Friday, February 29, 2008

In the Presence of Greatness

As many of you know, I am an educator by profession, teaching English Language Arts at a high school in Southern California.  As much as I love teaching, there are two aspects of my job that I do not much care for--dealing with discipline issues and grading papers.  The first is a headache and the second is mundane and boring. . .  usually.  I truly enjoy all of my students and see great potential in each.  As such, my career can be emotionally draining at times as I view individuals who have the whole world at their feet yet fail to apply themselves.  Many fail to see the value of education and the opportunities that it may provide in one's future.  The danger of apathy within students is two fold: (1) a student's self-worth begins to deteriorate until it reaches the point that one no longer sees the potential within oneself, giving up rather than giving effort, or (2) a student knows that he has the ability to achieve but feels that he can tap into it when needed.  The problem with the first is that it leads one to a life of relative servitude, and the problem with the second is that when the time comes for the individual to call upon his ability, that skill has atrophied to the point that one's performance is lacking and relatively ineffective.  I see this with some of my students who are seniors who have simply worked just enough to "get by" rather than applying themselves throughout their educational experience.  Now that I have raised the bar, I see in their writing work that they feel is "good enough" which I am returning to them with a "0" score until they revise it and do it correctly--with their best efforts.  The remarkable thing is that they know how to write and their ideas are interesting and fundamentally good, but they are not practiced in taking it to the level that they could be at had they simply applied themselves. 
Ultimately, we are what we make of ourselves.  A poor effort produces a poor mind; an average effort produces an average mind; and a superior effort creates a superior mind.  Granted, it doesn't happen overnight in either direction, but the result eventually catches up to the effort.  Fortunately, we can change--that is the hope for every individual.  While we may have squandered the past, there is nothing that says we cannot work to modify our present approach to life and learning and influence our future for the better.  Heaven knows I had to do that myself.  In high school I gave an average effort, earning a 2.5 GPA.  Serving a mission for my church for two years, arising early each morning to study scriptures and being required to teach people and defend my faith taught me a lot about discipline and study which led me to give a greater effort to my education upon my return home from the mission and beginning my college education.  The result--my GPA at the University jumped to 3.75.  It didn't happen overnight.  I was fortunate enough to have those two years to prepare for the rigors of a University education.  
Now that I have offered this lengthy introduction I should like to get to the point that I really wish to address--being in the presence of greatness.  I have been grading autobiographical papers from my seniors' literacy learning experiences.  Of a class of twenty-eight students, I have already graded ten of the papers.  The first nine received a "0" score for having too many grammatical errors and other issues.  It is rather depressing having to write comments that ultimately say to revise and resubmit the work, yet I do it because I know that while it makes me extremely unpopular with the students, it will actually help them to become better, more conscientious writers.  
Then it happened--the tenth paper.  Just when it seemed the entire class would receive no grade on the initial assignment, I read one of the best papers I have ever read from a student.  It was nothing short of amazing!  Granted, it is not a perfect paper, but it comes about as close as one might expect--actually, it was beyond expectation.  For the first time in my teaching career, I read a paper over again--not for clarification or comment, but because it was great writing.  I felt as if I were reading a published autobiography rather than an assignment--it was wonderful!  I couldn't contain my excitement.  I initially graded it at work, during my preparation period.  Later that night I took it home and read it again and then again.  I was pacing around my apartment in awe and admiration for such a work.  I wanted to blog about it immediately, but felt it would be ethically inappropriate without the author's permission, so I spoke with my student today and received permission to post a few excerpts from her work.  I am not sure as to what degree Kristina King will pursue at the University or what profession she will ultimate engage, but this I can say, she will excel at whatever she chooses to commit her heart and mind.  This is truly a situation in which I feel blessed to be in the presence of greatness.

A few excerpts:
"I went as far as to write a poem. . . The poem satisfied me at the time, but now I see it as a complete disgrace.  I had no structure for the poem, and the rhyme scheme sounded oddly forced.  This realization was the very start of my dislike for poetry.  Every attempt at writing poetry would end with a feeling of frustration.  Feelings that I could not translate onto paper remained trapped in my mind.  Those feelings cried out, and wept violently because they had come so close to freedom, but were forced to become a prisoner once again."

"There have been numerous books that have changed my life.  But I never completely understood the importance of reading until I read "Jane Eyre," by Charlotte Brontë.  I will openly admit that Jane Eyre has indeed become the role model for my life.  Although Jane Eyre is a fictional character, she helped me to realize the necessity of knowledge and education.  I always wish to be more like Jane- independent, humble, intelligent, honest and clever. . ."

"My journals became my own secluded paradise.  It was there that I learned how to write successfully and fully develop my imagination.  My literacy and my love for writing bloomed beautifully along with each surrounding flower.  With a simple pen and paper, I could enter my paradise and be free.  I could frolic with fiction, create my own future, create stories of my own, and enjoy new thoughts.  But a tragedy occurred when I discovered that my journal entries had been read without my permission.  My paradise was invaded- and I surrendered.  I stopped writing and eliminated all evidence."

I cannot help but be filled with revere.  I'm looking forward to the remainder of my students to awake from their slumber and rightfully take their place among the great writers of the world!


Nicole Bullock said...

What a talented writer. I'm sure it's a joy to have her in your class, and I hope that I get to read more of her writing. Thanks for posting within minutes of me asking you to... :D

Rachel said...

That's really incredible. Most college educated adults couldn't write as well. You should have her enter it in a contest. The LA County Fair has both the Ed Expo and Americas Kids. I've read hundreds of entries there and this one could definitely compete. Thanks for sharing.

Heather said...

It gives you hope for the future, doesnt it?

Liz W. said...


This post actually makes me want to be a teacher!

Amanda said...

Don't do it!!!

Ms. Liz said...

Wow - that one percent of stuff really makes things worth it sometimes. And good on ya for giving your students a revision option. My teachers were never so charitable.