Losing My (State) Religion, Part III

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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.

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10 thoughts on “Losing My (State) Religion, Part III

  1. OMG Mitch….we need to talk! I am going through the same thing right now with the Junior Logician. It started last year. In 5th grade he was on his class’ Math Masters team – in 6th grade he almost flunked math. When I asked his teacher why, I got the same “he needs to learn to do his work and finish what he starts” garbage. Now in 7th grade he is doing A & B level work in math.

    When I got into the corporate workworld, I finally learned about “learning styles” and it was an epiphany for me. I understood myself better and was able to do my job better by knowing that. I dug out the old notes and applied it the Junior Logician so that we could figure out his learning style (he can not sit chairbound for hours on end – typical boy!) I tried to present that to his science teacher this year (because he is struggling in science) and I get the basic “He has to fit into the program” attitude.

    This on top of bullying issues and the school’s insistence on inaction and I am one frustrated parent!

    At this point all I can do is be a tutor and help as much as I can at home – but that has an upside. His english teacher has them working on persuasive writing. We have had some wonderful discussions on the pros and cons of the examples that were sent home (Should Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire be stripped of their records – yes or no? and Should the minimum driving age be raised – yes or no?).


  2. Mitch said: “He got by on pure charm and BS for years, when finally called on it (yet another skill he has)…”

    This is your *stepson*, you say. No genetic tie whatever?

  3. Sorry, Mitch, I can’t even begin to agree with you.

    First, I understand your plight with your step-son. I was there once also when I was young. I was bright, but…. I had a serious motivation problem. I just didn’t care. I would skip class and blow off homework. And then one day at got kicked in the ass. My parents had an “intervention” and when you see your Mother crying because she thinks you are going to ruin your life, well, it kind of wakes you up. After that day I started to paying attention. I put my butt in the seat and shut up. I practically got straight A’s after that point.

    My point is… You don’t need “alternative” teaching lesson. You just need at child that is motivated and gives 2 sh*ts. Same goes for the parents. A teacher can’t possibly juggle the “special” teching needs of every child in a 25 child classroom. Deal with it. There is only one way to efficently teach 2+2=4 to 25 kids. You can’t teach it 10 ways and possibly get anything accomplished.

    I remember when I finally got to college, I didn’t see any “special” teaching being offered there. You basically got the scoop on who was the good Professor and you took his class. You see the way I see it teaching goes hand in hand with learning. The teachers first has to be able to teach and then student has to be able to learn.

    Glad that your kid straightened out, hell, most do eventually, look at me. 😉

  4. Mitch’s stepson & the Junior Logician sound a lot like the way I was in my teens. Problem is it doesn’t really get any better in college. It’s all a game that sometimes is interesting and other times isn’t really worth your time. You get very good very fast at getting exactly what you want out of schooling and avoiding the rest of the freakshow.

  5. Oh yeah — And if Doug is reading this, our mutual friend Hutch had the same attitude towards school.

  6. I have to disagree with Terry, it does get better in college for “problem students.” I was probably the worst sort of kid in junior and senior high, I barely got into college. However in college, with freedom to take classes when I felt like, attend and study how and when I wanted, I was able to boost my GPA by a lot over my high school results. There is a huge difference for most of the people I know who had problems in high school, and this applies to the guys who went into law enforcement or technical vocations to people like me who went into liberal arts. Getting out of “Factory Education” or what Mitch called “The Educational Industrial Complex” had a huge impact on my life.

    The best part of college was you didn’t have to be sitting in a classroom for 6 hours straight every day.

    Excellent posts Mitch.

  7. jshandorf,

    You bring up a number of interesting takes on this that I’ll be touching on during future installments of this series.


  8. Jbauer,

    Way too much to comment on, positive and negative, in that rather long post. But Christina Hoff-Summers, in “The War On Boys”, notes that boys tend to develop *verbally and socially* rather later than girls. Of course, school is primarily a verbal and social experience – and it’s only gotten moreso.

    Here’s something for you (jb and plural) to chew on: Alternative schools are able to teach an average 12 year old *all* the math they’d have learned in six years of schools (public or private) to a level that meets applicable standards…in 55 hours. Sudbury model schools report that students, who are never *forced* to learn math (or anything) will frequently learn all the math that a typical student will learn in 6-9 years…in six weeks.

    Which points me back to perhaps the most valuable thing JBauer has ever written on this site; recurrent problems usually ARE the fault of the system. Since math isn’t rocket science, and since children have an innate ability to learn amazing amounts of stuff (they learn a foreign language before they’re four, for crying out loud), and experience shows that an average kid (not a math star) can learn all the math they need to be functionally mathematically literate for life in a matter of hours, why DO over 2/3 of the graduates of the Minnetonka (not Minneapolis) school district need remedial math in college?

    There will be more on these points as the series continues. Good comment, though.

  9. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » The Gender Ghetto, Part II

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