Crushing the Souls of Students: “You Have No Idea What You’re Doing”

“Have you researched colleges?” I ask my class. They say they have but they haven’t really. Not one of them knows the deadlines for the institutions in question. They know which sweatshirt looks cool. They have one pile of slick marketing fliers sucking them in and another of predatory loans that look like awards. I force them to create spreadsheets. They groan.

Adult life’s coming fast and it has the great potential to be terrible. All that freedom, fun, fantasy–it’s turning into piles of “How much does that cost?” Not just college costs, but bills, too. I tell them about the damage inflicted by bills.

Bills should be out in the open for kids, simple “read ‘em and weep” numbers serving as the primary intrinsic motivation to get kids learning their math, science, history, and writing. Give them real-world lessons early on.

What if, instead of worksheets, we used unhealthy treats. Give students big bags of candy. Take 30% away and give it to one kid, who we’ll call “the tax man.” Then steal the bag from the kid not paying attention and call that “loss of earning potential.” Label a few students history majors. Leave them each with a single piece of candy. Call the rest STEM people. They get the rest of treats–a giant pile. See how fast that motivates kids to get back to work.

I finish The Bill Monologue, feeling somewhere between a standup comedian and a horror director. At the point in the scene the killer pulls out a knife I pull out a bill. A real paper bill. Even though most of mine are digital, the nature of bills is a real one’s never far away.

Students gasp.

Shock and terror blanket the room. The “I’ll graduate and be free” attitude morphs into “How many hours at what rate will I need to work to pay that off?” followed by, “What job pays that much?” I don’t tell the deep, dark, truth–that that is never paid off because something else comes lurking around the corner, same as the horror movie. There’s a part one, part two, ad infinitum.  That’s a lesson for another day. Today’s lesson is more like Rocky I. I’ll crush them but let them get off the mat for the big win in the sequel.

My definition of adulthood is the concrete moment students realize they’ll have to get actual jobs in life instead of going to parties.

They run the numbers on the spreadsheets I forced them to create for the occasion, foreheads wrinkling. They check for an app that eliminates disappointment.

“If I could go back to high school,” nearly every well-meaning adults says, “I would in a minute.”

Not me. I wouldn’t. No way. Going back to a zit-filled existence filled with uncertainty, girl drama, no prom date, and other people controlling my life? No thank you. I like where I am just fine.

It’s my job to convince students they will, too.

Sure, I show them amortization tables and loan calculators. They see the devastating effects of debt interest and failing make a good life plan. I tell them four years of college isn’t a lifetime of “experience,” but a blink of the eye compared to what could an eternal obligation.

Done right, college can put a student on a path to amazing success. Done wrong, it’s the equivalent of selling one’s soul to the devil. I tell them of my own debt. The few who weren’t scared during The Bill Monologue ask my age, ask the amount of loans I still hold, then drop to the floor in convulsions.

One student asks why I took out more loans for a job that paid less.

“It’s the million dollar question,” I tell them. I say money’s not the only reason to choose a career.

Suddenly, I realize no eighteen-year old can conceptualize any of this. They have no idea what they’re doing. They want to be doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers–the same six jobs over and over because they don’t even know the possibilities. And if they don’t know the possibilities, they’ll choose the wrong path.

We shouldn’t research college at all. We should start by researching life.

“Stop right there!” I say. I make them close their eyes and imagine.

“Imagine you have a coffee. You’re walking in to work. You’re happy. What do you want to be doing all day? What makes you love work?”

I say I love my jobs. If money was no concern, I’d do my jobs for free. “What would you do if you loved your job so much you’d do it for free?” I remind them they have access to the entire global marketplace at their fingertips.

We put the fancy college marketing fliers aside and we make lists–lists of passions, lists of talents, lists of skills…lists of things they’d love to do all day. They say that career planning always seemed to be about one or another of the academic fields, never about hobbies, talents, skills and passions.

It took me until I was forty to figure that out myself. They’re a couple decades ahead of the game.

I draw a stick figure picture on the board. It’s a guy on a cloud handing something down to a second stick figure with a caption, “June 11.”

“What’s that?”

God handing you a diploma. You’re waiting for graduation day to start life. As if you’ll have a magic vision. That’s not how it works. You have the same brain now as you will in June. Start today.”

Blank stares.

I give them the steps–finish making their lists, keep working on them. Do one thing each day to learn something that will make them great. In six months, a year, they’ll be amazed at the effects of that journey.

I tell them I know adults who never give this stuff a moment of thought, either. I promise them if they start today, they’ll pass those adults by.

Suddenly, the things we’re doing aren’t for some test or for that day when God hands them a diploma. They’re real. They’re part of a puzzle where students take control of their own destiny. They begin reading, researching, and doing three times the work I’d ever ask them to do…on their own, not for credit and not for a high-stakes test. They’re doing it because it matters, because they’re going to use it, and because they’re going to reach the stars.

That is what school is all about.


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