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Scholar Voices: Eric’s Epilogue

Eric Trinh Chu is a 2013 Meritus Scholar and senior at Kenyon College, studying sociology and literature. Through the Meritus internship program, he spent this summer teaching creative writing to kids aged 7-10 with 826 Valencia, an education nonprofit. He planned lessons, supervised breaks and field trips, and gave instruction with a team of two other intern-teachers. Post-grad goal: become a published novelist.

Have you ever tried to convince a kid to do something they didn’t want to do, something that was “good for them?” Social “maturity,” or “growing up,” is basically the result of this process, repeated hundreds of thousands of times. We assume that our elders know what they’re doing; we assume they are right. Often, right is shorthand for the way we’ve always done things.

In my first blog post of this series, I recalled how my mother kept me indoors during my childhood summers, forbidding me from any other activity than math and reading drills. Her insistence on sheltering me from the world’s distractions allowed me to focus on a certain kind of learning (silent, sitting, poring over a textual source of authority) until I loved it. Now that I think about it, there is something precarious about a love born out of coercion. It’s the same ill-at-ease feeling that nags at me when I consider that we adults tell our children that they are born free in a world where they are branded by race, religion, and sexuality—a world where their life choices are circumscribed by the micro-fascisms of capitalism.

Perhaps you could accuse me of an unrealistic vision of freedom. But, after all, that’s what I believe education is for. Despite the amazing work I saw my students do, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something wrong about the way we expected them to do their work: (ideally) all at once, indoors, quietly. The structure of the classroom was not built for their learning first in mind. It was built for my convenience as a teacher, as a card-carrying member of the people-who-know-better, under the assumption that groups of kids could be processed, like batches in a factory, each batch to a classroom.

I saw it as a kind of moral obligation that I should do something about this mismatch I observed (between the needs of students and the expedience of institutions). But how can one person challenge overarching social patterns? In small ways.

So I made some decisions. I answered all well-intentioned (and many badly-intentioned, I suspect) questions from my students, no matter how vulgar. I trusted in the wisdom, even if it is a kind of wisdom that precedes language, of my kids’ constant desires to push boundaries. If you understand what a word means, I told my students, you may use it.

Then another decision: how to answer the question of why? Why write? Why rewrite? I resisted the easy answers my elders gave me: to get a job. To become employable. Far be it from me to impose the stress-inducing ideology of our American meritocracy, where we wrap our kids in bootstrap narratives until they cannot breathe.

Now that I’m back in college, I miss the unruly magic of kids. My days of planning with my fellow interns feel so far away. It was such blessing to spend time working with people who put so much care and intention into creating a space for growth. What a rare and difficult endeavor to succeed at.