When I was a student, I hated school. When people asked me why, I could only grunt out my primal revulsion in a child’s terms: “I hate the work,” or “the kids are mean,” or “I can’t do things I want to do.”
I lacked the words that would explain the matter in a more compelling fashion. This proved unfortunate for me, as my lack of cooperation and performance at school led to many instances of my parents and my teachers asking for explanations.
A rather clueless prodigy, I did not understand my gifts when I entered kindergarten, and I had difficulty understanding why I was sent across the hall to a first grade class for reading instruction. I wanted to be with my own class.
When I finished my math workbook, I wanted the yellow one that my class was told came next. Instead, I was given an orange one–the one that the first grade used. I received much praise for moving so far beyond my classmates, but this led to expectations, and I soon grew frustrated with the adults’ prodding.
By first grade, I became uncooperative, and I lost interest in trying to please the adults. I neglected my assignments, choosing instead to practice writing in cursive and to write out multiplication tables. I asked my father to help me master long addition and subtraction, which I would do instead of my homework.
In grade four, I went months without completing any assignments, being brought to account only when I showed my mother a dismal report card. She was incensed that my teacher had not informed her sooner, and she demanded I show her what I had been doing with the time she had insisted I remain in my room at my desk each afternoon.
My notebook full of automobile diagrams did not satisfy her. I had drawn crude designs of engines, transmissions, differentials, and steering systems. I had sketched out a concept for rearview video display two decades before it became commercially available, and I wondered if a light sensor I had seen in an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man might have potential in helping a computer drive a car one day.
Following the so-called logic of the day, most would consider it reasonable that my parents should forbid such pursuits until I caught up with my schoolwork and earned the privilege of resuming.
During my middle-school years, I developed an aversion to reading–or at least an aversion to reading anything assigned to me at school. All the while, I would read articles in the encyclopedia, a few pages here and there of paperback books my mother had read and relegated to a drawer in the dining room, and Reader’s Digest. For some reason, I loved Reader’s Digest.
When Sister Carol Creamer sent me home with assignments on the French and Indian War, my interest led me into an inquiry about George Washington, why he became president, and what the names were of the other 37 men who succeeded him. I never finished my original assignment.
By no means did I always gravitate toward edifying pursuits. When left to my own inclinations, I preferred television, and I watched far too much of it. It became over the years an anesthetic for my anxiety over the disappointment I caused my parents and teachers, my increasing isolation from my peers, and the inherent incompatibility between my schooling and my yearnings.
In high school, my natural gifts alone could not overcome the ground I had lost to my more motivated peers at our rather impressive academy. I could muster neither the determination nor the confidence to close the gap. I simply kept my eyes and ears open, did virtually no work, and earned straight B’s. Those B’s, the name of my school, an SAT score that was just high enough, and what I now understand to be divine intervention got me into Ursinus College.
During my third year as an undergraduate, my advisor suggested I attempt the comprehensive exam that all English majors had to pass in order to graduate. I had already decided to defer the test until the following year, and I had a fraternity dinner dance the night before the exam was scheduled to take place anyway. After my advisor pressed, I acquiesced but did absolutely nothing to prepare. Despite that, and having read only fragments of all of the literature assigned in my classes during the preceding three years, I missed passing by two points.
Of course, I took the exam again the next year and passed, but on the same day that my scores arrived in my mailbox, I received a note from the professor who had agreed to supervise an independent study I neglected to begin. With six weeks left in the semester, I learned I would not graduate.
Then my advisor stepped in. In six weeks, he set me on a path toward redeeming what looked like sixteen wasted years. This path led to the first meaningful learning that was in any way aligned with expectations placed on me. It led to a lifelong compulsion to read, think, process, and grow.
It led to my on-time graduation.
More importantly, it led to my becoming a teacher.
Part II of this reflection will appear in my next post.