BY KIM THOMPSON
There is an electricity in the air. Sometimes I like it. I feel a vibration that propels me to greater heights. I gain a drive to be better, stronger, faster, like the bionic man. However, there are times the energy of our world is irritating, as if my need to be human and calm and natural is no longer acceptable. Sometimes I defy the cultural shift to push, strain, reach.
The first day of school this year brought one particular hour of apathetic and resistant students. I was almost shocked by their opposition. Not one smile. Not one hello. Not one student who looked like it might be OK. It scared me a little. So I went home and I sat with it. I made a plan to try something I had never tried before. I didn’t feel I had much to lose.
The next day, I took them out to the woods, just for no reason whatsoever. Let them wander and soak up the sun. Let them see I’m into that too. It was magical. Day three was not perfect, but we made progress. They were softer, more relaxed, and willing to read and think and write and share. Some of them smiled and some of them still looked lost and distracted. But I had won just enough of them to shift the energy.
Sometimes I get all edgy over the parents and teachers who perpetuate a stress-induced message to our youth that if they don’t show up at a tiptop standard now, they will somehow fail miserably in life as a whole. Top grades, top scores, top of the class, top colleges, top top, top.
I’m really not down with that.
I can get on board to meet the students where they are though. If a child in my class wants to be so big, I’m there to help them. I can support and push like no one’s business, even in ways they never saw coming. Yet I still feel strongly that’s not necessarily the effective approach for all kids.
Sometimes I think, “Hey, let’s make sure you can pay the basic bills, stay fed and rent a studio apartment.” The rest will take its course. Boredom and natural instinct will take over if they eventually want to grow. And maybe they won’t grow so much. And maybe they will still have value because they are kind and honest or witty and creative.
This is why I have a little sit-down with my “regular” sophomores about their inborn power and glory. This is why I gently assure them that deciding to be a self-motivated reader will make a great difference. Helping them see that if high school is the last stop, and even 10th grade is the end for a rare few, they may want to take full advantage of it. If this is the last formal education they ever get, let’s make it a positive one, one that feels a bit stimulating, one that could actually set them up to never feel forced through judgment and authority but to realize that they can still be interesting and interested in the world.
It is all about refusing to lead with fear. Fearful parents can create defiance and anxiety. Elitist, competitive teachers, who are fearful of showing up in the middle, risk resistance.
I am proudly tapped into a different world, where people cut hair, put out house fires, fix the plumbing. Some of them play in a band, or serve food or build schools. My favorite sort of people are artists and intellectuals, and I don’t think they have to be famous or change the course of history to find what we all seek, which is a sense of security and some real moments of joy. Frankly, I’d be happy to find a few good friends to consider some deeper philosophies and a rich spiritual life. Minimalism over materialism. Helping a friend move their stuff to a new home or stopping over to share some tea. These are the snippets that build a fruitful life.
It’s no secret that when a man sits among great leaders and understands his station is not as lofty, he may leave feeling diminished. I fear this for all my average to poor students. That’s why my goal is to help them understand their inner worth already exists, to manifest their authentic capacity to have an original thought and to know their divine birthright for dignity, just as they are, imperfect and still whole.
Kim Thompson has three sons and has been teaching high school English for 27 years, 21 of them at Stillwater schools. Her family has resided in Stillwater for six generations.