Wednesday, October 17, 2012

# 19 Everybody is a Star

   I'm between classes, sitting at my desk shuffling papers, and I look up over my reading glasses to find one of my grade 12s standing beside my desk. I say, "Yes?" She looks at me and asserts, "I'd like to redo the test sir."  I respond, "'You mean the test you earned 17 out of  60?" She says"Yes, that one."  I reply, "You had two weeks notice, we did a review, why didn't you study for it?" Then, with an impatient sigh she pronounces, "'Cause I was busy."

   Then she commands, "You have let me write the test, 'cause I need 'the marks.' So, I counter with, "Now, why are you so special that I should make up a new test just for you? And what about the rest of the class, do I offer them the same opportunity?"  She takes my words to heart and says her parents always tell her she is "special" and her grandmother tells her that one day (her eyes widen) "I will be a star." (Apparently she is a singer.) So, I point out, "But you aren't demonstrating star behaviour. How will you be a star if you don't practise?"  She explains, that practise isn't necessary because her mother "...tells me I'm a natural......."  I take a breath, sit back and say "Do you think you will become a star like magic?"  Then she stiffens her posture and says, "Sir, don't step on my dreams."

    I said, "Listen, I realize this description is not going to sound romantic to you, but I'm going offer it up for your consideration. Stardom begins with a need to duplicate a skill you have witnessed. It could be music, public speaking, athletics, anything, but you discover this skill resonates inside you. So, you start practising and you improve.  If luck is in your corner, there might be something genetic that makes learning the skill easier. However, as you progress, you realize a teacher is needed to help with the development of your skill. Then the real work begins. You practise hours a day, you forgo other activities in favour of perfecting your technique. You learn the value of self motivation.

   You will probably be performing in front of an audience by this time and people might say things like you are talented. If you are exceptional the audience will reward you with their approval. If you continue to work hard, a positive reputation may develop. Then, you hope someone with a talent for business recognizes your marketability and they are able to promote your hard work and dedication. If your efforts really resonate with a large audience, you become a 'star'.  Have you noticed the number of times you enters into the process?" Then I concluded, "You see, becoming a star is mostly about preparation through hard work plus luck in the form of opportunity. Then in response to my lecture, she rolls her eyes, pushes her right hip out and with a sassy tone says, "What if I post myself on Youtube and get discovered like all the other stars?"

    Readers, I have friends and colleagues who really believe that this new attitude toward work, success and the obsession with stardom is here to stay, and to most, it defies common sense. I can't tell when it started, but someone with a talent for marketing discovered money can be made by turning the cameras away from the stage and toward the audience. There is Youtube, Facebook, blog sites and a host of other social media sites where mediocre skills can be exposed to the world. In addition, hundreds of manufactured 'reality' TV shows are pumped out to celebrate everything from low skilled jobs like being a parking lot attendant to really stupid behaviours like jumping off the roof of a house into a plastic swimming pool. On the surface it seems that this is the new standard for stardom. However, I'm not convinced of the long term success of this approach, there are too many short lived winners. These audience stars will survive as briefly as candy floss on a windy day.  

   So, how does this shallow idea of success influence my job as a teacher?  Well, governments and some school boards have adopted the shortcuts to stardom idea by pandering to disillusioned marginalized voters. Their short sighted programs ignore the reality that the real stars among us are always the hardest working people in the group.  This is an established fact which will never change because you can only be a genuine star if the audience is truly admiring your skill.

    Some examples are: schools which do not provide zeros for student projects where this symbol is earned. Many students expect to do the same assignment several time until they 'get it right.'  Others will arrive with administrators and parents in tow to argue over a few marks and with a stronger sense of entitlement than in previous years. Programs are set up in the schools which stock a squad of success police masquerading as teachers to hunt students down and beg them to hand in assignments.  We seem to be so obsessed with the politics of ramming through every single kid in an effort to increase the numbers of 'successful' students that we have forgotten what real success requires. I am lamenting this development in our schools, but I don't think the trend will survive much longer. Sustainable success will always need to use the system outlined above. 

   Charlie Parker was an innovator in Be-Bop jazz and his music is still alive, even in death he is a genuine star. His solution to becoming a star is simple, "You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."  It's OK to have dreams as long as you realize, you have to be asleep to realize them.