Back in the fall, when my then-mid-morning Latin I class was struggling with self-management and impulse control, I checked everyone’s schedules to see where they’d all started their day, before they came to us. And then I understood … and sympathized. Without exception, the “problem” students came from Ms. X or Mr. Y … or from classes where, for whatever reason, their personalities and those of their teachers clashed.
On Wednesday, I looked again at the list for the mid-morning Latin II class. It wasn’t exactly a bad day, but D, K, and T were clearly angry – not at me, but at School In General, or maybe Adults In General or Life In General. They wanted to push boundaries, to test limits, to be reassured that the limits were still there. But since they’ve never learned to articulate that desire, it expressed itself as appalling, heedless rudeness – the kind that would confirm the worst imaginings of Any Given Adult about Those Awful Kids These Days. Rude comments, hitting each other, grabbing stuff, complaining, arguing … what Ms. X and Mr. Y dismissively call “backtalk,” all intended to push Ms. X’s and Mr. Y’s buttons as hard as possible. To externalize the anger so someone else will deal with it for them.
Should I be flattered that D, T, and K trust me enough that much? Or annoyed that they insist on “wasting” so much time, on distracting others, on making themselves appear so immature and inconsiderate?
At one point, one of them (I think it was K) started whining: “But I don’t want to do the work!” She can drive a motor vehicle, hold a job, crave the trappings of adulthood – but suddenly she sounded like an exhausted, spoiled, probably terrified toddler. Desperate because nobody, not even Mommy or Daddy, seems to care enough to say “(or help her say) No” and mean it, to help her contain herself, to draw lines that make choices and consequences clear. Emily’s blog today talks about how young people are “shielded” from failure … and failures and setbacks, the temporary kind that you learn from, are essential if you’re going to develop character, persistence, and empathy.
Poor K! My brief irritation gone, it only took a few minutes to give her – and the others – the limits they were desperately seeking. Eventually, exhausted and sullen, they stopped struggling; pretty soon, first obnoxiously, then with real energy, they joined in to the Whole-Class Reading of the first page of this story. They didn’t do a great job with the Paired Reading of the rest of that story or the next one, and they certainly didn’t generate the Question Cube and Question Booklet we were aiming for. But they’ll have time for that today, along with some more reading and question-generating, while I’m attending a day-long curriculum-writing meeting … and let’s hope hope they decide to “feel like” finishing their Individual Response Minor Assessment Products before Friday, the due date.
I can’t stop thinking about K’s “don’t feel like” comment! K has told me about her ambitious future plans; she aspires to join a profession where “don’t feel like it” just isn’t possible. D, who constantly plays the “don’t feel like it” card, speaks of following a family tradition of military service; if he does, he’ll have to rise above “don’t feel like it” every day of his life! T, too, aspires to a career where “don’t feel like it” excuses nothing. And yet, in a school that proudly labels itself as “college preparatory,” these sweet, terribly immature, terribly vulnerable young people are utterly unprepared for the self-management they’ll have to display – whether they go to college or not – in just over a year’s time.
What’s up with that?
In her blog yesterday, Emily talked about the fantasy of “preparing for college” without helping young people develop self-management and persistence. And on Google+, Debbie reflected on the helpless hopelessness I’d mentioned Wednesday:
This past weekend I watched the series “The Colony” where the participants had to form a colony, make due with what they had, and survive the aftermath of an apocalyptic event.
With hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, the oil crisis, and the possibility of pandemics, the possibility of having to fend for one’s self without government intervention, without the electric company and digital connections is greater than we would hope.
Isn’t it our responsibility as adults and mentors to ensure that our children have the skills to problem-solve, to think outside the box, to invent, to create, and to live off the land? My goodness, if they can’t even deal with a server problem, what lies ahead for the next generations?
The helplessness and lack of self management, the lack of persistence and impulsiveness – I just realized they’re not a “server problem,” but a “network problem,” not unlike the WiFi issue we discussed yesterday. D, on a half-formed impulse, grabs K’s snack; K, impulsively angry, hits him or yells “Stop it!” Twenty-eight other people, with varying degrees of focus and self-management themselves, stop what they’re trying to do in frustrated irritation, waiting passively, or possibly irritably, for their Community Guardian to intervene. Then U, on an impulse, whispers something to J; J, on an impulse, responds and distracts B; across the room, B, U, and M decide the “can’t” focus because “people are being rude.” Through the network of what could and should be a joyful community runs a sad, bitter thread – a virus, maybe – and nobody knows how to respond to the contagion.
“Have you noticed,” I asked my colleague Mr. P Wednesday afternoon, “that we have more and more students with major impulse-control problems?” Oh yes, he said, he’d noticed that all right! And he’d also noticed how Ms. X and Mr. Y compound the problem, yelling and labeling about their “irresponsible” students while refusing to fulfill their own responsibilities. As Emily put it, describing her school,
So, I sit on the Technology committee and the Curriculum committee at my school. It drives me NUTS when people don’t do what they said they’d do. My co-chair and I have to send constant “reminders.” Everyone is so self-absorbed and so infantile. They need “mommy” to remind them of what they need to do.
To me, one of the biggest “rites of passage” is when you have your first major failure when you are out of school. The mark of your character is how you handle it. Do you blame others and keep doing what you are doing? Do you try to learn from it? Do you try to make another person solve it for you?
To me, that is where the cycle of being an infant either must break or continue with really rough consequences….
I feel for K, D, T, and the others, but I also fear for them. Desperate for rites of passage, for adult privilege, for an appearance of maturity, they behave in ways that no mature adult would ever accept or tolerate. Desperate for limits and boundaries, they act in ways that will bring pain and punishment at best, disasters at worst, from any Powers That Be they encounter. What will it take to help them embrace the implications of the adulthood they all claim to seek? What will it take to help them become builders and guardians of joyful community? And how will we do it in 95 minutes a day, when all the other minutes are about surface compliance and test scores, yelling and labeling, infantilizing and doing the worksheet Ms. X’s way?