BRIDGES TO NOWHERE

“Excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build Monuments of Nothingness and Bridges to Nowhere. Those who excel in excuse making seldom excel in anything else” (author unknown). Man, I wish I had strung those words together. These two simple sentences capture the mindset of practically every great success story I have ever heard. Excuses are temptations for all of us. They are easy, and they are accepted by most in our society. They also make me nauseous.

As educators, we are quick to correct students when they offer excuses, the progression of which is both predictable and even entertaining. As students get older, “The dog ate my homework” evolves into “I had practice,” which perhaps eventually becomes “My shift didn’t end until 10:30 last night.” What I find interesting is the fact that these reasons might actually be valid. Even the first one could conceivably happen. My daughter has a two-year-old mutt named Lily, and she would definitely devour homework if it were left unattended.

Student excuses are inevitable. The question then becomes, are we willing to accept valid excuses from students? In most cases, no. Great teachers demand that students do the homework again if the dog eats it and that athletes figure out a way to study before or after practice. We even encourage working, high-school students to forego sleep if necessary to complete school work. Excuses are tools of the incompetent, and accepting them is nothing short of educational malpractice. Most of us know that. Shockingly, however, the same great teachers who refuse to accept excuses sometimes find themselves tempted to make them when it comes time to explain marginal performance. Common teacher excuses are predictable, as well. They are anything but entertaining, however. “Johnny has a lousy home life, so I can’t possibly get him to grade level.” COP OUT. “Sally suffers from dyslexia, and I expect less from her than my other students.” TRAGIC. “Billy is preoccupied with sports, so he couldn’t care less about reading.” CONVENIENT.

Consider how changing just a few words can position the teacher, and consequently the student, for success. “Johnny has a lousy home life, so I will provide him with love and surround him with support until he gets to grade level.” “Sally suffers from dyslexia, and I will help her achieve in spite of her challenges.” “Billy is preoccupied with sports, so the right book or periodical might encourage him to read.” The circumstances remain the same in every scenario: Johnny’s home life doesn’t improve, Sally’s learning disability doesn’t disappear, and Billy’s preoccupation continues. So, what happens? A teacher intervenes. When a teacher refuses to accept excuses AND refuses to make them, success happens. More importantly, students can defy the odds and accomplish the seemingly impossible.

The remainder of this post is dedicated to teachers everywhere who are tempted to accept and/or make valid excuses. At the risk of exposing an enormous burden, let me speak clearly. Educators–you and I–are the single most predictive factor in a child’s academic success. That’s a harsh reality. You, the teacher, are the ONLY hope some students have. How do I know? Because countless high achievers have overcome the very excuse behind which some teachers are tempted to hide–student circumstances. Consider the following success stories from four different arenas: medicine, sports, politics, and law. Individuals profiled all have one thing in common–they encountered at least one teacher who refused to accept valid excuses and who even refused to make excuses for themselves. The application for schools is clear–our capacity to succeed is inversely proportional to our willingness to accept and/or make excuses.

Ben is a neurosurgeon. He also happens to be the sitting U. S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I find neither accomplishment uniquely impressive. There are literally thousands of neurosurgeons in the U.S. alone, and there is no short supply of bureaucrats in the Beltway. What I find ultra impressive, however, is how public school changed the trajectory of his life. Consider that poverty would have been an understandable and perfectly acceptable excuse for Ben’s teachers. This little black boy from the streets of Detroit was raised by an illiterate single mother because of a bigamist father. Nobody would have blamed Ben or his teachers for hiding behind his formidable circumstances. Poverty, after all, has likely built more Bridges to Nowhere than any other excuse. Ben’s teachers, as early as elementary school, admirably chose against excuses. Because of that decision, Ben made some choices of his own. He chose education instead of poverty. He chose to become a physician instead of a statistic. When he could have justifiably chosen an existence based on social entitlements, he instead chose to become the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins when he was just 33 years old. Ben Carson chose to rely on his Gifted Hands (the title of his autobiography) instead of relying on government handouts…because teachers encouraged him to do so.

Wilma was a three-time, Olympic gold medalist. She was also a premature baby, one of twenty-two siblings, a polio patient, a Scarlet Fever survivor, and a victim of segregation. Any of these circumstances alone, not to mention their collective impact, would have served nicely as an excuse for the educators in her life. Wilma’s teachers and coaches instead chose to ignore her circumstances. Because they did, Wilma made some choices of her own. She chose Olympic medals over crutches, achievement over prejudice, and success over failure. Instead of building “monuments of nothingness” her teachers inspired her to build a legacy: three golds and one bronze medal, world records, and countless awards (two-time A.P. Woman Athlete of the Year, U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame Inductee, and recognition as the 41st Greatest Athlete of the 21st Century, according to ESPN). Still, her greatest legacy, in my opinion, happened in the classroom, not on the track. After all the fame and accomplishments, Wilma became an elementary school teacher. The “poor little crippled girl” from St. Bethlehem, Tennessee passed away in 1994. She now has roads, bridges, awards, and schools named after her. Wilma Rudolph has her own statue in Clarksville, Tennessee and her own U.S. Postal Service stamp. Interestingly, neither image reveals leg braces or other excuses. Neither did her teachers.

