Judging Jack: When a Teacher Finally Understands a Student

I thought my student was ordinary. I came to learn he was just too busy being brilliant.

illustration of man at computer
Jon Krause for Reader’s Digest

Let me tell you about a recent student of mine. We’ll call him Jack. He’s a quiet boy, our Jack, self-possessed, responsible enough generally, amply courteous, eminently likable. In my normative-level senior literature class, he was attentive and receptive but disinclined to push himself. He found a comfortable pace and stuck with it. The snarky might be tempted to condemn him as undistinguished, B−/C+, just another kid—any of these tantamount, in the current climate, to pretty heavy condemnation. More and more of late, I find myself compelled to defend kids like Jack, even to other teachers, some of whom seem to hold in a museum-lit shrine an image of the Ideal Student to which they expect all those of the flesh-and-blood variety to aspire. Anything short of that is a disappointment, a personal affront, a sign, even, of a deficient character. Superlative achievement and a whole salad bar of laurels should be everyone’s goal, they, too, seem to believe, and learning is what happens along the way. Students like Jack can become invisible. In fact, many seem to prefer it that way.

Through the year, Jack ambled along at about three-quarters speed. Over the first few months, I waited for signs of ignition. When he handed me a sub-mediocre paper as the last of the autumn leaves were skittering down the street, I deemed it reason for a sit-down. We had a pleasant talk. He agreed he could be doing better, acknowledged he had it in him, said he recognized the benefits of working hard; cause enough, I thought, for cautious optimism. We parted pals. But nothing changed. A nudge here, a prod there, even a mild remonstration or two … nothing. Fair enough, I thought. A student, particularly a senior, is allowed to govern his own engagement, to deem my class not his bag. As long as something is. I left him to his own recognizance.

But across a long and mild winter came evidence of nothing from our Jack in the way of bags, no bag in any direction. Spring eased in—nary a whiff of fervor regarding anything.

Then in May, a new generation of leaves greening the trees, with the effect of a revelation, I happened to learn that reticent Jack did have a passion after all … happened to learn because he mentioned it. He had, as it turns out, a big bag, a let-the-world-go-on-without-me bag, a calling. I even liked that he hadn’t bothered to tell me about it until our time together was almost over; it was, after all, his. And it served, as far as he knew—or would at least let on—no useful purpose beyond the gratification of doing it, which he articulated poorly, which bothered him not in the least. He wasn’t being coached or spurred or assessed by an adult.

No competition awaited for which he was preparing. He’d had no special training for it; nor did it play even an oblique role, as far as I know, in any of his college aspirations. The pleasure and satisfactions were his alone and for themselves, and more than enough.

In May, I learned that Jack draws.

But it’s more than that: Jack draws pictures of three dimensions. He creates detailed paper models, sculptures really, with ordinary printer paper, pencils and pens, scissors and Scotch tape. He does it purely because he enjoys it. From the Hogwarts Castle to the Statue of Liberty to a life-size, wearable baseball cap, and on and on, some no bigger than a deck of cards, some as big as a collie. Something strikes his fancy, he sits down and makes a model. If it takes a week, it takes a week. If the phone rings, he lets it. If the homework gets short shrift, so be it. And they are exquisite, these Jack originals. They are beautifully, masterly done. You should see them. Everyone should see them—the Fabergé eggs of paper sports cars and Millennium Falcons. On that note, though, Jack doesn’t seem to care much either way. It’s nice that people like them, but that’s not why he does it. The fun, the satisfaction, is in the doing.

It began a few years earlier. His family was on vacation at the Jersey Shore. Time ran short at an amusement park, if I have it right, and Jack was unable to go on a ride he’d been eager to try. The family headed for the car with a crestfallen kid in tow—which, I’ll point out, is a kid for you: Fun all day at an amusement park, and he’s glum about the one ride he didn’t get to go on. Well, thinks the parent, too bad. But, thinks the kid, I really, really, really wanted to go on that ride. Mid-mope, Jack gets back to wherever it is they’re staying and, not knowing why, reaches for pencil and paper and creates a meticulously detailed drawing of the ride, a longing drawing, a demonstration of frustrated ardor. A love letter. And, he realized at the end, it came out great. It was fun to do. Time and the world had vanished. Finished, he looked at the picture. Felt a measure of pride in his handiwork. Realized sitting there that the itch was not entirely scratched. Realized that the ride had a left side and a right and a back, so he drew them too. When he was done, there they lay on the table, four sheets of paper with drawings on them. Then he had an idea, a delighted little zing: The ride doesn’t lie flat on a table. It stands upright. It has three dimensions. He went for scissors and tape.

Voilà.

Bliss does not have to be big and important. Nor must it bring one accolades of any luster to matter. Bliss is more than its own reward. And while rare is the acorn that becomes an oak tree, every oak tree, every last one, began as an acorn you could pick up and put in your pocket.

Whether Jack goes on to become an artist or an architect or an engineer or anything else directly consequent to his enthusiasm for model making does not matter. He has learned something about passion, about focus, about clearing a space in his life and doing what he does purely because he loves and believes in it. He has honed a set of abilities too. Developed standards of his own measure and sees to it that he meets them. He knows, then, the satisfactions of seeing with purpose, conceiving ideas, dedicating himself to them, and producing good work. In choosing and doing for himself, he earns his confidence and self-worth. Very good things, these, and, I hope, lifelong.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest