It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged that some students are floppier than others. Floppy. Floppier. Floppiest. Limp, flexible. Not firm: floppy. The Floppiness Spectrum, if you will.
And as commonly happens, my theory comes from a very specific memory. I was assisting in the seventh-grade classroom. As often happens, the head teacher sent me with a few students into the next room. For many students, this extra time in the next room is essential for learning. When you’re eleven and you missed the original explanation—because you had a dentist appointment or broke up with your girlfriend or listened to your mom and her boyfriend fighting that morning—you just need five minutes with a teacher to catch back up.
So that’s what we do. I explain the lesson again. Put your first finger here—that’s an ‘A’. Second finger here—that’s a ‘B’. Just like the alphabet. Third finger goes right next to second finger, on that tape, and that’s? “C!” Yep. Now try on your own.
Some try. Others flop.
They don’t fail. They flop.
A dialogue to demonstrate:
“Did that make sense? First finger is A. Try that?” I cajole.
“It’s too difficult,” he says.
“Let’s try together. Put your first finger on this string right here.”
“Two things help with that: one, shake your hand out a little bit, make sure it’s relaxed. Good! And bring your elbow under a little more to help your wrist, and then put your first finger here. Good! Now your second finger? Where does it go?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s okay. See the silver tape? Right there. Just like you did on the other strings. Wait—why did you take your hand away?”
“I got tired.”
“If you keep your fingers up there, I can teach you really quickly so it won’t hurt as much. Do you want to try?”
The answer is . . . no. My students rarely say “no,” however. They say “It’s difficult” or “I’m tired,” because from their perspective they are trying.
A recent series of unfortunate events including a torn ACL has left me moping on the couch, wallowing in despair, barely managing to drag myself out of bed each day and get to work on the physical therapy that will make my knee functional again.
A change in context has made me floppier than the floppiest of my students, and I get away with it because I’m an adult. For some reason, I have the authority, now, to be considered right when I say, “This is too difficult.” I’m tempted to lecture my students:
It’s different when you’re twenty-eight, kids. Everything is harsher, more solidified: our brains get weaker when we age, our patterns of life more set, and our beliefs about ourselves harder and harder to change. The penalties for twenty-eight-year-olds are crippling debt and failed marriages, not detention and a couple of meaningless B’s on a transcript no one will read.
There’s truth to that. And there’s truth to the lesson all of us learned in seventh grade: there are participation ribbons for people who try and trophies for people who win. We are all of us victims of our social systems.
But the bigger truth is that it’s much, much easier to say “this is too much for me, too difficult” than it is to try, to have gumption and grit. To have even a chance at failing. Flopping is easy and sensible. Pass me a beer. I’ll start on it tomorrow or tomorrow’s tomorrow.
It’s not the right time.
I can’t take it today.