Last post, I waxed philosophical and then briefly looked at how my priorities change from Vacation to Vocation. Now that I’m back in the classroom, I can’t do some of the things I did during the summer, whether at all or to the same extent. For example, if I decide I want to catch the matinee of Brad Pitt’s new movie today, people will likely wonder where I am and why I’m not in class where I ought to be.
“Ought” is a great word. It’s authentically English, dating back to the 12th century. It’s Old English roots relate to owning or possessing something. In the case of “ought”, what I own is a “duty or moral obligation” (to quote etymonline.org). It is a stronger form of “shall”, which itself is a stronger form of “will”. Consider:
I will wash the dishes.
I shall wash the dishes.
I ought to wash the dishes.
The first sentence is a statement expressing a modicum of intent. I’ll wash the dishes…but maybe not. The second sentence is stronger. The use of “shall” implies serious intent. But now consider the third sentence. Note the lack of direct object. “Ought” is intransitive, but the word’s definition means that doing the dishes is something that I owe to someone else. The dish-washing activity is a debt that either must be paid or else must be forgiven by whomever I am in debt to.
A student’s school work fits into the same category as that third sentence. His school work is a debt he owes. For my students, this debt is most immediately owed to his family, who has chosen to bear the financial costs of enrolling him in a private school. This is no small point. A student can fail to honor his debts in a public school for considerably less money.
And so we return to changing priorities. Let’s take a look at one part of the 7th grade’s ELA agenda:
Notice the four homework assignments. Only one of them is due the following day, but it is an assignment that (1) must be typed and (2) must be printed before ELA class begins on Tuesday, 9 August. Reading “A Message to Garcia” has a due date of Wednesday, 10 August, and the assignment requires reading and answering two questions to prepare for the class discussion. The third assignment isn’t due for ten days, but it’s not the sort of assignment most students can put off until the last minute and expect to do well. “The Tyger” must be memorized for recitation in front of the class. That requires daily practice (at a minimum).
Considering just ELA class, a student who during the summer became accustomed to staying up late, sleeping in, and doing little else other than playing video games and eating now finds himself with a dilemma. The several hours between sunup and sundown that were perhaps largely unstructured are now not only structured, but are structured by adults paid to ensure the student learns X, Y, and Z. His time is no longer his own. His family has purchased his time (in the form of tuition and fees) and then given that time to other adults.
We demand a lot from students, most of whom have what is effectively a full-time, unpaid job overseen by numerous competing bosses. Each student must now adjust. He has few hours remaining in the day which he might get to call his own. He can ignore what he ought to do about his ELA work, but he cannot avoid the consequences of those choices. The grade book does what it does with the data it’s given, and as King Lear noted, “Nothing will come of nothing”.
Fortunately, putting first things first helps, even if it doesn’t always make the task more pleasant. Earlier I wrote that the student’s time is no longer his own, which is true. What’s more true is the fact that his time was never really his own to begin with. Neither is my time really mine or your time yours. To begin with, the time we have belonged to God, Who in His wisdom and good grace gives us “our…threescore years and ten” (see Psalm 90). We’re supposed to use that gift of time to do first things first. This is how we honor the Giver.
When I get to part three of this series of posts, I’ll return to the ELA agenda and offer a concrete plan for one way that students may do what they ought to do.
The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.