Sunday, January 29, 2006

My Story - School is Hell

Sixth Grade sucked ass, but it nicely set up junior high (7th through 9th grades in my locale at that time) and high school. Mostly this stuff is the story of any outcast, so I'll try to be brief. (Not my strong suit, I know, I know.) [Later: Yep, failed miserably at brevity!]

Junior high consisted of just one boring class after another. This included the gifted class, which was an hour each day. The truth of most gifted programs is that they capture, and cater to, students who are bright and hard working, but not really the truly exceptional students. Most of what we did the gifted class was a combination of foreign language study, arts & crafts, and a bunch of other bullshit. (The foreign language study was not intensive at all, and therefore ineffective. Therefore bullshit.)

But by now I was firmly ensconced as an outcast. This has its advantages. You don't HAVE to care what other people think, and the teachers start to accept the fact that you're going to be a failure in life, so they largely leave you to your own devices. This would be liberating if they would let you just go the hell home, but instead you just get to sleep in class.

Besides actually making it to high school somehow, there were a couple of other highlights. We took some more standardized tests in Eighth Grade. In one test, for us gifted students, I tested as having the vocabulary of a college graduate. This surprised the teacher since I had ignored all of the assignments concerning expanding our vocabulary.

Incidentally, in Seventh Grade I had started cussing a lot more. My vocabulary was becoming a bit of a hindrance in social settings. What social settings does an outcast concern himself with? Well, even an outcast has to talk to people in his classes. And it is a real pain in the ass when someone insults you, you insult them back, and they stare at you blankly. Explaining insults has the same effect as explaining jokes: it neuters them. So I learned to say motherfucker instead.

The other big achievement was taking the PSAT. And getting the highest score in the gifted class. I started getting reading material from small liberal arts colleges in the northeast. Of course, nothing could have ever come of that, but the attention was nice. It helped to highlight for all concerned exactly how badly I was fucking up my life.

Around Eighth Grade I also started to contemplate dropping out. But I made a critical mistake: I actually believed the people who told me if I dropped out I would never accomplish anything. Even bright people make mistakes, and this is one of my worst. I should have dropped out in the Eighth Grade, taken my GED and been done with it.

One story from Ninth Grade: While doing poorly in my English class, I was chosen by the teacher to be an assistant for her Eighth Grade class. My responsibilities included grading papers and administering tests. She was fond of saying "Out! Out!" when her classes would be particularly exasperating. It was later that I discovered it was a reference to Lady MacBeth. She was also the first teacher to openly cuss in front of me. One day, grading papers, we got to talking. And she told me, "You know why you do poorly in English class ****? It's because you just don't give a damn." I was more startled by her matter of fact assessment than I was by the language. Another great teacher in a lousy system.

High school was a bit more interesting. My academic downward spiral continued, but the counter-points were funnier.

My second favorite was getting chosen by my 11th grade Chem II teacher (the gorgeous Miss Elder the Younger) to set up the lab experiments. This despite the fact that by the time she picked me I was failing the class. I later got an award for helping out in that class. It was announced over the school loud-speaker system as part of our weekly update: "**** has been a helpful student, and a heckuva guy! So we're giving him a mini-footbal!" It was also announced a couple of days after I had been given 20 days of detention. I will leave it to your imagination to figure out what I had done that would have warranted all of that detention, but not suspension. I guarantee that it was something stupider than anything you think up! (Actually it was two separate incidents.)

But the best thing happened in what would have been 12th Grade. I dropped out right after the Christmas break of 11th Grade. A month or so later I took the SAT. I was already in college, but what the hell, right? I took the test on very little sleep, and because of a dispute with the proctors proving that I was in fact me, I took it with a time disadvantage. Several months later, the Principal of my former school gets on the loud-speaker and congratulates me for having the highest SAT score in the class. Absolutely priceless!

