Want Good Grades? Then Forget About Getting Good Grades!

Ok, I admit it. I have a habit of creating titles that create a disconnect. And are a little click-baity. But to be honest it only happens because I often like to write about misconceptions, and so by definition the title will appear counter-intuitive. Today I am going to write about something that over the course of my teaching career has met with perhaps the most resistance from students and parents, but which has also met with the most success when embraced.

If you want good grades, stop trying to get good grades.

Scandalous, I know. And trust me, I have heard all the rejoinders. So as you can imagine, I will explain.

See, in the current system of education, grades stopped being a measure of progress some time ago. What they have become instead is currency. A commodity that is pursued, traded and leveraged with as much vigor and ferocity as the dollar, euro, or yen. And I am not using hyperbole here. Schools these days have come to be viewed by many students, parents and even teachers as a marketplace. Teachers have the grades, students want them. And in this marketplace the end goal is to get as high a grade as possible. To very many – but to be completely fair, not to all – how that happens is not nearly as important as that it happens. To this category of student, the goal of school is not to learn, but to get grades. And this paradigm shift causes a fundamental change in how the entire process is viewed. I will list just a few examples:

  • Bargaining
    It has become standard operation procedure now that when teachers return graded work, the immediate next phase is the negotiation. Students dissatisfied with the magnitude of their grade will question, cajole and even harass the teacher about the grade, with the common theme that since the student believes the grade should be higher, the teacher has assigned a wrong grade. There are even times when the guise of reason is dropped completely, and the student will actually say things like “I need a 97% to get into <insert elite university program here> so can you raise my mark?”
  • Academic Dishonesty
    Academic dishonesty (aka cheating) is not a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the pervasiveness of it, and the total lack of ethical struggle involved in making the decision to use it as a tool for getting high grades. After all, if the only purpose of school is to get a high grade, and if cheating accomplishes that, then where is the ethical problem? And so we see rampant use of things like plagiarism, paying others to do work that students then submit as their own, or gaming the system so that assessments like tests are skipped, then done at a later date after getting information from other students who were present at the time about what was asked.
  • Grade Mills
    Countless “schools” have popped up over the last decade or so who’s sole purpose is to guarantee official credits and high grades. The thinly disguised mission of these schools is to create a means by which, for a price, students can get a credit on their high school transcripts and also get an absurdly high grade. What separates a grade mill from a more legitimate private school is how accurately the student’s grade reflects their knowledge on completion of a course. I have taught many students who received a grade mill credit in a prerequisite course for the one I am teaching, with a grade of 100%, who do not possess the most basic skills meant to be learned in that prerequisite course.
  • Cramming
    This is definitely not a new concept in academics, but it has spread to more and more students, who in fact no longer recognize that it is not actually a means of learning. In courses where there are scheduled tests/exams, students to little to no work during times where there is no assessment looming. They attend class, possibly take notes, and otherwise devote minimal attention to the lessons, because “this won’t matter until the test.” They do not see this as an ineffective strategy at all. The belief that drives this is that the only time the subject knowledge will matter is when they are tested on it (and thus in a position to get grades), and so the plan is to study as much as possible the day – or even the night – before a test. Cramming all the information into their short-term memories just long enough to unleash it onto their test papers, to be promptly forgotten as they leave the room after writing the test.

These are not the only examples of what I am talking about, but they are the most common. And it is clear that none of these appear to give actual learning more than the slightest courtesy of a head nod. They are completely and totally about getting grades.

Sometimes, they even work. But that’s a trap. Because even when they work, they are only short-term solutions to a lifelong endeavour, and they all create stress and anxiety in the process.

