When I started the ninth grade, I had a homeroom teacher named Mrs. Swanson. In those days, at my school, homeroom was a big deal. It was where all things began and ended, and if you had a study hall, it was likely to occur there as well. Ninth grade was the culminating year for Junior High in my town, which means it was my third year at the school.
It also meant that, like every student, I had a reputation. Unlike every student, mine was not particularly good. In fact, I suspect it was pretty bad. I was a bright kid — but I was also a loud and active kid, and could be disruptive when I got bored. That happened a lot to me while in school. The Humanities, which I loved, seemed to be going too slow for my mind. Math and Science, which frightened and confused me, seem to go all too fast.
The first day I was in Mrs. Swanson’s homeroom, I casually chatted to a neighboring student. Mrs. Swanson heard my voice, and told me in a loud, firm tone that she was not going to have any of my bad behavior in her classroom, and insisted I move my seat to a space that was immediately adjacent to her desk at the front of the class. I was physically separated from my peers, and was now literally attached to her.
I’m sure Mrs. Swanson made the decision to be very firm right at the beginning, and was likely told by other teachers that if she didn’t rein in my behavior early, I was going to make a mess of things.
But in her response, I could see what she thought of me, and the level she expected me to reach. I internalized that, and to a certain degree, I met her exactly at her expectations. From my perch at the front of the room, I became the disruptor she feared I would be. She practically assigned me the job.
Just two years prior, in my first year of Junior High, another teacher gave me a different set of expectations. Mr. Bulger was my English teacher, and there was nothing boring about the way he taught literature. Or even, for that matter, the potentially deadly subject of grammar. To this day, I can remember all of the helping verbs, as the fun competitions he set up burned them permanently into my brain (I just timed myself - I can still say all 23 in under five seconds).
He laid a path for me with his faith and belief in me, and it was easy for me to walk down such a clear, pleasant road.
More importantly, Mr. Bulger seemed to respect what I knew, what I could do, and even more importantly, what I might possibly do in the near future. He played to my strengths. Mr. Bulger called on me often to read aloud, and gave me choice parts in three plays (“Cheaper by the Dozen,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “The Glass Menagerie”). I remember reading a line from one of them, and he sighed out loud and pointed out my sensitive rendering of the words.
The word “sensitive” had never before been associated with me by anyone.
At the end the first quarter, Mr. Bulger asked me if I had made the honor roll. He said it matter-of-factly, as if the answer was going to be an obvious yes. I was startled, and laughed and said, “not even close.” He looked at me with concern and quietly said, “Well, you could.”
He had set expectations of me, just as Mrs. Swanson had. I met his expectations, too. I was one of the best students in his class. He laid a path for me with his faith and belief in me, and it was easy for me to walk down such a clear, pleasant road. That two years later I could also meet very low expectations says that these things are not curative or permanent — a single show of faith may not be enough for the long journey. But it was clear that I had an ability to read what people believed about me (maybe I was sensitive), and raise or lower myself accordingly.
Investing in Potential
As a teacher, dorm head, coach, dean, and program head, I’ve tried to remember Mr. Bulger’s investment, his expectations, and his faith. And when I have bestowed those on others, I have often been surprised by the effect it has had on my students and staff.
Whatever age student (or child) we are talking about, they have buried in their brains a detector that senses the degree of faith that adults have in them.
When they know I believe in them, they usually rise up to meet my hope and faith. But if I am honest, I have, on some occasions, acted like Mrs. Swanson, where they could feel that I didn’t trust them, and that I had faith in their likely failure. I suspect that, on some occasions, my students met those expectations as well.
Whatever age student (or child) we are talking about, they have buried in their brains a detector that senses the degree of faith that adults have in them. I’m trying to feed that detector the best message possible, as I will likely see it played out in front of me one way, or another.