My daughter recently entered the sixth grade, which in our district marks the the first year of intermediate school (a.k.a, junior high). The transition was brusque.
She graduated from a tender, loving elementary school where duckling students imprinted on gracious teachers they all hoped to someday emulate.
Although there were occasional grumps and malcontents on the faculty, the overall experience was sunshine and unicorns and a sense of protection.
From this safe harbor she found herself adrift in the turbulent seas of a large and intimidating campus where older kids vape, teachers use occasional expletives, and bathroom privileges are lorded over teen girls by capricious teachers at precisely the moment they are most anxious about commencing menstruation.
Acquainting herself with the whims of such junior high school teachers is both a grave injustice and excellent preparation for the future.
We've all faced petty tyrants in the course of our lives, and in all probability will continue to interact with them on some level in the future.
Consider the low level bureaucrat at the large, faceless institution of your choice. An indistinct soviet-style cinder block building brims with employees whose powers are uniquely designed to forestall the progress of those they ostensibly serve and impede access to their superiors. The lack of service is delivered with scorn or apathy depending on the day.
According to my Cuban father, certain experiences at the DMV or post office are the closest a U.S. citizen can come to appreciating life under communism.
My daughter is skilled in the art of hyperbole, so when she first reported a teacher with an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a desire to crush and then rebuild her students in her own image, we were skeptical.
Then came back to school night. The volume of material this teacher hurled at the parents paired with the rapid pressured speech with which she spoke (rendering linear thought impossible) set a tone that implied "Sink-or-swim, your kid's future is your problem, not mine." We left demoralized and sympathetic to our daughter's plight.
I'm an ER doc. A short list of things that stress me out:
- A toddler presenting the day after a major cleft palate repair in need of emergent intubation.
- A hypotensive patient with a ruptured thoracic aortic dissection awaiting a surgeon.
- A 12 year old boy, hypotensive and pale as a sheet from a massive lower GI bleed, as I ordered a transfusion and arranged for a pediatric ICU transfer. (Endoscopy showed a Meckel's diverticulum - sometimes the disease doesn't read the textbook!)
- A friend's husband brought to the ED in ventricular tachycardia.
Junior high teacher would not make my list, yet the toll this person took on my daughter's normally blithe spirit and love of learning became a source of stress to me. My daughter asked us to consider home schooling to spare her the stress of the classroom.
We considered it briefly, but decided to instead help her structure her time and help her study the material as she built up the skill set to handle her nemesis. We made suggestions, and let her suffer the consequences when she failed to take them and faced the aftermath.
It was touch and go at first, but she rose to the occasion. She put in hours until she was up to speed on her assignments (the workload from this single class exceeded the combined homework burden from all of her other classes ). She went to after school hours, where she witnessed a gentler side to the abrasive classroom personality.
Most importantly, the drive to succeed came from within her. For a kids who had been able to cruise on her academic reputation in her final year of elementary school, humility was a hard lesson to accept. We framed her initial difficulty in terms of growth mindset - it was a question of persistence and practice, not innate ability.
Our family narrative is that there will always be smarter people in any classroom who are quicker to grasp ideas and intuit logic; our unfair advantage is our work ethic.
This past quarter was the hardest fought academic battle my daughter has fought to date. I'm proud to say she learned that she, too, possessed this family superpower.
It toughened her up and taught her grit.
It unleashed an internal drive that blew us all away.
I'm not fond of petty tyrants, and dealing with them is an unpleasant fact of life.
But I'm grateful that my kid could take a lousy experience and transform it into an opportunity for growth.