Categories? Who needs them?

What did the new high school graduate do the first school day after graduation? The graduate was out of bed by 7:40 a.m.. He went to the YMCA to work out. He looked up his math placement test instructions for his college orientation later next month. And, he is busy now working on repairing our 3-D printer. He’s using a soldering iron to fix the wiring. While none of these skills were taught at school, they are all signs of a successful young adult about to embark on a new journey. In less than 10 weeks, he will be at college, living in a dorm, and making his own decisions. He knows it is up to him to forge a new path.

Let’s speed backwards two years. A student lethargically enters a math classroom. His head is hung low, his confidence shattered. Motivation has escaped him for months, ever since being told “he asked a stupid question” by the teacher for this course.  His pencil shakes in the grasp of his hand when the teacher walks by and chooses to stand over him, watching his work.  Anxiety is heightened by the lack of sleep he has experienced for a few months now.  Worries plague him. They have altered his sense of self.  The anxiety is especially related to this class but has started to spill over into other areas of his life.  He’s chosen to stay in this class and bear the brunt of the “category” this teacher had placed him in.  It’s been a mistake – the category in which he now finds himself.  It resulted from the teacher not really knowing who he was or how he learned, and, more importantly,  not bothering to find out.  Only “certain” prescribed fixes were deemed acceptable to learn the material for this class, which included seeing the teacher for “extra” help.  That’s right – the teacher who called him stupid, he was supposed to see for extra help.  When he didn’t, it was assumed he was lazy, and didn’t care about his work, on top of being “stupid”. Unknown was how much time he was investing in learning the material outside of class, watching tutorials online and being re-taught using a method he can learn from by another teacher.  Assumptions were made. A category was assigned.  It was wrong. Very wrong.

The two students described above are one and the same.  It’s been a journey to progress from Point A to Point B. I know; I have watched the process, deeply hurting inside while I observed, worried, and hoped all at the same time. I watched as he was broken and stood back up to reclaim himself.

At graduation, this past Saturday, the staff speaker talked about categories of students. She made some good points and I enjoyed her speech.  We all categorize things and, unfortunately, people as well.  I get it, students are no exception.  But, what about that student that slumps down the hall, head down, mumbles answers, looks tired, and is disengaged?  Is it fair to assume we know why he is acting in such a way? Given my observations, it is not. Sure, some students do not want to learn. We all know them. Some students purposely disengage from their school and studies. We see it on a regular basis. But, what about those students who look like they “fit” with the disengaged on the surface but really are behaving in such a way for different reasons? What about them?

Some things are put aside to survive – even in academia. Worry cannot be allowed to consume our students. Worry about learning course material should not be compounded by the edgy comments of a sarcastic educator.

I am so happy my graduate did what he did today. His actions show that he persevered. It took some time but the realization finally set in and he now knows that one is not defined by others. Only you can define yourself. So, my advice to my graduate over the weekend was this: a new chapter is open before him. He has been successful in high school. Truly, just missing the arbitrary “mark” that is set to honor high achievement by no less than .06 points on a GPA scale; he is by no means “stupid”.  He took AP courses. He did well.  He actually stayed in difficult courses that others dropped. He fought adversity and although it took a while to realize, came through better for the experience.

Categories? I’m not a fan. I was a weird kid. Shy, introverted, bookish. I matured. I now speak to rooms full of students or adults on a variety of subjects. I am different due to my life experience. So is he. He now knows more about who he is and what his future holds. This, in fact, might be THE most important lesson of all from his high school experience. He is in a category of his own and that is how it should be. No one defines him but himself.


4 thoughts

  1. As more and more of these types of posts pop up on my feed, I have to ask myself a couple of questions:
    1) What the heck is going on that so many educators are writing about their own kids in situations that are less than ideal. My daughter dealt with much of what your son dealt with, but in Spanish class. We made the decision to drop the class, thus she’ll take college Spanish instead, a much harder prospect.

    2) Why aren’t educators doing more to make those connections?? Your son and my daughter would have benefited greatly from a teacher who created classroom connections. In fact, we told the Spanish teacher as much. But she continued to be snarky with my daughter, who in turn, shut down.

    Thank you for articulating what I could not, that categories can be damaging and are best left for TV shows or on Jepordy, not for our students!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for posing these important questions related to my post. Although I am sad to hear your daughter dealt with much of the same, I think if we continue a conversation about this behavior past our our experiences, it will help. You totally nailed it when when you used the phrase shut down, that is exactly what we refer to when talking of our son’s response, as well. Thanks for your comments.


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