  • Bargaining for grades, when it works, teaches that it is not about what you earn, but about what you can badger people into giving you. It shifts the perspective about where the effort should be placed. Rather than placing effort on producing good work, the effort is placed on convincing the teacher to assign a high grade. This creates an internal tension that results in generalized anxiety, because the student ends up in a position of having to convince the teacher of something that is not actually true, and for which there is no evidence.
  • Cheating works for its intended purpose (when you don’t get caught), but like grade mills, perpetuates the “appearance over substance” philosophy, and also imbues dangerous long-term values that erode at the ethical fabric of society. The stress this creates is clear – fear of getting caught, and the consequences. Additionally there is the gradual accumulation of anxiety brought on by creating an academic avatar that is more and more fraudulent and removed from the person who wears it.
  • Grade mills teach that appearance matters much more than substance – if you can appear to be someone who earned a perfect grade in calculus, it does not matter if you actually are someone with a deep understanding of calculus. It is hard to even wrap ones head around how many ways this is wrong. First, the injustice of potentially securing a spot in a college or university over someone who earned a lower grade, but actually knows much more calculus. Then, the fact that with the label of “100% in calculus” anyone who checks that label will assume that you are a calculus genius and expect that you are, creating significant stress on the person masquerading as the calculus prodigy. Finally, the pressure that the very existence of grade mills places on legitimate schools, who have little choice but to begin awarding higher grades so that their students can remain competitive when it comes to post-secondary offers of education, which is a non-trivial contributor to grade-inflation. The stress created here is very similar to that created by cheating, and has the added anxiety-producing bonus that at some point there won’t be a grade mill offering credits and grades for money, and that the student will actually have to perform as the person their grades have indicated that they are.
  • Cramming is arguable the lowest offense on this list, because in its purest form the student is not misrepresenting themselves at all. However it is fraught with disadvantages, from the fact that many students struggle to absorb and then reproduce the knowledge in a meaningful way, to the fact that when needed later – in the same course or in a subsequent one, the knowledge is no longer accessible. It also creates a great deal of stress and is a common cause of test-anxiety, which is a very real issue for many students who find they “totally knew this last night” but can not recall it when test time comes.

Perhaps most tragically, this issue causes stress and anxiety not just for the students engaged in them but for the many students who are not, because it creates an unlevel playing field that places incredible burden on the ones who are doing things the right way. Grade inflation is a real and dangerous phenomenon, where just like monetary inflation, a loaf of bread is still a loaf of bread whether the price tag says $0.75 or $2.99. The difference is that because we use percentages as grades, there is a ceiling, and so we are staring to distinguish by decimals. And that means that for any student mistakes cost much more than they ever did in the past.

Ok. So I’ve devoted the article to this point (approximately 5 minutes of reading time, if the algorithm that tells me how much I have written so far is to be trusted) outlining the issue. And maybe I’ve made it seem like hope is lost, because we do in fact live in a system where grades matter for universities, colleges, academic awards, and sometimes for that first job, and all of these vehicles by which students are getting the grades are either unethical or riddled with stress and anxiety. But hope exists! Because there is very good news.

To get good grades, all you have to do is actually learn the material!

Revolutionary, I know. It almost seems like I am joking. I assure you I am not. This simple fact is lost on more students and parents than I wish was the case. Clearly it would work though, right? Of course it would. Students, you can take all the effort you are devoting to “getting grades” and shift it to “learning material”. Immerse yourself in class. Ask questions of the teacher. Engage in discussion. Pay attention. Do work in increments (that is, homework), instead of cramming the night before a test or exam. Decide that you will be a master of the topic and use your teacher as the resource they are. Develop a love of learning – trust me, this is not as hard as you think – and as you grow into this person who legitimately strives to learn, the grades will automatically follow, as an afterthought!

Now I know from experience that this message lands differently on everyone. Some people roll their eyes, either inwardly or outwardly, and decide that the game as it is being played works just fine for them. Others hear me and know it makes sense, but feel that it’s too hard, and getting grades some other way will be the way to go. But, there is a significant portion of students I have talked to who have taken the idea to heart. And without fail they are the most academically successful, as reflected both in their grades, and in their facility with the material they have learned. These students inevitably report back to me that once they stopped their pursuit of high grades, and shifted their energy to the learning, they began earning higher grades than they ever had before. And their confidence grew as their anxiety atrophied. Because so much of the mentality of getting grades involves somehow gaming the system into awarding false credit, that when they shift into the person who actually has earned the credit they are receiving, they feel bulletproof.

And what a great feeling that is!

