Lessons Learned

With the youngest memory of our family taking the first step of her educational journey today, I was reminded of this post from January 25, 2018.

As I mentioned in a long-ago post, we all have memories of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Sometimes, too, those memories are a mixed bag, such as when we received shabby treatment from a teacher we liked.  We all have those stories.  These are two of mine.

I adored my fifth grade teacher, Miss Shireman. Looking back through time using the eyes of an adult, I can see that she was one of those rare teachers who not only genuinely enjoyed teaching, but liked children, as well.  She devised endless wonderful projects and creative ways to engage us in learning.

But what eluded me completely in childhood was that, like all of us, my beloved teacher was human.  She had good and bad days, and sometimes those feelings affected her teaching.

One such bad day occurred during our study of Indiana history. Miss Shireman had assigned us to draw a map of Indiana and its counties, and given us a weekend to complete the assignment.

Draw a map of Wyoming or New Mexico – a cinch. But draw a map of Indiana, with its squiggly lower border and 92 counties?  Not so simple.

I sweated over that map. I carefully drew and erased and redrew that noxious bottom border, and struggled to fit in all the weirdly-shaped counties.  I worked as hard on it as I had ever done on any assignment, and felt pretty proud when I turned it in that Monday.

A few days later, I was shocked when Miss Shireman stood in front of us and slammed the handful of maps down on her desk, declaring her disgust over the poor work we’d all done. We were going to do the maps over, she announced, and this time, we’d better do them well.

I was devastated. I had tried so hard! I’d been so proud!  It took everything in me not to cry. But pride came to my aid.  I redid my map by tracing the one I’d already done.  I knew it was already my best work, and I wasn’t about to redraw the whole darned thing.

It was not the first time I’d been scolded by a teacher for poor work when I knew I had tried my hardest, but, probably due to how well I liked Miss Shireman, it is the most painfully memorable.

Then came seventh grade.  Our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whom I didn’t dislike, but had no special liking for, either) encouraged our creativity and language development by having us write short stories.  In this, I was in my element.  I loved it…until the day he told us to choose an incident from American history as the basis for our story.

Wham! Writer’s block. I HATED American history.  It seemed to me nothing but a series of bloody battles and hypocritical old white men trying to circumvent the Constitution and get rich by trampling the bodies and spirits of others (sort of like a recent Administration).  I finally landed on one possible theme: the mysterious disappearance of the entire colony of Roanoke, Virginia.  That incident did intrigue me.

Once again, I sweated over the assignment. I wrote and rewrote that story, quickly learning that writing without inspiration was like slogging through knee-deep swamp mud.  I wasn’t precisely proud of the version I at last submitted, but I was satisfied.  So it was quite a slap in the face to receive my graded story back with a poor mark and the caustic comment written across it: “This is a very poor effort for you.”

Poor effort?! Did that jerk not understand how hard I had worked on that story?  It was my absolute very best damned effort under the circumstances, and he didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.

(Yes, it still makes me mad.)

There are numerous other memories of unhappy moments with teachers bopping about my memories of my years in school. I daresay everyone has memories like that.  And if these two stand out so prominently in my thoughts, it is mostly because of a sense of injustice.  I had done my very best, and was belittled despite it. But that in itself was a really important lesson for life, although probably not in the school syllabus.

I would need to use my fingers and my toes and then start on the strands of my hair to count the number of times in my working years that I was unjustly reprimanded. Small people given a little bit of authority often prove Lord Acton’s statement about the corrupting qualities of power. Being unjustly reprimanded by a boss at the office is a sad fact of life for most workers.

The most important lessons we learn in school are often not part of the curriculum. But they are probably the lessons we most need to prepare us for reality and for our future.

Happy first day of preschool, sweet Morrigan Lynn!

If you appreciated this essay, then you’d probably enjoy a post related to the many times in my working life that I had to rely on that childhood lesson of being unjustly reprimanded.  You can find “Tales of the Office: Jackass Bosses I Survived!” by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published April 27, 2022 

Studying Geography

In the long-ago era during which I attended elementary school, the study of geography began in the fourth grade. To this day I recall some of what I learned that year, for the wide, fat textbook that we were given was filled not just with photographs but with stories—stories of the people, mostly family units, each in a different country of the world.  The tales described their holidays and customs, the foods they ate and the clothing they wore, how they attended school and worshipped, the strange animals that inhabited their countries and were kept as farm animals or pets, and even a touch of the history of their home territories.  I especially recall my awe in learning of those countries where the sun disappeared for months at a time, swathing the land in darkness, and the joy felt by the inhabitants when the light finally returned.