But since I'm running long anyway (Surprise!) I have to add the story of getting tossed out. At the half-way point of the first semester, I was doing poorly. A couple of Cs, three Ds and an F. I was on my way out, no question about it, but I didn't know how to make a clean break. So as the semester wore on, I became belligerent. (I know, another big surprise.) I went looking for chances to argue with classmates and teachers. One day, in Mrs. Paine's gifted English class (no joke, that was her name), I got in an argument about the police with the rest of the class. My point was that all policemen aren't necessarily good guys. (Yeah, a startling observation.) One of the other students was passionately arguing the opposite. Her main point was that she knew ONE policeman who WAS good, therefore ALL policemen ARE good. Finally, after some heated argument, Mrs. Paine told me to stop arguing because I was being illogical! I said, in great disbelief, "Bullshit."

That was it! I was sent to the principal's office with all due haste. She was so mad she didn't even send a note until a couple of hours had passed. I got kicked out of her class permantently. A couple of days later, the school psychologist came by. (This person rotated among many schools. I believe Wednesday's were his scheduled stop at Evans.) I was summoned to the principal's office, and told to talk to this man. We had a lovely chat over several hours time. I must have been a relief from what he normally dealt with. He told me to see him next week when he came back.

The next week came as Christmas break approached. He told me he had a solution to my problems. He said, "****, what you need to do is drop out of high school, get your GED, and start taking classes at Valencia [Community College]." My jaw must have been on the floor at being granted this Christmas gift. He explained further, "High school isn't really a good environment for some students. The material isn't challenging enough and the atmosphere can be stifling. You are one of those students. So this is what I think you should do. I had my three children drop out after Ninth Grade and do the same thing."

It took exactly no convincing to get my mother to agree to this, as she had suffered enough with my brother and me to know when to let it go. Plus, she had no great love of the school system either. But the most damning thing has to be the statement I bolded above. The school freakin' psychologist didn't want his children to go through the school system either, and he had his pick of schools!

Maybe I'll cover my college career later. But for now, I need to get to the point for Reader_Iam.

My Story - Education Sucks

In Fourth Grade, things were going pretty well. I tested into the gifted program, which told all my teachers that I had a decent brain in my skull. And I was on the 'advanced' track in all my subjects. (We had still had tracks at that time, although each class would have a mix of students in all three tracks.) Things were going well.

But I was starting to get restless. School was starting to seem repetitive and full of makework. Doing homework started to become a chore, with requisite friction between me and my mother, and a drop in grades at school.

One set of assignments sticks out. Our teacher handed out a LARGE stack of papers one Friday. It was a set of science assignments that we had to complete over the next eight weeks. Very daunting to a fourth grader. That night, I got home and went through whatever routine I went through. Right after diner I started in on the first assignment. Less than four hours later, I was done with the whole stack. So much for eight weeks of work! (I recall that I had made two small errors in the whole of the assignments.) This kind of dedication was (and is) rare from me, but occasionally it happens. I'm an all or nothing kind of guy!

This story sounds great... until one stops to think about it. Either I was incredibly brilliant, or the assignments weren't that challenging. As it turns out, I really was that brilliant. Somewhere between First and Third Grade I had turned into a genius. School became a drag.

Then Fifth Grade started. This was a watershed year. We had two black teachers in the school. In Third Grade I got the first one, whom I loved. In the Fifth Grade, I got the other. Oh boy, did I get the other.

This teacher (who shall remain nameless) was a bit ... militant. Black militant to be precise. The year started innocently enough. We got to learn about various black luminaries from American history: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and a host of others. As far back as I can remember, I've always loved history, and this was no exception. American history is rich with under-dog stories, and the Abolitionist Movement has some of the best.

As the year went on, the stories we got became a bit more extreme. Did you know black people had built the Pyramids? Did you know that the ancient Greeks and Romans had stolen all of their ideas from Darkest Africa? And the Chinese had, too! It turns out that Africans had done EVERYTHING first! Every last possible thing, until Whitey came along and enslaved them all and stole all their stuff.

