Do you ever feel like you are teaching in some alien culture where the sun rises in the west and sets in the east?
Our classrooms are filled with students who don't understand that they have a responsibility to their community and to their world to become productive members of society. I often talk to them about the little old lady who lives on the street next to our school. I ask them if they are giving her a good return on the investment that she is making in them through her tax dollars.
A few weeks ago a parent told me that her son could not come in for extra help in the mornings because he is not a morning person (I have noticed that he seems to have no problem entertaining his girlfriend in the morning in the halls). He also cannot stay for Recovery School because he does not have a ride, and he was not feeling well on the Saturdays when I had make-up sessions. She wanted to know if there was another time when he could work on his grade.
Thankfully, President Obama said in his address to the Joint Session of Congress last night that the time has come for parents to take responsibility for their children’s education. That is a value that could change the face of America.
In the meantime, teachers often need to take time to teach students how to live. Many of the young people in our classrooms do not have the learning attitudes that are necessary to become successful students, and it is not totally their fault. The society that nurtures them does not share the values of the generations that built America.
Yesterday, I told my students a story that I hoped would put them in touch with a value from an earlier generation. It was about a very rich man who owned a very large business with thousands of employees. He called in three of his factory workers and told them that he was going to take an extended trip that might last for years. He told the first employee that he was going to entrust him with $4 million of his money while he was gone. Then he told the second employee that he would be entrusted with $1.5 million while the third would be entrusted with $750,000.
When the rich man returned years later, he called the three into his office. He asked the first what he had done with the money. The man answered that he had studied the stock market and had sought the advice of experts. The investment portfolio that he built was now worth $8 million. The boss was extremely impressed and told his employee that he would be promoted to be the head of a division of the company because he had done so well.
The boss asked the second man what he had done. The second employee reported that he had investigated new business opportunities and had established a new internet company that was now worth $3 million. The boss told him that he had done a great job and that he would be rewarded with a high level management job as well.
Then the third employee had his opportunity to report on what he had done. He told his boss that he hid the money in a safe because he was afraid that if he lost any of it that the boss would be very angry. The rich man called the this employee lazy and wasteful! He fired him and gave the $750,000 to the first employee to invest.
When I was finished with the story, I asked my students what they thought. There was general agreement that the rich man was excessively harsh with the third employee. They pointed out that he had just “chilled.” They said he didn’t lose any of the money and that he did not hurt anyone.
We talked a little about why did he do nothing with the gift given to him. The students realized that it was fear. They also understand that fear plays a major role in their lives.
I asked them whether they thought that the employee was bad. They had a hard time with that idea at first.
The idea was also raised that maybe his failure had something to do with the fact that he was not given as much as the other two employees. More discussion followed concerning comparing one’s gifts to others and how that caused many people to underestimate themselves and give up.
My next question was, “Have you ever heard of the word sloth?” Many knew of the animal and immediately made the connection with the idea of laziness. A few recognized it as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. I told students that until the last two or three generations, most Americans considered laziness to be a sin. We talked a little of the Puritan work ethic. We mentioned Walter Cunningham in To Kill a Mockingbird whose family would not take anything that they could not pay back.
I asked my students if they had ever heard the question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Many said they had, and then we discussed what it meant. I told them that the Freshman Class at our high school had answered that question quite emphatically this fall, and I asked them if they knew what I meant. A few students in each class immediately answered, “The Walk for Africa.” They were correct. The Freshman Class raised $4,500 that, through matching grants, became $17,000 to help children in Africa. Our answer then was a very strong, “Yes, we are our brother’s keeper!”
Then I asked them what they had been given in life: $750,000… more or less…. $1.5 million… $4 miilion. Before I let them answer, I asked them if they had heard of a country called Liberia. Some knew it was in Africa, but none knew that it was the country founded by American slaves who chose to return to Africa. They also did not know that the unemployment rate there is 90% and that 68% of the population is under 15 years of age and that the life expectancy there is 42.
Most of my students then agreed that the gift they have been given in life is priceless. I asked them what they were doing with the priceless gift they had been given. I asked them if they had a responsibility to the people of Liberia, to their world, and to their community. Are we are brother’s keeper? If so, what is our responsibility for developing our talents and discovering what our special gifts are for fulfilling that role? What might a person from Liberia do with the opportunities that lie before us? Then we talked about the title of Cabell Brand’s book If Not Me, Then Who?
We talked a little about how Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet was so upset with Romeo because he was living so recklessly with the gift of life that was given to him. Finally, it began to become clear that laziness is also a reckless way to handle the gift of life that is entrusted to us.
I think a little sanity is blowing through my classroom today as many of my students understand a little better that they do have a responsibility to become productive citizens first in school and then in their communities. They are still freshmen, and they will still be silly and forget. They will still have a lifetime of bad habits to overcome and a life full of insanity to figure out, but now we have some common vocabulary and some common values to bring to future discussions.