Larry Efird: If only a Hallmark card could help
I seldom get handwritten notes from students in this age of technology, but I did receive several notes and cards this past week, primarily because of the Christmas season. They contained the normal messages of “peace and good will,” along with poetic words of appreciation, but one note stood out from all the rest. It was from a 10th-grade boy who crudely penned his own words on a test, not on a gilded card from Hallmark.
To sum his message up, which did not fit under the category of “Merry Christmas,” he took the opportunity to tell me that he didn’t think reading books was necessary and we were wasting our time in class talking about history and other “stuff” that didn’t matter. He went on to say that we should be learning more practical things like how to write a check or how to get a job. Why those two things popped in his mind first, I’ll never know, but the bottom line was that I was missing the point in what I was teaching him, and he felt like he was wasting his time in school.
I must confess that I was somewhat caught off guard by his concerns, but also by his tone. I hadn’t noticed any tension in his demeanor prior to his comments, and I figured something must have triggered his remarks. I made an attempt to address his thoughts after the bell rang, but he didn’t want to say much more about it.
This youthful critique was written by a student who is intelligent, but he doesn’t know it. He obviously didn’t know too much on that particular test either, so his grade wasn’t a surprise, but his frustration was. I had no idea he thought my lesson plans were so irrelevant or lame, but I’m glad he told me his true feelings before the end of the semester.
What is a teacher to do about a kid who thinks education is not just impractical, but stupid? When all else fails, I usually get advice from my students. They can be quite insightful and amazing on such occasions. They don’t have much trouble shooting straight when I ask them to do so. That’s one more reason I love working with teenagers.
I shared his comments, but not his name of course, with an honors class. I wanted to know how they thought I should respond. They started confessing that they, too, had experienced similar feelings about school at times. Most of them do not enjoy reading the classics because they are so wordy and archaic, but they have learned how to “grin and bear it” for a higher purpose.
One young lady, who sits at the back of the room and who chooses all of her words judiciously, raised her hand and offered the following comments. “Well. You can tell him that you appreciate his honesty, and that he is entitled to his own opinion. But you should also tell him that if he wants to make good grades, then he has to do the work. If he doesn’t care about his grades, then he doesn’t have to do the work.”
Another issue at play is that this young man did tell me how stupid he thinks he is. He did not have a definitive answer about why he thought that of himself, but he just doesn’t see the point of reading novels or writing papers at this point in his life.
I remember feeling the same way about trigonometry and chemistry when I was his age. I also remember telling a Hebrew professor in a graduate level class that the translation of a certain phrase made no sense to me, and he knew I was unhappy with his explanation — and his particular course. I had done poorly on an assignment, and I had not slept well the night before — a somewhat lethal combination for objective articulation.
I wish I had a Hallmark card for students who are frustrated with school, with themselves, and with life. Maybe it should simply read, “Life is hard — but you are smart, and you are strong.”
Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.