He wasn’t stupid.
I sat across the table from a young man who stared at a blank sheet of notebook paper in front of him, pencil in hand. He wasn’t writing. He didn’t even know where to begin.
Though I did my best to keep a poker face, several emotions ripped through me – including pity… and anger.
I spent several years volunteering on a semi-regular basis at the Lighthouse Youth Center in Milwaukee. The center was born out of my old grade school building, which had sat dormant for a few years after closing.
The building where I learned math, social studies, and my Bible had now become a place for inner city youth to spend some time – off the streets and in a safe, fun, caring atmosphere.
During the school year, Lighthouse always ran some Homework Time, where the volunteers could hang out with them and help them out with their studies. Mark, the director of the center, usually announced to the group that they should talk to me if they needed help with their English papers/homework, because I was a “real writer”. That always amused me.
Invariably, I’d be sitting at a table, trying to help kids write papers or work on some literature assignment or whatever.
But on this day, I was dumbfounded.
The awkward encounter (which was not this boy’s fault at all)
This young man had to write a paper. Naturally, I sidled up next to him, ready to help him out. I opened by asking what grade he was in, so I could hopefully adjust my advice to suit his level.
Awesome. Eighth grade is pretty close to high school. I don’t have to simplify things terribly. Might be some kind of research piece or something. How long were my papers in eighth grade? Two or three pages? Better dig deep and make sure he knows how to structure this thing. I’ll give him my five-part approach, that always works.
“What’s the assignment?”
“I have to write a paragraph about what I like.”
I paused for a second. “What you like?”
“But, like… what is it supposed to be about? What you like about what?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Just what I like.”
I looked down at the paper, then back at him. “And just a paragraph?”
Again, I want to stress that this kid was not in a remedial program or anything like that. He was a healthy, average boy. He spoke just fine. Could carry on a conversation, talk in detail about topics he was interested in.
But he stared at that paper, utterly confused.
So was I.
“Okay,” I started, “so what do you like? Like, what do you like to do?”
I pointed to the paper and nodded. All right, maybe he just needed to find a jumping-off point. This will get him going.
He scrawled out, I like to play basketball. Then he stopped and looked at me, waiting for direction.
I tried my best to coach him through it. “What do you like about playing basketball?”
He’d answer in a few words. I’d nod and point to the paper. He’d write the few words down, and then put the pencil on the table and look at me.
There was no momentum. No “getting him going”. He was completely incapable of writing a full paragraph on the most basic possible topic.
And he was in eighth grade.
Don’t view this as a political post
When I was in eighth grade, I was writing book reports and research papers. In that very building that we were sitting in, actually.
And it’s not like we were some rich, private school. In fact, my grade school folded just a few years after I left because it had no money. We didn’t have endless resources.
Yet, despite all the flaws of that school, the teachers did work to teach me and my classmates how to think and analyze.
I wasn’t writing book reports and research papers for fun, or because I was brilliant. It’s because that what the expectation was for the grade I was in.
I have my own views on the Milwaukee Public School System, as well as the public school system at large. I’m not going to share them here, because I do feel the need to keep my politics out of my writing.
But I don’t know how you can read that story and not see that something has gone seriously wrong in our society, that there are eighth graders who are incapable of writing a complete paragraph, even when the standards are set impossibly low.
And therein lies the problem.
Low standards make things worse
I didn’t grow up in a very strict household, but my parents did hold us accountable for stuff we did around the house.
If there were crumbs in the sink, we were expected to come back to the kitchen and rinse them down the drain.
Nobody picked up our messes for us.
There was a standard you were expected to follow. Not a high one necessarily, but it was there.
We live in a side-by-side townhouse. Our neighbors – a father in his forties, and two boys in their twenties – did not subscribe to these standards.
As I write this, the screen door by their back porch hangs open. Their gas grill is uncovered and lying in the grass and has been for weeks (and it’s winter now). The garage door is often left open for raccoons and other critters to sneak in and urinate on our car.
Since we’ve taken over mowing the lawn and snowblowing the driveway, we’ve had neighbors come up to us and thank us for taking such good care of the property... even though we’re doing what we believe to be the bare minimum.
And we’ve been in their side of the townhouse – I won’t go into any detail of the horrifying state that everything was in.
I could go on and on about it, but that’s not the point. The point is, this is another household that was raised with low standards.
I understand why. Very often, an overbearing parent might turn a person off from being “strict”, so they overcorrect and raise their own children without that “burden”.
But the result is, often, much worse.
The same goes for schooling. Because the standard is low at home in many households in the inner city, that translates to a lack of effort at school. When that happens, it’s harder to get kids to care about grades, and they all tank. And because school performance determines school finances, officials lower the standards so that they can keep their jobs and their funding.
It’s a downward spiral.
If you want to get better, you have to raise your standard
Let’s talk about you.
If you believe your performance isn’t up to snuff, then it’s time to make things harder.
I understand the value of making things easier and building momentum. But your end goal needs to be one of aspiration.
That means you have to put in the effort.
Nothing in life comes easy. If you want to be a functioning, contributing member of society, you have to raise the bar, even a little bit.
Expect more of yourself, not less.
You don’t have to save the world. But if things aren’t where you want them to be, instead of looking around at how things could be made easier for you, why not ask yourself a different question?
What can I be better at?
Not living the romantic life you were expecting? Put yourself out there. Go on more dates. Maybe you do need to improve your appearance or your job. That’s not a bad thing.
Feeling like garbage all the time? Let’s raise the standard of your diet and your exercise.
Not getting enough work done? How can you clamp down on how you spend your time?
There are ways we can all improve. But the only way we do it is by raising the bar.