E., a favorite student of mine, is heartbreakingly intelligent and perceptive, actually one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known. I gave a pre-AP field test a few weeks ago and E. scored higher, by a large margin, than any other 9th grader in our district. He has fascinating thoughts about the role of fate in everything from Oedipus Rex to his own life. He reads his sister’s college textbooks and likes to discuss Freakonomics and independent film.
And yet he has a lower GPA than almost any other student in the ninth grade. He failed 7th grade because he couldn’t be bothered to do work he wasn’t interested in. He failed health because he thought the fake baby made out of a flour bag simulation was beneath him and refused to do it. He’s earned more detentions than any student save one in the whole high school.
I like E. so much personally and have such sympathy for his frustration with the busy work and daily grind of high school. My most prominent memories of high school, at least the actual school part, are of a grinding boredom, of shuffling from one classroom to another and being profoundly uninterested in a lot of what was happening in class. I realize that for E., reading his geography textbook and answering the chapter assessment questions (a lame but potentially useful activity for some of his peers) is mind-numbingly boring for a kid who spends his free time doing independent research on a variety of topics. So he doesn’t do it. Making vocabulary flashcards and writing vocabulary sentences every week for my class is a useless activity for a kid who already has a larger working vocabulary than most college students. So he doesn’t do it.
E. and I made a deal earlier in the year that he isn’t required to do most homework assignments in my class because he doesn’t need the additional practice most of the time and he’s doing so much serious reading on his own. He has a variation on this deal with most of his teachers (including the health teacher, who told his mother during a parent-teacher conference that most of the homework she assigns is just “busy work, since we have to turn in grades” – but that’s a whole other issue).
And he’s still failing several classes.
I also teach E.’s cousin, C. C. is also very bright, though not in quite the same off-the-charts innate intelligence way. But she’s the classic kind of “teacher-pleaser” gifted student. She’s smart, she’s hardworking, she’s pleasant. She raises her hand and has the right answer. She gets along well with her classmates. Even if she thinks an assignment is silly, she does it. Even if she thinks a rule is arbitrary, she follows it. I doubt she’s ever gotten less than an A in her life. She reminds me quite a bit of myself at that age (although I was far more self-conscious and uncomfortable with my nerdiness than she is).
Sometimes I wish she’d take a cue from her cousin.
I admire E.’s independent mind, his determination to do only what he thinks is worthwhile. I respect his love of learning for the sake of learning and the breadth and depth of subjects he’s interested in. I want to tell C. that getting the A doesn’t actually mean you’ve learned anything.
But lately, I’ve been thinking that I’ve really been shortchanging E. by having such respect for his lackadaisical work ethic and failure to comply with the bell schedule, uniform, and homework policies.
So much of life – and this was a very difficult realization after I graduated from college, and one I still struggle with sometimes – is just getting up and going to work. You get up and go to work because that’s what people do. You organize papers in file folders and sharpen pencils because the papers have to go somewhere and the pencils won’t sharpen themselves. Your boss asks you to fill out paperwork that you think is silly and you do it because that’s your job. And you do it on time, because that’s your job, too.
All those As I earned in college, my scores on the SAT and the GRE, all the things I cherished (and still do, to be entirely honest) as proof of what a smartypants I was – they have very little to do with success outside of school. But the other lessons of school – coming to class on time, turning in work, raising your hand when you have something to say – have everything to do with success outside of school.
As bright as E. is, I worry that as an adult he’ll continue to struggle with getting himself to work on time and completing a project once he’s started it. I worry that he won’t get into the kind of college his brilliance merits. I worry he’ll lose the opportunity to study with the kind of intensity I know he craves.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that between now and 2010 he learns a lot more about all the things that interest him – and a little more about just getting the work done.