Sunday, January 24, 2010

Failure and Finding Our Way Home

I have a confession to make: I ran away from the first grade.

I had a deep and passionate love affair with the seven year old girl across the aisle from me. She did not know I was alive. Still, there I was, trying to talk to her instead of paying attention in class, and dear, rotund Mrs. Babineau marched down the row of tiny desks and taped my mouth closed with masking tape. Only, she did not stop there. She wrapped layers of tape around my head, up one side and down the other and under my chin, and then tangled me in several strips fastening me securely to my desk. I sat immobile like a sticky mummy until lunch, when she unwrapped me and told me to go out and play.

I was done with Humiliation 101 for the day. The teacher always left the room unlocked when she went off to eat what I thought would be a prodigious lunch, given her size. I crept into the empty classroom, packed my things, grabbed my Hot Wheels lunch box, and hit the road. The crossing guard in front of the school did not bat an eye. “Where you going?” he asked.

“Home for lunch.”

He looked down at my Hot Wheels lunch box. “What’s in the box?”

“Nothing.”

“Okay.” He crossed me over to the other side, and off I went.

The worst thing happened when I was making my way up my driveway thirty minutes later. My mom was chasing my two year old brother out of the house with a broom because he tried to eat a pound of uncooked spaghetti.

Then she saw me.

Suffice to say, she yelled until my ears bled, then she called the school. I was marched back up to the campus, ushered into the principal’s office, and endured another round of censure and ridicule. Then I was escorted to Mrs. Babineau’s room, who, God rest her soul, had no idea I was missing. She and my mother then took turns chastising me in front of the class, and the whole sordid ordeal with the masking tape was revealed. “That’s a good idea, that tape,” my mother said with admiration. “I should try that at home when he won’t shut up.”

In my day, parents and teachers were on the same team. They expected me to take care of business, and they backed each other up in every occurrence of misbehavior or failure. It was always my fault, my responsibility.

Nowadays, parents lie for their kids. When a child gets busted in my class, the parent shows up to be the lawyer, and F. Lee Bailey can’t hold a candle to these parents, some of whom happen to be real lawyers.

Nowhere is this parent advocacy more apparent than with homework. I get papers that were written by parents, researched by parents, purchased by parents. Kids buy them from term paper services with their parents’ credit cards. When a student forgets his homework, mom will fax it into me, or email it as a Microsoft Word attachment. “Do you need it in Word 2003, or 2007?” they ask me over my classroom phone as I stand in front of the class.

I thought I was the only one with this problem until my wife and fellow teacher pointed me to an article in Woman’s Day magazine, November 3, 2009. In a column with the rather nausea-inducing title of “Live Well: Momfidence,” Paula Spencer harangues parents to stop doing the kid’s homework. Spencer writes about how parents at her children’s school are too involved in the homework process. She believes the responsibility should rest with a parent simply asking the kid, “Did you do your homework?”

“Better they learn responsibility for their own behavior,” Spencer says. “That includes tracking assignments and handing them in on time…” This is a refreshing attitude that I have rarely encountered in the last few years.

I thought parents were so diligent about completing their kids’ work because they were shelling out big bucks for private school. Now, I am not so sure. I believe that it has more to do with parent ego. Parents today cannot accept the fact that the kid might fail. But failure is an important tool for learning. Spencer’s experiences tell her that parents today simply have expectations beyond all reason for their kids, and if the kid fails to follow the parent’s dream, look out.

Spencer writes of a conversation with a fellow parent: “If she tanks in this class it’ll crash her GPA, and goodbye pre-med program,” the father tells her. This was the reason he stepped in and wrote his tenth grader’s English paper. “She’s no good with words,” he says. Great, and dad writing her paper will really help her improve! Good luck with medical school!

Parents, stop doing your kids’ homework! My mom had a saying: “Let go, let God.” Now I am less religious than my parents, but there is a secular way of translating this phrase. Do the best you are capable of, and learn to live with it. Mistakes are a part of life. Failure is a learning opportunity. Yeah, it is a rough world out there, but what kind of mealy-mouthed, weak, ineffectual, stupid people are we turning out if we do everything for them?

Sure, I once got taped to a desk and lost a few chunks of hair, but I learned I should not talk in class. And I discovered that left to my own devices, I could find my way home again.


2 comments:

awyn said...

Wow, one of the best articles I have ever read on this subject! This should be published somewhere! I am sending it to five people I know who will really appreciate it.

Er... did you say "chunks (as in plural) of hair"? When the teacher pulled off the tape, chunks of hair actually came off with it? Yikes.

The most humiliating experience I ever had in grade school was when the teacher discovered my collection of movie star pictures which I had cut out of magazines as I was showing them to a seatmate. She made me stand up in front of the class and rip them all up, one by one, then sent me to the "cloak room" to think about what I'd done, i.e., not paid attention. Oh, those were the days, eh?

Seriously, this posting should reach a wider audience than just this blog!

Paul L. Martin said...

Thank you, Annie for your kind comment. Someday, I would like to compile in a book, probably multiple volumes, all the humiliating stories people have from their years in school. I am sure there is some kind of website like this now. We all have the stories, that is for sure.

The chunks of hair did grow back eventually. The funny thing is, that with the exception of that one incident, I loved first grade. I remember arriving at 8:00 and 3:00 seemed like the next minute. I really loved school then, and I was heartbroken a year later when my parents moved me to a new neighborhood and a new Catholic school. Ahh, the memories...

Take care