How To Not Suck At Life

Image result for leo here's to you
“Muffy, our ship has most definitely come in!” Image via

The highly regarded Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith tells a tale of a student trip he made early in his career, when he taught at a suburban middle school he referred to as “Camelot”:

Our school was having a fund-raiser, and every teacher was supposed to contribute something for a silent auction. One teacher contributed tennis lessons; another was taking four kids to the movies. Since I loved Shakespeare, I planned a trip to the Old Globe Theater in San Diego for a group of about twenty-five students. The plan was for some parents, teachers, and me to drive the kids down for a weekend and two plays. The parents would pay for the trip and add about $25 extra. In this way the trip made a profit for the school while the kids had a good time and learned something.

And they did indeed. The trip ran like clockwork. We stayed at a beautiful hotel with a Hawaiian atmosphere. The kids swam in an Olympic-size pool in the afternoons and returned to their lovely and spacious rooms to change before dinner. We saw two terrific plays: Rashomon and a particularly hilarious Merry Wives of Windsor. A splendid time was had by all.

It was Sunday afternoon and we were heading to the cars for our return to Los Angeles. Walking next to a perky little girl named Jenny, I said to her, “Wasn’t this a fun weekend?”

“It sure was, Rafe.”

“Gorgeous hotel,” I remarked.

“It was okay,” Jenny answered vaguely. “It wasn’t as nice as the ones I stay at in Hawaii and New York, but it was okay.”

Esquith, a former National Teacher of the Year,  of course became famous for the program he developed while teaching at Hobart Elementary in South Central LA.

So the following year I found myself in the Jungle, a school twenty minutes away from Camelot, though it might as well have been twenty light-years. The school was so crowded that students played handball at recess against classroom doors. Over two thousand children attended the school, and all were fed breakfast and lunch there every day. Practically no student tested at grade level. No one spoke English as a first language at home. The test scores were so low that I doubt cheating would have helped much.

Trying to replicate what little success I had had at my first school, I planned a weekend trip to the Shakespeare Festival in San Diego. During the orientation meeting for parents and children, there were only a few questions. Parents wanted to know if their children would need passports. Were the children going to be in danger from the INS for leaving Los Angeles? The children wanted to know if there were bathrooms and beds at the hotel. Would there be a telephone to enable them to call home? No one mentioned Hawaii.

I’ve made the opposite journey this year, moving from an urban school just outside Chicago to a suburban Four-Star school that currently has three alumni playing big-league professional sports and regularly sends students to the Ivies and America’s top universities. I’m navigating a new world. In every sense of the term.

Any time you change jobs, there is a period of adjustment. Both logistically, and in terms of the culture of the building. My biggest adjustment: A different set of expectations, a different set of givens. I would have given my left arm for my best-behaved class at my old school to act as well as my “rowdiest” (relative term) group in the Vale of Paradise. In years gone by, I had to convince my top students (again, relative term – I taught almost exclusively students who were multiple-time repeaters of their freshman algebra course) that if they got themselves together academically and in terms of behavior, they could apply to and attend college at the local regional campus of one of our highly-regarded state universities.

High expectations are awesome. Important, really. For us as teachers, and for a lot of my new students, post-secondary education is a given.

But, that makes us awful quick to judge.

A package arrived in the mail today:

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Timely read.

It’s a memoir written by retired Marine and Yale Law School graduate JD Vance. From the introduction:


Those are my guys, by the way. All throughout my teaching career. The really fortunate ones had people in their lives who could show them the way. That way is not clearly marked though, and it’s filled with conflicting messages.

Vance, in a TED Talk, relates the tension between “you can do anything you want” and “life’s not fair”.

The telling line, from some of his people “back home”: Did you have to pretend to be a liberal to get past admissions? That’s the moment he learned about the concept of social capital.

So the other day I’m having a conversation with a person who knows kids who are “on the right track”: taking AP courses, wading through Calculus and APUSH and Environmental Science. This person is telling the story of a terrifically unmotivated kid, a guy smart enough to have his pick of colleges but… just not doing the work. My conversation partner was trying to light a fire under this kid, saying “You better start doing the work. Keep up what you’re doing and you’re gonna suck at life and go to <regional campus of famous state university>.”

South Park eric cartman sad kid nervous

I get it. When your classmates are going Ivy League or MIT or Purdue, that gritty mid-century campus in a Rust Belt city might as well be Ivy Tech. But still. “Suck at life?” I get that’s it’s an expression, but: That’s harsh.  Like, Elitist Jerk-level harsh. I could almost hear the words “those people” slip into the conversation, dripping with derision. My wife graduated IUN. One of my favorite reporters (one who doesn’t feel the need to inject personal political/ideological leanings into her news stories) went there too.

Not. Cool.

But after the initial sting subsided…

When I taught in the HMD, we tempted our kids with the promise of a free college education. The city uses a portion of its casino revenue to fund the College Bound program – kids whose parents own a home in the city and who maintain a 3.0 GPA are eligible for nearly $45,000 in tuition at any state school. The tuition amount is pegged to the cost of the Purdue regional campus in Hammond, which is the destination for the overwhelming majority of scholarship recipients.

I sat and thought for a minute about my new school, and sucking at life, and going to IUN, and recalled: It’s different here. “You can do better” is practically the school motto. I mean, we always want our kids to push themselves, no matter where we’re teaching. But here, it’s like it’s in the oxygen. Isn’t that what Vance was talking about?

What my conversational partner was doing was mentoring with hard words. That kid might have thought he could get by on his good looks and smarts. This person was trying to get them to realize that in The Show, everyone can hit a fastball. He needed to do more, or he’d end up wondering why everybody else got these great opportunities, and how unfair it all was. You don’t have to be an Appalachian hillbilly to feel that the world passed you by.

That’s the common thread in both places – not understanding the level of effort that’s required to break out of the neighborhood. I’ve told students at both schools my story.  No regrets. At all. But I still shake my head about what kind of kid gets into Michigan.

It’s one of the million teaching-related things I’m so conflicted about. Yes, kids, you need to have a pencil and paper with you in class every day. Yes, here’s some paper and a pencil because you forgot yours. No, I’m not gonna be a jerk and make you sit there and stare at the walls (or worse, and more likely, disrupt my class) because you forgot your pencil. Look, my dad worked in a steel mill for 40 years. As a little guy, that’s what I saw. You pick up your hard hat and your lunch bucket and you go to work. Every. Damn. Day.

But what if I didn’t see it? Who was gonna teach me?

That’s my job now. To teach them what they don’t know. To know when to lead with “you can do it” and when to say “life’s not fair”. And SIUP.

A perfect job for me: Mr. Optimistic Pessimist. Who occasionally sucks at life.

Image result for optimistic pessimist
Via xkcd.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s