large and small that someone in the household deemed necessary to make a home. Unplug the power for a week, and what’s left? Are you still using the soap, but no longer the clothes washer? Using the wood stove instead of the toaster, the wooden spoon instead of the mixer, the sun and the sound of birdsong rather than the wakeup alarm? Those hand tools and the fishing tackle are looking pretty useful, along with those buckets, that wagon, quality shoes. No radio, no news feed, so you get together with the neighbors to make hay and conversation while the sun shines, and plan the garden. Are you walking down to the farm market for exercise and carrying stuff instead of going to the gym? Thinking about which building will serve as the local community hangout, and who will play the next dance?

What about the books in your library? Copies of ones you read in your youth in which you now see the flaws, works of reference no longer relevant mixed in with some which will always be useful? Cherished life-changing volumes that helped you to see, really see, showed you life, broke through your pain, your egotism, your fear? Field guides? Now they won’t last the next few decades in this damp climate, so what will you keep? Do you have personal stories, family histories, songs and poems committed to memory? The screens are all off, the invasions into your living room by purveyors of vehicle love and the next entertainment series silenced. What will you want now? What’s worth working for?

And what do you have in your person, and here is where it might get a little uncomfortable. But it shouldn’t, no, not at all. Because eve if your place in the global economy has disappeared, you have the DNA for all you need for the local scene, and you’re in that wonderful gene pool of the community that still, even after all that domestication, can work it on this earth, at least enough.

Who are the folks that make up your neighborhood? As the electricity grid decays, the gas runs out, the refugees arrive, who are the pillars of the community now? Not the department store CEO or the hedge fund manager? Not the real estate broker or bank manager, or even the famous local actor or football hero. There’s the bicycle mechanic, the farmer, the philosopher, the minders of children, the story tellers. The builders, teachers, caregivers, preachers, prophets, and poets. The mail carrier, the horseman, the herbalist and the healer. The hunter, the brewer, the worker of stone, of textiles. Hewers of wood and drawers of water. Wise elders and energetic youth.

And how was your holiday?

 

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All in a spirit of love

That post about the alien movie was kind of different for me, wasn’t it? My way of getting out of a rut of writing mostly about things that bug me. Lots of things bug me, and when I don’t take that in a spirit of problem solving and creative public articulation, or at least self examination and compassionate understanding, I don’t like my own voice. Why would anyone, except someone who wants to complain along with me. I’ve sensed that kind of flavor in others’ writing on issues about which they have been passionate. At first there is the prophetic voice, the reasoning enlightenment, the hopeful invitation to raise one’s consciousness, mindfully pursue lofty goals, and celebrate progress. Then as the road is hard and so many do not respond, there’s a regression into mere sarcastic announcements of business as usual, with a tendency to neatly package up the opposition into labelled and derided types who aren’t even ceded approval for their best actions. Then one camps in one’s comfortable position, and who really helps anyone else grow from there?

When you find out about some word or action that someone has performed that goes against all your cherished values, do you ever think, “but surely they had good intentions”? That is, other than in those with the clear motivation of being reelected, increasing the bottom line, or escaping responsibility. That assumption of innocence (however unrealistic, I want to add), usually comes from the right place, from which there can be dialogue. It works both at the personal level, such as in parenting or management–we are advised to “catch them doing something right.” To open dialogue, door to door evangelists always start on something we can all agree on, such as “Do you desire a life of significance?” Could that also work–at least better than  scathing criticism and threats, in the public domain? I mean, showing respect, starting from, or trying to find, common ground, and calling out the best in a person?

A teacher friend of mine, smart and liberal minded, once recounted the story of how she heard in the lunch room one teacher asking another the rhetorical question, “Can you believe that some people don’t like Sarah Palin?” She responded with, “I have some views on that, if you would like to hear them.” Which they agreed to do. After describing Palin’s failure to be a devoted caregiver to her disabled child during the course of her political campaigning, she left these two teachers wondering if Sarah Palin was really conservative enough to have their approval. She opened the possibility of a meeting of ideas because she appealed to the values she knew they had, and applied them in a new way.

