Shaking Hands with Aliens

The book I’m reading right now is called An Intimate Understanding of America’s Teenagers, which is descriptive of the contents of the book, but it’s the subtitle I’m particularly fond of – Shaking Hands with Aliens.

The book, by Bruce J. Gevirtzman is a very well rounded look at teenagers from the perspective of the parents, the teachers, and most importantly, the teens themselves. Gevirtzman himself is a very involved English teacher (with 34 years under his belt.) It’s apparent by the contents of this book that understanding teenagers and helping others understand them is an issue very close to his heart.

Each chapter offers great insight from many perspectives and some surprising humor, though it’s not all fun and games. Some of the book, for example the touching personal stories on poor self image, are incredibly heart breaking. This book will help you go where few parents dare to tread – into the mind of your teen. Understanding their language, thoughts and consequent actions will help you guide them through this difficult part of life. I recommend this book to all parents of teens, or parents of older children on the verge of the dreaded teen years.

As an added bonus, here is are TWO articles by the author which I have been granted permission to reprint. The first is immensely valuable and I encourage everyone to read it and take it to heart. The second is more on the humorous side.

Parents and Failure
By Bruce J. Gevirtzman,
Author of An Intimate Understanding of America’s Teenagers: Shaking Hands With Aliens

As September approaches, almost every schoolteacher in America fills with excitement and trepidation. It is, after all, a new year. Like baseball in spring, anything seems possible for a teacher in the fall when it comes to a renewal of spirit: new students, new gimmicks, new courses–and hope does spring eternal. Most good teachers take a mental inventory of what needs to be done to become more successful in their classrooms; unfortunately, however, that usually means having to dwell temporarily on the downside of education.

One major obstacle in a teacher’s quest for instilling academic superiority in her students is parents; after all, every educator knows that the school is a partnership among students, teachers, and parents. This is an unspoken–and sometimes formal–contract. But when parents fail to do their part, the institution breaks down. Students learn less,
teachers percolate with frustration, and precious monetary resources jut into ineffectual directions.

Clearly, most parents meet almost insurmountable challenges and provide laudable support for their kids in their schooling; but too many parents have broken the contracts with their kids and the teachers, thereby aiding and abetting a free fall of the education system in the United States:

1. When Parents Have Been Sitting On Their Tushes
Any subsequent ramifications of an individual’s slothfulness depend on the place of responsibility that person hoists in the first place. Sadly, many American parents–men and women in supreme positions of awesome responsibility–are simply lazy. Not to diminish the sacrifice, hard work, compromise, and exhausting dedication of millions of Americans in their pursuit of parenting, but some mothers and fathers don’t exert themselves too strenuously while tending to the needs of their own children.

2. When Parents Have Children As Children Themselves
Not that younger parents are always the worst parents; this would be an unfair generalization. However, when teenagers bring babies into the world, conditions are not ripe for success. Babies breeding babies reminds us of the amazing speed at which the female body develops and becomes capable of growing life inside; it also reminds us of the blooming immaturity that ensues in adolescence, even if the child has engaged in sexual intercourse and is equipped with fertile eggs. In short, babies having babies sounds ridiculous–and it is.

3. When Parents Put Themselves Before The Needs Of Their Children
An oft-uttered and insanely ludicrous comment of self-reflection, one that has turned out to be nothing short of a narcissistic rationalization for depression and misery, is the following: “Hey, if I’m happy, my kids will be happy! How can my kids be happy, if I’m not happy?”

Parenting requires compromise, sacrifice, and selflessness; furthermore, it mandates the recognition that these qualities are essential. Self-denial, self-absorption, and selfishness have no place in a home where the children’s education has become a top priority. Mom and Dad don’t always get what they want, and sometimes the pain of this realization becomes unbearable. Some kids live in homes inhabited by adults whose names they do not know. Mothers stream in and out new boyfriends and studs faster than their kids learn new letters of the alphabet. When Dad gets a weekend custody visit, he farms off the kids to babysitters or daycare, so he may spend alone time with his new honey (of the week). Sometimes men and women sternly demand that their own kids take a liking to their new love interest and even their new love interest’s siblings! Children whose lives have been torn asunder by death or divorce must now share any remaining love and affection from the remaining parent with a strange adult–whom the children may not even like.

