Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Snow Day Hangover

with 3 comments

It’s the morning after a big storm that went on late into the evening, which means that my walk and my driveway are not yet shoveled out.  This happens sometimes.  After a while, it just gets too dark to do anything sensible, and then it gets dangerous to handle a snowblower. 

The problem, of course, is that the temperatures tend to go down during the night, and that means what started out as wet, easily handled snow turns into ice.  As I write this, it’s about twenty-five after four in the morning, and there’s someplace I’m supposed to be at eight.

Well, before eight.  I’d do better to get there at seven thirty.  It will get light here around seven this morning, which is going to make it all a good trick.  I’m also obliged to show up for classes, no matter how impossible it seems to get out of here, unless the university decides to  postpone opening this morning, which I truly hope it will.

I complain about students a lot, and I have a lot to complain about, but the ones I don’t complain about tend to be almost aggressively over-responsible.  If they’re the kind who come to class and do their work, their the kind to risk their necks driving in dangerous situations to make it in to school.

And I have a damned hard time getting them to call the weather phone first.

This is the obverse of the things I talk about most of the time.  When kids who have been disadvantaged for a long time, or done something really awful and screwed up their lives before now big time, decide to get their acts together, they tend to go all the way to the other extreme. 

They’ll come in sick so that they don’t miss class, deliver papers over the Internet from their hospital beds, bring their suddenly-babysitterless babies with them to final exams, and not sleep for a week to get the research paper done.

And they’re battering rams.  They’ll take the course and fail it, take the course again and fail it again, take the course the third time and finally pass it. 

I don’t know if they learn how to live with failure or if they simply learn how to grit their teeth and survive it.

It does occur to me, though, that the failure issue is one we never address in programs like the one I teach in. 

An awful lot of the kids I teach have never known anything but failure.  Their schools were bad, not only in the sense of badly funded (not enough textbooks, bathrooms with clogged toilets unfixed for weeks on end), but in the sense of being staffed largely by teachers who just didn’t give a damn.

Many of them were passed along year after year without actually learning anything.  Some of them get to me unable to read in any sense, never mind in any meaningful sense. 

Obviously, dropping out and joining a gang, or having a baby at fifteen, is self-destructive behavior, but I think I only know that because I know what the possibilities are.  A lot of my kids don’t know, or they assume that they’re just not good enough to have possibilities. 

I used to think that the ugly phenomenon in some minority schools of kids who don’t study beating up on kids who do for “acting white” was caused by anger at being presented with the possibility that they might actually get somewhere if they worked at it.  A kid from their own neighborhood who succeeds and goes on to college proves to all the ones who don’t that it’s just their own fault that they didn’t.

I’ve been changing my mind on that lately.  I think a lot of the anger is anger at a universe in which they did not get whatever lucky gift their classmate did–I think they see it as a case of some people are born beautiful, and some people are born smart, and they were born neither.

I think it would be difficult to underestimate the crushing sense so many of these kids have, at least by the time they finish high school, that they are utterly worthless and unredeemable. 

Some of these kids, some very few, crash through all this by main force and end up first in my classrooms and then in other classrooms and finally with a degree, although not usually a good one.

It occurs to me, however, that it’s not possible to achieve anything really significant in this world without being able to swallow a lot of failure along the way.  It’s the old thing about Babe Ruth having not only the record for most home runs but the record for most strike outs. 

Getting somewhere means taking the risk of trying something you might fail, and with really hard things the chances are you’ll fail a lot before you succeed.

A lot of my kids have no tolerance for failure.  They’ve never done anything else but fail.  Unlike., say, me, they can’t look behind them and go–oh, yeah, I failed at that other thing and then I tried again and I succeed, I can get through this.

They see failure as an absolute because failure is, for them, an absolute.  They’ve never known anything else.  When they fail, they assume that’s the end of it–because that has always been the end of it.  They’ve got no reason to expect that if they keep on keeping on, as the man said, they’re going to see anything like a light at the end of the tunnel.

I have no idea what to do about this kind of thing.  I have no idea if there is anything that can be done about it.

I just know I’ve got to get in this morning because the three kids who will kill themselves getting there will kill themselves getting there, and I won’t quit work in the middle of the term because I don’t want to put those same kids in the position of losing time and money they can very ill afford.

If it was just up to me, though, I’d cancel everything and pretend like this day didn’t exist.

Because it’s going to be ridiculous trying to get out of my driveway. 

Off to David Hart Bentley and tea for an hour, and on to the Orthodox Churches tomorrow morning.

Written by janeh

February 17th, 2010 at 7:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Snow Day Hangover'

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  1. Now your first paragraph is large and bold. At least that’s easy to read!

    Repeated failure can be very destructive. Lots of people, not just your students try and try again and still fail. Some of them focus their hopes and plans on another target eventually, but they’ll still have people – and that little voice inside their head – telling them that they should have succeeded, and if only they go back and try again, they will. There comes a point where you have to give up or go crazy.

    There are two more points I’d like to make. First of all, in many cases in which you’re talking about people who get through the K-12 system without learning anything, you don’t have failure, exactly. You have failure to learn, sure; but it’s accompanied by the claim that you have learned and can move on to the next grade, or leave school with a diploma (or some kind of certificate that looks like a diploma). We all have to learn to interpret adult statements which reflect what should be more than what is, but this particular variant must drive people crazier faster than simply failing repeatedly.

    And secondly, where are all the other options between becoming a single mother on welfare at 15 and getting a university education? Getting a good solid training in some kind of valuable technical skill might not educate the student in human nature or history or even how their own country runs, but it can give someone a valued and valuable place in society.


    17 Feb 10 at 1:53 pm

  2. “I don’t know if they learn how to live with failure or if they simply learn how to grit their teeth and survive it.”

    Could you explain the difference, please?

    “a degree, although not usually a good one.”

    OK, I understand what you mean–I think–but the value of a degree is to some extent relative, and we can’t all be above average. We can all be educated or trained in certain things, but that’s different. A degree is an employment asset, and any degree places them ahead of those with none. Which is the point. As the old joke goes, I don’t have to be faster than the hungry bear. I only have to be faster than the other hiker.

    On the “acting white” instance, when I’ve heard the term applied, it wasn’t for success, as you imply, but for behavior–doing the homework, speaking politely to the teacher and such. That’s not something that itself requires greater genetic gifts, but it does make an implicit statement that the system is not completely rigged.

    And I know of white students who dropped a student in a tall waste-paper basket for gratuitous and malicious curve-raising.

    On the larger question of failure and response, the missing word is “persistence.” I do not know what causes some of us to “get up one more time than we’re knocked down.” It seems best taught by example, but teaching by annecdote is not bad. I can’t remember when I didn’t know of Robert the Bruce and the spider, of Demosthenes with pebbles in his mouth, or of Edison’s 90+ failures on his way to the electric light. Perhaps the question of what history is “relevant” isn’t altogether clear-cut.


    17 Feb 10 at 5:42 pm

  3. just an out of place note. Jane has been talking about a book, Atheist Delusions. Its available from Amazon on Kindle.


    18 Feb 10 at 11:22 pm

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