A student, who used to visit me, dreamed about what he wanted to do to change the world. Angry at corruption, he had long decided to dedicate himself to the poor. He wanted to become president.
I loved listening to him dream. He embodied the fervor and idealism of the young.
There was just one problem: He was barely passing his subjects, including the one I taught.
When I told him to shape up, he said, “I never worry about grades. Grades do not reflect the real me.”
While grades certainly do not tell the entire story, they do say a lot about discipline and determination. How could he become barangay chair, much less president, if he flunked?
“I believe in myself, I really do. My dream will come true.”
What does it take to be president? That may be too complex. What does it take to do well in school?
In our 2004 study of Ateneo de Manila high school achievers, we found that for our best students, effort counts more than ability. The students were no more intelligent than their peers but, through guts and grit, they managed not just to survive, but to thrive.
The process was not easy. Parents monitored them closely from kindergarten to middle school, making tutok not just on long tests but also quizzes and projects. Instead of tutors to spoon-feed them ready answers, the students had their parents as mentors.
Parents asked them daily about school, made reviewers for examinations, stayed up with them when needed.
Daily sacrifices became a habit. Study first before play. No television or gaming on weekdays. No short cuts.
Instead of indulging in vague dreams, the students set time-bound and specific goals.
Instead of dreaming, “I will win the Magis award,” they planned how much time and effort to devote to each subject to get 95 in the next exam.
They listened closely to teachers in class. Instead of doing just the assigned homework, they did extra exercises to maximize understanding.
Turbo and planes
Contrast the Ateneo achievers’ ethos to that promoted by popular movies today. In the Aug. 16 article in The Atlantic, “You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?,” writer Luke Epplin lambasted today’s kids’ movies that promoted dreaming big without working hard.
In Dreamworks’ “Turbo,” a garden snail dreams of racing while working in a tomato field. By accident, he ingests nitrous oxide and somehow qualifies for Indianapolis 500. Turbo is in the lead until the last lap when, in a crash, he loses his powers.
He is ready to give up but his formerly skeptical brother urges him on, “It’s in you! It’s always been in you! … That’s the best thing about you.”
“Newly inspired, Turbo inches across the finish line,” said Epplin, “fulfilling his self-actualizing journey and proving that one needn’t be human nor drive a car to win the country’s most prestigious auto race.”
In Disney’s “Planes,” a crop-duster named Dusty dreams of racing while working in a dusty field. After a rocky start, Dusty somehow manages to take the lead in the Wings around the Globe competition.
But when he crashes into the ocean, he nearly drops out. He is ready to give up, until his formerly skeptical friend urges him on, “You’re not a crop-duster. You’re a racer and now the whole world knows it.”
Of course Dusty wins, “never hav[ing] to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can’t fly faster than sleek racing aircraft,” said Epplin.
Self over others
There is nothing wrong with dreaming big. But without hard work, the dream is, at best,
unrealistic and, at worst, cruel.
“The protagonists sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers. Dusty abhors the smell of fertilizer and whines to his flying coach that he’s ‘been flying day after day over these same fields for years,’” said
Epplin. “Similarly, Turbo performs his duties in the garden poorly, and his insubordination eventually gets him and [his brother] fired. Their attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good.”
Are these really the role models we want for our kids?
“Turbo and Dusty don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did,” Epplin said. “It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves and out-
believe their opponents. They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.”
The 1969 movie “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” may appear heartless today. Charlie suffers multiple failures: His kite crashes, his team loses for the 99th time, his boat sinks. No one believes in him, least of all himself, except for best friend Linus, who tells him he has to win something “to restore … lost self-confidence.”
Charlie studies hard and wins the spelling bee. He represents his school at the nationals but, at the final round, he incorrectly spells “beagle” while his dog Snoopy points to himself at the front row. No last-minute-feel-good
Charlie Brown tells Linus he will never try anything again. “Rather than trying … to build up … self-esteem,” said Epplin, “Linus waxes philosophical: ‘You worked hard studying for the spelling bee, and … you feel you let everyone down and you made a fool out of yourself and everything. But did you notice something? … The world didn’t come to an end.’”
It took creator Charles Schulz 43 years before letting Charlie Brown hit a homerun. It would take at least that (and hard work) before my student can become president.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.