“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
I’ve been thinking about this quote all summer. Life is rife with decisions, particularly these days with 2020 zigzagging into such extremes it leaves expectations upturned like debris in a tornado’s wake. In the thick of such an upset, how do we get into this head-space as a school, as parents, where we’re making choices that come from a place of hope rather than of fear? In these times- is it even realistic? I mean consider the quote source- a man so legendary that an effect was named for him already perpetuating myths as he already lived- was this even attainable for the rest of us?
In my 11th year as a school administrator, one of my biggest learnings has been a deep respect for the meditation involved in making a good decision. I am too aware that my role is to toggle between as many community perspectives as possible, our school mission and vision, and the needs of a fickle current (and future!) climate. One poorly thought-out decision can mean countless hours of troubleshooting on my and my colleagues’ parts at best and have a detrimental effect on morale and collective trust at worst while one well-considered decision can mean the difference between a student or teacher flourishing or failing. Consultant and author Jim Collins discusses this very concept of “the meta-decision” when he shares one of his favorite moments meeting with management theory demi-god, Peter Drucker: one can make either a thousand decisions or recognise that they really all come as a cluster of one big decision and the key to making it lies in the ability to consider all factors, similarities and costs to determine what the “meta” decision really is. In a role where layered, even frenzied perspectives sometimes make it hard to hear my thoughts above the din, going through every possible decision node to identify the real issue to determine steps forward...well, that can usually be done effectively only if I’m coming from a calm, collected space.
And this past summer on the home front needing to make some major decisions, I came from neither. A parent of two THS alum, our recent Class of 2020 graduate had the grandest plans to start Freshman year at uni in the US. She was so motivated she herded me along her entire college process which, unlike her older brother’s, went stress-free. Since her Junior year, she’d been preparing her portfolio, studying for the ACT, making lists upon college lists researching programs and degrees. This enthusiasm even spilled over to her brother’s college search when she shared that she had researched the nearest Whole Foods location and the best residence hall option for him only to be dismayed he’d not done it himself and unwittingly chosen a dorm without air conditioning. In the summer of 2019 he had a fairly idyllic college send off and she was eagerly anticipating her turn the following summer on the opposite coast.
Then, college Covid edition hit and her cards came crashing hard.
To complicate a difficult transition time for a parent and child even further, we were thrust into a whirlwind of disappointment and emotions as I watched with growing horror the number of unmanaged Covid cases in her state, and juggled the usual desire to micro-mother with her own hopes and growing need for independence and new experiences. Always throughout was my unrelenting metacognition about it all.
Her school announced a virtual option towards the end of June but with that began the arduous matter of convincing the one child, of our four, whose self-determination (ahem, steel-will) gave her the stubbornness of an ox. Inspiring when channeled in the right direction yes, but exhausting when channeled against yours. While her brother opted for virtual after one relatively tame dinner discussion, when asked the same question her response came in a torrent of accusations, anger, sadness, even pain- Why had she worked so hard? All these college acceptances and scholarships awarded were for what? Her friends were leaving, why couldn’t she? Why wasn’t I trusting her to be careful and act responsibly on her own? She could handle it. Why was I so afraid? Even if she got it, she would be fine because young people were considered lower risk...etc Simmering beneath the barbs I could hear the frustration borne from what could only be called the strangest of Senior years- good-natured resilience forged by on-line learning, mask-wearing, social distancing measures, regulated gatherings and farewells with friends, grief for life as we once knew it- all of it amplified by adolescence and wearing so very thin. Not being able to leave it all behind was just the absolute last straw. I tried different ways to reason with her but too often, it ended in upset or tears.
After one particularly difficult conversation, I went against my inner micro-motherer and just backed off entirely. I was too exhausted and feeling very emotional. I knew we could easily pull the “This is our decision. You need to just live with it” card, but I didn’t want to. I wanted that parenting mecca, where your child comes around, evaluates the situation and makes the meta-decision him/herself. I figured, it wasn’t happening with my nagging, so maybe it would happen with some quiet. Or maybe I was just tired of fighting and wanted some peace.
On the plus side this allowed us to have some semblance of a stay-cation in our smaller flat (because two were supposed to be off to uni by now) with not much really to do. When people asked, I’d give non-committal replies saying we were looking at all the angles and hadn’t decided. On the negative, my conscious decision not to force the issue and process it to a resolution bore me 3 AM awakenings like clockwork, fear of what I could not secure perched like a gargoyle on my headboard: the safety of my children, fear of disappointing her, fear of making the wrong decision and whether wrong meant overreacting and not giving her opportunities or wrong meant putting her at unnecessary risk. During the day I did my best to seem cheerful, if a little sleep-deprived. With a deadline looming to reply to admissions, I finally broached the topic one day as we baked cookies by asking her when she thought it was a good idea to make a decision, and also what the right decision would look like. She responded to the first, and sidestepped the second. I bit my tongue from filling in the blanks as we formed dough in silence.
A few days before the deadline she announced she was connecting with fellow freshmen on-line and was organising some kind of a virtual relief effort with a new acquaintance. She invited me to watch some of her assigned summer viewing list of classic movies for her screenwriting major, and gamely took on my suggestion to get a notebook to jot down her thoughts. Were we not on the precipice of a difficult situation, it felt we’d eased back into the usual. When decision day rolled around, I remember not knowing how to begin so I opened as honestly as possible with “I hope you know that I really, really want you to go-” I paused, not knowing exactly how I would finish but turns out, I didn’t need to. She took over with “It’s ok mom. I know. I won’t go. It’s not safe.” A hug sealed it and that was that.
Reflecting on all this and decision-making in general I wonder if we place enough value on hitting pause. Of course there are decisions that require urgency, but that list perhaps isn’t as long as our brains would like us to believe it is, especially these days when basic needs like health and safety have so many of us on edge. Multiply that a thousand-fold when our children are involved- when we’re scared or irritated on their behalf, our responses sometimes short-circuit the greater good- the fact that we’re here and have to make sense of all this together. Once the question of virtual schooling came up, I became so preoccupied with her safety and making her see my side I didn’t recognise that only my decision to hit the pause button, to give her some space, could have allowed for the result it did. The outcome was certainly the same but the result of downshifting to arrive at it was far more meaningful, even hopeful. I wonder this year, as stressors seem to pounce from every corner, that we can all challenge ourselves to downshift out of our usual patterns of flight or fight. No time better than the present to model for our children the virtues of taking a step back, regrouping, and reacting with hope rather than in fear.
Thankfully, our largest graduating class so far- The Class of 2020- was able to have an in-person graduation here in Hong Kong. She’s front and center, fourth from the left. THS college acceptances listed here.