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His Teacher Decided He's Not Worth the Effort

On the day after Christmas, I received a heart-wounding message from a cherished teacher-buddy, catching up during the holidays by e-mail. She began by sharing a wonderful story: her 5th grader was asked to cantor their Christmas Eve service. There was a large congregation at the service--a high-pressure performance for someone who's 10 or 11--but he did very well, she reports, singing like the proverbial angel.

Then, she said this: We have had one of the most challenging school years for___, so this couldn't have come at a better time. He's a quirky guy and his teacher has decided he's not worth the effort. He knows, on some level, that she doesn't like him, but he doesn't complain about going to school. 

Yeah, I know. Heart-wounding. 

And totally believable. Most people reading this will recognize the teacher who gives up on the quirky--or difficult-- child. My own kids had a couple of those, along the way--and I know how painful it can be. It might be easier when a secondary teacher decides your child is just too much trouble, because it's possible that a different teacher will pick up the slack, tapping into a strength or appreciating oddball personal qualities. Possible, but not certain. Or--maybe by middle school, kids care less about pleasing their teachers and just cruise along, habituated to the whole experience of teacher-resistance and non-relationships with adults. 

That's not what this blog is about. Yes, there are personality mismatches, teachers who don't ever go the extra mile or care about students' individual passions or anxieties. There are teachers who are so focused on control and completed assignments and statewide test scores that they miss the unique essence of the child.  And let's be real--what happens at school is only a tiny slice of who that child is, and who he will become. 

This blog is about the redemptive power of things that are less valued by schools, legislatures and the Business Roundtable. Things like singing beautifully in church on Christmas Eve, bringing tears to the eyes of parishioners. Or figure-skating, drawing cartoons, deer-hunting to fill the family freezer, being the family videographer--and on and on. 

In a recent article in The Guardian, Steve McQueen, the acclaimed film director whose work on 12 Years a Slave has been earning international praise, told a story about being labeled "3C2"--likely to be a manual laborer, based on his grades. 

When he went back to present some achievement awards 15 years later, the new head admitted to him that the school had been institutionally racist. This did not come as news to McQueen. "It was horrible. It was disgusting, the system, it was absolutely disgusting. It's divisive and it was hurtful. It was awful. School was painful because I just think that loads of people, so many beautiful people, didn't achieve what they could achieve because no one believed in them, or gave them a chance, or invested any time in them. A lot of beautiful boys, talented people, were put by the wayside. School was scary for me, because no one cared, and I wasn't good at it because no one cared. At 13 years old, you are marked, you are dead, that's your future."

How did McQueen reclaim his future and build a brilliant career? Art--and getting into art school on the strength of his portfolio, in spite of poor tests and teacher evaluations. 

Way too much of what is said about the value of the arts in a public school education is related to achievement data, growth of brain connections, or the utility of music studies in strengthening other subjects or skills, like memory, reading and math. There is a body of good reasons to study and participate in the arts (as well as family and community activities), but being more successful in school is only a small fraction of that.

 I have seen, literally thousands of times, how being part of a school musical group or pursuing an individual musical passion fed the soul and character--and future--of a particular student. And my thirty years' of observations run the gamut--from special education students who just loved being a regular part of the assemblies, parades and concerts, to a drummer who barely made it through high school but is now an LA session musician. If you want data, look at El Sistema, in Venezuela, a national youth music program that has enriched, even saved, thousands of children in deep poverty. Music changes lives, and makes us better people.

 My friend's son is going to be OK--he has great, patient parents who can afford to get him music lessons, and find places for him to shine. He'll survive the careless teacher.

 The kids I worry about? The ones society has decided are not worth the effort. Who are usually in schools where the arts and lots of other programming once considered essential are nonexistent. 

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