Floods Hit Quickly: Digital Safety in a High Speed World

Mach Speed Changes

The scholar and technology expert leading the parenting discussion group slapped her hands together and shook her hair back from her face. We parents, gathered in the conference room of a high school to hear her speak, didn’t seem to get it, and were now wrangling through the Q&A. Why the heat? We resisted her premise.

Resisted? I flatly disbelieved her. At least I wanted to.

theguardain.com

                                                                                     theguardain.com

“What all this data means,” said this author of multiple articles and a seminal book on kids and technology, “is that the tactics you used 5 years ago to raise your kids won’t cut it today.” She cleared her throat and said that again, slowly, her eyes level. Then she added, “In 5 years, what you were doing today won’t cut it. And in 6 years, what you were doing a year earlier than that won’t cut it. Times are changing. And they’re changing at mach speed.”

That warning came well over 5 years ago. And I, despite my incredulity at first, and like any parent paying attention to the trends, have seen her prediction come true. We’ve seen mach speed up close, and, gums flapping, are now white knuckling it against the coming whiplash of inevitable warp speed.

What our lecturer hadn’t mentioned was something that she might not have been able to foresee. “Speed” in this digital age refers to more than how rapidly technology and the world it’s driving are changing. “Speed” is obviously about how rapidly all these influences are changing our kids’ choices, brains, behavior.

How do you keep up with warp speed without getting warped yourself?

Floods Happen All at Once

At the risk of overstraining the metaphor, I need to go back to our house flood to essay an answer.

When we walked into our home on January 1st 2015 after a week away, we were shocked to find the entire ground floor flooded. My first thought: Hadn’t we been paying attention to a leak in the previous months? If we’d had even a clue, we’d have been responsible renters and stopped said leak. Had we overlooked any previous plumbing problems in the house? (No.) Had we forgotten to winterize outdoor water lines? (No.) We’d double-checked that every faucet and valve had all been off in the bathrooms and laundry area before leaving, hadn’t we? (Yes.). Our house had been, by all indications, downright watertight.

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So what happened?

Something had gone seriously wrong. An external water source sprung, and since the entryway from the garden to the house wasn’t secure, (its structure and weather-stripping weren’t sound), most of the water entered right under a single door frame. What we discovered later (after jackhammers took out the whole screed, or concrete sub-flooring) was that the foundation of the house wasn’t secure, either. The rest of the flood water had seeped in under outer walls right to the foundation.

Hundreds of liters of water made their way in. In no time at all, safe and dry became swampified.

So it is in our increasingly digital environment. Our virtual connectivity, coursing more and more through handheld gadgets which more and more of us, including more and more young kids, manipulate, works like a system of hyper-speed aqueducts that transport an arbitrary mix of the necessary, the fabulous, the exciting, the inane, but also the corrosive into our lives. The flow is unavoidable. It is constant. And it’s potent, pushing against our entryways and under our foundation with more force, ubiquity, and instantaneity than ever before. Certainly more than even our lecturing expert and her colleagues might have imagined only half a decade ago.

Sealing Against the Gush

Kids lack the emotional maturity and discipline – the sound weather-stripping, if you will — that most adults have developed to navigate the depths of the online world. From fabulous to toxic, data and stimuli flood or seep into and soak their minds the way water enters an open door and soaks your sofa.

What happens, then, when a flood of corrosive data (Bullying? Violence? Sexually explicit images or messages?) gushes into a young mind?  As a school psychologist, who treats kids with tech-related issues, told a group of concerned parents like myself, “In recent years, I’ve seen a whole lot more real decent kids slide into trouble. In no time flat.”

From dry to drenched at warp speed. If any of this sounds at all familiar to you, then welcome. Many parents are standing in figurative floods, ankle (or neck) deep in water, wondering, “Hadn’t we been paying attention to a leak somewhere? If we’d had even a clue, we’d have been responsible parents and stopped the flow. Had we overlooked any previous weak points in our child, in our family, that make him or her or all of us vulnerable to digital dangers?  Had we forgotten to filter, set limits, model healthy digital citizenship? Did we double-check every device and gadget, and direct our family to real (as opposed to virtual) activities?”

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                          huffingtonpost.com

Some Tips

The school psychologist then taught us to watch for signs that, in spite of all our precautions, there might be a “flood” in our family. While parents have probably noted any one or two of the following red flags in their child, it’s a combination of three or more that would be cause to check your doors, foundation, and, yes, even your Windows 10.

  • A change in sleeping and eating habits
  • Anger at being interrupted while on the computer/device
  • A slump in interest in normally enjoyable activities
  • Visible restlessness when not on a computer/device
  • Withdrawing from social activities/family to be alone on computer/device
  • Losing track of time when in front of computer/device
  • Hiding online activity from parents
  • Strained vision/dry eyes
  • Secretiveness, unwillingness to share feelings
  • Agitation, aggression, depression

You might be interested in these resources about teens and social media, or about technology, teens and college students. Or how technology has changed our perception of time, or the general relationship between technology and speed.

Share Your Opinion

From your experience, was the first technology expert right?

If so, how has “warp speed” affected your parenting, your family relationships, your children’s behavior?

If not, how are you doing whatever it is you’re doing?

From your experience, was the second expert (the school psychologist) right?

If he wasn’t, what, in your opinion, keeps a kid from “sliding”?

Watertight? Swimming in Today’s Digital Ocean

Our Little Citadel

There was a time when my husband and I thought if we made our home a fortress and stood sentinel at its drawbridge, a major part of our job as parents was done. Queen and King of our little citadel, we’d keep our hawk eyes on every coming and going. Good stuff in; bad stuff out. We managed making a stronghold for our family.

(But then, there was also a day when our house didn’t spontaneously spring a leak and leave us waterlogged for the better part of a year…)

Back in that Once-Upon-a-Time time, physical fortification worked. For example, because we weren’t excited about most public television, we decided to raise our kids sans. (We got the TV for those parent-approved DVDs, but otherwise never hooked the thing up for local channels, forget cable.) They read lots of books and integrated deeply during our years in Norway and France. And since we weren’t thrilled about video and computer games, we just never got them. One child did play them occasionally at a friend’s house, but he never did it enough to get hooked.

And so on.

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Thus we managed. From our turret. Overlooking our moat. Admiring the pet crocodiles we’d tossed in for effect.

Then all at once, the whole world flooded.

The Digital Flood

At least it seemed like the flood was all at once. Somewhere in the early half of the 21st century — Monday, September 3rd of 2007, to be precise — I realized our fortress was under serious threat, tides were climbing swiftly, and soon we’d be neck deep in something I would never be able to control.

That was the day our eleven-year-old started a new school. In it, the One-to-One program was being piloted, meaning that personal laptops were required for every student and for all classroom work. That same year, same school, our youngest, then seven, also began doing much more schoolwork through digital means. I volunteered every week in class, and noted that many of his grade school aged classmates had smart phones. Some slightly older kids, still preteens, had social media accounts. At the same time, I discovered our sixteen-year-old was downloading movies, sitcoms, and something I learned was called Youtube clips on her laptop. (And I’d thought she’d been doing extra homework.)

