A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Stapler

According to his mother, a school counselor for emotionally disturbed students, who had been so moved by my success in helping her son become an engaged math student that, unsolicited, she wrote a positive letter to Administration on my behalf, over the course of the year, Jared had been convinced by others that he would always be out of place during math. While in direct teaching mode, I would often catch Jared reading a novel, secretly noting how much I approved of his taste in reading choices. Instead of expressing faux frustration, I would direct a friendly smirk his way as I unobtrusively tapped him on his shoulders and nodded for him to put the book away.

Jared was not a discipline problem, he simply did nothing to hide his boredom. His slumped shoulders and exasperated expression said matter-of-factly, "I really don't want to be here." Jared did not appear to consciously realize when he joined with others in their daily pencil drumbeat whack-a-mole cacophony, and in in my loudest, rudest, most at risk class, a class I dubbed my Crash Test Darlings, which enjoyed proudly broadcasting to the entire 6th grade about whatever misdeeds that they had been able to get away with the sub, my most troubled, most street smart girl would slyly poke an eraser in his ear whenever I turned my back.

As a rule of thumb, before calling home, I wait until after I have found some evidence of talent before calling home to begin an intervention. My script usually goes something like this: "The reason I am calling is because Jared has a D in math. I am calling because I what to know what I can do to help, but I also want to find what Jared is willing to do to help himself. I have been making myself available to students every day after school every day Monday through Thursday. Generally, when a student is not performing up to their capability, they have some sort of misconception which is causing him to make errors. Jared has excellent number sense, has demonstrated a talent for solving problems in unexpected ways, and he has been very clear in explaining his thinking whenever I have challenged him. Working one-on-one or in a small group, I can help Jared with any retakes or missed assignments, which he can correct or turn in without penalty. Meanwhile, I am hoping that Jared can help me understand what I am missing. There is no reason why Jared cannot end up with an A in this class.

After Jared started coming, it became immediately apparent that Jared's primary misconception was that math had zero relevance to him. Jared had a wired-in proclivity to tune out whatever details that seemed unimportant or painful to him. He had decided that he already had what he needed from this course so he might as well enjoy a good book. I shared with him about a friend who had gone through school with an undiagnosed learning disability, a rare hearing problem which made it impossible for him to distinguish distinct sounds in a large classroom, who learned the importance of mathematics in an alternative school setting, Outward Bound, while hiking the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, a friend who later grew up to become a rocket scientist. I cited numerous examples of others who had been deemed poor students such as Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein, whose main problem was that they approached things differently and that others misunderstood them. I offered up the example of the mathematician Gausse, who was falsely accused of cheating after solving a problem in a few minutes that his teacher had expected to require several hours of tedious computation, hoping to implant in Jared the idea that the purpose of mathematics is to help us solve problems in the most efficient way.

One day, when we were assembling our end of year icosahedron's (20-sided figure) reflection, Jared became fixated on fixing a broken stapler. As an adult, my calculus was that this was just a cheap stapler, not worth the effort, but to Jared, this became an engineering challenge, so I got out of the way and watched as Jared and his friends disassembled the stapler and figured out a solution. I offered too much help, too many good suggestions at a critical juncture, unfortunately,  which had the unintended affect of depreciating Jared's crowning achievement for 6th grade, fixing the stapler.

That day, I learned that Jared regularly disassembles and reassembles electronic devices at home, a quality that my brother Mike, an engineer, had as a child. In comparing Jared to a successful engineer, my brother Mike, who has several motorcycles, I suggested that Jared also had engineering talent. I suggested that he might enjoy Homer Price, which is about a boy about Jared's age who is always getting himself in trouble with his inventions, but who always ultimately saves the day. In a nation short on engineering talent, we often forget that numbers without a purpose are not only uninspiring, but can be debilitating. Sometimes a stapler is just a stapler, but to a 12 year old boy, Jared reminded me, it is okay to see things differently and find an adventure in the unexpected.