Sep 12, 2012

Like Father, Like Son

It is 9:09pm.  I am just now sitting in my living room with no interruptions - except for the insane dog scratching on a blanket to find a resting place, before tearing off to presumably chew on something new that will cause a scolding once I find it.  Just a few minutes ago, the last of our offspring shuffled off to bed.  Josiah turned eleven today.  He wasn't up celebrating his birthday, though.  He wasn't eating cake and playing with his newest Lego product.  He was doing homework.

With a greater frequency, this is how the last few hours of my day goes.  The kids get home from school.  They want to play and hang out.  Around 4:30, I will earn my "Daddy is a Jerk" plaque by telling them to start their homework.  There was a time when thirty short minutes later one of their bright shiny faces would stroll into the living room.  "I'm done.  Can you sign my planner?"  No more.  Instead, the process spans several hours.  I have to get involved at multiple points to get them to leave each other alone, to put down their toys, to get to work.  It is a super fun way to end the evening.

I was a bit frustrated when I noticed the volume of homework.  "I can't believe they give the kids this much stuff," I mumbled to myself, like some old guy about to go feed some pigeons.  But then I found out that the volume was contributed to by the fact that they didn't finish their work in class.  Or it was a project that was assigned a month prior and put off until the night before.  Then my frustration turned like a precision automobile from teacher to student.  I got the classwork issue fixed.  But the delaying of projects and assignments?  That's a lost cause, I fear.

Josiah is brilliant.  And he knows it.  This is a dangerous combination for any gifted individual.  You hear how smart you are enough, you start to buy into your own hype.  This is bad for several reasons.  First of all, as I am discovering now, you begin to believer your only worth comes from that ultra-impressive brain.  You have to keep manufacturing more and more noteworthy academic accomplishment to gain favor from others.  Straight A's don't cut it after a while.  There needs to be academic tournaments and truckloads of awards.  You only have worth as long as you are flaunting your mind.  That is a bit of a problem when the grades stop, mind you.  At some point, where you finished in your class doesn't matter one little bit.  (You'll probably realize this as you, the valedictorian, are now a subordinate at work to some mouth breather that can't match their socks.)

The other problems are not quite so destined for therapy.  A brilliant student knows they don't need to exert as much energy on work as the average kid.  Their "mediocre" is often better than the majority's best.  That isn't arrogance talking.  (Actually, it probably is.)  It is a fact.  This lack of a need for diligence leads to laziness.  It almost becomes a game.  Just how long can you put off an assignment and still get the desired grade.  I'm not talking about just passing.  A kid like this only deals with one grade.  "What is the least I can do to get an A?"  That is the defining question.  When getting A's isn't a challenge any more, the only challenge is in how little you can do to produce that A.  I remember countless times when my friends and I would have an unwritten contest on just who could do the least possible.  (Want to guess who won?)  In Spanish 1, I don't think I ever did a single assignment at home.  I got to school twenty minutes early, sat at the door to the Spanish classroom, and punched out the work.  I didn't hide it or anything.  The teacher comes by.  "Hi, David.  You get the homework done?'  "No, ma'am.  Doing it right now."  I would study the vocab words for the test the same way - in the hallway before class.

This kind of risk-taking behavior just keeps escalating.  There is a thrill in knowing you got away with something.  It isn't like there were more important things to do which kept me from finishing my assignments.  I just wanted to watch more tv or play more. It had nothing to do with a shortage of time. It had to do with a sick desire to see just how far I could push it.  Crown jewel of this process.  UCF, junior year.  A friend of mine and I are taking an Honors Seminar called "Amazonia in the Age of Development."  Oh, yes, I know.  Absolutely riveting.  The class ruled for a few reasons.  One, the teachers actually took advantage of the fact that the honors department had budgets for their classes for refreshments.  So we had chips, cookies, sodas at every class.  And we had a killer end of the year party with the biggest bowl of shrimp I had ever seen.  The class had one assignment.  If you attended every class without an absence, the teachers would bump your grade up one letter grade.  So on that one assignment, I realized I just needed a B-. You had to pick a research paper or an annotated bibliography.  The paper had to be forty pages with twenty sources.  The bibliography was supposed to be an in depth synopsis of fifty books.  I opted for the paper.  I had never met a paper I couldn't BS my way through.  [In another honors class, I didn't read the book and wrote a paper on it.  The professor returned it and said, "You were dead wrong in your hypothesis.  The author didn't mean that at all.  However, you proved your point so well, I couldn't give you less than a B+.]