I may have only been ten and eleven, but I knew I was being given the business, as Wally and the Beaver would say. It was an unpleasant year, and I learned that teachers really don't know all that much, and to weigh what I was told with some skepticism. (Okay, a lot of skepticism.) Actually, these aren't bad lessons to learn, but the time, place and manner in which I learned these things wasn't right. Anyway, I started to hate school.

But Sixth Grade was where it really all came together for me. I got lucky and landed in Mrs. Noname's class. And there is NO WAY I will mention this name. Mrs. Noname was a trip. She was in her fifties, dedicated to her job, patriotic and religious. And an evil sadistic bitch, too. Every year she would pick one or two students to make an example of. I was lucky to be Chosen One that year.

It's really hard to describe what it was that she did that was so awful. It was a combination of little put-downs, ignoring students and their accomplishments, generally managing to make certain that the target was an outcast. If you weren't one of the targets, she was absolutely wonderful. Constant encouragement, a warm friendly demeanor, and a forgiving attitude to one's shortcomings. So it was a great arrangement for 29 out of 30 students. But every year she set out to break someone, and most years she succeeded.

I remember hearing a story about one of her students actually suffering a total nervous collapse and being institutionalized several years before I became her student. A friend of mine, currently going by the name Plasmaball, had her a year or two before I did. He got to be one of the 29, but will cheerfully acknowledge what an evil bitch she was. As will another friend who had her a couple of years after I did. Like me, he got to be the 30th. Not so good for him.

But so far, all I've done is talk about ostracizing people. That's kind of vague, so let me tell you a couple of stories.

I mentioned she was religious. Very much of the Protestant Christian faith. We had a couple of boys in the class who were the sons of a pair of local ministers. Every two or three weeks, as part of an assignment, they would get up and give sermons. Mind you, this is a public school! It was very clear that you'd better toe the line, or burn in Hell. The religious stuff went on constantly, and it was quite oppressive.

But my favorite story concerns geography lessons. We got lots of geography lessons. We'd learn about rivers and mountain ranges, languages and political systems, where the cities were placed, what types of industry and agriculture were practiced, etc. We focused predominantly on the Eurasian land mass. This was the admonishment were were given: "Someday, some of you boys will be in the Air Force. You may have to drop nuclear weapons on Soviet cities. But your planes won't have enough fuel to get you back to the US, so you'll have to bail out and make your way home on foot, avoiding capture. So you really need to know this stuff!"

We got this and similar stuff on a daily basis. Welcome to Sixth Grade. Now here's your M-16 and your marching orders! Make sure to bayonet the corpses because those Commies are tricky and may pretend to be dead to kill you from behind....

The whole year was like this. Every damn topic was about God and Country, and the need to blow up our enemies. And it was clear that I was one of the enemies. I came to look back on Fifth Grade as a time of bliss. By the end of it, I was so broken down that my mother finally got the whole story out me, and had me switched to another class for the final three weeks of the school year. It took a trip to the principal to get it done, but I was grateful. I mentioned that someone else I grew up with had her two years later. His parents got him out of that class after a half-year. Parents can learn!

From this point on, I hated school passionately. Even when I had good teachers it was oppressive. School would continue to suck until I dropped out of high school and started a long and storied career as a junior college student.

My Story - Education's Not Bad

This gets me to the part of the story I know well.

I was born in 1968, in Orlando Florida. This was a good place to be at that time. When the Apollo moon shots would be launched, we'd watch them lift off the pad on TV, and run outside to the driveway. The road in front of our house ran east-west, and down the street was a small lake. (Yeah, yeah, it's Florida. There's at least a small lake at the end of every street.) So we had a perfect view of the rockets rising above the horizon. We could watch them for a pretty long time. I'm told that when I was little I would want to run outside whenever I saw the replays on TV. I was hooked on science and technology right from the start!

