“Declan broke this pencil on purpose. He’ll have to replace it.” Yet another note from school.
“Why did you do that?” I ask. He gives me a blank stare like he got his mind erased in a sci-fi movie.
I have to funnel down excuses from “Someone else made me,” and “It was an accident” and make him say “I did it, I’m sorry.”
“Why did you misbehave?”
“Hell made me do it.”
“The devil? The devil’s got bigger things to worry about. Wars, injustice, poverty, evil. I doubt he’s got time to get in your mind and break a pencil.” I have to give Satan some credit–he’s been pretty busy lately.
“Not the devil. Hell. The devil is the god of hell.” This is a distraction technique. Talk theology to avoid punishment. I reiterate it’s not in the devil’s jurisdiction to waste school supplies.
Though most of the things I hate in education–standardized tests, unyielding curricula, evaluations with busywork so crushing I wanted to change careers or die the last two years…they are pretty hellish, gotta admit.
Maybe on his time off the devil really does mess with my stuff instead of watching Comedy Central. I bet all the good comedians–George Carlin, Robin Williams, Red Skelton, Abbot and Costello, and God himself, George Burns–are in heaven. Satan’s mad. Perhaps education’s where he gets his laughs.
But back to the matter at hand, pencils.
“You will apologize tomorrow, and tonight, you’ll write a letter and give her two pencils.” Declan must replace what he destroyed with interest.
The problem is, they’re my pencils. You know those pencils nobody gives teachers and we don’t want to buy out of our own pockets? Those are the pencils Declan puts in the envelope, so the net gain to education is exactly zero–we’ve simply taken pencils from one teacher’s hoard and sent them to another’s.
Still, the boy destroyed property. He must learn. He must feel bad. Empathy is a tool best employed with a hammer.
“How would you feel if I destroyed your Lego creations?” He raises his little fist.
He jumps, he rages. “I would be soooooo mad, Mommy. You can’t break my things!”
“You did. Maybe that was her special pencil.” The concept a special pencil seems odd. Pencils are vehicles for homework and doom, but the theatre works, and he starts to cry.
I let him cry a minute, then not really wanting to have a miserable afternoon, I lift up his spirits with an inspirational speech. I tell him I know he won’t be mean and disrespectful again. He writes his letter, steals my pencils, and goes off to play Legos.
Yes, I’ve got the challenging boy. I was in denial but there’s no mistaking it.
He’s the one who does the least work, says the extra math “is stupid. I already know the answer” and pushes the envelope, every time. I read the Johnny Appleseed report the class wrote together. It’s in his folder. Everyone wrote a nice generous paragraph. Declan wrote the equivalent of a tweet. Somewhere in there, Johnny Appleseed died.
I wrote a book called “My Dad” when I was exactly his age–a couple sentences here and there with some big sloppy writing. He got this gene from me.
“I don’t need to write neat…” he says, “I don’t need to spell. The computer does it.” Indeed, it does. He’s already got the system down.
I’ve got “that kid.” The solid C student–who rushes through all work he declares “stupid” so he can get to his passions–computers, building, constructing, second-grade engineering, and games.
The gods of education are mocking me when they should be rewarding me.
For years, I’ve taught school haters. I tell them success is not determined by report cards, they must follow their passions. The key predictor for success, I’ve said countless times, is motivation and willingness to stick to problems and work hard.
My little boy sits for days working through things about which he’s passionate. He tries to make me passionate about his things as well. “Mommy, I’m going to teach you to build this.” I sit for the lesson watching his little mind work and the genius break through. Then I fight with him about his homework.
I’m not worried about his spelling test. I tell him to do his best, knowing the computer will bail him out in the end or he’ll hire an assistant but for now I want him to try hard. I do my best to show him there are lots of things in school he doesn’t know about that his teachers will teach him. Some of those things might be really fun. We’re not as boring as we look.
He gives me a blank stare and tells me he’s going to go dance in his room and play with his toys. He’s done with my speech.
At least he’s replaced the pencil, and all is well in the universe for the moment until the next note comes home from school and I try in vain to make the classroom a better place for at least one overworked educator.