Again I reflect on what could be going on in this huge world filled with individuals so connected in some ways that they seem like part of some huge protoplasm phagocytizing the latest presenting body, absorbing whatever is diffusing through this cultured medium, yet also so fundamentally alone, cut off, unique and mysterious, perhaps even breaking off the main body entirely. Whether that makes for freedom and independence, the establishment of a new population of adaptable organisms, or drifting vulnerability, death of the apparently unfit–are we all comfortable with that?
After the middle school class had received their tests and were getting down to them, continued from yesterdays’ work, I noticed one boy just sitting at his little table, lank hair hanging over one eye. I asked him if he had missed the previous day and so had not got a test started. He said no, he didn’t have a group. Group? You mean study group of this material? Yes. And why not? He just didn’t get a group, so wouldn’t be doing the test. Everyone was joining groups and he didn’t get in one, and didn’t want to interfere with anyone else’s. So I don’t do the work, I just read, he said. That’s what I do. Besides, there are so many questions, over eighty, on and on, and it’s too hard to read all that, I won’t be able to do it.
I tried for a little while to make the connection between the test as a tool for just finding out what he knows about U.S. history, and learning U.S. history as a way to be informed and capable of making smart decisions and not just being a pawn of the influential, and…he just looked at me quietly with those big eyes in that small, pale face. Sensing that what he got something from all this was that someone was at least noticing him, talking to him. Under cover of the quietness of everyone writing the test–as I continued, a somewhat unnatural quietness, as if there was a curiosity about this interaction, those fellow students having more background, and what was this sub on about with the boy who never did any of the work?
We started with The American Dream. It was on the test, after all, and I just told him about it, how it meant the idea that everyone had the chance to succeed through hard work, not only the rich or connected or advantaged. Could he imagine two boys, one who was told from an early age he could do just about anything if he worked hard, and the other, that he was dumb or didn’t have what it took or that the world was a messed up dog-eat-dog place and it was the luck of the draw. Which one would be more likely to succeed, if it was a matter of mindset? His hair hung over his face as he sat on a stool by mine, and I couldn’t tell his expression. Was I skating close to something painful? I imagined a quiet weeping behind that curtain, though he made no sound. Because this boy struck me as, more than anything, deeply discouraged. And usually that comes from external sources at that age, someone shutting him down somehow. He had adopted a fundamentally passive stance toward events in his life; it seemed the only form his righteous anger–if it could be so called, could take, and probably the most powerful. No one will tell me I’m doomed to be a failure–I’ll do it to myself, of my own free will!
There was so little time. Who was working with this kid? Who had time? And anyway, why bother? Survival of the fittest, right?