Retorts: Real back-to-school answers

NOT LIVING THE dream in junior high or high school? You are not alone. In fact, you may be in the majority.

NOT LIVING THE dream in junior high or high school? You are not alone. In fact, you may be in the majority.

You hear and read a lot about what might be wrong with education, about what needs to be changed, added, deleted or painted blue and turned over. I have many theories like that, but I am probably just as likely as the next person to be full of applesauce, so I want to limit my education advice to one specific area: reality.

retortsAs school starts for local public systems, a collective groan goes up from tens of thousands of students – and not a few teachers – as the process begins yet again. We’ve had generations of education reform, we’ve got computers all over the place, and apparently you can now use any restroom you want … so where’s the hole in the educational donut (mmmm…donuts)?

It’s the stuff you really ought to know.

Here’s my proposition: hormone-addled adolescents in junior high (AKA intermediate or middle) school and high school have everything on their minds except parts of speech or Dickens or quadratic equations or phylum. Of sure, they might learn enough to get the grade or pass the test, but that’s just working the system. Which of us has not – in school or college – walked out of a classroom after finals and promptly forgotten almost everything upon which you just got tested?

But there are other questions perpetually unanswered, except until right now.

Question: Why is everybody so much happier than me?

Answer: They’re not. The teenage years are one long exercise in emotional camouflage. Even the cool kids, as the song goes, are fighting their own internal battles. See that star jock? His father is an overbearing toad. See the queen bee? She has awful self-image problems and is on the edge of bulimia. Whatever churn you’ve got going on in your heart is as common as noses.

Question: Why is so-and-so mean to me?

Answer: It’s not personal. It’s just business. And it’s the business of making fun of someone else before they can make fun of you. Closed societies like schools tend to stratify quickly; the temptation to step on others to avoid being stepped on is pretty strong. If you’ve been trod on, the least you can do is not do it to someone else.

Question: Everyone has these great plans for their future, but I don’t have a clue what to do? Will I end up homeless sleeping under a freeway overpass?

Answer: Probably not. Don’t worry, the vast majority of adolescent plans get blown up by reality, maturing or just plain good or bad luck. Everything changes. Here’s a good statistic: Only 17 percent of college freshmen eventually get a degree in their first declared major. Your path will reveal itself in good time. No sweat.

Question: I don’t think I’m attractive. Who can I blame?

Answer: This is the hardest piece of advice for young people to accept. Years from now you will look at a photo of yourself (changing hairstyles not withstanding) from back then and say, “Wow! I looked really good.” Yes, you do.

Question: If you could have any superpower in school, what would it be?

Answer: As tempting as X-ray vision might be at that juncture in one’s life, the real superpower – and it’s available to anyone – is confidence. You build confidence by trying something out, failing at it, figuring out what you did wrong, then doing it right. In romance, changing a tire, or doing a geometry proof, there’s no better path towards confidence than through the thicket of failure. It may seem contradictory, but you need to love your screwups, your rejections and your setbacks. They are the best teachers you will ever have … outside the classroom, that is.

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears every Wednesday in the Tribune.




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