I’ve written lots of prose for this column, but one of my poems, “The Trying Game,” says part of what I want to say in this article. So I’ll start with the poem:
We try. No matter what, we try.
From when we’re born till when we die.
We try to be, or try to do,
Though I’m just me, and you’re just you.
The effort, and the strength we ask
Is either equal to the task
Or somehow, paradoxically,
Our limitations set us free,
As leaves, which insecurely cling
To promises once made by spring,
In autumn gracefully let go,
And form a tablecloth below,
Embroidered with tomorrow’s seeds –
With maple fringe and acorn beads.
I’m not quite sure from whence it came –
This queer, confusing trying game.
We try to work, or try to rest
(Whichever trying we do best).
Surrendering, with firm resolve,
Our limitations all dissolve.
We fail, we mourn, we die, and then
We get up, and we try again.
I meant the poem for adults, but I realized, after talking with a friend, that it’s for children too. Of all the objections I’ve had to grades and report cards, I object most of all to the effort grade. It’s the worst invasion of privacy. Everybody tries. What we see as laziness is effort we don’t like. Children who don’t seem to be trying get negative feedback from adults, and are often driven further into shells that look like laziness.
I remember bringing home report cards that had good performance grades, but bad effort grades. I later learned that I’d done well on IQ tests, and deduced that teachers had thought someone as intelligent as I was should have had even better performance grades. So I must not have been trying.
I don’t know whether it’s true that everyone tries as hard as possible, but when I teach, I operate on the assumption that they do. We can’t look inside people to see what their effort looks like (or whether it’s there), but I really don’t think we have the right to say that they’re not trying. When teachers say that, I think they’re taking the easy road; I think it’s lazy to say children are lazy. A child who seems lazy needs some extra teaching, and so does any teacher who thinks that child is lazy.