Friday, June 8, 2007

Why I have little faith in High School

A bad joke at best, admittedly, but when my total at the local store came to $19.32, the clerk duly announced "Nineteen Thirty Two." “Not a good year,” I remarked.

“I wouldn’t know,” shrugged the clerk, a High School graduate.

These people know me well (I see them almost daily), so I teased, “What do they teach in High Schools these days?”

She shrugged again. “Wouldn’t know. I don’t go to school.”

I couldn’t yet give up. “What did they USED to teach in High School?”

Stymied. “Dunno. I never paid attention.” And so on with her life long career as a clerk. But I can’t say my High School experience was much better.

I remember Kindergarten—age four. My teacher read us “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” I was fascinated. My home had several books—my mother had been a librarian, my maternal grandmother was a sixth grade teacher, and my dad was going to night school—and I started to read them. I read all of the C. S. Lewis Narnia series over the next few years (along with many other works).

Then it stopped. I was failing 1st grade arithmetic—until my mother bought a pile of flashcards and forced me to go through them again and again until I mastered it. Second grade wasn’t much better—I’d learned to hate school. Third grade was the deal breaker. My teacher was a witch, and I shut down. I received a C in reading. My parents were so confused and concerned that they invested in a flurry of eyesight and hearing tests. I don’t remember fourth grade at all (but I DO remember my dad coming home early when JFK was assassinated). In one of these grades, shuffled off to art class, I showed a friend a sundial I had designed and built from cardboard—hours of work. The art “teacher” walked over and ripped it to shreds.

In 5th grade, when my dad was transferred, I moved to a new school. My parents resisted placing me in the recommended “accelerated” class, noting that perhaps I just wasn’t up to the pressure. My new teacher, then, was an extremely tall, imposing man I frankly feared a bit—Mr. Christensen. Not only is he one of the best teachers I’ve ever known, but YEARS later, when I was facilitating a “introduce the arts” class for teachers, he was among the attendees—and instantly remembered me. Ironically, a few years after that, I had his daughter in two separate college classes. Yet a few years later, now working for National Public Radio, she interviewed me for an Indian land claim piece.

6th grade clinched the turning point. When my mom arrived for a parent/teacher conference, Mr. Grudzinski (as I understand from my mom later), apparently fresh from a parental conflict, announced, “I gave your son a B because that’s the grade he deserved!” Unfazed, Mom replied, “OK…” and Mr. Grudzinski relaxed. “I’m not supposed to show you this,” he noted, “but I think you should see this,” and he showed her the results of our placement tests.

Mom came home. “You will earn “A” grades from now on,” she announced. End of story. It was OK. I loved Mr. Grudzinski—a very nice man, a very funny man, and a great teacher.

Junior High School was scary. Suddenly, I was in classes with those “accelerated” students, none of whom I knew. I withdrew again, finding refuge in only two places—mathematics and music. Mark, a math wiz, became my best friend. We both entered a county wide contest. I won a gold medal for my presentation on “Functions and their Graphs.” Mark didn’t fare so well. The next year, I wrote a paper for the same contest on differential calculus. I thought about a career as a mathematician, but I was worried, and was cautioned, that this might not be a promising field. Add computers to this and consider just how bad this advice proved to be.

Four Junior High teachers stand out—two of them surprisingly in Social Studies, a subject I had always hated: Mr. Neufang and Mr. Lane. Suddenly, I understood that this was not about boring dates and events, but about people and exciting times. Riding a horse through the White House? Got my attention. I started to care about the outside world—and learn about it. The other teachers were in science. My 7th grade teacher was so full of puns and tricks that he kept my interest—40 years later I can still name the bones of the body. But my 8th grade teacher, Mr. Wiltze, really pulled it all together. We had to write a series of correlations—Dandelions and Icebergs, for example. We had to think. We were not rewarded for mere length (I wrote 12-20 page papers). We didn’t get good grades for the hell of it (and I didn’t do so well—B grades, as I remember).

