Exhausted? Be Exhilarated.

I sat down to write this piece at the tail end of what might have been an exhausting week.

Back to school. For teachers, for students, for parents, it is a time filled with ritual, preparation, and expectation. We look ahead to what might be. We look back and can’t believe what has already passed.

And we ask ourselves: are we ready?

You all know the answer. We are a school, a community, a culture of strivers.

Of course we are ready.

We are nose to the grindstone, never surrender, always do better, don’t settle for less, achievement-oriented worker bees. We believe in the power of earnest endeavor.

When that sort of industriousness is grounded in integrity, in generosity, in self-motivation it is a powerful force. Hard work pays. Research tells us that work ethic far surpasses raw, unbridled, chance talent as a key to academic success and personal development. We teach our children and our students that building good habits now pays off today and forever. We equip them with agendas–digital and paper; we measure and follow their progress; and we look for signals that our kids (and we) are reaping the results.

But, as we scan that horizon, we often turn to a second, more hair-raising question: Are we (or they) working hard enough?

In chasing that answer and looking for reassurance, we often take a short-cut. We start looking left and right to the people around us for comparison, and not necessarily because the comparisons are valid, but because they are there. Even as we make them we do so with a dearth of information. And we know it. So we keep searching for other comparisons to validate what we think we see.

And, suddenly, without ever intending it, we’ve dropped our kids squarely in the middle of the race to nowhere. We are gauging their course selections, extracurricular activities, academic recognitions, test scores, social circles, burgeoning interests and wondering is my child working hard enough? Am I working hard enough for my child?

It is in this spiral of comparison that exhaustion sets in because our need for certainty tells us to put our heads down and work even harder.

So, consider another approach. One that requires hard work, but one that trumps the exhaustion with exhilaration.

At the end of the long first week of school, I found myself at our first football game. It was a beautiful evening, given the potential in August, and both teams’ fortunes rose and fall with each possession. There were beautiful catches, unstoppable runs, and soaring kicks. There were false starts and the occasional breakdown in communication and focus. But there was possibility in every snap. There was determination each time the cheer team dropped to do push-ups equal to the score. And there was community in the stands and on Twitter as we adults played the role of unwavering fan.

After falling into bed past midnight, I found myself up bright and early Saturday morning at the cross country team’s first meet of the season. There were veteran runners looking to improve course times in a field deep with runners from 4A schools. There were new runners just trying to puzzle out the demands of a 3-mile run. They ran like champions–from the college-bound students who are being courted by well-respected programs to the kids who willed themselves not to stop despite the humidity and hot sun. We spectators cheered every one of them, marveling at the display of sheer will.

It’s scary to become the spectator–for even a moment–where our kids are concerned, to slack off just enough to let them be whomever they are in this moment. But stepping off the rock pile occasionally may be just the thing to renew our spirits, to move past the fatigue, to make the hard work possible. When we allow ourselves to see potential without limit, when we give our kids room to grow without dictating the trajectory, when we step outside the race long enough to cheer their efforts, we open ourselves to the thrill of simply watching them become.

It was an exhilarating 12 hours at the end of a very long week. There was something to celebrate at every turn. And it left me ready for the work ahead.

In this back to school season we remind you to:

–point your children toward possibility, but let them chase it;
–insist on integrity, but leave room for youthful miscalculation;
–model self-confidence but don’t base it on comparison;
–celebrate achievement, but make time to look up from the hard work.

The results can be amazing. And while you will be tired, you will have the energy and the inspiration to press forward.

For your consideration: Uncram (NYT Review of Books, Sunday, August 24, 2014)

Connie & Joy

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