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06 Sep

Let’s talk about Mike.
Mike has made some poor life choices.
Don’t be like Mike.

Recently, I traveled to Minnesota. Minnesota, by the way is flatter than an open soda after twelve days, and about as diverse as a white crayon. But it is a beautiful state filled with friendly people, including my shuttle driver, who we will call Mike. I’m not scared to use his real name, because I plan to write a thought provoking, intelligent piece and therefore Mike will never read it.

Mike was very friendly, but is a case study in wasted opportunities and poor choices. Mike is 26. He works three jobs; a shuttle driver that pays about $12 an hour, another job delivering for “food dudes” which was UberEats before UberEats was a thing, and a “work-from-home-packing-job,” that sounds sketchy as hell. Mike was hungry, and planned to go to Taco Bell after he dropped me off, because they still had a dollar menu and he could afford to eat, so said Mike.

Mike has a wife and an eleven month old daughter. The wife also delivers for “food dudes” sometimes. They live in small apartment that was the cheapest they could find at $690 month. It is in the worst part of town; it is common to hear gunshots and his car is routinely broken into, “three or four times a week,” according to Mike. Mike’s brother-in-law lives with them. This fine young man is 19, and even though Mike says that he sets him up with several jobs, the lad can’t keep them for whatever reason and usually just plays on his phone and sleeps all day.

Mike has big plans. He wants to be a trucker, but he can’t come up with the five grand to get the Commercial Driver’s License, and is looking for a sponsor. Mike and his wife have less than good credit, because according to Mike, “COVID kills credit.” (Funny, I know a lot of people who went through COVID; their credit seemed unchanged by the experience.)

Mike was removed from the home at 14 because of bad decisions by his parents; his mom is currently in witness protection. His wife’s family history is equally colorful, as she and her mom aren’t really sure who her father was (they have narrowed it down to two lucky candidates).

I am not at all trying to disparage those who don’t go on to higher education, or those who work blue collar or minimum wage jobs. I also understand that those with weak parents are more likely to make poor decisions. Sometimes there are circumstances that are out of one’s control. Mike experienced some of those circumstances, but he also made some choices that didn’t help the situation.

Mike didn’t work very hard in high school. Seems like school just didn’t interest him; he didn’t really apply himself or do much to get involved. He didn’t play sports or join a club or go to football games or anything like that. He chose to do less productive things with his time, and got in a bit of trouble. Nothing felonious, just juvenile mischief. He “took some time off” after high school before starting to look for work, but couldn’t really find anything that interested him, and bounced from job to job to job. Mike wasn’t mean or hateful or biased or unbalanced; he was just unmotivated.

Talking to Mike, I noticed a few things. First, Mike liked to talk. I didn’t mind, because it was late and dark (lots of Minnesota is dark) and by talking Mike was staying awake. Parts of the trip felt like if anything happened to us the wolves would find us before emergency services…

I also noticed that Mike was not dumb. He was reasonably well spoken, and enjoyed learning things.

Finally, I noticed that a LOT of places in Minnesota were hiring. Not fun jobs maybe, but there was definitely work available.

From Mike’s story and the other things I observed, it was fairly obvious that Mike had two things going against him. First, he obviously didn’t have much knowledge or skills because he tried very hard not to do much in high school. Second, he had no work ethic, because there was obviously work available for more hours and more money than he was making; he just wasn’t motivated to do it.

I mentioned bad decisions; let’s circle back to that. Bad decision number one was not trying harder in school. Yes, I know there are some students that for whatever reason do poorly in high school; Mike was smart enough to apply himself and knew it; he chose not to. Bad decision number two was getting married young with no career and minimal options. Bad decision number three was having a child for which you will have difficulty providing. And bad decision number four; working three dead end jobs when there is meaningful work out there with hours and benefits available because you are waiting for something else to come along.

Why do I care? Why did it make such an impression on me? Because I’m a high school teacher. Mike is the poster child for everything I am trying to combat in my students. Mike had the ability, but couldn’t find the motivation. Now he and his wife and his small child live in a neighborhood rife with drug dealers and gunshots because Mike didn’t think ahead.

I used to think “poor Mike, no teacher reached him in time to get him to turn things around.” I’m less likely to do that after eight years as a high school teacher. Yes, there are students that slip through the cracks, and others with significant learning and emotional challenges. But there are also quite a few who just don’t give a damn, and whose parents don’t give a damn either. Those parents blame the teachers. Is every teacher great? No. Are most competent with their hearts in the right spot? Absolutely. In the course of four years will most students come across at least one teacher who will try and motivate them and get them off their butts if they will just listen? Again, absolutely.
It may not all be Mike’s fault, but he is absolutely not blameless, and his baby girl is going to pay a large chunk of the bill, and probably perpetuate this cycle.

Once upon a time in my Navy career I heard an ominous “motivational” saying; “Maybe the purpose of your life is just to serve as a warning to others.”

So, in the spirit of that, I’m going to tell my cadets at school about Mike. Maybe he can serve as a warning to some of them, because I see more than one of them on the same path.

Make good decisions early. Don’t be like Mike.

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