4. When Parents Forsake Good Role-Modeling
Kids watch their parents. If mom and dad have absolutely no self-control, respect for authority, reverence for honesty, or desire for goodness, neither will their children. If mom and dad devalue, ignore, chastise, and deemphasize their children’s schooling, so will their children.


5. When Parents Give Up On Their Children
More than once a parent has trusted their child’s teacher with these emotionally charged words: “I have tried so hard with Johnny! I just don’t know what to do with him anymore!” Translated: I’ve done my best; now, I give up!

In the education arena parents become downtrodden and frustrated all the time–perhaps here more than anywhere else in their children’s lives. How many parents finally surrendered, after looking at that last report card? How many parents finally called it quits, after that last nagging phone call from the teacher or the school’s vice-principal? How many parents threw in the towel, after that last warning from the city police department about their kid’s ditching school? It has become so much less taxing and stressful, so much easier for parents to officially “give up” on school than to continuously bash their heads against a brick wall on the little red schoolhouse.

6. When Parents Don’t Spend Enough Time
Columnist John Leo wrote in U.S. News and World Report, on September 3, 1997, about the critical nature of parenting when it came to a child’s learning. Leo argues that it is not so-called “quality time” that matters most with parents and their children; it is quantity time with his parents that could determine a child’s adult life. In many American homes today we find children as lodgers, filling space, going almost privately about their daily business, sometimes–but sometimes not–under the watchful eyes of a nanny, babysitter, or daycare worker. In these homes kids are not special, growing human beings, small souls who must be loved, nurtured, attended to, and raised appropriately; after all, it requires time for all that singing, storytelling, cuddling, cooing, ball playing, disciplining, and molding. What, with parents both busily off to work or happily tending to their own social lives or stressfully managing the conflicts and tribulations of a mixed-and-matched extended family, just how do they find time to do things with their own kids? The truth, of course, is that these days numerous American children have only one parent due to death, divorce, or a mother never bothering to get married in the first place. The truth, of course, is when it comes to time–actual quantity time–our children wind up with the proverbial short end of the stick.

7. When Parents Don’t Enforce Rules

Kids want rules and boundaries, and they find themselves a lot more comfortable with parents and teachers who paint clear borders and enforce them. Children whose parents compel them to finish their homework and then set a reasonable, consistent bedtime do better in school than kids whose parents deflect these decisions to the kids themselves. Parents who set curfews and punish for violations of those curfews actually do their children a huge favor. Clarity of law, explanation of (occasional) conformity, and enforcement of discipline go a long way toward maintaining a home that will help to foster education excellence in the children.

8. When Parents Don’t Provide Stability and Security
Parental factors that precipitate childhood insecurity–and the ability of children to perform to their potential in school–abound. They are…

* parents who have affairs; adultery, infidelity; dating after divorce or the death of one parent

* alcohol or drug abuse

* domestic violence

* financial woes (to which the children have become privy)

* ill health of one or both parents

* extended visitors (family or acquaintances)

* domestic conflict (constant arguing, use of profanity, verbal threats of divorce)

* frequent changing of residences

* absentee parents

* criminal behavior or imprisonment of one of both parents

Now that so many American homes are headed by men and women who indulge in one or more of the above behaviors, many American school children are feeling unnoticed, unloved, and–what may be worst of all–unprotected. When we mix these with school, the ensuing chemistry is awful.

9. When Parents Aren’t Feeding Their Kids
Parents have the responsibility of making sure their kids are properly nourished. Sometimes students complain they didn’t have time to eat or grab a glass of juice in the morning. But that doesn’t let their parents off the hook. When kids don’t eat right, they don’t do well in school. Every bit of evidence gathered in recent years–as though we really needed any–proclaims the importance of adequate food in a child’s diet and its relationship to student excellence in almost every facet of the education process.

