Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Who's Teaching Who?

What wisdom would you share, if you were invited to speak to a class of so-called, "at-risk" teenagers?
I'm talking about kids who have fallen through the wide cracks that exist in any school system. Young adults, who are struggling to:

a) Keep up with their with grades;
b) Fit in and play nice with others;
c) Find out who they really are;
d) Stay away from temptation and trouble;
e) All of the above.

I'm not sure if I'm the best person to speak on any subject involving "at-risk" youth, since I wonder if the fundamental starting point is flawed. "At-Risk" according to who? What if they are really in a state of "At-Opportunity" ? I know for a fact, that in pursuing any endeavour of consequence, the greater the risk, the greater the potential reward. So maybe being labelled as being "at-risk" isn't such a bad thing after all.

Guess it all depends on how you look at it.

But, let's get back to the invitation to speak.

My initial response if that I am a lousy choice for this gig. Deep down, I know I have not travelled any of the same roads as the teens I would be addressing. I was the kind of kid who did OK in school, graduated on time, made friends easily, got into minimal, harmless trouble, had two parents who stayed together and after grabbing the diploma took off to Toronto to launch a career in broadcasting.

But the decades-plus friend who is inviting me thinks I have something of value to share.

"OK, Debbie, I'll do it".

I show up for the class that day and instantly the differences I anticipated were as clear as a New York night and a Maritime morning. They are younger; I am part of what's politely being called an "older demographic". They're clad in jeans and t-shirts; I'm decked out in business casual. Most of them exude cool without little or no effort. I'm still struggling in that department as I have yet to learn how to text message another human being.

"This is going to be hard ... harder than I thought ... How do I make a connection with these kids ... How do I inspire them in some authentic way that might make a difference in how they see the world and themselves in it? OK, Einstein, anytime now, what genius idea are you going to come up with?"

That was it.

After the initial introductions and going around the room to know the names of 24 faces, I thought any wisdom to be discovered on this day would come from them. In other words, they were no different than many of the larger, corporate groups I am invited to speak to. They didn't need yet another Moses coming down from the mountain top with a sermon on success.

The answers were already inside. They just needed to be pulled out somehow.

Here is the question I asked:

"What would be the common traits, characteristics or accomplishments shared by Albert Einstein and Eminem?

Come again?

"You heard me, what is the same or similar about Einstein and Eminem? And I'm expected a different answer from each of you. No one can pass on this question and I will tell you up front, it's much easier to go first, since the answers will be tougher to come up with as we work our way towards the end of the room"

My question is met with stony silence.

Tension slowly fills the room. Two-dozen borderline high school dropouts are gradually realizing this will not be an easy task to accomplish from start to finish with 24 original answers.

One kid begins. Then another.

After a few hiccups along the way, the task has been completed. A flip chart bears testament to 24 original answers to the question.

1. Both start with the letter "E".
2. Both are men.
3. Both are smart.
4. Both changed lives.
5. Both did drugs.
6. Both had hard childhoods.
7. Both were wrong at times.
8. Both were doubted.
9. Both were persecuted.
10. Both are top in their profession.
11. Both are famous.
11. Both are weird.
12. Both are committed.
13. Both inspired people.
14. Both worked their way to the top.
15. Both had two "E's" in each name.
16. Both are smart.
17. Both are legends.
18. Both were ahead of their time.
19. Both were subjects of discussion.
20. Both are white.
22. Both changed lives.
23. Both were idealists.
24. Neither completed high school.

I think I learned something more important than my audience that day. Collectively, they appeared more than satisfied with what they had accomplished while I realized the roles had suddenly reversed in terms of who was teaching whom. As the final answer went up on the chart, I couldn't help but think that, "Excellence has nothing to do with how or where you start. It's where you end up".

When it comes to real wisdom, I just try and learn from the best.

What questions are you asking these days that lead you to wisdom?
Where are you planning to end up?

NOTE: Marshall Bruce Mathers III also known as "Slim Shady" and his primary nom de plume, "Eminem", is an Academy Award winning and Grammy Award winning rapper and actor who has sold over seventy million albums worldwide. He has collaborated with various artists such as Dr. Dre, 50-Cent, Kid Rock, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Jadakiss and others.

Six months after he was born, Marshall's father disappeared. As a kid, Marshall moved a lot, repeated the ninth grade three times and dropped out of high school at 17. He has attempted suicide, been sued for $10 million dollars by his birth mother, and twice-divorced from the mother of his daughter Hailie Jade. He has been praised for having "verbal energy", high quality of lyricism and earned notoriety for controversial lyrical themes, alleged to glorify violence, misogyny and homophobia. His music kicks serious ass.

Meanwhile, Albert Einstein received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the Photoelectric Effect. His vast contributions to our planet include his Theory of Relativity and his discovery that energy and mass are equivalent and transmutable. (E=MC2).In 1999, Albert was named "Person of the Century" by TIME Magazine.

In his early teens, Einstein clashed with authorities and resented the regimen of school. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning. As a 16-year old he dropped out, convincing the school to let him go by using a doctor's note. Rather than complete high school, Albert applied directly to Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Without a diploma, he was required to take an entrance examination, which he did not pass, although he got exceptional marks in mathematics and physics.

Eventually, Albert would rock our world.

As would Marshall.

"I, at any rate, am convinced that God does not throw dice." ALBERT EINSTEIN

"The truth is you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow. Life is a crazy ride, and nothing is guaranteed" EMINEM


Moncton Today said...

Brilliant piece; inspiring to any age and wonderfully relevant for any round pegs who were never meant to fit into society's square holes...

Gair Maxwell said...

I can't help wonder if there were always more round pegs in the first place???