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an “A” is not enough

April 20, 2011

An “A” is not good enough.  Not quite.

That’s what I’d tell my students if I were walking into Room 112 today.  It’s been two years and five months since I last earned a living telling Honors English students what to do and how to think about life.  Well, I suppose I let Willy Loman, John Proctor, Hester Prynne, and Walt Whitman get a word or two in edgewise, but let’s just say I have some practice in advising future generations on how to achieve success in life these days.

The conclusion I come to is this…An “A” is not enough.

I taught the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed variety of teenagers.  The type of adolescents who have already assumed to a great extent the persona they will grow into fully as adults.  And I can honestly say I am a better person for having known the students of Room 112.

If you’ve been out of touch with what it’s like to be a teenager these days, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there are daunting aspects of double-digit existence.  Smart phones and Facebook and texting and tiger moms and hurried child syndrome and bullying and eating disorders and obesity and push-up bikinis for eight-year-olds.  (What, pray tell, is an eight-year old pushing up, anyway?)

What the news reports and doomsdayers neglect to mention is this: a good portion of the teenage population consists of individuals with inquisitive minds, determined spirits, tender hearts, and eager work ethics.  I deeply respected a high percentage of my students.  Future America is not in bad hands, not by a long shot.

However, we’re pushing these students too hard.  We’re setting the bar too high.  We’re expecting them to be capable of dealing with the damage we oh-so-mature-and-knowledgeable adults are inflicting on our environment, economy, families, and communities.  We expect our students to earn that high A in English class, matriculate to an appropriately Ivy-covered institution of higher learning, and then solve problems we can’t help but create.  We’re creating a generation of gerbils who feel their reward waits after just one more spin on the wheel…

These days, an A is not enough.

The High School Juniors I taught had bought that unfortunate gerbil lie, hook, line, sinker, and wiggling worm.  They had resumes that teetered on three pages, competitions over who had accumulated the most volunteer hours (with winners approaching the 1,000 mark), a week’s worth of extracurricular activities stuffed into a single day, and high school classes advanced enough to put my college professors to shame.  “If you just get an A in life,” we seem to urge, “then you’ll be set for success.”

An A is not enough.  Neither are the sports, debate clubs, cheerleading, dance recitals, volunteering, after school jobs, church commitments, or college applications.  None of these things, in which everyone strives so hard to earn an A, guarantees happiness.

And at the end of life’s road will we be satisfied with a life transcript of straight As?

The problem I see is this: we’ve convinced ourselves and our students that all this busy, busy, busy work spent earning top marks in life activities will somehow lead to an elusive pot of gold at the end of life’s rainbow.

It’s high time we stop.  Slow down.  Appreciate where we are.  Ignore the end of the road.

Here’s what I’d tell my students today, if I were setting foot in Room 112:

Put down the pencils.

Exam is cancelled.

Instead, memorize two things:

1.  Simplify, simplify, simplify.

2.  Live deliberately.

I’m more convinced than ever that Henry David Thoreau was onto something when he commanded, Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

I get you, Thoreau.  And I’m working on following you there.  My accounts can’t yet be squeezed into the space of my thumb-nail, but…  The less I have, the more creative I become.  The more I love, the less I worry.  The more I give away, the more I appreciate what I have.  The more I focus on what’s important (family, home, fulfilling career), the less I focus on what I don’t need (more money, more fame, more applause.)

But it can be hard when we hear that niggling little voice in the back of our minds telling us that in all subjects, we really should earn an A.  As Anne Morrow Lindbergh reflected in Gift from the Sea, “I mean to lead a simple life, to choose a simple shell I can carry easily, like a hermit crab. But I do not. I find that my frame of life does not foster simplicity. My husband and five children must make their way in the world. The life I have chosen as a wife and mother entrains a whole caravan of complications. It involves a house in the suburbs and either household drudgery or household help which wavers between scarcity and non-existence for most of us. It involves food and shelter; meals, planning, marketing, bills, and making the ends meet in a thousand ways.”

I get you, Anne.  This life is complicated, cluttered, convoluted, cramped.  It demands Thoreau’s second antidote: Live Deliberately.  It’s not enough to simplify.  We have to be deliberate in the choices we make.  We have to be deliberate in grabbing and holding tightly the good each day offers.

Thoreau again: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Thoreau literally went to the woods (albeit in a cabin rather than a flimsy tent, the wimp).  I submit to you, oh students of Room 112, that your woods could be your room, the soccer field, the driver’s seat of your dad’s car, the back nook of Barnes and Noble.  Your woods can be anywhere you can escape from the pressures of life for a few simple moments.  Moments in which to question:

  • What do I love about where I am today?
  • What makes me happiest?
  • What can I excise in an attempt to simplify, simplify, simplify?
  • What matters more than earning an A?

Now go suck the marrow out of the life you’ve been given.

Class dismissed.

For more poetically captured truths about simplicity and deliberate living, pick up a copy of Thoreau’s adventures at Walden or Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea.  To hear from a current author who knows how to simplify and live deliberately, I highly recommend the how-to guide by Tsh Oxenreider, Organized Simplicity.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2011 6:59 am

    That was amazingly well said! It had so much poignancy for me, considering I’m currently student teaching (English) and working with Juniors (including a group of honors and a group of AP students) and I think hey need to hear this so very, very much, whether they’re the over-achieving, over-scheduled bunch or the under-achieving kids from hard knocks (which we have plenty of). Life manages to be so much more when you have less, and sometimes we forget that.

    I loved reading this!

  2. April 21, 2011 10:04 am

    I agree! Well written instructions for living:)

  3. April 21, 2011 10:30 am

    Being a college student and also living in the real world I understand that an A is not enough. Good grades will not get you through life.

  4. April 21, 2011 10:56 am

    this was so well through out and well told.. full of truth and inspiration. thank you!

  5. April 21, 2011 3:11 pm

    Ooooh, I love this post! I am so glad I stopped by from Mama Kat’s. I posted on this same prompt, but with a different focus. I spent years teaching college students (both undergraduate and graduate) and I wholeheartedly agree that an A is not enough. I’m your newest follower. 🙂

  6. April 21, 2011 3:13 pm

    Forgot to mention that your post is a perfect fit for the new Sunday Soapbox link up I recently started. Stop by on Sunday and add your thumbnail to the linky if you like. I’d love to have you participate.

  7. April 21, 2011 6:36 pm

    This is so much more beautiful that my version of this prompt. Great, great advice.
    P.S. I teach Honors Freshmen English so I really understand what you mean.

  8. April 21, 2011 6:53 pm

    Amazing post. Well written expressing a truth so important and so scarce today. Thank-you.

  9. Kelsey permalink
    April 21, 2011 8:33 pm

    I sat in 112 too. And there is SO much more to life than high school would lead students to believe. Sometimes the best part of my life is walking to class and pausing for just a minute or two to enjoy the crisp spring air or curling up in my overstuffed chair in my dorm room to read a book. There is school yes but there is so much life to live beyond that.

    I have always been that straight A student (beth knows I’m guilty as charged), but without these other spirit freeing experiences, I’d feel as small as an ant, empty as the cookie jar, a half filled glass. I owe you a thousand thank yous for the education you have given me, beth. Thoreau’s words do live with me and your wonderful life lessons live on through me and others who passes through 112s doors.

  10. Larry Taylor permalink
    April 22, 2011 11:18 pm

    Most people will not discover this truth until their latter years and usually too late to be able to enjoy the new simplicity.

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