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Over the course of that single year, I watched rising, churning currents, the foisting tide of stimuli climbing our bastion walls. Whirls of Twitter, eddies of Pinterest, later surges of Instagram. Then came the stream of WhatsApp, WeChat. Snapchat . Torrents of Skype, LinkedIn, Tumblr. In no time – in the following few swift years — the tide spilled clean over the upper edge of my fortification. Today, I’m dog-paddling wildly, maybe like some of you friends, just to keep afloat. Talk about a sea change.

No wonder the latest digital tool is called Periscope.

The Flood and The Ocean

I need to add quickly that, as with nearly every flood, the current is mostly plain water. Common, innocuous — even life-sustaining, potential-filled, phenomenal — water. We need free exchange of information, and we need connectivity.

Furthermore, I’m certainly no techno-Grinch.  I haven’t taken to living off-the-grid, eschewing texts for smoke signals, homesteading and homeschooling in the Yukon, hauling wood chips for grilling road-kill possums on a spit, and weaving my own cloth from hemp and acorn floss.

No. I’m here with you on this screen, btw, passionately part of the modern world, and, um, on Instagram, Twitter, my three pages on Facebook …

But I am increasingly alarmed by three qualities of the digital ocean: the swiftness (we can’t possibly keep apace); the surreptitiousness (we can’t possibly plug every point of entry); and the mix (we can’t possibly filter all the possible toxins.) So please, elbows on the table, brows furrowed, I want a toe-to-toe, rigorous conversation with you about this.

If the digital ocean has radically and permanently revolutionized everything, what does that mean for parenting? From my teeny sample group of our own four children (raised pre and post flood), and from my larger sample group of countless youth and young adults with whom I’ve worked closely as a teacher, leader, counselor and lecturer in many different countries around the world, I’ve learned that our digital ocean has profoundly altered – heightened the need for vigilance and spiritual wisdom in — parenting. No home, including my own, is watertight. No physical fortress holds against this kind of pressure. We need something else, our kids need something else, and that something else has to be so much better than bricks, mortar and denial.

Check Out These Resources

To illustrate, consider if you are fully aware of what is happening in your child’s digital world.

Are you sure you have a clear sense of your child’s online activity?

Have you discussed in your family whether your child is being bullied, or is herself an online bully?  

Do you know of others involved in cyberbullying?

In disgust, fatigue or exasperation, have you gone off grid? Or have you considered instead, as I have, immersing yourself mindfully in the ocean?

Do you have stories you can share about how the digital ocean has altered your child’s behavior, including sleeping and communication patterns? Or what have you observed regarding the digital ocean’s effect on family cohesion – for better or worse? For depth, you might read this, or  this,  and/or this, and then share your comments.

Do you monitor your child’s online activity? 

What do you know about your child receiving (or sending) sexts?

Finally, and most pervasive and pernicious of all, how informed are you about young children, teens, and porn, deemed in this piece to be “the biggest health concern”?

If you’ve had success in responding to these needs, what is it you’ve done?

Finally, if you are interested in scholarly research on the topic, I really appreciated this piece.

A Sea Change, the Internet, and Swimming in the Infinite

As you can sense, our nasty house flood stirred up in me more than concerns for our physical watertightness. Above all, that flood was an ugly wake-up call to how vulnerable we are to the figurative floods that encroach, soak, infiltrate, and inundate. No home — whether a moated fortress or a firm German rental, like ours — is, in the face of today’s digital ocean, ultimately unassailable. No one is watertight. The age of fortress parenting with its high walls and sentinels is as outdated as the medieval fortress itself.

The Internet doesn’t hold us buoyant in a digital ocean.  It lowers us into complete immersion. So is our modern world. Today’s toddler who swipes her Daddy’s iPhone screen as naturally as my first toddler plugged his pacifier back into his own mouth, is growing up totally saturated in the vast digital ocean.  And with that ocean comes wonder, beauty, possibility as well as undertows, predators, and devastation. Given that truth, how will we – and as importantly, how will our children — learn to swim, and not drown in, the digital ocean’s infinite possibilities?

So Much Depends Upon the Red: Thoughts on My Mother

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

My mother is everywhere. In my father’s fifty years of personal photo archives, for instance, she shows up in the majority of the shots. Sometimes she’s the sole subject. Other times, she’s the single fleck of red in the corner of a frame.

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She wore a lot of red as I was growing up – a striking contrast to her rich black hair that became, over time, a crown of silver braids – and got used to carrying a red something-or-other to add that pop of life in pics dad would be shooting.

TRP7 1994 & 2000 Iceland152Decades before amateur photographers carried their self-focusing, self-editing, smart instruments in their breast pockets, he was carting a suitcase of lenses and tripods in one hand while wearing a big clunky Mamiya slung around his neck. They traveled the world. He shot it all. Mom was his favorite subject.

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His shots captured both the minuscule and the majestic, and often, when he went for the grand sweep, he asked mom to stand “right over there, Donna,” in her red. Hat. Sweater. Coat. Shoes. Lipstick. Wearing red, she’d be the spot that heated things up with the shade of energy, of regeneration, the place a discerning eye first landed when scanning a photo.SA18 1977 Slz CZ DDR091

TRP6 1994 Noway bigtrp129CNGRS17 2001 NZ104TRP7 1994 & 2000 Iceland090

Today, I look at these shots – a colonnade, a hillside, a bench, a snowfield – and my head might register that I’m seeing a colonnade, hillside, bench, snowfield. But when I ask my deeper senses what they recall, the answer’s fast. They remember my mother’s red.

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In these thousands of images that chronicle our life, you could be fooled into thinking this mother of mine is a mere accessory. A lovely addition, but peripheral, a parsley-like adornment to the real, main thing. But that’s wrong. Her presence is no simple trimming. Because she doesn’t just complete the composition. She is its lifeblood.

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One of my closest friends buried her mother over the holidays. We two had spoken on the telephone on a Wednesday, and when I’d asked about her mom, my friend had mentioned her mom was a bit under the weather –– nothing radically out of the ordinary, though, she added, exhaling lightly.  My friend had to run. She was taking her car to the garage for some repairs before the projected winter storm slammed through town, and said she’d keep her cell handy, waiting for a text from a sibling for an update on their mom. Just in case.

Within 76 hours from our phone call, my friend’s mother was gone.

She wrote about her mother to me today, the day which happens to be my own mother’s 79th birthday:

“A package that she mailed to us for Christmas is still sitting in a stack in my entryway, waiting for the time that we can Skype a belated Christmas morning gift exchange. How could she be gone if I still haven’t opened that package? If I still have questions for her? If I still see things that will delight her?”

And I shut my laptop to the sound of my heart cracking down the middle.

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To reflect on my mother’s vivid red lifeblood trail, of all that has delighted her, still delights her, delights me about her, of all that we have yet to delight in together, especially when another mother’s trail has run dry on this earth’s crust, is to plug into an industrial strength power source, twist the ribbed metal knob of my emotions all the way to the right, and brace myself. Things start rumbling then shaking – I feel it – and soon they’re shimmying and skidding across the floor.

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So I’ll save myself from dismantling, and will ratchet down the intensity, rein it in, by closing for today. I promise to write more about my mom and what her motherhood has meant and still means to me, and how her red bleeds into my motherhood still. For now, I leave you with a twist on William Carlos Williams, and some images of my magnificent mom-in-red, a color that runs through me.

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The Red

so much depends
upon

a red
mother

glazed with
lightshadow

beside her
children.

International Baccalaureate: A Mother’s Final Notes From The Trenches

Sizzling drums. Drizzling tears. An unlikely alchemy.

