The day was dull with scientific notation. Sarah didn’t want to be there with me at all. As I often do when I meet a young person for the first time, I asked her about her interests. She said right away “I hate school. Actually, I love school. I just hate math.” She didn’t bother to answer my question. She went right to what she hates, and who could blame her when there it was, math, moving her around like a puppeteer, straight from school to tutoring?
But she was ready to tackle her homework, because at least that could get done while her afternoon ticked away. She didn’t have a pencil, so I reached to get one from my desk drawer. I was about to pick up the closest one and then stopped and looked up at her first. “Which would you prefer,” I asked, “plain old wooden or mechanical?”
She paused before responding. “Mechanical,” she said. As I handed her the pencil, she took a deeper, slower breath.
The rest of the hour pivoted around this question about the pencil. It was nothing – a tiny moment – only it wasn’t. When I thought about it afterward, I realized it was because the general condition of student-hood is mostly free of person-hood, in that students are expected to set aside preference. In fact, preference doesn’t even usually figure in enough to be set aside.
Preference and choice are not the same. Some schools have lots of choice. Choice of research topics, choice of Spanish or French, choice of lunch beverage. Granting preference acknowledges a person’s person-ness in a way that choice doesn’t. Choice says “The options have already been decided, and it has also been decided that you get to choose from among them.”
To grant preference is not necessarily active. It’s an acknowledgement that a person has preferences and that those preferences are part of what constitutes their being and person-hood. It doesn’t matter what kind of pencil a 12 year-old prefers, and she’s generally at liberty to select her own pencil, keep it with her, and no one has to know. But if there are two kinds of pencil available, and I’m sitting across from a 12 year-old person, I know I’m less likely to ask her preference than I would be if I were sitting across from a 35 year-old person or a 62 year-old person. The relationship between adult and child is usually “I’ll handle this; you just follow my lead/instructions. Here’s a pencil for you to use.” It’s not usually “Which kind of pencil would you prefer?” And it’s not because there isn’t time to ask.
I didn’t happen upon this because I was keen enough to notice and take an opportunity to treat someone better. I didn’t think to myself “Oh, I should ask what Sarah prefers, and that’ll be a better way to treat her.” I just noticed that I would behave differently with an adult from how I was about to behave with her. Which I suppose is where we can begin.