I have just finished grading a set of Composition I papers, and once again, B has not submitted a paper. Earlier in the semester, when he failed to turn in the second essay assignment, I insisted that we talk about it.
Missing even one 100 point essay generally means that a student fails my class, but I also build in some chances for extra credit that can save a student if he wishes to take advantage of them. I encouraged B. to do this because he is too smart to repeat Comp I. He is a good enough writer and thinker that he should move on. B. assured me that he would do the extra credit. I know that he has attended some of the lectures that doing the extra credit requires, but he has not turned in any of the required writing.
B. was not happy with the grade he received on his first essay, a B. My policy is that students must revise any paper with less than a 90%. B. did not turn in a revision for this first paper. He is not used to being asked to work hard. He got through high school with very little work, and coasted on his intelligence and background knowledge to get him through.
He has now insured that he will fail Comp I. I think I know what is going on. This is not a case of laziness, nor is it lack of preparation, nor does it have to do with ability. This is, I think, a case of a deep fear of failure. That seems counterintuitive that someone would insure that he fails because he is afraid of failure, but I have seen this phenomenon in a number of students, and friends over the years.
The logic goes like this: “I know I failed because I did not do the work, but what if I had done the work and still failed?” That logic allows someone to rationalize that he really could have done it if he had tried, but since he didn’t try, he didn’t risk a more serious kind of failure, a failure to live up to the potential that everyone has told him he has. Doing the work actually means risking a deeper failure than the failure caused by not doing the work.
That deeper failure is a terrifying prospect. For certain students, the idea that they might not be “smart” or as smart as they have been told they are is deeply challenging. There is a line in the movie American Beauty where a lovely young teen-aged girl says “Please don’t let me be ordinary.” This is an example of this same phenomenon. Being ordinary is not acceptable.
B. is probably one of the smartest students I have ever had. He has a restless mind and an eagerness to challenge the status quo. He dropped out of high school because it was not challenging and, at 20, decided to come to college. When he attends class, his comments are insightful and thoughtful. He is not afraid to challenge me. I see a young man who has engaged teachers this way all through his school years. We all love students who talk intelligently in class, who laugh at our jokes and who actually participate in the exchange of ideas.
That part is easy for students like B., and because they are rare, we teachers enjoy them and want them to succeed. It is so much more interesting to read a paper, even a flawed paper, that examines an idea than it is to read one that is correct but dull and unoriginal. But for teachers, students like B. present an extra challenge because they hide their fears with their wit and their insight. B. knows that he has failed.
He has not contacted me about an extension on this last paper, which I would have willingly given if he had asked before the due date.. We have one more week of school. I suspect that B. will disappear. I suspect that because B. has not done well this semester, he will probably not return to school next semester. I know that conventional schooling may not be the right venue for a student like B., but he does not have the resources, either financial or cultural, to find the school that might challenge him more than our little community college.
While B. chafes against the constrictions of Comp I, where he deliberately set out to write in a freer and less constricted way than I require of my composition students, he will need to learn that even a class where he feels constrained might have something to offer him. Although B. is obviously extremely bright, original and thoughtful, he will not succeed in school until he realizes he that he can’t avoid doing tasks where he might fail, or until he learns that failure is actually acceptable as a means to learning something else.
The B.s of this world are, in some ways, our biggest challenges as teachers because they have the most potential. It is satisfying to see an underprepared student become prepared. It is satisfying to see a student who has struggled succeed, but the B.s are tougher. They resist our efforts to help them because they do not see that they need help, they do not see how they are standing in their own way. Their intellectual arrogance masks their deep fear that they might, in fact, be “ordinary.”
I hope I see B. before the end of the semester. If I catch a glimpse of him in the hall, I will insist that he come to my office and talk. I will not be brazen enough to ask him what he is afraid of because I know he will not hear me yet, but I will try to talk about self-destructive behaviors. I will not offer him a way out of this failure. I will not offer him an extension, and while I know it is not in his best interest to repeat this class, I hope I see him next semester. I am not holding my breath.