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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Dear New Teacher,

Dear New Teacher,

I made mistakes that still keep me up at night. But I also built a classroom library. Isn’t it beautiful? I dismissed it at the time because it was easy and fun. Now I realize how cool it is.

I have a teensy, weensy bit of bad news for you: This year is probably going to suck. You’re going to work very, very hard, lose sleep, care so much, and still be convinced that a potted plant would teach them more than you can.

Here is a short list of the mistakes you will almost certainly make:

-Forget to make copies of an assignment in time to give it to students before the due date. Or forget the assignment entirely.
-Answer a student question TOTALLY incorrectly, and be corrected by a student in front of the class.
-Lose important papers.
-Give a student the benefit of the doubt even though you KNOW she is lying.
-Choose the wrong moment to be a hard ass.
-Write a bad test.
-Confuse your students and then yourself.
-Plan WAY too little for one day, and spend a very uncomfortable 20 minutes waiting for the bell to ring.

You’ll do lots of great things, too, but you’ll dismiss those things, or fail to realize how great they are. You’ll be wearing goggles that allow you only to see your shortcomings, and there will be many of those.

The good news is that the first year ends. You will learn from it. You’ll start your second year with a much better sense of self, and you’ll be much less worried about things like whether or not you’ve got chalk on your butt. You’ll stop feeling like an imposter. You’ll let fewer things slide, and have more days that go smoothly. More and more, you’ll feel that you don’t have enough time to teach them everything you want to teach them. The period will end and you will think, “Wow, that went fast.”

You’ll reach someone. You’ll take things less personally. You’ll work hard, but more efficiently, and you’ll enjoy the work more.

By your third year (and I know that sounds like it’s a million, billion years from now, but it’s not. It’ll be here so fast it’ll make your head spin), you’ll have a few lesson plans you love. You’ll have moments you feel proud of, and students whose lives you’ve improved, if only by a small margin. You’ll be more pragmatic about the students who’ve slipped through your grasp, and, while you’ll keep stretching yourself to reach those difficult students, you’ll recognize that they do have to meet you halfway, and that you can’t force them. You’ll know when you’re being lied to, and feel more confident about how to deal with it. You’ll be a hard ass when you need to be, and you’ll be forgiving when you can. You’ll begin to know what kind of teacher you are. By now, you’ll have a reputation among the students. Don’t worry–they’re quite perceptive. If you’ve been working hard, and if you like them, and if you are passionate about your subject, you’ll have a good reputation. That reputation will help you. Students will conform to you more quickly, and test your boundaries less often.

You’ll suddenly realize that you haven’t worried about whether or not your butt was covered in chalk for weeks. When a student asks you a question to which you don’t know the answer, you’ll simply say, “I don’t know,” and then you’ll find out.

You’ll ask the class a question, and be comfortable letting the silence stretch for longer than 5 seconds.

You won’t be scared of your students anymore.

You won’t hate Sunday nights anymore.

You’ll love summer, but you’ll also look forward to September, because a fresh slate is now more exciting than it is terrifying.

You will remember that first class, and you’ll remember the students who were sacrificed on the altar of your first year. You’ll remember the student whose face fell when you made an ill-timed and overly harsh joke. You’ll remember the student who showed signs of needing real help, the one who might’ve had an eating disorder or whose parents might have been neglecting him. You’ll wish you’d gone to the counselors, and you’ll wonder how that student is doing now.

And you’ll remember that student when one of your new ones comes to you with a problem. You’ll stay on top of that problem. You’ll follow up. No matter the outcome, you’ll know that you took action.

You’ll be organized, and aware, and you’ll love your job.

Because nothing worth having is easy to get, and being a good teacher is very, very worth all the pain it takes to get there.

Good luck, New Teacher. You’re gonna need it!

Sincerely,

Me.

Banishing Writer’s Block

The following post was published on my now-defunct first blog, Loose Leaf Writing, on June 3, 2010:

Feeling very full of myself for having spent 10 uninterrupted minutes on task.

This morning, I’ve already gone to the bathroom, bought a coffee, eaten a bagel, gone to the bathroom again, gone to the vending machine, decided against the vending machine, and returned to the vending machine to buy the Swedish Fish after all. I’m about to make my third trip to the bathroom to clean the Fish residue out of my teeth.

I’ve set myself the arbitrary goal of finishing my current chapter today. So far I’ve written a page and a half, but that doesn’t even count because I started the morning by deleting a page and a half. So after two hours of “writing,” all I’ve managed to do is spend money, consume calories, and end up back where I started this morning.

No writer I’ve ever known can claim to have a 100% foolproof method of warding off writer’s block, but, this morning aside, I have developed a few strategies over the years that do actually work. At least some of the time:

 1. Change your medium.
If you’ve been typing at your desk, write in a notebook. If you’ve been writing in a notebook, try typing at your desk. Better yet, instead of using either of these practical methods, grab a bunch of scrap paper out of your recycling bin (envelopes work great) and write on it. The smaller and more easily lost the piece of scrap paper, the more likely you’ll write eloquent sentences that you’ll never be able to reproduce after said paper is, in fact, lost.

 2. Change your location.
Move from your desk to the sofa. Or better yet, to your bed. If you are lucky, you’ll fall asleep while writing. This can result in one of two happy outcomes: You might keep writing as you fall asleep. There’s no telling what genius is hiding in your subconscious that might spill out on paper as you drift off. Or, you might have a lovely dream about your current writing project. Or, even better, a whole new project might come to you. This leads directly into:

 3. Change your project.
You know how you always have the most momentum and inspiration when you first begin a new story? This is the reason I have the first ten pages of at least 20 novels saved on my hard drive. It’s also a great solution to writer’s block. Sure, you’re not going to end up with a publishable piece if you keep it up, but on the other hand, it can help you avoid all those exhausting trips to the bathroom.

And finally:

4. Go for a walk.
Don’t take a pen or paper with you. Don’t take a phone. Don’t take a camera. Walk away from any and all possible writing implements or recording devices. I guarantee that the second you do, inspiration will strike. At this point, you may pick up a stick and write in the mud, or charge into the nearest store and demand a pen. Or build a fire and send smoke signals home. If you’re lucky, the person transcribing your message will write it in crayon on an old credit card bill which they will then throw away. That’s how you’ll know for sure that what you’ve written is brilliant.