Thanks for reading,
Rich

Let Your Child Fail

Depending on the perspective of the different people in my life I am many things: a son, a father, a brother; A student, a teacher, a mentor; A friend, a colleague, a training partner. And yet, in all these capacities I have learned one lesson well, and seen it play out repeatedly. Failure is critical for growth, and letting loved ones fail is one of the hardest manifestations of loving them that there is.

This is never more acute than when it comes to your child. It is one of the most painful struggles in normal parenting. Seeing a that a child is making poor choices and is therefore on a path to failure, letting it happen, and watching the fallout is heart-rending. And yet, the alternative is worse: Letting them believe that there is always a safety net.

As parents, it is our job and our duty to give our children all the tools and guidance they need to succeed as they grow. But it is not our job to give them success. It is not our job to undo their failures, or to mask them as something else. In fact, any “success” that is not earned is not a success at all, and any part we play in delivering these false successes is, in fact, failing in our duties as parents.

Repeatedly and consistently rescuing a child from failure teaches them that failure is not on the table. It teaches them that life will be fine regardless of poor choices, lack of knowledge, or lack of skill. It’s like giving someone voice lessons and using autotune to correct their pitch before playing back their singing to them and to the world, letting them believe they are the next Freddy Mercury or Whitney Houston, and then letting the world watch their train-wreck audition for American Idol. It not only sets them up for confusion later in life, it inhibits self-awareness to the point that life in the “real world” will for them will seem like walking through a minefield, where the reactions from others are so completely out of line with their internal measures (calibrated in their youth) that they can, at times, feel like they never really know what is wrong with them or why they get the responses they do. Consider those American Idol auditions where the singer is so clearly awful, and yet they think so highly of themselves that they tell the judges it’s the judges who are terrible.

The thing is though, that in the moment failure is happening, we parents want nothing more than to take the pain away. Every parent knows what I mean. Your child’s pain, whether physical or emotional, is about a million times worse than your own. My wife always talks about that moment when a toddler is running to you in the park to show you some amazing treasure they found, with that big toddler smile and enthusiasm, when they trip and fall and start crying miserably. We all want that enthusiasm and joy to be the only thing they ever feel. We never, ever, want them to fall.

But it’s unrealistic. Everyone falls. Learning what caused it, analyzing how to have avoided it, and recovering from it are the real lessons. The lessons that lead to a person who truly can be successful. And so we have to let our children fail. And then we have to be there for them to love and support them as they recover from it. We have to show them that failure isn’t the end of anything, and that even in their failure we believe in them and love them as much as we always have. That is how they will learn to grow from failure, without spending a ton of counter-productive energy and emotion on self-recrimination and shame.

In my years of teaching, I have had countless conversations with parents concerned about their children’s academic success – or lack thereof. And on more occasions than I care to count, a parent has outright asked me if there is anything I can do to raise their child’s grade. These parents are always taken aback when I tell them that there is nothing I can do, and nothing they can do either. However there is everything the child can do. We can give them the tools, we can be there to support their learning. We can be the best parents and teachers there are. But we can not “raise the child’s mark”. That is on the student. And sometimes, the student fails. When I tell the parents that I am willing to let that happen, they often think it means I am a bad teacher. There have been a few occasion where they said so. But my response is always the same:

“I am being the best teacher I can be. I will always be there to support your child. I will give them every tool I have, and the guidance to use it, in order for them to succeed. When they need me, I will be there. I will be there even when they don’t realize they need me. But I will never do the work for them, and I will never assign a grade they did not earn. And if they should fail, I will be there to support them and help them see what went wrong, and how to address that in the future. Given all that, my only hope is that your child will look back on their time as my student and realize the gift I gave them: The gift of letting them fail.”

We want the next generation to be resilient, strong, caring and educated. Failure is the path to all of these. As hard as it is, we need to let our children fail.

And then celebrate the heck out of their successes!


Thanks for reading,
Rich

Thoughts From a Dance Dad

Lately it seems as though the amount of time I have to write is inversely proportional to the amount of ideas I have to write about. But today’s entry is about something I’ve been thinking about for years: Dance.

Early Years

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My Little Ballerina (age 5)

My daughter is a competitive dancer. She’s 15, and has been dancing since she was around 3. She’s gone to countless dance camps, workshops, and of course classes. So I have been a dance spectator for about 12 years. Prior to that I knew next to nothing about dance, save for the fact that I have never been any good at it.

