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To be labeled a dummy

November 7, 2003 |

Dear Mr. Keillor,
I teach writing and reading skills to underachieving ninth graders, a job I find rewarding and challenging, and love every second I'm with the kids though I also feel frustration sometimes when they are unwilling to put forth the work necessary. I was the same way until something happened to me in the ninth grade, something flipped the switch, and I'll be a peanut walking up to a hot dog stand if I know what did it. Any ideas or advice?
—Brian O.

Dear Brian,
When you are rescuing the underachiever so late in the game, you have to deal with the crumpled self-esteem of the poor student. It's a painful thing to be labeled a dummy, no matter how many euphemisms educators use, and somehow you have to connect with that kid on some basic decent respectful level. You will probably fail in most cases, and those kids will find their own course in life, but you can rescue a few poor drowning souls from the indifference of their education and give them a second chance to become literate adults able to operate in the literate world, which is where power resides. In my very slight teaching experience, I've found that kids enjoy writing comedy and trying to be funny and that this can be a doorway to the literate world. Comedy is precise. Word usage is crucial. Economy is everything. And when people laugh at what you've written, it's a great balm to your self-esteem, especially when most comedy is about one's own failings and misfortunes. English teaching took a wrong turn when it decided that all kids must keep journals and write transcendental poems about nature. Comedy is closer to a kid's heart.

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