Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pressure Not Worth Dying For

I loved my college experience, and one of the ways I express my affinity for my alma mater is by serving as an alumni interviewer. So twice during the "early admissions" cycle and twice during the "regular admissions" cycle, I volunteer my time to put a trembling prospective student under the microscope. I'd consider myself a tough, but fair interviewer - I don't go out of the way to trap or trick these high school seniors, but I do want to get a clear sense of who they are, what distinguishes them from other strong applicants and whether they've done their homework on my alma mater (which would lend credibility to their insistence that my school is "their number one choice").

But I also try to inject some kind humanity into my interviews. I usually open up with asking them about their senior year, and I'll encourage them to enjoy every moment of their second semester. "Kick back and enjoy the great memories you'll share with your friends," I'd tell them. "Your transcripts are locked down and you'll be free to learn without being fixated on test scores. Instead, you'll be dreaming about all the fun you'll have on your senior class trip and prom." At the end of the interview, I'd offer a firm handshake and again ask them to enjoy the rest of their senior year. "After all," I'd say, "I can say with high certainty that whether it's a Penn or another college, you're going to end up a great school where you'll meet great friends and experience great things. Don't let unnecessary stress about college ruin what should be a terrific senior year. A year from now you'll be in a good place. And five years from now you'll be in a good place, too!"

I thought about this when I sadly learned about the suicide of a young lady who was in her first year at Penn. Shortly after her death, Madison Holleran's father told journalists, “There was a lot more pressure in the classroom at Penn. She wasn’t normal happy Madison. Now she had worries and stress.” There seems to be a mental health element in Madison's death, but I think it's fair to say that the kind of stress that she faced is something that many high schoolers and college students can relate to. And while I can't fathom enduring pressure to the point of taking my own life, I do recall how jarring it was to be in a situation where things that were formerly easy (namely, academics) were suddenly more difficult. And I remember it not being particularly pleasant coming to the realization I wasn't "all that and a bag of chips" - college was full of academic and extracurricular overachievers who were far more impressive that I was. 

I can imagine through a lens of of a mentally-struggling mind, these emotions were magnified to the point of a despair more dark and hopeless than I can imagine. And now a young lady is gone because of it.

I close my interviews with my aforementioned words in part because I think this is what I hope that my own children would hear from my own voice, both through my actions and my words. I do push my kids to strive for excellence, but I try to deeply embed within them an ethos where once they've done their best, they can put their soul at rest and be at peace that God will open and close the right doors. They need not have their joy robbed by unnecessary pressure or stress. They ought not to waste hours of their lives questioning their value and identity on things which are peripheral. Their mother and I won't love them any more or less based upon how they do in school or where they go to college. They'll go where God wants them to go - and they'll be just fine.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Home Away From Home

Like many others, I returned to work and fielded the question that everyone gets on the first weekday of the new year: "How was your holiday?" Before soon, I had developed a response which I felt was the right balance between being non-dismissive without delving into unnecessary details, and it was pretty much this: "It was terrific, thanks. We stayed the first days locally and celebrated with friends here, spent Christmas morning at our home where we opened gifts, and then went back up to the northeast for ten days where we saw family and friends. It was the perfect amount of time back up there - not too long, and not too short - and we had a chance to spend time with just about everyone with whom we wanted to meet up." It was indeed a terrific Christmas holiday.

This was big milestone for the family as it was the first time the entire family (I had returned for a friend's wedding last summer) had returned to New Jersey since our move early last year. It was a trip that was highly anticipated and talked about for weeks around the dinner table, and as we finally arrived at Newark Airport on Christmas evening, there was an interesting duality of feeling that of "being home" and "coming for a visit".

On occasion, we'll ask the kids about whether they preferred Texas or New Jersey, and prior to our trip, our two older kids usually answered the former while our youngest answered the latter. The reason from my youngest daughter's preference is simple and heartwarming: "I miss grandma." But throughout our trip, all our kids developed a greater affinity for the Garden State. It could have been reacquainting themselves with old friends or even the opportunity to experience wintry weather that I'm not particularly a fan of. More recently when my son was asked about the question of which state he prefers, he capitulates and speaks fondly about his grandparents, cousins and snow.

We were visiting at the home of close friends in NJ when I told my daughter about that we need to get ready to leave. She burst into tears and sobbed about never being able to see these friends again. And as I held her and told her that to the contrary, we were blessed to have good friends in two places. I told her that we were fortunate that we would always have old friends who we could visit and share all of our exciting new experiences with while developing and deepening new friendships in our new home. And mathematically, we'd have more friends. It was sort of a more heartfelt version of the "more is better" AT&T wireless commercial.

But in comforting my daughter, I was able to articulate the gladness of the life that I have - that I think we all have - now. There's something to be said about stability, longevity and growing deep roots - I get that. But if the providence of God brings us to another place, and then another, and then another... we'll be okay. We're in a good place. We're in good hands.