"I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could, and the prospect of four more year of forced learning before I could become the writer that I wanted to be seemed stifling. I got out into the world, I wrote, and I became a better writer the more I wrote, and I wrote some more, and nobody ever seemed to mind that I was making it all up as I went along."

—Neil Gaiman

 

In second grade, I became friends with someone who made me laugh until I cried, and I could not resist trying to crack her up whenever possible. One day in the L.M.C. (the Library Media Center—our school library, which consisted of books, card catalogs, and reel-to-reel film projectors) our teacher sat at a table with us explaining Morse Code. All I remember distinctly is her saying something about how the dots and dashes expressed the alphabet, and then my loud voice calling out “you mean like A, B, C, D, E, F, G?” to the tune of the Alphabet Song. Or perhaps it was my friend singing… memory is funny like that. But then both of us were laughing hysterically at the hilarity of it all, and  we were immediately punished with the assignment of writing a report on the Morse Code.
Because we were in second grade, the report consisted of copying the Telegraph entry in the Most Serious and Complete Book of Information I knew of at the time: The World Book Encyclopedia. And then we were (or, I was) required to read that “report,” word for word, to the entire class. I remember that I copied the World Book entry without understanding it, but I only realized how little I understood when I had to read it aloud. I sure did like reading aloud to the class, but I felt strange reading something of “mine” that I did not actually understand.
—Little Miss Allison M High-res

In second grade, I became friends with someone who made me laugh until I cried, and I could not resist trying to crack her up whenever possible. One day in the L.M.C. (the Library Media Center—our school library, which consisted of books, card catalogs, and reel-to-reel film projectors) our teacher sat at a table with us explaining Morse Code. All I remember distinctly is her saying something about how the dots and dashes expressed the alphabet, and then my loud voice calling out “you mean like A, B, C, D, E, F, G?” to the tune of the Alphabet Song. Or perhaps it was my friend singing… memory is funny like that. But then both of us were laughing hysterically at the hilarity of it all, and  we were immediately punished with the assignment of writing a report on the Morse Code.

Because we were in second grade, the report consisted of copying the Telegraph entry in the Most Serious and Complete Book of Information I knew of at the time: The World Book Encyclopedia. And then we were (or, I was) required to read that “report,” word for word, to the entire class. I remember that I copied the World Book entry without understanding it, but I only realized how little I understood when I had to read it aloud. I sure did like reading aloud to the class, but I felt strange reading something of “mine” that I did not actually understand.

—Little Miss Allison M

From Father to Daughter

I have actually given this post a lot of thought, because although I pretty much write for a living, this topic gives me great pause. You see, I was a very nervous little boy, demonstrating (then undiagnosed) OCD tendencies to compensate, and it often came across in my school settings. I was a very good student, I did well and was a solid learner, but I craved — required — routine and stability. One of my earliest memories of school was first grade, when we had the first substitute teacher of my life. I was so scared of what this meant, this mystery of where my real teacher was, I vividly recall crying during circle time, hiding my face behind a paper handout (even then, I knew my behavior was irrational and caused me great embarrassment, but I so desired for authority to be present and predictable, I had no tools for dealing with spontaneous wrenches in the mix). That day was the first time I ever faked an illness to get to the nurse and get my ticket home for the day. I recall eating my lunch, which included a small bag of Doritos, at home and trying to keep up my ‘ilness’ for my mom, who I think knew very well that all that was wrong with me was fear of something new, or perhaps more accurately, fear of what might happen when the prescribed plan deviated from the norm, even though substitute teachers as we know present no long-term threat.

I was constantly worried for other people’s well being, my parents at the top of the list, and learned later that it is typical of kids with OCD to assume calamity will befall the people and places they love if order is not immediately restored. I used to sit in class, as an elementary student, and figure out on the first day of school which direction my house was, relative to the location of my desk, and be sure to turn my pencil points in the opposite direction. The points signified some sort of presumptive, graphite-transmitted evil in my mind, usually targeting my poor mother, should I be so careless as to allow them to point in her direction. Every siren I heard out the window I assumed was headed for where my loved ones were while I was away from them at school, unable to protect them from fires and car crashes and burglars and whatever else I could imagine. Fire drills sent me into a panic, even while my friends and classmates relished the time on the playground to flirt and goof around. As the first child in my family, with loving parents who were also young, and my dad traveling a lot for work, my mom believes I proactively assumed, unprovoked, as many responsibilities as I could imagine for my family and tied my young brain into knots as a result. It took many years for me to release myself from the grip of all of this superstition, tics and quirks, and anxiety. To this day, I make it all work for me, learning to channel my own idiosyncrasies and irrationalities to my advantage, but I’m still at the mercy sometimes of my own overblown imagination, which so often tends towards assuming the worst. I can laugh about it, and now, write about it, for over the last several years, I’ve gotten a front row seat to how insane it looks from the outside. See, my eldest daughter, now 6 and in kindergarten, is a slightly-watered down version of me.

