by Gene Legg


There comes a time in the evolution of humankind when one type of behavior has run its course and another should take its place.  So it is with whining.  It’s time to stop honoring the whine and the whimper, and celebrate instead whatever response to adversity is called for but has been inevitably postponed ad infinitum as “victims” expend their energy complaining and citing “the injustice of it all.”

Look, the earth’s core is still cooling four and a half billion years after our planet’s eruption into existence, sea levels are rising, and we are planning seriously to colonize other planets.  Must we take our infinitesimal human selves so seriously?

Beloved Students, if Ms. Crabapple did not give you ample credit for the assignment you turned in lackadaisically proofread, or if Dr. Biochemsics did not get your late lab report graded in time for your parents to “unground” you so you could attend the Homecoming dance, perhaps you owe it to yourself not to take yourself so seriously that you would find fault with someone else regarding circumstances you created yourself.

Better yet, why let anything get in the way of your presenting at all times the best version of yourself – which would include a propensity on your part to forgive those you feel may have done you irreparable harm.  And, speaking of which, would you like to know what constitutes “harm” in education?  Permit me to address the parents on this one:

            Beloved Parents, this section and the accompanying are rooted in my opinion and bias, yes, but also in many years of working side by side with your children (and raising my own).  I have tremendous respect for the LCPS administration, and realize my opinion could well be uninformed and wrong… However, why, for Heaven’s sake, have we removed exams – and graded homework – from Loudoun County Public Schools?  The biggest lament we get from college kids who graduated from LCPS is that they have no idea how to study for exams!

            Okay, let’s be real for a second.  The results of a survey sent out to teachers, students, and parents determined that exams should and would be eliminated: teachers now have more time for class instruction, projects, and sundry other academic activities (Is there a teacher reading this who will admit he/she shows movies the entire last week going into and of the holiday seasons?); students would be less stressed and would have more time to “study meaningfully”; and parents would no longer have to worry that their kids’ grades always drop (at least a percentage of) a letter (i.e., grade inflation was deflated) when they are tested for long-term retention and for the effective application of the critical thinking skills they had so sharply honed during the semester.

            I will be frank here: I am constantly in touch with my former students. The one consistent concern the majority of them share is that they feel ill-prepared for exams. Are they incapable of adapting to a new regimen?  Of course they can adapt!  But that is not the point.  We are depriving our very able students of the experience of the necessary tedium of scholarly rigor, thereby contributing to the everyone-who-is-on-the-team-should-get-a-trophy mentality that promotes self-centeredness and whining above active response to adversity.

            And no longer counting homework for a grade?  For some students the only incentive to do the work and not to cheat is if they know they will receive a grade for their work.  The more mature students recognize the value of practice and repetition; but the majority of students, I would argue, see little to no value in doing homework.

I am a voracious reader; I always have been.  And I love my students.  Do the math: I should be able to inculcate in them the same passion for the written word that I have.  We have by necessity so compromised our curriculum that some of the best high school English teachers with whom I have ever been associated are substituting graphic novels for the real thing when it comes to the classics.  I admire those teachers so much for their perspicacity, tenacity of purpose, and creativity.

            All of which begs, I know, the question: are what we have always considered “classics” still “classics”?

Forward thinking educators, and we are blessed in Loudoun County to have the amazing Michelle Pickard heading up English for the County, and the extraordinarily thoughtful, progressive Dr. Williams (he of the One to the World and Project Based Learning initiatives that have energized learning curricula across the LCPS spectrum) running the whole show. So, Lit Circles are a definite plus in combating the problem of slow-to-no readers.  If we can provide kids books they will see the value in reading and have them hold one another accountable in small group discussions, that’s a start.

But…reading does not have to be “enjoyable” to be beneficial. I often read to expand my mind, not just to comfort it.  At the beach I can read James Patterson or Fannie Flagg; but when I want to know more about the human condition, I will read Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronté, Kate Chopin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (yes, I am showing off), Ayn Rand, or Nathaniel Philbrick – to name but a few of my favorites. 

The novel that got me “hooked” on reading?  Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny: I read it in the seventh grade and was blown away by an author’s ability to create a reality so real it lifted me out of my own.  Like an addict chasing his first high, I look for and savor that delightful feeling of literary transcendence every time I open a new book.

I want my students to experience the joy I do when encountering a timeless philosophic revelation, as well as the satisfaction I feel when completing a tome that looked unfinishable when I first pulled it off the shelf.

            Which brings me back to my opening gambit: by allowing our kids to too often opt for immediate gratification over sustained engagement, we are promoting the whiner syndrome.

            As a dad and as a coach and educator, I am guilty on a number of fronts, so I am not playing “holier-than-thou.”  I have coached zillions of varsity and youth sports teams over the years, and always gave out participation trophies at the end of each season, even when the teams and players were winning trophies on their own.  As I worked my players hard, I work my students hard, even as we always manage to find mirth and enjoyment in our work; however, I do not grade hard, and the only homework I insist upon is outside reading – which some students still choose not to do. And I cherish my sons so much that I am often more their friend, albeit one they know they can always count on for advice and support, than a parent.

But that is I; now, back to you.

            Please, parents and students, don’t wait to contact a teacher till you need to contest a grade.  Open up lines of communication that help the student become a responsible lifelong learner who values cultural literacy and respects others for who they are. We are all in this thing together; I see us as a team, and I treat every one of my students with the respect being an individual deserves, each capable of presenting to the world every single waking moment the best version of himself or herself.

            Kids with disabilities and “conditions” have every reason to bitch and moan.  Each has a family (yes, that includes siblings!) who support them unconditionally, which is so crucial to kids’ developing the mentality that adversity is an opportunity, never a reason to quit.

            The next time you or your loved one feels slighted by life, think of Christin and Carter – and while you’re at it, include our First Responders, who never have the time, much less the inclination, to complain.  I am happy to suggest that you and yours will begin to see adversity as opportunity, the recognition of injustice as the first step to eliminating it – and not as an end in itself.

            It is when whining stops that winning begins.