Wednesday, March 04, 2015

"Don't Aim For Success"

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 didn't send my child to school in order that she would one day be successful. 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 18 years as a parent -- in fact, I've changed my mind about most things I thought I knew about being a parent before becoming 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 how 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 wanted to keep going back.

Education, of course, needn't come from schools and I knew it even as a new parent. I thought a lot 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 child, 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 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 18 years, I 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, interesting data points for a parent who still had to make a few decisions on her behalf and who no longer spent most of his days in her company. But more valuable were the subsequent discussions we had with her about those judgments, some of which she agreed with, some she rejected, and others she took under advisement. I've always been impressed by her ability to analyze her teachers assessments, minimizing both praise and criticism when she felt they are undeserved or off target, talking of steps she had already taken or would take when what she heard struck 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 were 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 could "better focus" on something for which she had no passion at all. But the few times we tried it were very short-lived because it made us 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.

It has always been enough that she wanted to keep going back. The teachers who helped open 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 kept setting up challenges and next steps for this motivated girl, trusting that her passion would teach her what she needed to learn, building relationships with her, and fully understanding that their primary job was 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 have discovered 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:

Jessica said...

So, it's been a rough day with my 2-year-old. Amidst the worries swirling in my head today were thoughts about school, and how he would do so well in a place like you have, and how we just don't have one around here, so he will have to go through awful public education and his love for learning will be stifled or killed. But this post made me feel just a little less like it would be the worst thing in the entire world... so thank you. And ending with T.S. Eliot! You win! Thanks for writing - I feel a smidge better. :)