Sunday, June 24, 2012

She Wants To Keep Going Back

Don't aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally. ~David Frost

I don't send my child to school in order that she will one day be successful. I don't even necessarily send her to school so that she will be successful today. I certainly enjoy it, as a father does, when she is successful: those times she comes to me and says, "I'm proud of what I did," the only success that's worth a damn. But that isn't why I drove her to school on that very first day or nor why she puts herself on the bus each morning these days. I've changed my mind about a lot of things during my 15 years as a parent -- in fact, I've changed my mind about most things I thought I knew about being a parent before I was one -- but this is a feeling that has only grown.

The idea of schools and their lessons that must be learnt by this day or that, their desks and walls and textbooks and grades and lectures and homework, their perverse insistence upon giving the tests at the back end of lessons instead of, as experience, the greatest teacher of all does it, by giving the test first and the lesson after, this all caused my insides to clench up, although I didn't have the knowledge then to put it into words. All I knew is that I didn't at all like the idea of my child spending the first couple decades of her life jumping through hoops for judges who would then tell her whether or not she ought to be proud. It has always been enough for me that she wants to keep going back.

Education, of course, needn't come from schools and I knew it even then. I thought a lot a decade ago about homeschooling or unschooling or spending a few years as a family sailing around the world, all best laid plans for a theoretical daughter. As I got to know the real person who is our daughter, however, I began to see that she was like her mother in that she genuinely craved the other people, that a small social world wouldn't hold her contentedly for very long, that she would very soon outgrow any and every clique I was able to manufacture for her, that her passion for connecting with them would always grow bigger than every social life I attempted to cobble together. She would want, I perceived, especially as she grew older, a larger universe of people in her life than I was constitutionally capable of sustaining. Schools were where most of the kids could be found and I knew by the time she was ready that school was the right place for her. We chose school over the other educational options for social reasons, because that was what she most loved.

For a decade now, I've arrived at parent-teacher conferences with only one two-part question: Does she treat her classmates well and do they treat her well? Beyond that, I let her teachers tell me what they want to tell me about how they see her strengths and weaknesses, valuable data points for a parent who still must make a few decisions on her behalf and who no longer spends most of his days in her company. But more valuable is the subsequent discussion I get to have with her about those judgments, some of which she agrees with, some she rejects, and others she takes under advisement. I'm always impressed by her ability to analyze her teachers assessments, minimizing both praise and criticism when she feels they are undeserved or off target, talking of steps she has already taken or will take when what she hears strikes her as true. This is her passion, not the grades and tests, but the figuring out of people, learning from them, and building a life that is full of them.

There have been times over the years when we've been tempted to use this passion as a kind of cudgel the way Tiger Mom types do; to ground her, to make her drop her after school Shakespeare group, to take away her guitar, until she can "better focus" on something for which she has no passion at all.  But the few times we've tried this it's been very short-lived because it made us both feel as if we were cutting off her oxygen. Relationships, acting, music, these are the things that she loves: these are the things in which she excels because of that love. These are the reasons she wants to keep going back.

I read a post the other day over on Daily Kos by the diarist slatsg entitled "Education Phrases That Should Be Banished." The whole thing is well worth reading as a concise (if oddly formatted) critique of corporate education reform and their rote-based model for education, but the part that jumped out at me was banishment worthy phrase number 8:

8) All kids can learn, and its companion, All means all . . . These phrases are used to impose a one size fits all curriculum. Learn what? At what rate? Yes, all kids can learn.  But they possess different aptitudes and they learn at different rates.  That kid writes beautifully and is a tremendous musician, but he struggles with math. Tough!  Into Algebra II with him.  And if he still struggles, take him out of band and put him in math remediation class too.  No excuses!  All means all! . . . Perhaps I should try this philosophy as a track coach.  I will take my champion shot putter and force her to become a distance runner.  And if she doesn't run under 13 minutes for the 3200, she won't be able to compete in the throws . . . 

It has always been enough that she wants to keep going back. The teachers who have opened our daughter's eyes to new passions -- to literature, to science, to math, to history, to sports, to language, to politics -- have been the ones who knew to do it through her foremost passions for creating relationships, acting, and music. They are the ones who have succeeded in helping her find new passions or to discover her bedrock passions in new and surprising places.  She came to love volleyball in middle school because her coach understood that being a teammate was far more important than winning, losing, or even athletics themselves.  She came to love the poetry of Robert Browning because her teacher was able to show her the music embedded in his verse.  She came to an appreciation for (I won't quite say love) for Biology when her teacher stepped out the rigidity of subject matter to lay down some straight-forward older sister style truth about teenage life.  She became passionate about politics when her teacher pulled their heads out of text books and got them up in front of the room, on a stage, to actually debate the issues.  And, of course, her music and drama teachers just keep setting up challenges and next steps for her, trusting that her passion will teach her what she needs to learn, building relationships with her, and fully understanding that their primary job is to keep her wanting to come back.

I don't send my child to school in order that one day she'll be successful, because in the most real sense of all, she already is. She has found things she loves, she keeps finding them at school, and her teachers are discovering how to use her passion to open up more and more of the world to her.  That's why she keeps going back.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
                                         ~ T.S. Eliot

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1 comment:

Candace for the Arts said...

Loved your post. Every year when I would get the form that said tell us about your daughter I would write...I give you a child that loves to learn, please return her to me that way. Signed my name and phone number. I would leave all other questions daughter grew up to be a teacher.