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Opinion: Time to bury thoughts of “I can’t"
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World Language Academy Pre-K teacher Mary Toro-Bonilla works with her class on a writing exercise Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, at the South Hall school. - photo by Scott Rogers

Very soon after launching her 25-year teaching career, a Hall County second grade teacher told me she noticed a defeatist mood among her students — judging by what they said so often.

Examples: “I can’t do this math.” “I can’t understand what you just said.” “I can’t read well at all.” “I can’t remember the assignment.” Those are just a few of the many dozen times she heard “I can’t” during her first few months in the classroom.

She became determined to change their negative thinking and speaking. So she told them: “Today we’re going to do something very special. Follow my instructions now. Tear off part of a page of paper and write on it these words: ‘I can’t.’” Although they were puzzled about what the teacher had in mind, they acted quickly.

Then came the teacher’s next command: “I want each one of you to come to the front of the room and put your ‘I can’t’ piece of paper in this little box, and then return quietly to your seats.”

Regaining the group’s attention after they sat down, she announced their next move: “Now we’re all going to march quietly together, leave the building and go behind the school.”

“Notice,” she said as they arrived at a grassy spot, “one of the school’s assistants has dug a hole for us. With his help, we’re going to bury this box.”

When the assistant had thrown the last clump of dirt, the teacher explained: “Far too many times this year I have heard you say, ‘I can’t.’ Thinking that and saying it keeps you from doing your best work, because you doubt your ability. Well, we just took care of that. We held a funeral for ‘I can’t.’ So that phrase is not allowed in this classroom any more this year — not ever.”

With this symbolic act, the teacher gave her students a valuable lesson for the remainder of the year and one that would last a lifetime. Many of them are adults now. I hope they continue to recognize that “I can’t” is not allowed.

Consider how much we need that lesson now, surrounded as we are by change, threats and uncertainty. We say and we hear others say: “I can’t get another job at my age.” “I can’t start a different career.” “I can’t afford a vacation.” “I can’t learn technology.” “I can’t keep my business open.” “I can’t stay healthy.”

Time for us to reshape our thinking and speaking. Picture that teacher putting the “I can’t” paper fragments in a box — and imagine you had joined those kids by contributing your paper to the collection. Now your mood has changed. To illustrate: You replace “I can’t learn technology” with “I can learn technology when I hire the right mentor or sign up for a training program.”

You and I can be sure that teacher would give us an “A” grade when we replace every “I can’t” with an attitude that makes a solution possible.

Bill Lampton


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