Expected

Dear Terrence,

In your two classes, there are fifty-six students. I expected to get somewhere around twenty projects turned in. I got thirteen.

I wouldn’t think I’d need to talk to you guys about the importance of doing work in a timely manner, but obviously I do. Again.

Depressed again,
Your Teacher

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Working

Dear Terrence,

You once said as a complaint that you’d probably never do anything more than manual labor. First of all, if you’re complaining about that it means you really don’t want to spend your life doing manual labor for your money. If that’s the case, perhaps a little more focus in class would help open more doors of opportunity.

Labor-Pearce-Highsmith-detail-1More importantly, though, I’d like to point out that there is nothing wrong with manual labor. It has a great many advantages over mental labor. Your post-work exhaustion is real, deep, and runs throughout your body. My exhaustion when I’m done teaching some days is purely mental — usually from dealing with some of your and your peers’ in-class decisions. It’s often an exhaustion born out of frustration, in other words.

Another advantage is that once done, physical labor usually produces some sort of tangible product. You can hold it, sit in it, take shelter under it — it’s not just a theoretical assistance like my job often provides. Many people view teaching as planting seeds, and we never see the fruits. With manual labor, it’s different.

Finally, there’s a great need for it. We need plumbers and carpenters, mechanics and janitors. They’re noble professions, each and every one of them. So it’s nothing to be upset about. Be pleased that you have skills in that direction.

Somewhat envious of how you’ll fall into bed every night so exhausted that you’ll just drift right off to sleep,
Your Teacher

Things

Dear Terrence,

leica-m-monochrom-typ-246-black-chrome-finish-typ-baseline_teaser-307x205I try not to be too terribly materialistic. There are a few objects in life I want, and I already have most of them. Sure, I’d like a classic, well-worn guitar, but mine is fine. Certainly I wouldn’t turn down a gift like a Leica M Monochrom (or even a Fuji X-Pro2) and a bag of lenses to go with it, but my X100, bought used, does the same basic thing. Yes, I would love to have a Pinarello Dogma F8, but I never will, and even if I had one, I wouldn’t use it for my most common form of cycling, namely commuting. In the end, I know they’re just objects, and well beyond my means and needs.

Fortunately, your obsession is with something significantly cheaper, but I still worry. Your whole being seems wrapped up in shoes. Every chance you get, you’re looking at this or that style of Nike Jordans online. (Sorry, I know nothing about them beyond that. I know you talk about this type and that type, but it’s all unknown to me — much like my tossing around Leica M Monochrom and Pinarello Dogma. Same principle.) Still, on more than one occasion, I’ve heard you say that you’d get every single type of Jordan available as soon as you get the money. I’ve seen you criticize others because of the “ratty” shoes they’re wearing. I’ve seen the way you brag about the shoes you own.

First of all, I can’t unravel your obsession with shoes. Even when I was a teenage boy, I gave very little thought to the shoes I wore. They served a function, nothing more. This pair of shoes is for skateboarding; that pair of shoes is for church; this pair, school. A pair of sandals added to the mix and that was the extent of my shoe wardrobe.

More importantly, though, I worry that you’re deriving an unhealthy amount of self-esteem and self-worth from the bits of leather, rubber, and synthetic materials strapped onto your feet. Shoes don’t make you a man. Your actions do.

Sincerely and relatively shoe-poor,
Your Teacher

Palms

Dear Terrence,

Yesterday was Palm Sunday. As our family has Polish roots, we follow Polish traditions, and one of those traditions is the making of elaborate palm branches for Palm Sunday. I guess it started by simply adding some kind of decorations to a palm frond. It’s something altogether more elaborate now, involving multitudes of flowers and decorations. They look something like this.

2016-03-20_1458467202 That’s what they’re supposed to look like. Ours didn’t quite look like that because of a lack of materials and a lack of experience. Allow me to explain.

My wife is the Polish connection in the family. Born and raised in Poland, she has these traditions in her very blood, and she’s always made our palm. When the Polish families gather for Palm Sunday, she often won the contest for best palm. This year, she decided she didn’t want to do it. “I have too much to do,” she explained simply enough. Our daughter, Maria, was going to make a palm but then decided against it. Since I’m always looking for time to spend with our kids doing genuine constructive things, I suggested that we make the palm.

