Thursday, June 20, 2013

Our Story (from one point of view): Part One

Once upon a time, a little girl moved from the Big Apple out to the fresh air and mountains of South Dakota’s Black Hills. On her first day of school in Hot Springs, second grade, she noticed a boy across the room. She didn’t know his name, but he had very, very blond hair and a little scar on his temple from where he had scratched at his chicken pox. She had never had chicken pox. (More on that later.)

After that, they weren’t in the same homeroom very often, and she didn’t pay much attention to him. Their families went to the same church, and they were in youth group together in middle school.  She had a crush on his best friend at one point. They were both in band, both played flute. She was first chair. He wasn’t very good. Until he got put on bass drum in the marching band. He had rhythm, that’s for sure.

In high school, they both joined debate. Both still in band. Both in theater. (In Hot Springs you didn’t specialize. There just weren’t enough students. Everyone was a generalist.) During sophomore year, he started paying attention to her. Talking to her more than just the general ways classmates do. He finally asked her out over Christmas break. It was a dance with the local band Ivory playing. (Clap if you remember them. Yeah, two of you. That’s what I thought.) He drove his grandma’s car, and she got friends to buy beer for her. The ride home was not a pretty sight.

Still, he asked her out again. (In those days, you asked a girl out. You dated. You actually went on dates to do things.) Until they were pretty much a thing. She was 15. They went to lots of movies and lots of dances. More beer was involved. (That’s pretty much what you had in Hot Springs.)

They went to debate camp the next summer, and that’s where they started to fall in love. And that’s when they also realized they’d be excellent debate partners. During  junior and senior years, they won many, many debate tournaments, theater contests, band festivals, etc. They spent an awful lot of time together. Her parents worried. But he was a nice boy.

Oh, things happened. They got into some troubles. Those aren’t important. What’s important is that they loved each other. Then they graduated. She was valedictorian. He was a national merit scholar. They went to separate colleges. She was miserable. She had a car accident. She sprained her ankle multiple times. She hated being apart from him. So she transferred and life was back on track. They spent their college years at Carleton. He ran cross country and acted in theater. She played flute and wrote plays. Neither of them did debate.

They graduated. She was cum laude. He got distinction in his major. Then they got married. That was June 20, 1984. Twenty-nine years ago. That’s not the end of the story, but that’s how the story began. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Not an A Student

