School Daze

Senator Sam Ervin once said, "Hanglish am ma mothur taung." I know that had I home schooled, I would have passed on so much of my mother tongue (the approaches which I quite unconsciously employ), I wonder how my kids would have ever gotten untangled. I gave them plenty of "my stuff" anyway! But then, so did their public schools.

Both of my kids struggled in public school at times, yet I really felt as though there were important social lessons occurring, even when (perhaps especially when) the distractions seemed most distressing. My theory (backed up by my personal experience -- mother tongue, again) was that school was not really about learning the subjects being taught. Certainly it never was for me, and I never really had the sense following any educational experience that I "knew" a subject after taking the course. Perhaps the purpose was to gain an introduction, to find a place for further inquiry. Maybe just to see if the subject interests enough to spark further inquiry. Or maybe to develop those muscles useful for coping with frustration and apparent meaninglessness.

The same muscles that come in handy when stuck in a traffic jam or failing to escape commentators revisiting a particularly forgetfull Presidential address!

Amy (my wife) says that I don't test well. She figured out early in her public schooling how to outsmart tests, and could usually ace anything because she recognized and understood their patterns. I barely pass my driver's license renewal exam, not because I don't know how to drive and drive well, but because half of the questions seem irrelevant, and most of the answers spark curious dilemmas for me. I could make up stories explaining why any of the answers could situationally be considered wrong. And the test is administered on a computer with a Jurrassic user interface. Put a test in front of me and a part of me goes away.

I learned and honed this skill in public school. Did we ever have a class in how to take tests? Knowing something is really different than knowing how to successfully test for that knowledge. I remember taking the day off work (without pay) to take the SAT exam. Not ever expecting to go to college because I couldn't learn a foreign language (silly me, I thought that I should be able to write and speak the language after two years, so I dropped when it became clear that I wouldn't, which felt like couldn't), but someone encouraged me to sit for the SAT. Like an extended driver's license renewal test. Meaningless questions with ambiguous choices. Maybe a perfect parallel to life! I understand that some kids (or their parents) spend thousands on SAT prep courses today. Maybe those teach how to take the exam.

Graduating from high school was easily as tramautic as either of my divorces. While I was glad to be rid of the burden of unending, apparently meaningless expectations, I deeply felt the absence of an extended family which I had not fully appreciated when they were near. Still do. If I learned anything in public school, it was subtle and preconscious at the time. I learned a social order, and found my place in it. I learned to be invisible when necessary. I learned to appreciate the arts, distrust the sciences, and disobey the administration.


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