Making plastic out of people

As their school disappears from existence, 8th-graders are instructed to give graduation speeches about their "strengths."

Remember the piece I wrote a couple of months ago, advising an 8th-grade teacher to put an unceremonious end to his school’s tradition of forcing graduates to give platitudinous speeches? Remember how I told him to have the kids tell stories about the school instead of spouting bromides about education? Remember how I said to the teacher, Ariel Margolis:

“If you can teach your students to stand in front of their fellow travelers and give meaning to life’s long slog by organizing it into mythology that welds individuals into a community—well now, that’s something worth doing. And something that will make them valuable citizens for the rest of their lives.”

And remember how Mr. Margolis appreciated my advice, and set out to take it?

Well yesterday I checked in by email with Mr. Margolis, and asked him how the speech project was going.

“Head of School decided to go a different route with the speeches by having students focus on their strengths and share it. … I am trying to be optimistic… but the speeches lack something… soul? passion? connection to the school? We shall see …”

When I e-groaned at this, he added, “Unfortunately, this is the last year we will be doing graduation as we found out 2 weeks ago that the school is closing (lack of funds, major overhead costs, and poor recruitment) … very shocking and sad … being in the building feels very much like being with a close family member or best friend who is terminally ill and there is not a damn thing you can do. It’s too bad that the kids can’t express their feelings … and tell a story ….”

Yeah, it sure is. Now, not only are the administrators failing to teach a useful lesson about the social purpose of oratory … they’re teaching the kids that the thing to do when the whole shithouse is going up in flames—when the most important institution in their young lives is vaporizing, threatening to disappear as if it never existed—is to stand and “share” about their “strengths.”

We can teach our kids to tell each other one another the truth, or we can teach them to mouth banalities that they don’t believe themselves.

Well, maybe this school deserves to close. Mr. Margolis, may you land at a school whose leaders want to help students express their own real feelings, rather than the clichés that, for some reason, grownups think they want to hear. —DM

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