Performance Anxiety and The Brothers Karamazov

Why I gave all my students ten points.

I tend to be an idealist. Problematically, I also teach literature to high school students for a living. What once appeared an adventure a la Dead Poet’s Society has become unveiled for what it always was: a difficult and sometimes unpleasant job.

My students are generally somewhat anal retentive. This time of the year, they are so tightly wound I could probably use them as hormone-saturated rubber-band balls.  I know I should probably count my blessings since so many teachers struggle with remedial and hostile scholars instead. But I find their barracuda-like circles frustrating.  They would probably lick my boots for extra credit and they will fight me for a single percentage point, yet asking them to be enthusiastic for the “big picture” of literature is a doomed endeavor. Forget excellence for it’s own sake; they want positive results and they want them immediately. They are point hungry, overly critical, and blithely ignorant of the people around them who are bending over backwards to help them.

In other words, they are human. And my workplace is not much different than that of many others. Performance anxiety overwhelms being present. Competition and self-consciousness suffocate relationships, while the humans around us get reduced into the simplistic labels “competent” or “incompetent”. Life becomes about what we do instead of who we are, or the Beauty, Truth and Goodness echoing through this wide world. We sacrifice discovery to duty and diligence to mere “efficiency”. In school, we particularly exacerbate this human problem by assigning points for everything, but the real workforce is just as plagued by fear-driven entitlement. “Working for a grade” seems to be the norm. But it is ultimately toxic and isolating.

In my World Lit. class, we are currently working our way through Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Yes, these adolescents are stumbling through tongue-twisters of Russian names and the existentialist dilemmas of “The Grand Inquisitor”. Despite being mainly concerned with what will be on the test, they are nevertheless exposed to some incredibly powerful ideas I hope take root in their hearts forever. Among these are Dostoevsky’s beliefs that 1)small acts of compassion can change this consumeristic world as we know it and 2) assuming responsibility for others can set us free from the isolating poison of blame-shifting.

In The Brothers Karamazov, a fallen woman named Grushenka tells a folk tale about a wicked rich lady who once gave a starving beggar an onion from her garden. In hell, that same rich lady was offered a way of escape from the flames; an angel reached down to pull her out by that onion, her small, single good deed. The storyteller Grushenka later shows compassion to a “holy” character in a moment of his deepest doubt. That simple act of kindness and humanity, what she refers to humbly as her “onion”, saves the other’s faith in a way that a thousand “I’ll pray for you”s never could have. Rather than distancing herself from the sufferings of another or theorizing about global scale solutions, she takes ownership of the person who is directly in front of her, even though it is ownership of his brokenness.

In addition to Grushenka (spoilers follow!), we recently read of Dmitri Karamazov taking responsibility for his father’s murder– not because he actually killed him, but simply because Dmitri acknowledges he committed murder a thousand times in his heart. This is a rather radical act of responsibility – and according to my students, equal parts noble and insane.

Dmitri’s act is uncomfortable to us because Dostoevsky’s notion that “we are all responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins” (279) and that “every one is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything” (266) is completely foreign to our culture. More significantly, it stands in opposition to our sin nature.  We point to the serpent or the woman. We blame the weather or the broken systems or our need for a break. We look at the statistics about “those people” and grumblingly discuss the incompetency of our coworkers or question the authority of our bosses. I blame those darn students or that stupid finals schedule. Our automatic action is to protect self at all costs. To sacrifice self for others, despite what “justice” might demand? Well, that looks and feels like a crucifixion. So of course we want no part of it.

In response to Dostoevsky, I took charge of my work place in the small way that I could. Instead of scolding my students for their snippiness, or grumbling about their lazy writing, I decided to step forward in an act of generosity and responsibility. Instead of blaming them (even if it is perhaps deserved at times), I shifted the weight to my own shoulders so they would be left with grace and I with the burden. The fact of the matter is, I am intrinsically linked to their failures and their successes, particularly as a new teacher. I am tied to their life in a way that does not allow me to step back and throw up my hands in defeat or despair. Although I must hold them accountable, I must first and foremost hold myself accountable. Their sins are not so different from mine. And the people we work with, like it or not, are our community, our neighbors.

So, I gave them all ten points and marked it as “Onion” in the gradebook. It’s not just much and it is definitely not what every teacher should or ought to do. I wish they knew I cared just because I bring cookies or grant extensions, but points is the language that they speak, in the same way that we all are driven by performance. So that is what I used to try to reach them. I wanted to show them that life isn’t just about what we can get from one another or who is up to snuff and who isn’t. I wanted to show them that gratitude and responsibility can help to break the cycle that keeps so many of us in prison in the workplace.

Worst case scenario, they think I am crazy and get ten points. Best case scenario, they not only understand the thematic significance, but go forward to replicate that suffering responsibility.  Freedom breeds freedom, gratitude sparks thanks and love calls others to love. Instead of griping about who is to blame, try assuming some in your workplace. Take on the “suffering” of someone else’s screw-up. Give thanks. Give an onion. Take ownership and find freedom.

Michelle Hindman

Michelle Hindman is a literature teacher at a classical school in Colorado. She is a graduate of Westmont College.

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