My cell phone rang at 9:00 AM. It was the high school office asking if I could come in right away. It was unusual for me to be called in to substitute after school had already begun. The office said the History teacher had to leave due to an emergency and it would really help if I was available. Since I had not been called earlier, I was making other plans for the day, but the tone of urgency changed my mind and I agreed to come in. The school said they knew I would be a little late for the beginning of second period but these were honors students and they would be OK until I got there.
I quickly dressed back into my slacks, shirt, and Pooh Bear tie and drove to the school.
I arrived breathless after running up the stairs to the tenth grade History classroom.
I had been with these students before. They were well behaved and lots of fun. They must have come from good homes because they all had relatively high self-esteem and didn’t seem to have a lot of personal drama going on in their lives like so many of the other students I substituted for.
When I entered the room, I saw that half the students were gathered around one of the girls. She was holding a tiny strip of paper in her hand and was reading from it. The students surrounding her all had pads of paper and were writing down what she was saying.
“Number 3 is A,” she said. “Number 4 is C. Number 5 is C.” She kept reading, and they kept writing, until she said, “That’s all the problems.”
I walked to the front of the class. After everyone had greeted me and taken their seats, I asked the girl what she had been reading to the group.
“Last period I took the math test they will be taking next period. I was just giving them the answers.”
I was stunned, especially at how casually she confessed this. For some time I stood, trying to process what she had said. They watched me and waited, wondering what I was thinking. Surely they knew I could turn them in and they would be expelled from school. I didn’t know what to think of an honors class being expelled for cheating.
Finally I asked, “You were giving them the answers to a test?”
The girl with the answers answered my question. “Yeah, they all know that I get A’s in math, so I just give them the answers so they can get A’s, too.”
I was holding a stack of worksheets (translate: busywork) in my hand, ready to pass out the day’s work. But, at the same time, I honestly wanted to know more about what I had just witnessed. I didn’t understand how they could have such a laid-back attitude toward something I regarded as almost sacred: cheating was something a student didn’t do.
I knew these students didn’t consider me an ordinary teacher. I enjoyed a level of camaraderie with them and now I wasn’t altogether sure that was such a good thing.
I sat the papers on the empty desk in front of me. I was so conflicted by what I had just seen, I decided to explore it further.
“I am really intrigued by this idea of cheating and how it can be OK,” I said. “Can you tell me your thoughts about why it is OK? Seriously, I’d really like to know.”
One of the best dressed of the boys began, “Mr. C.D. Look… What we are studying in math…” His sentence trailed off as if he was struggling to put his thoughts into words. He seemed to be trying to explain a very complicated matter to someone whom he thought would probably not understand. His voice was sincere. “Look. What we are studying in math….” Again his voice trailed off.
A second boy picked up the explanation. “Mr. C.D., we are smart enough to know that what we are learning in math right now is not important for our future. Some things are important for our future. We know that. But, in school, everything is taught as if it is just as important as everything else that is taught and we know that can’t be true. We do know this: what is important to our futures is that we get good grades.”
“In my time, cheating would be one of the worst things anyone could do,” I said weakly.
The second boy continued, “Look, I know you think we are cheating, and we probably are. But, try to see it from our side. Most of us are headed for college. We need good grades. We all spend hours doing homework after school. We don’t have a life. The last time you were our sub you asked what we did in our spare time and we told you we don’t have any spare time. We all know what is important and what is important is that we get good grades. We do what we have to. Isn’t that what people do? They do what they have to? We just understand how the system works and we make it work for us. If Maria can help us get an A on a math test and we don’t have to spend lots of time studying for something we know isn’t worth it anyway, what’s wrong with that?
Everything he said made sense to me; yet, it was all so wrong.
“You say you do what you have to and that’s the way things work. So, when you get out into the real world and some of you are businessmen or bank presidents, or politicians, does that mean you will cheat your customers or lie at work in order to get what you need?”
They looked back at me with pained expressions.
“Then, tell us what you think we should do,” asked the girl with the answers.
I didn’t turn them in for cheating, but for months I have thought about that morning. I thought about what they had said: about the need to do just about anything to get good grades; about never having any time of their own because of demands put on them by school; about everything they were being taught having the same value as everything else they were being taught.
I also began thinking about how a nation is strengthened by the opportunities its individuals are given to express their personal creativity. The creativity of Americans was once the envy of the world. But, if a nation’s youth are robbed of the opportunity to develop personal creativity, the nation will eventually grow progressively weaker and weaker.
When every detail of every school subject is given equal value, students are forced to prioritize everything even though they know this is absurd. Every moment students are required to give their time to what ends up being irrelevant, they are cheated of precious time they could be developing their individual creativity. We grind irrelevant information into the minds of our youth during their formative years and then tip our hats to their interests by allowing them to choose from a short list of electives during their final school years. What percentage of young people might be developing their creative passions if, as they are growing up, they are given time to develop them? Yet, we abort this possibility with our school curricula and their personal giftings are stillborn.
Not everything a young person might learn is as important as everything else he might learn. There really is a hierarchy of important information. For instance, virtually every child dances. But dancing is something we don’t value as a future because we don’t see it as turning into a real job. Again, most all kids are artistically expressive. But, as Picasso said, “All children are artists; the problem is to remain an artist as they grow up.”
Sir Ken Robinson has said, “Schools don’t train children into being creative; schools train children out of being creative.”
What makes something a person does more valuable than what some other person does?
Recently Ellyn Davis wrote an article in which she profiled a research study designed to determine how many hours it takes for a person to become truly good at a particular undertaking. The task involved might be anything from playing the piano or tennis to becoming a computer programmer or mechanic. Essentially, the conclusion the researchers drew was that a person needs to spend about five thousand hours in order to become truly good at something.
Do the math. If a person works at something two hours a day, five days a week for one year (taking off two weeks during that year), he will have spent five hundred hours on that task. To get to five thousand hours, he will need ten years of two-hour-a-day practice.
The researchers also discovered that it takes about ten thousand hours to become world-class at something. That would take twenty years! If the person wants to become world-class in ten years, he will spend four hours per day working on the task.
The question is “who would spend that many hours doing something for that many years?” The answer is someone who has a passion for it!
I suggest that every young person has a passion to be creative in some way: in athletics, in the arts, in the sciences, in something. But, when would the average school child be able to spend that much time for that many years? The answer is not many. By the time a person is released to spend time on him- or herself, too much time has passed. And, after twelve years of being told what is important, most young people have lost touch with what they had a heart to do in the first place.
We cannot long for individual expressions of creativity while, at the same time, we commit millions of children to being treated as generic human beings and to a school regimen where the only thing in their particular grade they have in common is that their ages are the same.
If your child is going to become truly proficient at what is in his or her heart to do, when will you allow them to begin? And, how many irrelevancies are you willing to let go of to allow enough time for that to be accomplished?
My son, James, once shared a quote with me. It said, “If I will spend a few years doing something no one else will do, then I will spend the rest of my life doing something no one else can do.” This quote became a source of motivation for James. As James’ Dad, my motivation was to make sure I wasn’t putting anything irrelevant in James’s path that would impede his ability to spend the necessary time doing what no one else would (or had time to) do. Today James may not be the world’s greatest dancer, but he is good enough to make a fine living at what he loves to do in life.
We talked about cheating, that morning in Honors History. I can only wonder who has been cheating whom all these years.