My Education

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These are some stories from my life experiences going to school (starting in the 1970's). I have a real problem with education in America, as I've been a victim of it. Not only as a child but also as an adult. I've worked for educational software companies like Jostens Learning and later PowerSchool; as well as going to various schools as a trainer, consultant or observer. I also taught Martial Arts for a couple decades which means I was working with many more kids than most. So I've seen education from a few different perspectives.


My stories

Here are a few of my stories about growing up, and what's happened to me.

In 3rd grade, they did an IQ test on me, and I was off the charts; and no, not the low side (as some might quip). The school's solution was to stuff me in a gifted program the next year, called MGM (mentally gifted minors). While a good effort to offer some specialization, the program was designed by bureaucrats and failed to take into account things like socialization, peers, and that kids might not want to go to a school that is three miles from home, while all their friends are across the street.

I was unhappy, and even this program wasn't able to keep up with me, and I just wanted to be with my friends. Their solution was that while I was already a year ahead in the fourth grade, they were going to skip me one or two years more and move me to 6th or 7th grade next year as an 8-year-old. Yeah, a small nerdy 8-year-old with no bring-mount-filter would survive that experience. Do these administrators even understand the social pressures that kids are going through?

Schools just couldn't understand that teachers needed to be flexible enough to teach kids at multiple levels in the same class. They wouldn't adjust to the students, but instead, like true bureaucrats, they tried to make the students adapt to them. Keep pushing the square peg into their round hole. Their solution was to just keep sticking the kid into higher and higher aged classes. Which totally screws with their socialization.

My solution was sort of a work-strike. I liked learning so I still read and did the math and so on; I just didn't want to go forward. So I was reading about 2-3 books a week, but I wouldn't do book reports. The teacher would press me for one, and my response was, "Why, I know I'm reading it". She'd say, "For the Grade". And I'd explain, I don't want the grade, I want the knowledge. I could answer questions and write well above kids my age, but if I did book reports she'd give me grades for it, and they'd skip me ahead another year. If she pressed, I played trouble-child and would cry, sit just outside the door, and refuse to talk to her/anyone.

They thought I was fragile. But I knew what I was doing. Kids aren't stupid. I wasn't disruptive, and they knew I was reading at a high school level, but I would rarely do the work to just prove to her I could.

Math was my stronger subject; but with the same result. Every now and then I'd do an assignment if it was challenging enough, but I didn't want to do enough to get credit to be skipped forward. I'd occasionally ace a test and freak them out, then they'd test me "for real" (an "official" test), and I'd somehow come out as a dunce (actually, more middle of the road, I knew they'd catch on if I blew it by too much).

It was a game of wills or wits, and they were unarmed... or at least knew that they couldn't make me. By the end of the year, they agreed to not push me forward, but hold me back to be with kids my own age, and send me back to my regular school. It is hard to say if that was the right decision or not; for either them or me. It was a complex situation, but school is never about the kids as in the individuals it is about the collective and making the kids fit their plans, instead of the other way around.

When I went into my own grade, academically, things weren't much better. Socially they were a lot better; I got beat up less often, and could at least hold my own. I guess my charming personality and self-righteousness (combined with "knowing-it-all") made me a target for regular beatings. So I had to learn to fight early in life -- but I stood a chance with kids my own age (even if I was small). I remember one kid (that was about a foot taller than me) said something obnoxious and I quipped back. I was abused at home, and I learned to hate bullies, so I wasn't going to take it at school. He responded, "I hate little smart-asses"... and my response was, "I hate big dumb-shit's, so we're even". While the audience approved, I didn't even see the punch coming. Still, I learned early, that they won't remember how bad they hurt you as much as they remember how bad you hurt them -- so my job in a fight was to ignore my pain, and cause as much to them to teach them (and watchers) to leave me the fuck alone (stop picking on me).

  • My mom joked the other kids used to form a line to take turns beating on me. Or her all too common response when I had a black eye or something, "you probably deserved it" or "what did you do say now?" She wasn't wrong, but, "thanks Mom" for letting me know I'd never get nurturing.
  • My stepdad (at the time) was raised on a farm in Idaho, and believed in the rural "stand up for yourself because no one else will". So it wasn't like puffy lips or black eyes was going to get complaints from my parents.
  • The schools "solution" was to blame or punish both kids, but the victim more. Since it was many different kids that hit me, I was the child in common. Thus even though I never threw the first punch, they treated it like it was my fault. So the playground was only slightly better than the lord of the flies, and beyond separating kids that fought, teachers rarely got involved.

