My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
June 24, 2003


As a feeder of birds, I have lost the battle with squirrels who persist in believing that birdfeeders are meant for their delight. As a gardener, I fight a constant battle with weeds that look at the rich bedding soil I've put out and say, "Pack everything, dear, I've found us a lovely new home."

Weeds do not take even the broadest hints, like, say, being uprooted and sprayed with poisons. Nor do squirrels, who seem to regard "squirrel-proof" birdfeeders as a pleasant mental and physical exercise we've provided for them, kind of like doing crossword puzzles or gymnastics to earn their breakfast.

It occurs to me that this is because weeds and squirrels do not know they are lower life forms. As far as they are concerned, the goodies have been put out there, and they are as entitled as anybody to get their share. That seems, in fact, to be a majority opinion in nature -- no species feels less entitled than any others to claim what it needs to survive.

Except among humans, that is. You see, we DO take hints.

If you're born to the caste of untouchables in India, you're unlikely to aspire to high-ranking jobs, a good education, or marriage outside your caste. You may even accept the judgment that being born into the caste makes you less than human, and so it makes perfect sense that you "are not allowed to drink from the same wells, attend the same temples, wear shoes in the presence of an upper caste, or drink from the same cups in tea stalls," as Human Rights Watch reported.

If you're a stay-at-home mother, you may have come to accept the popular idea that the job you are doing is somehow not real work. Your answer to the standard question, "What do you do?" may be the self-effacing statement, "Oh, I'm just a housewife." That's not because you don't think what you're doing is valuable, mind you, but because you've learned that when you say that, people don't say, "How wonderful! Do tell me about your children," but go looking for somebody more interesting to talk to.

If you're born to the working poor in America, the odds are that you won't expect to go to college but will aspire to what your environment tells you is possible, like maybe a good factory job or a skilled trade (which, oddly enough, seems to be off limits to more privileged kids -- imagine a Harvard-bound young man telling his parents he wants to be a plumber).

Those expectation boundaries may be invisible but they're very real, and if you exhibit weed attitude by trying to go beyond them, you may run all the social and even physical risks of being considered "uppity" by both your friends and your enemies. And you may find institutions stacked against your aspirations.

Perhaps your school will try to track you into business math instead of algebra, shop or home economics instead of science courses. Perhaps the counselors will suggest you aim for the local community college rather than a top university. Maybe the school will even assign you to the bottom tracks and make it clear they don't really expect you to master -- or care if you master -- the subjects they're teaching.

If you persist and perform well in spite of all that, you may find out that you're still regarded as an undesirable prospect. When Congress enacted the GI BIll that enabled returning soldiers to attend college, there was a lot of resistance in the academic community from professors who were convinced that academic standards would be lowered by admitting all those unsuitable people who never would have been admitted before the war. Their unspoken conviction was that people who worked with their hands lacked the ability to work with their minds.

The astonishing success of the GIs shook up the universities and led to an economic boom, as they used their training and talents to do research, create businesses, and enter the professions.

What led them to go so far beyond what George Bush calls the "soft bigotry of low expectations"? A massive deprogramming, I think, in the form of World War II.

The most democratic of all our wars, it gave the children of migrant workers and waitresses and janitors a chance to test themselves, side by side with the children of the privileged, in situations where the only things that mattered were survival skills, courage and ingenuity, and their contribution to the group. They saw that sons of the rich could be fools, and sons of construction workers could be heroes. If they passed that test, I suspect they never again doubted their own abilities, no matter what society said. They also had a strong sense that they had earned whatever rewards their government chose to give them.

Like the squirrels and weeds, they had decided they had a right to whatever goodies were out there, and they had learned to trust their ability to get them no matter what the obstacles in their paths.

There's a lesson here for teachers who work with the children our society has decided are "weeds." I'm talking about children in ghetto and reservation schools, and children who are tracked into classes for learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

The GIs demonstrated something social science calls "resilience," the ability to achieve greatly despite immense obstacles and low expectations. Psychologists who study this have found that the common factors in resilient people are the confidence-building experience of mastering something difficult, and important persons in their lives who told them they were valuable.

Think of some of the great achievements in teaching children of whom nothing was expected; the Boys Choir of Harlem comes to mind, and the Chess in the Schools program in New York City. In each of these programs, "at-risk" children were taught not just music and chess, but how to be successful. They were expected to live up to the high expectations of their teachers and the demands of the art. They were taught to prepare themselves thoroughly, to show up on time, to exhibit good manners, to plan for their future, to make no excuses for their mistakes but to learn from them, and to use those skills in all their other classes.

What these student achievements have in common is teachers who deprogram their students, insisting that each and every one of them is fully capable of self-discipline and mastery of the subject matter. More than that, these teachers use the passions and knowledge their students already have to connect with what they're learning.

In doing so, they teach their students that their horizons can be much wider than the reservation or the ghetto or the mammoth impersonal high school that tells them they are geeks or losers or weirdos. They teach their students weed attitude: in a world full of seed-feeders and freshly tilled soil, they are just as entitled to that nurturance as any rose or cardinal, and maybe moreso.

You see, these children so easily written off as weeds often turn out to be hardy, useful, beautiful plants, and the world is a better place because they have been encouraged to bloom.

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