The end of the school year always comes with those assemblies where students get all kinds of awards. I remember when my kids were in elementary school, there were awards for perfect attendance. I always wondered how in the world that student was never sick, never had a dentist appointment, never had to take a day off to travel to see family for a holiday or special event. Was it really such an accomplishment?
I am not writing about our weird society that rewards kids for showing up and trying. Although that is a worthy topic of discussion, it’s not what I’m about today.
I’m here to talk about all the kids who don’t earn an award. Does that mean they are somehow less worthy of our acknowledgements?  I don’t think so. And I’m not here to laud the wonderful strength of students who, say, graduate despite all the odds against them, whatever they might be. I’m here to write about the ordinary kids who are usually not on anyone’s radar.
So, okay, I’m going to use my own son, Peter, as an example. Of course, I think Peter is extraordinary, but you don’t know him, so you probably don’t share my bias. There are a lot of qualities Peter has that make him awesome, but the ones I want to talk about today involve his attitudes toward school, learning, and matters of the mind.
As just a general example, Peter’s attitude about grades is approximately the opposite of most students I know. His belief is this: if he knows the subject matter, feels he has a reasonably good grasp and mastery of it, then he has no need to prove that to his teachers or his peers by jumping through what he sees as unnecessary hoops in order to get a good grade. To some, this might look like laziness. He doesn’t see any point in studying until 3:00 a.m. in order to get an A. He figures if he goes to class, pays attention, does his homework, and understands what he has learned, studying isn’t going to get him that much further. He knows what he knows. The end result of this attitude is that he doesn’t feel the need to do mindless extra credit work, doesn’t feel the need to do test corrections, doesn’t feel excessively compelled to turn in every last scrap of paper called homework.
Some parents would probably freak out over this. I mean, he doesn’t get straight A’s. Even though I’m pretty certain he could if he ramped up his effort the tiniest bit. He is wholly unmotivated by gold stars and letters on a transcript. But this doesn’t mean he is unmotivated. His motivation is internal, not external. I personally think this is a good thing. You know those job announcements that constantly want applicants who are self-motivated? Creative? Able to work without supervision? That’s Peter.
Sometimes Peter’s attitudes are at odds with his peers, which can tend to make him seem antisocial. For example, often in school, other students seem to be primarily interested in spending class time chatting, laughing, and generally not doing their work. (These are often, ironically, the same students who freak out if they don’t get a good grade and who stay up until 3:00 a.m. studying for a test.) Peter gets annoyed by these kids. He has said repeatedly that he wants to learn. He is there to learn. His motivation is not for the grade, but for the knowledge. One girl in his English class, for example, spent her class time applying fingernail polish. When Peter commented about this on a facebook post, she got upset because she felt he was calling her stupid. I think he just meant that he wanted to focus on class and the fumes from her nail polish made that difficult.
Then there’s English class. Peter is definitely a science geek, but he also has pretty good language and literature knowledge. When his class read Taming of the Shrew, he was the only one who had ever seen it produced. He was the only one who knew what the basic plot was. He was, from what I have heard, one of the few who was not completely freaked out by Elizabethan English. One of his English papers this year had to do with symbolism found in the piece of literature they were reading at the time.  Assignments like this frustrate the hell out of this kid. He doesn’t like to look at literature as “what is the author trying to say?” He would rather ask “what impact does this literature have on me?” (As an author and an English major, I wholeheartedly support this approach.) So in this particular paper, Peter quoted John Green, one of his favorite authors, who says when the author says the curtains are blue, he just means they are blue. He’s not trying to symbolize sadness or something. In short, Peter’s paper pretty much ignored the assigned task, but engaged in the literary work in a very real way, and for that he received 100%. Because he showed the teacher that he was actually thinking, and not just regurgitating what he thought she wanted to hear, he made a statement. The teacher could have easily given him a different grade because he didn’t really complete the assignment, but I give her credit for acknowledging that he had actually been more engaged in the assignment than anyone else in class.
Because of experiences like that, Peter has enjoyed his English class more than he expected to, despite the nail polish girl and the kids who wanted to watch videos rather than do work. While there are a lot of things I did not appreciate about this particular teacher, I think she did see that he was actually thinking about what they covered in class in a way that other kids weren’t.
Peter understands that if he wanted to, he could get straight A’s. And he knows that colleges will be looking at his GPA. And I’ve talked to him about how useful scholarships are for college. He may decide in the next school year that those rewards are worth jumping through a few more hoops than he might like. If not, he understands that certain doors may not open for him. Which is kind of sad for those on the other sides of the doors. I mean, if I were a college admissions officer of an elite science oriented school, I think I might be interested in a student who outfits his own personal chemistry lab at home for the summer, because he loves chemistry that much. I might want to encourage a student who thinks curiosity is the most important quality, because it leads to trying things in different ways until one gets the desired results.  I might find it interesting that this kid is learning a fictional language from a computer game, even creating clay tablets on which to write this language, not because he has to, but because he is fascinated by it. I might even want to invest scholarship money in someone who is so curious about life that he’d rather just learn than get a certain grade.

It reminds me of the joke my husband’s law school buddies used to tell, which bears a shocking truth. The A students became law professors—which doesn’t pay all that well. The B students became judges—again, not extremely high paying. And the C students became the litigators earning the big bucks. Now this is not to say that money is the end all. That is the last thing I’m about. However, it does pose an interesting idea. Being a C student doesn’t mean you won’t succeed. Book learning is not everything. (And yes, it feels somewhat blasphemous for me to say that, as the intellectual book geek that I am.) The practical ability to solve real-world issues is perhaps the greater good. And often, those people aren’t the ones earning all the top awards at end-of-year assemblies. They’re the ones quietly doing chemistry in their bedrooms over the summer.