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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Who is 'College Material'?
April 29, 2012 - 5:59pm

Elizabeth's April 25 post about Nick's uncertain academic future moved me strongly, in part because of the excellent writing and in part because we have had many of those nail-biting moments in Ben's history. He is one of those students who seems destined to give teachers TMJ; a gifted underachiever, as his mother was before him.

In the fifth grade, after a particularly difficult conference with his teacher regarding unfinished homework and unsanctioned socializing, he said, "I wish I could just quit school now and get a job."

I pointed out that the job market for people with a fifth grade education was pretty dismal. I told him about some of the jobs I had held while in high school and college—waiting tables for long hours and minuscule pay, having to be pleasant to abusive customers and eating whatever was left over in the kitchen every night because I didn't make enough money to buy food and still pay the rent; sewing labels onto clothes in the basement of a posh department store; stamping page numbers onto negatives for a photo-offset printing company. (I skipped my stint as a scoopier at Baskin-Robbins for fear of clinching his decision to drop out as soon as possible.)

"If you think you're bored now..." I said.

"I know I'd be bored," he answered. "But I could say hi to my friends without getting into trouble. I could go to the bathroom without having to announce it to everybody in the room. There wouldn't be big kids in the bathroom waiting to beat me up. I could do whatever I wanted after I got off; no homework. And if it was really bad, I could just get a different job."

I think that was the moment when I gave up trying to make Ben into a model student. Because I agreed with him— he would be better off if we lived in a world where kids like him could just go out and work.

When he was in the seventh grade, his science teacher was dumbfounded because he aced a physical science exam without having done most of the school assignments or paying much attention in class. She knew he hadn't cheated, because a) Ben never cheats, and b) the answers were in his own words. But how had he managed this?

The answer was simple. Ben was, and is, fascinated by aviation. He has passed every level of a popular online flight instruction program, and chats knowledgeably with pilots when we travel. He had been spending his allowance on aviation physics textbooks from our local used book store, where some ex-pilot or physicist had unloaded a cache, and devouring them when he "should" have been doing school assignments. It was simple to transfer the concepts, he told me.

He has always been responsible when he sees the point of what he is asked to do and has agreed to do it. Since he was fairly small, he has been the go-to kid for vacationing neighbors with pets or plants that require feeding and monitoring. I have never known him to be late or unprepared for band practice. But, as he explained to me, these tasks are "real work," and bad things will happen to other people or animals if he doesn't come through. Schoolwork, on the other hand, doesn't seem "real" to him; it is just stuff that everyone is supposed to do with no point and no consequences other than bad grades, which don't seem real either.

This year, Ben squeaked by his first semester, as always doing brilliantly in subjects that engaged him, and just managing to stay afloat in the others. Seniors at his school spend the second semester at internships, and he is doing his at his high school, assisting the music teacher, teaching music theory and practice to grades 6-11.

He is thriving. His teacher is thinking about retiring in a few years, and told Ben that he would be happy to recommend him for the position. Teachers and administrators who used to pale when they saw him coming are receptive and even enthusiastic about the idea.

But of course he will need a college degree to officially do the work he is already doing so capably.

I'm hoping that this internship will serve as a "gap semester," and that he will start college in the fall with an enhanced sense of maturity and responsibility, even toward tasks that don't interest him.

But I can't help thinking it would be nice if kids like him could just leap into the working world without being penalized for their different approach to learning, and be judged instead on the quality of the work itself.


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