“I don’t write fiction,” she said to me across the room, “but, you know, this is turning out pretty damn good. I’m proud of myself.” With a toss of her head she turned back to clacking away at her key board. This is the same girl who three semesters ago cried every day the first week she was in my class. She pouted the next fifteen weeks.
Something changed in her during Advanced Writing class, our second semester together. Because I was quite pregnant at the time and she is known for her violence, I chose to meet in the dining hall within plain view of the officer on duty. In this informal, but safer setting we three seemed more relaxed around one another, and the writer in this student started to poke its head out like a mole in early Spring. Finding it safe and the sun warm she ventured further. Then she attacked an officer and went up to the hole for awhile.
She came back a few weeks later with this comment, “I think I like writing. I can see a difference in it over the past year.” So could I.
In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the controversial memoir about “Chinese” parenting, Chinese mother Amy Chua explains a fundamental difference in a Westerner’s understanding of fun and enjoyment:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.
Having spent my elementary years around successful Asian families and their children, I have immense respect for the culture and the results they get. I also agree with Chua to a certain degree based on my own experience. For example, I’ll play a game of Rummy or Cribbage at the drop of a hat because I can compete, it is fun for me; but I will not join a game of volleyball because I don’t stand a chance at anything except upsetting my team mates. If I had been coached in volleyball and learned to be consistent, if not good, I could have learned to really enjoy the sport.
All of this is to say that for some reason I chose to dig my heels in with this student and apply the Chinese mother principle with her. She underestimated my patience and my plans. As soon as she would turn in one paper, I’d assign her another, ignoring her grumbles and glares. Thus she improved, and with her improvement her enjoyment, until they became one and the same.
In the past I’ve expected my students to turn out a lot of writing, but for academic purposes. While I sought to make my students proficient writers, I never sought to make one a writer. Maybe that’s because when I have 80 papers flooding my desk at once, as opposed to two or eight papers at a time, my goals, by necessity, remain purely objective. In this environment my goals, which are not measured by numbers and tests, can effect the heart.