Good Students

Good students are such a joy. I still remember my good students from the Carter Administration. Seriously. (Seriously I remember my good students. I'm not certain they were involved in policy making decisions in the late 70s.) Bright, eager, articulate, pleasant. They did homework, scored well on evaluations, contributed to class discussions. I never had to call their parents about their performance. They worked hard on the extra credit problems. ("Two thirds of two is what part of three?")

Over the years I've kept up with many of these kids. The Census Bureau's assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, Miami is a small town: I run into my old students frequently. I love hearing about their successes and accomplishments, meeting their families, catching up on what they've been up to these past 30 years. It's great to hear about their graduate degrees and their start up companies. But I sometimes wonder--in spite of all the work--how hard it actually was.

Aaron Rodgers wasn't my student. (Born in 1983, he certainly could have been but since he grew up in California rather than Miami, he wasn't.) I wonder how hard it is to be the best there is. Aaron Rodgers earns eight million dollars a year; I can't even guess how much money he gets to give a talk. He gets carried off the field after winning football games; I suspect he has little trouble getting dates.

I'm not taking anything away from how hard Aaron works--training in the heat, playing in the cold, practicing twice a day, studying films, learning plays, traveling, playing in front of critical fans. Sports writers say he's the best there is.

But I still wonder how hard it is to be Aaron Rogers.

And I wonder how hard it is to be one of my high achieving high school students from a generation ago. They went to a school which, in today's dollars, cost $27,000/year. Some classes had as few as nine students, none had as many as 22 other kids. Teachers were uniformly excellent--highly educated, sympathetic, erudite. Their expectations were high as was their regard for their charges--a recipe for good outcomes.

Not to take anything away from these great kids of whom I'm so fond, but what did I really contribute to their success? What did we as a faculty do to engender their achievement? What did the institution do to effect transformative positive change?

Maybe it would be more illustrative to talk about the kids who didn't make it at the highly competitive, college preparatory, elite school where I taught: At the end of every school year, we would meet as a faculty to discuss the few kids who had not been offered reenrollment contracts for the following fall. "Melanie refuses to do her math homework;" "Russell won't pay attention in class." Half a lifetime later, I wonder if maybe these kids had issues with "can't" rather than "won't." Of course left untreated, "won't" can take on a life of its own.

Why didn't Melanie do her homework? With the benefit of perfect hindsight, I'm guessing that she couldn't, not that she wouldn't. She didn't know the material; she had attentional issues; she had problems writing; she was a slow processor.

Which is not to exempt these kids from personal responsibility. There may be legitimate excuses for not doing well on a math test, but there is no reason not to be a contributing member of your family. There is no gene that prevents a healthy kid from clearing the table and putting the plates in the dishwasher. There is no excuse for playing video games rather than walking or bathing the dog. There is no reason to text your friends when you should be helping your dad in the yard.

My buddy Phil started exercising a couple years ago at age 60. He hates the gym--hates it--but attends religiously. Even though he knows better, he feels that he is not welcome in the workout room, that people are looking at him. But he keeps going.

When he first showed up, he couldn't run from his car to the door; now he can run a full mile without stopping. He has dropped 40 pounds; both his blood pressure and cholesterol are down. He's talking about signing up for a five kilometer run this year.

Couldn't it be argued that Phil needs our help and support to achieve his goals more than Aaron Rogers does? Couldn't we as educators reach out to Melanie rather than focusing our attention on those naturally high achievers?

Our whole educational culture impresses me as giving manicures to a few supermodels and refusing to offer a crust of bread to a stadium full of starving students.

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