Feeling fairly confident that the children were old enough to take a walk in Myakka River State Park by themselves, but not confident enough to actually let them leave the campsite unattended in the dark, I accompanied them down the trail into the woods. Before we had walked a hundred steps, the kids saw a pair of glowing yellow eyes 20 feet up in a tree. To this day, my kids and the assorted school friends who came camping with us are convinced that we spotted one of the few remaining Florida Panthers.
After staring at the incandescent orbs for several awestruck seconds, the children determined that their evolutionary adaptive environment had left them ill prepared to cope with a Puma concolor in the wild, that their nine-year-old fingernails and teeth would not fare well "mano a paw-o" with a 130 pound carnivore who makes its living killing and eating small mammals were the creature to determine that my kids were indeed small and mammalian. So we returned to the campsite to pick up one large stick of firewood each. Thus armed, we returned to our hike where--and I am totally fine with this--nothing else noteworthy happened whatsoever.
A decade and a half later, my kids and I still occasionally refer to "the camping trip when we maybe saw a panther in a tree." I imagine that the statistics and science courses the children took in college have allowed them to come to understand that the animal in the tree was more than likely "only" a raccoon, common as dirt in our region. The chance that one of the hundred and something remaining Florida panthers was "hanging around" (sorry) in a tree a hundred yards from a campsite replete with giggling fifth graders was equivalent to the chance that a man my age could sleep through the night in a tent without needing to find his flip flops and stumble to the bathroom. But I am still overwhelmed with the poignancy and magic of the moment.
The next day, after a healthful breakfast of sugary cereal eaten straight out of the box, the kids asked me questions about evolutionary biology, Florida history, the development of the State Park System, and why we had once again forgotten to bring enough marshmallows. Obviously, I didn't know the answers to any of the questions but it was glorious to watch the developing intellect of the kids and to start feeling sorry for any middle school teachers they might encounter the following year.
Contrast the story of "the camping trip when we maybe saw a panther in a tree" with the narrative of "the trip where we stood in line for 45 minutes in the sun before going on that ride where Jamie threw up and then pitched a boogie because her second ice cream cone melted and we refused to buy her a twelve dollar lollipop." (And don't even get me started on "the trip to the mall where they didn't have anything in my size.") Where are the memories more likely to come from? I take the campfire over the amusement park or the mall any day.
You know why nobody likes telemarketers? It's not just that they try to sell you crap you don't need, but because by definition, they don't know who you are or what you might want. You reflexively hang up on them because they don't know you. Why would you listen to someone let alone purchase something from someone who doesn't have any ideas what your needs are or what is important to you.
You wouldn't and you don't.
You listen to the sermons at your house of worship because you have chosen to attend. You listen to the political views of your dinner companions because you invited them to share a meal. You don't listen to random strangers calling you at dinner time.
I met with a successful woman recently and her 11 year-old son. "Diego" was doing poorly in school in spite of his gifted IQ and the fact that he was reading three years ahead of grade level. His testing confirmed that he had no learning differences or attentional issues.
Maybe I was imagining things, but when mom was haranguing her son about his motivation, study skills, classroom performance and lousy report cards, I got the distinct impression that Diego thought he was listening to a telemarketer. The doors behind his eyes slammed shut like the gates at a secure facility. I felt like I was watching two strangers talking about a volatile political topic about which they vehemently disagreed. They certainly weren't listening to one another.
Forty years ago when I first started counseling children and their families about how to improve their results at school, I might have talked to this family about a behavioral contract and some academic tutoring. Twenty years ago, I might have advocated taking away the video games until Diego paid more attention to his homework. Last week listening to these sad, angry people, I gave them the only advice that I think might make a long term, significant difference.
I asked mom if she could take a weekend off from work, shut down her cell phone and not return any emails for two solid days. When she said she might be able to, I handed her a dirty map, sticky with bits of stale marshmallows.
Of Miakka River State Park.
I hope this nice woman is able to sleep through the night without having to get up and stumble to the bathroom in the dark. And I most fervently wish that she and Diego will take a walk after dinner. Because who knows? Maybe Diego and his mom will see a pair of glowing eyes 20 feet up in a tree.
That experience will give this family something excruciatingly wonderful to talk about years down the road.
Assuming of course those fiery eye balls DON'T actually belong to one of the few remaining Florida panthers and that the panther isn't in the mood for chomping on a small mammal.