December 15, 2008
Dear LoMA Family,
The six most self-defeating words I hear students (and some adults) say is “that’s just the way I am.” All too often, when a student gets into an argument or does something regrettable, she will defend herself with, “I know I shouldn’t, but that’s the way I am.” I can understand that to some degree because I can remember that when I was a teenager it was vital to me that I be true to who I am. No one, especially my parents and teachers, was going to tell me how to dress, talk or act (although I did take far too much advice from my friends). This is a healthy part of maturation that all teenagers must go through as they develop identities separate from their parents. The problem is that as teens develop appropriate self-pride, they may also become more inflexible and stubborn. They label themselves as someone who “just can’t do math” or they may excuse their actions by saying “people just have to understand that I have a temper.” This fatalism is a bit absurd because teenagers are, by definition, in a period of transition. When my 93-year-old grandmother would say, that is just the way I am, I could believe her. When a 16 year old says it, it seems ridiculous.
The area where this comes up the most is when teens cloak their inappropriateness in “honesty.” For instance, when a student tells a teacher in the middle of class “This lesson is boring” or when one person tells an acquaintance “That coat looks nasty.” Inevitably, when I try to explain that remarks such as these are inappropriate, the offending student will say, “I’m just being honest, that’s the kind of person I am and I’m not going to change.” They do not understand that honesty must always be measured with good judgment. Yes, it might be honest for me to tell my cousin that she looks fat, but I know better than to go there.
Ms. Garfield is teaching acting for real life situations. She is so tired of seeing her students act in ways that cause them grief that she is teaching them how to perform in ways that benefit them. In the same way that every five-year old knows how to act nicely to their Mom to get what they want, a smart student knows that acting respectful and showing appreciation for a teacher’s work can get them better treatment and a recommendation for college. Part of this is body language – making eye contact, sitting upright and nodding in agreement when appropriate. The other part is tact - the ability to speak truthfully without offending. For instance, I might get away with telling my cousin how great she looks when she is wearing loose clothing (instead of a tight tube top and miniskirt).
To see this as phony and respond, “I’m just too honest a person for that,” is very limiting. No person has only one characteristic. We are constantly learning and growing. My favorite poet, Walt Whitman, wrote, “I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).” I would like all of my students to be honest, but I also want them to be polite, appropriate, friendly and to do what they need to help themselves…even if it is sometimes just an act.