Diane is a Registered Nurse who serves in the United States House of Representatives. Because her parents were undereducated (Dad dropped out after sixth grade and Mom quit after ninth), she also spent her formative years in Baltimore’s public housing, shared a bed with two older brothers in a house on the wrong side of the tracks, and regularly heard from her mother that she would never be able to attend college. Fortunately for Diane, her high school guidance counselor, Mr. Whiting, decided that she did not have to be defined by the circumstantially unfortunate hand she had been dealt. In a recent Tennessean article, Diane recalls that Mr. Whiting “saw something in me I didn’t see in myself.” She goes on to say, “If it weren’t for him, I don’t think I would be where I am today.” When even her parents were willing to hide behind the Poverty Monument, Mr. Whiting taught Diane Black a most valuable lesson: “…everyone has God-given potential,” and “where you start in life does not determine where you end up.” Mr. Whiting chose to steer clear of valid excuses. Because he did, Diane Black chose education, nursing, and public service.

Daniel is an electrical engineer by way of MIT (bachelor’s and master’s degrees) and a Doctor of Jurisprudence by way of Cal Berkeley. This attorney who now specializes in patent law and intellectual property rights was also a young Hispanic boy from the violent streets of East Los Angeles. Daniel’s math teacher, Mr. Escalante, chose to disregard the gang- and drug-related excuses embraced by some of Daniel’s other teachers. When asked about Mr. Escalante, Daniel doesn’t hesitate. “Everything I have right now I owe to him.” Clarifying Escalante’s impact even further, Daniel remarks, “I owe my life to him.” The odds were stacked against Daniel and the rest of his classmates, so few could blame the teachers who accepted the long odds for what they were–roadblocks and dead ends. When most adults in Daniel’s life accepted the Bridge to Nowhere paved by excuses, Mr. Escalante built a bridge of education over the roadblocks, and Daniel Castro followed it all the way to MIT and UC Berkeley. Garfield High’s most impactful teacher and the subject of the film Stand and Deliver, Jaime Escalante, refused to accept or make excuses. Consequently, hundreds of underprivileged Latino students became attorneys, engineers, professors, and scientists.

Cynics may contend that these examples are overgeneralized. Skeptics might point out that for every Ben, Wilma, Diane, and Daniel there are millions of welfare recipients and under-achieving individuals. Contrarians might even submit that teachers who get credit for former students’ successes must also logically accept responsibility for former students’ failures. In other words, if Mr. Whiting is the reason for Diane Black’s success, wouldn’t he also be a contributing factor to the failures of other former students? If Mr. Escalante is responsible for Daniel Castro’s accomplishments, isn’t he also to blame for the overdoses and incarceration of other Garfield High students?  In a word, no. Teachers make things better for students, not worse. Diane Black credits Mr. Whiting for her success because she realizes she could have erected a Monument of Nothingness all by herself. If Daniel Castro had chosen to cross the Bridge to Nowhere built on circumstances and excuses, he could have certainly done so without his math teacher. Great teachers acknowledge circumstances for what they are–obstacles–and then they build educational bridges over them. Marginal teachers accept student circumstances as excuses, or even worse. Some teachers use student circumstances as their own excuses for underachievement.

So, what about MCE? Can our students achieve in spite of circumstances? Absolutely. Will some succeed without exceptional classroom instruction and some fail in spite of it? Perhaps. But the beauty of teaching is derived from the reality that educators aren’t fortune tellers. The takeaway? Teachers don’t have the luxury of knowing which students desperately need them and which might not. Put more directly, you don’t know whether or not you are a child’s only hope for success. Thanks to this uncertainty, you can’t afford to accept or make excuses, no matter how valid. At best, excuses delay student success. At worst, they prohibit it. Do student excuses make you nauseous? Shouldn’t teacher excuses do the same?

Because we have no crystal ball, we must convince ourselves that we are the ONLY adults willing to position EVERY student for success. Hopefully we aren’t, but we can’t take that chance. Once we come to grips with the enormity of our task and the gravity of this responsibility, we must do two things exceptionally well: 1) BUILD bridges over circumstances with exceptional instruction, and 2) MOTIVATE all students to choose the Bridge to Greatness, instead of the Bridge to Nowhere. Some of us are excellent builders, and some are excellent motivators. Few of us are both. Fortunately, we have each other.

Reality reveals that some students will succeed in life. Sadly, others won’t. As their teachers, we won’t know the outcome for years if ever. Perhaps we can be the reason for their successes. May it never be said, though, that we enabled or caused their failures by accepting or making excuses. Children have enough influences who model excuse making and encourage them to become Monuments of Nothingness. Society accepts–and sometimes even rewards–excuses, consequently directing kids across Bridges to Nowhere. Let the incompetent make their excuses. Not us–we are educators. And that fact alone makes us world changers.

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