My daughter is amazing in every way. She is super smart, super kind, a good friend, and a great big sister. She also exhibits slightly less neurotic tendencies like the ones I just described. Substitute teacher? Without a heads up a day in advance, definitely a source of panic. Fire drills? Not fun. Scary. There’s a hallway between the door to school and her classroom that spans maybe 25 feet — we can watch her enter from the sidewalk and wave through the door window to her as she enters the room. Still, a walk that she can barely make on her own each day. Now, once she’s comfortable in a situation, she’s great — way better than I ever was, and allows herself to be much messier than I did, so there’s hope! But still, a product of my genes, for sure.

The interesting thing, to me, is how willing I am to be tough about this with her. By tough, I mean, I have shared with her what life was like for me when I was young, worrying the way that she sometimes does now, and shared with her how pointless all of that misplaced anxiety was. I want to save her from herself, and it has begun to work. She knows all about her dad’s struggles and reminds me sometimes how she thinks of me, and how I tell her not to be so worried like the little boy I once was, when she gets scared. She’s fired up for summer camp this summer, in a way I’ve never seen when facing a new and unfamiliar environment. She’s been happy trying new classes and after-school activities without fears or tears on the first day, and is cool with ‘drop-off’ birthday parties in a way that seemed unimaginable just a year ago. I like to think I am helping with this, and my help is combined with her mom’s very easygoing influence — Amy never worried like this about anything, and I thank God that has begun to rub off on our kids. Maybe the mix of genes we have provided will allow this irrational, fear streak to become extinct in our family within a few more generations. I certainly hope so — watching your child be afraid over things that are not scary, especially when you once were that exact child, is heartbreaking. Heartbreaking…but simultaneously excellent motivation for finding a better way. Sooner than I did for myself, anyway. Because an overabundance of irrational fear is….exhausting.

—Mark

In school I learned:

  • how to write a really good outline
  • that square dancing is not my bag
  • how to fill in blanks on standardized tests (what’s my score?)
  • how to park downhill—down and in
  • the power of a great teacher
  • that I could be in the “high” math group, do well, and not have a clue
  • how to write
  • there’s always more to learn
  • to love teachers, librarians, libraries, learning 
  • the origins of words 
  • that lots of learning happens after the final bell
  • to share my toys
  • nuns can be creepy
  • grades often have more to do with the teacher than the student
  • being funny and respectful counts for at least half the grade
  • to not be “too social” but always to be a “pleasure to have in class”
  • to fulfill the minimum requirement

* Thanks for the contributions: Lee, Beth, Ross, Stephanie, Kristen, Brandy, Maria, Steve, Sharon, Linda, Amy, Heather, Sean, Maggie, and Ted.

I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man sophomore year in college. Got an ‘A’ in the class, Modern British Literature (“modern” compared to the class prerequisite, which included Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales and featured teaching assistants awkwardly showcasing their emerging Old English and Middle English speaking skills), but most of the texts escaped me. As sometimes was, and is, the case with me, The Thing Itself took a back seat to the ephemera, asides, and subcultures surrounding it. So while I didn’t really understand A Portrait of the Artist and never read Ulysses, I liked to visit my college library aisles to browse the volumes of commentary. Nearly 20 years later, still a Joyce stranger, I followed Bloomsday Burst with great interest, fancying the tweeters’ zeal more than their tweets. And I took the time—late one night, many months ago, for no reason at all—to Google Joyce and music; everything from Franz Ferdinand to Heddle Nash popped up, providing me with a bunch of new day trips. I believe in (and professionally work in a world of) primary objects and context, but sometimes the thing that’s not the point becomes the point for me. The Bloom Is On The Rye…I kind of know what it means, and I kind of don’t, and I love it.

—Elory

At the Gazette

I was a geek in high school.  Plain, ordinary, bookish, quiet.  I wore glasses.  Even worse, I was chubby. The only thing I was good at was getting A’s.  Because of this, most teachers liked me.  Ottawa Hills was a big public high school that didn’t have the best reputation.  But it was free, it was a few blocks from our house, and it was either that or taking the bus to Catholic Central downtown.  Having endured eight years of Catholic schools, I was ready to escape from nuns who wore habits and students who wore uniforms.  I wanted to trade in navy blue sweaters and plaid skirts for what my mother called mix and match outfits - five combinations carefully created from two skirts and three blouses carefully chosen each fall to get me through the school year.  