Academically, I was still bored with school. I remember in 4th grade (the second time):

  • the teacher gave me a set of 2 digits by 4 digit multiplication and division type questions (yawn). So I did them, in my head, and wrote the answers. She gave me an 'F' because I didn't show my work and I could have cheated.
  • Ah, another bully (authority) calling me a liar/cheater? I challenged her, I walked up to the problems on the board (did them in my head), and wrote the answers.
  • She was indignant and said if I didn't show the work, then she'd give me an 'F'.
  • I said "OK", I'd gotten F's before.
  • Her, "What do you mean OK?"
  • My response was, "We both know I did the work, and if you want to lie about that and give up your professional integrity over losing an ego battle with a 4th grader, then that's your problem".
  • She was was gobsmacked (and offended), but still gave me the 'F'.

Later she gave the entire class still more long division problems, and frankly I was bored with the tedium of 200 problems testing the same thing. The first time, I'd show my work. After that I wouldn't and take the 'F'. So the second or third time I got them, I did something else. She asked me what I'd done, since I'd done the first few homework assignments OK, but on this one, I got every answer wrong. Why was I using decimals when the class hadn't gotten there yet? I explained that instead of division I'd done square roots by hand. She had to use a calculator to verify I had (and had carried it out to the 4th or 5th decimal place). When she used the calculator, I offered to teach her square roots by hand, but she didn't like that very much. She said that wasn't the assignment, and threatened me with another 'F' if I didn't go back and just do division. I explained that there was long-division in doing square roots, and she really should let me teach her how to do it. Finally, "OK, I'll take the F, again". She walked away perplexed. How could a kid not care about their stupid little constructs like grades? Didn't I realize that I should conform to their ranking system?

I didn't have a problem with authority as much as I had a problem with stupid authority. There is a huge difference. Give me rules that made sense, and I was fine with them. Ask me to do something, and I generally did it. But tell me to do something stupid, repetitive, just to make work life easier for the babysitter (teacher)? And I could be obnoxious. As usual, it wasn't the teacher or the fault of the system, it was the child that wouldn't conform. Their answer was that "none of the other kids were having these problems/issues". Why couldn't I be a good drone?

Eventually, my parents caught that I was getting F's again -- and when we had a parent-teacher (+administrator and student) meeting, the teacher and I both explained our positions. I showed my work and recanted each battle and F. My parents took my side and said, "you're being outsmarted by an 8-year-old?" And the school moved me to a teacher who was better about dealing with a self-paced kid who worked by himself in the corner. But they also put me in counseling (conformity compliance training?), I think to try to mind-fuck me into compliance.

Counseling

Between the fights, and the teacher saying I was "difficult", and the F's I had to see a counselor. They felt I had a problem with authority, which I generally didn't. I wasn't disruptive in class (unless challenged). I did my assignments (my way), and I assigned myself more challenging work than they did. Often I'd read their entire book in the first week, and then go on and read my own stuff or draw and do other things quietly. I didn't act out... unless you attacked me first.

The teacher would get preturbed because I wasn't paying attention, and she'd ask a question, and I could answer any of her questions without even looking up from what I was doing that was more important (like doodling/drawing, reading something else, or staring out the window philosophizing). That just pissed her off. However, if the goal was learning, she was boring me. So I'd leard to borrow more advanced books from the library to entertain myself. Some teachers couldn't handle that.

The counselor liked me, and generally "got it". I was occasionally suspended for fighting. Who started it wasn't the point; rules are rules, even if they are stupid ones. Needless to say, I thought they had a screwed sense of justice, and they only undermined their own authority. But that's school.

My snark afterward of, "Yeah, like I'm going to pick on that meat-mountain (who is a foot taller than me and outweighs me by 50 lbs?)" Or, "I'm going to pick on those two kids at once?" Most figured out pretty quickly that while I wasn't the instigator, it was my diplomacy skills that got me into fights. I just didn't back down well and tended to reflect the tone/attitude of others. Bullies hated that. Plus I was often new (we moved a few times), I looked and acted differently, and that's like having a bulls-eye on your shirt. Foreign looking, quiet, and had a smart mouth when pushed? Bullies wanted to look cool by verbally harassing people, and I wouldn't just take it -- and instead made them look like an idiot. So they tried to take it out physically. I was a little hate magnet. Once they forced me to fight, I knew my job was to make it costly enough that I'd get a reputation to leave me alone... but it would take a few fights, and then we moved again.

