Growing up in the 80s, one of my favorite movies was Some Kind Of Wonderful. I think I, like the male lead character, wanted what he couldn’t have, and, more importantly, didn’t really know what he wanted. I have never forgotten one of the lines of this movie, “Trust is the basis of every relationship.” Of course, the use of the line is completely ironic as the handsome foil to the lead male tells this to a young girl he is attempting to seduce while cheating on his girlfriend.
But the truth behind the statement is solid, trust really is the basis of all relationships.
And one aspect of trust is listening and believing what people tell us.
A few days ago, I was talking with a young man who is struggling in school. He, like many other ninth graders, is struggling with the realization that he cannot just do ninth grade the same way he did eighth grade. He is a student who has potential, but does not understand what he needs to do to be successful. As I am working with him, I show him his failing grades — except for PE in which he is earning a “D” — his grandmother is really excited about that. I begin a conversation that I have had several times with students who are much like he is. His reading level is below grade level – it is actually four grades below grade level. He is not completing work outside of school, for he has never had to complete homework in the past 10 years of schooling. In the past, his teachers had assigned homework, but if he didn’t complete the homework, it really didn’t count against him. Furthermore, the homework wasn’t essential to learning because he was smart enough to ask questions in class, and pay attention during class which enabled him to glean enough information to pass, minimally, the assessments that he was given. He had enough support, or assignments were created in such a manner that he could complete them. And so, he has never had to do work outside of school to receive passing grades.
But high school, as so many students have heard before, is different. Lower level students are now expected to move very quickly through complex curriculum, and the hours during school are never enough. Students are expected to learn exact vocabulary that is specific to the curriculum — for courses such as Earth Science — vocabulary that many students have never encountered. Furthermore, some of the concepts are so nebulous that students don’t even have the background knowledge to which they can hook the new information. Without using more than the time in school, few students are able to, even at a minimum, grasp the basic vocabulary to have the tools to pass the class. And the student with whom I now work, has fallen into this cycle. Minimal work in school which has, with poor academic habits, like studying out side of school, completing homework, and organizing his assignments and notes, made it tremendously difficult to be successful in school. And so, with all of the work he has done in avoiding school work, he has become really able at avoiding school work which has resulted in his failing grades.
Now, I sit and talk with him about his failing grades. We have looked at his binder; we have looked at his grades; we have discussed what he can do to start changing his high school outlook. I ask him a simple question, “So what can you do?”
And he answers in the way that so many other struggling students do, by looking my straight in the eye and defiantly saying, “I don’t know.”
The “I-don’t-know” is flippant. It carries with it that he doesn’t care, that he isn’t going to care, and that if anyone tries to change anything, he isn’t even going to even try.
At this point, many teachers will realize that the student is being defiant and decide that, until the student is ready, there is little to be done. Many teachers, at this point, will smile at the student, if they haven’t taken the response personally, and let the student know that if he decides that he wants some help, I’ll be there.
But for some reason, I say something that I have never said before. My response is based off of the idea that people always do the best they can on any given day. And so, I say to him, “I believe you.”
The student looked at me, shocked, and says, “What?” There is no incredulity in his statement, no defiance. It is a genuine question.
I look him square in the face and, sensitively say, “I believe you. I believe you don’t know.”
Then, surprisingly, he looks down. His shoulders slump. He stares helplessly at his hands and says. “I don’t.”
And then I start the conversation again, about what he can do, about various techniques we can try, and, if he wants, ways that we can get him back on track.
And he listens.