Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"The kids in our classroom are infinitely more significant than the subject matter we teach." - Meladee McCarty

One of the most insidious results of mass-education is pervasive self loathing.

Ask students who didn't do well in school, and they will largely tell you that it was their own fault.

"I wasn't one of the smart ones." Or: "When I applied myself, I did well. But mostly I didn't." I can hear the echo of adult voices in those comments. Students repeating what they believe--or have heard--adults say about them.

Yes, taking responsibility for one's self is important. But it doesn't blossom out of thin air. There are a million tiny ways in which youth feel supported and encouraged to achieve; and a million tiny influences that affect their view of themselves. You cannot overestimate the value of a secure home, stable lives, and caring adults.

It's not like children are born responsible or irresponsible, or even that these are conscious decisions that they make; but they are often told exactly that. As they get older, their ability to make those conscious decisions does grow, but even that growth is highly influenced by the care and guidance of those around them.

I recently talked to a woman who had said she was very shy in high school. I told her that I'd heard somewhere that a large percentage of high school students don't have any direct or individual conversation with an adult during their average school day. She smiled, kind of sadly, to say that had been her. She hadn't done as well as she would have liked in school, she said, but it had been her own fault.

It's self-serving that we let her believe that. It saves us, in general, from pulling the emergency brake on the train and having to really sort things out. From recognizing that we take precious children and treat and talk about them like they are industrial output, in a manufacturing process that sends many to the reject pile, as if the process itself were not at fault.

I do an exercise when I'm speaking to large groups. I have everyone stand and ask them to play "rock, paper, scissors" with their neighbor. "Winners keep standing, losers sit down." Those still standing I ask to play with the closest other person also standing. Again, "winners keep standing, losers sit down." After only a few more rounds, there are usually just a few left standing. "Congratulations," I say, "you are winners! I know you're good, smart, thoughtful people." And of course they are, they gladly accept the compliments, bolstered by having so recently won their way to the top.

You can see by the smiles on their faces of the winners that being the winners, even of this dumb game, means something. Those in any circumstance lucky enough to be left standing will always believe that they deserve to be there, even when it has nothing to do with skill or industry.

"The rest of you," I say to all those who had to sit down, "are the losers." Most people get where I am going at this point. They are not in any way at this moment, except by pure chance, losers. They are just as likely to be good, smart, thoughtful people. But the game of chance actually makes them feel badly, and the label of loser certainly does.

How many youth, in the lottery of life, have we categorized as losers? More importantly, how many have we convinced to categorize themselves as such? Are there some we know who will say, as George Bernard Shaw did: "My schooling did me a great deal of harm and no good whatever: it was simply dragging a child's soul through the dirt."

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