On my last day as a classroom teacher, one of my former seventh-graders, whom we’ll call Jane, wrote me a letter I’ll cherish forever. It begins, “Mr. Louie, thank you for everything.” In the middle, she writes, “You are the best teacher I have had in middle school. [But] I tell that to all my teachers just to not make them feel bad.” (Thanks, that totally worked.) And finally, she ends with a perfect postscript that, I swear, I couldn’t have coached her to write if I tried. It reads, “You helped me realize that not everyone is smart and talented, but everyone can reach great expectations.”
Even when I read that excerpt years after the fact, I can’t help but feel a little warm inside, as it appears that at least someone was listening when I delivered my most personal lesson. In fact, I even remember how I taught it to Jane and her classmates so many years ago. Amazingly enough, I think it stands the test of time.
This lesson starts with an introduction to my older brother Justin, who is nominally twenty-eight years old but is mentally maybe two or three years old at best. Thanks to some seriously bad luck in the genetic lottery, Justin has never learned how to count, how to wipe his butt after using the bathroom, or how to have a conversation beyond the basics:
“How was your day?”
(But when Justin says his day was good, it’s not necessarily because his day was actually good or because he can even process what it means to have a good day. It simply means that he has been socially conditioned to respond with “Good” when presented with the otherwise perfunctory inquiry, “How was your day?”)
In short, Justin has been deprived of many of the most basic parts of the human experience. So it should be of little surprise that he also misses out on many of the best.
A particularly devastating example: When I was young, my parents and I flew Justin to a specialist’s appointment in Denver. There, we were told by the experts that we should never expect Justin to learn to read. I found this ultimatum especially heartbreaking because to this day, reading is one of my favorite things to do.
Interestingly enough, to this day, being read to happens to be one of Justin’s favorite things to do.
Indeed, my parents and I never gave up on the idea that Justin would learn to read someday. Over the next twenty years or so, we would read the same rotation of ten or so books to him multiple times each day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This endeavor proved tedious until one day, it all suddenly seemed to be worth it, as Justin began to demonstrate signs of progress. Sometimes, he would hold the book as if he were about to perform for an audience, recite the words on the page, and then flip to the next one.
But just as we started to believe that Justin was learning to read, the experts dashed our hopes almost immediately. There’s no way that Justin was learning to read, they said. We had just read the same books to him so many times over the years that he had simply memorized the words, learned to mimic our tonal patterns, and mastered the timing of the page-turns. My parents and I felt discouraged, but that didn’t stop us from reading to Justin with the hope that he would one day learn to do so himself.
One day when I was in high school, I took Justin to Target to run some errands. Back then, the Target near our home had an aisle dedicated to children’s books, which was convenient because I would drop Justin off in this aisle before rushing around the rest of the store, stopping by to pick him up before checking out. On this particular day, Justin brought me a stack of books that he wanted me to buy. But something was unusual this time: while I recognized some of the books in the stack, there were others that I had never seen before. Incredulous, I joked, “Justin, I’ll buy you these books if you can read them to me!” knowing fully well the humor would be lost on him. (In retrospect, that’s been a recurring theme throughout my life.)
But lo and behold, Justin plopped himself on the ground in the middle of aisle, with carts literally passing him by on both sides; opened one of those unfamiliar books; and read it aloud to me, flawlessly. I was speechless.
In telling this story, I omitted many of the complexities in Justin’s journey toward literacy, but the takeaway is dead simple: Had my family and I acquiesced to the consensus and forsaken our expectations for him, Justin almost certainly would never have learned to read. Since that day, I have come to believe the following with considerable conviction: People will only rise as high as the expectations we set for them.
But I think that belief has to mean different things to different people. My former seventh-graders, who attended the sixth lowest-performing middle school in the second lowest-performing state in the country, live in a community where an all too common affliction is what I call death by doubt; while generally slow-onset, it’s sometimes quite literal and quite sudden, as I discovered in tragic fashion. Given their context, the necessary albeit unfair lesson was that the only reliable purveyors of sufficiently high expectations are themselves.
So I told them, “Expect more of yourselves.”
But I would tell my peers — high-achieving yuppies, really — something different. “Expect more of others,” I would tell them instead. To understand why, I should tell you more about Jane, the student who wrote me that letter. When she wrote, “I promise you that I will try my best to reach your expectations,” she couldn’t possibly have known that in the nine months she spent in my classroom, she already had. She went from never having passed the math section of a standardized test before to finishing in the top quintile of her grade level, right alongside all the accelerated students breaking the curve.
Now, the point of this story is not that I was a good teacher because, quite frankly, I couldn’t possibly peddle a more obtuse lie. The point is this: Maybe this story about Jane surprised you or even impressed you.
But it never once impressed me. I expected greatness of her the entire time. I expected it of each of the three hundred students I taught from the moment they entered my classroom for the first time, and I made sure they knew it on a daily basis. And even if I haven’t spoken to many of them in years, my expectations for each and every one of them have never wavered.
I find this lesson particularly salient because the smartest people I know also tend to be the most pessimistic. If my twenty-three years of education have one central theme, it’s that the most intelligent response to pretty much anything is a healthy dose of cynicism.
But if the echo chambers of my social media feeds are any indication, the doses of cynicism we are administered are far from healthy these days. The modern zeitgeist exerts enormous pressure on us to doubt, to cast into oblivion any optimism we foster about the trajectory of humanity. As a result, our expectations for the world have hit a collective nadir; when people stop expecting the most powerful government in the world to service policy with evidence, for example, I think we can safely say that people have slackened their expectations just a tad. Our doubts can be deafening.
Sometimes, our frustrations can be so overwhelming that the natural reaction appears to be to give up. In the face of today’s monolithic problems, where every story on the front page of the Times seems to signal the unraveling of democracy at its seams, I have a hard time begrudging that despondence. But the natural reaction isn’t necessarily the right reaction; in fact, in this status quo, it is precisely the wrong one. If the maintenance of expectations seems often fruitless, it would behoove us to remember that in the long run it is also necessary. Again, people will only rise as high as the expectations we set for them.
In a time when we as a society must together rise an unprecedented distance, we must expect more from … well, everyone: from ourselves, from children of impoverished communities, from the society that simultaneously shapes us and has been shaped by us. I would argue that it is only with those expectations in our arsenal that our world stands a chance.
This speech, loosely transcribed here, was delivered for classmates at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago on May 3, 2017. The theme of the storytelling session was “I Believe.”