The Whining Lamp
By Paul Bianchi
Several years ago I decided that I needed a way to give high school advisees permission to vent their worries and frustrations, and then following that, an acceptable way of cutting it off in order to, as they say, move on. Remembering from my Navy days the smoking lamp on the ship, I commissioned Jennifer Cook, my secretary, to find the ugliest small lamp she could. Jennifer does not disappoint. Within days, she returned from the junk store with a brassy metal mini-candelabra-like fixture, guaranteed to look bad in any room in the house. We stuck a blue Christmas tree bulb in it and christened it “the whining lamp”. When my dozen advisees gather in my office every two weeks, I turn on the light for the first 10 minutes and in a chorus of complaint, we all whine our little hearts out. “It’s not fair…”; “she never told us that we would be tested on that chapter…”; “my history teacher doesn’t like me....”; “I’m so stressed out...”; “why do we have to go to college?....; “these parking rules are ridiculous.....”; “it’s too cold in this office......”; “these cookies I’m eating are fattening.....”; and so on, and so on, and so on. After we get to the dry heaves of discontent, I turn off the light, we finish our cookies together, and we get down to business.
It is said that we live in a culture of complaint. Maybe. Others can make or refute that argument better than I can. What interests me is how adults listen to and deal with student concerns. It’s a complicated and subtle sensitivity, much like figuring out how to be responsive and responsible as a parent.
Paideia is a school that encourages students to develop and express opinions. We want them to develop a voice, understanding that, like everything else, learning to express oneself thoroughly and appropriately takes practice. In a place where people are encouraged to have an opinion, most people, not surprisingly, have them, and they share them. This is a good thing, good training, especially for a democratic society where critical thinking and active involvement are necessary. One of the comments we hear most often from people outside of the school is how articulate Paideia kids are. They are open and are comfortable talking to adults. Practice, I think, they’ve had lots of practice with teachers (and, of course, parents) who believe in listening.
On the other hand, I bought my whining lamp because I wanted to communicate that there is more to life than the ability to voice a concern or complaint, a message particularly important in such a vocal school. Taking children seriously is not the same thing as listening to their every word. (It is easier, by the way, to adopt greater objectivity with other people’s children; most teachers, myself included, are as vulnerable to their own children’s trials and travails as parents who do not spend their working days with children.)
We need to remind our children and our students that the context of their irritations and worries is a world of privilege. Privilege is a touchy subject, hard to talk about, especially among those of us who enjoy it. But it is, I believe, essential to discuss with our children because, to borrow a metaphor from another world, privilege is the elephant in the living room of their lives. How can they grow up independent and strong if they fail to understand the relative advantages of their environment. Fish don’t have to understand the water they live in -- they’re not going anywhere else, or making many choices. We want our children to be reflective and free to make informed decisions.
The privilege I am talking about is more than economic, although to be well-off in the richest nation in the world is an undeniable blessing. Our children are also privileged in that they are growing up in families with parents who have fewer hardships in their own lives and are therefore better able to attend to raising children; and they are in a school with the resources needed to give them a great education, and among interesting and lively adults who make education challenging, personal, often fun. Furthermore, they live in a stable society respectful of their individuality and orderly in its decision-making. “Democracy”, said Winston Churchill, “is the worst of all systems of government with the exception of those previously devised”.
Some adults are hesitant to discuss privilege with their children because of their own guilt or because they feel the subject will induce guilt in their kids. This is understandable, but regrettable. When I look at the children of Paideia, I am glad that they have in their lives many of the things we want all children to have. Furthermore, I expect the advantages given them will enable them to give back to their world even more in the future. Rather than feel guilt, I see opportunity. Guilt is debilitating; opportunity is empowering and liberating.
It is important to help our children put their worries and laments in the larger context of their lives. Turn on the whining lamp and listen carefully for legitimate issues or patterns of concern, but don’t encourage them to grow up to be one of those people who return from glorious overseas vacations complaining about the ravages of jet lag. At the same time we teach our children to look critically at their world, let us also be sure to help them appreciate it, and embrace it.