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Friday, February 10, 2012

teenage contracts

I mentor a high school student as part of a state-wide program (run by the local school districts) that offers needy students, beginning in the seventh grade when they apply, the promise of a full college tuition in a state school so long as they meet certain commitments. The whole thing starts with the signing of a formal, oversized contract (sort of like a golf tournament check) in which the students agree to keep a certain GPA, stay out of trouble with the law and school, and meet regularly with an assigned mentor. I've met almost weekly for lunch with the same kid since 7th grade; he's now in 10th.

Boys, it turns out, meet the contract's obligations much less frequently than girls. And my mentee -- jeez, if you had any sense of the things he has been through in his short life, you would do what I do after every one of our meetings: hug my kid, bless my parents, and curse a set of structural inequities that stand in the way of his admission into the world and economy that the program is designed to push him towards. He's still the same charming boy with the winning smile that would melt the world's remaining icebergs. But he's not making it. His grades have deteriorated as he's moved up through high school. He's about to be given his final probation warning.

But the contract's formality and meaning -- that's a really interesting psychological thing to watch in him. We had lunch for the first time in a while yesterday and his grades had just come out. It was an extremely difficult conversation in the way such things are with teenagers. Lots of frustration with the teachers, schoolwork, etc., all the things that a teenager who wants to avoid responsibility will point to in order to avoid facing up to their own culpability. Tying achievement to the set of commitments he had made several years before -- even when the reward of a college scholarship seems so abstract, far away, and unlikely -- lit ... well, not a fire or even quite a spark. But talking to him about what it would mean to get kicked out of the program for breaching the contract he'd signed engendered a much more productive conversation. We could talk about why work is necessary not just because of what the teacher asks or requires, nor for the validation of a better grade, nor even for the contract's payoff. No, it was driven in part by a sense of honor and personal responsibility, a pull to live up to the expectations of the 7th grader who signed that contract, even when 10th grade and being a teenager is so much harder. That agreement bound him, at least for the balance of my Big Mac and his McNuggets. We could talk more practically about the steps he needed to take to pull up his grades and get himself back on track at least to graduating from high school.

Makes me want to teach Contracts!

Posted by Mark Fenster on February 10, 2012 at 11:48 AM | Permalink


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This contract is meant to bind not the kid, but the party who promises to pay for the kid's education later on. That party is bound, even though the kid is not due to his obvious incapacity. So, the contract gives the kid something more tangible than a mere promise to get his bills paid if he does this and that -- it gives the kid a legally enforceable claim. And *that* a great motivator. At least to those who are willing to be motivated.

Posted by: amused | Feb 13, 2012 2:46:35 AM

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