"You Don't Matter!"

Posted on
21 Nov 2013
by Pamela Fordham

"Dear Ms. Fordham, I know I am capable of doing very well, but I don't care enough to do it! Fine, give me a zero. You don't matter. I would like to be a doctor, so I do not need to learn from this class. I just want to graduate and get into a good school so I don't have to sit through three more years of high school classes."


Maybe I shouldn't have taken the silly words so personally, but I felt as if the student who wrote that message to me - for me - about me was trying to come at...me. After all, she had taken the time to write an entire paragraph letting me know why she didn't care about the assignment, the class or ultimately my reaction to her cruel words. I was angered by her callous boldness; I was hurt because her words were unsolicited and written so easily with a complete disregard for the effect they might have, not just on her grade, but on me as a human being. Mostly, I was disappointed that after having only been on the earth for fifteen years, she had decided what mattered and what didn't.

I put her paper aside and started considering my reaction. Detention for insubordination was an option, but that seemed too old school, and she wouldn't have cared anyway. I could have called her parents and read her letter to them, but I remembered the adage about apples not falling far from their trees and decided against that too. A good ole' "hemming up" seemed like a great option - especially since I was already angry, but that would require more energy than I cared to exert, and she had already let me know that she wasn't concerned about my opinion of her. She had told me - in writing - that I did not matter. So why should I bother? She was just one of hundreds of students that I interact with every day. Maybe I was overthinking her letter to me. Maybe she didn't matter! I put her paper aside, got my car keys, and went home because a bigger picture dictated a response instead of a reaction. What resonated most deeply was the irony of her desire to be a doctor and her dismissive attitude of the arduous path that would be required for her to do so. But she's just collateral damage. She is so simply and tragically a byproduct of the "reality" effect - privileged, proud, and pointless. I guess she figured it would only take about five minutes to transform herself into the fabulous and famous person she hoped to become! In her mind, all of this teaching and learning was just a distraction. The "reality" effect would have her believe that it would just be a matter of finding a gimmick, singing the highest note or offering the YouTube world a creative or offensive new gesture. Maybe the only thing standing between her and the stethoscope would be a tearful, high-pitched plea to the right important person, and those magic words, "I promise to work reeeeeeeally hard if you choose me!"

And what if she did become a doctor? Does the world really need a doctor who has decided before he/she even takes my blood pressure that I don't matter? I'd like to believe that the decision to go into the medical profession is based on the premise that people matter. The best doctors are good in part, because their impact begins with the belief in the idea that people matter.

Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers: the Story of Success that being the best doesn't just require harder work; it requires "much, much harder" work than everyone else and an intense, extra-ordinary amount of practice. I wondered, if my premise was correct (that people in the medical profession should fundamentally believe that people matter), then when did the practice and nurturing for that belief begin? What class would my student take on her path to becoming a doctor that would teach her that people matter?

So much about who we become as adults begins in our childhoods. The best aspects of who I am as a teacher began at age four in my Sunday School class at Bethel A.M.E. Church when Mrs. Fogan and Mrs. Butler inspired my love for reading, helping me to sound out words and teaching me how to drop my voice at the end of a sentence. They, and dozens of teachers who came after them, incorporated the "people matter" curriculum into every lesson plan.

Regardless of the profession or degrees that were waiting in my future, I was blessed to be a graduate of the school of "people matter." So how could I respond to my student? When and how would this student and aspiring doctor learn that she doesn't get to decide what matters or who matters? When and how? With me and now. That's my response.

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