Sunday, October 02, 2016

Tales from Grade 9 group work

Grade 9 science class. I was generally uncomfortable in this class. My friends all abandoned me at the beginning of the year and I hadn't made any new friends. There wasn't even anyone in this class with whom I casually socialized. I sat alone at one of those lab tables that's intended for two people.

I was good at science, but didn't have any particular passion for it. Because I'd spent the last three years being bullied for being a trekkie, I was worried that here, in Big Scary High School, I'd be bullied for showing any aptitude towards science. But this was a required course. I had no choice. So I kept my head down, quietly did my work, and pulled in low As, making a point of not putting in enough effort or enthusiasm to get high As.

One of our assignments was that we had to dissect a fish. This worried me. I'm a naturally squeamish person. Even the smell of the stuff the fish were preserved in (formaldehyde?) turned my stomach. I tried to think of ways to get out of it, tried to figure out if I could make an argument on moral grounds (I'd recently gone vegetarian, but my shoes were still leather - you can't be picky when you wear a size 11!), but I knew I'd never have the support of my parents and I didn't want to get in trouble, or to draw attention to myself if my attempt wasn't going to be successful. So I found myself there, in the nauseatingly smelly classroom, the day the fishes were being dissected.

I was grouped up with the two boys behind me. This worried me too. I didn't know them very well, but they seemed like the kind of people who would be mean to me. They got poor marks in the class, and had that unfortunate early adolescent male "might not necessarily have bathed within the last 24 hours" look. They wore faded heavy metal t-shirts, probably smoked, and would almost certainly know how to get beer. They used swear words in casual conversation (a habit I hadn't yet picked up) and called breasts "boobies" (which was more disrespectful than I was comfortable with at the time - not to mention that they talked about breasts in class enough that I knew what they called them). It was like Wayne & Garth meet Beavis & Butthead. I was afraid not only that they might be mean to me, but that they might use the bits of dissected dead fish to torment me, putting fish eyeballs down my shirt and the like. So it was with trepidation that I turned around to their table and huddled over the dissection tray with them.

To my surprise, the boys did not hesitate to pick up the scalpel and start cutting the fish open. I'd thought I was going to have to do it myself! Bonus! So I just sat back watching the proceedings. They get the fish open, and remove something from its guts using the tweezers.

"What's this?" they wonder. It's large and lumpy, didn't seem very attached to anything, takes of most of the fishy's belly, and doesn't look like anything in the diagram.

"Eggs," I blurt out. "The stuff in the diagram is probably still in there, underneath the eggs."

They look at me, pleasantly surprised. It makes perfect sense! They open Ms. Fishy up some more, and find stuff that looks more like the diagram in the book. The more artistic of the two boys starts sketching it, and the other boy carefully, fascinatedly, does the actual dissection. My job is simply to identify the parts and their function, which I could easily do without touching or getting too close to the dead fish. Whenever I identified a part, the boys would peer at the fish, fascinated, lightbulbs going off in their heads, and Artistic Boy would add it to the drawing. Then when we were done, Artistic Boy added a sketch of the eggs to the drawing, Other Boy cleaned up all the gross dissecting stuff, and I quickly knocked off the written part of our assignment.

When we got our assignment back, we'd gotten a perfect mark, plus bonus points for identifying and dealing with the eggs without assistance from the teacher. The boys were quite impressed - they never got perfect marks! - and I was rather pleased to have gotten through the assignment without puking or getting fish eyeballs down my shirt or even having to touch a dead fish! We each came away feeling like we'd done the easy part or the fun part and the other people had done all the work, but the result was better than any of us could have achieved alone.

It would never have occurred to me that I might have something that smoking, drinking metalheads - boys who looked scarier than the boys who used to bully me - could use. And it certainly would never have occurred to me that they could have something I could use. We didn't become friends - I never saw them outside of that class, and don't even remember their names. But we were cordial neighbours who occasionally helped each other out in science class using our respective talents. While this all seems perfectly innocuous now, it was a new concept to my 14-year-old self who was still skittish from years of bullying, and it worked far better than I ever would have imagined.


This should have been revelatory. It should have led me to seek out people with complementary skill sets for group projects, even if they aren't the kind of people I would seek out as friends. It should have led me to see the value in what I can contribute and what others can contribute and how this can all be combined to make a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

But, unfortunately, soon after that came the health class project.


I forget exactly what the health class project was, but what's relevant is that it needed a written report and several medical diagrams.  I was paired with a girl who was cooler than me, whom I very much wanted to befriend. As we looked over the assignment and planned out what we needed to do, I found myself most intimidated by the diagrams. No way could I draw these complicated medical diagrams!  Fortunately, the girl I was paired with could draw, so she started by doing the diagrams while I knocked off the written part of the report.  I'd done about 12 pages of writing to her 3 pages of drawing, but it took us the same amount of time and we each felt that we'd done the easy part.

Unfortunately, the way the health teacher marked group projects was by asking the group members how much they'd each done, and distributing marks accordingly.  And because my work took up so many more pages than hers, I got a better mark.

My 14-year-old self wasn't assertive enough to argue the point to the teacher, pointing out that we'd spent the same amount of time and that my classmate had made the invaluable contribution of doing the work that I was terrible at.  So I walked away with the higher mark and she walked away with the lower mark.

We never became friends. (I just googled her, and she's even cooler now.)  And my nascent inspiration to seek out complementary skill sets for group work were was squelched for the rest of my academic career.

1 comment:

laura k said...

I like this post. It's very vivid. I remember a moment of discovery that I might have something of value to people far cooler than me.

Plus wondering who Cool Girl is.