A friend who works at an independent school in Portland Maine sent me a link to the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Mass General. It is an amazing resource, and I strongly recommend spending some time browsing this site
Embedded in the theme of the organization is the concept of letting children know that “It’s okay to not be okay,” and I couldn’t agree more.
I have been looking for simple words that summarize that concept, and the Clay Center has put it perfectly; “It’s okay to not be okay.” I have spoken to individual students, grade-level classes, and the full student body about learning from failures. In a day when childhood anxiety is on a sharp increase and celebrities are going to jail for cheating during the college admissions process, it’s important to know that every student will face hurdles, and as the Clay Center puts it, “It’s okay.”
I consistently ask that students focus on how to recover from their setbacks when things are not okay. The term “grit” has become popular in education, and I certainly ask students to persevere through those challenging times even with the impact of a pandemic. Now, I ask their support structure to do the same. Every child is different in the most amazing ways. Every child tracks a different course for their growth, and the finish line of achievement is different for all of us. The problem emerges when a child’s different course is interpreted as his or her personal failure. Suddenly, that child is judged because of those differences. I hope judgment is not something anyone feels at NNS because whether they are reading at the college level or still mastering their letters, these are special young people who have different but equally important futures in front of them. Ultimately, even in the best of times, being a child today is more complicated than when I was growing up due to the pressures of social media, technology, and increased peer judgment.
The New School tries to be an organization that can serve as many types of student pathways as possible, and we will never judge a child based on how they progress through their education. Karen and I worked with a student years ago named Daryl who took a very different path. He arrived at our school via a recommendation from the Boys and Girls Club of Boston, and he was immediately a promising student in the classroom. He was our go-to babysitter when our kids were little and we both had faculty meetings. I will never forget seeing his face pop up in the door of a crowded meeting around Christmas, and he waved us over. “Sorry to interrupt, Mr. E,” Daryl said. “I am not sure how it happened, but the tree tipped over and some ornaments broke. There were some sparks, but the kids are fine.” To this day, my children have never said how the tree fell, and I will add that it was wired to the wall, so it needed to be a serious incident to bring it down!
Daryl was a great kid and a great student, but not unlike many 7th graders, impulse control was not his best quality. In a period of three weeks, he knocked a sprinkler head off with a lacrosse ball and flooded three stories of a dormitory, then he tackled a friend outside the computer lab and broke the student’s leg, and finally he was found with a girlfriend in the music room on a Saturday afternoon. Daryl needed more guidance than the school could provide. Karen and I stayed in touch with Daryl, but throughout his high school years, he did change schools more frequently than usual. However, after taking an extra year and finding a love of mathematics, Daryl ended up attending Williams College. Throughout all his challenges, Daryl always remained the same big hearted young man we love, and although his path changed, he found success, happiness, and connection, his own way.
As we approach the last full month of the school year and our 14th month of the pandemic, the challenges of being a child have never been more serious and anxiety has probably never been higher. There is no question in my mind that it has never been more important to take the advice of the doctors at the Clay Center and accept that “It’s okay to not be okay.”
Have a great weekend.