Courage is a common word in my house. I mean courage in the Latin-sense of the word, cor–with heart. Courage with heart is about perseverance and thoughtfulness. It is about finding a moral compass within yourself, and acting with kindness in the direction. It is about avoiding rash, unproductive or irrational behavior in order to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions. Courage is about love.
When my son was young, he was in special education for having motor planning issues related to hypotonia. It was challenging for him to string motions together to create a fluid action. He had to think through each piece of a coordinated action and deliberately string those pieces together. For example, most of us don’t think about jumping, we just jump. We don’t think about the process of stopping after we’ve been running. We just slow down, and eventually stop. Not my son. At an early age, in order to learn basic things, he had to observe, calculate and examine process. He became adept at breaking things down and seeing them come back together. He also learned to persevere.
He wanted to try all sorts of activities. His need for extra processing wasn’t problematic for him. When we’re young, we just go for it. He played soccer, took swimming lessons, and learned to play the guitar. He hiked and biked. He learned to ski. He started rock climbing. He played chess, and he learned to calculate others’ process and weigh that in relationship to his own. He would then use it to his advantage. His chess coach referred to him as a bulldog. He simply loved understanding process and seeing it all fit together.
That sensitivity was beautiful and he excelled. Except that it didn’t work for him so well in school.
In school, if you cannot do something quickly and quietly, or too slowly, then there is a problem. If you are a boy who cannot ‘suck it up’ and go with the group, then there is a problem. You have to fit in. Seeing the deep and wide implications of any problem or taking the time to calculate risks, benefits and process is simply not encouraged. There are too many assignments to complete so indulging in longer-term analyses cannot be allowed. There is little encouragement for boys to converse with more depth of heart and less bravado. And that too, is where courage comes in.
I used to post signs on my son’s door, as reminders for him. Signs like:
“Does that little tiny quiet voice inside you support your decision?”
“Do you feel comfortable telling people about your decision?”
“Will you feel good about this action next week?”
“You can be the person you want to be. All the time.”
“Did you remember to brush your teeth?”
After persevering through middle school, he decided that he didn’t want to go to high school. He couldn’t take it anymore. He was bored and he was invisible. In my heart, I knew he was right, but I was unsure if the alternative would be any easier. So we talked about it.
His dad and I played out scenarios with him about what his path might look like, considering his age, his interests, and our work situations. We thought about worst case scenarios, trade offs and benefits. We broke it down just like he knew how to. He researched options, and considered possibilities.
After months of consideration, facing fears, and preparing to accept a huge and unknown challenge, my fourteen year old up for his first semester of community college. When I dropped him off, it was the single scariest thing I had ever let him do. But I kept that fear to myself. Outwardly, I cheered him on. I wanted him to know that his desire to act in his own best interest, and his ability to follow-through on that desire were the biggest successes imaginable. That he freaking rocked the world for going to college when he was fourteen.
When he stepped into the classroom he became classmates with people ten or twenty years older than him. Eventually, he became a tutor for several students who struggled with coursework. He got tutoring in areas that were challenging for him. He lived gracefully with the trade-offs. He was lonely a lot of the time because his classmates were older. But he skied and he went rock climbing with people his age. And he kept on.
Many people were critical of his choice. People asked him if he was mature enough, if he would miss not going to prom, if he could really thought he could make it without a high school diploma. Mostly, people talked about their fears. People were critical of my husband and me. They wondered how we could let our son drop out of high school so early, and they questioned whether he was socially mature enough to handle college. I just reminded them over and over “most kids are not socially mature enough to handle college, so how am I really supposed to know. That’s not a good enough reason for me to keep him from pursuing his goals.” And in my heart, I also knew that if he needed to come home, then he could always take a second try at it in another year. I just knew that I couldn’t give in the the fear.
We had decided to move through life at that moment on strengths, and our ability to navigate unknowns with strength, not fear. And this became a lonely place, a place that none of us had anticipated. We just didn’t prepare for the fear that people would hurl at us. My son just kept on. My husband and I kept cheering for him. And just like in chess, he was a bulldog.
After three semesters in community college, my son applied to a four-year college. He was accepted (without a high school diploma) and received a full scholarship. He was fifteen. At sixteen he moved into the dorms. The first time I spoke with him I heard an easiness in his voice. He did it. He was on his path. And he was confident.
And that was everything.
We can never know the long-term outcomes of our choices. No one can predict the future. I cannot predict if my son will achieve all his goals or will always be ok. But I’m pretty sure, he will fail at some things. We all do. And I’m glad for it. We get strong through failure and success. Life happens, and ups and downs are inevitable. What I do know for sure at this very moment is that my son has practiced courage in the way of a peaceful warrior. He kept on in the face of criticism, life and fear. He chose to use his strengths to direct his life path, and with that he has built his own confidence to pursue his dreams.
His achievements are his displays of character, his fortitude and his perseverance. This is what we should want for any of our sons regardless of the paths they choose.
That is real life. And that is what matters most.