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Lessons Learned

November 16, 2013


This is my 3rd or 4th grade class photo. Looking at it makes me think several things:

  1. I hated to comb my hair back then and I still hate to comb it
  2. That was before hair conditioner. Yes, I said BEFORE HAIR CONDITIONER. I remember rat’s nests of unusual size at the back of my neck.
  3. I can still remember the itchy lace of that dress collar
  4. I’m glad I grew into my teeth

What led me to look at school photos is something more serious. After I read this article about teachers acting as equals (well worth reading), I started thinking about how bad school was for me. I went back to look at photos to see if I could see that in my eyes.

I think that would surprise most people who knew me back then, because I was an excellent student. I was an early reader and had good school skills, so I always got by with mostly A and B grades. Because I could easily keep up with school work and did well, I learned the wrong things at school.

I learned that I could get by with doing the minimum. An “A” was the most you could get, so why go above and beyond? I felt like good grades were a simple trick.

I also learned to not be too good. All it bought you was the scorn of your fellow students. I learned early to walk the fine line between doing enough but not shining so much that the other students hated you. Having my parents and teachers be proud of me wasn’t enough to risk losing the affection of my peers, with whom I always felt on shaky footing, anyway.

I was a rebellious kid – I have always felt some kind of inner drive to question the status quo, that not fitting in was better than trying to be one of the crowd.

That same spirit of rebellion made me feel like my teachers weren’t on my team. I felt like they were holding onto information and only doling it out at their own pace. It was so frustrating. Those were the days before you could look everything up on the internet. I spent a lot of time at the library and a lot of time reading, trying to get the knowledge I wanted.

I found children’s textbooks infuriating. I always wanted so much more than they could give me. I would read the same chapters over and over, looking at the pictures, trying to force more knowledge out of those smudged pages.

The thing is, my educational experience wasn’t bad. I went to good schools in good neighborhoods at a time when there were plenty of tax dollars to support the schools. Teachers were generally respected and education was highly thought of. And yet I feel I failed at school and school failed me.

The biggest failure, I think, was not giving me the idea that I had a stake in the world. I feel like the education I got was so fragmented. “Here’s your English, here’s your math, here’s your social studies.”

Now I work for a brilliant executive. I admire so many things about her, but the thing I treasure most is that she keeps her eyes on the prize – she constantly reinforces the big picture in everything she does.

Every day she isn’t just building systems and solving problems. She comes to work and tries to make our customer’s lives better. She’s serious about that, and if she weren’t, I don’t know if she could work as hard as she does, 16+ hours, 7 days a week.

THAT is what I wish school would have done for me. I wish that there was a Big Picture being taught. I wish they had said, every day, “Hey, kids, you need to be part of a team called humanity. As a team and as an individual, you have a responsibility to create the world you want. That’s what all this learning is for – to make a world worth living in.”

But in a hierarchical system with teacher as ruler of the classroom, that’s a hard sell because they can’t tell kids they’re responsible for creating the world, then say “But follow all my rules or else.”

I had a few teachers who tried to act as equals as much as they were allowed within the structure (Hey, Mrs. Gosfield! Hi, Mr. Bishop!) and I do remember those classes as much more exciting and interesting than others.

My friend Brian teaches graphic arts at the university level and says he has given up on everything but project-based grading. No tests, no quizzes. Students show what they have learned by creating something. He says he is happier and they are happier and they learn more, too.

I was lucky to have decent parents, so I grew up with the idea of doing right for its own sake. But learning that I was creating the world – I learned that on my own, and it took a long time. I don’t know why it wasn’t obvious from the start, but there are some subjects in which I am a little slow.

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