Show kids the possibilities

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Silver Falls State Park, the site of the wedding

Last weekend, I went to a former student’s wedding in Oregon. In high school, she was a journalism kid, a writer who was always interested in other people, especially the underdogs.

She wrote a particularly compelling editorial — after a school shooting in rural Minnesota — about the students at our school who survived on the fringes, who felt ignored and angry. It was powerful and upsetting to many, and it was really important to her.

I thought she would probably spend her life doing something like this — if not in journalism then in social work or law.

Fast-forward to now. This young woman works for Space-X, developing nutrition programs for astronauts. Her husband is an astrophysicist. I never saw that coming.

Now she is passionate about the universe, about exploration, about all of the mysteries of life here and elsewhere. And also, still, about writing.

Seeing her in this new light — literally, in this new world — brought two things to mind. One, we need to be careful about pigeonholing our students or ever assuming that we know what the future holds for them. Two, we need to figure out better ways to open students’ eyes to the myriad directions their lives can take.

Too many of our students have no idea where their education can lead them, so school lacks meaning for them. Others assume they will become business people or health care workers or engineers, without ever really knowing what that career would be like.

They keep marching forward on this predetermined path, and many become disillusioned when they realize they don’t like the destination.

How do we get them to see that their lives and their careers can lead them hundreds of different directions? How do we get them excited about this? Maybe they will end up as a tour guide in national forest, explaining the geological history of a waterfall. Maybe they will end up as an attorney, working for the rights of refugees. Maybe they will end up running a restaurant in a Costa Rican beach town or caring for penguins in an aquarium or building wind farms. I’ve talked to Americans doing and loving all of these jobs in the past few weeks.

We can’t possibly arrange for our students to shadow or meet people in all of these ventures. But we can tell them the stories, share quick videos and articles, talk about people we know who do interesting things. (And make sure we meet people who do interesting things, so we have stories to tell!) When we hear about a student’s interest — like one student today, who told me how much she loves anime costumes — we can help them think of ways to turn their interest into a career.

Space-X wasn’t even around when my former student, the bride, was in high school, and yet she found her way there. What it took was an open mind, an inquisitiveness about the world, a willingness to take chances and confidence in herself. Those are things we can help build in every student.

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