Next month, I will travel to Clemson University, home to the National Drop Out Prevention Center. It is a moment in time in which professionals from all over the country will gather to discuss why students disengage from school and what can be done to reinvigorate our learning environments.
My remarks will be focused the idea that exclusion, isolation and bullying are not just safety concerns, they are bad for our economy. Generally, people think of anti-bullying initiatives as separate and apart from stay-in-school and school-to-work initiatives. I argue that they are an essential component to keeping students in school and helping them move successfully into early adulthood.
At the National At Risk Youth Conference, I will be talking to adults. I will cite research. I will give them concrete advice on how to identify students who are being excluded, isolated or bullied. But I secretly wish that I was speaking to a group of kids. Kids who are trying to navigate the turbulent waters that connect childhood to adulthood. Kids who are playing with an adult body but a child’s mind.
I would tell them that school isn’t just a place to grow your brain. It is the time when you discover who you are and what attracts you to others. In school, you will blossom or shrink. You will stand out or you will blend in. But for too many of us, those choices aren’t choices at all. They are thrust upon us by our differences, our abilities and our preferences. So out of exclusion, isolation and fear — not out of choice — we shrink.
We wish that we could be like the cool kids but we know that is not to be. At best, we ride out the days hoping to go unnoticed. At worst, we hand our future over to those who are tormenting our present.
Colleges want people who stand out. Employers want people who are confident. Entrepreneurs must go boldly into the future. People who serve our nation must stand bravely in the face of the unknown, begging the question, “If I spent my formative years blending in, how can I possibly flip a switch on graduation day so that I may boldly, bravely, confidently stand-out?”
The answer is Facebook. Yup, I know exactly what you are thinking. “Facebook is for old ladies.” Yes, yes it is. It is the place where we reconnect with the cool kids. It is the place where we realize that it all evens out. We discover through Facebook that we caught up with the cool kids. It is the place where we can actually prove to you that this too shall pass and you will catch up.
I originally joined Facebook just before my high school reunion. It started as a way to communicate the details of the weekend. I quickly found old friends, as well as acquaintances that I wish I had taken the time to get to know. And, of course, I found those folks who I didn’t miss at all.
I found the cutest, kindest cheerleader who I secretly wished I could be like. I wanted to be cute and kind, too. I wanted to have a short name that sounded perfect when I shouted it out from behind my pom-poms. That perfect girl is now happily married with a gorgeous family and a career that allows her to enjoy the lake near her house. She is still cuter and kinder than I am but I don’t envy her for that anymore. I feel caught up in my own skin.
I found the girl who, for me, symbolized togetherness. She was fun and classy. Smart and a little sassy. She was the perfect blend of shy and outgoing. She had the confidence to go with short hair when the rest of us where trying to get ours higher and bigger. Today, she is happily married with two beautiful, confident daughters and a gorgeous home that she is redecorating into the style that fits her new chapter. I am still not the perfect blend of anything. I am still too much of some things and not enough of others, but I think if we lived in the same town, we’d be great friends. I feel caught up.
And you know, I found the hot senior who looked like a rockstar and never paid one moment of attention to this scrawny, pimply freshman. He’s doing well with a beautiful new wife and a happy life in Texas. I am married to a guy who was a hot senior when I was a freshman. He just went to a different school. I feel caught up and confident in the fact that timing is everything.
So, I would tell the kids, “Don’t blend in. Don’t give your future away to people who are just as terrified and insecure as you are, even if they appear to hide it better than you. You will catch up and you will stand out the way you were meant to – boldly, bravely, confidently YOU.”