10. When Parents Refuse to Stress The Value Of Getting An Education
Cultural and racial discrepancies in standardized testing and SAT scores have so much less to do with institutionalized racism and so much more to do with blatantly inept parenting; the culture or race is totally irrelevant. My own father, a short, dumpy-looking, white guy from Europe, had been kicked out of school for helping to throw the principal down a flight of stairs; he never finished the 8th grade. But he always refused to allow this failure to block his reverence for the schools and his constant encouragement of my sister and me to do our best in school. Just before I entered high school (the 9th grade), he sat me down, his hairless head shining in the lamplight, and he sternly said, “Listen, Bruce; I want you to remember one thing–something I forgot to do when I was in school. Here it is: When your teacher tells you to do something–and he’s wrong–just remember that the teacher is right.”

My father did not have to convince me of the veracity of his wisdom; he showed it to me almost every day in the glow of his own parenting. Parents who bring education to the forefront in their children’s lives also bring with this emphasis a reverence for dignity, discipline, humility, and integrity. Clearly, these are values that should never be compromised. And when parents reinforce the worth of these ideals by role-modeling them at home and by demonstrating behaviors that support and respect their kids’ institutions of learning, their childre–and our nation–become a whole lot better.

As we get ready for another school year, most parents will remain an asse–not a liability–to their children’s education, but often the students who do the best in school are not, coincidentally, also the winners of the parent lottery.

©2008 Bruce J. Gevirtzman

Author Bio
Bruce J. Gevirtzman is a high school English teacher who has also, for 34 years, served simultaneously as a sports and debate coach. Also chief playwright for Phantom Projects, an acclaimed youth theatre group that has performed across several western states, Gevirtzman has authored and directed more than 30 stage productions. He has been featured on NBC and PBS, and in the Los Angeles Times. Gevirtzman runs educator workshops focused on teen issues.

And here is the second one:

The iPod
By Bruce J. Gevirtzman,
Author of An Intimate Understanding of America’s Teenagers: Shaking Hands With Aliens

He strolled into the room and quietly laid his books on a desk. Class would begin in about three minutes; soon the teacher would be droning on about something utterly irrelevant to his life. Entirely removed from his surroundings, the small plastic gadgets in his ears piped in the words that resounded repeatedly in his head, chorusing the ideas that he has heard about sex and violence and crime — and women. Vulgarities and obscenities that had always been forbidden in mainstream American media were now a daily part of his life — a ritual — since he was six years old.

He could play that rap refrain in his brain without the assistance of an iPod, one of the most popular play toys known to post-9/11 teenagers. But the iPod somehow gave him power. The iPod increased his status. He had become the latest of the Boomers’ grandchildren to use a technology the Boomers had only dreamed of: music you choose, music you take with you, music you listen to at your whim! American high schools and middle schools, however, have not joined the hippest of all music generations in promoting the iPod craze; very few school officials condone them, allow them, or use them. The acceptance of iPods in American secondary schools has grown tantamount to the acceptance of the small transistor radios of the 1960s, when kids snuck them into schools in order to hear the World Series (played during the daytime back then). Those radios existed — they were certainly there — but most school officials simply shrugged their shoulders in a quasi acceptance of the new technology of the time. It had become the old, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. And was listening to the World Series — America’s Pastime, after all — really that bad?

As a teacher, I loathe the use of iPods at school for three main reasons:

1. They disrupt the kids’ concentration. Students should be thinking about what’s happening at school — ideas about algebra, government, and Whitman — not Snoop Dog’s latest bout in jail or Eminem’s most recent confrontation with guns and cops. At the very least, they should be looking at the school’s “Vision Statement” — no one can figure out its significance — that is plastered on the walls of every classroom.

