‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.” The Velveteen Rabbit

Every other year, my extended family gathers at a lodge in Montreat, NC for three days over Thanksgiving. Cousins from all over Michigan endure a 10 hour drive with small children, no less, to come to the ‘warm’ NC mountains. At this Thanksgiving gathering, we do puzzles, play poker, chase our children, and sing campfire songs. In the quiet moments, when the kids are asleep, the realness of our lives is exposed.

At one o’clock in the morning, it is not unusual to be catching up on how widowed Aunt CeeCee is adjusting to life after her move from a Detroit suburb Novi to the socially-hard-to-penetrate city of Holland, or learning about secret fears one of us cousins has about our child falling short on some standard academic measurement. In these moments, we reveal our dreams and sorrows while filling up each other’s souls with the type of love that is sustaining. From the moment this gathering ends, I begin looking forward to the next one and plan my calendar accordingly. This gathering is an anchor point in my life. These people know me, I am real to them, and they are real to me. When I have felt lost in my life it is a tradition that reminds me of who I am.

I have also seen traditions go the other way. Instead of reminding us of who we are, they seek to define us as to who we can be. Some traditions define us too narrowly and limit our view of ourselves. Though I work for and firmly support our educational system, I also believe that this institution represents one of those traditions. Our current framework pushes students to be defined by their intellect. God help the student who struggles to learn math concepts or prefers ‘doing’ over reading. While a fertile imagination like that of Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes, may make you rich, it will not get you an A in Precalculus, and teachers, who work very hard to teach good information, don’t like it when students ‘make believe’ the answers.

The greater issue at stake here is that children and young adults have defined themselves against this educational framework as though it is ‘real’ in the Velveteen Rabbit sense of ‘real.’ They believe the system has life. It does not. We adults created it. If it was real, students would feel alive when they walked through the doors of schools. They would feel that something sacred within them was being nourished. However, they rarely do. Most students grind through the school day the same way adults grind through their days doing thankless jobs.

Our educational system is an easy system to buy into, but easy does not translate into right. It is easy because it has clearly defined boundaries – we like those.  You can tell when you are winning and losing because there is a grade on the top of the paper that conveniently lets you know.  Letting someone else set up the rubric and teach us how to meet their measurement is easy. You just have to show up and train your brain.

However, it is incumbent on each one of us to live our ‘right’ life and this is much harder because it forces us to examine who we are and where we are going. In some cases, it requires us to walk away from the traditions we have used to define ourselves. As parents, friends, partners, employers, and leaders, when we see someone we care about doing moving away from or rejecting the very traditions we place value upon it can be extremely challenging because it means we are giving up control. Feeling out of control and not knowing the rules is scary. We no longer know how to define each other. There is no rubric. Yet the urge to oppress or judge another’s path should be suppressed at all costs.

Our joy is truly what should be defining who we are. Do you know what brings you joy? What makes you feel real? Recently I attended the Estes Hills science fair where students explore such fascinating topics as which dog toys are prefered by Fido and how far Diet Coke will spray up when mixed with Mentos candy.  A top ranked East senior was there supporting her 3rd grader sister’s scientific endeavors. Off handedly she said to me, “I miss elementary school science fairs. I miss being creative.”

The question we must all ask ourselves is who came up with the rubric? Does it fit us? If it does not, then we must find the courage to break from tradition and go on our own path. It is on this path we can remember who we really are.