Junior High School

Junior High School and High School actually got worse academically, but better socially.

Socially, I was in soccer, water polo, and martial arts. I finally stayed somewhere long enough that my reputation was working: while I was quiet and wimpy looking, there were kids much older/bigger that didn't want a repeat of our first fight.

For a brief stint, I start to become the bully to a few (one kid was bigger than me). Shit rolls downhill... but I learned by example. After I tormented this one kid into throwing the first punch, and then never being able to catch him for the beating he deserved, the Vice Principal called me into the office with the terrified kid and asked about my bullying. I explained he hit me first and was going to get what was coming. But the Veep got to the root the antagonism and pointed out I'd pushed him, and asked for it -- and asked if I'd been bullied, and if so, why did I want to be like that? The light came on. I sincerely apologized to the kid... and while it took years to get over all my anger issues, I did work on it, and stopped being the tormentor, just because I could.

Academically, it was the same as elementary school though; I wanted to work and learn. Once work and learning got into rote boredom and I had mastered the skill, I wanted to go on. If they wouldn't let me, then I'd do it on my own. If they wouldn't accept that, I just had to make C's to stay with my own grade and would spend most of my time, doing my own thing. Occasionally I'd get a good (flexible) teacher that would let me do assignments at my own pace. I'd blow through their work, get A's, then go on to my own stuff. Rarely, one of those teachers could challenge me by giving me challenges to keep me entertained. But more often it was about tyrants who tried to hold me back, because it was easier for them. Them they'd lecture me for not, "living up to my potential" by conforming hard enough, and my grades would reflect their insecurities. I didn't care if they hated me (and a few did), I'd do good enough that they couldn't flunk me, but my grades were all over the board.

Conclusion

School was frustrating for me. The usually teenaged angst stuff, combined with the frustrations of finding my place in society, and so on. But all of it was made far worse by an education system that had no ability to adapt to anyone who was "offside" in the game of, "stay in the middle of the bell curve". And they certainly had little clue as to what they were doing.

As it was, I barely graduated High School. Not because I was stupid or lazy. By 15 I was working at a computer store, and by 16 I was consulting to another school district writing classroom management software for them (because they didn't realize how young I was). I started consulting to Aerospace companies writing custom software. Schools would let me out for work experience, but didn't give credit for work or life experience (or not much). I did my work, but I didn't conform well, and some just hated that. Some teachers were great -- like the computer teacher who saw what I could do, and would just ask me to write something for him, or left me to my "study class". But that type of teacher was the exception.

Bad grades were often a sense of pride for me because of how I'd usually earned them.

  • I got lower scores because I'd turned in assignments "too early", or because a term paper was too long (and I'd printed it on a dot-matrix printer instead of a typewriter like she'd required), and so on.
  • I often got C's or even D's in High School English because of occasional grammar or spelling problems, like I used parentheses instead of comma's to frame sub-thoughts. In the meantime, I was doing technical documentation for various companies I was consulting to and none of them had a problem with it. So I didn't care that much.
  • My Chemistry teacher gave me a C- despite doing all the labs and homework (well). She was mad because she'd asked the burn temperature of some substances (one being diesel fuel), and I figured it out... but the class had to be evacuated. Yet, my College said I'd gotten the highest natural science score on the ACT of any student in their history.

So there was a huge dichotomy between what some teacher's thought of me or my abilities, and what the real world did. So who had the problem?

I dealt with many kids. And my stories are not unique (though sometimes a tad more extreme). I've worked in and around higher and lower education since then, and things still haven't changed much. Is it any wonder that drop out rates and dissatisfaction in students is so high? Our state controlled schools are an embarrassment to learning. Good teachers are not rewarded and bad teachers are not punished. Administrators create the middle of the road learning assignments to make their lives easier; not to teach. Students are forced to try to fit this little societal role that the teachers have made out for them, and then they wonder why their "bestî students often lack any imagination or ability to learn on their own; after spending 12 years getting grades by only following directions (and getting punished for veering or taking any initiative).

Are we trying to become a society where the mindless sheep are going to get ahead and run the country, and all other will be crushed under the wheels of conformity, tyranny, or mediocrity? Our cookie cutter education system seems to be striving for that goal.

Written: 2002.10.08