I’m grading papers on the second to last day of the school year. I’m grading fast, trying to finish ASAP, so I can go run some errands. I am more than a little ready to get out from behind my desk and browse around the hardware store, before heading home. Teaching in May is exhausting. And in walks Ian, who is in a very happy mood.
Ian is a junior (a senior in just 24 hours) who was an English student of mine five years ago when he was in seventh grade. Back then, he was a trainwreck academically (he’s the first to admit that). In spite of his positive attitude and a love for books and acting, he was a woeful writer. He routinely earned D’s and F’s on his papers, especially on essays of any length. He could talk your ear off, and he was terrific in dramatic performance, but writing was a source of constant frustration. Truly, his spelling, handwriting, and syntax were awful. Trust me. It was scary.
But, on this day, he is proudly boasting that he finally earned an A on a major essay for the English teacher who he says in the strictest grader on the planet, Dr. Gibson. Ian is beaming with pride. I applaud him and shake his hand. I couldn’t be prouder of him because I know exactly how far he has come in five years. He has slowly progressed from being perhaps the worst writer in his class in 7th grade to earning an A on a major essay for a very difficult English teacher. That is an extraordinary accomplishment – one worthy of praise on the level of a state championship – and it bodes very well for his future.
And that is how self-esteem is built. It cannot be given. It can only be earned with hard work. What a way to finish a year! And what a great reminder that all those bad grades in seventh grade are meaningless in light of the fact that Ian is now a very good writer. And he will be just fine in college, maybe even great, as he pursues acting and other creative arts. The key element is that he learned from his mistakes along the way, and he didn’t give up along his painfully-slow path of improvement.
Along this same theme, I just bought a song on iTunes called Better Things (click to download) by one of my all-time favorite singer / songwriters named Andy Gullahorn (buys some songs). In it, he portrays the pain of his childhood, growing up in a house with parents who constantly fought. He writes about riding his Huffy dirt bike, just to get away from the house echoing with angry words, not to reach any destination. It strikes a chord with me, since that is exactly what I did so many times as a child. I’d ride my black dirt bike away from the house and spend hours drawing in the dirt or climbing a tree in some secluded spot alone on our seventy-acre farm. I found solace alone too often. It was not the best way to grow up, but there were plenty of other “better things” in my young life. And by the end of my adolescence, I had outlasted the troubles of my family.
As time went on, my mother remarried, divorced again, went to work, did her best to keep up, and in spite of her personal trials, she never-ever gave up on me or my sisters. My father remarried, retired, and moved on. In my family, things didn’t get better right away; they just changed. But slowly over many years, it did get better; and in time, we discovered “better things.” And one summer day in 1993, I married my best friend, the one whom I love and respect more than anyone on the planet. And in the last 17 years, we’ve established our careers in education, setup a home we love, and are raising children who make us proud everyday. It’s not all joy and peace. In fact, it’s often just survival in a broken world, and we fight sometimes. But we are in a meaningful spot in time and space – one which I wouldn’t trade away. At times, it’s pure bliss. And that’s as good as it gets in this world.
These are the sorts of stories that we all need to hear, especially those moms and dads who are at their wits end with a child. They don’t know what to do next. And when I am in a position to offer advice to a parent who is ready to give up, I say something like this: “There is no silver bullet to help the kid who seems too far gone. But the closest thing to a silver bullet is to never, ever, ever give up. Because the world is full of people who were a big hot mess in middle school, and yet they finished strong in high school or college. They will come around eventually, and you want to be there before, during, and after it happens because it’s worth it all. Just ask my mom.”
So whether it’s learning a complex academic skill (like writing well) or a complex social situation (like a family full of broken relationships), we can thank God for lousy starts and strong finishes.