Did you know that people are more likely to believe evidence presented by scientists if the scientists are friendly? So I must be right in thinking that I need to steer clear of the “rude awakening” approach. With all due respect to Flannery O’Connor and John the Baptizer. But what self control it requires, what conscious and purposeful loving and humility! If I really want to change anyone’s mind, that is, and not just rail from my room.

So I meditate on this phrase: all in a spirit of love. (Mainly referring to 1 Corinthians 13 as the model) This has helped me to have a better perspective in home and family life, such as when I don’t want to clean up someone else’s mess (serve one another in love), or annoys me (love is patient), or fails to share my values (love is not proud). Helps me when I want to put off a duty or good deed (love is kind), want to let someone else set the good example (outdo one another in showing honor), want to stretch my little bubble of comfort and enjoyment at the expense of productive service. And so, can I manage to love in my writing?

Except, today was another annoyed at everything and everyone day. Annoyed that I feel so pushed into consuming by my culture, to buy crackers at $6 a pound, chips at $8 for a get together. Annoyed that none of the retail or office buildings in the new town minicenter has solar panels, only designer parking lots. Annoyed that some people drive twenty miles twice a week to exercise at my Pilates studio. Annoyed that some trendy health food company passes gluten free chocolate nut bars off as paleo diet (“for your inner cave man”). Annoyed that people grow lawns they never use and shop at the grocery chain. Annoyed that I have a big driveway and not enough bike storage. And so on.

I shared this with my daughters as we drove this evening, all about how grouchy I’d been feeling and some of the reasons why, and that I knew that the only good cure for frustration is work. Which includes speaking the truth in love, yeah.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2014 in Personal Growth

 

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This issue’s featured family is currently unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Sometimes I feel that a bit more space in our little house is the answer. To that end I truck things off to storage and good will, pare down my possessions, try to convince my spouse and kids to let go of a few more items from the dozens of boxes there, condense, find creative storage solutions. I actually enjoy the sense of movement, of change and renewal, as well as the physical work and creativity of designing and creating solutions for a small space, in contrast to the cultural pressure to upgrade. I want to be content, want to embrace simplicity, want to prove that what we have is enough. Do you know we get three “neighborhood magazines” now—three, all spawned within a year of one another, featuring happy local families in their apparently showpiece houses with their apparently showpiece lifestyles. More than half of the “featured families”—far more than half—are in real estate or financial planning, attested by the same faces showing up on the ads in the later pages. When I posted a comment to the neighborhood website calling the first rag I received “silly” and mentioned the real estate connection, I was reprimanded from various quarters for my lack of community spirit, since after all the publisher actually lived nearby and was doing this project “out of pocket.” The publisher, mildly affronted, said my family could be featured as well, though I shuddered at the thought of what a production that would be. Everyone dressing up, acting just so, posing for a family style fun activity that we all typically do together (pillow fight taken, bike rides too–maybe a family chore day, half watching a football game and half working on laptops, or going to a swim meet?). So I withdrew from attacking that particular veneer with my coarse grade sandpaper. The next three featured families were in other professions–one was even a public school teacher–who could think any advertising revenue could come from that? Then I saw his financial planner spouse featured a few pages on…

Still, there is a real community here. It’s not primarily about social media posts,  nor advertising revenue. And I can’t say I feel I’ve contributed much to it, other than chatting a bit with folks walking their dogs, helping neighbors with recycling day, trying to get some ride sharing going, and an attempt at a women’s tea years ago. And generating some private enjoyment for folks that agree with my “antisocial” views but are too diplomatic to air them publicly.

Back to the house, though, and I’m hoping that the topic has some relevance for others out there: There’s still a mismatch between the space, and the stuff we want to fit in it. We don’t want to let go of our specialty tools and supplies, our books, games, clothes for all seasons, bulk food storage, clippings and photos and artwork eventually to be organized and put on display. I bring up the open discussion of whether we should add on, trade up, rent a little office/project space. I want, I want, I don’t want to want more. But anyway the savings aren’t there yet, college expenses are coming up, our jobs aren’t secure, and the kind of place we want has never shown up in the right area at the right price, especially considering the 6% real estate fee. And after all, half of our kids will be launched to other domains in the next two years. There will be a bedroom for each of the rest then, and we’ll get the garage back for storage and projects. The discipline of waiting, of contentment, of letting go. Embracing what positive changes really are within my sphere of influence.

