Notta and New Year's Resolutions

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Notta & New Year’s Resolutions

My class has the pre-holiday Antsies. Not focused on our work, clock-watching, more concerned with shopping, wrapping and cooking than Language Arts or Social Studies. I shouldn’t be surprised.

It’s a truism among teachers that, the closer the days get to a break, and especially a break with a major gift-giving holiday in its midst, the less focused students become. Math devolves into the number of presents divided by how many aunts’ fuzzy kisses and bad breath have to be endured. Geography can only map the sleigh-and-reindeer routes. And Science has yet to figure out how Santa gets down the chimney. One expects the elementary and middle school students to fall prey to this annual attention deficit. High schoolers have their own distractions from studies this time of year, too, but it usually has less to do with the Santa side of things. Most teachers I know try to keep up and keep in by dropping holiday-themed projects, assignments, and exam questions, all in the hope of surviving the remaining school days until the break with some sanity intact. And that seems to be the focus: do what it takes to get to that last minute of the last day before the break. Then, the goal is to push on through to the last minute of the last hour before Christmas. A few might tack on the interim days to get to 11:59 p.m. on December 31st, but that is as far as most students, and a few of us teachers, can imagine.

Then what?

The days do pass. The holidays come and go. They always do, in much the same way, year after year. The gift paper pulled off, the food enjoyed, the company welcomes worn out with exhaustion. And it’s a new year.

I know a few folks who still do the New Year’s Resolution thing. After all their holiday food, I imagine the majority list “Lose weight” or “Get (back) in shape” in the top three items of their lists. Some go the so-called proactive, if vague, route and resolve to “Be my best self” or “Get back to what’s important.” What’s missing in most cases, though, is not the ‘what’ on these lists, but the ‘how.’

“How many of you make New Year’s Resolutions?” I asked the morning of our last class before the break, before we delved into the mysteries of Newton’s Laws of Motion. A ring of blank faces answered my question. “A list of things you want to do in the New Year? Things you want to get? Change? Do differently?”

“Oh, everybody wants to go on a diet after pigging out on all that food!”The Early Bird piped.

“And booze!” That from one of my young men. We all laughed.

“How many of them actually succeed?” I asked. I pretended to shuffle the assignment papers.

“Hardly any of them,” the Early Bird said. “I always starve for a few days, eating salads and drinking water until I’m floating, but it never lasts.”

“Why?” Notta asked for me.

The Early Bird shrugged. “I get tired of it. I mean, you can only eat so much lettuce.”

“I want to finish this class and get my GED,” said another young lady. A murmur of general agreement.

“Wanting is fine,” Notta said. “But will you? How much lettuce are you willing to eat to get it?”

“If that’s all it took,” said the young man, “I’d eat a whole garden row of the stuff!” We laughed again.

“And you’d have to stay in the bathroom for a month,” the Early Bird said, waving her hand in front of her nose.

“I think the point is,” I said before the conversation descended into fart jokes, “weight loss and getting your GED have a lot in common.”

That idea silenced them for a moment.

“How so?” the young man challenged. “One, you’re getting something. The other, you’re trying to get rid of something. A lot of some things, for some of us.”

I refused to let them start pointing fingers. “Okay, let’s try this: why do you want to get your GED?”

“To get a better job, maybe to go to college.”

“And get an even better job,” the Early Bird added.

“Why?” I asked. After teaching as long as I have, I have learned to take no offense when my students regard me with incredulity and not a little contempt for my ignorance. I get the same look from my own children when I do not fathom (or desire) the latest smart phone apps.

“Are you serious?” the young man said.

“No, I’m Mrs. Gibbs. Why would you want college and/or better jobs?”

“To make more money.”

“Why?”

“To buy stuff I want, stuff I need. Maybe get married and have kids.”

“Why?”

His face had reddened a bit at this. He looked to his classmates, his brown eyes asking if they believed how stupid I could be. “To have a life!”

“Don’t you have one now?” Notta took some of the heat for me.

“Okay, okay, to have a better life! To have the life I want to have! To be happy!”

“Bingo!” I said. “Isn’t that really why people want to do anything?”

“But what you’re talking about is so hard!” the 2nd young lady said. “People who want to lose weight have to really work at it and change their eating habits and activities and all sorts of things, or it’s yo-yo time and they end up fatter than they were before.”

“That’s true,” I said. “They have to set a goal and be willing to make the changes to achieve it.”

“Not to mention, maintain it,” Notta said. “That’s the really hard work.”

“How many of you started class with us, thinking you knew pretty much all the material and planned to be out of here in, say, a month or two?” I asked. Four hands went up, three of them recent high school dropouts. “How long have you been coming to class, then?”

Only one had come for less than two months. The average of the four was six months.

“It’s so hard!” the Early Bird spoke for most of the class.

“But you keep coming to class and learning,” I said. “And you’ve had to make some changes in your life to take this class, haven’t you?” She nodded. A metaphorical light bulb started to glow over head, and in her eyes. “You’re not only learning math facts and science facts and history facts, you’re learning to learn. Isn’t that a skill you can take to a job or more education?”

“I’m getting a construction job,” the young man said. “I don’t need to keep learning.”

“Do you know everything about construction?” Notta asked.

“Almost.” He reddened when his classmates made hissing sounds. “Well, okay, not everything. I’ll have to learn some things.”

“And if you know how to learn, apply what you’ve learned, and maybe teach somebody else, wouldn’t that be worth all this work?”

“I’d like it better if you could just give us a cheat sheet,” he said.

I laughed with him. “It would be nice, as long as the computer generates the same test for everybody, but it doesn’t. “

“It would be even easier if we could simply bore a hole in all your heads,” Notta said, “and then pour the information inside.” She received a somewhat less comfortable laugh. The Early Bird ran her hand over her skull with a half-smile.

“So what’s the moral of the story?” asked another young man. This one used his break-time to read, rather than go out for a smoke or a snack.

“Good question,” I said. “Anybody want to make a suggestion?”

I will never get used to the sight and sound of students settling back in their seats and waiting for the teacher to give them the answer. They always strike my inner ear as a collective “I give up!” sigh. I waited.

And waited. Some of the students began shifting in their chairs. Some of them made downright impatient noises urging me to spit the moral out so we could get on with the lesson and on into the holiday break.

“When you set a goal,” I started for them.

“Like getting your GED,” the Early Bird said.

“Or losing weight,” the other young lady said.

“You have to work at it,” the young, construction-bound man said.

“And sometimes it’s hard work,” the reader said.

“And you have to keep at it,” Notta said. “Because life changes. Always does.”

“And we have to change with it,” the Early Bird said. “Or we won’t get anywhere.”

“And that’s brings us to the physics concept of inertia,” I said to general groans.


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