VIV_0462-2We used materials we had in the yard and did the best we could. It was, though, very plain. “Ale ladna korona!” my wife exclaimed, but we knew it wasn’t really beautiful but rather plain.

We entered it in the competition, but compared to the other, larger, more elaborate palms, it looked a little out of place. We knew it would look like we had created it blindly, in fact.

We knew that we weren’t going to win. We knew that we would stand a chance. And we knew this from the moment we set out creating our palm. But that wasn’t really the point. The point was spending time together, solving a problem together, laughing together — just being together. So it was a failure, but a roaring success.

How does this connect to you? You don’t like embarking on something unless you feel certain it’s going to be an unqualified success. That’s why you’re eager to play basketball, joke in the hallway, and flirt with girls but not so eager to do work in my class. Your reading level is very far below expectations, and you struggle with just about everything you’ve ever tried in class. But sometimes, success is bigger than doing well at something. Often that’s the case.

I hope our time together this year has taught you that, at least to some degree.

Regards,
Your Teacher

Our Addiction

Dear Terrence,

Coming out of confession yesterday morning, I had a thought. The main thing I had to confess was the simple act of living in a state of doubt. You see, when I converted to Catholicism a few years ago, I was converting from atheism, a belief I’d held for fifteen or more years and had shaped how I viewed everything: myself, the people around me, history, all of it. Much of my atheism was intellectual (Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian was by Bible, so to speak — irony intended), but one side effect of my atheism which was quite pleasant to me was a sense of superiority. I wasn’t among the deluded masses, foolishly putting my faith in a sky god. I was man enough to face the simple fact that when I died, that was it: the end. Finished. It was intellectual machismo, I guess you could say. And yet, sometimes I’ve wondered, after my conversion, if I wasn’t simply deluding myself. I had very good reasons for converting, I thought, but what if I were wrong? What if all this kneeling and genuflecting and bowing and crossing myself at Mass every week were just empty gestures? And so I lived my life for a little while like it all was just empty gestures.

I told the priest all these things, and he said, “That voice that says you’re deluding yourself is not your voice.” For my penance, I was to open myself up to God in prayer, “lay it all on the line,” he said, and then listen. So I did. And after some moments, a thought came to me: that atheism is just like any other addiction.

Addictions offer false promises. Addiction to substances comes from accepting the lie that that euphoria one feels after sniffing or drinking or smoking or injecting is something real, something powerful, something meaningful. That it’s somehow more meaningful, more important, than just about anything else.  I understand that with many addictions, there’s a physiological element as well, but there’s also an emotional and psychological element, and that’s probably what gets them to try it to begin with.

I came to see my cyclical turns to atheism, my tendency to return again and again to those thoughts that it’s all bunk and that anyone who believes it is just deluding themselves, is an addiction in than it offers some kind of false security, some false sense of superiority.

What does this have to do with you? I wonder if you know what your addiction is. I’m not suggesting that I know what it is, as if I’m somehow trying to lead you to realize something I’ve already realized. I’m just wondering if you’ve given it any thought. Most haven’t. It’s a tough line of questioning to ask of yourself — it takes tenacity — but it can yield some helpful results, so why not give it a shot?

In recovery,
Your Teacher

Turn Around

Dear Terrence,

What a turnaround you’ve had these last two weeks. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it. (That’s not quite true: I would have believed it because I’ve seen it happen before, but not often. Not often enough, for certain: such kids are certainly outliers.) For the year to date, your Class Dojo positive behavior percentage has been right around 45%, which means you’re a negative influence on the class the majority of the time.

I’m not quite sure you realize the extent of your behavior. You couldn’t go more than a minute or two without talking to someone — and that’s not hyperbole but probably an understatement if anything. You turned in absolutely nothing for most of the year. When I ran a missing assignment report for the year to date a few weeks ago, you were missing 45 assignments, to go along with your 45% percent, I guess. At that point, I couldn’t have possibly given you more than 50 or 55 assignments, so that means you hadn’t turned in 85-90% of your work. Your grade was abysmal as well.

