Something special happened to me last week, y’all: I was at school late on Wednesday trying to get myself above water after three days with a brand new group of sixth graders. I was equal parts exhausted and frustrated. Schedules were wonky, the air conditioning in my room wasn’t working, and I had a thousand signed parent information forms to file.
That’s when Stephen walked in.
He’s a senior in college now. Going to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — one of the toughest schools in our state to get into. Majoring in finance and set to make a bazillion dollars over the course of his life.
But he’s got the same energy and spirit and smile that he had when he was my student almost a decade ago. A kinetic energy. Constantly moving. Constantly thinking. Constantly riffing on ideas and finding humor in situations. Constantly questioning — questioning rules and limits and expectations and ideas and people.
I’ve always loved that energy and spirit — and I knew it would make Stephen remarkably successful someday. But it didn’t make him all that successful in school. Instead, it got him in a ton of trouble with teachers who didn’t see value in a kid who couldn’t sit still and who was just as likely to blurt out 37 times a class period as he was to turn in a piece of work that showed a depth of thinking far and beyond grade level expectations.
I watched teachers try to crush Stephen — and it broke my heart.
They’d sign his behavior tracker for talking out of turn. They’d call him out in front of everyone when he wasn’t sitting down. They’d grumble ABOUT him and grumble AT him, wishing that he would “just follow the rules.” I’d point out that everything that he’d blurt out in class was brilliant and they’d point out that blurting is disruptive and disruptive kids should be punished.
One woman was more than a little open about her dislike for Stephen, going as far as to argue that tolerating his actions would send the wrong message to all of the rest of our students about “what is acceptable and what is unacceptable” in school. To her, he was intolerable — and she wasn’t willing to apologize for her opinion.
That sucks, doesn’t it?
But it’s a sad fact: Kids who don’t conform — who aren’t quiet and well prepared every day and willing to raise their hands and take their turns and walk in straight lines — can become outcasts in our buildings pretty darn quickly.
I asked Stephen if he remembered the teachers who had such antipathy for him — and more importantly, if their actions had left him with a bad taste for schools. He laughed. Wanted to know WHICH teachers I was talking about. Turns out that in Stephen’s mind, MOST teachers had a sense of antipathy for him!
And then he shared a piece of slam poetry with me describing his take on his time in classrooms of all shapes and sizes. His argument: School is mostly a joke. A trial. A test of conformity instead of creativity. Some people commit to playing the game and they “succeed” — if obediently producing and repeating thoughts, meeting other people’s expectations, and answering other people’s questions is what you mean by “being successful.”
Stephen wasn’t buying it. Never was.
Here’s what he wrote*:
COPY AND PASTE
Who are you?
If you answered, they wouldn’t listen
You’re given your name and identification through the perpetual system
Where you’re not you, you don’t exist, and you have no personality
You’re nothing but a name on a piece of paper, a product of formality
For individuality is the fatality
Of conformity’s brutality, it’s the new reality
Where they don’t care about your past, present, future, and they don’t know your face
They just do their very frickin’ best to press copy and paste
To breed and grow you like the rest, what they believe works the best
But nevertheless this is why we get depressed
Because our creativity’s suppressed, our ingenuity oppressed
Because you’re not going anywhere if you don’t know how to test
Now, I must confess, this is a particular skillset that I possess, I study a little less, and get lucky when I guess, but nevertheless I still don’t believe we should attest our success
To our ability to retain and return the bullshit facts that we learn about things we don’t care about – and in ten years won’t know about – but I digress
Learn to love powerpoints, forget about hands-on
Turn on the radio, you’ll keep hearing the same damn song
The world’s foundation is falling, we have nothing to stand on
When everything you are lies in a bubbled-in scantron
This is our handicap, not just something to rant on
If they heard my words they’d laugh hand a tampon
Some of you might too, because you’ve already been stamped on
Our anthem is void, it’s now nothing but a phantom
Damn son, you may say, you seem pretty upset, I say
Upset? I’m frickin’ livid, given the world in which we’re livin’
Where we’re missin’ the frickin’ point, back practicing fast facts and cold religion
Where we’re told not to speak and only to listen,
Where teachers laugh at unique ideas, diss ‘em and dismiss them,
Where school isn’t a place of learning, it’s a clone factory and prison
Where we all get tested under the same curriculum
The rules have been set for you, and you better learn to stick to them
It simply makes me sick, we’re replicated and sent through the reticulum
You try to picket the system? Ridiculous, that’s it, your done
Just find the sum, write the essay, circle C, prepare for test day
Busy work and study dates, up until we graduate
But my friends, that’s not the end, only one cycle complete
Go back to school, go back to rules, apply, dry, rinse, repeat
And then get a job, stabilize, work every day from 9 to 5
Then go home to your kids and wife, don’t disagree, it causes fights
How has it ended up where we all live the same life?
It’s because we’re taught how to find x, and told not to ask y
I couldn’t stress how much potential we waste
When we highlight, right-click, and select copy and paste
When we generalize instead of work case by case
This will be the downfall of the human race
I mean, sure we’ll survive, maybe we’ll even evolve
But if you don’t live your own life, did you really live at all?
Learn your lesson, society, you’ve really dropped the ball
You can either pick yourself up, or continue to fall
But you’ve committed an unspeakable sin, murder in the first degree
For you killed individuality when you pressed “control c, control v”
Stephen told me that he’d written his poem for a college class. Just something that he’d whipped up because he was tired of the parade of PowerPoint presentations that substitute as learning products in class after class, year after year. He figured he’d mix things up a bit. Challenge the norm and watch what happened next.
As he recited it for me with all of the cadence and rhythm and emotion that defines a master poet and artist, I couldn’t help but wonder what his university classmates and professor thought when he stood in front of them “presenting” a product that they’d probably never seen before. Did they respect the risk that he took? Admire his willingness to stand out — or maybe even apart — from them? Did they see his choice as foolish — why poetry when PowerPoint was good enough? Did they knock points off of his grade because he didn’t do what was asked of him?
I also couldn’t help but wonder what the teachers who had tried to squeeze him into their boxes so many years ago would have thought of his poem. Would they have finally seen him as a deep thinker? A kid with opinions worth listening to? A person of reason and rationale instead of as a person who just couldn’t follow the rules? Or would they have been offended, realizing that he was poking fun at the traditional classrooms they’d created?
But most importantly, I couldn’t help to wonder if we are ever going to get to the point where our schools value something other than creating copy and paste kids.
That’s a question worth asking — and I’m so glad that Stephen is willing to ask it.
*I’ve asked Stephen to record himself reading this for all y’all, Radical Nation. Leave him a comment down below to let him know how much you would dig that. I don’t think he realizes how powerful his words can be!
Related Radical Reads: