“In one word, write down how you are feeling right now.”  

This was how I started each class over the last month at the two different universities where I teach.   

Students were encouraged not to use terms already added to the zoom chat by another student. Some results were predictable.  Anxious, tired, afraid, nervous, unsure – always made the list. More practical needs were also expressed – allergic, hungry – as were, albeit more rarely,  the aspirational – hopeful, grateful.

This simple exercise created an opening to a dialogue that put that day’s lesson in its proper context.   

Some students were waking up at 3:00AM to join class from South Korea or China – often having internet issues, especially when they were in state ordered quarantine, separated from their family.  Others were experiencing loss on all scales – from their jobs to their homes to the lives of loved ones.

Last week every one of them finished their final projects – which was the focus of their semester’s work and the culmination of their education. As all would now enter or return to a very uncertain job market.

In watching them approach the finish line, we emphasized not grades but finding satisfaction and taking pride in what they were able to accomplish under spectacularly difficult circumstances.  Intrinsic, not extrinsic, value was the currency of our courses.

If they asked me to write down how I was feeling after having reviewed their final papers and presentations, I would have had to choose from proud, impressed, respect. 

But ultimately I think I would have written “optimistic.”

You see each of them had been working on projects that in one shape or another would improve the lives of others – addressing issues ranging from mental health, grief alleviation, prison jobs programs, sustainability, child hunger, education, mentoring, financial literacy, green jobs programs and so on and so on. It would have been understandable if the present conditions would have led to cynicism and doubt. Instead, and despite their daily feelings and realities, their projects were driven by hope and a confidence that they could make a difference in their world.

It is so important that we take the time to speak and share our feelings – and to create the space for doing so. It is a necessary prerequisite for moving forward.  Once freed from holding them in – what can come out next is often powerful.

So how are you feeling right now?  And what will you be doing next?

Who’s In Your Class?

China, Columbia, England, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Peru, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States — twelve students representing eleven countries.  This is the makeup of a masters level class I’m teaching this fall at Parson’s School of Design.

As I sat with them discussing what we’d cover over the course of the semester, I couldn’t help but think what they would teach each other and me – just by the very nature of their diverse life experiences.

Each had traveled more than a thousand miles to live and learn in a new city – with perfect strangers.  I couldn’t begin to fathom how rich and exciting this experience must be for them.

Contrast this with another feeling I also experienced last week involving students and classroom composition. This was the week when my daughters would each learn who would be in their classes for their 1st, 3rd and 5th grade years respectively.

Every parent needed to find his or her child’s assigned teacher online.  After they could add their child’s name to a Google spreadsheet so other parents could see who was in what class.  My anxiety grew as one by one I saw my daughter’s friends end up in classrooms different from theirs.  

I wondered if we should have made requests for our girls to be in the same class as certain friends (which rules allow).  If somehow, our desire to let fate determine who was in their class was a bad call.  One that our girls would now resent us for and that would create unnecessary stress for them in school.

Each ended up with one or two good friends in their class.  As we shared the news, we tried to spin the paucity of old friends as an opportunity to meet new ones.  If I were being honest – that is not how I felt at the time.

Until I walked into a class with twelve students from eleven countries.

Appreciating the vast difference between grade school and graduate school, the idea of new experiences versus the comfort of the known was also in stark contrast.

Increasingly we have the capability of engineering the novel and the new out of our lives. Leaving less to chance and serendipity. Favoring the familiar over the foreign.

While there is value in the deepening of old friendships and experiences, there is an expansiveness that comes with the new. Or better expressed in the words of Anais Nin: 

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born. 

Here’s to the arrival of a new school year, filled with new friends and new worlds.