Then two or three weeks ago, something happened. What exactly, I really don’t know. Perhaps your mentor finally said something that really made an impact. Perhaps our counselor, who’s been pushing you all year, finally said something that made an impact. I’m afraid it wasn’t I who said something that made an impact because, I’m a little ashamed to admit, I had all but given up on you. You have to understand: I have 120 students. I can’t expend all my energy on one at-risk kid, and there comes a time when I have to say to myself, “I can keep going after this kid, which hasn’t worked for three-quarters of the year, or I can take that energy and apply it to that kid, who really has shown some growth.” Finite resources and all. So it wasn’t I, I’m afraid, but someone said or did something, and you’ve been a different person since then.

Last week, you turned in your article of the week and worked as hard as I’d ever seen you work. Sure, you didn’t turn in one assignment, but you did turn in two. That’s a vast improvement right there. Then there was that surprising Dojo percentage: 79%. I was shocked. You probably were, too.

Last weekend, I was wondering: “Will Terrence make it two weeks in a row or will things go back to normal?” Tuesday you approached me and said, “Mr. S, I left my article of the week at home, so I won’t be able to work on it as my bell ringer.” Wednesday, when you walked in the building and passed where I had hall duty, you waved your article at me: “Got it today!” You did your work; you set a good example. And that Dojo percentage? 90%. I like to frame things in reference to things you guys get, so I made the obvious parallel to basketball: “Think of that, Terrence: if you’re shooting 90% from the field and I’m your coach, I’m going to make sure you get paid whatever you have to get paid to stay on our team, and I’m going to tell the rest of the players, ‘Just carve out a little space for him and give him the ball. He’ll do the rest.'” That smile was unforgettable: “I know, right!?”

The truth is, Terrence, it’s not just in basketball that that 90% will get you whatever you dream of. Just about anywhere will work.

This week, it was an honor to have you in class. I can’t say I’ve always felt that way, though. Here’s hoping we both keep bring our A-game for the rest of the school year.

Impressed and still smiling,
Your Teacher

Optional

Dear Terrence,

When did a response to “Good morning” become optional? When did manners become a matter of personal preference?

For you, considering all that has passed between us, my behavior likely seems two-faced. You think, “Here he is trying to be all nice to me, and when I get to class, he’s going to be on my back about everything.” That’s not an accurate interpretation of my behavior, though. You see, I won’t deny a simple fact: despite the fact that your behavior often is the most irritating aspect of my entire day, despite the fact that your behavior disrupts the whole class, despite the fact that your behavior often descends into outright disrespect (never mind the fact that disruptive behavior is itself disrespectful) regardless of how politely I redirect you, and despite the fact that some of your behavior seems downright spiteful, I try to approach each day as if it were the first day you and I ever encountered each other. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt each and every day. In short, I try to start fresh daily.

It seems only fair. You are, after all, only a kid. Your personality and behaviors have not completely congealed, and there’s always hope that you will mature during the school year and come out the other side a different kid. It does happen. And so I want to foster that possibility, however remote, in your behavior by starting anew every morning, and the simplest way I can do that is simply saying as cheerfully as I can muster without sounding false, “Good morning.”

Ironically, this type of behavior extends even into the adult world. There have been plenty of times, in both my teaching career and in other jobs I’ve held, that I’ve come to work with a sore spot for some colleague or other. It’s hard to leave it all behind, and sometimes that sore spot gets irritated just by seeing that person, and the last thing in the world I want to do is to be cheerful and polite. But that’s part of the game. It’s not being false or two-faced to hide those true feelings; it’s called being professional. It’s called being an adult, realizing that these little rituals like “Good morning” are just that, rituals that really mean nothing more than “I acknowledge your existence this morning.” True, it is a shortened form of an older greeting, “I wish you a good morning.” But even my worst enemies I wish a good morning: if things are going well for them, they’re not likely to take anything out on me.

So let’s try this again. I’ll say “Good morning, Terrence,” and you say, “Good morning, Mr. Scott.” And we both know we’ve started our day off with each other on a positive note.

First practice is tomorrow morning.

Kindest regards,
Your Teacher