The other day, as a guest teacher in an eighth grade advisory class, I was asked to show students a video from YouTube called, “What Students Really Need to Hear.”
“First, you need to know right now that I care about you. In fact, I care about you more than you may care about yourself. And I care not just about your grades or your test scores, but about you as a person. And, because I care, I need to be honest with you. Do I have permission to be honest with you — both in what I say and how I say it?
Here’s the thing: I lose sleep because of you. Every week.
Before I tell you why, you should understand the truth about school. You see, the main event of school is not academic learning. It never has been. It never will be. And, if you find someone who is passionate in claiming that it is about academics, that person is lying to himself or herself and may genuinely believe that lie. Yes, algebra, essay writing, Spanish, the judicial process — all are important and worth knowing. But they are not the MAIN event.
The main event is learning how to deal with the harshness of life when it gets difficult — how to overcome problems as simple as a forgotten locker combination, to obnoxious peers, to gossip, to people doubting you, to asking for help in the face of self-doubt, to pushing yourself to concentrate when a million other thoughts and temptations are fingertips away.
It is your resilience in conquering the main event — adversity — that truly prepares you for life after school. Because, mark my words, school is not the most challenging time you will have in life. You will face far greater challenges than these. Sure, you will have times more amazing than you can imagine, but you will also confront incomparable tragedy, frustration, and fear in the years to come.”
Words that I’ve spoken in my own way a time or two to students in my charge. And Mielke stated them with passion. Yet these students didn’t seem to find them powerful. Or inspiring. Or worth listening to.
I sat in the back of the room and watched as one young man had a particularly negative reaction to the talking man on the screen. He rocked back and forth in his chair and slammed his hand repeatedly into a textbook. From time to time, he muttered things at the man on the screen. Things I couldn’t hear, but I’m pretty sure denunciations not agreements.
Clearly, these words that spoke to my heart were not speaking to his.
Later, when I reflected on this incident, I tried to put myself into his shoes. Why would this video of a teacher talking have evoked such a strong emotional reaction? I thought back to a time when I had a similar strong emotional reaction. What kinds of talk made me feel like that kid?
I could find that place pretty quickly. It was always when someone was trying to motivate me to take on my weight. I’ve had many people earnestly, lovingly, and passionately try to convince me that if I only ate less or exercised more, I could lose weight and be healthier. Those talks almost always engendered in me the same emotional state I witnessed in that unhappy young man. A state of embarrassment, shame and a dollop of anger.
Those talks nearly always generated in me an internal dialogue about how the speaker did not understand my struggle. Did not understand what I had already tried and where I had already failed. Did not understand what I already knew and what I didn’t know. What I wanted to know. What I desperately wanted to know.
There was something else in that message from Mielke. He spent a lot of time talking about how students were quitting.
“But, you shouldn’t be worried about the fact that you will face great adversities. You should be worried because you’re setting yourself up to fail at overcoming them. Here’s the real reason I lose hours of sleep worrying about you: You are failing the main event of school. You are quitting. You may not think you are quitting, but you are because quitting wears many masks.
For some, you quit by throwing the day away and not even trying to write a sentence or a fraction because you think it doesn’t matter or you can’t or there’s no point. But it does. What you write is not the main event. The fact that you do take charge of your own fear and doubt in order to write when you are challenged — THAT is the main event.
Some of you quit by skipping class on your free education. Being punctual to fit the mold of the classroom is not the main event of showing up. The main event is delaying your temptation and investing in your own intelligence — understanding that sometimes short-term pain creates long-term gain and that great people make sacrifices for a greater good.
For others, you quit by being rude and disrespectful to adults in the hallway who ask you to come to class. Bowing to authority is not the main event. The main event is learning how to problem solve maturely, not letting your judgement be tainted by the stains of emotion.
I see some of you quit by choosing not to take opportunities to work harder and pass a class, no matter how far down you are. The main event is not getting a number to tell you you are worthy. The main event is pulling your crap together and making hard choices and sacrifices when things seem impossible. It is finding hope in the hopeless, courage in the chasm, guts in the grave.
What you need to see is that every time you take the easy way out, you are building a habit of quitting. And it will destroy your future and it will annihilate your happiness if you let it. Our society cares nothing for quitters. Life will let you die alone, depressed, and poor if you can’t man or woman up enough to deal with hardship. You are either the muscle or the dirt. You either take resistance and grow stronger or blow in the wind and erode.”
Now, there is a great deal of truth in what he says and I see these types of quitting in students in schools all the time.
But somehow I think we need to find a better way to communicate this to students. And while I don’t want to take anything away from Mielke because I loved his words and I loved his video, I don’t think those words are what students really need to hear.
I think these words landed in that student’s ears with the sound of judgement. With the sound of something wrong.
I think they need to hear something different. Something that doesn’t sound like judgement and doesn’t trigger an unhelpful story in their minds.
They need to hear something more like…
I see you. I know who you are. I know what you struggle with and I know what you can do. I trust you. You can do this.
They need to hear words like Monte Syrie shares with his students on a regular basis.
We are writers.
We are readers.
We are thinkers.
And they need to hear these words not from an anonymous man on a screen, but from a trusted mentor that they’ve built a relationship with.
They need to hear that they have power. That they have a say in what they learn and how they learn.