2. They lose them. Bureaucratic nightmares over lost iPods tend to thwart the benefits of being ever-connected to the woes of young convicts who lament about their bitches standing them up and their homies talking shit to them.

3. They scare me. Not literally frighten, but just knowing — or having a good idea — what is being heard in those earphones at any precise moment is enough to rattle my nerves. I might try denying my most subjective assumptions and pretend as though my students were listening to the Righteous Brothers, but I have a feeling I won’t be fooling myself for long.

Okay. I’m probably battering around too severely the presence of portable music devices. After all, we’ve all used them at one time or another; in fact, when I go to the gym, I wear a headset while working out. True, I listen to am radio talk shows that would bore the ever-lovin’ tears out of most teens; and, true, a huge antenna juts in the air off the front of the headset making me look like a Martian — but I do wear a headset. I’ve told my students that while they’re in my classroom, they’re not allowed to even show me an iPod (or other such contraption) before, after, or during class, unless it has one of those pointy antennas.

Naturally, they laugh. But I’m serious.

The newest technology has been both a boon and a bust for modern educators. Seeming to compromise the effectiveness of educators, some of the most modern advances have presented thorny challenges. Technology has always presented an enigma, a whole series of contradictions, paradoxes, and hypocrisies: for example, one of the most amazing advances of modern man has been the invention of the automobile. Who can imagine today’s world without cars? Besides pleasure transportation, the entire economy now depends on materials being transported by vehicles on wheels; yet, a couple million Americans have been killed in automobile crashes since the early 1900s. In the last decade, 10,000 more teens died in the United States in car crashes than members of the military who died during the entire 10 years of the Vietnam War.

On a micro level, consider modern teenagers: I’ve thought really hard about this, and I can’t remember too many advances in pop culture technology — except for television, of course — that had affected teenagers prior to the advent of VHS and CD players. The needle on the record player served my generation just fine, but in the late seventies the old needle-driven Victrola began to wane with the arrival of the new eight-track tape systems. From this time forward, technology — especially related to the media and communication — has sped at such a breathtaking pace, many other old codgers haven’t caught up either.

And when writing about the iPod — or merely discussing it with fellow teachers — that is exactly what I feel like: an old codger.

My students laugh at me when I tell them my views on music technology. Back in the seventies, when stereo first became a big deal, I had said, “Hmm . . . I’m not sure if I like that sound.” “Why?” The seventies kids had asked incredulously. “Well, there’s something to be said for music that filters through only one speaker. The sound is more solid, fuller; in fact, for my old doo-wop records, I like the scratchy sound the record player produces. Without the scratchy sound, it just wouldn’t be the same.” Which, of course, was the point for these kids. They didn’t want it to be the same! The same was out. Stereophonic music bellowed all over the school. In those days, if you weren’t “stereo,” you were a total geek; homosexuals in the Marine Corps received nicer treatment.

As the modern machines sounded truly better, my arguments for the old mono sounds echoed hollow. I could no longer justify not using at least an eight-track tape player; I even bought a car, a brand new Mercury Cougar, with an eight-track! How I beamed with self-assigned coolness every time I inserted one of those oversized tapes into the huge insert slot near the bottom of the tape deck! My semimastery of modern music technology gave me my hippest moments as a high school teacher; after all, I was using their machines to play my music! And what could be hipper than that? Some of my students — who then were not much younger than I — even liked the same musicians: Gordon Lightfoot, Dan Fogelberg, and Cat Stevens. We not only shared in the technology for playing the music, we had the same tastes in music, as well! What a glorious time!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep up: not with music, not with technology, and not with teenagers’ voracious appetites for new things. They rapidly progressed from the tape deck to the CD player’s multisystem sounds world, while I still tinkered with my record player, hoping I could catch Radio Shack at just the right time for a new needle; unfortunately, Radio Shack stopped storing those needles, and I once again was left behind in the technology boom.

