What you sow, you tend to reap … but the seed takes time to grow. For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about seeds of honesty and seeds of dishonesty, and about the ways they grow up together in every life. As much as we try, most of us can’t be completely, 100% honest – “Do you think this makes me look fat?”
For many of my students, dishonesty to authority figures seems to be part of the factory-model game they’ve learned to play When I was handing out Individual Response Minor Assessments Tuesday morning, X – whose group deserved an extra day, because K had been absent – said almost viscerally, “I worked with N on that.” She hadn’t, of course; N was on the other side of the room, and he worked by himself.
If you follow Emily’s blog, you’ve read about the astounding pattern of dishonesty she’s experienced from Powers That Be. The dishonesty from students results, in part, from seeds that grow in their lives – seeds sown, quite unintentionally, every time a parent, teacher, administrator, or Power told a teeny tiny lie to make things easier for everybody. In other words, to keep control, or try to.
When I say “No, you look just fine” – when Ms. X says “I think there’s a Board policy” but knows there isn’t – what do we hope to accomplish? Make things easier … for ourselves. Avoid unpleasantness and arguments. Help things run a little more smoothly. In other words, make things go our way … keep control. And we show our students – and ourselves – that it’s OK to lie when control is the goal.
Not that they need the lessons! Lying for control is a pretty universal human tendency.
Not quite every day, but many days, J and E had been asking to “go to the bathroom” or “go to their lockers.” I had a feeling that, just maybe, they might be doing something else. (OK, that’s a lie; I knew they were doing something else! See what I mean??) Sure enough, Ms. X reported they’d been “loitering in the hallway” near her classroom – where, to be fair, their lockers are located. So on Thursday, when someone else asked about going somewhere, I said, “No, not right now” and mentioned the time he said he was going one place, but ended up in several others. “I know you probably don’t think about this,” I added, “but when you do that, you send a message about yourself, and about every member of the Latin Family, and about all students here at MH School. You send a message that you’re not trustworthy, and neither is the Latin Family, and neither is any student here. I know you didn’t intend to send that message … but it was received, just like the messages you send when you leave things on the floor or write on desks.”
To be honest, that’s a paraphrase. I don’t remember my exact words! I think I included the part about the floor and the desks.
But I do remember that J and E suddenly got very, very quiet. When we had a moment – when one of them asked to go somewhere – I said, “No, not today, and I think you know why.” Then came rivers and rivers of justification – some of which were at least partly true. They had gotten permission to go to their lockers on Wednesday, you see, and Ms. X hadn’t asked them for their hall pass – which they had. And they never left the Computer Lab to go over there That Other Time, you see, despite what Ms. X might have said. Besides, Ms. X is mean, and she treats different students differently – don’t you know?
“I’m sorry if that happened,” I said (to paraphrase again), “but do you remember when we talked about first impressions and how hard they are to break? Apparently Ms. X got a bad first impression of you” – perhaps, I thought, when they were loudly loitering in Ms. X’s hallway, which she guards jealously – “and it will take a while for you to send her a different impression.”
Oh, the anguish! “Well, I’m going to go talk with her, because she needs to get a different impression,” said J. E was terrified that she might get in trouble with the Powers That Be – might get punished, might have her parents notified – when she “didn’t do anything wrong.” It’s a long way, you see, from that hallway to their next class, and there isn’t time for them to visit their lockers during the short, short 5-minute class change.
Poor E and J! They did sow dishonest seeds along the way, and they reaped a sad, painful short-term harvest. In the end, the Powers That Be decided that what they really needed was (1) to be properly scared (and not do it again) and (2) to stay away from Ms. X’s classroom. But E and J spent a lot of time fearing for the worst. When I suggested they might drop off their books for That Class with me before school started, retrieving them during our time together, they were first skeptical, then astonished and grateful.
Poor E and J! And poor Ms. X, and the poor faceless, mid-ranked Powers whose lies caused so pain for Emily and her students! All of them – all of us – are caught up in a toxic system that preaches integrity with words, but encourages dishonesty and duplicity in structural ways.
I loved Debbie’s response to yesterday’s post:
When I first started reading your post I envisioned a work environment with adults…they chat, they joke, they take breaks, they refocus, and in the end they get the job done. Isn’t this how most of us work? There are some who want to jump in, do the task and then socialize. There are some who want to socialize and then get to task. We are all different and somehow we make it work. That “somehow” is just another skill that we can teach our students.
And then I read about the giving up and then community falls into place. Perhaps it is the “trying to control it” that prevents it from happening. Perhaps it is when we provide the “somehow” skills and then empower the community members to explore it and prefect it in their own way that things finally fall into place. It is another example of the Fire of Truth, except in this case it isn’t about sharing different perspectives but about BEING different perspectives.
For all our lies about “preparing for the workplace,” factory-schools act nothing like that typical adult work environment. We don’t help students with the “somehow,” and we desperately seek impossibly tight forms of control. Consciously or not, we lie (“This will prepare you for college! It will!!”), and in an age of constant access to information, lies are easily discovered. Why, as a student, should I respect institutions that lie to me, and lie badly? The Board Policy manual is out there on the internet! So are the actual facts, the ones that contradict the textbook, that refute the central point of Mr. Y’s lecture and Ms. X’s “cute little activity.”
How will we let go of the lies – and the need for control that encourages lying – and gather together around the Fire of Truth? How will we make room for Ms. X’s and Powers, who need, but fear, that Fire as much as we do?