Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reaching Past Pomp and Circumstances

On my way home tonight I turned on my radio and heard Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance blaring proudly. It struck me as quite funny for two reasons. The first is that I was trying to explain to my kids just last week that Elgar actually wrote some very lovely, if grandiose (notice I did not say "pomp-ous") pieces. The second is that on top of that discussion, our family is embarking on The High School Adventure, Part I.

I learned a little-known fact about Sir Edward Elgar and that famous piece we all endure at most graduations. In 1905, Elgar received an honorary doctorate from Yale, and as he received his colors, an orchestra played Pomp and Circumstance. Other Ivy League schools thought that was pretty cool and so they started using it at their commencement ceremonies. You can pretty much guess the rest of the story. Poor Elgar, who wrote so many really beautiful pieces, will foremost be remembered as that guy who wrote that graduation march. That's probably not how he expected things to turn out.

It's good to remember that sometimes, despite all the planning and the work and the credit hours, things often don't turn out the way we expect, either. We are in the thick of scheduling my son's first year of High School. It's an absolute wonder of a process. When I was in high school, we did not face the rigors of block scheduling, let alone being chased toward a particular career path. I knew I wanted to do something with music; I’ve ended up doing things with musicians and when I can, I play music, so I kind of got it relatively right. But I’ll tell ya, times have changed. Son of Mando is having to negotiate all kinds of advice and forms and expectations.

The process here in our little town has a lot of people worried over the next 24 credits their kids will be amassing. Through all the meetings and the copious materials, I have heard very little discussion of how to help students figure out and then follow what they are passionate about. There have been a few exercises here and there that give the kids some kind of idea to go on but it’s a little like astrology: If I like plants but not people, I might make a good grower. I like to eat and I like to be messy, so perhaps I should be a chef.

And then, there are the parents. We're not even in high school yet, and even I’m guilty of worrying that without a four-year degree my kids will not be able to achieve relative security. But look at me – I have a four-year degree and I have no security. I work hard and I have a lot of passion for what I do, but it pays like crap. On the other hand, look at all those people at JPMorgan Chase with their MBAs, out on the street like somebody dumped a bucket of corn feed. At least I still have a job. So, who's to say what "security" means? And how do I translate its relevance to a 13 year old kid?

I think it really takes guts in our society to stick by what we love. Sure, I’d appreciate more financial stability, but I don’t think that means I should have to be a miserable drone while I'm working. I think if you’re not doing something you can be passionate about, you’re just biding your time. I don't know about you, but I’m not here to bide my time.

That seems to me to be the most important discussion that's not being had.
You can pile up the credits, study your scrawny butt off, make the grade, and still end up being a jerk nobody likes. How do we teach our children to reach beyond all that hoop-jumping, all that garbage, to make the best out of whatever education they get so that they can realize their potential as people and still make a decent living?

When I think of Son of Mando down the road, digging up dinosaur bones, designing heat shields for some future shuttle, discovering new galaxies, or dispensing vaccinations in some third-world countries, I only hope that his heart is in it as much as say, Doc Watson’s heart has been in playing guitar, or Miles Davis’ heart was in honking that horn, or John Glenn’s heart was in being a really great astronaut. I want him to know somehow that as long as he is doing his best and following his path, he's doing ok. I love and will support him for whomever he is. This is a gift my own mother gave me and I will never be able to thank her enough. She recognized where my heart and my talents were, and gave me the framework to move forward. She never once sat me down and said, "I want you to get a 90% this quarter in math and a 95% in social studies, OK?" It's not that she didn't care; she just cared about the right things, and let me take care of the rest.

So over the next few weeks, and years, I'm going to take the Elgar approach. Elgar certainly worked hard, he was a very fine composer, he studied diligently. I doubt his father sat him down and demanded that young Edward cough up an 89 or better in social science. While it's important to teach our children to reach, we have to teach them also how to grow into themselves with a modicum of confidence and grace. We have to love them and give them guidance that allows them to become fully capable yet comfortable in the direction they are headed, even, and especially if, it's not the direction we might choose for them (or ourselves). We have to allow them to discover their strengths and yes -- shudder -- their weaknesses, and learn to manage them.

I stumbled across this terrific New Grass Revival tune while doing something I never thought I'd be doing -- it popped into my ear while I was working out. It's a great tune for proper goal setting -- it's about finding the flame inside, and making that, not other people's opinions of you, the basis of your success. I hope I can help my son and daughter each find that flame, protect it, and grow it into a fire.

When the habits of a lifetime
Become a painful cage
You want to break out
But you don't know how to change
You may have a vision
Or you may have a friend
Who will come to you
And say these same words again

You got to reach a little bit higher
When the light within becomes a fire
Whoa-oh, you got to grow
You got to reach a little bit higher
To get a hold on all you desire
Stretch your soul
And you'll never grow old


For complete lyrics, visit


At February 26, 2008 1:51 PM, Anonymous Fearless said...

There are so few choices at Anita's school that filling out her schedule took about two minutes... For example they offer one (count 'em -ONE-) language.

Her grades are sooo repetitive...
(Shannon Heaton quipped "Too bad about that lunch grade.")We're negotiating to try and get Wesley bumped ahead a grade.He's already the youngest guy in his class but so bored that he's not doing his best stuff.

It drives me nuts. In Ohio, public schools are required by law to "identify" gifted students BUT they are NOT required to offer any programming for them (a whole new twist on Catch 22) So their tiny pathetic little school system drops $32,000 in annual fees for testing software and BIG FAT ZERO on programming...

Wes and 'Nita are both singing in their school production of "Suessical, The Musical." Karen and Anita are making some of the costumes and I have to sell ads in the program. We getting pretty bonkers. Check out the results:


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