NOTE: It’s been some time since I went full-on political in this blog, but current events have put us all in harm’s way, changing daily life, maybe forever. We now routinely face life or death situations. More than 72,000 Americans have succumbed to a torturous death by Corona virus. 72,000 mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends. 72,000 lives. Small businesses are closed, some with no prospect for survival. With job loss, people have also lost access to employment dependent health insurance. In the Michigan statehouse, armed protesters demand an end to the state shutdown. Hungry families line up at food banks across the country. Front line workers put themselves at risk to save lives.
In the midst of this deadly mess, federal response has been chaotic, ineffective, juvenile. The Senate Majority Leader tossed a lit match into the dry brush of partisan politics when he called this a blue state vs. red state issue. The president has let us down: he disregards science, manipulates public sentiment for personal self aggrandizement, makes impulsive,inaccurate statements, refuses to take responsibility.
There’s a lot to be learned from a middle school project.
When I was still teaching middle school, our 8th grade English capstone project was an autobiography. Through a series of structured assignments, students wrote their own life stories as they worked their way through excerpts from the autobiographies of people from all walks of life: Malala Yousefsai, Tim Russert, Sandra Cisneros, Sonia Sotomayor, James McBride, Christopher Reeve, Barak Obama. It was a chance for kids to see their own lives parallel to the lives of those who have changed the world in some way. More than this, it was a chance for kids to see these game changers as kids themselves. The excerpts I chose for our readings centered on childhood and adolescence. The project culminated in an evening gallery style presentation where students shared their work with their families, friends, and faculty.
An overwhelming student favorite in this unit involved reading Chapter 2 of Colin Powell’s book It Worked for Me and his 13 Rules of Leadership. The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State describes his early life as the son of hard working Jamaican immigrants. His 13 Rules offers life lessons for success and satisfaction.
After reading Secretary Powell’s suggestions for positive leadership, kids came up with their own rules:
“Resist the urge to distract others. This was hard for me. I like making my friends laugh by doing dumb things. It doesn’t usually go that well, though. This means don’t create a fuss to make yourself a star. You might get a few minutes of fame, but in the end, it doesn’t get you very far. This has worked for me because in the beginning of the school year, I was making way too many jokes. I fell out of my chair in English class. I piled up the weights on the scale in science. People started getting sick of me and my jokes, especially the teachers, and my grades were going down. So once I stopped distracting people, I spent more time working in class. The teachers noticed and told my parents I was trying harder. Now I am on the high honor roll and ready for high school.”
“Be honest. Telling the truth is very important. Besides, people almost always find out when you lie. It’s not that easy to talk your way out of a lie. I found this out the hard way alright. One day I wanted to go to the mall with my friends but my mom wouldn’t let me. I was begging. I promised to do anything she wanted me to but she still said no. So I told her I was going to someone’s house and her mom drove us to the mall. The second lie I told was that my mom knew where I was going. It was pretty easy to pull all that off because people still trusted me then. Of course, my mom found out. I kept trying to make excuses by lying even more, but that only made things so much worse. Finally, I told the truth. I still was punished, but I learned a lesson. It wasn’t worth it. Plus, it took a long time before my mom believed anything I ever said. After you lie, you aren’t trusted anymore and that feels terrible. Be honest.”
“Read the directions. This sounds silly, but it’s good advice. In fourth grade, our teacher gave us this test and I can’t remember the whole thing, but it was a list of ten directions that told you to read through all ten instructions before doing anything else. Naturally, no one read all ten steps. Everyone just started rushing through the worksheet like it was some kind of race. The first nine were activities like write your name on the back of the page and then draw a heart around it or write a sentence using three spelling words. Number 10 said to do none of the activities, just wait for everyone to finish. To this day, I still remember that test and I always read the directions.”
“It isn’t always about you. I didn’t make this one up. My Grandma told me this from when I was just a little kid. I used to complain about a lot of things. Too much homework. My sister was annoying. I wanted my own phone. Then Grandma told me to count how many times a day I was using the words “I” or “me” or “my.” She explained that there are just some times that it didn’t have to be about me. She said I was important but I wasn’t the only person in the world who mattered. This has worked for me because people appreciate it when you put them first and it helps you get along with others. Furthermore, you want to know that people will do this for you when you really need it. Finally, when everyone sees the big picture, life is just easier and better.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is my number one rule for life. Mrs. McDougal and Mrs. Smith are always there for me when I need help. But it wasn’t always easy to ask for help. Sometimes I felt like everyone else knew things I didn’t know. It seemed like I was the only one who didn’t get it. No one likes feeling stupid. So I didn’t ask and I tried to fake it all the time. Let me tell you, that is hard work! You don’t learn anything when you keep trying to pretend you know everything. The thing is, no one knows everything.”
“Love one another. There isn’t that much to say about this. It kind of speaks for itself. No matter what someone wears or what kind of music he likes, he is still a person. Love him just because he is a human being. You don’t have to love all the things he does, either. But you might. If we can all just love one another, we can be better at all the different things we have to do. Give a person a chance and you could be surprised at how things turn out. It could be hard at times. But it is so worth it.”
Good advice for middle school, good advice for the White House as well. As for the rest of us, we have a choice to make come November. When 8th graders demonstrate more maturity than the current president, it is time to make a change.