Last week on a stage in Paris, while standing in a pocket of shadow off to the side of a big screen, I fingertipped away a couple of tears as I watched footage of my eldest son Parker, drumming. His jazz riff was hot, nothing but pure pyrotechnical spontaneous combustion. You’d have thought that was what was making my eyes burn.

drumming

The Paris audience, which erupted in applause for this filmed drummer they did not know, was made up of high school students, faculty and parents at the international school from which Parker graduated a few years ago. He graduated from there, in fact, only months after that drumming footage was taken. Invited to speak to this audience for a morning, I had brought as accompaniment that firstborn son of mine on film.  Our youngest, Luc, who looks a lot like his big brother, I brought in the flesh. Luc sat front and center, about where his brother had sat during graduation practice, June of 2007.

Luc, thumbs up

Luc, thumbs up

Dalton, our middle son, I couldn’t bring to Paris. Although he wanted to come, a single day away from full I.B. coursework this semester could be lethal, and having lost study time doing Benvolio in this school’s “Romeo and Juliet,” he was already begging for an extension on a deadline for another major I.B. project, the extended essay.  On that stage, I of course thought of Dalton and the pressure he’s under, pressure many of those students in front of me in Paris were under, too.  They are strivers, most of them, in a demanding curriculum, and some were candidates for the full I.B.

Dalton, extended essay

Dalton, extended essay

Extended ecstacy

extended ecstasy

There they sat, gorgeously alive, faces packed with promise. Concentrated, quizzical, study-weary, but leaning into my presentation as they are leaning into their future: ship mastheads tilting toward their oceanic tomorrows.

basketball champions

basketball champions

I was moved just looking at these kids. And some images I projected of Parker as co-captain of both basketball and volleyball teams made my nose sting and my throat tighten.  Because this was Parker’s school, his very stage. And I was speaking to these students in what was Parker’s life stage – late adolescence – that crescendo swell when everything is coming together, plumbing deep and blooming wide all at once, building for. . .

For what?

volleyball buddies

volleyball buddies

For most of those students in front of me, as had been the case for Parker, this high school stage –– both the literal one on which I stood as well as the metaphorical one in which they stood –– was a launching pad for the world stage. That’s how Parker treated it.  Life was ahead, huge and welcoming, his oyster, his clam bake, his personal “oceanic tomorrow.”

“So what are you all preparing for?” I asked my young, beautifully breathing audience. “Who’s preparing for this week’s exam? Midterms? Who’s preparing for SAT’s? ACT’s? That Extended Essay? Theory of Knowledge paper?”

Hands were shooting up everywhere.

“And college applications? Anyone here deep into those?”

More limp hands. A low groan from row 14.

“And what are all these numbers –– your test scores, I.B. or A.P. results, GPA –– telling the world about you? Telling you about yourself? Your aptitude? Your potential? Your worth? Your guaranteed happiness?”

Then in about row six, a girl with dark blonde hair and the huge eyes of a famished hawk, shifted, pulling her sweatshirt hood tighter around the nape of her neck. A flash of connection, and I wondered:  Is she happy?

drumming at trocadéro

drumming at Trocadéro

And for one breath, I choked as I tried to swallow that thought alongside the joy that exploded from that drumming boy, Parker. Then the rush of recollection: sitting in that school’s top administrator’s office in 2006, a couple of coaches next to me (at my request), the jazz band conductor standing in a corner.

“Listen,” I remember saying, “we have to pull Parker out of the full I.B., understand? Put him in a couple of I.B. courses, maybe, and maybe some A.P. I’ll go along with that. But what I’m saying is, his GPA is suffering, so I’m pulling him. And one more thing: no more drums. No more ball.”

for the school's cabaret

for the school’s cabaret

The athletic director hung his head and shook it, side to side. The headmaster let out a long sigh. The conductor lifted his brows. “Really? Just . . . pull him?”

“You do that, Mrs. Bradford,” the assistant basketball coach mumbled a bit, “and you’ll take away his oxygen.”

“Mrs. Bradford, I really do think he needs music,” the man in the corner spoke up. “It’s in him. He’ll be sick without it. Besides, he’ll drive his teachers nuts drumming on his desk.”

“Right. Right.” (I was impatient with their softness while I was trying to be ambitious for my son. After all, someone had to be.) “Honestly,” I continued, “they aren’t necessary, music and ball. They’re treats, rewards for hitting the grades.

The men were quiet.

“I know, I know,” I went on, “I’ll be unpopular with you folks, and okay, Parker’s good at these things. Really good. But don’t worry. I’ll be the one to break the news to him, not you. I’ll be the bad guy.”

seniors

seniors

To this day, and especially while viewing for the first time since 2007 that sizzling drumming footage, the memory of that conversation turns my insides into the hot slosh of the Ganges Delta.  Its tide climbs my torso like a whole year of “oceanic tomorrows.”  And I so want to weep.

Then I shiver with gratitude, relieved that, as it turned out, I buckled on that hardliner moment, and in spite of a sagging grade here or there, Parker was allowed – encouraged – to keep playing, both drums and ball.  He played because his well-meaning but short-sighted mom was overruled by a dad, whose philosophy was simple: the immeasurable is of more value than the measurable. As floppy and slovenly as it might sound (dad said) there is value in just doing what you really love doing. There is value, he said, and there is even achievement in just being happy.

parker, age 9, his school stage

parker, age 9, his school stage

Dad was aligned with insightful administrators, people who were more interested in the holistic picture of Parker’s educational experience – his obvious talents, his nature, his joy – than in insisting on acquiring certain statistical currency.  They were, in the end, focused on complete development, while I was caught in the pinch of the lie that tells us that hitting quantifiable markers of achievement alone – scores, rankings, admissions – equals education, which (the lie continues) will equal durable happiness.

The last week of Parker's life; shot taken at site of accident

The last week of Parker’s life; shot taken at site of accident

Months after the drumming riff, a month after high school graduation, ten days into a college preparation workshop, Parker lost his life. That loss changed everything. Everything. Because I know in my cells how brief the time is we get to spend with our children, how illusory those  “oceanic tomorrows” are, I have strong opinions about anything –– even a first class education –– that robs families of time together. Furthermore, I resent any outside element that imposes poisonous amounts of pressure (upwards of 40 hours of work each week outside of the classroom?) on youth, creating a toxicity that inevitably seeps into and affects the quality of that limited time these young people have remaining with their families.

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And so, as much as I praise the I.B. for its

1) multiethnic, multilingual, multi-philosophical approach to learning,

2) its emphasis on self-governance and time management,

3) its focus on debate and verbal defense,

4) its development of rigorous questioning, including the questioning of authority, and

5) its global grading practices …

And even if I have my third child of four enrolled in an I.B. program, I can only be grateful that my eldest son’s last two years of life were not weighted with the I.B. and the kinds of anxiety, distress, sleeplessness and self-flagellation that I have seen it engender in many youth.  Besides getting solid education, Parker had enough bandwidth in his young life for the things along with academic learning that brought him joy: his music, his sports, his friends, his family, his religion, and his hometown, Paris.

volleyball near the Eiffel tower

volleyball near the Eiffel Tower

portrait

The International Baccaluareate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 2

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Some explanations to springboard this discussion on education:

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is currently used by over 1 million students speaking 74 languages across 145 countries.  These students attend 3,600 schools, both private and public.  In the US, the IB is present in 700 schools, 90% of which are public.  This brief profile should dispel the misconception that the IB is elitist, or that it is a system created exclusively for and useful only to UN diplomats.  And this fact page might help dispel other misinformation.

