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The least common denominator primes us

Every class has those kids. The smart ones, the curve-breakers, who pick it up early and run with it. They get it on the first go around. Hardly need our help at all. They have natural aptitude. Sit in the front of the class, graduate first in their class. They are on their way. Hardly need us. Did they ever need us? this is easy.

Then there are those other kids. The struggling ones, the faltering ones. They don’t pick it up early, so they come for extra help. We don’t see eye to eye. They just don’t get it. I tell it to them again and again. The other kids got it, why can’t they? They are stumped. They need us to see it the way they see it, so we can help them. this is hard.

Then there are those kids. The defiant ones, the failing ones. They don’t pick it up at all, but they don’t come to us for help. They’ve given up, not on us, but on themselves. These need our help most of all, but we don’t know how to help them. Don’t know how to reach them. If they’d come, we’d talk baseball or girl friends, we’d share movies we like or programs we watch. Maybe we would get to telling stories. this is harder still.

Teaching, lacing up the sneakers and going one on one with our world’s greatest natural resource, is the hardest job on earth and the greatest gift we can give. The capable ones will get it without us, but the others stretch us. Sometimes nearly to the breaking point.

And there’s no guarantee. They may fall away anyway in spite of our efforts, but let it not be because of our efforts. Never, ever, because of our efforts. We reach and keep reaching. We re-invent and re-organize. We create new ways to approach an old concept. We make models and draw diagrams. We sketch and color, paint and draw. We use our bodies and our boards. We use our minds, hearts and souls. We call on all the resources we have at hand to teach this one. The least common denominator. Who sits across from us…stumped, frustrated, confused. Who fumes and throws up his hands. “I’ll never get this!”

And we take a deep breath and smile an honest, sincere smile that reflects the truest of hearts. “You will. Let’s try again another way.” And so you do.

One day the quality of my work will be judged by my attention to the least common denominator.

The road less traveled

I stand at a crossroads, two ways before me. One paved and well lit, the other hard pan, worn through newly greening grass. Which way do I go?

Which way?

Which way?

A Robert Frost poem beckons dimly from an English class long past. Something about two paths and a choice to be made. One worn and one less so? The brave choose the one less traveled, it seems to say. They venture into uncharted territory and pave their own way.

Clearly, the folks in charge of these paths want me to choose the paved path. It is straight and firm so I won’t lose my footing. It is lit so I can walk it any time of the day or night and not lose my way. But is it the well worn path? Robert Frost seems to ask me. I can’t tell because its surface doesn’t show the wear and tear of footsteps along it. At least not today.

Clearly, someone wants me to go this way. But I’m glad for the other path; it actually leads in the direction I want to go. Those willing to take the chance of stepping off the paved path have given me permission to go this way. I’m grateful to them because when I was this age – college age as I am on a college campus today – I didn’t feel that freedom. I was all about seeking the right way, the paved way, the lit path.

Now, I am here with my own daughter, and she is readying to choose her own path. She doesn’t even hesitate at this intersection. Well, of course, take the dirt path; it’s more direct. Yet, she looks around. Is anyone actually walking across the grass? Am I singling myself out here? Will someone catch me and caution me about treading on the grass? What are the rules here?

Ah, the rules. We don’t like them, but it’s so important we know them. Not so we can break them, as some creative writing teachers will tell you, but because they are there for a reason. And reasons we need to know, so we can decide for ourselves whether the reasoning is sound and deserves our attention and respect. This is the way of youth. This, quite frankly, is the way of today.

Shortcuts are convenient and treading new paths is bold. But often the path laid before us is meant to take us past things we need to see (and perhaps deny or adopt) before we go on our way. The hard thing is, we don’t know which is which when we stand before both. As Sir Robert did not when he stood before his decision. But if he was to move on, he had to choose. To say no to one when he stepped onto the other.

And that, ironically, is the apparent lesson of this poem, as I read it again after all these years. It is not ‘the road less taken’; it is The Road Not Taken. It does not glorify the spirit of individualism that strikes out on its own. It laments the path we always intended to come back to but never do. Even if life does bring us back to the same crossroads, the choice is not the same because we are not the same. We’ve been changed by the choosing.

Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me,” Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives, the eve of what would be His crucifixion. Jesus had come to decision point. “Yet not my will but yours be done,” Jesus concluded. Surely, no one with the power to choose otherwise would choose the way of the cross, yet He did.

Could it be that He took the road not meant to be taken in order to pave and bring light to our choice?

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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