At first, dance was pretty much entirely about how cute the kids all looked executing choreography. They got to wear these elaborate costumes and perform for friends and family at recitals. The teachers and teaching assistants are always on stage at the same time as the kids, and the kids essentially never take their eyes off them, mimicking the movements they’ve all spent months in class learning. It’s exceedingly adorable, and naturally every person who comes to watch immediately rushes to them afterwards to tell them how wonderfully they danced. In short, it’s a typical exercise in getting kids involved in an activity that provides some structure around working toward a goal, and then the kids get congratulated on essentially existing for the duration. And it’s awesome.

As the years progressed, we saw less and less boys involved. I won’t attempt to analyze that or comment on why it might be, but political minefield notwithstanding, it is true. This meant that as the dancers grew, it became – for my daughter’s group at least – a girls-only activity.

Emerging Talents
1042Starting around the age of 8 or 9, and lasting for 3-4 years, it starts to become obvious which of the girls are well suited to dance and which are not. This obviousness is not lost on the girls. Dance becomes a micro-society where “Haves” and “Have-Nots” start to identify, and the behaviours that result are what you would expect. In a way it mirrors what is happening at that age in school, but from where I sat it was definitely magnified at dance. These can be pretty difficult years for the girls, and perhaps more so for the parents. As I watched from the sidelines, I always told myself that whether a Have or a Have-Not, there are very valuable lessons to be learned from these dramas, and whether my daughter was receiving or giving grief (it certainly seemed she was receiving a lot more than giving, but nobody ever accused a dad of being impartial), my wife and I always did our best to ground her in reality and look for the long-term life lessons that could be taken. I do think, subjectivity aside, that I can safely say my daughter began to show real talent for dance during this time. I can also say, objectively this time, that she emerged from this phase with an inner-strength and confidence that is astounding. As I watch her navigate the social quagmire of the tenth grade, I am exceedingly proud and awed at how well she manages to stay true to herself and her friends, while gliding above the drama that can consume most kids of that age. She never judges others, and always stays honest in helping her friends deal with whatever the current issue is. In and out of the dance world I have watched her handle victories with honest grace and compassion, and failures with resolute determination. She’s my hero, and I firmly believe we have the “emerging talent” years of the competitive dance program to thank for that.

From Girls to Women
As the girls mature into women, things change at dance in a way that I could never have understood if I were not so immersed in it. This phase is not something I came to understand only as my daughter entered it – the nice thing about being a dance dad is that every recital and dance competition you attend features dancers from all the age groups. So that long before my daughter was in high school I have been observing this stage of a dancer’s development. I also have the added advantage of being a high school teacher, and so for my entire career have had the pleasure of seeing how dancers take the lessons from dance into seemingly unrelated arenas, like a math classroom, which really is my domain. Having a daughter in dance always made me pay attention to how older dancers behaved, kind of as a way of glimpsing my daughter’s future. Here are some observations I’ve made over the years, and observations I have now had the pleasure of seeing manifest in my own daughter.

Dance is a Language
This is not metaphor. Dance actually is a language. It took me some time to fully appreciate that. Because of my daughter’s involvement in dance, our family has been marisa-dancewatching So You Think You Can Dance since season 2. It’s a great show to be sure, but I admit at first I was too absorbed in marveling at the physicality of it to understand what it communicates, despite the fact that the judges on the show really do a great job emphasizing this (I always assumed they were saying it metaphorically). But like a child that learns to speak simply from hearing the spoken word and contextually absorbing meaning from the sound, I began to absorb meaning from the movement. The first thing I realized was that unlike languages that use words, dance doesn’t translate to any other language, and communicates things which can’t be communicated any other way, with the possible exceptions of fine art, or poetry. Really good fine art will enthrall and speak to the viewer through infinite contemplation of something static. Really good poetry succeeds at using words which individually can be quite linear, by combining them in a way to create depth and consequently say something the language the poem is written in was not necessarily designed to say. Really good dance? A different thing entirely. It speaks to our humanity on multiple levels, and the fluidity of it allows the choreographer/dancer to tell us stories no written word could approach.

