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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 22, 2002
The answer, delivered with a slight, quick shrug of the shoulders, was typical for a sixth-grader.
Everything's "okay" when you're a 13-year-old boy. The best food you ever tasted is okay. The prettiest girl in school looks okay. Even the worst food you ever tasted is okay.
So I wasn't at all surprised when the sixth-grader and the eighth-grader I'm mentoring in a role models program sat down and assessed their school performance since our last meeting as okay.
All I had to do then was narrow down the broad range of okays to figure out which one they meant. Turned out okay was A's and B's with a C here and there. But for my sixth-grader, okay included an F in science. He had not turned in a project.
I could relate. The only F I can recall from my report cards was in science -- after I didn't turn in a project.
I've always been a little proud of that F. All these years, it has represented a principled stand: I didn't just fail to turn one in; I refused to do one. I was convinced that I would learn nothing from the project, the specifics of which I have long since forgotten, and would therefore be wasting time I could be using on something worthwhile, like the next chapter of our textbook.
I was usually ahead of the class and wanted to be a physicist, and it seemed to me we didn't have the luxury of wasting valuable study time. I even resented the classroom time we were devoting to it. I wasn't going to be part of such sloughing off.
All these years, I've been proud of that F, interpreting it as evidence that I had the courage to stand on principles back then.
So I asked my sixth-grader why he didn't do his project.
His answer changed my life. To paraphrase him liberally: The science teacher is mean. My friends say she is mean. I forgot my book bag. I left my pencil sharpener in the library. My cousin wouldn't help me.
He did fashion a nameplate for the project.
All of these were woven together into a story that might have made sense to another 13-year-old. But to the overcrowded brain of a middle-aged man who has to bookmark the highlights of ideas in order to follow them, the path from "mean teacher" to no science project was not clear.
So I tried to get him to help me understand. "You didn't do your science project because your friends say the teacher is mean? What did she do?"
His answer is the teenage shrug, the one that says "I can't answer that with "okay' so I don't want to be bothered with it."
After thinking about it, he corrects "mean" to strict. She doesn't like for you to sharpen pencils or drop things on the floor. She expects you to have your supplies when you come to class.
Based on his description, all of my teachers were mean, or at least strict.
With the teacher's disposition eliminated from the equation, I pressed further. "So you had the materials for your project in the book bag you forgot?"
Even he laughed at that suggestion. But he offered no more clarification on what role the forgotten book bag played.
Elaboration on all the elements of the original explanation were equally illuminating.
Then a sobering thought occurred to me: Is that how I sounded giving my noble reasons for not doing the project? How many people got a chuckle out of 13-year-old me being self-righteously indignant that a teacher would have the unmitigated gall to insult my intelligence and waste my time by assigning me to do some juvenile project in an otherwise serious science class? How silly must I have sounded to accuse a teacher of spinning the wheels of my ambition so she could have a few easy days at school?
Pushed to think about it now, even I have to smile about it. For the first time.
Human nature is so geared to self-protection that even in our least virtuous moments, our subconscious is busy making us heroes. It turns our failures to successes. It shrugs its shoulders and tells us we're okay, that what we did might appear negative but was in response to a higher principle.
My sixth-grader and I both failed to do our projects for basically the same reason: We were lazy, or hard-headed, or simply unmotivated. But those are hard tags to paste on ourselves. Easier to be principled, or at least justified in our failures.
I made a couple of weak comments about the answer always lying in results, not explanations or excuses, that explanations are merely clues to problems standing in the way of results and should be used to show how you got there, not to explain why you didn't.
My sixth-grader didn't say anything in response.
He was probably wondering why I was having so much trouble understanding why he didn't do the project.
By the time he reaches adulthood, his reason will probably sound a lot like mine. It will probably be nobler and have little to do with mean teachers and forgotten book bags.
His failure will be heroic, just like mine was all those years.
But I am a little envious: He will have followed a much more creative path to that point.