Jesse Pinkman’s Wooden Box

An honor student who couldn’t do her best and a thug who could.

A few CTQ bloggers will be dedicating some upcoming posts to grading. At my Stories from School Arizona blog, I posted a letter to an A+ student. Here is another offering.

Santana was a top student. She had all As and Bs. Assign a 10 page paper and you would get a 10 page paper. Assign 20 word problems and you would get 20 word problems. Give her the rubric for any assignment and she would max out on points. I have no doubt that colleges lined up around the block to offer her scholarships.

But process this: My engineering students were designing cars out of clay. The target was to make the most aerodynamic shape they could. Santana brought me her first effort and I pointed out some careless mistakes. She went off, made some improvements, and came back. I pointed out a couple of new issues with her workmanship. Her shoulders slumped, she went off, made some more changes, and came back. When I gave her more feedback, her look fed back to me her annoyance in no uncertain terms. Still, in spite of her anger, she went back to work. She came back once more, assumed a defensive stance, and handed me a car that still didn’t reflect her skills. I decided on a different tack: “Santana, I’ll make a deal with you. I will give you an A on everything you bring me, but you never bring me anything until you’re satisfied that you’ve done your best.”

She was slain. Her shoulders slumped. From her confused expression she might as well as have been looking at her first differential equation.

Santana, who would jump through any hoop for an A, didn’t know what it meant to do her best. 

Jessie Pinkman did. Ignore for a moment his role in building a meth empire in Breaking Bad. Remember instead a scene that showed him as a student. He’s telling a group of recovering addicts about a school project. In tech class he had built a wooden box. He showed it to the teacher who asked, “Is that the best you can do?” In the scene Jessie makes it clear the teacher wasn’t critical or talking down to him, he just wanted to know if it was all Jessie had. He says, “Nah, I can do better,” and starts from scratch. He built box after box until he judged one “insane.” He lovingly describes its touch as smooth as glass and cedar scent.

I bet he got an A on the box. I bet it didn’t care.

During the final episode of Breaking Bad, when all hell is about to break loose, Jessie flashes back to the box.

And now, as when facing the entry sign to a roundabout, I have to decide which route to take in this post. One arrow points to a discussion about the lack of a genuine alignment between grades and achievement. Another to an exploration of how students need to make good grades to inform high schools and colleges of their achievement, even though grades are distinctly unable to do that. One more leads to a rant about teachers who tell students that school is their job and grades are their pay. The last arrow simply says “Grass.” That’s the one I’ll follow.

Nope, not the kind of grass that Pinkman traded his box for as he dove into the Abyss. Rather it’s the grass on the practice field of Western New Mexico University in Silver City. In summers during high school my friends David Thiel, David Nelson, Steve Maxwell, Sam Maldonado, and I would train for the upcoming football season.

We would meet there after dinner each evening and our workouts consisted mostly of endless games of catch – endlessly running and throwing and catching and laughing and falling and always bragging and taunting. My memory is that it was mostly done barefoot. That time Dave spiked the football and it bounced back and hit him in the face. It still gets to me.

There were no coaches or drills or pep talks. But there was a setting sun and the cool of the evening, friendship and football.

Nonetheless our coaches, Gerald Garrett, Robert Ruiz, Tom Gardner, and Mike Castillo were formative figures in our lives. They taught us a game by which we learned hard truths about performance against objective standards: We wanted to win but mostly lost. After graduation we applied their lessons and earned something like ten degrees between us. Nor are we of slight achievement in our careers.

But looking back over the four decades since high school, I think the more valuable lessons came from playing catch on a summers’ eve.

I hope you’ve drifted off into your own memories about a time as a student that’s stayed with you because it mattered more than a score. I’d love to hear about it.

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