Words are discrete, and a picture is static. But motion is a continuous medium, and the very continuity of it results in an infinity of expression within a finite frame of time and space. It has been said that dance is poetry in motion, but I honestly have come to see it in the reverse. Poetry is dance stood still. I can’t find words to describe this any better, because words will fail here. If you want to know what I mean, watch dancers. And in the same way that second and third languages improve thought processes and imagination, so does dance – but it does so in a way that is magnified a thousandfold because of its unique method of delivery, and because of the world of thought and emotion it opens up for communication. It also is unique in that you don’t have to be able to speak it to understand it. You only have to watch.

Dancers Make the Best Actors
Because of my passion for theatre, I have had the immense pleasure of being both actor and director in various musicals. And here is what I’ve noticed – not all great actors are dancers, but all dancers are definitely great actors. To me there is no mystery as to why this is. Many actors focus on the words they’re saying or singing, trying to pour all of the character they’re portraying into the delivery of the lines or lyrics. Physicality is often an afterthought, or a simple by-product of the emotion they are feeling about the performance. For dancers it’s entirely different. Because of their fluency in dance, they are simultaneously vocalizing and dancing the performance. By dancing I don’t mean the choreography that often accompanies musical numbers, although naturally a dancer excels there. Rather I mean that they are speaking to us in two languages simultaneously. And even those of us not able to communicate with dance can still understand it. So I have often found myself thinking of a dancer “It’s not a je ne sais quois she has. It’s a je sais qu’elle est une danceuse” (yes, you have to speak some french for that one  😉 ).

Dance is Empowering
Okay. So obviously dance results in physical fitness. You can always spot a dancer by their muscle tone, posture and grace in simple movement. The importance of this can’t be underplayed. But the kind of empowerment I’m talking about here is more than that. I flying-marisaremember once at a dance recital there was a senior acro small group number about to start (see what I did there – Dance Dad knows the terminology). It was clear from the opening positions that one of the dancers was going to execute a crazy trick to start the dance. Before the music started there were hoots and hollers from the wings and from the audience, and one dancer’s voice from the wings rang out with “You GO girl!”. I was momentarily taken aback. I think maybe I had just read an article or watched a show where that phrase was called into question as demeaning to women. And then I looked around. The stage and venue was dense with strong, confident young women, certain of themselves and certain of their power. And the dancer who called it out numbered among them. I couldn’t see anything demeaning at that point about what she had said, but on a deeper level I realized just what dance had done for these kids. It showed them what inner strength, determination and dedication could do. And so naturally I began to think about the dancers I’ve taught in my math classroom and I had this moment of revelation. It is exactly that quality that has always made them stand out to me in that setting. Not that they all excel in math, because not all kids do. But that regardless of their abilities in math, there is always an inner strength and peace that says “I know who I am, I know what I can do, and I know how to commit to improving.” Where many students in high school still need the explicit motivation that our culture seems to thrive on too often, the dancers have internalized their motivation in the best way. I can’t say enough how important that is for success in life.

unsung-marisa

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Choose Your Memories

Short blog today based on a conversation I had recently.

I was talking to a graduating student about how he is going to choose a university. He has been accepted into his two top choices and he doesn’t know how he will decide which one to attend. One university is more widely recognized but would mean moving far from home, where none of his friends will go, and has a more difficult program. The other university is closer to home and has a slightly easier program. Both offer the same degree. After discussing that this was a nice problem to have, I gave him the advice I always give myself. Choose your memories.

Choose your memories

The simple truth is that all you are is your memories. The present is a fleeting instant, and the future is unknowable, so your whole life experience – and how you view yourself – is based on your memories of the past. In fact, there is an interesting perspective that points out that since it takes a small amount of time to process what your senses are perceiving, our “present” is in fact already past, which is pretty weird to think about. But that aside, too often people think about a choice like the one my student must make in terms of how the choice will affect their future. The truth is it’s much better to think about how it will affect your past. I asked him which memory he wants.

Which memory do you want?

He didn’t know what I meant by that. I said, picture yourself 10 years down the road. Right now I know that whichever university you attend you will finish the program. So 10 years from now, looking back at your decision, which one will you want to be glad you made? Who would you rather be? The dude with the memory of university A or the one with the memory of university B?