That notion of “privilege and exclusivity” and UN affiliation arose from the IB’s origins.  I can speak with a bit of authority about said origins, since our family lives in Geneva, Switzerland, seedbed of the UN. I’ve stood in the buildings and rooms where the IB was designed and first implemented, yes, in conjunction with many of the UN’s lofty and valuable peace-making objectives.  In fact, our two youngest children now attend the very school, which developed the IB in the late ’60’s of post WW II Europe.

You might say we have come to the mount.

Which would explain, I suppose, the dragon (I wrote of in my last post.)

thesun.uk.com.

thesun.uk.com.

My current proximity to the IB’s epicenter and the fact that, when we moved to this area, we specifically (and energetically) targeted this, the IB’s “Urschool,” helps as I discuss the IB in this and my ensuing posts.  I come from a posture of support, even enthusiasm. As global nomads, all four of our children have participated in the IB to one extent or another, and have done so in three different schools across Europe. So while it’s maybe a small sample size,  I do have contextual reference (four children, three schools, over ten years) from which to judge the program, or as least its central European iteration.

In one school, a son took a couple of individual IB courses. This is essentially IB à la carte, and is recognized by educators as similar in level of difficulty to taking a menu of Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

In another school, our daughter graduated with the full IB, more challenging than IB à la carte, and recognized as tougher than even a complete menu of Honors or  Advanced Placement (AP) classes. AP on steroids, some say. The full IB means that in addition to all coursework being college-level, (as opposed to selecting only certain IB classes), she had to complete major additional projects, an extended research essay, service hours and several targeted assessments. Today, our youngest is doing the middle school IB, and the third  of our four children, Dalton, is slogging through his final year of the full IB diploma program, as did his sister.

ib diploma

Again, my opinions of the IB stem from a sample size of only three schools from central Europe.  But from that sample size I’ve noted the consistencies and inconsistencies, and know that experiences vary, as I have noted, not only from one country/cultural context to another, but from one school to another. The overall coursework is administered differently from school to school. Weekly workload, variety and aggressiveness of courses offered, day-to-day and month-by-month grading practices, quality of classroom instruction and consistency of faculty guidance have varied. There have been truly stellar teachers and administrators. There have also been some less-than-stellars.

In these upcoming posts, I’ll focus on what I judge are the outstanding strengths or weaknesses of the IB. Sometimes, as you’ll see today, they are one and the same.

Time and Stress Management

Given the dragon slaying metaphor from my last post, IB students must, above all, learn time and stress management skills. Our high school senior, now in the middle of his second year of the 2-year diploma-targeted arc,  often says that IB success (meaning just completion, not necessarily top scores) hangs on one’s ability to “study while running.” You start your junior year at a dead sprint, and can’t stop running for two years while task upon task gets piled in your arms. You can’t drop one task, or it’s nearly impossible to catch up. You must study and run at once.

Stress/time management is important, even vital. And hear me: I’m all for a program that puts pressure on my kids to effectively govern their use of time.  They will need this in college. They will need this in work, in family, in life.

But I do question what it means for young minds to associate learning primarily with breathlessness, sleeplessness, burned-eyeball revisions until midnight, high-pitched anxiety, gulping down information from a fire hydrant, a 2-year nonstop scramble. As an educator myself, (I have instructed German, English writing and literature, and the Humanities on the university level; my current activities have me lecturing to small and large audiences; I am a writer) I would wish that my kids also associated joy, discovery and creativity with learning.

ib profile

I also question the notion of “balance,” which, as you see here in purple, is part of the IB learner’s profile. Frankly, I’m searching for it, but I’m not seeing balance in the life of my IB student. How can there be when one’s running as this son is just to keep on top of basic coursework?

 

(And what does it mean when students say the IB stands for Insane Burnout, I’m Busy and Intellectually Brutal?)

My oldest son, who took individual IB courses (as one might take AP courses) and not the full diploma, had time to participate in sports and music alongside his academic courses. Our second son, now neck-deep in the full IB, is feeling mostly anxiety because he’s been cast in a supporting role in the school’s upcoming student-directed Shakespeare. He’s wondering: will playing Benvolio be my demise? Can I do theater and run carrying all this coursework?

(I’ll let you know in a few months.  In the meantime, I’m taking it as a good omen that Benvolio is the only character from the younger generation to survive in “Romeo and Juliet.”)

wordsmash

Still, I have to ask: is this program fashioned, as it asserts it is, to prepare young minds for the rigor not only of serious university studies, but further for the demands of a complex, diverse, rapidly shifting, international environment? Are the hot breath and licking flames of the dragon intended to motivate students toward a passion for intellectual rigor, high-level holistic learning, life-long curiosity, a broad (global) world view, and encourage a whole wonderful list of learner’s qualities that is part of the IB’s original charter?

Is the IB shaping minds and spirits that are thirsty, elastic, joyful about the magnificent possibilities and electrifying privilege of gaining an education?

Or is the dragon dragooning students into constant worry and apprehension about keeping up? How to cut corners? Whether or not they can really afford to be so frivolous as to participate in one drama production their senior year?

Are the students finishing an aggressive program with minds that are not thirsty but fried, not elastic but overwrought, not joyful about learning, but  wrung out, wrung dry, and convinced (as is our IB senior,) that he’s bottom rung?

 

What’s Our Destiny? Thoughts on Epigenetics While Bumming Around Provence

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Driving the plane tree-canopied Roman roads of southern France with my parents last week, I noticed in my peripheral vision that my mom, sitting next to me in the back seat, was gripping the door handle.

Why the grip? I thought. She’s buckled in, there’s no one else on this road, Randall’s a safe driver, and we’re cruising this long, straight line. 

Mid-thought, I realized I was gripping my door handle, too. Exactly like her.

I also saw my mom was chewing gum. (I dislike gum-chewing.)

And mid-thought, I realized I was mid-chawnk.

She’s so animated, I’d been noticing all week, and look at her whip up a conversation with any stranger. Like me, my kids say.  And just like the way she used to call for us – operatically, throughout our little Utah neighborhood –– “Oh, Daaaaaltons! Come to diiiinner!” –– she sings my son’s name to get his attention: “Oh, Dalton! Come to dinner!”

Just. Like. Me.

Then I looked at my Dad, sitting in front of me in that car. Strong brow, concave temples, intense eyes, I thought.  And what’s this man got against sleep?

An instant, and in the rear view mirror I caught my own eyes staring back at me: riveted. Emphasized by those sunken temples. Underslept. My Dad’s mesmerizing green-blue-gray bloodshot.

In Rousillon, France

In Rousillon, France

I used to draw caricatures, and when I was a teenager, I did one as an anniversary gift to my parents.  It featured me as a hybrid of my Mom and Dad: Dad’s brow, Mom’s chin, Dad’s eyes, Mom’s hair, Dad’s fast gait, Mom’s theatrical voice, Dad’s cold fingers, Mom’s wide feet.

I looked like Quasimodo in drag.