Unfortunately, that was the end of my public school education. Yes, I did have a few good teachers—I remember a geometry and a French teacher—but my education moved to what I was reading/studying outside of class. By far the worst was English—we just did the same damn thing we had done in 7th grade over and over and over, just with different reading material. To get an A, just write about some personal interest. These teachers were pathetically easy to play. No wonder students come to college so ill-prepared. I did have one excellent teacher, Mr. Wanzer, my music teacher, who taught us Music History and Appreciation with a college level text, Donald J. Grout’s “A History of Western Music.” Wanzer took us step by step, and showed us the importance of each development. He developed our talent—I directed our Jazz Band my senior year. I earned performance scholarships from the Eastman School of Music and the New England Conservatory, entering my classes knowing far more than my classmates ever learned—no exaggeration. Of course, Wanzer was fired.

As a High School freshman, I visited my guidance counselor to choose my courses. I had a choice between Biology and Earth Science. I wasn’t (then) interested in biology, so I opted for Earth Science—but first I had a question. I DEFINITELY wanted to study physics (a passion I still hold today), so I asked for assurance that Earth Science would allow me to follow the sequence of courses I would need to get to physics in my senior year. I was given that assurance, so I took Earth Science (in a class of mostly seniors).

The bitch lied. When I wanted to enroll in the next course, Chemistry, I was told I needed Biology first. So, I completed my science education one year behind my peers. I never studied physics, except for the extensive reading I’ve done on my own.

The final straw was my senior year. When I received my schedule, it beared no semblance to reality—completely ignored my language sequence, for example, and scheduled me for three periods of study hall. Huh? I finally knew then, completely, that my education was up to me.

Working around the bandroom and Mr. Wanzer’s office, I happened upon the Master Schedule. Hmmm. I opened it. Interesting.

I threw away my course schedule and wrote my own—partly getting into my friends’ classes, but also getting myself into classes I wanted—Humanities, for example. I had no study halls. I went to the classes I had chosen, knowing that in each class, after attendance, the teachers would ask, “Is there anyone I didn’t call?” I raised my hand. “Does your schedule say you’re supposed to be here?” I nodded yes, knowing they never checked. “OK,” they said, and added me to their rosters.

Three months later—three months—my guidance counselor asked to see me. “People have been looking for you,” she said, “calling your name in study halls.” So right there, I knew she was a lying idiot—or at least I hope people wouldn’t look for a lost student by calling a name every day for three months. Obviously, they had long ago just crossed my name off their attendance lists. “Um, well, when I got my schedule,” I explained, knowing I was talking to a moron, “I realized it was a mistake, so I just went to the right classes instead.”

“You can’t just do that!” she exclaimed. Knowing I had already won this battle three months ago, I put on my most contrite face. “Gee, I’m so sorry,” I swore. “I didn’t realize. I’ll never do it again!” Of course not. I’m a senior. I’m out of here.

And thank god. I needed to learn, and I clearly wasn’t going to do it in High School. Mostly they wanted me to pursue a career as an architect, as my aptitude tests indicated (I think my dad still wishes I’d done this). This, of course, is currently a depressed field. I scored 720 on the math portion of the SATs--before they decided to lower the bar. I graduated with honors. And I knew that school did not equal learning.



lisa said...

I came across a response you wrote to a post on another website. I was intrigued both by your response there and the invitation to visit your blog if I wanted to know what you really thought.

How could I resist?

Two Write Hands said...

Found you via Blog Catalog. Seems we have similar themes in our most recent posts. Stop by if you'd like. Two Write Hands

Cathy said...

Heh, Tim, I think you are spot on, and this from a high school teacher!
Two important points emerge from this blog, I think. First, teachers who think their actions dont influence students are STUPID, and second, parents who advocate for their children do make a difference. In the masses of kids that attend school, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Students whose parents are involved in their education do better across the board, and part of that is that they hold the teachers accountable for their actions.
It is a shame your high school experience was so bitter, but I am glad you got past it and went on to be a great success!

whoiam said...

By the fifth grade I became bored by the mindless drivel and teachers who had never matured,therefore needed to interact and compete at an adolescent level.I learned most of what I know by reading and tuning out teachers who rambled and never did really, concisely state any truth I hadn't already read.I read at least fifty books a month,of all kinds.When it was discovered that I had checked out forty books one month,my library card was taken away,because some of my grades were low,partly in PE.I taught myself to wire houses by age eleven and to be an electronics technician by age seventeen.Public school was a trip through an insanity,for me.I do however,vividly remember the love shown to me by others,including the smallest kindnesses from teachers. NPUBLICI

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