The Thinker (Le Penseur) by Auguste Rodin, model 1880, cast 1901
"It's pass/fail."

I learned more on my before and after school jobs than I ever learned in any classroom. I began as an intimidated student. Who wouldn't be, with the institution surrounding me? I later learned to become more enthusiastic, but I watched that enthusiasm leach out of me as I learned how the game was played. Even the well-meaning teachers expected me to memorize and test well, to diligently study (without once demonstrating what that entailed in a home with endless distractions), and to learn. I seemed more dedicated to preserving what I understood, defending that against threatening onslaughts ranging from math to science to foreign languages. I had no clear image of who I might become should I successfully assimilate all that orthogonal information, so I chose to hold onto what I had rather than abandon myself in favor of learning how to become anybody else. At work, I pretty quickly learned what I needed to do to thrive. School mostly taught me how to hide out until the serial assaults on my identity ceased.

The process of education deeply offended me.
Could there not be a way to learn that didn't involve burning all my bridges to self that I'd already built and which seemed fully capable of supporting me? It seemed that I would need to betray myself to succeed on school's terms, to submit to the belligerent forces and behave, just as if I couldn't feel the burning insult of the process, the unholy process. I could revel in absorbing information, but I'd more than repay that joy in later humiliation when I'd be subjected to exams insistent upon judging me by whether I could promptly remember what had been told to me. (I was not listening and did not take notes. I was probably bored and reading ahead.) Nobody seemed very interested in what had stuck in my head, only in what was supposed to have lodged there. I came to care little about successfully learning, figuring that I could pass with a steady 'C'. Though I was learning, the learnings that most fascinated me seemed to be the ones deemed irrelevant towards any degree.

I was clever at work, quick with a joke, and well-liked by my fellow employees. I was seen as dependable, someone who could be counted on, always ready to help and never, ever grudgy. My jobs elevated me, even the lonely early morning paper routes where I supervised myself. I learned that I possessed the self discipline to make it clear through my six mile route on the snowiest mornings without too much complaining, not even to myself. I felt every bit a master everywhere but at school. Higher education seemed to belong to a social class I'd never seriously considered joining. Who, at eighteen, possessed the resources to make college happen? University seemed a distant awful dream exclusively reserved for the high born and for those who didn't simply seem forlorn through high school. I later faked my way through University after I'd finally figured out the appearances a degree imparts. A degree says something quite apart from certifying a certain level of learning. It suggests that its holder could hold out through an obvious ordeal until conclusion; no more so than a ten year-old maintaining an early morning paper route, but more widely respected.

My highest Educations began after graduation. I received an endless series of difficulties which I was deliberately under-resourced to resolve. Let's say that I figured out how to survive most of them, though rarely due to prior knowledge. I struggled with unlearning much of what my formal Educations had imparted, for they proved to better represent indoctrinations than what I might have expected from an education. My certified skills seemed to have little real world applicability. I learned to employ my imagination to thrive, making up most of it as I went along. Adaptation to provocation seemed to be the name of these latter games. Knowledge of formal processes hardly mattered, except as qualifications to gain permission to do almost anything but what they prescribed. Sociology and anthropology seemed by far the most applicable sciences, and neither hardly qualify as science.

I finally came to understand that I was probably never intended to become a rational being, other than to concoct successive rationalizations to justify my non-rational actions. I didn't distrust science, but I was rarely called to rely upon even the tiniest sliver of it. I, perhaps like you, entered this pandemic utterly ignorant of epidemiology. At least I knew that I didn't know. My instincts screamed in protest, for the prescriptions for dealing with the contagion deeply offended me. They advised me to retreat, insisting that my well-honed adaptability had inadequately prepared me for this confrontation. I should let the virus have its way and leave the mystery to those with expertise in this field. I should simply yield: stay at home, wear a mask, wait out the sucker. I could not count myself as wise or knowledgable, and should simply relent. My Educations had not prepared me for this confrontation.

I'd learned self-discipline at ten on my paper route. I'd learned humility, if little else, in former classrooms. I had an advanced degree in hiding out. I would find no compelling reason to pout or shout about the governor's stay-at-home directive. I could comply, but my compatriots who had not previously learned humility in the crucible of school became unruly in the face of diminished liberty. They seemed to have missed an essential learning somewhere along the way. I wondered, how they'd managed to remain so freaking full of themselves and still graduate, hold a job, and manage a life? I was ultimately moved to wonder, back when struggling through school, just who was the teacher there? I concluded then that it must certainly be me, for nobody else seemed up to fulfilling the responsibility. If I was to learn, I would have to assume the role of gatekeeper. This never meant that I got to choose content, for material was material, presented apparently at random, but I would have to sift through it to decide which was my Shinola® and which no more than bullshit for me. I got to choose what I should swallow and what I'd just spit out. I also got to live with the consequences of my innocent choices.

Learning became a recursive, loopy activity featuring setbacks as well as advancements. If I assumed responsibility for being my own teacher, I'd have to also include my own validation processes, to administer my own tests. I designed ones not so dependent upon short-term memorization, but longer term viability. I could survive almost any initial setback, but I might not thrive should I make a habit out of employing incorrect conceptions. I learned to acknowledge how dumb I was while working to avoid devolving into any absolute stupidity. I learned how to learn if never how to retain knowledge. This meant learning how to unlearn at least as much as I absorbed, often so that I might absorb, a challenge seemingly easier at my own hand than it ever seemed when directed by a so-called teacher. Not all of my fellows possess this skill.

Pandemics seem ruled by a belligerent minority. A scant five percent of a population can decide if a contagion spreads or contains. One superspreader can infect legions while legions possess little defense. Much of the reach sneaks in. Those identified as carrying can be contained. Those convinced that they're little threat or at insignificant risk rule. Self-confidence kills just as effectively as self importance does, and those unable to assume humility humble others before, perhaps, ultimately humiliating themselves. Like me with my many Educations, the rules seem backward and up side down. The clown at the front of the classroom, with all due respect, isn't the primary teacher there. The Bozo in the seat you're sitting in makes the real difference. Abandon all preconceptions, ye who enter here. You're the teacher, you're the student, you're the responsible adult. We're still at the bare beginning of the term here. It's pass/fail.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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