Sunday, August 15, 2010


Last Friday, I spent some time in the basement and enjoyed observing your classes there. I’m very excited about what our science program is doing with modeling and was fascinated by the discussion in the 8th period Advanced Chemistry class as you argued with one another about the accuracy of each group's diagram. There’s good, scientific thinking going on there!

I also like comparing your habits as I visit rooms. I noticed an interesting difference between how seniors and freshman tackle math problems, which was the inspiration for this talk.

Typically freshman students have a very low tolerance for not understanding something. When you’re assigned problems, if you look at them and don’t instantly understand how to do them, your tendency is to ask the teacher to show you how. What you’re really asking of the teacher in these situations is the recipe for solving the problem—the step #1, 2, 3 way to do it.

But that’s very different, for example, from a junior or senior level Math class. Seniors understand that it is likely they WON’T instantly recognize how to do things, that it may take 5-10 minutes or so of studying a problem before they know how to do it—or maybe not, even then. The typical A.P. Calculus exam might only have 4-5 questions, so it’s obvious that the teacher expects each question to be a 10-15 minute struggle.

“Struggle” is an often misused word in our culture today. About ten years ago, there was a sophomore that wasn’t doing his English homework, wasn’t paying attention in class, and wasn’t making very good grades. His mom called me to ask that her son be taken out of class, saying that “He’s really struggling in this English class, which is really creating a lot of stress on him.” “All due respect”, I told her, “he’s NOT struggling at all. He’s not doing his homework. He isn’t paying attention in class. So of course he’s doing poorly. But that’s precisely because he ISN’T struggling to do well.”

Teachers and coaches have very similar jobs. One way of phrasing it is their job is to make you uncomfortable. It’s to challenge you to achieve a level of performance that you haven’t already obtained. The football team hasn’t been practicing in 100 degree heat because they are satisfied by where they are as a football team. They’re trying to get better. Classes should not be easy here; if they are, we probably need to bump your schedule up a bit. We want you to struggle some. "If you're growing", John Maxwell once said, "you're always going to be out of your comfort zone." We want you to tackle your classes with a kind of blue collar, roll up your sleeves, bring your lunchbox to work attitude. Struggling is a good thing; it means you are grappling with the task in front of you.

But here’s what is also very important: Our teachers are here to help you through the struggle. You are not alone. If you’re having difficulty in class, seek out your teachers and tell them. They won’t remove the obstacle—they can’t, because they are commissioned to teach a curriculum and must guide you through a certain set of standards, but they will help you overcome the obstacles if you are willing to work with them through it. Attend tutorials, ask questions in class, seek out help from your classmates. Tackle your classes with a swagger—not the swagger that pretends life is supposed to be easy, but the one that says, “I shall overcome!”

That’s what self-esteem is all about anyway. Self-esteem isn’t the result of you being TOLD that you’re great or wonderful. You see through false praise instantly. It’s about what you achieve—it’s obtained when you fight through something which is hard or challenging and come out the other side with success.

So here’s an odd way of summarizing my hopes for all of you this year: I hope that you struggle some. I hope that we can make your life a little uncomfortable.

But in the end, we're here to see you through. Lean on your teachers. Seek help. Ask for God's grace and stamina. If I can help you, some see me. One day, whether that’s next May or four Mays from now, I want to personally shake the hand of each person in this room as you receive the JPII diploma. And when you get it, I want you to know that you’ve earned it—not because it was easy, but because you fought through your most difficult classes and conquered them.

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