As far as I know, I didn't display any great genius at the start. I started talking kind of late, I'm told, but when I did start it was in full sentences and paragraphs. I must have liked it because once I started, I never shut up. I was a fairly good student, but not spectacular. I was also a happy child, which would amaze anyone who has only known me as an adult. I did take up chess at a young age, but this was the years of the Fischer Boom, lots of people of all ages took up the game. Nothing really notable.

In fact, at the time Orange County did have an active gifted student program. All first grade students would be given a preliminary test. Those that did well enough would be given another, much more individualized test. (I now know the second test was an IQ test of some variety.) Well, needless to say, when I took the first test I ... Didn't do very well! There was to be no second test for me, and no gifted program. I don't remember any disappointment, as we were too young to really know what was going on. We just knew it was another test to take, so we took it. I doubt we were even told there were any consequences.

When Third Grade came around, I was fortunate enough to get Mrs. Pinder as my teacher. She was great! Very friendly, very interested in her students, very good.

Once again we were given a batch of standardized tests. These were the tests given to all third graders nation-wide, I believe. I scored through the roof - above the 95% percentile in most categories. I seem to remember a 99 or two, but also one score down around 90. Between those scores and Mrs. Pinder's insistence I was eventually given the second part of the gifted test in Fourth Grade. I thought at the time it was my Fourth Grade teacher who had pushed for this, but many years later my mother corrected me. It is amazing how oblivious children can be, given what sponges they are.

Well, this time I tested quite well indeed, and they put me in the gifted program. Which really didn't mean much of anything. I said the program was active, not extensive. So for a few hours every week we got to go to another classroom to be taught some of this, and some of that, and be exposed to a wider variety of material than most students. A nice change of pace from the usual stuff.

But it was around this time that things started to go south for me in school....

More Backstory - My Sister

Most people that know my brother, my sister and me think that my sister runs third in the intellect department. This may be true, but there can be no question that she was the most prodigious of the three of us.

She taught herself to read by age three. This was discovered when she started asking strange questions about what certain words or phrases meant. At first, everyone thought she was just repeating things she had heard. And then they caught her reading the newspaper. While it was clear a lot of it was over her head (Hey, she was three!), a lot of it wasn't. While I'm sure my parents and all her other relatives had been doing the normal stuff to teach a small child letters and numbers and such, no one had taught her to read. (Here's a crazy idea: My brother, five years her senior, may have taught her. It's the kind of thing he would do.)

But this wasn't the end of it. My mother liked to be involved in small local theatres. Theatres often have need of small children for their plays, and my sister fit in naturally. She started picking up acting and dancing quickly. In fact, a local Russian couple (refugees, naturally) wanted my mother to send my sister to New York City to study ballet at one point. My mother resisted this at the time, but I often wonder how things might have gone if she had taken them up on the offer. My sister also became very adept at various forms of Polynesian dance. And with her dark hair and her amazing tan, she was often mistaken as Hawaiian by other Hawaiians.

But back to the theatre. My sister had an amazing capacity to absorb information. She would not just memorize her lines, she would memorize whole plays. All of this by age five! I still can't fathom this. She knew every line of several Rogers and Hammerstein plays at that young age. I couldn't do that now, although maybe I could have before turning twenty.

All in all, my sister had remarkable "verbal" abilities. When she was set to start school, my mother went to meet with the principle and teacher. She told them all about my sister's talents, and of my mother's concerns about how school would handle my sister. The answer was classic: "Don't worry. By Second Grade you daughter will be reading at the same level as all the other students." My mother was not impressed by this statement! But there was nothing she could do, and so my sister entered the public school system.

School was tough for my sister for entirely different reasons than it was for my brother. When my brother would bring home his horrible report cards, it would cause HUGE problems. While Mom and my brother would be in his bedroom, with her giving him what-for, my grandmother would be telling my sister to keep her report card, with its straight A's, out of sight and out of mind. I have no idea where my sister ranked in her class, but if it wasn't right at the top, then she was holding back.