What I couldn’t draw as a teenager is what fascinates me more today. There are all these parental qualities I mirror, the ones no one can see or hear or measure in a caricature: My strong inclinations toward the spiritual. My voracious curiosity.  My sometimes flamboyance, my former brooding. My perfectionism. My anxiety.  My sweet and salty composite self that, in ways still being revealed to me, are reflections of not only my beloved parents, but my parents’ parents, and their parents’ parents. And theirs. And theirs. Farther back that I can comprehend.

I am them all.

in Yvoire, France. Dad and his camera.

In Yvoire, France. Dad and his camera.

. . .And his camera. . .

. . .and his camera. . .

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France.  Daughter, Dad, camera.

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France. Daughter, Dad, camera.

Maison Carrée. Daughter, Dad's camera.

Maison Carrée. Daughter, Dad’s camera.

When pregnant with our eldest, Parker, I had an ultrasound.  I forgot completely to check for the tell-tale plumbing showing gender, because what gripped me most – what flipped me out! – was this little thing that had to do with our baby’s hand.  The technician didn’t understand why I gasped, squealed, then grew teary: There in a swimmy, uterine vision, was that small, 5-month-old left hand, fisted (could this be true?) with the thumb tucked between the pointer and middle finger.

Just like his father.

(Next time you sit next  to Randall during a long meeting or airplane ride, take a look at his thumbed fist.)

Out walking. No one can outwalk us.

Out walking. No one can out-walk us.

. . .even on crutches. . .

. . .even on crutches. . .

“A woman is her mother/That’s the main thing,” wrote poet Anne Sexton.

A woman is her father, too.  And a man is his mother, and his father, a baby his daddy.  And we are our grandfathers, our grandmothers. We are all composites of someone, most often someone totally unknown to us, whose eyes, voice, gait or grip (on a car handle or on a thumb) we have inherited.

The question is, how?

Scientists in the field of genetics used to insist that a double helix was the essential tree of life, that DNA was destiny, and although a pretty twisted ladder, it was an unyielding one that linked generations to each other. That stance says that we are inextricably and irrefutably the result of our bundle of wiring, however prickly or sleek that might be making you feel right about now.

While that camp was nailing down that truth, anthropologists were telling us something else; that zip code, not genetic code, was our true destiny. That geography, (meant broadly or specifically), determines who you and I will become.  We can escape (or overrule) our genetic print-out by changing our environment.  Drug lords and sociopaths and saints and poets aren’t bred, they’re cultivated, and that cultivation implies culture. Tweak culture (through revolutions, political uprisings, schooling campaigns, a move to the burbs) and you’re tweaking generations of humanity. If nothing else, one can at least lean that DNA ladder on a different wall.

Behavioralists piped in. They argued that nurture, not nature and not society at large, determined the composite person. I grip the car door handle or sing my children home, not because I am neurologically wired to do so, and not because I sprang from a western culture where cars and singing are a norm, but because I was nurtured by a mother who holds tight and sings well. Caring contact, say the behavioralists, (like regular physical caressing and cooing during infancy – or the opposite, isolation and other forms of brutality) will “make” a certain person. They went further to say that enough caressing can greatly soften, even straighten, a dangerously kinked-up double helix.

You’re way ahead of me in this already, and you’re thinking, no, neither DNA, environment nor nurture have made you who you are. You have a will. And this cast iron will of yours has made you into the intelligent, compassionate, resourceful survivor you feel you are today. You are the czar of your destiny. You have overcome. You’ve mastered your genetically inherited temper, waistline, anxieties and ingrown toenails. You’ve risen from the rot of the projects, or you’ve not let the excessive wealth in which you were raised rot out your core. You’ve shaped a life around trust, love and service, although you were abused, neglected and abandoned. With such a will, you know you’ll overcome the rest.

Whatever you believe with regards to how we become who we are – DNA, geography, nurture, human will – there’s something new to consider. Its implications are huge. I talked my husband’s ear off while we jogged and walked the dusty paths of Provence last week, an apricot sunrise oozing over the silver-sage shimmer of olive trees. Here’s the thing:

All those notions are right, partially.  Our genetic imprint is central to, but not exclusively responsible for, who we are.  DNA is not rigid.  It is smudgy. It morphs. DNA is a pliable genome, a wobbly ladder. How does it change?  Through social processes. That includes our zip code, our relationships, and our choices.

The study of epigenetics (the interplay of biological and social processes on our genes) suggests convincingly that both our immediate and intimate environments as well as our will (choices) can override our genetic code, or at least change that code markedly.  Like you, maybe, I wasn’t surprised to learn this, since I’ve seen it in myself and in others. Change is possible, even change on the deepest cellular levels, the change and evolution of one’s nature. It’s just nice to find scientific research to validate my personal convictions.

“People used to think that once your epigenetic code was laid down in early development, that was it for life,” says Moshe Szyf, of McGill University in Montreal. “But life is changing all the time, and the epigenetic code that controls your DNA is turning out to be the mechanism through which we change along with it. Epigenetics tells us that little things in life can have an effect of great magnitude.”

What does this mean? This means we don’t only have some control over our genetic legacy, but we carry a great deal of responsibility.  As one researcher notes:

“Epigenetics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome. . .Before, genes predetermined outcomes. Now everything we do—everything we eat or smoke—can affect our gene expression and that of future generations. Epigenetics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics.”

With Mom, Sénanque abby.

With Mom, Sénanque abby. No, she and I did not plan our matchy-matchy outifts.

So! . . .

Sooooo . . . Where did I arrive at the end of this long Provençal walk?  And what conclusions can we draw from studies of DNA, nature, nurture and epigenetics?

First, it’s all fascinating, and second, I’m not done discussing it here on the blog.

Lastly, for me it is, as are all things, understood best in its personal application, which is where I’ll end today:

I love my parents.  How can I even begin to express the ferocity, the devouring and sweet knee-buckling tenderness I have for them? I love them. Even if for the cynic this means, maybe, I’m merely loving myself as their genetic reflection.

(What. Ever.)

In all reverence and daughterly clumsiness, I thank my parents, married 56 years this month, for being who they are, for finding one another all those years ago, for remaining together and devoted to us children (and our children, and their children to come) all these long years.

I honor them – and the whole spiraling ladder of their parents before them – for watching carefully not only what they did or didn’t smoke and eat, but what they imbibed and ingested symbolically.  The woman I am is, to a great extent, their human and spiritual epigenetic imprint, indebted eternally to them. They’ve kept a tight grip and held an intense (though sometimes bloodshot) eye on the road, as we’ve cruised this good life together.

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Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad.

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How are you a hybrid of your parents? Grandparents? Culture(s)? Teachers? Mentors?

What other factors influence your nature/spirit/humanity?

Leave a note for your parents here, and copy them on this post!

Global Mom: Sitting in a Franco-American Political Hot Seat

After a week of real time traveling with Global Mom on the road through Poland (thanks so much for coming along, by the way), we’re back to our excerpts of Global Mom: A Memoir.

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Should I refresh everyone on where we’ve been here at the blog?  Last series of excerpts, we’d just finished a dense three years of moving home and/or country every few months.  We’d been in Versailles, had moved to a village called Croissy-sur-Seine, Randall had promptly moved to the US to commence work at company HQs in New Jersey,  I had followed over half a year later with the four children, we had reentered The Homeland (which entailed buying our first – and only – home, refurbishing it for what we thought would be the rest of our  mortality in that place), then, eight months into that life and two weeks after the grout had dried on the tiles in a new kitchen, we were offered a position in Paris.

