November 15, 2012 by rebelwithalabelmaker
In Eric’s last school newsletter, they published students’ work answering the question “what makes a good student?” The answers pained me, and I couldn’t resist posting my rebuttal — originally a class assignment from a few years ago, when I was volunteering at his school. Names have been changed, but other than that the story is word for word exactly as it happened. It’s not a humour post–although I like to think it’s a happy one.
John is counting paper clips. Today’s math period is about estimation, and so the students estimate Ziploc bags full of paper clips, and then count groups of ten to see how close they got. John’s estimates are wildly inaccurate, but he doesn’t mind. That part of the work is an adventure to him–a kind of guessing game. It’s the counting that trips him up. He gets up to four or five, and then his mind wanders and his hands start to move out of sync with his mouth as he counts. Like a helium balloon that has slipped out of his grasp, his thoughts drift up and off… his eyes scanning the brightly colored posters on the wall.
“Did you know that my sister caught a moth one time?” he asks, his eyes having fallen on an inspirational picture of a set of bright wings. In a moment, he realizes he has lost track of his task again. For forty minutes, he and I have been working, together, to keep his attention weighted to the piles of paper clips. John sighs, and begins again at one.
I was hoping that we would finish early so we could go look at the rabbits in the computer room–I know John would be fascinated to learn all about them. I can picture the easy joy he would find in this. I love to watch the moments when he gets to learn by following his curiosity rather than seeking to control it. In those rare times he is no longer a child fighting to control his attention–instead he is transformed. A boy chasing a butterfly on a summer afternoon.
Mr. Fergusson, the vice principal, brought the rabbits in this morning. I first met Mr. Fergusson on my son’s first day of school. Eric stood beside me, clutching my hand in a death grip, staring at the hordes of racing kids and chewing on his sleeve. Mr. Fergusson, a tall man with flyaway gray hair stood beside the playground, his eyes scanning the tumbling mass of kids that drifted joyfully about. When his gaze passed Eric, it stopped suddenly–clearly caught by something very important in the way Eric pressed his body to my side. He jogged over and crouched beside us, gazing intently into Eric’s face. He introduced himself, then escorted Eric up to his classroom and personally showed him his locker, chair, and shelf. It took about ten minutes–and this on the busy first day of school. But for Eric, it set the tone for all of elementary school–and he still loves Mr. Fergusson.
Eric loves every aspect of school–the neat rows of books, the stacks of work sheets, and the bright gold stars all hold a deep fascination for him. John and Eric are in the same grade, and I can picture perfectly how smoothly Eric would move through this counting task–his analytical mind lovingly guiding his hands to arrange the paperclips in neat rows. Eric’s mind does not drift–it smoothly orbits a task until he carries it to completion. If I were helping Eric, we would be downstairs already, gazing in fascination at the baby bunnies. Eric would be writing out a list of further research questions, in numbered sequence. Eric would be wrinkling his nose at the untidy smell of the room–which is a product of the shavings that Mr. Fergusson forgot to bring for cleaning the cage and the recycling that Mr. Fergusson hasn’t quite finished organizing the pickup for. The vice principal struggles with these sorts of organizational, administrative tasks. He shouldn’t even have brought the bunnies, he told me this morning–there really wasn’t time–but he couldn’t resist. And he couldn’t resist showing them to the class this morning during the time that we were supposed to be discussing the moral education topic “What makes a good person?”. Just as he couldn’t resist Eric’s worried face on the first day of school–even though I am sure there were other more important tasks jostling for his attention.
“I have to organize the recycling pickup today,” he told me earlier, with a frantic tone in his voice–it is piled only steps away from the rabbits’ cage, “but I realized I forgot the rabbit’s shavings and I have to run to get those during lunch, so I can’t…” He cycled through a list of tasks that seems to churn around him almost visibly–pulling at his sleeves and dragging at his legs. He can’t seem to come up with a plan that will end his day with anything other than a sense of incompletion and defeat. His mind seems to dig in its heels–slowing down on him like a computer without enough working memory.
Ninety seconds before that conversation, he was a completely different man. When I arrived this morning, he was crouched on the ground, settled in between two kindergardeners who had been fighting–looking like a man with all the time in the world. For several minutes, he turned patiently from one child to the other–asking descriptive questions, challenging them each to describe the others’ point of view, and leading them through creating a joint solution. When it was resolved, he stood up, grinned broadly as he watched the two girls skip off, with the look of a man who had just spent the afternoon happily laying in the grass and watching butterflies dance. And then he shook his head a bit and cringed as he remembered the dozens of little jobs that urgently needed his attention.
I am jolted back to the present as John’s hands and voice fall out of sync again. He is watching another student pass in the hallway. “I know that guy.” He says, grinning broadly. Then his shoulders sag and he takes a deep breath, and looks back down. “One, two…” he begins again.
I put away the paper clips–the job only three quarters finished. We go look at the bunnies. I nervously watch the door, the uncounted bag of paper clips held guiltily in my hand. John crouches close to the bunnies, fascinated. For a moment, the image of Eric on the first day of school pops into my mind. He stands at Mr. Fergusson’s side, his gaze glued to the neat rows of books and the brightly colored charts–excitement and potential making his eyes wide. It only took ten minutes to make a home for Eric here. On his very first day, he came home telling me that he had already begun collecting gold stars.
John presses his face up against the rabbit cage–his nose wedged between the bars. Questions tumble out of his mouth and he can hardly pause long enough for my answers. Behind him, the notes from the morning’s moral education class are still on the whiteboard. Virtues are scribbled haphazardly in coloured markers. Goals set and paths charted.
I see the journey of Eric’s growth clearly spelled out–like a path of gold stars. A series of images: Eric reading a picture book. Eric dissecting a frog in high school. Eric learning statistical analysis in University. He is focussed, organized, and determined.
I cannot see a line of stars stretching into the future for John. Instead, I see flashes that don’t connect. His face lighting up when he sees a friend. His hand reaching down in the pool when we went swimming, for another kid who had tripped and fallen under. Him running–the way his limbs seem to tumble about him like jubilant toddlers. Him now, pushing his nose hard against the bars of the rabbit cage to get a little closer to the bunnies–completely oblivious to the smell. I see John’s journey as jagged and filled with fragility–like a moth’s journey. He doesn’t get a path–he gets flashes of light. Moments of potential.
“What makes a good person?” the whiteboard behind the seven year old continues to ask. One answer–the easy one, is spelled out in the words around the question–smart, organized, obeys the rules. It’s an answer that the walls of the school have been steeped in. Behind me, another answer is sitting in the pile of untended recycling.
On the way out, we pass the recycling bins again, and I grin broadly. I hope tomorrow they’ll still be here. I hope that tomorrow Mr. Fergusson will still be off somewhere in the building crouching beside a child and listening intently to them explaining the life cycle of a squirrel. A flash of light, just for John. A Good Person with pockets full of uncounted paper clips.