I absolutely loved it. Geography—how marvelous! I had never heard the song “Far Away Places”, but now I thrilled to them: far away places with strange-sounding names.  There was even a tactile element to studying geography, I found, for one of the globes that we were shown was three-dimensional, with mountain ranges one could touch, and oceans that were delineated with swells and currents.  I was enthralled and fascinated.

When fifth grade began, I couldn’t wait to see what we would learn in Geography class. I remember the anticipation as I opened the book and turned the first few pages of my new geography text.

And then the world, quite literally, crashed down about my ears. I found it hard to believe what I was seeing.  Instead of stories, tales of other lands that drew me in and caught my fascinated attention, there was a dry tome filled with information on imports and exports, language spoken, past rulers and present political tensions, oil and mineral reserves and rights….

I had never been so disappointed in my life. From that point on, I had no interest whatever in geography.  Oh, I studied it well enough; I was a decent student, and I memorized enough information to pass tests, putting forth the minimum of effort to keep a passing grade.  But I never again cared.  For me, the heart, the soul, of my geography lessons had been stolen.  Everything that made learning about the world fascinating—the people, the animals, the customs and foods and clothing and history—all of that had been taken from me, and with it, my curiosity and interest.

With all that we are now learning about the human brain, about its growth and function and development, I look back on my geography lessons and ponder why it should be that we haven’t yet figured out that all brains aren’t meant to learn the same things in the same way. Children are still taught in the manner of the 15 and 1600’s: sitting in rows, obedient (or not) to an authority figure, memorizing for just long enough to pass a quiz, or a test, or a state-sponsored exam.  Wonder, curiosity, creativity are rarely encouraged—are the exception, rather than the norm.

I recall virtually nothing of my geography lessons from the fifth grade onward; become confused, as an adult, as to the placement of countries on a map or a globe.  Yet I can still recall the cultural lore of a half-dozen lands that I absorbed in delight at the age of nine. Are there others of my long-ago classmates who learned nothing of the world during that first year of Geography class, but for whom the following lessons remain clearly embedded in their memories?  And why can we, progressive and innovative, not learn to teach each child in the manner best suited to her or his abilities?

Now, decades later, even the names of many of the countries I once studied are non-existent. Czechoslovakia, Burma, Siam—gone.  Transmuted. Erased from all but history.  The Earth turned on its axis, and those countries, those cultures, disappeared.

But not my memories of everything I learned in that first, delightful year of studying Geography.

What I Really Learned in School

As mentioned in an earlier post, some of the most important lessons I learned in school were not in any way part of the curriculum. But when I consider the many subjects I studied throughout my school years,  I have to say that about seventy-five percent or more of them were pretty much useless to the life I would someday lead.

The most basic lessons – those which I completed within approximately the first six years of school – were also the most valuable. Reading was the most significant skill I ever learned, and coupled with it, the standard rules of grammar, composition, and  basic sentence structure and punctuation.  Oddly, though, it was not through the lessons taught in the classroom that I actually absorbed those rules of grammar, or learned to punctuate my sentences or the art of composition. I gained that knowledge through reading – reading voraciously and constantly.

General mathematics,  up to the point of long division, has always been a valuable skill, no matter how much I hated (and still do hate) it.  I was apparently cutting class on the day that math brain cells were handed out.  Despite that fact, when checkbooks were common and a even a very cheap calculator cost more than $100, I could still balance my checkbook using just  a pencil and paper, and did so every month.

And then there was the most useful physical skill I ever learned: typing. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, accurately, quickly, slapping the carriage return lever at the end of each line.  It was hard work.  It took genuine effort to punch those mechanical keys–not the light whisper of a touch for today’s keyboards.  Mistakes had to be erased by hand–even White Out hadn’t been invented–and the only spell check or grammar check was via a paper dictionary or one’s own head.  Compositions were drafted in longhand and then carefully edited with red pencil  before being finally typed out.

