Saying What You Mean

Movie Clip From the movie Lloyd

Any time you receive an email at 10 AM in the morning from a teacher who has just finished teaching your son, it’s pretty much guaranteed that it won’t be to tell you how your darling child did you proud. It is usually because the teacher is so upset that she needs to get it off her chest then and there. And thus was the case this week when I received an email from my youngest son’s sixth grade literature teacher.

“Today in first period … ” it began and went on to describe the assignment given to all of the children, ” … out of the three myths we read this week, which was your favorite? Explain your answer.”

It seems my son took her literally and assumed that she really did want to know what he thought of her choices for reading material and thus gave an honest reason about why he selected the story he did as his favorite of the three. In fact, he did so with such clarity that his teacher felt compelled to immediately share his response with me  – and continued to share his response with each class she taught that day as an example of what to never write in an essay.

“My favorite story was the “Boy Who Flew” because it was the shortest,” my son shared with his teacher in his essay, adding that he hated having to read stories he’d already read before. But it was the part of his essay where he explained his choice as favorite that was the final straw for the teacher. “All the other stories sucked.”

Now just to be clear, I am in no way supporting his choice of words, and we’ve had several conversations about not using playground language in school essays. And he also wrote a letter of apology and apologized the next day in person, as well as doing the assignment over. But when my son arrived home from school, he was just as upset as his teacher had been, because he believed that the assignment and reaction were unfair. I explained to him that rarely does a teacher actually want their students’ unadulterated opinion even when they ask for it, that what they usually mean is “please describe in great detail the elements of each of these stories so I know you actually read what I assigned.”

My son’s response? “Then why in the world do they play games? Just ask for what you want, and I’ll do the assignment. I can do that, but you have to tell me that’s what you want. If you ask me for my opinion, then I’m going to think you actually want it.”

He has a point. In much of our lives, we speak in code. “Do I look fat?” is often code for “Do you still love me after all this time?”, just as “I’m so tired tonight” is usually code for “If you seriously think I’m in the mood for anything more than fuzzy socks and popcorn tonight, you have another think coming.” We rarely say exactly what we mean, and we want to hear the unfiltered thoughts of others even less often. But after raising three gifted kids who all have struggled with playing the games society expects us play, I have come to the conclusion that maybe my son’s approach isn’t so bad. You know exactly where you stand. In five words or less.

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