Four Reasons Why Jeff Bliss is Totally Wrong

Jeff Bliss is the young man who has recently made a name (or at least an image, with all that long blond hair) for himself by berating his teacher after she told him to leave the classroom.

If you’ve seen the video of the “mic-droppingly epic speech” of this high school student giving his teacher the what-for, then I know what you’re thinking: “Wrong? No way! That kid is totally RIGHT! This is everything wrong with our public education system! Test prep, packets, and lazy teachers! He called them all out!”

Fair enough. The content of the speech isn’t totally wrong. In fact, assuming the allegations are accurate, the class sounds intellectually stultifying, to say the least. And Mr. Bliss has a certain natural presence, a je ne sais quoi, a refreshing lack of profanity—in short, a talent—for public speaking. And I understand where he’s coming from. That self-righteous indignation, that breathtaking certainty in the revolutionary validity of his own words–I get it. I get it and I did it. I railed against the system, against “bad” teachers, against every injustice that came to my attention. That injustices usually came to my attention when they inconvenienced me in some way was, at the time, beneath my notice.

Fortunately for me, my mother, who believed that I was intelligent, talented, and worthy of a good education, also had an incredibly well-honed bullshit meter when it came to my teen angst. It is thanks entirely to her good advice, which I sometimes actually took, that I managed to stay out of the “dumping ground” classrooms—you know the ones I mean—and squeeze into the types of classes where my arrogance was, by and large, no match for the creativity and intelligence of my teachers.

I have a strong suspicion that Mr. Bliss has not managed to avoid the dumping ground. Everything in the video suggests this is exactly where he finds himself. It’s in the teacher’s voice, the reaction (or lack thereof) of the other students to his rant, and in the accusations he makes about the nature of the curriculum: He’s in the classroom where students go when they have been deemed “unteachable.” Every public school has at least one such room, and Mr. Bliss is exactly right: such rooms should not exist.

That said, Mr. Bliss, you’re going about this all wrong. Here’s why:

1. It doesn’t matter who or what is at fault. In the end, the only person you’re hurting here is you.

This was my mother’s favorite point, except she called it “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” I heard this phrase so many times when I was a teenager that I was almost tempted to actually cut off my nose just to get her to stop saying it. Of course, mostly what I hated was that she was right. Railing against your teacher will get you exactly nowhere. If you think your teacher doesn’t care, she probably doesn’t. Thus, shouting at her that she should care is worse than a waste of your breath—it’s going to get you in trouble, and no one in the administration is going to care that you are right and she is wrong. More importantly, no college admissions officer or future employer is going to be sympathetic to your plea that the reason you have a 1.5 GPA is because your teachers were all horrible people.

In other words, you can fight this all you want. You can be 100% right. You can refuse to do any work, to open any book (or packet), to get a decent grade until everything in the system is fixed to your satisfaction. Guess what? You will literally hurt no one but yourself in this process.

Let me put this another way: there are people, lots of people, people with PhDs even, people who are brilliant and clever and hard-working and passionate, who have dedicated their lives to trying to make it so that no student ever has to sit in a room and be bored. And those brilliant, clever, passionate people have not managed to fix the system. Maybe someday they will. Maybe they won’t. In the meantime, you are bored and you are pissed. Get over it. If you don’t want to be bored, do something. If you don’t want to be pissed, take a few deep breaths and then do something. And by “do something,” I don’t mean yell at your teacher and then storm out of the room. I mean DO SOMETHING. Read a book. Read 100 books. Practice chords on a guitar. Work on your poetry. Work on getting a date for Friday night. Whatever you do, remember this: nobody but you has the power to make you not bored and not pissed. It is entirely in your control. The sooner you learn that, the better you will feel and the more effective you will be.

2. Talent is not rare.

Many of the comments on the original YouTube video say something to the effect of, “This kid has nothing to worry about. With that kind of talent, he’s going to be just fine.” I beg to differ.

We’re sometimes led to believe that talent is rare, and that rare talent is all a person really needs to get ahead. It’s a delicious thought that has led many of us, my high school self included, to avoid working hard to hone an actual skill and, instead, cast about madly for the magical sport, artistic media, or musical instrument at which we are so incredibly talented that work is not required and fame will find us.

