OrdinaryTimes 1.17-Entraining

By the time I entered fourth grade, I knew trouble was coming. I knew how to read and count pretty well before I started first grade, so the first three grades were easy, but I’d heard stories about fourth and I felt terrified. By fourth grade, I was supposed to start showing how smart I was by memorizing things, and I had never been smart in that way—particularly procedures. For those, I relied upon written instructions that seemed to wave hazily before me, rendering them impossible for me to commit to memory.

I did okay, though, and was even recognized as gifted, even sent to a special class where we did the fourth grade equivalent of sitting around in wing-back chairs wearing leather patches on the elbows of grey cardigans, smoking cigars and engaging in college-bound stuff. I felt like someone had made a big mistake.

In that gifted class, I was exposed to quite a few opportunities to memorize rule-bound stuff: grammar, diagramming sentences, and even more advanced arithmetic. These I could pretty much fake myself through, and I had some choice of what to engage in. I wrote a play which the class produced and performed on the big stage in the multi-purpose room. The people who were good with grammar and arithmetic didn’t gravitate in the same direction I did.

It wasn’t until Junior High School that I found myself in real academic trouble. French did me in, but so did algebra. So did anything that required me to memorize procedures. My kind of smart seemed to lose considerable value. By High School, I was just hiding out, trying to avoid any class that might further discount my kind of smart. I dropped out of typing after it became clear that no amount of practice would ever burn in an accessible memory of where the keys were placed. I could type just fine using my three typing fingers, the ones I’d been using since I taught myself to read, but reprogramming them seemed a fool’s mission.

I often wondered how I’d started out so smart and so promising only to hope I’d never have to sit in another torture chamber while being exhorted to memorize. The Honor Society was filled with memorizers. I was writing my own songs and contributing school newspaper articles hoping to somehow survive.

I felt smart again when I entered university after seven years, having decided to challenge my high school guidance counsellor’s injunction that I was not college material. I did fine there. Well, I navigated around Calculus, where the professor called what I submitted “Cowboy Calculus.” I’d tried to do calculus like I read, going for the gist, understanding the essence. I could talk the concepts but the procedures could not be reproduced without slavishly following the step-by-step procedures, which as I recall, involved considerable magic. I withdrew and found another course that didn’t require rote memorization to survive.

I survived. I declined the offer to attend grad school, figuring my luck had probably pretty much worn off by then. I was exhausted trying to pass for what passed as a scholar.

There might be multiple intelligences, some fit for things like calculus and others decidedly unfit for it. This has nothing to do with being smart or being dumb, but everything to do with how we value the various intelligences. We call people smart who take to the slide rule and those who seem to naturally remember arcane references. The harder I study, the dumber I get.

I cringe whenever I read yet another article about the plunging scores on standardized tests. The report always wails over how the next generation seems so poorly prepared for their future. I grieve over all the smart kids rendered dumb by their educators’ inability to force them to memorize stuff. The degrees of freedom that allowed me to hide out and graduate have been disappearing in the decades since I survived. Now, kids like I was face a smooth blank wall with little chance of escaping being simply discarded as lazy or dumb. The fixes have further broken a system that never worked very well to begin with.

Worse might be the scar this early disqualification leaves on the once brilliant kids. The second or third class citizenship bestowed upon every student who’s school could not identify and appreciate their particular kind of genius. We’re all smarter than we know, but never dumber, it seems, than when we presume to understand how smart someone else should be.

©2013 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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