Nov 17, 2007

Learning, the Hard Way

As I mentioned before, I started in kindergarten at Elmwood School in the autumn of 1951 and continued there through 6th grade leaving in the summer of 1958.

I still think back to those grade school years as my age of innocence, so to speak. As far as I know I learned nothing of interest in those years at all. I could already read fluently long before kindergarten, and lived in a house filled with all kinds of books, so I never had to learn reading skills. My handwriting and spelling was awful then, as it is to this day, so I apparently didn't learn the skills of penmanship. Until I was a Senior in high school I was a dunce at arithmetic, so i didn't learn that at grade school, either. On every report card my various teachers wrote the standard phrase «Steven is very bright, but doesn't apply himself to his school work.» And I guess that pretty well sums up all of the years I spent in school. I hardly remember the «school» part of my school years - I was at school in body but not in spirit. The school day was an obligatory but boring interlude between the episodes that gave my life meaning.

My second day in the first grade was traumatic. My teacher, miss. Lisman, concluded that I wasn't mature enough for the first grade (I was the youngest kid in the class, after all). Her conclusion was based on the fact that I couldn't tie my shoes correctly, that I didn't comb my hair, and that I couldn't clip and paste her ingeniously made little mimeographed name tags onto my assignments with out making a mess. We had been given our first book – the book we were meant to learn to read from for the first three months (a boring book without content about Dick Jane and Spot), and I read it in five minutes and asked if she had something more interesting. Not an appropriate strategy. This first meeting escalated into a year long war between me and Miss Lisman that soured me on the school thing for good.

But that was only school. Outside of the school yard I was a sponge for learning. I loved to read and read voraciously everything I got my hands on right from the first grade. I read, of course children's books, but also books aimed at an adult audience. By the time grade school was over I had read everything Edgar Rice Buroughs had written, everything Jules Verne had written, everything Jack London had written, but also books about history, and books about science; I had started on science fiction; I had read books by Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Thor Heyerdahl, and much, much more. Often my reading binges were kicked off by movies. The Disney movie 20000 Leagues Under The Sea sparked my interest in Jules Verne; The Tarzan movie (starring Johny Weissmuler) sparked my interest in Burroughs, the Kon Tiki movie sparked my interest in Heyerdahl, and so on.

So when it came to the literary pablum they served us all the way through grade school, it had nothing significant to offer me, nor did school.

My real classrooms were on the streets and in the back yards of my neighborhood, or at home. I wasn't of course the best in my class in every subject in the street-corner-back-yard classroom either ... I wasn't particularly athletic or physically daring ... I couldn't run fastest, I wasn't strongest, I couldn't throw straightest or hardest, and my batting average always sucked. My older brother always was top of his gang in that stuff, but never me.

But I was very active in the bookshelf and discussion category at home, and this gave me a big advantage on the street corners: I was the one in the gang that you could ask any question about anything and get a correct answer. At home we had massive bookshelves filled with books, and I learned to use them. Right from the second grade I read incessantly and I knew how to look things up in books. Most of the gang were better than me at doing whatever it was that made the teachers give them good marks, but I certainly knew how to learn.

Being the youngest in our family I learned another important lesson very early on: everyone likes showing off what they know. Adults and big kids like being asked about things they know and can. Of course the inverse is that no one (except perhaps me) liked being asked questions they couldn't answer. But I quickly learned the skill of knowing who to ask about different things, and how to ask the right question. And I learned how being able to answer all sorts of questions in fact gave me status in the gang. I became the gang oracle and know-it-all. I knew the names of all the plants and insects and birds and trees and so on, I knew what was poison and what was safe to eat, and so on. And if I got asked a question I couldn't answer, I learned how to postpone answering by saying "well I'm not sure, but I know how to find out."

Today I understand why my teachers were always frustrated by me. They could see that I was more knowledgeable and better informed about almost everything than any one else in the class, but I never bothered to do my schoolwork. I had a tendency to fall asleep in class, and never ever listened to what the teachers were talking about. I had messy handwriting and was bad at arithmetic ... and it didn't even seem to bother me. And when and if I did participate in class activites, it was likely to be to blurt out something out of turn along the lines of: "Miss ... That's not quite right ... the truth is ..." and then correct some bit of information the teacher was giving the class.

This got me bawled out a lot by teachers as an impertinent wise-ass, and got me sent out of the room and that sort of thing, but I was always right. This badly undermined the teacher's authority and increased mine amongst classmates, but it also resulted in poor marks all through grade school.

I muddled on in this manner right up to 6th grade. In the spring of 1958 as the final days of grade school were approaching, In a class discussion of what our plans for next year were, I announced that I did not expect to see any of my classmates at junior high after vaccation, as my family and I would be leaving the country and moving to New Zealand in the South Pacific ...

[more to come ...]


Rich Hilbert said...
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Rich Hilbert said...

I did it too. Grew up in Des Moines, I mean. 1953-59. I lived on 31st Street across from Calanan Jr. High. I went to Elmwood, one grade level behind you. My friend Bucky Smith (Harold III) was in your grade and may have been in your class. I also had Miss Lisman, and she hated me. My second grade Hawaiian teacher, Miss Asue, really liked me. What a relief. Mrs. Finny was ambiguous. Miss Muto was a work of art and said I wasn't mature enough to be a traffic boy. My worst teacher was Powell, and Mr. Denny nearly ruined me for life. I not only went to Grace Methodist Church, I was a member. I attended every week, except when we weren't in town, which was often. I always took a handkerchief to avoid being "only partly dressed". I went for two weeks to Vacation Church School every summer. You may have seen me across from your house on the lawn drinking Kool Aid. We had massive elms in our yard, and you're right, there was something about the canopy.... I noticed it was missing when I visited in 1969 and how much hotter it was. The neighborhood had gone from being a place to being nowhere. And the interstate that plows through everything in its path...I'd heard that was coming when we moved in 1958, but it had attained the quality of a myth or an apocalypse. You used to not could see from our house to the church on 31st Street about halfway through the 7/10s of a mile walk to school. In fact there were several neighborhoods to make it through before that thing sprang up. Today, though, it's right over there, across the freeway. That's how rain forest people feel when suddenly they can see each other at a distance after the clear cutting. In 1958 I moved to greener pastures, namely Sioux City. My next door neighbors said I would hate it there. They were the Beers children. Not my cup of tea, but you may have heard of them.