When I queried my sentences on 100 “life inventory” questions ranging from “Who would be happy for you if you won a million dollars?” to “Why do you write?” to “Where does God live?” it was the answers to the question “When will you die?” that caught my attention. I noticed a strange pattern emerge among the answers given by my AP and my regular English students.
From 2008-2012, I led students in all my classes in a beginning-of-the-year activity called “The Life Inventory.” Students answered 100 who, what, where, when, why, and how questions in complete sentences and used the inventory to start personal essays, vignettes, or memoirs for the rest of the year. (It cut down on the plaintive perennial, “I have nothing to write about!”)
During the first year I did this inventory, I didn’t notice any differences between my AP kids and my regular English classes. All the kids in my mid-sized, southern rural high school seemed to respond to the questions about the same. But then an answer from one of the students in my AP class caught my eye. The question was: “When will you die?”
“I will die when I’m 30,” Lily had written in her neat, exacting penmanship. I knew Lily’s story even before she showed up in my AP class. Her father was MIA. Her mother had been killed in a drunk-driving accident. She lived with her grandmother who had signed her up for AP classes. It was not the honesty and clarity with which the student answered the question, but the age. I quickly flipped through all the other AP kid’s responses to that question. Without exception, the rest of the class had answered with 80-, 90- and even a half-dozen improbable 100-year-olds.
Then I pulled out the folder from my regular English class. I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed it before. The ages they had given were similar to Lily’s: 58, 40, 50, 32, etc. Only seven students in that regular English class anticipated living a standard American life expectancy for white males of 76.7 years. (Interestingly, Kentucky, where I teach, ranks 48th for females (78.49 years) and 49th for males (73.40 years) in life expectancy compared to the national average.)
For the next four years, I tracked this question, and each year I had the same results. I taught four AP classes and two regular English classes. My AP classes ranged from 15 to 23 kids. My regular English classes were large, always 30+. During the four years of taking the inventory, 87.6% of my AP students indicated they would live to 75 years or beyond. Conversely, only 18% of my regular English students believed they would live to see 75 years.
Was there a connection between long life expectancy and academic success, and contrariwise, in my low-level students between the powerlessness that comes from the fixed mindset of misery and low academic performance? Maybe the students who believed a full, future life awaited them were more likely to invest in their present academic life. They signed up for AP classes, where they would read meaningful books, embark on tough writing assignments, have rigorous intellectual conversations, and work collaboratively in groups. Maybe signing up for an AP class didn’t make sense to my other students, who saw their future life pretty much as dismal as their present with the exception that one day, around the time they turned 50, it would be mercifully over.
How do you motivate someone to get all hyped about a career or college when they can’t even envision themselves living 12 years past graduation? Students will only be as college and career ready as they are life ready, and if life has shown them scary things – hunger, violence, addiction, impermanence in residences and relationships— they will react with fear, not hope.
Jessica Lahey in an article recently in The Atlantic writes about adult mentorships providing huge benefits for students from poverty. In the article, Lahey interviews Valerie Maholmes of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s about the powerful impact that just one adult can have on a student by merely believing in that student’s ability to achieve. Maholmes, who recently published a book about fostering resilience in children of poverty, cites “positive relationships with adults appear to be the most important source of hope for children at risk for poor educational outcomes.” Maholmes suggests that hope is central to overcoming the barriers childhood trauma and dysfunction create. Hope, Maholmes defines, as “the ability to envision a more positive future, even when all evidence points to the contrary.”
The solutions, which cost nothing and seem obvious, are all rooted in positive relationships between the student and her parents, teachers, and other adult mentors. If students are met with more failures at school, more closed doors, more fear, their narrative of despair will continue, further narrowing their abilities to pilot their own course toward academic success.
Human connection is the most vital component of the educational experience. All students need just one person in their corner 100 percent, giving them hope for the future, trying to help them see there’s a big wide world with many opportunities to live long, healthy, productive lives.