This, sadly, is not how it ever happens, no matter how often it may seem that it is. Behind every musician, every professional athlete, every writer, every scientist, every famous person you’ve ever heard of, is a history of long, hard work—work that was often boring, monotonous, and thankless. It may not have been conventional, may not have taken place inside a classroom, and may not be immediately obvious beneath the veneer of ennui that said artist or athlete has carefully constructed, but I promise you, it happened. Practice and hour after hour after hour of work happened before success hit.

To get a sense of the commonness of talent, all you have to do is look at the number of people playing a college sport compared to the number of professional athletes. Take football: every single player who has gotten as far as college football is talented. Of those talented players, fewer than two percent—two percent!—will go pro. And that’s just the talented players who made it as far as college ball—imagine the numbers who play in high school who are “talented.” Add to that the numbers of children and teenagers who are talented at some other sport, or in art or music or writing or math or science, and you’ve got essentially, I don’t know, billions of talented people on the planet.

Which leads me to my next point:

3. Potential is worth nothing.

I know that you believe you have potential. I can hear it in your voice. And you are positive that this potential means something.

Sadly, no one has ever made a difference in the world on the basis of “having a lot of potential.” You know who had a lot of potential? Every convicted felon serving life in prison. Every lazy, horrible teacher. Every member of every lousy garage band that ever played in a shitty bar. In short, every baby ever born has potential. Really.

So you, sitting in high school, know that you have potential, and that the school is wasting it. You are “the future of this country,” for heaven’s sake! You know that if only you had teachers who cared, a curriculum that made sense, administrators who knew their ass from their elbows, your potential would flourish, well-nurtured in a sea of caring and highly involved people.

Right?

Wrong. Your potential will flourish when you decide to turn your potential into something that actually matters: Achievement. No one can do it for you, and waiting for someone to help you is a waste of your time. Does that have to be conventional school achievement? No. But it will make your life a hell of a lot easier if your achievements include being able to show a modicum of success in high school. Especially since:

4. Intelligence entitles you to nothing.

Surely the fact that you’re smart entitles you to at least a tiny feeling of superiority, right? If your teacher had half a brain, she obviously wouldn’t be sitting in there. Ditto most of the other kids. Clearly, the fact that you’re stuck here proves only that somewhere, someone made a terrible mistake—if they knew how smart you are, they never would have let this happen.

Well… no. First of all, like talent and potential, intelligence alone doesn’t mean much. Those who happen to score above average on IQ tests would love to believe that this actually matters in some gigantic (or even in some small) way, but it doesn’t. Most psychologists, maybe most people, would disagree with me here, but I don’t actually believe that intelligence exists separately from behavior. If a person makes stupid decisions (and I would define that as “decisions that hurt himself and no one else”), then that person is not very intelligent. Or, if he is, that intelligence is meaningless. Once that person starts making smart decisions (i.e. decisions that benefit himself and the people around him), he is intelligent. Ergo, if you want the world to treat you as though you are an intelligent person, then start making smart decisions.

Secondly, a person isn’t entitled to a good education because he or she is intelligent. A person is entitled to a good education because he or she exists. But being entitled guarantees (here’s the word again) nothing. If you’re not getting that thing, then being “entitled” to it isn’t going to magically make it happen. Therefore, if you feel entitled to a good education, then you are simply going to have to go out and get well-educated. I wish as much as you do that going to school and sitting down and waiting for someone to take an interest would do the trick. However, in this case, it doesn’t seem to be working. In truth, that’s really never how it works. Excellent teachers don’t stand in front of the room and pour information into your head. Excellent teachers find ways of getting you to pour information into your own head.

If you don’t have an excellent teacher, you’re going to have to take this bull by the horns, skip the middle man, do some damn hard work, and get that information into your head. The fact that you have potential, talent, intelligence, and the right to a decent education will mean nothing—and I mean nothing—when you are faced with the whole big wide world outside of high school.

So hop to it, young man! You have a lot of work to do. You have a whole world to save, an entire future to fix. It’s not going to happen just because you have half a million hits on your YouTube video.

Because here’s one thing that is true: when you’re one of the ones who has a little extra talent, a little extra intelligence, a little je ne sais quoi, and the ability to see past the crap, that means you have more of a responsibility to work hard and make a difference, not less.

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2 Comments

  1. Michele

     /  May 10, 2013

    Excellent blog!

    Reply
  2. I’ve been away, and this post has been sitting in my inbox waiting for me to sit down with the time to appreciate it- which I just had. Fantastic post! So true about so many things in life not just education, but also health!

    Reply

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