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A Different Kind of Puzzle

with 5 comments

Yesterday, I had one of those days that explains a lot about why I do what I do in my spare time.

This term I have had, in one of my courses, a student we’ll call X.  X is very bright, but she’s also very belligerent.  If you’ve never worked with the kind of student I usually work with, you have no idea of the level of anger that can just sort of free float through a classroom.  Those of my students with the worst of “socioeconomic backgrounds” have two modes:  passive beyond belief and angry on an second by second basis.

X is one of the angry ones–or has been, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next–and up until yesterday I had basically ticked her off in the back of my head as one of the ones who was not going to last this term.  For one thing, X has yet to hand in a single thing all term. 

And I do mean a single thing.  She hasn’t only missed all the homework and every one of the papers, she’s even failed to hand in work we’ve done in class.  She’s there.   She never misses.  She’s doing something in the seat she’s in.  She just never hands anything in.

At the eginning of class yesterday, we had one of our standard snippy cat fights, with X declaring that she didn’t understand how we could expect her to do anything because she hadn’t learned anything and it was up to me to tell her.  And, of course, I had told her, but when I did tell her she’d go, “well, okay, but how am I supposed to do that?” 

Yesterday, the issue was introductory paragraphs, which X declared she couldn’t do and didn’t understand how to do.  I gave the usual little speech, you can open like this, you can open like that, and X just got more and more mulish.

And then, I don’t know why, I just sort of exploded.  “Look,” I said.  “if you really can’t do this at all, do a railroad paper.  It’s what we were told to do in grad school when we were stuck.  State your thesis in the first sentence.  Then use each sentence after that to state the topics of your body paragraphs to come. It’s clunky.  It’s not elegant.  But it’s never wrong.”

X got the most peculiar look on her face and then she said, “No.  I get that.  It can’t be wrong.”

Then she just sort of retreated, and we went back to discussing the best way to do outlines.  X seemed to be working hard at her seat.  But she always seems to be working hard, and she never hands anything in.

At the end of class, X walked up to me, handed me a paper, and asked me what I thought of it.  Instead of writing the outline she was supposed to be writing all through the class, she’d written the intro paragraph for the short essay we were supposed to be working on. 

And it was, really, a perfectly decent piece of work.  Which I told her.  She then took back the paragraph, stuffed it into her folder and went chortling out of the classroom saying, “I really can get this stuff.  I knew I could.  I really can get this.”

I’d never actually heard anybody do anything I would call chortling beore, but she was doing it.

I have no idea how this is going to work out in the long run.  I do know that that was the first time she was ever willing to show me any of the work she had done.  I also know that what seems to ahve broken her resistance was the idea that there was a method out there that she could use and never be wrong.

So I’ve got my fingers crossed.

But I’ll repeat something I’ve said earlier.

The single common denominator among all my kids from inner city high schools is this:  they’ve all come through a system that seems to have been designed to teach them that they are completely stupid and worthless, so deeply and fundamentally so that they shouldn’t bother even trying to be any different. 

I’m going to go listen to some Domenico Scarlatti.  I need harpsichords.

Written by janeh

October 21st, 2009 at 6:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'A Different Kind of Puzzle'

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  1. I doubt if you can have anything so pervasive that’s just due to the ‘system’. Chances are that parents, older siblings and neighbours (or at least some of the above) have been chiming in with ‘You think you’re somebody, huh? Who do you think you are?’ and choruses of mockery at every childish attempt to ape the adults.

    And still, some kids get through it. Some either don’t buy into the put-downs or do for a while and then learn to see through them. What I think never works for change is the conviction some people have that it’s all one-way, that the only cause is the system, my parents, my friends, my relatives/parents’ friends. If they really believe that, it means they didn’t and don’t have any ability to choose an opinion of themselves other than that drummed into their heads.

    It’s scary to put your work out for correction, especially if the work is important to you. It sounds like you reached this person. Congratulations.


    21 Oct 09 at 8:17 am

  2. Wow, Jane – that must have been really gratifying, to see her come to understand the concept.

    Cheryl – I do know what you mean. Some people resist what they’re told all their lives and others don’t. I’m doing a Master’s in my spare time and there was a young woman in my class last spring who is from rural Louisiana. She’s very bright and does well- she wears flashier stuff than I do, but I thought she was just another middle-class person whose preferences differ from mine, which is, let’s face it, okay.

    Then one day my friend found her in a chair in the building lobby, sitting there quietly crying. Jo stopped to talk to her and discovered that in the culture she was raised in – poor, rural, black, Southern – doing well in school or standing out at all is considered bad. The only thing her family ever praised her for was for LOOKING good. But somehow she learned to love school, and she graduated high school, got into college, graduated college, got a job and now she’s working a professional job and going to grad school on weekends. All very admirable, right?

    But she’d just been talking to her mom on the phone or something and it was brought home to her that she no longer fits in her family’s culture any more – really has almost nothing she can talk to them about. It’s tough. It will be tough on Jane’s students too, if they succeed. But my God, this young woman is tough, and smart. And she’s going to do well.

    Have I already told this story here?


    21 Oct 09 at 9:57 am

  3. Yeah, I’ve seen that sort of thing. My own family strongly encouraged education – so did my mother’s family, although, unlike my father’s, most of the people before my mother’s generation didn’t have a lot of formal education. So I was one generation off the ‘first from family to finish HS/university’ thing. But I knew a lot of people in school and in university who were. Sometimes, they had a lot of encouragement at home; sometimes, not so much. I even knew someone slightly in my university classes who went against family pressure to drop out of high school and get a job to bring some money into the house until she married. She eventually became not only a doctor, but a specialist. I remember the students, who, with the authority of Psych 101 under their belts, went home and lectured their granddads on the vagaries of human nature. And the parents who didn’t have the faintest idea what their daughter was studying, exactly, but it was something about science, and they were proud as punch that she was doing so well. And, of course the ones who put down anyone who was different.


    21 Oct 09 at 12:06 pm

  4. My parents–who never got beyond high school–were very insistent that I go to college. However, when my father remarried after my mother passed away, my stepfamily–who are all white and middle class to some extent– have entirely different standards for what constituted education. Two members of that extremely large family made it through college. I recall my stepmother commenting on a college education: “it don’t do no good.” Don’t get me wrong–they are all extremely nice and generous people but the majority have chosen blue collar jobs rather than professional ones. It is true, I think, that a college education is not necessary for someone just to earn a living. And that’s the way my stepfamily seem to equate it. X amount of instruction or experience = y amount of dollars. Some colleges and universities, so I understand, work toward this goal: education should result in more money not knowledge, now, much more than when I was an undergrad in the early ’70s. I can’t say I’ve observed first hand that this same mindset is present among my daughter’s black friends or, even necessarily, among the young black men and women I worked with in a large urban library. Maybe they didn’t attend inner city schools. I congratulate you on reaching this young woman.


    21 Oct 09 at 12:42 pm

  5. Congratulations! This may be one of those “education” vs “training” things, by the way. In a Service training environment, the “railroad paper” is just the sort of thing you want to teach–the simple technique, which, applied consistently, will never lead you astray. When you’re dealing with jet engines and live ammunition, you give up a lot of elegance in favor of never being wrong.


    21 Oct 09 at 3:54 pm

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