My daughter is in eighth grade now. She’s doing math I don’t remember and solved some problems the other night that I couldn’t help her with (luckily, Alexa could). She’s taking German and is all guten this and guten that when she gets home. She’s a programmer on her robotics team. She’s read “The Lottery” and “The Monkey’s Paw” in English class. She’s getting better at playing along with Jeopardy!
She has also brought home a coloring assignment and a word find during the first four weeks of school.
In sixth grade, we joked that one of her classes should have been called Watching Movies I’ve Already Seen.
I am supposed to be upset about this. The teacher in me (who gave up word finds and coloring sheets as assignments many years ago) should be outraged. I should follow the lead of many other teachers and parents who demand more of schools and post my disappointment on social media. Like Alice Keeler, I should decry the absent “depth of knowledge” and whine that my child had to waste 30 minutes of her Thursday night searching for German words in a soup of letters when she could have been spending quality time with her mom and dad (as if she has any interest in doing that). Maybe I should pen a diatribe to the offending teacher, explaining just how wrongheaded such assignments are. This is 2019, I could all-caps her, and this is UNACCEPTABLE. Or, if I were feeling especially peeved, I could take a photo of the word find and teacher-shame the woman on Facebook so all her friends can see what a terrible educator she is.
But I’m not going to do any of those things.
I’m not going to do them because I’m a teacher and I understand.
Also, I’m a human, and I get that too.
The Most Imperfect World Of Them All
Look, my wife and I weren’t thrilled about either assignment. In a perfect world, every task would push my child to get just a little better, a little smarter. Every activity would be tightly situated in a cozy “zone of proximal development” nook, a magical place where students are challenged just enough to stretch their abilities but not so much that they become frustrated and start throwing things.
I hear there’s also puppies, rainbows, and cotton candy there.
But teachers don’t work in a perfect world. Far from it. And middle school teachers may work in the most imperfect world of them all.
I am positive that the teacher who assigned the coloring sheet did not think to herself, “This is a killer task that will challenge my students.” Same for the teacher who handed out a word find as students exited her room or the one who showed movies every other Friday. So why did they do it?
It’s a question worth asking because most of the time people have reasons for doing what they do. We may disagree with those reasons, and they may have some underlying assumptions that are wrong. They might be operating under a debunked theory, like learning styles, or they might feel pressured into doing something they’d rather not do.
We may never know their reason, but it’s usually safe to assume that it’s not the one we’re ascribing. One of the more regrettable human characteristics is our propensity to assume the worst of others, even as we give ourselves pass after pass. After all, we know our motives and our reasons; we’ve lived with them our whole lives. But when a driver cuts us off, he’s an idiot who shouldn’t have a license, instead of a daydreamer who had an exhausting day with a 150 thirteen-year-olds.
This is Water
In 2005, the writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College. In his speech, “This is Water,” Wallace said, “The really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.”
He warns the graduates that they “do not yet have any clue what ‘day in day out’ really means.” That large parts of adult life involve “boredom, routine, and petty frustrations.” As an example, he uses the kind of soul-destroying, after-work trip to the grocery store with which every adult is all too familiar. Wallace describes how many people choose to think in such situations:
“The traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.”
And that, I would submit, is exactly what those who gripe about movies, word finds, and coloring sheets are doing. They are making it all about them and their kid.
Luckily, we can choose to think differently. More Wallace:
“If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.”
It’s about compassion. Grace. Empathy. Understanding. Realizing that you are not the center of the universe and that other people make decisions just like you do. So that when they make a decision you find baffling – like assigning a word find to an eighth-grader for homework – you don’t instinctively think the worst of them. You choose what to think.
It is possible that…
The teacher wanted the kids to have something “fun” to do because they’ve been doing a lot of rigorous work in the classroom.
The teacher wanted an assignment that showcased artistic kids’ abilities instead of the usual assignment that allowed writers to thrive.
The teacher is under pressure to assign regular homework, but knowing her students are already getting a pile of homework from their other classes, she gave them something brainless that they could quickly finish.
The German teacher read this research that concludes word finds actually help with learning a second language.
The teacher gave students plenty of time in class to finish the coloring sheet but your kid screwed around and ended up having to take it home per class policy, so now it looks like “homework” when it really shouldn’t have been.
And, of course, there’s always the possibility that the teacher knew better but did it anyway.
You know, like that time you destroyed your diet because Joyce brought donuts to school.
Or when you smoked that cigarette even though you were quitting.
Or when you sucked down your fifth Long Island Iced Tea and hit on the IT guy at the staff Christmas party.
Or a thousand other decisions you’ve made in your life that you aren’t proud of but you forgive yourself because you were tired, or stressed, or angry, or hungry, or you just didn’t know any better at the time.
Forgive the Meatless Big Mac
It reminds me of something a friend of mine shared on Facebook recently.
It was a picture of a McDonald’s Big Mac, buns open to reveal no meat. Below the image, the customer, Rob Goddard, had written:
“So I go to McDonald’s since I’m sick and don’t feel like cooking, and order a Big Mac meal and head home. I get home and to my amazement, there’s no burger…on my burger.
Initially, I wanted to be upset, as a paying customer, and blame whoever it is that made the sandwich for such a stupid silly mistake. However, as someone who has worked in the service industry for a long time, I couldn’t help but laugh. It really made me reflect on some of my worst days where I’ve made silly mistakes and had to stand silently while getting screamed at by some angry middle-aged Karen lady about how stupid and uneducated I must be.
I headed back to McDonald’s to show them and get a corrected one and we all had a great laugh about it. I was happy to laugh with the staff and wait for a fresh one. We, as humans, all make mistakes and no matter how stupid or silly it may seem, it happens! Not every situation involving simple mistakes needs to be hostile or make the individual feel belittled. We have all forgotten to put the Big Mac on the Big Mac at some point. Be kind.”
So, the next time your kid comes home with a coloring sheet, or a teacher assigns a word find, or you find out that your child spent the last hour of school watching a movie you don’t see as particularly educational, maybe stop a second and, like Wallace recommends, choose to force yourself to think differently. Show others the grace, forgiveness, and understanding you regularly allow yourself.
Be a better human.