Help Wanted

Not that it matters to most students, or most universities for that matter, but several hundred test-takers score a 1600 on the SAT each year. Some of these kiddos with "perfect" scores are admitted to highly competitive colleges (HSCs), some not. As one HSC admissions counselor pointed out, "we could fill our first year class with valedictorians with 1600 SATs."


I had the pleasure of working with one such "top" kid not so long ago-a pleasure because he was intellectually curious and we talked about a range of topics, not just because he was smart. "William" had read widely and thought deeply about books that had not been assigned. He even taught me a bit about cryptography, an obscure but totally cool topic.


Warning: Math Anecdote. Feel free to skip these two paragraphs if you are not in a "math-y" mood just now. William and I stumbled upon a 650-digit odd number in our perambulations. William said, "That number is prime." Flabbergasted I stuttered, "How can you possibly know that?" William allowed himself a slight smile. "I've seen that number before," he said.
As math anecdotes go-for better or worse--this is as hilarious as hilarious gets. There are a lot of 650-digit numbers. No one can recognize a number with that many digits
In any case, I felt confident that in a competition of those several hundred kids with perfect SAT scores, "William" would have again scored at the top of the bunch as well. He had effortlessly taken every advance placement course his large suburban high school had to offer and was graduated as the sole valedictorian. Subsequently, William matriculated at the University of Chicago with a double major in mathematics and physics. His doctoral degree in computer science is from Carnegie Mellon. Now he works for one of those California places where they wash, dry, and fold his laundry for him. There are several cafeterias on the campus as well as Ping-Pong and air hockey tables. William's only job responsibility is to "think about things." Some of the things he apparently thinks about include the future of computers and robots. You know those folks who design those computer thingies to go in those rocket thingies that go to those planet thingies? William is one of those folks.


In a perfect world we would all have perfect children who could perfectly accomplish each and every perfect task in every discipline. In the real world, we keep our expectations high, but we help out when we need to. Our support is what allows our kids to achieve to the best of their ability--with PhDs in computer science and working on the future of computers for example.

4 thoughts on “Help Wanted

  1. Jenna

    Thank you for this essay. It is a timely word for me. A former student of mine is now in the 8th grade. He adamantly begged his single mom to put him in virtual school this year so escape the ridiculousness of middle school drama. We all believed in him and encouraged him but it hasn’t worked out very well. He is weeks if not months behind in his work, sleeps most of the day, and has an even poorer attention span than he had when he was attending public school and sitting in my class. In short he does not have the tenacity to do hard things and to dig out of his hole. He sat at my kitchen table yesterday and spent four hours writing six paragraphs. It was painful. I am afraid that the only outcome is his failure so long as he has no motivation to change. Despite my regular efforts to hold him accountable, he accomplishes very little unless I am sitting there reminding him every few minutes to get back on track. At this point I am as worried about him slipping into a depression as I am about his failing. He is a bright young man but ultimately I may have to step back entirely and let him suffer the reality of his decisions. I am sorry to drone on and on. I have exhausted my ideas and all I have left is to pray for him. If you have a word of wisdom, I would love to hear.

    1. David Post author

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      If this young man were my student I would ask myself the following question:

      Does he WANT to be having so much trouble producing a few paragraphs. Is this what he is CHOOSING? Or does he have a learning difference that makes it so incredibly hard for him to produce words?

      The difference between “won’t” and “can’t” is one that I try to keep uppermost in my mind when I evaluate the performance of my students.

      I know it looks like “won’t.” But if this kiddo were to be tested, I wonder if learning differences or slow processing speed wouldn’t show up.

      Just a thought.


  2. Martin

    This is a particularly felicitious essay. I enjoyed reading it immensely. You William, whether true or “truthful hyperbole” (as our T would say) is apt and colorful, nicely told and based I’m sure on much experience. Better, the lesson it imparts is clear and to the point and valid. Would that more parents and teachers understood it.

    Depending on the setting, teachers (I was one) can be apt to generalize too quickly–student class turns in assignments late (or even in improper format: “double-spaced should have been single; single-spaced should have been double) so the essay is not worth reading or considering. You didn’t put your name in BLOCK LETTERS so the exam gets 10 points off. Parents of course have the advantage: they have only a few kids. But that’s also a disadvantage as the anxiety level is so much higher.

    So your lesson is very apt and it’s important to minimize the moral shading: forgetting to bring home the book is not only an impediment to doing the homework, it’s a moral failure. Plus, if you’re careless about remembering when to carry the book, you will also be careless about when to reduce the fraction…

  3. Glenda addington

    Your articles are always extremely clever, clear, helpful and intelligent. I have an issue. Our 6th grade grand-daughter wrote about me as her hero in 3rd grade, but now she often doesn’t appreciate my suggestions, ideas, hopes for her to be even better than she is. Am I expecting too much? She lives with her parents, but has spent many, many days/hours at our house and on special trips ,over nights here with friends, pool parties, cookie parties, etc. etc. I am hoping she will improve her study habits and time
    management. I am a retired middle school teacher, but it’s different when the middle schooler is our own.
    I want to continue to mentor and guide her, but I want to be her meme whom she loves and demonstrates that.


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