“You were a difficult child,” my mother said to me in one of the last few conversations we had before she died.
“I know,” I replied, and we held hands. Ever since I have regretted not saying, “Tell me about that.” I thought I knew because we had both been through it all back when I was three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine-years old. But still, what a gift it would have been for her to review for us—she at 85, me at 60—what it had been like for her to raise a “difficult child.”
I told this story to my seatmate last week on the flight from Chicago to Seattle. We had hit it off right away when she opened with, “I am going to the NAIS conference, too.”
“Ah,” I replied. “I guess you were reading over my shoulder. What do you teach?”
“High School Spanish.” She said, and with that began a four-hour conversation.
By the time I told her my “difficult child” story she had already told me how she had been a revolutionary at a traditional all-boy’s school, how she had gained the respect and trust of her unruly, disobedient boys, how by Year 2 students were confiding in her (in particular gays afraid to come out), how she had taken on the challenge of getting the administration to allow them to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, how the by-the-book upper school head had called her on the carpet for it, and how, nonetheless, in Year 4 the conservative headmaster had stood in front of the student body and announced the official formation of the GSA.
So when I said my mother said I had been a difficult child, she high-fived me and said, “My grandmother said the same thing to me.”
“Really! What kind of difficult child were you?”
“I was a brat?”
“What kind of brat?”
“I whined or cried to get what I wanted.”
“So that’s how you got so good politically.”
“Yes, I guess so,” she said.
So, I told her about a chat I had just had three hours ago on the commuter flight from Decatur to Chicago.
There had been four of us facing each other talking education (how did that happen?) and a tall, 45-year-old, CEO of a big Canadian company sitting across from me said: “When people ask me how you get to be CEO, I tell them, it’s not what you think. It’s not about getting good grades and graduating from a great business school. I say it is about challenge. I say it is about working twice as hard for what you want and not being afraid to fail. By the time you are 40 you have made as many mistakes and failed as often as the average 80-year-old. So now you are as smart and as skilled and as wise as an 80-year-old, your competence is obvious, and people give you the job.”
“Yes, I guess that applies to me,” said my seatmate. “I am invincible.”
“Invincible? Wow! How are you invincible?”
“When I take something on, either of two things can happen. Either I get what I want or don’t. If I don’t, I go into problem-solving mode and keep at it till I get what I want.”
“So you always get what you want?”
“Well, sort of,” she said with a little smile. “Sometimes I change my idea of what it is I want. In either case I learn twice as…. I learn a lot more than if I gave up.”
“So you might change your notion of the desirable outcome?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s one of the secrets of being invincible.”
“How did you get to be invincible?”
“Just what the CEO said,” she said. By the time I was 16, I had no trouble talking my parents into letting me go to public school, even though they were against it. They said it was not a safe place.
“Also, I was a naughty girl. I broke a lot of rules and got into as much trouble as I could. But I was smart enough to keep from getting kicked out and graduated strong enough to go to college. By the time I got to college I got down to work. I didn’t need to do all that childish stuff anymore. I had learned what I needed to learn.”
“So my CEO friend is right. By the time you were 30 you were better at conflict than your by-the-book boss, who was 40. Because he had always done the right thing and had never gotten into trouble, he had the diplomatic skill of the average 20-year-old, whereas you had the diplomatic skill of a 40-year-old?”
“Right, I was able to get him to support the GSA even though he and his boss, the headmaster, were initially against it.”
I put these stories together like this, not to try to convince parents and other educators that being bad is good, nor that one should hope for a difficult child, but to remind us of three critical education principles:
1) Difficulty, conflict, struggle, mistakes, disappointment and failure are where most learning comes from—usually the most important learning.
2) Difficulty is the life we are preparing our children for. We naturally hope that our children will be happy and successful, but that is a mirage–and we know it. The life they will get is a life of challenge, and the best preparation for challenge is challenges. When it’s harder for us, it might be better for them.
3) Raising difficult children might interfere with the rainbow life we were hoping for, but it might be better for the world. Remember Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, the willful child who started a charter school in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods when she was 23 and now at the age of 30 is running the thriving, vibrant Academy for Global Citizenship serving 250 students, 81% of whom are low income.
Someday I want to be on a flight from Chicago to Decatur with the Spanish teacher, the CEO, and your formerly difficult child.
Having a difficult child may be difficult, but it is not the worst thing that could happen to you.