Ninth and tenth grade passed tolerably amid a dull curriculum:  beginning French, English (only dead authors), world history that focused on World War II, memorization of endless formulas for algebra and geometry. Then, in my junior year, I scored Mrs. Walsh for English. She was middle-aged but worldly, had been a newspaper reporter, and told way cooler stories than any nun at St. Stephen’s. She was also the faculty supervisor for our school newspaper, the Ottawa Hills Gazette.

I don’t remember Mrs. Walsh’s English assignments, but she often encouraged us to submit “features” for the newspaper.  That fall, desperately hoping to impress her, I wrote a story mocking our mandatory class photo day.  I had never been photogenic and now, at sixteen, my pale dumpy face and thin, limp hair spelled doom for the medium head shot I was required to not only sit for but then endure publication in the year book.  Mrs. Walsh liked my story so much she put it on the front page.  "I’m so surprised," she told me "that such a quiet, mild-mannered girl would be so funny and write so well."  That remark sparked the beginning of happiness in academia. 

Mrs. Walsh liked my sad self enough to ask me to volunteer as a writer for the newspaper.  This was not only the sole extracurricular activity that interested me (glee club and chess club?  Please….it was the sixties), but one that could make me cool.  As a member of the newspaper staff, I was considered smart and somewhat with it, someone who could recite the words to Simon and Garfunkel songs.  I didn’t know what “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” meant, but I could fake it enough to impress the cooler smart guys in junior year English.  I’d never had a date, but my self-confidence grew steadily, fed by the daily care and concern of my wonderful teacher.  When I made editor-in-chief for senior year, a lifelong love of reading morphed to a talent for writing.  Mrs. Walsh taught me all the wise rules she had learned as a newspaper reporter.  Begin strong, edit ruthlessly, triple check everything, welcome the edits of anyone you respect.  Never succumb to the simplistic headline. Forty years later, I still follow her advice, teach it to my own students, and advise it to friends who trust me to edit their prose and poetry.

With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, “Here’s to you, Mrs. Walsh.”   My best teacher ever.

—Susan

"What Did You Learn in School Today?" Pete Seeger singing Tom Paxton.

Breaking the Shackles of Second Grade

I skipped second grade.

It’s a little known fact about me, one of those things I use in that cocktail party game “two truths and a lie.” Today there would likely be a team of experts weighing in on why such a move would be detrimental to my educational development, or how it might socially stunt me to be the youngest in my class, but at the time there really wasn’t much talk around the matter.

I was in a combined Grades 2/3 class (do they still have such a thing these days?) back at Swain Elementary School in Orange County, CA (Go Yellow Jackets!) and apparently once given the opportunity to work at my own pace, I blew through the second grade curriculum in a flash. I turned in the workbooks to Mrs. Kapche and must have uttered something along the lines of “Is that all you’ve got?”

The suggestion was made that perhaps I should move over to the other side of the classroom: the third grade side.

I remember there was some talk about how I would adjust to having new peers. How would I handle leaving the sniveling second graders in the dust for the sophisticated third graders? I was intellectually ready for the move, but was I socially or physically prepared? Were my parents approving a move that would keep my mind developing at its natural pace, but would make me the physical runt and immature freak of the class for the rest of my days in a classroom?

Fortunately I was already hanging out with the third graders more than the second graders anyway, so it really didn’t seem like that big of a deal. But was it?

I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if I stayed in the grade I was born into instead of jumping ahead. Would I have dominated my classes from that point forward, being some sort of super student, literally wise beyond my years?

Would I have done better in sports, not always competing against older kids? And would that success had led me to pursue it further, eventually resulting in earning a spot on my beloved California Angels roster as their star Second Baseman?

Would I have developed any different socially, whether better or worse, resulting in an attraction to different types of friends, girlfriends and eventually a different wife and family? The whole ‘sliding doors’ concept really gets your mind going if you let it.

But I don’t. I really don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that one day my parents and Mrs. Kapche chose to alter the trajectory of my education in a way that certainly must have had some sort of significant life consequences. I’m very happy with how things have all played out, and I have no regrets about the decision that was made on my behalf. Except for that Second Baseman for the Angels thing. That would’ve been nice.

—Steve