Cultivating the Mind: Resolve to Master Something Truly Difficult (& Worthwhile!)


(Much*—much*—of the following essay has been borrowed, adapted, rearranged, added to, edited, excerpted, taken word for word, from a post Greg Swann wrote on a blog titled “freetheanimal”—http://freetheanimal.com/2011/12/guest-post-greg-swann-and-resolving-to-master-something-difficult-in-2012.html. I want to make this perfectly clear at the outset: MUCH of this post is not my own.  The arrangement of it is; the additions to it are, but much of this post has been excerpted and adapted from a post that Greg Swann authored. And so what I am doing here is displaying the way my mind works—how I process something I read.  First, I read it, and then if it has some wisdom or insight to it and piques my interest, I will sometimes rewrite and edit what I have read so that it squares more with my own experiences and temperament, and so that it says even more what I think is true.  To me, this is an inescapable part of what it means to read actively and critically.)

 

What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

(http://taylormali.com/poems-online/what-teachers-make/)

.

Is there anything you can think of that you did in school or college that you’re truly proud of now? —Away from athletics or the school play, was there anything in your academic life where you gave everything you had? Was there anyone else who did that?  Was there any class that you took—ever—where you had to bust ass every day or risk getting hopelessly lost?

And moreover, the reality is that virtually all of us were denied the kind of education that was a matter of expected routine for our grandparents.  To have graduated from high school in the United States in 1880 or 1910 was to have acquired an education far beyond that attained by all but the smallest few college graduates today.

And irrespective of why this may be and how times have changed, we are still largely responsible for the education we received.  Too often we were grade-greedy glib-and-lazy eff-ups who were just phoning it in, doing the minimum necessary to get the grade we desired or that was expected of us from our parents, and not looking to be challenged in school—not looking to take AP or Honors Level courses.  So I absolve myself of nothing in this.  I know how much of the time that I could have spent acquiring an education was wasted on trivia instead, or on tendentious cant, or on outright lies, or on plotting my social life.

steve-prefontaine-the-gift_i-G-8-837-D2IY000Z

And yet the fault is not entirely our own.  So many (some? at least a few?) teachers are of the cash-greedy glib-and-lazy eff-up type—those who by default and not as a vocation or a calling decided that teaching was their best option—an option that gave them the summer off, and a few more vacation weeks throughout the year.   Certainly there are teachers—a lot? some? a few?—who do little to nothing more than the minimum necessary to get the money from and meet the standards of the glib-and-lazy politicians who employ them.

Put another way, how many teachers did you have or even know who pushed you like the teacher in the poem at the head of this post or who inspired you like Mr. Keating did many of his students in “Dead Poets Society”?  How many teachers demand nothing less than your best from you?  How many pushed you beyond what you thought you could?  How many consistently expected and demanded exceptional work from you?

And you weren’t just cheated of an education when you were young, you were cheated out of the full awareness of your own humanity.

Bottom line: You were cheated of an education. And, yes, you were complicit in cheating yourself—with every daydream in class, with every gossipy note you passed, with every sneer, every snicker, every spitball you shot at a clueless teacher or fellow student. With every half-assed, half-stepping, half-hearted effort you turned in, hoping it was just enough to get by—you were cheating yourself of an education that likely was already cheating you.

But that’s over. The past can’t be undone.  So what to do about it? The future is yours to make of it what you will.  You can start changing things with just one resolution:

Resolve to master something difficult.

Tell the truth:  Every time you see a musician performing—popular music or classical—don’t you wish you could do that, too?

The good news is, you can. All it takes is commitment and effort—and time—maybe 10,000 hours.  Maybe more, maybe less.

Mastering a demanding new skill will take a while.

How much progress can you make on any resolution in a single day?  Almost none.

How much progress can you make in a year’s worth of serious, daily effort?  You’d be amazed.  The desire for instant results is how all resolutions, including New Year’s resolutions, get abandoned.  But to learn a serious discipline will require your time every day—an hour or more a day of serious, dedicated effort.  I like the idea of working every day, since, if you take no breaks from the work, you won’t have to resist the temptation to extend a break by one day and then another and another.

The benefits to be realized by putting the time in mastering something difficult are huge—far beyond anything you might be expecting.  First off, you’ll be better for having improved your mind.  You’ll be a better person, too—more independent, more competent, more whole, better able to focus and persevere, less of a whiner and a complainer.  You’ll be better for the effort.  Not to mention wiser, and more confident.  You’ll be more independent, too, more indomitable.  And you’ll be more admirable—to your spouse, to your children, to your family and friends—and to yourself.

Plus, you’ll learn firsthand how to learn something.  You’ll learn about your own resistances, your own blocks, your own laziness.  You’ll also see for yourself just how important resolve, grit, determination, self-discipline, showing up every day, putting the time in, doing your best, pushing yourself, practicing, studying, really is.  After all, mastery of a truly difficult discipline can ultimately *only* be done alone.  Your teacher can help, and, as always, we stand on the shoulders of giants.  But it’s only your brain, working all alone, that can distinguish educere from educare in Latin.  Because in Latin, we can say, “Educere est educare“—to bring up is to bring out.  To cultivate the mind is to liberate it, to lead it forevermore away from the slavery of ignorance.

So no matter what your pedigree, unless you were very lucky, you were cheated of an education when you were young.  And right now you can begin to amend that deficit.