As I was packing up my desk on the last day before winter break a former student knocked on my classroom door.
For the next few minutes, M and I did the former teacher/student small talk thing. After we covered such topics as about the weirdness of walking down the old high school halls, college campus food and absurdity of dorm life M gathered a serious expression on his face and said, “Hey Mr. A., I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Well, see… I really didn’t do well this semester. I got three Bs and two Cs. My parents are pretty pissed. But I got all As in high school. Honor Roll, you know. But now I’m lost. I don’t know how to manage my time. I don’t know how to study.”
M looked down at his shoes then back to me. His eyes had grown deep and serious.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll drop out.”
I leaned back in my chair, crossed my arms and kept quiet.
“Mr. A, you’re a teacher right?…”
“On the good days.”
M smiled then looked around the empty classroom.
“So what’s the point of school? Because I always thought it was to get good grades. Follow directions. Get a diploma. A means to an end, you know. That’s what my dad always says. But after twelve and a half years of schooling I’m really confused. I mean really, what’s the point of school?”
Though I was flattered that M entrusted me with such an important question, I was overwhelmed by both the magnitude of the question and how incredibly heartbreaking it is for a student to endure 12 years of schooling and have no reason why they are enduring.
“What’s the point of school?”
M and I held a conversation for almost an hour.
See, M was a “good student”. He was respectful, compliant, met deadlines and studied all his notes. And the system rewarded him for with a diploma for his obedience.
Unfortunately, the system never challenged him how to think on his own, to problem solve beyond rudimentary worksheets or to provide himself the audacity to question.
M was lead to believe that a grade of an A meant perfection. It meant there was nothing else to learn.
M admitted he was scared to death to be wrong, to make a mistake. For years he equated his self-worth with his grades. He believed success in school meant success in life.
M never learned how to fail. He never learned that failure is the first step in learning.
Sure, he was familiar with the old adage, “Nobody’s perfect.” But M, like us, had just enough ego (like we all do) to believe that he was exonerated from such advice.
The system failed to teach M self-reliance and resilience and problem solving. It taught him how to manipulate and work the system.
The system failed to teach M that the questions asked are always more important then answers learned.
“Well, Mr. A I’ve to get going.”
M and I shook hands and parted ways. As I watched him pass through the threshold, into the hallway and into his young life I felt a sprout of reassurance that M was going to be ok.
Not because of our conversation. Not because I offered him some advice. No, I believe M is going to be ok because he finally has the courage to question.