The week before spring break in fifth grade, one of my teachers sat me down and told me she was giving me a research project to do over break. It was about the wetlands. While I don’t remember the topic more specifically than that, nor do I remember how long she expected the paper to be, I do remember that it was easily the grandest academic challenge I’d faced up to that point. I didn’t mind tackling it, at least until I got sick the first day of vacation.
I was miserable for a solid week, a week my mother and I got to spend visiting local libraries and bookstores for any kind of information on the wetlands. I remember not being able to find much, except for a hideously expensive, oversized book at Barnes & Noble. If my memory serves me correctly, that week was actually the one we decided to get our computer hooked up to this weird new “Internet,” so that I could maybe do some research “online.”
We got Prodigy. Remember Prodigy? The service that pioneered there “arbitrarily make some pages free, and require you to pay extra to access others” business model that AOL would perfect only a few short years later? I don’t know if I have less fond memories of anything that I do of Prodigy.
Through some miraculous circumstances (and a lot of help from my mom and dad), I got the paper done, and I turned it in the Monday we got back. When I asked my teacher if we were going to present our papers to the class or anything, she replied, “Oh, you’re the only one I assigned a paper to.” I was as livid as I’d ever been, but managed to keep it pretty well bottled up until I got home that night, at which point my parents got subjected to what has to be one of the more ridiculous 11 year-old temper tantrums the state of Colorado’s ever seen.
Now, my mother was the librarian at my elementary school, so she went to speak to my teacher the next day. Turns out, the reason I got my hyper-individualized educational challenge was precisely because she felt I needed a challenge over break. She wanted to push me to excel a little harder. It wasn’t a punishment; it was intended to be some kind of backhanded compliment, though it wasn’t meant to be backhanded at all.
That was the first day I started wondering what the actual point of hard work was, if it was only going to lead to getting made to work harder. At least that’s not an epiphany Newton’s missed in his own life…