We took it.

Another international move.

(I’m counting, but I believe that’s three major moves, including two international ones, in fewer than three years.)

This move was from the sprawling space, ease, convenience and  homogeneity of The American Dream to the heart of Paris and a sweltering Europe-wide heatwave, in the middle of which I stood while our waterlogged transoceanic container drained sea silt, a jelly fish or two, and most of our destroyed belongings out onto Rue du Colonel Combes. Our new “chez nous.”

It took several months to get our footing in Paris. By that, I mean that I hit a reinforced concrete wall of overwhelmdom.  Knocked flat for a spell and sinking a bit every day, I sought help (Mr. Psy and a week of teeny blue pills), circled Les Wagons, and steadied myself.  In the nick of time.  The last excerpt you read promised we were galloping  right into”Camelot.”

And so, voilà!  Part of “Village en Ville”, Chapter 16 from Global Mom: A Memoir. . .

**

New Year's Eve, Parker and friends, on the Quai D'Orsay.

New Year’s Eve, Parker, his  brothers and friends, on the Quai D’Orsay.

The Quai D’Orsay runs right along the left bank of the Seine and is roughly the French political equivalent of America’s Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s where one finds France’s primary governing body, l’Assemblée Nationale, housed in a grand neoclassical building that stands right at the mouth of the Pont de la Concorde, close to where the seventh arrondissement, or district, eases into the sixth. By partial accident and tremendous providence, we’d landed one street south of Quai D’Orsay. We were in a political hot seat.

To our left was the Eiffel Tower, icon of audacious French inventiveness and skyscraping pride. Surrounding us were the Senegalese, Austrian, Romanian, Finnish, South African, Swedish and Georgian embassies. Our apartment shared a wall with the central offices of the American University of Paris, two streets away in one direction was the American Library of Paris, and farther in the other direction, Napoleon’s tomb and the Musée D’Orsay. Immediately to our right was the American Church of Paris, seat of the Societé Franco-Américane, and that just about sums up our part of Paris.

In spite of Jacques Chirac’s touching expressions of support after the World Trade Center attacks, (“Nous sommes tous les Américains”, “We are all Americans”) Franco-American relations were tense following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a move the French (and most Europeans) found unsubstantiated and rash. I tell you all this to underline how we’d literally landed not only in the center of a politically stimulating neighborhood, but had done so in a moment in history when being an American in Paris was loaded with consequence.

Church friends making music

Church friends making music

As had always been the case everywhere we moved, we eventually eased into serving and worshipping in our church community. The congregation we attended met in a small rented meetinghouse in the narrow Rue St. Merri between Notre Dame and the Pompidou Center, and proved to be a cultural mix like we’d never know before and have never known since. There were as many non-French members as there are native French. Once I actually took count: among the one hundred fifty members there were seventeen native tongues. French with every accent you can think of or make up.

Our bishop, or pastor, who was married to a German, was born in former Serbo-Croatia to a French mother. His Italian, Russian and English were as solid as his German, Serbian, Croatian and French. His assistants were two men from Madagascar and the U.S. The presidencies of the women’s and youth organizations were composed of a Malagasy, an Ethiopian, a Romanian, an Iranian who’d converted from Islam, members from the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, the Congo, Angola, South Africa, Ghana and California. Working in the nursery with the youngest children were a Finn who spoke French, Swedish and English, a Swede who spoke Croatian, German, French and English, and myself, an American, who spoke French, German and Norwegian. We were overseeing children who spoke Spanish, French, English and Croatian. And the missionaries, young men and women from America, mostly, but also from France or other western countries, were bringing more and more Mandarin-speaking investigators of the church, students from mainland China and Taiwan, to meetings. When, on top of all these visitors, tourists also flooded our congregation, (which was a regular thing from April to October), everyone fought over the earphones through which we members would give simultaneous translation from French, the lingua franca of our congregation, into whatever language was required. That was primarily English but sometimes was another European tongue. French to German. French to Russian. French to Spanish. When enough Chinese members began attending, special rites like the sacrament (similar to taking the Eucharist) were performed both in French as well as in Mandarin.

The effect of all these cultures crowding into one cramped place made the overflowing facilities look like a general meeting for the U.N. Or, given the microphone head sets, a rehearsal for a Madonna concert tour.

Parker, Claire, Dalton and church friends

Parker, Claire, Dalton and church friends

At home, Claire’s flute teacher spoke French with a Mexican accent. Our temporary live-in student spoke French with a Colombian accent. And Parker’s petite amie (or crush), was native Peruvian, but had lived most her life in Paris and thus spoke French with no accent whatsoever and spoke no English at all. Parker, like the rest of us, was at home in all this, as comfortable as a you’ve ever seen a teenager, back in his circle at the American School of Paris (ASP) playing the drums in three ensembles (jazz, rock and orchestra) and on the weekends with his friends at impromptu percussion gatherings at le Trocadéro overlooking the Eiffel Tower, or on le Pont des Arts overlooking the Seine.

Parker and school friends

Parker and school friends

He also played basketball in the pick-up basketball games with the local guys (Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Egyptian, and Lebanese) who gathered on Saturday mornings at the Champs de Mars, and with one of his best friends from school, (the captain of the basketball and volleyballs teams for which Parker became co-captain), he set up a volleyball sand pit near the Eiffel Tower. He was our resident PPE, or Paris Public Expert, who could shepherd brothers, sister, friends, and strangers on the street and befuddled tourists to whatever place they needed to reach via public transportation.  Paris quickly became his town, the place to which he swore he’d one day return as an adult to live out the rest of his life.

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(To be continued. . .)

Praying Like a Good Sport

On a basketball court last week, I made some remarkable discoveries about the human spirit, or better, about humans and the Spirit.
Over one hundred high school basketball players from several international schools from across Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean had just watched the final basketball game of the ISST (International Schools Sports Tournament). It had been a day of fierce, rapid-fire competition ricocheting steadily from one hoop to the other. The Hague had just beaten Vienna. The Bonn, Germany gymnasium (where these finals were being held), was full of cheering and sweating, celebration music and congratulatory back-slapping and hand-shaking. I was playing photojournalist. I’d been doing the same that morning in the Cologne cathedral. If you read my last post, you know I’d been somewhat wrapped up in some thoughts about things spiritual, making my hours there maybe not outright holy, but touched lightly with reverence. Then I slung my camera bag over my shoulder, drove with my family the thirty minutes southwards to Bonn, where I hid myself in the stands overhead to take pictures of all the players. We’d not been told who it would be, but we knew that one player from among the hundred-plus, had been voted by the coaches and athletic directors to receive a special award in the name of a deceased player formerly from the tournament. It was this award that has brought our family to these finals for six years running, because it is the namesake of the award that brought us to any of these tournaments, when he’d played in these games himself. IMG_2096

The Parker Bradford ISST Sportsmanship award for basketball was established shortly after our son lost his life, and by the unanimous consent of the coaches in the ISST. All those coaches knew our son. He’d played two years on the American School of Paris varsity basketball team, and had been co-captain when that team had won the ISST championship.
While we sat in the upper deck watching the final game, Randall and I recalled the previous finals over the years and the other recipients of this award. In March 2008, our family was on hand in Frankfurt to present the first award to a player from the British School of the Netherlands. In 2009, we drove from Munich to The Hague, where a player from Brussels received the award. At that ceremony, the hosting coach spontaneously asked all the players to gather in a circle and put their arms around each other’s shoulders as he read a statement about Parker. In 2010, we drove to Zürich where a boy from that home team was selected for the distinction. Again, all the players stood in a linked circle.