Choices are an opportunity to build the memory you want, which ultimately means to build the person you want. In this way they are very exciting. Every choice is your chance to be more awesome. Take control of your character and choose the memories you’ll be glad to have, so that you can be the person you want to be.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Parenting From the Bow

I have two kids, and it is definitely true that along with my wife, there is nothing in this world more important to me than them. At the time of writing, my son is 15 and my daughter is 11. So between my wife and I we have a total of 26 child-years of parenting experience (plus 4 dog-years and 9 budgie-years). This hardly qualifies me as an authority on the subject, but I do think about the responsibilities of parenthood in general and fatherhood specifically quite often, and I thought I’d put some of my thoughts into pixels today. I will borrow a little from the speech I made at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, and I will also use some quotes from an early twentieth-century philosopher named Kahlil Gibran as the springboard for my take on things. As it turns out, Gibran and I agree on very many things when it comes to kids.

Children are the mirror to your soul.
~ Kahlil Gibran

That sentiment is the simplest way I can express what my children mean to me. When I look in a mirror, I see my face. When I look at my children, I see my soul.

When my wife Marla and I discovered we were going to have our first child, we started doing what I imagine just about every couple does at that time. We started planning how we were going to make our child into the most perfect human the world has seen. We were going to make sure he was the smartest, most charismatic, most athletic, and most well-rounded person imaginable. We were going to mold him into a superstar. We read all the books, watched all the videos, and attended all the seminars. We bought all the best stuff. We were ready.

Then he was born. And then we learned how it really works.

The truth is, you don’t get to tell your children who they are going to be. That’s not at all what raising a child is. It turns out that what raising a child is really about is paying attention as they tell you who they already are. And if you’re wise, and lucky, you find out that who they are is the exact kind of person you love to know, and to be around. And that’s exactly who my children are. They are the best parts of myself, and of Marla, and a good dose of all those who came before us in the ancestral tree. They are the soul of all of us.

Before our son was born, Marla and I thought we could make him into the perfect person, but we were wrong. He’s not the perfect person. He’s better than that. He is the perfect him. And our daughter, who could not be more different than our son? You guessed it — she is the perfect her.

As a teacher I am fortunate to work with kids all the time. I spend a large part of my days with other people’s children, and it is absolutely the best part of my job. When people find out I teach high school they always ask me what I teach, and my response is always “kids”. They laugh as though it’s a joke but it’s really not. Because while I love math, and that is my subject area, teaching any subject in high school is really about helping kids grow into adults. So I really pay attention to my students, because I find I have so much to learn from them about who they are, and then I in turn can help them grow into the best version of themselves possible.

Of course I know that it is their parents who are primarily responsible for that, and a lot of what I have learned about parenting comes from looking at my students and then looking at their parents. And I can tell you this with 100% certainty: The students I have taught with the highest self-esteem and who are the most comfortable with who they are are the ones whose parents allow them to be who they are. Conversely the ones with the most issues regarding self-worth and academic performance are the ones whose parents are working extremely hard to turn them into something they are not. Imagine growing up in an environment where your most loved and trusted people — your parents — are constantly working to steer you away from who you are and what you want. As a math teacher, I see it most commonly in kids who are being forced to stay in the maths and sciences because their parents have decided that there is no future in the arts. However it goes beyond that. There are parents who seem determined to shape their kids into something different than what they are. It’s sad. As parents we need to see our children the way sculptors see their sculptures — as something that already exists in the rough, and our job is to help reveal that magic to the world.

Here’s another Gibran quote that I love:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
~ Kahlil Gibran

Even if you are not religious the quote is wise. What Gibran is saying is that once a child is born, they are their own person. Children do not belong to anyone but themselves, and the future is theirs to make. Parents are the stable bow. We are the home base and the place our children come from, but the journey they are on, where they go in life, belongs entirely to them. We can guide and encourage, but we can not, nor should we, change the flight of the arrow once it is loosed from the bow.

When it comes to my children, Gibran was right. I don’t seek to make them like me. I strive to be like them.

Thanks for reading,

Rich