by Rob Aquilina – English Teacher
The United States, and possibly the world, is standing at the edge of something right now. Every four years in November we dig through boxes to find our winter coats and go stand in line to vote for President. Granted, plenty of people vote more often than that, but picking the President is a big one. It’s easy to forget how remarkable that is sometimes. To borrow from my favorite show, The West Wing, it’s really something that every four years we get to overthrow the government.
November is a great month. We show our gratitude at Thanksgiving. We honor our veterans. The weather takes a big turn and that all too familiar New England scent of chimney smoke starts to linger in the air.
And we have elections.
The opportunity to choose our leaders is the pinnacle of freedom. To borrow again from The West Wing, freedom means choice.
Choice is an incredibly powerful thing, from which toothpaste we use to deciding who gets the carry around the little card with the nuclear launch codes on it. We don’t even notice some of the choices we make because they seem insignificant or automatic, but we’re still making them. We make hundreds a day that affect ourselves and, often times, others. Big or small, we make them.
I remember being 16. I won’t name exactly how long ago that was, but it was definitely nineteen something something. I had to balance so much: getting a job, keeping up with school, soccer, plays, friends, Friends, and more. I do not remember feeling like I had a lot of control over my own life; I remember being told to do this or do that, or else. We weren’t really taught about choice back then, only consequences. I try to think about what it must be like to be 16 today, with all of the added distractions, constantly moving expectations, and a world that seems more fearful than it did something something years ago. I suspect that today’s teenagers feel like they have less control and less choice than I did. But maybe not.
When I first started working at Next, I was amazed by the school and students, and I still am six years later. Several years prior, I taught at a school attached to a placement facility. All of the students were there by court order rather than their choice, and they had very little say in anything they did. It was horrible. I thought about switching to something more traditional, but it all seemed to be fairly the same. A while later, I saw a job listing for an English teacher at a public school of choice. A place where students made the decision to attend. A place where students chose their own paths and controlled their learning. Bingo. Students don’t default to Next. They choose it. In many ways, students are choosing their futures when they choose Next. They are choosing something different, they have control over which classes they take, they decide (within some limits) what high school and the years that follow will be like for them. Just like we choose a President. I can’t imagine a greater privilege and responsibility to be given at that age.
Choosing a school, a leader, a house, a car, a job…these are all important, but so are all of the small choices we make every day. Good citizens come from good choices. A lot of social scientists believe that we run out of will power, or decision making ability. I don’t buy it. I think we get better at it the more we practice, as long as our choices are deliberate. This year, the world lost a great researcher and psychologist named Anders Ericsson. He believed that if we are purposeful and deliberate with our choosing and our practice, we achieve peak talent and satisfaction. We can choose to rake the lawn or watch TV. We can choose pizza or a salad. We can finish an assignment for school or take a nap. I believe that the more we think critically and purposefully about the choices we make, the better we get at making them, and the right choice becomes clearer.
It doesn’t seem like we have a lot of choice right now, during a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that we should just lie back and let our lives happen to us. Maybe now is the time to focus on those small things so that when the big decisions come along, we’re ready for them.
Rob Aquilina is an English teacher at Next Charter School in Derry, NH. He lives with his spouse and dogs in Manchester, NH, and usually has more pet hair on his clothes than he has human hair on his head. You can reach Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org.