Not on a school night

Some of our most well-intentioned utterances fail because we’re on auto-respond when we utter them.  There are things we say to kids because we’ve heard them over and over, or said them over and over, though they aren’t what we really mean – they don’t actually serve the goals we have for kids or the values that drive those goals.

I had a student once whose father earned part of his income plowing during the winter months. When it snowed, he’d be out most of the night clearing driveways.  My student loved going out with his dad to plow, so he’d hope for weekend snowstorms.  One week it began to snow late on Sunday afternoon, so the plowing to be done was late into the night on Sunday and the first hours of Monday morning.

You can imagine the auto-response his parents were tempted to deliver, when he begged to go along on this plow run.  It’s the one you’d expect to hear from teachers and other school officials, a descendant of the protests that gave us compulsory education in the first place, intended to banish exploitative child labor and give every child a chance at an academic education: Not on a school night.  Not if it might interrupt his studies.  Not if he’s going to be too tired to concentrate. School comes first.

This response is unquestionably well-intentioned.  We don’t want kids to miss out on the opportunity of education, of learning, of being the best they can be (most of these, too, are automated responses as well and invite further reflection, but my point here is only that they’re born of good intention).  We are, for historical and other reasons, automatically committed to kids’ education. It’s one of the ways we know to show that we are committed to kids themselves.  And of course we are committed to kids.  But when we try to carry out our commitment without thinking about what it actually takes, now, for a child to benefit from the opportunity of education, we undermine our own intentions.  When we set ourselves and our mouths to auto-response, we often miss the nuance that can lead us to the outcomes we actually want.

This student who wanted to go out with his dad to plow is someone who loves to be outside, loves working with machines, loves knowing how things work, and loves getting better at things.  When he was in the truck with his dad, he was studying.  He was watching the timing of when to drop the plow, noticing how much speed and power it took to move snow on a range of grades and surfaces, finding out which kinds of snow behaved in which ways.  He wasn’t just trying to stay up all night, and he wasn’t just trying to get out of going to school the next day.  He wasn’t trying to get away from education – he was trying to pull it toward him. It just didn’t happen to be the education we know how to quantify and easily recognize the value of.  He wanted to learn how to do what his father was doing and to do it well. It wasn’t appropriate to automatically dismiss and deny his wish to spend Sunday night out in the truck with his dad.

In our enthusiasm to give every child an equal chance at college, at white-collar success, we sometimes forget that academic skills are not the only ones that can lay the groundwork for a livelihood.  Not everyone will thrive in a white-collar world, not because they don’t have the intellect for it or the upbringing to make it possible but because they might be better at, more successful at, more satisfied by, something else.  Fulfillment and engagement are not exclusively available (and may in fact be narrowly and minimally available) in academic study, in office work, in realms where we’re removed from work that requires the mind but also the hands, arms, feet, larger muscles. There is a set of professions we know to count on, that we think of as reliable and lucrative, and our bias toward them can create a severe blindspot.  Many of our auto-responses are based on our commitment to these professions though we know perfectly well that there are people who work in other less esteemed fields and not only enjoy it but make better money than some of their white-collar counterparts.

And if what we want for this child is a shot at making a good living doing work that he is good at and enjoys, does it really make sense to summarily refuse him the night out plowing?

The most ironic danger of auto-responding in a situation like this one is that it can actually sabotage the efforts we think it’s supporting.  This young student hadn’t made up his mind about what kind of life he wanted to have; whether he’d go after a career that allowed him to be outside working with his hands, inside working with a computer, some hybrid of the two, or something entirely else.  His preferred activities and strengths certainly suggested he’d be well-suited to a life that involved both cerebral and physically active work, but nothing had been decided, and so the moments in which he was pulled clearly toward something (in this case the plowing) were important.  These were the moments when he would find out whether or not the adults in his life could support him in moving toward pursuits and masteries that made sense for and appealed to him no matter what they were.  If we want kids to take their academic work seriously, we shouldn’t turn it into something they have to do in place of something they love.  If we want to convey the potential value (and even the potential attractiveness!) of academic work we’ll have to find a way to let it coexist with what kids already love – the things in which they already see purpose.

How do we do that when it’s not possible to be out in a truck all night and also awake and alert the next morning?  By finding language that honors both, acknowledges the potential value in each, and recognizes actual costs and benefits.  We can write our own lines for the conversation, taking into account actual children and actual circumstances – replacing the automated Not on a school night.  Not on a school night may mean to an adult “I love you and I want you to have the opportunity of an education,” but it can sound to a child like “I can’t be bothered to consider what you’re asking.”

We could try something like this instead: “Plowing on a Sunday night?  That might mean you have to go in late to school tomorrow.  You’d have to see if Dad could give you a ride.  I’m a little concerned about your ability concentrate on so little sleep.  Tomorrow is your math quiz and history presentation, right?  Let’s see… do you think there’s a possibility of taking the quiz on Tuesday morning in study hall?  And what do you think you would do about the presentation?”

This kind of language is an invitation for discussion, negotiation, and the weighing of cost and benefit.  It eliminates the need to resist school attendance outright and it sends the message that an adult is listening, paying attention, and thinking things through.  It avoids the vilification of school and all its associates (learning, practical skills, etc.) that is often inspired by Not on a school night.  

And it’s entirely possible that he’ll decide to stay home after all, or only stay out for a few hours, because now it’s possible for him to make a considered choice about the whole thing.  We treat kids as though they just want to get out of everything we want them to do, but as it turns out, they often share our concerns and our commitments.  They just want to be on the team with us, to be included in the navigation of their lives.  They want to know that what comes out of our mouths is built on what we know about them, what’s important to them, and what they have to offer the world; that it’s not just another thing adults keep saying.