I’m a music teacher. Did you know? Of course you did, I’m just being silly. One of the things that I have developed over the years, that almost all of my students have seen at one time or another, is the “List of Things You Cannot Say.” It is, because I am on a roll with stating the obvious here, a list of things that you cannot say. Why? Because I hate free speech! Because I said so! Because because because because! Actually, we all know that I am a big promoter of the first amendment and everyone’s right to say whatever they want, regardless of how offensive it may be. So I suppose it is a little curious that I have, essentially, a list of banned words and phrases, and that not only do I possess and enforce this list, but I’m the one who came up with it.
I came up with this list not because I enjoy censoring my students but because these words aren’t so much Words as they are Little White Flags. They are signals that the student has given up, or is about to. While I do think that the situation may come up from time to time where it is good to just acknowledge that you’ve worked your hardest and to just move on from a project, students are often reach that point much sooner than an adult or teacher might. Students need to be taught to persevere, to be dedicated, to face hardship and adversity. And waving little white flags in the face of a difficult piece of music is no way to learn!
The number one offender on this list, of course, are the two dreaded words, “I CAN’T.” If a student sees The List, it is probably because they have uttered these two words. These are probably my two least favorite words on the face of the planet. “Can’t” is probably my least favorite four letter word on the planet (not to say that I have favorites, they’re all pretty deplorable). When I hear a student say “I can’t,” it’s not coming after months of working on a particularly tricky passage, it’s coming after a week, maybe two. It’s looking at something hard (“It’s hard” is also on the list) and making the decision that “I can’t” before we’ve even tried. Often it’s giving up before we’ve even begun. And these are not the kind of thoughts I want my children to be burdened with.
I want my children to be strong, and adventurous. I want my children to be curious and hopeful. I want my children to be brave enough to test their limits, and also, smart enough to know when it is appropriate to think these thoughts. Because sometimes, yes, it is hard. Sometimes you’re not going to like the song. Sometimes you’re just not going to get it (Yes, “I don’t like this song” and “I don’t get it” are there, too).
But please, say those things when you’ve given it every try, when you’ve attempted it every which way, upside down and backwards. Give up after you’ve given it your all, and even then, give it one last try.
Second runner up for Most Popular Little White Flag is “I’ll fix it next time.” Oh, honey. I learned a long time ago, as you are learning right now because I am telling you, that ‘next time’ never actually happens. Next time is that mystical land that exists somewhere in the very near future that we never actually arrive at. It is just beyond the horizon, it’s the gateway to ‘tomorrow’ where a lot of other procrastinators leave their to-do list. Don’t fix it next time. Stop what you are doing and fix it now. Right this second.
If you live in the present and work in the present, you won’t “always make that mistake,” which is another entry to the list. You are always making that mistake because you are practically giving yourself permission to do so! Why give yourself permission to be less awesome? Why say, “I’m bad at this,” when it’s practically like giving yourself the free pass to be as lazy and as average as possible? Students just don’t know how much awesome they have bubbling up inside of them, and when they say things like “I always do that” or “I always make that mistake” or “I’m bad at this,” they are clamping the lid down tight on all that potential that they just don’t see.
Because I try to be an optimist (how can you be a teacher and a pessimist?), I subsequently also created the “List of Things You Can Say” which is basically a compilation of the “List of Things You Cannot Say,” turned inside out. “I can’t” becomes “I can,” I’m bad at this” becomes “I’m good at this,” and on and on. Because if I’m going to subtract vocabulary from my students’ lives, it would be irresponsible of me to not add anything back in.
The funny thing about this list, is that I actually catch myself saying things on this list from time to time, and I’m not talking about the Can Say list. Yes, even I get frustrated and say “I can’t,” or I get lazy and say “I’ll fix it next time,” on the rare occasion. I’m not perfect. But I know I can set a better example for my students. So I turn my can’ts into cans and I keep on going.
I hope you will, too.