Sometime around the seventh grade, I moved into a phase I assumed would be temporary. I quit trying so hard in math, because I saw the stacks of worksheets as irrelevant to my life. I set up a system where ten of us each did three of thirty problems and then copied our answers from each other the next day. I snuck Salinger and Camus into the long lectures on chemical reactions.
I threw myself passionately into what I enjoyed. No, that’s not entirely correct. I threw myself into what I loved. I pushed all of school into a “Will this help me to think better about life?” filter and then managed to cut corners on all the rest. Throughout high school, I missed out on scholarships because I “didn’t apply myself,” meaning I didn’t play the GPA game. I earned a 3.4 average, but I wasn’t part of the race to the top.
While others learned to manipulate the system, I worked outside of it most of the time and then re-engaged when it seemed relevant (often history and English). The crazy part? I felt guilty about this. I began each year telling myself to grow out of this phase and do what’s right. Work hard. Get good grades. Get a scholarship.
I get it. College is expensive. I could have earned a free ride. Then again, four years of college do not equal four years of my salary. And you couldn’t pay me forty thousand a year right now to go back and fill out worksheets. If that’s the case when I’m thirty-one, why should I have worked harder in high school?
I recognized, even back then, that it wasn’t worth giving up four years of my life just to earn a scholarship. I knew, at the time, that there was no free ride; that kids would give up an education in exchange for a scholarship and to me, even as a confused high school student, I knew better. I remember reading Twain and wondering if I was like Huck Finn. I’d silently question whether my rebellious “laziness” was, in fact, not morally wrong or even morally neutral, but actually the right thing to do.
So, here I am now. I write, but I don’t sell many books. I teach, but I don’t earn much money. I blog, but I don’t have a ton of followers. Yet, I recognize that it’s not about being “at the top.” So, I cut corners in paperwork so that I can play soccer in the back yard with my kids. I spend time in meetings drawing sketches that reflect my geeky humor. I abandon the pre-packaged curriculum and passionately throw myself into the subjects I love. I paint murals with students instead of filling out referrals.
I’m recognizing that I never grew out of “that phase.” It became a part of me to begin each action with, “Does this matter?”
I could never articulate this as a high school student, but I see it now. Life is a vapor. Do something meaningful. Work hard at what matters. Follow your passion. Then half-ass it on the irrelevant urgency that tends to block out the important.
John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at johntspencer.com. He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero.