Kids don’t acquire life skills by magic at the stroke of midnight on their eighteenth birthday. Childhood is meant to be the training ground.”
-Julie Lythcott-Haims, How to Raise an Adult
A lifetime ago I taught English in a high school of 200 students, grades 9-12, in rural Oregon. My best friend and I were the English Department (and the art department, and ASB, and architecture…) and that meant that I had every freshman, he had every sophomore etc. It also meant that if a student didn’t pass the class, he was back in the class with me the following year, no other teacher, no other alternative, no questions asked.
We taught a lot of Shakespeare (itself the topic of a future post) and got kids to engage in the text by acting out the plays (costumes, sets, and props included) during class.
I remember in my second year at the school I had a boy in class who seemed determined to model himself after one of the toughs from Grease. Hair slicked back, chip uncomfortably weighing down one shoulder, he slouched through Freshman English like a youthful John Travolta. …and earned an F.
The next fall found him in the same room with the same teacher, the same curriculum, and the realization that bringing the same attitude would see him there again as a junior.
He wasn’t a reader, and he cared little for homework, but I watched my sophomore Danny Zuko do more in this second tour of English 9 and keep his grade above passing.
Then, one day in the middle of fall, when we were reading Homer’s Odyssey and students in the class were grumbling about the reading load and an upcoming essay, he said something that surprised me and has stuck with me for nearly twenty years.
Turning to a couple of freshmen boys who weren’t doing so well in the class and were heading down the road he’d walked the year before, he said: “Just hold on ‘til we get to Shakespeare and everything will be all right.”
This was a student who had failed both semesters of the class the year before, had chosen hardly to participate in discussions (or acting), and whose appearance still inspired the thought: Grease is the word!
Yet in that moment that student put everything into perspective. All would be well. The students just needed to be patient …and hold on until we got to the trickiest language we’d see all semester, the poetry of a 17th century playwright whose texts puzzle adults.
He might not have been able to interpret it on a test, but this student really knew the meaning of that line from Macbeth, the play he was talking about: “Come what come may, time and the hour run through the roughest day,.”
This student had figured out that challenges do come, and that he (and his peers) could more than survive them. He knew that with those challenges came support and opportunity. We’d read difficult language, but we’d do so in a way that they could understand it.
He knew that during that part of the semester they wouldn’t have much to read on their own outside of school, and that if they invested the energy they needed to in class they would emerge with an understanding of the play. And a grade to match.
As their teacher, I wouldn’t tell them what to think, but I would show them what they could do to understand and I’d ask them questions to help them interpret the text.
Once through, he also knew that he didn’t have to make the same mistakes a second time.
Over a couple of decades of working in schools, I’ve seen many examples of students figuring things out and making positive changes in their own lives. Those happen not because they followed their teacher’s specific directions or because someone stepped in and “saved them” from failure.
I’d argue that that fellow in Freshman English changed because he failed, he didn’t want to fail again, and he was given an opportunity to learn from his mistakes.
Children become adults by taking full advantage of the training ground of childhood. This includes succeeding as well as failing, triumph and struggle. It means wrestling with Macbeth (more than once, perhaps) and knowing that the next time we face the types of challenges we struggled with, our experiences have made us stronger. It means believing that if we can hold on until we get to the tough stuff we’ve learned about, everything will be all right.