Maybe it’s help with the housework I need. I know it was a huge relief in the past, changed my demeanor, took such a burden off. At about what I’d earn per hour as a substitute teacher, I see it as a good trade. On cleaning days I’d come home and just bask in the beauty of a clean, orderly home, and a surge of creative energy–the kind that results in a lot of the messes, in fact–would wash over my soul. I’d put on some Bach, start some muffins, take out my sewing stuff and sew away until it was time to feed the kids, or go shopping, or organize the bills.

Now the main reason the house feels too small is that the tube is on in the heart of the house every weekend for at least half of the day. No civil cure for that now, though years of resistance kept it at bay. I can keep my frustration at bay with exercise, productive work, and leaving for chunks of each networks dominated day. Right now I can hear the muffled sounds of the three hour pre-game show over the music pumping our of my ear buds as I write. I was going to go to church, see if I could lure some of the family out since some old homeschool friends’ are the string quartet for the service. The pastor is a football fan, which elevates him in my eyes as a guy willing to forgo for higher goals. Though occasionally a parishioner will share an update from a smart phone. But it’s half time already, I’m still here writing, and my husband is rallying the kids to clean up from breakfast.

As for the positively trite ending that I still am tempted to make, I can only say that there must be more required of me than to form my days out of complaints about my perceived constraints. I know from looking back on my life that I too often live timidly, in reaction rather in proactivity, and deceive myself into believing that I am trapped by the choices of others, that my life would be better if only I either rebelled completely and rejected all efforts to make me compromise (which out of patient tolerance and loyalty I do not do), or convinced those others to adopt all my values and plans (an impossible task). I look for higher values by which to live my life, as a free agent without divine powers, and the courage and confidence to live, in the words of a guy whose books I’m too proud to read, my best life now.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2014 in Personal Growth

 

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What if most people are less well-informed than necessary for a free democratic society?

Was listening to a piece on CBC Radio “Ideas” that touched on surprising research findings several decades ago that the average American citizen wasn’t very bright, not bright enough to make informed, reasonable decisions in a democratic society. The conclusion being that manipulation was much more effective, a continuation of the techniques used to keep folks backing WWII efforts and getting men and woman addicted to smoking. In the case of the progress of democratic society, a benign manipulation along the lines of the well-informed and visionary direction chosen by the intelligent few. The invisible government, I think they called it.

Tonight as I finish up making a small dent in the housework I’ve neglected in favor of a volunteer sewing project for my daughter’s 4-H club, I sadly acknowledge that it’s still true, if not more so. I didn’t want to see it that way. For some reason all these years I’d been focusing on the immorality of corporate and government leaders in using the media to spin the news, cultivate brand loyalty rather than intelligent debate, and cultivate an image that instills confidence, rather than being informative, objective, and open to the wisdom of folks living in actual communities. Then as I considered the thought that most people just aren’t very smart, it was like turning to face another ugly truth that had been there all the time. No, it’s not a surprise. I know I’m on the continuum, aware that I so often don’t get things, don’t know enough, don’t articulate well enough, to contribute to the building of a better and more just world. Yet I’m told I’m highly literate, intellectual even, know lots about lots of things, have a good mind. Which is scary, because when I read some classic nineteenth century British or Russian novel, or Roman speech, I’m struck by the beautiful complexity of ideas, the rich vocabulary (even in translation) compared to many prize-wimnning best sellers today. I mourn the loss, wish I could emulate that style. Who can teach me? How hard must I work, and how will I find the space in my life?

What got me looking back at the idea that people just arent’ smart enough for true democracy was listening to my daughters and their friend giggling over YouTube videos in their bedroom on their smart phones. On for ten, fifteen minutes, more. I felt the sadness, the frustration at my seeming inability to pass on even what little I have of love of great literature, appreciation for good reasoning and communication in the service of humanity. I made the mistake of knocking and entering, making some comment on the stupidity of the content they were streaming in a flavor of lament. My daughters’ gaze hardened and the eyes of the guest looked surprised.