But what of all those other subjects – geography and world history, algebra, U.S. government, physical education, U.S. history, humanities, foreign language, shorthand, geometry? Oh, I remember bits and pieces of some those subjects, enough to, say,  place into context  my reading of the daily news. I know, theoretically, how the checks and balances of the three branches of U.S. government are supposed to work (and I know that they don’t really seem to work very well any longer, especially under the current administration).  I can pick out many of the countries on a map of the world, but I’m often confused by my memories of the globes I once studied, which bear so little relation to the demarcations of modern countries, or even their names.  Burma, Siam, Czechosloakia??  I can recall the dates of the great wars, but I’m still a little fuzzy on the reasons they were fought, which I don’t believe weren’t ever fully or accurately explained in the texts I studied.

The great majority of the learning that was shoved down my throat in my school years is mostly gone. I had no real need for it, so I shed it in favor of things more useful to my daily existence: How to read a bus schedule.  How to placate an unreasonable supervisor.  How too to fix a leaky toilet or dripping faucet.  How to soothe a teething toddler. How to survive pain and tragedy.

And, finally, long after I left school, I learned how to learn.

When  the Internet was non-existent and Google not even a faint ray on the horizon, I learned how to research any subject that truly interested me, not just through books and encyclopedias,  but through magazine articles and discussion with knowledgeable individuals.  I learned that history is mostly written by the winners – but that the truth was still out there, if one looked hard enough.  I learned to doubt, and question, and make informed decisions.  I learned that the gods of the old religions often become the devils of the new, and that this cycle has been endless throughout the eons of history.  I learned that cults are only effective if they can make one forget to be a grown-up.  I learned that if it seems too good to be true, it unquestionably is.  I learned that people are onions to be unwrapped, one brittle layer at a time.  I learned that evil is real, and ever present, and requires constant vigilance to be kept at bay – even in one’s own heart.

Education, I finally learned, is not something one gets, nor something one is given, but something acquired for oneself through struggle and effort: a hard-won gift one gives to oneself.  I learned, too, that if an individual is willing to do the endless hard work, education goes on for a lifetime.

And that was my greatest lesson of all.

Teachers, Good and Bad, Part 2

8th Grade Graduation

As I mentioned in a previous post, we all have memories of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Sometimes, too, those memories are a mixed bag, such as when we received shabby treatment from a teacher we liked.  We all have those stories.  These are two of mine.

I adored my fifth grade teacher, Miss Shireman. Looking back through time using the eyes of an adult, I can see that she was one of those rare teachers who not only genuinely enjoyed teaching, but liked children, as well.  She devised endless wonderful projects and creative ways to engage us in learning.

But what eluded me completely in childhood was that, like all of us, my beloved teacher was human.  She had good and bad days, and sometimes those feelings affected her teaching.

One such bad day occurred during our study of Indiana history. Miss Shireman had assigned us to draw a map of Indiana and its counties, and given us a weekend to complete the assignment.

Draw a map of Wyoming or New Mexico – a cinch. But draw a map of Indiana, with its squiggly lower border and 92 counties?  Not so simple.

I sweated over that map. I carefully drew and erased and redrew that noxious bottom border, and struggled to fit in all the weirdly-shaped counties.  I worked as hard on it as I had ever done on any assignment, and felt pretty proud when I turned it in that Monday.

A few days later, I was shocked when Miss Shireman stood in front of us and slammed the handful of maps down on her desk, declaring her disgust over the poor work we’d all done. We were going to do the maps over, she announced, and this time, we’d better do them well.

I was devastated. I had tried so hard! I’d been so proud!  It took everything in me not to cry. But pride came to my aid.  I redid my map by tracing the one I’d already done.  I knew it was already my best work and I wasn’t about to redraw the whole darned thing.

It was not the first time I’d been scolded by a teacher for poor work when I knew I had tried my hardest, but, probably due to how well I liked Miss Shireman, it is the most painfully memorable.

Then came seventh grade.  Our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whom I didn’t dislike, but had no special liking for, either) encouraged our creativity and language development by having us write short stories.  In this, I was in my element.  I loved it…until the day he told us to choose an incident from American history as the basis for our story.

Wham! Writer’s block.  I HATED American history.  It seemed to me nothing but a series of bloody battles and hypocritical old white men trying to circumvent the Constitution and get rich by trampling the bodies and spirits of others (sort of like our current Administration).  I finally landed on one possible theme: the mysterious disappearance of the entire colony of Roanoke, Virginia.  That incident did intrigue me.

