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09 July 2006

Keep looking up

The true harvest of my life is intangible—a little star dust caught, a portion of the rainbow I have clutched.” - Henry David Thoreau

Night_skyI taught a Junior Achievement class for nine weeks at a local high school last fall—the focus was jobs and careers after high school, that ubiquitous school-to-work transition we all adore, that move into responsible adulthood we so longed for as a kid, only now realizing the error of our ways.

The 11th grade English class that I invaded was in the high school that my older daughter, Emma, will attend beginning this fall. In the spirit of full disclosure, let me just say that I volunteered primarily so I could live out my lifelong dream to be an Industrial Spy, checking out the school before Emma hits the hallways.  And, of course, I also wanted to wow the kids in the class, get them talking about ethical dilemmas in the workplace, give them some case studies to chew on. I imagined we would have fascinating conversations about the nature of work, finding meaning and passion in our careers, helping others, yada, yada, yada. You get the picture.

I think it’s fair to say that I was a tad bit naïve about how a high school classroom operates.

They were underwowed. And even that is an understatement.

I’ve spent the last 20 years as a speaker and trainer; nothing prepared me for the challenges of those 26 human beings. Even more than the way the kids hit the floor when a car backfired outside and even more than the difficulty I had in even getting them to stop talking or wake up long enough to hear my glorious outpourings of irrelevant wisdom—what most impressed itself on my little noggin during that experience was the smallness of the dreams those young adults had for their lives—they didn’t see a big future ahead of them. The one young woman with some serious spunk and a spark in her eye missed the last four sessions; she had been expelled for fighting.

Some of those young adults, in fact, saw no future at all for themselves—they didn’t have an expansive view of what could be. I found that sad; no, it was more than sad. It was disheartening and terrible and avoidable and awful and more. I organized a career fair there this spring to provide them with some options. I wanted them to dream big; at the very least, I wanted to dream big around them, in their general proximity, in hopes that some of that optimism and hope and just plain caring would rub off.

Nineplanets_1For years, my older daughter Emma has said she wants to be an astronomer. Even when she veers to veterinarian, meteorologist, equestrian athlete, Manga illustrator, or professional tuba player, she always comes back to the skies. It is fitting, that choice. After all, it was the sale of John’s antique Brashear telescope that funded her birth, insurance not being what it used to be. When she was little, she pronounced that the stars were “very messy.”

Emma has a dog-eared boxed set of the video series, The Astronomers that we have watched no fewer than 413 times. At an age when fall away from the sciences in large numbers under the weight of societal messages that ‘girls don’t do math and science,’ I’m determined to support her interests, no matter her final decisions, years from now, about what she will study and do and be when she grows up.

Look_upThe summers bring out my best Googling skills as I hunt for interesting activities for me and Emma to do. Two weeks ago was sewing class (she designs her own character dolls from Anime films) and last week, I discovered that several distinguished astronomers were going to be guest lecturers at a high school summer camp held at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute about an hour-and-a-half drive from where we live. It was too late to register Emma for the two-week camp, but after describing her astronomical obsession interests, the director graciously invited us to attend any of the guest lectures we’d like, from 1-2pm each day. Emma perused the choices, selecting two: “Observational Astronomy Challenges in Detecting Low Mass Stellar Companions” (huh?) and “Extrasolar Planets: A First Reconnaissance” (huh?). “These look fantastic!” she squealed. “Indeed!” I said, wondering if she had been switched at birth.

Mercedes_lopez_morales_crThe first lecture was given by Dr. Mercedes Lopez-Morales, a small woman with a big mind. We were treated royally by the organizers, each taking great care in introducing Emma to the guest speakers and staff. In the midst of all that was happening, Dr. Lopez-Morales sat and talked quietly with Emma, asking about her interests in astronomy and telling about her own education to give Emma a picture of how it happened for her. In her quiet way, I could tell that Emma was excited, nervous, awed. Another man joined in the conversation, a big man in a Hawaiian print shirt and khaki shorts who had an easy laugh. He not only encouraged Emma to continue pursuing her love of astronomy, but talked with her about playing the tuba. “As a tuba player, you’d be a fantastic didjeridou player!” he exclaimed with the excitement of a child. The didjeridou, it appears, is his instrument of choice. We just happen to have a didjeridou laying about the house from a trip I took to Australia, so she was excited to try out his theory. “He was really nice,” she said on the way home.

Paul_butlerWe drove back there on Thursday to hear one of the most famous astronomers living today—Dr. Paul Butler. Dr. Butler has been on the front pages of major newspapers the world over, has discovered gazillions of new extra-solar planets (or perhaps it was fewer than a gazillion, I’m not sure), and was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people for the 21st century. He is, as we say in the vernacular, a Very Big Deal. We were excited to meet him.

Turns out, he was the energetic didjeridou player who had struck up a conversation with Emma the day before.

Here’s a man who is not only brilliant and passionate about his work, but who has a real talent for encouraging young people, engaging them, and explaining tough subjects in understandable terms (I’m pleased to report that I was able to follow his talk almost completely except for one teeny part about sumpin-sumpin I couldn’t pronounce.)

