The Thought Card

The Thought Card

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

The Thought Card

I often wonder how people survive childhood and adolescence at all, don’t you? Children take so many risks and do so many crazy things that it’s hard to see how they manage to get through it all. When they get to adolescence, it gets even crazier. Tossed around on seas of hormones, pushed and pulled by the winds of impulses, and drawn by the hope of hidden treasure in relationships with friends and others, adolescents can sometimes drown in all the confusion.

I must admit that I personally was still an angry adolescent in my first years of college. My anger was diffuse—the world didn’t please me in almost any way. My anger was focused—my parents didn’t please me at all. I chafed under my father’s direction and correction.

Our finances were limited, so I chose to go to a local college and commute to classes every day. One day I had a serious fight with my father. I saw him as controlling me and wanted to break free. He saw me as rebellious and tried to reassert his authority. We both exploded in shouts. I stormed out of the house and missed my bus to school. I knew that catching the next bus meant I would be late to my education class. That made me even more furious.

I fumed and sighed all the way to school. My mind raced with angry thoughts about my father. Like many adolescents, I was stuck in my egocentricity—certain that no one in the world had ever had such a terrible father or had to contend with such unfairness. After all, my father hadn’t even finished high school, and here I was, a mighty college student! I felt so superior to him. How dare he interfere with my life and my plans?

As I ran across the sprawling campus toward the building where my class met, I suddenly realized that I didn’t have the assignment that was due: a thought card.

This class was taught by Dr. Sidney B. Simon, one of the most unusual teachers at the school. His policies and procedures were unique, his grading policy revolutionary, his teaching methods unsettling. People talked about Dr. Simon.

During our first class, Professor Simon had explained, “Every Tuesday, you must bring in a four-by-six index card with your name and the date on the top line. As for what’s on the rest of the card, that’s up to you. You can write a thought, a concern, a feeling, a question or just plain anything that’s on your mind. It’s your way of communicating with me directly. These cards will be completely confidential. I will return them to you every Wednesday. You’ll find that I will write comments on your cards. If you ask a question, I’ll do my level best to answer it. If you have a concern, I will respond to that as best I can. But remember, this card is your admission ticket to class on Tuesdays.”

On the first Tuesday of the class, I dutifully brought in my index card with my name and the date written carefully on the top line. I then added, “All that glitters is not gold.” The following day, Dr. Simon returned the cards to the class. Mine had a penciled note: “What does this quote mean to you? Is it significant?” This comment made me uneasy. Apparently, he was taking these cards seriously. I surely didn’t want to reveal myself to him.

The week progressed. The course met every day for one hour. Dr. Simon was quite brilliant. He taught by asking questions, raising issues that none of my teachers had ever raised before. He challenged us to think, and to think deeply. Social issues, political issues, personal issues all were grist for the mill in this class. It was a class in methods of teaching social studies, and it was far ranging. The teachers I had in high school taught social studies, history, geography, economics and so on, as rote subjects, lists of facts and names and dates to be memorized and returned to paper on exams. Rarely had anyone asked us to think.

At first, I thought he was going to propagandize us for or against something, but not Professor Simon. Instead, he simply asked us to think, explore, research, question and then come up with our own responses. Frankly, I became even more uncomfortable. There was something delightful, refreshing and inviting about his teaching, but since I had rarely experienced this style, I had no “coping strategies” to help me deal with him. I knew how to do well in a class: sit up front; tell the teacher how much you “enjoyed” the lecture; turn in neat, typed papers written according to a formula; and memorize, memorize, memorize! This class was clearly something different. I couldn’t use these time-worn, time-tested methods to pass.

The second Tuesday came. I wrote on my card, “A stitch in time gathers no moss.” Again, not trusting him, I covered myself with humor, which had always been my best defense against unwanted closeness. The next day the card came back with this note: “You seem to have a sense of humor. Is this an important part of your life?”

What did he want? What was going on here? I couldn’t remember a teacher caring personally about me since elementary school. What did this man want?

Now, I raced down the hallway, ten minutes late to class. Just outside the door, I took an index card from my notebook and wrote my name and the date on it. Desperate for something to write on it, I could only think about the fight I’d just had with my dad. “I am the son of an idiot!” I wrote and then dashed into the room. He stood, conducting a discussion, near the door. Looking up at me, he reached out for the card, and I handed it to him and took my seat.

The moment I reached my seat, I felt overwhelmed with dread.

What had I done? I gave him that card! Oh, no! I didn’t mean to let that out. Now he’ll know about my anger, about my dad, about my life! I don’t remember anything about the rest of that class session. All I could think about was the card.

I had difficulty sleeping that night, filled with a nameless dread. What could these cards be all about? Why did I tell him that about my dad? Suppose he contacts my dad? What business is it of his anyway?

Wednesday morning arrived, and I reluctantly got ready for school. When I got to the class, I was early. I wanted to sit in back and hide as best I could. The class began, and Dr. Simon began giving back the thought cards. He put mine on the desk facedown as was his usual practice. I picked it up, almost unable to turn it over.

When I looked at the face of the card, I discovered he had written, “What does the ‘son of an idiot’ do with the rest of his life?” It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I had spent a lot of time hanging out in the student union cafeteria talking with other young men about the problems I had “because of my parents.” And they, too, shared the same sort of material with me. No one challenged anyone to take responsibility for themselves. No, we each accepted the others’ blame-the-parents game with relief. It was all our parents’ fault. If we did poorly on tests, blame Mom. If we just missed getting a student-aide job, blame Dad. I constantly complained about my folks, and all the guys nodded sagely. These folks who were paying the tuition were certainly an interfering bunch of fools, weren’t they?

Sidney Simon’s innocent-seeming question punctured that balloon. It got right to the heart of the issue: Whose problem is it? Whose responsibility are you?

I skipped going to the student union that day and went straight home, strangely depressed, chastened. All evening I thought about it and about something my mother had said: “The millionaire calls himself a ‘self-made man,’ but if he gets arrested, he blames his abusive parents.”

I wish I could say that I experienced a magic transformation, but I didn’t. However, Dr. Simon’s comment was insidious. It kept coming up in my mind over the next few weeks. Again and again, as I heard myself blaming my father for this or that, a little internal voice said, “Okay, suppose your father is all those bad things you said. How long do you think you can get away with blaming him for your life?”

Slowly, inexorably, my thinking began to shift. I heard myself blaming a lot. After a while, I realized that I had created a life in which I was not a central figure! I was the object of the action, not the subject. That felt even more uncomfortable than any feeling I had in Dr. Simon’s class. I didn’t want to be a puppet. I wanted to be an actor, not a re-actor.

The process of growth wasn’t easy or fast. It took over a year before people began to notice that I was taking responsibility for my own actions, my own choices, my own feelings. I was surprised at how my grades improved in all my subjects. I was astounded at the increase in the number—and quality—of my friends. It was equally astonishing how much smarter my father seemed.

All through this process, I kept sending in my thought cards. Later, I took another course with this unique professor. I worked harder for him than I had in any other class I had ever taken. With each thought card came more unsettling questions for thought.

Several years later, I was surprised at my own progress. From a struggling, marginal student, I had become a successful student and then a successful high school teacher. I went from constant anger and constant avoidance of the necessary work in my life to become someone who was energized, excited, purposeful and even joyful.

My relationship with my father also improved dramatically. Instead of controlling, now I saw him as concerned and caring. I recognized that he didn’t have “smooth” ways of parenting me but that his intentions were very loving. The fights diminished and finally disappeared. I had learned to see my father as a smart, wise and loving man. And it all started with a question, an innocent-seeming question.

Hanoch McCarty

More stories from our partners