Maybe that’s been the source of my hostility toward the iPod. I don’t know how to put the music on the dang thing to begin with, let alone play it when I go to the gym! While I’m with my wife and kids, listening to an iPod would be a definite no-no. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I am definitely an old dog.

And these are definitely new tricks.

©2008 Bruce J. Gevirtzman



Filed under books, culture, helpful hints, kids, opinion

4 responses to “Shaking Hands with Aliens

  1. Sounds awesome! I agree with everything he says, even the dreaded Ipod, which Cateyes just bought herself. I have NO idea how/what to do with the thing, luckily Papi does. I definitely want to read this, I think it will help me refocus back on the fact that Cateyes is a little person who needs understanding and parents, not housemates as she would like to believe, since she is soooo grown, lol.

  2. Unfortunately I never got the chance to get to the ipod stage with Chris so I will limit my comments to the Parents and Failure part of the program.

    I have one question, what if the parents have done all the right things the diametric opposite of all the things written above, but the school and the school’s administration failed?

    It is quite frustrating when you raise your children to be respectful, loving hard working and honest and yet they cannot get a break in school because the school abandoned it’s role in controlling bullies.

    In Chris’ case his mother went to the school twice a week to have lunch with Chris and engage in classroom activities and volunteer work. Chris did his homework every night and never missed a day of school other than due to the occasional illness. There wasn’t a day in the five years he went to that school that he wasn’t bullied by someone. We went through the school counselor, we tried talking with the bullies parents (you can imagine that didn’t work) and the best thing the school administrators could come up with was to say” work it out among yourselves” to both Chris and to us the adults.

    I agree that many times what Mr. Gevirtzman says is true but unfortunately it doesn’t address the failures of teachers who have lost hope or who have not been schooled in ways to deal with the bully problem so many of our students have to deal with on a daily basis.

    Chris was a good kid who ended up dying (murdered at the hands of his biological father)because we could no longer allow him to attend school in such circumstances. The system would not allow us to transfer him to another school so we had no choice but to send him to his biological father so he could attend school away from the bullies who had bullied him for so long. Unfortunately we had no idea we were placing him in the hands of the biggest bully of all

  3. Tee

    Pat – First I am so incredibly sorry for your loss. I know those words don’t even begin to suffice. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child – particularly when it could have so easily of been avoided had the school cooperated with you. I don’t blame you for being angry.

    Obviously these articles are aimed at the majority of parents. Most kids deal with bullying to some degree (both of mine have) – but sometimes there are children that get it much harder than others. No matter the severity of the bullying, I agree that many schools do not handle it well and this leaves the parents feeling helpless. It hurts to leave your child at school every day knowing what they will endure from mean spirited kids who have not been taught better — and to know that no one is going to do anything about it.

    My oldest son was bullied on the bus last year. This kid was constantly in trouble but never got kicked off the bus. I went to the bus driver many times and asked why and she said that he would have no other way to school because of his financial situation and that I should be more compassionate of his circumstances – that he just didn’t know better.

    I’m a compassionate person but this obviously is not right. The boy should have been punished in some way but as far as I know, he wasn’t. Eventually I had to teach my sweet, innocent, polite young boy to “talk tough” and defend himself. It made me sad to do it but eventually the kid left him alone. (Though he still gets bullied on occasion since he is not as “hardened” as his peers so he is sometimes called “gay” and things of that nature.)

    I don’t really have an answer for you Pat, but I agree that no matter how hard the parents try, that is no guarantee that everything will be alright. If only it were that easy.

    I know your life will never be the same but I pray that Chris’ brief life will touch others and maybe by you telling his story, it will make other parents more vigilant in making sure their children treat others with kindness and respect. Maybe it will save other children from being bullied.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  4. corey wright

    This was my teacher for my junior year. I wish I could go back to his class over and over because of how interesting each and everyday was. He is now retired and I am so proud that I got to be in his class the year before he retired. Thank you B.G. you taught me a lot of things I really needed to know.

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