Archive for December 14th, 2009

Looking Back

(This is a self-indulgent post, I apologize in advance).   The past couple of days I’ve been going through old papers in order to determine what I want to keep, and what can be thrown.  This means looking through old notebooks from school, journals I was keeping when I was 12 or 13, and even an eighth grade sports column about the Foreman – Ali fight.   I also found report cards.   The earliest was from 4th grade, a number were from Junior High and High School.  I was not a good student.

My worst subject was English — and my handwriting was atrocious.   I did OK in history, and math depended on the teacher.   My best subject was science.   Some teachers would inspire an “A,” but usually I could cram in the study hall before the exam and manage a “C.”  Except for a praising note home from a Psych teacher in 11th grade, I was at best an average student.   In reality, I was a poor student that became average in high school.

I was an escapist.  I never connected in a lot of my classes, and in eighth grade failed one of the easiest classes in Junior High – Photography.   I never did my final project.   I got kicked out of journalism class for failing to interview one of the coaches, and instead of reporting to the office to get re-assigned to study hall, I roamed the halls during that period the rest of the semester.   They never caught me.

I took those traits into college.   In my freshman year I had my first two exams on the same day, a Philosophy test from Dr. George Bowles, and a Biology test.   I got a D- on my Bio exam, and an F+ (an odd grade) on philosophy.  That night I recall thinking “I’m paying for this, this is my future.  I’m smart.  I can do better.”   From then on I got A’s all the way through.  I graduated Summa Cum Laude, 5th in my class, from Augustana College in Sioux Falls.

Still, I was an average student up until college.  In fact, in grade school I was probably a fair to poor student, a bit below average.   I never thought I was dumb, I always knew I could do better — the term “he has good potential” was assigned to me a lot (I could empathize with Linus Van Pelt).   I just didn’t really care about the assignments and activities done in class.   When I did care, I’d do really well.   When I didn’t I was off in my own world.  I’d get a C in science while writing my own notebook about the planets, their moons and the solar system.   I’d almost fail English but every morning in home room (the typing room) I’d churn out sports columns for classmates to read.   One piece I found last night was a fictional account of a “double no-hitter” — Bert Blyleven and Ray Corbin teaming to no-hit the mighty Oakland A’s back-to-back during a double header.   Rather than learn from my teachers I’d emulate Sid Hartman and other sports writers.

Yet when I got to college and decided, OK, I’ll focus, I got straight A’s.    I went on to get an MA from Johns Hopkins, and my Ph.D. from Minnesota.  To be sure, that part of me that does what I want is one reason I’m at a small rural teaching university and not competing to be a top researcher at some big name school.   I don’t want to play that game, I love teaching and don’t want the publish or perish stress.   Like back in school, I have the belief that if I had wanted to I could have focused on an academic career and made a bigger name for myself, but why go to the trouble?   Here I think that part of me that caused me to do poorly in school rescues me from the perils of being an over-achiever in my career.

As I see my children enter the education scene, I start to wonder how seriously I should take it if they don’t do well in school.   Most of my colleagues — academics — are not like me.   Most were good students from the get-go, and expect the same from their kids.    Most probably think that if one falls behind in school it’s hard to recover.   Yet it wasn’t at all hard for me.   It could be that I’m naturally intelligent (when I was younger, I liked to think so).   I did always do well on standardized tests, am quick thinking and have a good memory and verbal skills.   But I’ve been teaching long enough to know those skills aren’t the same as intelligence.

More likely, I developed the skills I needed outside of what the schools graded.   I was always an avid reader, even if it wasn’t what was assigned for class.   I’ve been writing my whole life, including short stories and poems as early as the third grade.   I’ve been fascinated by politics, religion, and world affairs since I can remember.   I read the entire Bible when I was 13 (chapters each night), followed the Watergate hearings at 13 and 14, and devoured magazines about world affairs.   Sometimes it got weird (at age 12 a book called “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsay convinced me that Jesus was coming soon and the world was about to end), but that’s all part of growing up.   I might not know about the civil war for the history test, but I knew what was going on between Israel and Egypt.     I didn’t care about school, I cared about what interested me.   Yet I came to college a decent writer and a good reader with a lot of background knowledge in science and world affairs.   My weakest area was English (I didn’t know a direct object from a past participle), but when when I took German I was forced to learn grammar.

In fact, my blog really reflects those interests I had as a child.   I was into philosophy, music, politics, and spiritual matters for as long as I can remember.   My mom says that when I was three and told that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, I was very worried about his killer.  I hoped that Lee Harvey Oswald was sorry and apologized before he was killed so that he could go to heaven (all I remember is the newspaper had a color photo of Kennedy — that was rare in 1963).   In fact, going  through my old photos and materials it really struck me that although the specifics of my beliefs have changed, I’m very much the same person.    At one time I was a devout Christian, now I’m into a more universal spiritualism.   At age 12 I went door to door to canvas for President Nixon, now I would back Senator McGovern.   Yet, looking at all those old artifacts, my basic personality, interests, and focus in life has been pretty consistent.   I’ve also been pretty consistent in doing what I want to do how I want to do it, regardless of the expectations of the world around me.

Which brings me back to education.   I hope my kids do well in school, but what really matters is engaging the world and learning the basic skills of reading and writing.   I’m going to fill the house with science projects, learning about the world, and foster a love for reading (which Ryan already has).   If they do well in school, great.   If not, I’m going to look at how they are living, and if they show curiosity, knowledge and a continued desire to read, write and explore.   If so, I won’t sweat it.   It’s their life, and as long as they go to college or the work world with the basic skills needed to do well, they can.    I’m also going to look at their interests and priorities knowing that they will show me in these first years who they are, as it’s likely that their basic values and interests are going to be similar throughout their lives.   And, of course, knowledge and education are pointless without the ethical values one needs to live a worthwhile life.

Sorry for the self-indulgent post – I spent much of the last weekend reliving the past through these old materials, so that’s what is on my mind today.