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Note from the author: I introduced Steven in a message to the campus last year. He has inspired me to think about some ideas for the next generation of students searching for a college.
One of the greatest risks in flying these days has nothing to do with weather conditions, hi-tech equipment or pilot training – it’s the people seated around you. Slowly making my way back to seat 23D through the obstacle course of travelers stuffing overhead compartments, I spied an elderly gentleman occupying my seat. I thought it was likely a temporary move, allowing people to settle in before finding his place. As I approached, however, he appeared far too comfortable and it became clear he was taking a “name it and claim it” approach to airline seating. I smiled and noted I was destined for 23D, and an eager young mother stepped forward to offer me her seat (23C) noting it was also an aisle one. She clearly knew the gentleman and his wife, and appeared quite willing to sit with them. Blessed are the peacemakers.
As I made myself comfortable in seat 23C a clear pattern was beginning to form. Too many of the people seated around me were talking to each other with far more than the usual pleasantries. Further, half of the seats surrounding me were occupied by children under the age of six. You guessed it. I was smack in the middle of a family reunion heading to Florida and Grandpa was sitting in my seat.
The beginning of the flight was relatively calm as the kids focused on the processes of taxi and take-off. The flight wore on with the monotonous tone of engines humming in the background until my seat mate, Steven (age 5), and his cousins soon found new and creative ways to transform rigid airline seating into a rich playground full of fun. Gradually that section of the plane became open seating, as family members migrated to manage kids and engage in conversation. That is, with the exception of seat 23C. It was then I decided that on the eighth day God created noise-canceling headphones and mine had become a most precious and sacred possession.
However, as my tunes flowed, I couldn’t stop thinking about Steven. As a long-time observer of higher education, I have become increasingly conscious that in a few short years children like Steven and his cousins will gradually move from crawling under seats to occupying seats of influence and authority. The desire to restrain them at a young age is understandable, but perhaps misguided. Conforming to our expectations may not be the right path. Maybe we need to let kids be kids. For Steven right now it’s about playing with his cousins. Before long, however, he will likely be approaching a college or university campus with anxiety and anticipation as he prepares for a future only he can define. What do we do then to enable him to find playfulness in his path to the future?
Whenever I have the chance to speak to a group of students or parents, I offer three ideas that are substantially different from the model of conformity and constraint we generally present. Perhaps it’s the equivalent of play for a young adult.
Slow down. Don’t be in a hurry.
High school students constantly hear the same question over and over again, “What are you going to major in?” It’s an obvious question – an easy conversation starter – but it does more damage than we realize. I find many students just pick something to have an answer. It’s like wearing an arm cast and constantly being asked, “How did you break your arm?” We tempt them to make up creative answers just to keep life interesting. Let’s try a different approach and encourage students to not settle on a major until they have had a chance to really explore.
Focus on the “being” question.
We are completely preoccupied with doing. Frankly, it’s dangerous. My concern for higher education and the wider society is growing as we have become more and more enamored with checking boxes. Somehow we believe the accumulation of credits, courses, credentials and careers is the highest and best outcome for an educational experience. I would argue just “being” is another form of play critical to sustained success in adulthood. Whether we find this in our higher learning institutions, in family contexts or in faith communities, we desperately need our students to play with the questions of being that can never be easily answered, generalized or reduced.
Prepare for an uncertain future; don’t follow a script.
The challenge for our emerging generation today is that we’ve gone way beyond planning to scripting. Students’ entire lives are scripted, and too many of them seem content to simply play the roles in which we have cast them. Interestingly, those of us who have had many years of life to our credit would be the first to say that the script does not really reflect reality. The journey of life takes many unexpected turns. The difference between planning and preparing is that planning is focused on the intended. Preparing is acknowledging the unintended. Preparing is like playing. By preparing, we try on many things. In this space, failure is as important as success.
I think Steven has the right idea. Don’t sit in your seat and be quiet. Crawl around. Climb higher. Try everything. Ask questions. And don’t worry about the guy wearing a tie in seat 23C. He won’t be defining the next generation. You will.