In 2011, when the finals were held in Israel, (and we were living in Singapore), Randall, who was on business in Tel Aviv, arranged to attend the championships in Even Yehuda, a thirty-minute drive northward. Randall stood in the middle of the circle of young players as the statement was read. The recipient that year, a Brit named Logan McKee who was playing for Frankfurt, had noted in the statement about our family, that our daughter was attending Brigham Young University. This detail piqued his interest, and when he and Randall were standing for photos afterwards, Logan whispered to Randall, “Are you Mormon?” to which Randal, still smiling for the cameras, said, “Yes, I am. We are LDS.” “So am I,” said Logan, “And I’m leaving soon to serve a full-time mission.” (A few months later, we learned that Logan McKee had been assigned to serve in the very region where both Randall and I had been missionaries in our twenties, in Bavaria and in Austria. He is is completing his service there now).

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In 2012, Randall and I made a 76-hour turnaround trip from Singapore, and pulled into Vienna just in time for the final ISST game. There, the players ringed around us again, their arms draped on one another’s shoulders, as Nicola Bordignon from Milan was announced as the recipient of the Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award.

2012 ISST Div II Boys B-Ball Award Ceremony (Vienna, Austria - March 10, 2012) Nic Bordignon (2012 ISSTs - Vienna)

And now here we are. Nearly six years out. Already 2013. We are sitting in the stands again, eyeing the players, wondering who of all these kids might receive the award that bears the name of Parker Bradford. The Hague wins, the team huddles, and in the flurry, I take three or four shots for no particular reason of one player. I’ve learned over the years of doing this – of watching young men play this game my son lived for – I’ve learned that in order to make it through the moment without sinking into the quicksand of sadness, I need to quickly adjust my focus. I’ve learned to train my sights on the brilliance (and I can only call it that – brilliance) of others’ happiness. This kid, this #7, he seems to be a good model of that brilliance. So I shoot away.

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In the awards assembly that follows, all of the participating team members receive their medals. Team rankings. MVP. The all-tournament team. The Hague, who’s won the tournament, gets a wagonload of medals.Under all the cheering and applause, I watch closely: the testosertoney swaggers, the sagging sports shorts in blue, silver, red or gray nylon, the long sculpted legs, the too-large feet, the cloddy ankle-high shoes, the mitts for hands, the wristbands and head bands, the shaggy hair, the shaved heads, the coolness of their brotherhood, the looseness of their pop humor. This self-evident, laid-back regard for life as theirs, the future as a given. High school boys high-fiving, bouncing on their tip-toes, heading with squared shoulders or the guttural whoop of triumph or an ironic grin into the Big Life awaiting them. The hosting coach steps to the mic to announce a closing award, “the most prestigious award”, he says, and asks all the players to pay close attention to the film that will be shown.

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I haven’t seen my son on the court for six years to this month. I haven’t even seen him in film on the court for nearly that long because I haven’t been able to stomach it. It’s one thing to see him in still shots: frozen, immobile, caught mid-three-pointer. Or trapped at age eleven, playing in the kitchen or at school with friends or on the beach with his younger siblings. Or framed at sixteen on Christmas morning, face exploding with joy while he helps his baby brother tear open the Buzz Lightyear box. I’ve learned to manage the frozen shots and even the warmth of his movement in other family DVD’s, which we now watch nearly every weekend, at Luc’s insistence. But to watch him running the court. I can’t move. I cradle my camera in my lap, knowing there’s nowhere to hide. No one should see these tears from where I am, seated in a dark corner, high school players to my right, my left, guys sniffling behind me, all of us gone silent as we stare from this darkened gymnasium at grainy images of some kid named Parker, playing ball. <a This is hard. This is beautiful. And this invites something that changes the air around me, around us. I can feel things changing, the dust particles settling and so many hearts slowing and limbs and hands growing motionless, eyes widening, a rustle going across the big room, it seems, in an inaudible “shhhhhhh.”

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After we watch the dead boy play – the boy with the long sculpted legs, the too-large feet, the ankle-high shoes, the mitts for hands, the wristbands and head band, the one who wore #8 when he played once on this very court in Bonn – after we watch him kiss that big championship trophy, we sit in the half-lit silence. “All players,” the coach says quietly, “will you please come up here and form a line? We want you to be together, and we parents and coaches want to look at all of you.” One long line of life in its splendid prime. Every last player has his head bowed. These kids – joking, raucous, gobbling burgers, guzzling sports drinks, limbs all akimbo just a minute earlier – are standing there is if awaiting their rites for the monastery. If you’d come in the gym right then, you’d think we were having a prayer. The sight has got me smiling behind my camera, and my eyes are watering with some kind of pained happiness. I’m struggling to see through my lens.

The Father, Randall, with the Brothers, Dalton and Luc at either side, have taken their place center court. My men will present the plaque. I will hide behind my camera, still smiling and teary, sad and giddy. A statement will be read aloud over the sound system by the coach:

Today the Boys Basketball ISST Division II is proud to present the sixth annual “Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award”. Parker Fairbourne Bradford attended the American School of Paris for 8 years. Shortly after his graduation in June 2007, he began his university studies in the United States. Late one afternoon in mid-July, while attending a swimming activity, he and several classmates were standing in a calm section of an irrigation canal, when a deadly but invisible undertow unexpectedly pulled Parker and a fellow student under water. Twice Parker freed himself from the powerful current, even pulling himself onto dry land, yet both times without hesitation he dove back in to try to save his trapped and drowning classmate. His effort was not in vain, as his friend was freed and with the help of another student survived, but it cost Parker his own life. He passed away on July 21, 2007. In memory of this remarkable young man, the ISST Athletic Directors unanimously agreed to establish a sportsmanship award in Parker’s name. Parker loved and enjoyed sports and music throughout his life. He was a gifted drummer and performed in several jazz bands. He was also a leading member of the American School of Paris’s 2006 ISST Division I championship basketball team and 2007 ISST Division I championship volleyball team. Yet as talented as he was as a player, Parker was an even greater sportsman and person. Following his untimely passing in July 2007, six memorial services were held in his honor (3 in the United States and 3 in Paris, France). A percussion scholarship was established in his name at the university he had begun attending; and two monuments were erected in his memory, one at the accident site in the United States, and the other in Norway, where he lived 5 years early in his life. He was and remains a powerful influence and role model for countless friends, teachers, coaches and relatives. Parker is represented here today by his father, Randall; his mother, Melissa; and his brothers, Dalton and Luc, all of whom currently reside in Geneva, Switzerland. Their daughter and Parker’s sister, Claire, is currently a full-time voluntary representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rome, Italy. The Bradford Family has asked me to convey to all of you athletes, coaches and teachers their deep and abiding love for Parker and their solemn gratitude to see him both remembered and honored today in Bonn.

And now the recipient will be announced. But before he is, reader, I’m going to hold you captive for a few short paragraphs, if you’ll let me. May I ask you something? Would you consider carefully what I’m now going to tell you? Will you please sit long and silently on the significance of what I am going to write? Will you pass this knowledge on in your interactions with others? Will you even pass on this post, so that those already touched by loss and grief and everyone who eventually will be, will have this to reference?

