Old events, new understanding (INTROSPECTION ALERT!)
Didn't sleep much last night; sort of ill and worried. Fell into a stew of guilt and resentment over old misdeeds, which didn't help a bit with the ill and the worried. Finally focused on a couple of events that happened -- sheesh -- 43 years ago, in 7th grade, and reached a new understanding.
Both events can be described simply: A teacher chewed me up one side and down the other for being a smartass. I always felt one teacher was justified and the other wasn't, but I didn't really understand why
until just now.
Every Friday in fall, the school football game started in the middle of last period. Most teachers walked their entire class to the stadium, about six blocks away. School wasn't dismissed, though; some teachers kept their classes in, and every student needed parental permission to attend the game. (Maybe there was a good reason for this confused arrangement, but more likely it was just typical woodenheaded school administration. Some things don't change!) On this particular Friday, Pete and I were the only students in Mr. Schoening's history class who didn't have permission slips. So Mr. Schoening sent us down the hall to spend the hour in Mr. Dillon's remedial math class, which was among the few classes remaining in session.
After a while, with nothing better to do, Pete and I started working the math problems along with the class. Two-digit multiplication, as I recall, normally mastered in 5th grade. Pete and I reached the answer in a few seconds, and compared notes audibly: Boy, this one was really easy, wasn't it? Yeah, I don't know why it takes so long for these guys. Chortle, chortle.
Mr. Dillon instantly caught on. He threw his chalk to the floor, stormed to the back of the room, yanked both of us out of our seats, and shook us by the shoulders: You miserable smartalecks! What do you think you're doing, making fun of my students?
By the time he tossed us back down, we were nicely deflated.
The new perspective: Back then, everyone knew which kids were dumb and which were smart. Still true now, but we know how to eliminate the difference by using Sensitivity and Self-Esteem to make everyone dumb. Poor benighted Mr. Dillon, working before those two concepts were invented, saw his job in a different light. He knew that these remedial kids would only have a chance to achieve something in life if they mastered as much math as they could. And he knew that the only way to get there was by working. What a laughably primitive idea! But those kids, equally unaware of later developments, did in fact work their hearts out for Mr. Dillon.
And Mr. Dillon also knew that their enthusiasm would not survive a head-on collision with fatalism or cynicism. Those remedials couldn't afford to think "Hey, this stuff is easy for Pete and Dave, why isn't it easy for me?" Nor could they afford "Why bother? Why not just hang around the streets and steal stuff?"
So when Mr. Dillon shook the smugness out of our smartass skulls, he wasn't just teaching us that mockery is bad. We knew that anyway, though the reminder was certainly useful. He was mainly trying to save his
kids from infection by the mindset of criminality.
Toward the end of that year, the English teachers got together to run a spelling bee. Miss Johnston would run a first level bee in each of her hours, then take those winners to an after-school session to find the best of her students. Each teacher did the same, and then the representatives from each teacher were matched.
Well, I was the best speller in school that year, and Miss Johnston knew it. So she wanted me to reach the finals. I had different ideas, though. Spelling was as easy as breathing. I wanted to move out of the comfort zone and try my hand at a task that required a little challenge. (Who knows, maybe I had learned something from
the remedials.) So I skipped the last session of the spelling bee, and attended a meeting for students who wanted to run for Student Council. The next day in class, Miss Johnston ripped me a new one. She didn't use Mr. Dillon's style of physical force, but she used a whole lot more words.
With this fresh understanding, was Miss Johnston right or wrong?
Still wrong. Unlike Mr. Dillon, she was not pushing her students toward maximum work and achievement. Her anger was selfish: I had failed to win for her team. Possibly she assumed team spirit was sort of automatic, a decent enough assumption in the highly conformist semi-Sovietized America of 1962. But she didn't understand how nerds feel about teams after many years of being the last one selected, and she didn't appreciate my drive to explore new areas, which is the only good part of adolescence!
Labels: Experiential education