I came across a small, inspiring story this week, and then another, and another. I did not expect this. In our troubled times, with the climate rattling us up and down like a roller coaster we can’t get off, and politics pelting us like bad weather, I don’t often catch the aroma of fresh-baked inspiration. When I do, I slow down to take a look. First I noticed a page-long chapter in a memoir* by James Rebanks, a quiet episode where at the age of 17 he decided not to buy the car he’d been saving for. Interesting! He evoked the tempting dream that a certain old vehicle will slingshot a young person beyond the claustrophobic horizon and into the next, brilliant stage of social life. But James tossed aside that dream and went instead to the local sheep auction intending to purchase one of the year’s better breeding males to improve the quality of his budding flock. In other words, at 17 he wanted to step forward in his life as a shepherd and farmer. When he bid 2000 guineas for a single ram, and won it, his father, a life-long shepherd, was surprised and impressed, and you can see why—here’s an unproven son who’s starting to move like one of the adults, investing hard in his self-chosen future. After that bold move, who cares if for the next couple of years he still had to do without a personal automobile? I find the chapter both inspiring and instructive. I imagine high school teachers see this all the time, a student longing to make a real run at life. No more sleep-walking through the day, no more pacing the rut that has been worn by others for our use.
Once James Rebanks reminded me of this spirit of self-determination, I started to see it elsewhere. On Twitter, a person I’ve never met said that her six-year-old son wrote a letter to his school teacher indicating that he didn’t want to do any more homework. He wanted to spend his time outside of school playing. This, he judged, was a better use of his afternoons. I was sympathetic. Is it ever too soon to ask your teacher: “Why is this worth doing?” I don’t think so. I could have asked questions about my own education a lot sooner than I did.
And then I remember our two children becoming their own persons and wanting what they wanted, even when they were very young. We recently found a yellowed piece of paper belonging to one of them, maybe from first grade, on which she’d printed these words: “In four years I will be making a big science project.” I like her sense of self there, and her plan for an interesting future budding as early as first grade. Like her older sibling, she was ready to commence an adventurous life. I remember in the summer before first grade she announced to me, “Now I want to learn to read.”
School has more than one purpose, though, and sometimes its mission gets blurry. As a college teacher, I also see the problem. Do we set out the toolkit so students can gear up for a fresh run at life, or do we domesticate our young people for a path that’s already smooth with use? Some take to the domesticating mission of school very poorly, while others get comfortable within those confines. I have that “gets comfortable” tendency myself, and I still spend a lot of my time in classrooms. But thinking of this week’s glimpses of admirable young people itching to get on about the business of their lives, I’m inspired. Maybe it’s time for me to graduate.
*The Illustrated Herdwick Shepherd by James Rebanks.