As I noted a while ago in the first and second parts of this series, I didn’t start out as an opponent of the public school system. As the son of a teacher and grandson of two more, Education was one of those issues where, even as I swung to the right on most politics, I remained very much a moderate. After all – the schools did a pretty good job with me, right?
Maybe, maybe not. But either way, I went about ten years without any real contact with any kind of school system, from age 18 to my late twenties.
Then, I got a prefab family – my then-wife had a nine-year-old son when we got married – and got a quick education. My stepson was in fourth grade when we got married. We enrolled him in the Saint Paul Public Schools.
Now, my stepson – who is now 25, lives in Manhattan and is a very talented manager who is engaged to a lovely girl who’s involved in the theatre business in NYC – had some big pluses and, when it came to school, a couple of minuses. He was (and is) blazingly intelligent – especially when it comes to tinkering with things. Mechanical things, mental things, systemic and managerial things – he’s a kid who likes to tear things apart, put them back together again, and make them work. Smart? After high school, he got a grunt job at a flailing, wretched business; within six months, he’d risen to manage the place (a store in a national service chain) and become a superstar within the chain’s district management (hence, when he wanted to move to Manhattan, the company gave him the job he wanted pretty much for the asking). He did with that store in the Midway what he did with countless apppliances, toys, and gadgets over the years as I was helping raise him; he took it apart, saw how it worked (or in the case of the store, didn’t work), and put it back together again better than it started (in the case of the store. Not so much with the appliances).
That, of course, is not the way schools work these days. In retrospect, it never was, of course; most school systems, public or private, place a premium on:
- Sitting quietly
- Learning by absorbing what’s fed to you, when it’s fed to you. No sooner, no later.
Now, apologists (witting or otherwise) for the “sit your butt in the chair and be quiet” model of education will respond “they’re going to have to learn that anyway, to survive in the adult world”.
It’s true, sort of – although the vast majority of people would learn that without 13 years of reinforcement, anyway, just as they did in the centuries before compulsory schooling – and still misses the point. The public system (and most private ones) teach, at the end of the day, little but obedience and learning according to program. The kids who are, for whatever reason, wired to learn best in that manner succeed, and are labelled “good students”. The rest?
For years, teachers (sitting in panels that outnumbered the parents present, always) solemnly intoned their concern for my stepson’s future; “we want him to succeed”, they insisted, even as they drew ever more clearly in the sand that the only criterion for success was becoming engaged in a process that was the exact opposite of how he was wired to learn best – by doing. As years went on, it became clearer and clearer that my stepson had earned the dreaded “bright, but…” label; a smart kid, but he just didn’t care about keeping his ass in a chair for six hours a day learning what he was told to learn.
What he did do – and excel at – was fixing computers. He started by putting computers together at schools, then wiring school computer rooms, and eventually – in ninth grade – working with a teacher to essentially wire and network an entire junior high school. He put in overtime, coming home hours after school let out, doing (according to the school’s netgeek) excellent, diligent work.
“All well and good”, the panels of teachers said, “but he still needs to learn to do his work, and finish what he starts”
By this point, the irony of it even got through to me.
Eventually, though, there was no more wiring and networking to do, and it was back to the grind. He became aggressively unmotivated; waking him up became a dreaded chore. Homework went begging. Finally, he started skipping school. Aggressively so – there were days I’d drive him to school, and find out later that he’d slipped out the back door as I drove away. He got by on pure charm and BS for years, when finally called on it (yet another skill he has)…
…until the week before senior prom, when security met him at the door and told him he’d been expelled. He wasn’t with the program. The school washed his hands of him and the statistical drag he was giving them. “We’re worried that he won’t know how to succeed”, I remember a teacher saying.
The punch line: after he got his diploma at a self-paced alternative program, the Saint Paul Schools hired him to run the network at their crown-jewel, showcase high school.
Not bad, for a kid who never really “learned how to succeed”.
It was after that that he started work at the ailing Midway store in a national chain. He took the chronically-underperforming store apart, cleaned it up, and made it the star of the local chain.
If only he’d learned to sit in a chair for hours on end without becoming distracted, who knows what he’d be today. Right?
I thought that, without sarcasm, for quite some time. Then I had kids of my own.
And it was time for me to learn.