C, who’s been a member of the Latin Family for three years now, had come to ask for a recommendation letter a few days ago, and on Monday morning, she came by to pick it up. Unless the institution specifically asks for a really, really confidential letter, I normally give my students a copy for their own records. I want them to know what I said, and I also want to make sure – before we send the official document – that they feel the letter accurately represents them. C had a busy day, so she told me she’d read the draft and come back the next day. And when she did, she said something really powerful, something I’ve been thinking about ever since. “Some day,” she said, “I hope I am the person you said I was in that letter.”
But C, I told her, you are that person already. It’s just that, over time, you become that person more truly, more fully, more deeply. We all have silly, immature sides, and we all have sides we’re less proud of. But there’s an inner core, and over time, if we live our lives well, we really do become who we are.
C, who’s a thoughtful person, grasped what I was saying and thanked me. She also told me that she and her best friend T, who would have received a recommendation from me if any of her preferred colleges had needed one, feel they “did a lot of growing up” during their time in the Latin Family. Having noticed that as well, I was glad to confirm and affirm that observation, too.
And for the past few days, I’ve been thinking about becoming who you are. It’s a powerful, paradoxical thing, very much like life itself but very different from the factory-paradigms of personal development. In a factory-world, you’re either a blank slate that “needs to” be sent down the assembly line or a bad, lazy one who “needs to” be taken apart and put back together – or something. Either way, there’s a systematic process that should work the same way for everyone, and the process is done for you – or maybe even to you – rather than with you. It’s a clean, shiny, antiseptic paradigm, attractive in the way that mid-20th-century plastic things are attractive … but of course it has at least one fundamental flaw. People aren’t blank slates, and they aren’t intrinsically bad and lazy, and they aren’t identical, and they can’t be batch-processed successfully.
And that’s why factory-teaching, factory-learning, and even factory-style government all fail and fall apart. Factories are great at making things, but people aren’t things, so factories can’t make them. All we can do, in the end, is work with, not for others, to help them become who they are.
In a factory-world, we would have followed the Perfect Plan for this week exactly, and the Latin I classes would be finishing their first Minor Assessment projects of the new reporting period. But Tuesday and Wednesday were hard days for so many of my students and their families – fear and uncertainty ruled as civil-service employees found out whether they were “essential” or “unessential” during the government shutdown, and government contractors face tremendous financial and personal uncertainty. That slowed us down, so we’ll be starting on the Minor Assessments today, finishing them early next week. Ms. X would have been yelling and labeling about The Lesson Plan and The Pacing Guide – even though Many A Ms. X is equally fearful about a furloughed spouse or other family member. As Debbie put it on Google+ yesterday,
life is so complex; people are so complex; … and yet we want education to be this simple process of “present and learn”.
What horrible people we are if we see someone in pain (or confusion or joy) and we can’t stop to take the time to listen and to support in some way. How terrible of us if we don’t even notice that a person is going through something major in their life or if we don’t CARE that they are going through something or if we put our needs first, especially if we are talking about our children/youth who we are supposed to be mentoring, supporting, inspiring, helping, and nurturing.
It’s important to acknowledge the stress, but it’s also important to find the balance. For a few of us in the upper-level class, stress and drama were mostly self-imposed by Thursday – and that requires a different response. B and U had promised-promised-promised that they’d “work really hard” on Wednesday and Thursday, but the work was undone and their old, familiar avoidance mechanisms were starting to reappear. That called for a gentle, but direct approach – for me to point out what was happening and ask if they’d noticed how their words and actions weren’t congruent. “X and Y aren’t working either!” said B, almost viscerally, which led to another important set of conversations: one with B and U about self-direction, and then the one with X and Y which I had been on the way to have with them right after I spoke with B and U. Within a few moments, everybody was working, and the day ended on a positive, productive note.
B, U, X, Y, and the others are all becoming who they are, too, and it’s not an easy process. Factory-schooling and factory-thinking make it harder, especially in our post-factory world – and that’s sadly ironic, of course, because the factory-promise was new and improved and easy. I guess it’s “easy” in the short term, especially when you bring out the pain-punishment cycle tools and the yelling and labeling, but short-term easy often turns into long-term disaster. As builders and sustainers of joyful learning communities, we need to hold that paradox in creative tension, too, along with all the other life-giving paradoxes we encounter every day in our shared work.
I wonder what else we’ll all encounter today!