Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Choosing or Losing

You know how parents are advised to give their toddlers options so they feel like they have some control over their lives? You can wear the blue sweater or the yellow sweater today. You pick! Like, dude, you gotta wear a sweater, but at least you get to pick the color. I follow a similar logic with my high schoolers. You can either sit down or work on the problem with your group or you can get a detention. You can either stop playing your guitar in class or go see the principal. It's all about choices.

In college, I was in a class called the Philosophy of Punishment with my friend TJC. I am not the most brilliant person in the world, far from it, but I am a hard worker (despite what my performance in graduate school might leave you to believe). This class required you to do two things. Read the assignments before class and listen to the professor, a man I will call Dr. Stuart. If you did these two simple things, As would fall in your lap like rainbows.

Unfortunately, this was difficult for the rest of the class to see. The readings were sort of long and definitely boring. I slogged through them because, hell, I was a mathematics minor and you should have seen some of the stuff I had to read for those classes! Hard work? Not really, but it was definitely a work ethic. Even TJC eventually gave up reading the assignments in lieu of having me summarize them for her in the five minutes right before class. This meant that only TJC and I had any idea of what Dr. Stuart was talking about in any given class period. I think we were the only students whose names Dr. Stuart knew. (Although we passed him once on campus and we yelled his name and he just smiled at us and called us "the smiling girls," so maybe he didn't know our names. We did smile at him all during class. He was adorable.)

We did a bunch of readings one week on free will. The fundamental question seemed to be "does free will exist?" I, of course, went crazy. Of course, I thought then (still do, actually, but I'm a bit less hard core). Sometimes your choices are crappy or crappier, but you always have choice. I did all the readings and I went into class knowing that I had thought about these readings more than anyone else in the class and knowing all the rebuttals to his questions.

Class begins.

Dr. Stuart and I began an earnest discussion. It's as if the rest of the 80 people in the room are not there.

He lays it down. "What if I tell you that your choice is to walk out of the room or fail the class? Do you still have free will?"

Oh, smug I was at 20 years old. I did not consider what an F in a 4-credit class would do to my GPA. My GPA that was required to be over a 3.75 in order to keep my scholarship. "Yes, of course."

"Well?" He smirked at me. He apparently knew. That smirk nearly did me in.

I calmly packed up all my stuff and walked out of the classroom.

TJC told me that Dr. Stuart looked on, his mouth slightly open. He said, "In all my years of teaching, no one who would bother to have this argument has ever walked out. And that's why she's getting an A and no one else in here is."

For the rest of that class period, a time I'd normally be in class, I sat in the quad in front of the union and drank a peach Snapple. I can see myself sitting there, quietly freaking out, wearing that tie dye shirt and dark wide leg jeans, envisioning explaining to my parents that I lost my scholarship because I walked out of a class. Of course, Dr. Stuart wasn't going to fail me, he gave me a well-deserved rainbow A, but I didn't know that at the time.

So, now I am a way less smug teacher of high schoolers. I have a student who is gifted, probably knows more math than I do, and knows that half of the crap I have them do is practice for lower achieving students (read: busy work). He's on to me.

"You can either finish the problem with your group, showing all the work, and receive full credit or you can not help your group, turn this in with just the answer on it, and receive no credit."

Damned if he didn't choose no credit.

I see me in him and I want to hug him, tell him it'll be okay, and that he'll make it. But then I want to tell him that he needs to do more than me, be better than me, because I am a nobody. I've done nothing. He's smarter, he's braver, he's more talented. He can change the world. He needs to be a better team player, he needs to play along with the Dr. Stuarts of the world, he needs to show his work in math class. If only because that's what makes the world go around.


  1. I don't even know what to say, but this post is brilliant. You've no idea just how much I relate.

  2. Oh my god, you just brought tears to my eyes. That last paragraph took my breath away.


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