Once again, I sweated over the assignment. I wrote and rewrote that story, quickly learning that writing without inspiration was like slogging through knee-deep swamp mud.  I wasn’t precisely proud of the version I at last submitted, but I was satisfied.  So it was quite a slap in the face to receive my graded story back with a poor mark and the caustic comment written across it: “This is a very poor effort for you.”

Poor effort?! Did that jerk not understand how hard I had worked on that story?  It was my absolute very best damned effort under the circumstances, and he didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.

(Yes, it still makes me mad.)

There are numerous other memories of unhappy moments with teachers bopping about my memories of my years in school. I daresay everyone has memories like that.  And if these two stand out so prominently in my thoughts, it is mostly because of a sense of injustice.  I had done my very best, and was belittled despite it. But that in itself was a really important lesson for life, although probably not in the school syllabus.

I would need to use my fingers and my toes and then start on the strands of my hair to count the number of times in my working years that I was unjustly reprimanded. Small people given a little bit of authority often prove Lord Acton’s statement about the corrupting qualities of power. Being unjustly reprimanded by a boss at the office is a sad fact of life for most workers.

The most important lessons we learn in school are often not part of the curriculum. But they are probably the lessons we most need to prepare us for reality and for our future.

Teachers Good and Bad, Part 1

We all have memories, both as students and as parents, of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Inevitably we felt sad when the school year ended and we said farewell to a beloved teacher; we sighed with relief when we finally walked out of the classroom of a teacher we totally loathed.

As a mother, I found that I rarely had strong feelings about my daughter’s teachers. If she liked them, I was pleased for her.  But when she disliked a teacher, I found that, unlike her, I could often see the logic behind what appeared to her to be unreasonable demands or “mean” behavior.

There were exceptions, however.

During her final year of middle school, in the midst of enduring her parents’ divorce and all the attendant anguish, my daughter Amanda encountered her teacher Waterloo in the form of a home economics teacher.

Let it be said right here that the gene for domesticity, if not having done a complete flyby, is not exactly strongly represented in the DNA of my cherished daughter. For instance, while trying to learn to how to operate a sewing machine, she ended up chasing the threaded bobbin straight across the classroom floor; to this day she cannot sew on a button, and iron-on hem tape is her friend.  She rose to the challenge of preparing instant pudding, but that just about concluded her culinary skills until she reached college.  In short, my beloved offspring was never going to be a domestic goddess. To place the cherry on the cake of household incompetence, the school guidance counselor arranged for her to attend an in-school support group for children enduring trauma, so she often missed home ec class to attend counseling sessions.

One afternoon Amanda stormed home and, with a face the picture of wrathful self-righteousness, told me that Waterloo Teacher had pulled her aside and advised her, “I don’t know what it is you’re going through, but if you keep missing classes for counseling, you’re not going to pass.”

That did it. Whatever other genetic material I myself might be missing, the Mother Bear Protecting Her Cub Gene is not among them! Before the clock had fully ticked over to the start of the next school day, I was on the phone to the class guidance counselor, reporting Mrs. Waterloo’s unfeeling pronouncement. “My daughter needs those group counseling sessions,” I raged.  “And frankly, there is absolutely no class that I care less about her passing than home economics!”  The guidance counselor assured me that she completely agreed with my viewpoint.  Amanda could continue her group counseling sessions, and, yes, Home Economics was the least important of all the classes she was taking that semester, which was why the counseling sessions had been scheduled at that time.  Waterloo Teacher’s attitude would, she assured me, be dealt with.

It seemed it was. No more was said on the subject of counseling interfering with classes.  And despite everything, Amanda passed home economics.

Throughout the semester of turmoil, though, I offered the solace, “This won’t last forever. Class will be over and then you’ll never have to see Mrs. Waterloo again.” And the school year having concluded, I consoled her and myself with the reassurance, “Well, you’re sure to have other crappy teachers, but at least you’re finished with middle school.  We’ll never have to put up with Mrs. Waterloo again!”

Amanda charged off into the unknown territory of high school and engaged upon the State-required “track” of a program centered around studies in psychology. Still domestically challenged,  she also expressed to me the fact that  “little kids freak me out”, but accepted that one of her required classes during her sophomore year would be Child Development.

Which, as we learned, was taught by none other than Mrs. Waterloo.

Who had transferred to the high school faculty.

I am happy to report that both Amanda and I survived.