Today in the van, energized rather than fatigued, I was able to take a more positive approach with my daughters: making observations, even showing appreciation for a discerning consumption of pop culture, in order to study and consider, question and analyze, judge and discriminate, separate false from true. What online content do we create? What do we access and pay attention to, and why? How does it all affect us–differently for different people? In what direction are we being influenced to go, by whom or what force, and is it a worthy direction? What is lost? And so on.

Again that intense pull to get back into teaching. One area where I don’t feel discouraged about the “one starfish” scenario, knowing the explosive nature of education, of nurturing wisdom in even one student a year. It would be worth it. It is worth it. Proverbs 8:11: “For wisdom is far more valuable than rubies. Nothing you desire can compare with it.

 

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More about post secondary planning

Here in the silence of my parents-in-laws house, nothing but the click of keys and mouse, passing of cars, ticking of clock and muffled song of a sparrow outside. I’m unaccustomed to such quiet, not sure how to structure it, though we sought it here—a retreat on the way to pick up our youngest son from Scout Camp on the Oregon coast. There was getting up at a reasonable time, fixing breakfast for my husband and me, finishing my book while he did work remotely on his laptop in the living room. Yesterday on the way here he spoke again about the one satisfaction in his work, knowing he was providing for us. How important or our children to learn a trade so they could do the same.  I’d been expressing my deep value for the type of education that would not only prepare a person for the work force, but enable one to understand the forces at work in the world, develop vision and wisdom, exert influence in the world for good. My desire that they go to a college that would provide the support and opportunities that intelligent, young, Type B introverts need, a place where they would be known by their professors who would mentor them, help them develop a vision for meaningful work in the world based on their gifts and values, and confidence in pursuing that and other important aspects of life purpose. We told our children and they were growing up that God made us to be a blessing in the world. Even now and then I ask, why did God make you, and they answer “To be a blessing to the world.”

There’s certainly an element of wanting for my children what I felt I never received. Back then I didn’t know what I was missing. I expected university to be big and impersonal, professors to inhabit a  different world and not have much to do with undergrads. Science was about attending lectures in big halls, taking notes, getting the labs done, doing well on exams. I expected most of my meaningful growth and learning to be outside the classroom (as previously). I studied at the big research university, but lived on a small neighboring campus, a self contained Oxford-style liberal arts and journalism school with a rich student life–frosh, upper classes and grad students mixing in the student pub, lit society, theater, debates and open mic nights. But I think now, if only I’d had the kind of academic and career mentoring and encouragement from my professors that some of the colleges I’m now researching have the reputation of providing–what might I have discovered about my life purpose? What if someone had noticed and helped me develop my strengths and particular way of seeing things, my confidence, in the realm of scholarship and work? There was a bit of activity in the way of picking off the top few students from each class to invite them to apply for lab assistanceships or encouragement to do grad work, but that wasn’t me. I studied marine biology because it fascinated me, but who knew? Who knew my other interests and how they might be connected? I had no idea what the options were, or where I might best serve and develop. But maybe that’s what you get for under $16,ooo a year.

Maybe better to get that technical degree or certificate, keeping costs down by living at home and studying at the community college, then work to earn what a great liberal arts education costs. Then you always have a trade, and can afford to build your mind, deepen wisdom with a foot in the “real world.” Trading on potential straight out of high school is a pretty risky business, as well as a highly competitive market. I wonder if my oldest, who doesn’t lack intelligence or commitment to learning, but doesn’t have stellar test scores, can place in that race. And to try for a swimming scholarship and then have to balance two workouts a day with studies? Maybe not feasible either.

So I maintain a balance of hope and anxiety, continue working on the options, helping him feel out his plans and desired possible courses of study, travel, work. One thing going for him is that he has a good network of friends–sensible, caring, intelligent friends, a variety of personalities. That goes a long way in helping one work things out, doesn’t it?

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Education, Parenting & Family

 

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