‘Your father does not know how to teach. You can have a seat now.’
I mumbled that I was sorry and retired meditating upon my crime.
~Harper Lee from To Kill a Mockingbird
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” ~Marianne Williamson
I teach something called “12th Grade Symposium.” It’s a great elective course that is geared towards preparing kids for life beyond High School. We read and discuss everything from personal finances to common app essays to resumes and interviews. However, for every topic we covered in class, a half more would be introduced. Kids had questions about things I took for granted, that I assumed they knew, or that I never thought of before. At a certain point I had so many questions being shot at me from so many different directions, I had to stop and ask them to write down their top five fears about separating from the school. Here is the actual list of their anxieties:
- Will I get into my desired school…or, what is my desired school?
- Doing well in college/how hard is college…really?
- Where would I be able to use my degree?
- How much will college cost?
- Getting income
- Loans (college & otherwise)
- I don’t know how to pay bills
- What if I wind up poor?
- How do you budget?
- How do I get a real job?
- I don’t want a job, but I want to buy things.
- What if I’m homeless and can’t take a shower?
- AP scores…I’m scared!
- Driver’s license…how?
- What do I do???
- How do I register a car?
- I will disappoint everyone.
- Please help me.
- I’ll miss mommy.
- Where do I live…apartments? How does this work?
- What if I can’t be independent?
- Time management.
- When will I die?
- What if I have no friends?
- My family will miss me/forget me.
- What is life going to be like? What kind of adult will I be? Will I get married and have kids?
There would be some anxieties in leaving High School and possibly home no matter what. No doubt. However, reread the above list, keeping in mind these are actual 17 and 18 year olds who aren’t certain how to secure an income and don’t know if they have what it takes to make a friend. Many students were insistent that I just tell them what to do – which college to apply to, what to major in, where to live, etc.
Here’s my take on this, embodied in something that happened last week. A student came up to my classroom asking to use “real” scissors because the librarian told her she wasn’t allowed to, for safety reasons. There it is. We have decided not to take the training wheels off the Huffy, and then when they graduate from High School we set them on a Kawasaki and roll them out onto the highway. No wonder why they’re nervous! Someone has planned the typical teenager’s life for them since they were little. And they settle into the role of puppet because it’s easy and safe. Nathaniel Brenden in his 1969 The Psychology of Self-Esteem describes self-esteem as a sense of personal efficacy. “Efficacy” means the ability to produce a desired outcome. Students are trained to produce a teacher’s desired outcome. Nobody asks them what their desired outcomes are, and even if they do, there is no real time in the day to work towards those outcomes, because it’s so important to get 45 minutes each of math, science, history, art, gym, English, and foreign language, every single day. They spend every day at school working towards somebody else’s goal, oblivious that they may actually have passions of their own, or that they have the ability to work towards dreams.
We are dealing with a self-esteem problem, but not in the sense of kids failing things and feeling bad for themselves. If anything, there has not been enough failure. Failure is an integral part of learning – you work out to “muscle failure” in order to get stronger, don’t you? For each individual student, there is not enough personal purpose, and then there is not enough opportunity to meet that purpose. So when they cross the stage their senior year, and there is no one standing on the other side telling them what to do or where to go, they feel rudderless, because they don’t have it inside themselves. And if you’re in the middle of the ocean, and your ship has no rudder, how do you feel?
Kids…you need to undo your training. Miss Caroline from To Kill a Mockingbird does not have all the answers, regardless of what she says. Don’t ask permission from her or any other so called “expert” or “professional” to live your own life. You need to find a purpose. Then you need to create opportunity. Everything else you already have.