But my sister was a more traditional student than my brother. She was involved in all kinds of extra-curriculars, on top of the all the dancing she did, and was popular to boot. Unfortunately, she did not go to college. I'm not sure why, other than the family's poor financial situation, but as far as I know she never even considered it. I can't blame the school system for this. At least not on current information.

My only problem with my sister's story is that the public school system wanted to reduce my sister's abilities rather than increase them. This idiotic desire to homogenize students' abilities instead of encourage them is something I've observed again and again, personally, from the stories of people close to me, and in every story I've read.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Some Backstory - My Brother

Over at Either End of the Curve the other day, I got involved in another discussion about education. Taking a customarily humble approach I told Reader_Iam (RIA) how to go about educating her son. Specifically, I told her she and her husband should home school him. (He's currently in kindergarten.)

I said this based on a combination of my loathing of the US education system and my opinion of RIA's abilities to pull this off. Admittedly, I don't really know RIA, so I can only judge by what I've read. But for the moment let that pass. Let the idea that someone is going to take the advice of someone they don't know when it comes to child-rearing slide as well, because clearly they won't.

Still, I've promised to comment further on my position, and that requires giving some family background.

My mother and father, while perhaps not a great match marriage-wise, were an excellent match genetically. My brother an I both have IQs that were (and maybe still are) in excess of 140, and my sister was in the 125-140 range. (Actually, she may be brighter than that, but she's convinced that she isn't. It must have been frustrating growing up around my older brother.) My brother is 18 years my senior, and my sister is 13 years older than I am. (Yes, I was a bit of a surprise.) We've all been fairly healthy, although we all seem to be disposed to depression. So we're not in bad shape out of the gate. None of this is meant as bragging, as I'm long past being impressed with my own or anyone else's intelligence. It is merely meant to set the stage.

My brother was destined to have problems in school. He was an astounding test-taker, but refused to do any of the work for any of his classes. Or at least that's the common story. I know there is more, but I don't know how much.

One year my parents managed to scrape together the money to send him to a private school for 8th grade. By all accounts, it was his happiest and most productive year in school. Many years later I found one of his textbooks from that year. It was a history text, and quite challenging. I didn't see a textbook as difficult until I got to college. I find it no coincidence that the most challenging year he had was also the happiest.

But for whatever reason, that was the only year he spent there. No one has ever told me why, but I've always assumed that it had to do with my father's drinking and financial incompetence.

So the next year, my brother ends up in Maynard Evans High School. Or Hell, as some of us remember it. Whatever challenge he had faced academically before couldn't prepare him for this. Evans at that time (as opposed to my time, or currently) was a good school. But like most schools, it was rather regimented, complete with all of the requisite make-work and social weirdness. He did not adapt. It was here that he discovered drugs, and probably sex as well. (Rock and roll had been discovered much earlier, I'm sure. My sister was an Elvis fan from birth. She must have picked it up somewhere.)

Despite all of this, he learned something somewhere. At some point, he was subjected to some standard test. His result was a near perfect score. That fact that this miserable student had scored so well could mean only one thing to the school administrators: He had cheated! After proclamations of innocence, as well as protest from my mother, they gave him a chance to take another version of the test, this time in a highly controlled environment and closely watched. The result was predictable: This time he did manage a perfect score.

At this the school took note. As all school systems do when confronted by a challenging student, they set out to make an example of him. They patiently waited until he was about to graduate, and then informed him and my mother that some of his credits from the 8th grade wouldn't count. (Previously my parents had been assured that all of those grades would count.) Since he was going right into the Navy, he was completely screwed.

Fortunately, my mother can be a terrifying woman. She took it to the school board, and her threats to take the matter all the way to the governor proved sufficient to make them back down.

The main lesson from my brother's school career? They don't give a damn if you've actually received an education. They only care that you do what they told you, when they told you.