-The nature of one’s living relationship with the one who has passed away influences the nature of one’s grief.

Our two youngest boys and our daughter adored their big brother. He was a loving, funny, attentive leader. To say he was a “model brother” might be taking it too far, but people told us (both before and after his death) that they saw Parker as just that. Imperfect in totality, as every one of us surely is, he was still sweet and caring and uncomplicated in his human relationships. Sibling rivalry? Bad memories? Fights to regret? Flicking away of the obnoxious younger kid? None of those describes Parker. He was a peacemaker and protectorate. In fact, all my sweet surviving children suffered the lost of the one they all called their favorite sibling. They suffer still.

-The nature of the death itself influences the nature of a survivor’s grief. Was it a sudden or protracted departure? Was it inexplicable and untimely, or a peaceful relief at the end of a long life well lived? Was it accidental? Violent? Self-inflicted? Did the survivors witness it? Did it implicate family members or a larger community? Was it fraught with legal complications? Are details of the death as yet unresolved? All of these factors and countless more color and intensify the grief experience.

Parker was in the full bloom of perfect health. Dalton had laughed with him and hugged him goodbye while standing in a sunny parking lot outside a college apartment on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday night, Parker lay in a deep coma. On Saturday morning, Dalton stood next to the gurney as we turned off life support. Dalton, then eleven-years-old, watched his big brother’s body heave its last breath. His death came from nowhere. There was no preparatory time, no chance to absorb on either a practical or a subconscious level what death would mean, what life would be like, what the earth would feel like, who we would all become without him. When the blow of death comes from nowhere, and when it involves intentional violence or when it is a self-inflicted death, the complications and contours of the grief are markedly different, and research notes that the grief experience is, (these are the experts’ words, not mine), “more intense.” My son’s death is of one sort, and it carries, if I dare say this, a certain bitter beauty of meaning. He sacrificed his life for another. But what about the man I met whose daughter choked to death at a family reunion barbeque? Or the other woman, whose daughter was stabbed to death by an intruder with an already-lengthy police record? Or what about all of my friends – too many of them – whose children have taken their own lives, and sometimes in a violent manner and in their parents’ homes? What about the parents of all the little children lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School? And the nameless and innumerable, lost to acts of genocide?

-The nature of the continuity offered by a community – its ability to mourn and comfort, to offer practical assistance, to listen with compassion and to continue to speak the name of the departed – greatly influences the nature of a survivor’s ability to absorb and transcend and even transform grief into a regenerating power.

What can also make the burden of grief heavier is what I’ve tried hard but fear I’ve failed at conveying in my writings to this point. There needs to be an engaged, open, co-mourning community, whose history involves the deceased and whose continuing narrative includes the deceased. None of my children had this. They walked, dizzy in pain, out of a funeral, onto an airplane, and into a world full of strangers whose dominant language they did not speak. Even if they had spoken the same language, no one knew our children’s tragic story. They had no context in which to understand our children’s behavior. Nearly always, when people did find out about Parker, they chose to remain silent about him. There could be no discussion for the children, no continuing narrative about what was raw and throbbing in their bodies every day; and even now, they remember their brother only privately. There is no everyday community that acknowledges that their big brother ever existed. As Dalton told me recently, “It’s like my brother hangs in a museum. And who my age goes to museums?” They’ve found few – a small handful of exceptional people over these nearly six years – who are able to do something as simple as speak their brother’s name.

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“The Parker Bradford Sportsmanship award,” says the coach into the microphone, while Dalton and Luc cast their tear-filled eyes up and down the line of players, “will go this year to #7, from The Hague.” And there it is: that name hanging in that familiar silence saturated in meaning. I’ve felt it all those times before. It’s not merely my perception, although I thought it was that at first. Maternal overlay. Parental preoccupation. But then so many others have commented to me about it afterwards. There is something happening when a court full of high school jocks goes silent, when they voluntarily bow their heads as if praying, a bit broken or lightly hurt, wiping their eyes over a boy they never knew, about a story that, except for basketball, bears little resemblance to their immediate lives.

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What is it? I want to ask you. What is it that is happening in this moment? While it has something to do with Parker, the moment is only partially about him. It’s about us, I think. It is about who we really are. Our human nature is innately spiritual, and the spiritual within us resonates in ways we can sometimes hardly account for. It swells and warms to things that are true, beautiful, eternal and enlivening. To great music, to fine art, to generosity, to forgiveness, to small acts of kindness, to the Spirit. Part of living well with great loss, I believe, requires a conscious surrender to this truth: that the spiritual continues beyond this material existence and can, in given moments, visit, bless and strengthen us.

I’d even say it can drop in on a basketball court. IMG_2128 With their heads bowed, what are these kids wondering? Some are maybe thinking, “When will this thing be over?” I’m a realist. I know teenagers. I know adults, too, and have seen how plenty of us are physically awkward in moments like these, moments with no distraction, moments of stark sincerity. But who can blame us? It’s a question of exposure, maybe, and our modern world gives us precious little exposure to sanctity, reverence, reflective silence, and the long-quiet-unfiltered stare into sweetness, simple goodness and The Way Things Are. If I could read their thought bubbles, though, what might I find? What does it mean to be part of a team? Why do I compete? What is the meaning of this game? What is winning? What is losing? What is my responsibility to my teammates? To my opponents? To people I’ve known for years? Known for a season? What’s my future? My character? What is my responsibility to my family? To strangers? To folks I’ve known, say, for a week? How much do I value the lives of others?

Do their lives matter?

Does my life matter?

Does life matter?

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The optimist in me likes to think that one of these questions or others like them went through the mind of one of those kids that Saturday. I have hope that for #7, a Dutch/American student heading off to Brown University in the U.S., he’ll have a full, rich life during which those questions might inform his decisions. And that once or twice, he might think about Parker, whose award he received. From a letter of thanks Randall wrote to the hosting coach:

It is a remarkable moment in that setting, after all the ruckus and cheering and yelling and shouting (all of which is appropriate), to witness how that gymnasium goes absolutely quiet, and the whole ceremony ends on this singular note of remembrance. Somehow I feel our Parker’s spirit both in the cheering and in the silence. Your decision to call forward this year each of the eight nominees was new, and I thought it was wonderful that each of those young men knew that their coaches had nominated them and that they were considered “sportsmen”. Since the award was inaugurated, I have been struck each year by the reaction of the recipient. It is difficult for me to put my finger on it—I can best describe it as something I see in the boys’ eyes—but it’s also something I can feel: their integrity, the sincerity with which they receive the award, and the humility with which they conduct themselves, much of which must also come from their upbringing. I saw that again when we later met privately with Winston Kortenhorst , #7, and his father, Jules. It was touching for me to hear Winston tell us that of the 3 awards he received that day—the championship trophy for his team, his selection to the all-tournament team, and the Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award—the one that he was proudest of was Parker’s award. You and the other athletic directors have created a marvelous way of leaving these young men each year with a gift—the gift of knowing that as healthy and wonderful as competition is (our Parker was fiercely competitive, too), it is outweighed by their sportsmanship, reflected in the way they play the game and how they carry themselves.

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“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best.” One of Parker’s favorite quotes, from San Antonio Spurs basketball player, Tim Duncan.