Yesterday morning I got the audio file above in my email box, and I have been turning it over in my head ever since. The link is to an NPR show discussing the different attitudes that western and eastern cultures have to a child's struggle with academics. (I'm going to talk about the ideas contained in it for the rest of the blog post, so make sure and listen to it and then come back to read. Here it is in print if you'd prefer. )
When I first pulled my seven year-old son this out to homeschool this August after two turbulent years at school, the biggest hurdle we both had to overcome was the sense that school work should be easy. Mikalh's experience at school had been anything but. Hampered by auditory processing disorder, what looked like dysgraphia, and symptoms of depression and low self-esteem, school for him was difficult and frustrating. What he knew for sure is that it shouldn't be. The depression and self-esteem were the natural results of his conclusion that work should be easy for anyone smart, and was hard only for people who were dumb. He sat and dropped his pencils and refused to do his math. A first-grade year went by without anyone being sure what he could do.
My own school experience took a different path. At his age, I could read grade levels above my peers and therefore had filled my world with background knowledge that often found resonance in what I was taught. This was before No Child Left Behind, before three-week tests administered with covered walls and silenced bells, worried adults and all the pencils and the gum. I did not shine in math or sciences, but the rest of school for me left ample time for daydreaming and consisted largely of the filling out of forms that, once turned into the teacher, signaled I was free. I liked school. Why not? It was easy and I was held up, with very little effort, as an example for other kids.
All this was true until middle school. Grades, it developed, were measured based on effort, as in work produced, rather than on native talent. This was disheartening in the extreme. I, like my son, dropped pencils and refused to work, but with an adolescent flair. All my life, I had mistakenly believed that my talent would get me through, while it turned out something else entirely would be required. My adult life has proven the truth of this to me. It is completely irrelevant that once I was an early fluent reader, now that everyone else can read. It makes no difference if I am smart. What matters is what I can work for and achieve (or not). To a large extent, my life has been defined by the ingenuity with which I approach the matters that I don't think I can deal at all, almost entirely non-academic.
Sitting across the table from Mikalh, within a few weeks, it became clear that we would have to go to war with this notion of entitlement to ease.
"If you weren't making any mistakes, it would just mean you didn't need to learn this," I'd remind him.
"There are no dumb mistakes as long as you are trying."
He repeated these refrains sagely to his stuffed bear.
I tailored his whole academic program to his learning style, but I wouldn't allow him to guess at math problems and insisted he ask for help if he was stuck. If he refused to work entirely, I cleared his schedule, so he had time to complete it all, and waited, sometimes adding more. This makes me sound like a terrible person, but I am honestly less concerned with his momentary irritation than a lifetime of flawed expectations.
I want to open up the world to this child who imagines everything. I want to nourish in him the discipline of a scholar, no matter what he should choose to be.
It's mid-November now. Four months we have been working together, and this is what I see. A child who is ridiculously proud of his achievements and frames them in terms of hard work rather than ability or smarts. Someone who is developing the discipline to memorize a poem, to copy a passage, to correct a series of grammar mistakes without frustration as a matter of course. I see a child who expects to work, and who complains that I have canceled school for Thanksgiving because there is something about that work he likes. There is, after all, something satisfying about pressing oneself hard into something worthy and feeling the ache of effort as you learn.
None of this is to say that there are not groans and dirty looks when some new difficult thing is assigned. Sometimes we still go to war. But, at the end of a battle, when my son emerges with a writing journal legible and grammatically correct, and the two of us both say, "Look a capital letter at the start! No reminders," then I know we've done something right.
In my work life, first at a public school and now as a tutor, I have taught for some time the kids who struggle, the ones who do not know, the sideways learners, misfits, misspellers and chatterers during class. I work with the ones who cannot sit in a chair or remember phonograms or tell me plot from plural noun. Wouldn't I just love a world that prized their effort, rather than the ease with with the answer can be summoned to their lips? Wouldn't I just love to see their work displayed as an example for the class, their thinking through to the right answer be rewarded with applause? Wouldn't I love to see them know themselves as something other than dumb? Wouldn't I love to see the discipline of a scholar cultivated in them, too?
I think we put too much stock in ability and it hurts all of us—the bright, the challenged and everyone in between. We speak too much of what we can do, as if it is the sum of all we have done before, rather than remembering that new neural connections can always be forged. We are playdough, rather than stone. We say "I can't" when we mean "I won't" and "I don't want to" when we mean "I'm scared." We are afraid to fail, so we mumble answers quietly under our breath, rather than glorying in the courage it takes to raise our hand when unsure of our success. We give our kids the impression that those without the right answer should shut up and let a few students, leaders, and bullies have the floor. Personally, I am one of the worst in this regard.
Being a homeschooling parent is teaching me better. It is teaching me to try, even when I am wrong, to thumb my nose at no subject area, to try and find the answer, and to demonstrate an ability to work without complaint. We're being watched. All of us. I hope we make a good lesson of ourselves.
Team Ambiguity: What do you think? I'd like me your honest reflections. Let's have a real coffee klatch in the comment section and find out what we all think and have experienced with this. (Don't forget to subscribe to comments if you want to play.)