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.

  1. #1 by cm photography on December 14, 2009 - 19:41

    I think my experience was similar to yours, although I was a bit above average in grade school even though I never tried. College was when I got serious about education, and made me believe that it doesn’t really matter how you start, as long as you finish well. Great article though, I don’t think I will ever pursue an advanced degree, I want the freedom to learn what I want, when I want. Right now my interest have led me to photography. Great article though.

  2. #2 by Diane on December 15, 2009 - 13:50

    Scott, who knew you were such a deviant, wandering the halls instead of going to class! Through my early years, til the end of Jr High, I did really well, high honors usually. Then High School came and life shifter, and so did my grades – straight down. Truly I barely graduated due to my easiest class (as you said) where I did not do the work. But that did not reflect my ability, more my stubborn, depression ridden,bored and angry self.

    My son is in this same place, floundering throughtout the semester, but he is then able to bring his grades up – with a strong push from me – at the end of each term. I try and explain it is much easier to maintain than dig out of the hole – sometimes deep hole – of a poor grade. The honor roll gives him some benefits, this past term those on honor roll get a discount at Saddleback Mt of a $49 season pass, and since skiing is life itself, I thought that incentive would help him keep it up. But no, still the same end of term push, barely making it.

    It is difficult for me to back off, though, and let him handle it. It seems like nothing gets done if I am not pushing. Could be control issues, strong possibility. I know he will do fine, he is one for whom things seem to fall in place nicely. I know he will do well in whatever he chooses, skiing business is his direction, so I am trying to have some of what you are talking about, being laid back and letting him be, not my strong point but still a process.

    A little self indulgence in your blog is great. Looking back at such memories is fun and reaffirms who you are. I wish I had more artifacts from my childhood to check out. Great article.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on December 16, 2009 - 21:41

      Hi Diane, thanks for the comment! I think I resisted pushing from my mom, but once I was “in the world” I realized I had to work. I remember when I was working at the pizza parlor at age 16. My mom came in and talked briefly to the boss who told her how I was sweeping the floor without being asked, always following the ‘clean as you go’ rule and working hard. Given that I was a lazy slob at home, she had a very hard time reconciling this with the Scott she was used to!

  3. #4 by Mike Lovell on December 15, 2009 - 16:03

    Firstly, why would you apologize for a self-indulgent post? It’s your blog, and technically speaking, aren’t you indulging in your own interests with every article you write, as opposed to covering someone else’s topic (save my creative writing assignment I tagged you with)?

    Also, you said you had atrocious handwriting, and yet you earned a doctorate. Well, Doctor, it seems your handwriting prophecied your title. All doctor’s have horrible handwriting!!! LOL

    As for schooling, I can identify. I did as perfect as you can get on the standardized tests, outside the ACT and SATs, but including the ASVAB for the military (it seems in theory I know how the innards of a vehicle work…but in practice I’m almost lost).

    While I graduated with honors, an less than a tenth of a point from high honors, I tended to just exist in school. If I didn’t care, I didn’t pay attention, but I was lucky in that I never studied or did homework because I didn’t need to. Then I tried college at Iowa State University. I realized just why those books cost far more than your average text book: overuse of big words placed randomly to vex the process of osmosis while sleeping on your text book in class!!!
    I was much more participatory in classes than enthused me, like Chemistry (I just wnated to experiment and see what reacted with what and exploded..I still hold the record at Sac Community Jr/SR High for highest bill on lab equipment at the end of the year), and Physical Education (I was one of those gym warriors that took great pleasure in dismantling someone’s sense of balance with a dodge ball!). History and Literature classes were okay, but that reading aloud thing always got me. Not that I couldn’t read, but when the others were reading and stuttered along sloooowly, I’d just read to myself and be a chapter or 2 ahead, and completely lost when the teacher called on me to continue where so-and-so left off!

    But, Scott, back to you. This was a great article. Nice little insight to your growing up!

  4. #5 by Josh on December 15, 2009 - 19:39

    I’m the type of person who LOVES school and works hard, but I will always struggle to get good grades.

    I think effort is the main thing. If you have a good work ethic, you’ll do fine. I think it’s like a law of nature or something.

    We’ll see how that law holds up next year when I’m in graduate school (hopefully)…

  5. #6 by Ron Byrnes on December 16, 2009 - 16:57

    Beautifully put Scott, thanks. Schools are trying desperately to win the battle (increasing test scores) while losing the war (engaging students in the exact ways you were as a young person). Stories like yours should inform reform efforts. My November 26th entry, “Cultivating Passion” is closely related.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on December 16, 2009 - 21:45

      Thanks Ron — and thanks for reminding me to read your blog…during the semester I get spotty at keeping up my blog reading, I’ll head over there soon!

  6. #8 by John on December 16, 2009 - 19:06

    I have to agree with Ron’s assessment regarding testing vs. engaging the students.

    And I agree with your approach to your boys, Scott. I take a similar approach with mine. I like to have them show me what interests them, rather than dictate to them. I practically had to relearn Latin so I could pronounce dinosaur names as well as my six year old. He can classify them according to the correct age in which they existed, and all I did was get out of his way…but encourage his interest whenever I could.

    Whichever paradigm you prefer…nature or nurture…sounds like your boys are in good hands. They’ve got the genes and the environment to succeed.
    Whatever that loaded term means 😉

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