This Amazonia paper was going to be my magnum opus.  I didn't even open the textbook all semester.  The first time I opened it was to get the publishing information out for the paper's bibliography.  I started on the paper two days before it was due.  I finished it at 2am on the day it was due.  I printed it out at my friend's apartment (after he finished printing his annotated bibliography). We ran across campus to the professor's office and turned them in five minutes before the deadline.  I got my paper back a week later.  "B-" I was fit to be tied.  I went to see the professor and almost had a conniption.  I reminded her I hadn't missed a class.  "I know.  That takes that into account."  She gave me a C- on the paper.  What!??!???!  "You are planning to go to grad school.  That kind of junk won't cut it there. I'm grading you like a grad student."  But I wasn't IN grad school.  This is an undergrad class.  That paper in this class was a B paper (bumped to an A for perfect attendance).  The professor wouldn't budge.   I hated her.  To this day, I still get worked up about it.  I told that story to Josiah and Natalie's Gifted teacher.  She told me the professor was unfair.  I smirked because I already knew that.  [Yes, I graduated 16 years ago.]

So what was Josiah working on tonight?  Well, he had math and science.  And he had a gifted project that was assigned a month ago . . . that he knew was due tomorrow a month ago . . . that I had repeatedly reminded him about.  Did that stop him?  Nope.  He is my son.  I have tried time and again to warn him about this stuff.  I have told him it is going to bite him in his butt at some point.  But he still thinks he knows best.  I know I never listened to anyone, either.  Sure, once in a while I misjudged just how lazy I could be.  But it never really hurt me.  Tenth grade US History.  I played that fun game where you see just how low of a grade you need on the final to get an A.  I needed a 73.  I hadn't gotten anything lower than an 85 all year on anything.  So I didn't even study for a cumulative final exam in U S History.  I got a 72.  The teacher gave me the extra point.  See?  It didn't hurt me.  So why stop?

Josiah has been learning the states and capitals and abbreviations in school this year.  Every week, they have a batch assigned to memorize.  Every week, they have a test.  Every week, he waits until the last minute.  The first test, I was at a church event the night before.  Heather helped him study and come up with tricks to memorize things.  He got a 104.  The next week, she was gone and I helped him the night before - warning him not to do it again.  He got a 104.  The next week, he came and told me that he had "forgotten" to study.  The test was the next day.  I refused to help him.  I earned the "Daddy is a Jerk" plaque.  I forced him to study it himself.  After he had spent two hours straight looking at it, Heather came home and quizzed him on them.  He ended up getting a 104.  I told him we weren't helping him at all this last batch.  I told him to study them ten minutes a day every day.  The last batch is due on Friday.  Want to guess how many times I have seen him study?  Yup.  Zero.  What's going to happen?  He'll get a 104.

On one hand, I am amazed at his brilliance.  I'm not like Mr. Incredible, almost encouraging the negative behavior.  But it is impressive.  It is also maddening.  I know now how it must have been to be my parent.  I met with his gifted teacher and talked about this.  It is perfectly normal for a gifted student.  And she said no matter how hard she tries - or how hard we try - he is not going to change until HE decides to.  Some comfort.  Right now, he doesn't see the need.  I know I never really saw the need.  I still tried to get away with that junk in seminary - with Hebrew.  It worked on the first semester.  I hit a stone wall in the second semester, so I dropped the class and changed my degree program to one without Hebrew.  (I never finished seminary anyway, so it didn't matter.  Different story.)

Just about once a week, I sit there and shake my head about something Josiah does that just echoes something I did.  He is so much a copy of me in so many ways.  That can be good and bad.  He has many of the same struggles I had.  And he has many of the same gifts I had.  So it is easy to always assume he is doing the exact same thing that I would be if I were him.  But that isn't always true.  There are times when I am convinced he is up to something - because I would have been at his age.  But he isn't.  He is his own unique individual.  And just like it can be frustrating and maddening to be parenting someone so similar to myself, it is also rewarding to see him branch out and do things I never would do.  He doesn't like football.  By his age, I was a complete football nut.  He constructs amazing creations with his Legos.  I never used Legos - those were my brother's toys.  He saved up $140 to buy a big Lego set and then used it to help purchase our (his) dog.  I never in a million years would have saved $140 at his age OR wanted a dog.  He went away to church camp this summer and didn't even call us the first three nights.  He turned down Safety Patrol because he didn't want to get to school early.  He still thinks liking a girl is just ridiculous (or so he claims).  And he just signed up for a robotics class.  These are all things that are completely opposite of how I was.

In so many ways, we are similar.  But I also am intrigued to see how different we end up being.  Either way, Josiah certainly challenges me and pushes me in ways no one else can.  Many times, that is not something I care for too much.  However it is forcing me to examine my own behaviors, thoughts, and habits to make sure I am teaching him the best way to become a man.  I'm sure that isn't his goal.  He just wants to be able to put off his homework and play for another thirty minutes.  It is an interesting by product, though.  I am happy he's my kid - even though I'll have to help him remember Sacramento is the capital of California tomorrow night.