Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Pit of Despair

*This ”Wayback Machine”  is a silly name for when I repost – this time from two and a half years ago. I felt moved recently to revisit the same ideas and I decided use one of my own favorites from the past. Who says we can’t learn from history?

I am not much of a movie person, but my all-time favorite movie is The Princess Bride, from 1987, based on the even-more-hilarious novel by William Goldman. This movie starred Fred Savage, Peter Falk, Billy Crystal, Andre the Giant, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, and a bunch of other great stars. It is the fairy tale with sword fights, giants, an evil prince, a beautiful princess, and even some kissing!

If you’ve never seen it, it’s hilarious and tragic and exciting. I highly recommend it. :)

There is a part of the movie where the hero, a farmboy-turned-pirate named Westley, gets captured by the evil prince and taken to the Pit of Despair for torture.  As he arrives, he meets the caretaker of the Pit, called “The Albino”.

Westley: Where am I?
The Albino: [raspy voice] The Pit of Despair! Don't even think...
[clears throat]
The Albino: ... don't even think about trying to escape. The chains are far too thick. Don't dream of being rescued, either; the only way in is secret. Only the Prince, the Count, and I know how to get in and out.
Westley: So I'm here till I die?
The Albino: Until they kill you, yeah.
Westley: Then why bother curing me?
The Albino: Well, the Prince and Count always insist on everyone being healthy before they're broken.
Westley: So it's to be torture?
The Albino: [nods enthusiastically]
Westley: I can cope with torture.
The Albino: [shakes head enthusiastically]
Westley: Don't believe me?
The Albino: You survived the Fire Swamp, so you must be very brave, but no one withstands The Machine.

Please forgive me, but I think a lot of teachers can commiserate with the idea of the Pit of Despair.

No, no, not that your school or classroom is a Pit of Despair (I hope). But there is a gap or a pit for each of us. In my head, that pit is the reason that we-teachers (as a stereotype) complain to each other so much.

The pit is this -- it’s the gap between our goals and what we actually achieve.

Teachers have impossible goals. We want all hundred-plus of our students to learn everything about social studies that we teach. We want them all to improve their reading, writing, and historical thinking, and improve by a lot! We want to build relationships with them all. We want to be mentors, role models, and inspirations for our students. We also want to be able to spot signs of child abuse, bullying, eating disorders, drug use, gang behavior, depression, and other issues. We want our students to be well-behaved but active and engaged in learning. We want our classrooms to function as well-oiled machines. We want to teach all hundred-plus kids character and civic virtue. We want every kid to grow up to be successful and productive and active in their community.

But not all kids will always choose to do and learn and be all the things we want for (or from) them.

And therein lies the Pit of Despair. Or maybe the Gap of Frustration. It’s what I call that area that lies between our goals and our success at those goals.

It’s the space between “my kids learned it” and “those handful of kids didn’t”
It’s the gap between  “my kids are becoming better readers, writers, and thinkers” and “some kids don’t seem to be improving”
It’s the place between “most kids are growing into great young men and women” and “some of these kids are crazy”.

It’s the space of frustration, the Pit of Despair.

And i want to ask you what you do with your Pit of Despair.
·         Do you use it to lower your expectations so you don’t have so many lofty goals?
·         Do you use it to complain and shift the blame from you to “them”? (whether “them” is the kids, the administration, the county, the politicians, or whoever – is it THEIR fault?)
·         Or do you use that gap to challenge yourself to make small, incremental improvements in one area or another? Do you take it as a personal challenge?

Hear me loudly and clearly -- no one, not even Super-Teacher can do and be all things to all students. This is a fact that often crushes new teachers. We want to reach every kid. And we just don’t reach every kid every time.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there is a kid you can’t reach. There is a concept your kids don’t get fully. There is a skill your kids only halfway master. There is a character concept you forget to focus on. There is content your kids learn for the quiz and then forget.

You can use those shortcomings as “failures” and view them as so. You can use them to fuel your frustration with yourself or your kids or your colleagues or your administrators or your politicians.
Or you can take them as a personal challenge. Westley never wavers from his goal of finding his princess. Even in the Pit of Despair. You can take it as a “Let’s see if I can ‘beat’ my current ‘score’”?

In the movie, every time Westley tries something, the “brain” character, Vizzini calls it “inconceivable”. But Westley does whatever it is, every time. Westley finally tells Vizzini about “inconceivable”: “I do not think that word means what you think it does”.

When teachers say (out of frustration) “These kids can’t...” I want to say, “I do not think that phrase means what you think it does”.

What you mean is, “These kids can’t YET.....” or “We haven’t had time to do ... yet” or “These kids struggle with...” or “These kids need different motivation to do ....” or “I don’t know how to reach them yet…”

We can view the Pit of Despair as something that frustrates us, something to complain about.

Or, we can view the Pit of Despair as a challenge. What small things can we do to close the gap, just a little, teeny-tiny bit? We will never, individually, close that gap all the way. The world isn’t that neat or perfect of a place. But we can choose to shrink the gap between the ideal and the actual, just a hair, just a smidgen.

If our kids can’t DO something, we can try to find another way to teach them how. If our kids aren’t motivated to do something, we can try to brainstorm other forms of motivation.  

Complaining is a coping mechanism. We all use it and there’s nothing wrong with letting off some steam. I do it and many of you probably do, too. Go ahead. Get it off your chest.

But if we stop there, we are just frustrating ourselves. We have to fill the Pit of Despair, the gap of frustration, with some hope, some new ideas, or we’ll just go crazy. If we don’t view that Pit of Despair as something to be lessened or shrunken, we will live in that Pit and be miserable and despairing ourselves.

This week, think of your own Pit of Despair and how to shrink it so it doesn’t swallow you up.

How do you cope with the frustration of the gap, the Pit of Despair? Do you deflect blame onto others? Do you complain? Or do you take it as a challenge? Do you try to reach just one more kid, teach just one more skill? And do you love the Princess Bride as much as I do? As always, I love to hear your thoughts on this! Email me at

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