Paul_butler2When he finished his talk, we went to the front to thank him. Emma was too shy to ask for his autograph, but John asked for her as she stood shyly back. “I’d be delighted to,” he answered. “Emma, how do you spell your name?” he asked, making a special effort to bring her into the conversation. She stepped forward and talked with him. On a small poster of his extrasolar planet research, Dr. Butler wrote something that will come to mean more and more to Emma as she grows: “To Emma, Keep looking up! R. Paul Butler.”

What great advice.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Astronomer_1Oprah once did a series of shows in which she granted the “wildest dreams” of women from her audience. At the end of the series, she quietly said that what impressed her most about the whole process was how small those wildest dreams were—we need to dream bigger for ourselves, she said.

I wonder why we settle for less than star dust? Is it that we believe ourselves not worthy? Are we afraid of falling from such a great height? Don’t we know that the universe will catch us? Can’t we see that the view on the way down will be spectacular?

I wonder as I ponder Emma’s trajectory: what rainbow have I clutched? And you? Have you been too earth bound, too small, too contained in your wildest dreams?

Keep looking up, wherever “up” is to you.

And while you’re at it, look for ways to help teenagers keep looking up too. They need us to peel back the clouds and enlarge the night sky for them.


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I used to teach high school and my experience was the same as yours.

It's hard for me to dream big right now, as I spend my days changing three childrens' diapers, feeding four children constantly, trying to find time to clean and to sleep. I find myself just making excuses.

A quotation by Oscar Wilde seems rather appropriate

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

This brings tears to my eyes as I am struggling with everything I have in me with my 15 y/o daughter...a child who has been offered everything, sports, art, etc., and still is choosing now to do small. I can't know what she's thinking or dreaming but the choices she's making right now are leading to such a small life and that frightens me, as I see so mcu potential for her.

I wish I would have listened more to all the people telling me how amzingly talented I am than to the ones who told me I'd never make it.I want to be an actress, always have. And I don't think maybe this won't ever happen. I think maybe it will. Teachers, friends, and family sometimes try to see the negative aspect of this. But , I'm like whats the worst that could happen. I fall down and get back up. I love reading your heartfelt stories. This one made me smile. :)

I have two daughters - 10 and 8 years old, going into 5th and 3rd grades this school year. I dread the thought that they might lose that spark of what might be, what can be, what they each will make it to be.

I remember being in high-school, bored to tears. I dread that for my girls.

So, we work with them every day, we express our hopes and dreams, reinforce their talents, their dreams and their ambitions. Even small ideas lead to bigger ones.

Mostly I want the to learn - Never Give Up.

Just make sure that the dreams of your children are, in fact, their own. Give them the courage to dream and make sure you have the courage to step out of the way.

I teach first year university students. I am disheartened to see kids who are at university because this is their parents' dream. The students are often miserable but have been 'programmed' to believe this is what they want.

Dear Deb - Thanks for your note - I'm sure many parents share your hopes and fears for their kids - being intentional about opening eyes and doors is such a big part of the process and you're doing that...thanks!

Analisa - I hear you and I do so much understand. Just take it star by star, one star at a time... thanks for your note - I'm sure you've expressed the reality of many of us...

Felicity - there is so much going on in a 15-year-old world; perhaps she is playing small to fit in? I also have to remember that what seems small to me is big to my teenager. Once when Emma was small, a friend suggested I get on my knees and "walk" around her room like that to see what it looks like from her perspective. Maybe a "walk" in her shoes would help? Keep on dreaming big skies for her...

Shannon - I'm glad it made you smile! And it's never too late to listen to those folks who have great dreams for you. What's the first step you could take to be an actress? Do it!

jasper -

loved the oscar wilde quote - thanks!

and this is such fantastic advice - thank you for taking the time to write. Whose story are we living? Ours? Our parents? Our friends? We need so much do do our own work, find our own dream - I wonder why that is so hard? Thank you - the word "courage" is the right word. It takes such courage to allow our children to live their own story, not ours. Peace.

How wonderful to have and use access to people who are in love with life. Hope your daughter keeps looking up.

You've just reduced me from one tough cookie to teary marshmallow. Again.

When I was Emma's age, I loved astronomy, science, math... but got caught up in the 'math isn't for girls" mentality of some of the people around me. Now, seemingly eons after high school, I've gone back to elementary physics, and am re-learning the basics for the sheer joy of it.

It's wonderful to know that there are still people out there who are generous enough to encourage others, when less secure folks would shoot down those who might outstrip them.

Hi, when I was a kid, i was told falling stars could make a wish come true.... being skeptical since then, I always asked for hard tasks... I wanted to wake up in the morning and find a horse eating in my garden... (I lived in the middle of a big city)... One day, 40 years after, one morning I opened my window and saw a horse eating in my garden (now I live in a farm).... suddenly I remembered my child wish and said to myself.... OK so "stars" do take their time to grant your wishes.... I began to think in what ways i had helped "my falling stars" to succeed in granting me my wishes...
This moment changed drastically my way of viewing myself in the future.... now I´m sure that to give big dreams a chance to be, one has to beging with "wanting it and visualizing yourself in it".... now I dare to act my dreams.
Now I work in a Communal Development School Project, dealing with interculturality, and wellbeing inequalities between non modern and modern cultures in my country, Perú.
This is really an interesting, sensefull and nice blog, congratulations!

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