A Tale of Two Students

A long time ago – but not so long ago that it’s beyond contemporary memory; after the 1930’s teachers riots but before Common Core – there were two high school students named Martin and Dean.

 

Dean was an average student. The only subject he really excelled in was science. He wanted to go to college to become an architect. But the guidance counselor, Mrs. DiLood, said he couldn’t go to college because his grades weren’t good enough. In fact, she forbade him to apply for college.

 

Martin was an average student. The only subject he really excelled in was science. He and Dean used to compete for the best grade in science; Martin always won. Martin had suffered from non-paralytic polio as a child. Being bedridden, he had the time to basically memorize the encyclopedia.

 

Martin did not want to go to college. But Mrs. DiLood and his parents, seeing his gift for science, particularly physics, although not mathematics. His algebra teacher was a very short man who couldn’t write very high on the chalkboard and Martin was all the way in the back of the class. Therefore, he didn’t have the necessary background for success in mathematics and didn’t want one.

 

Martin wanted to become a mechanic. However, Mrs. DiLood and his parents were so adamant that he attend college to become an engineer that they wouldn’t allow him to take auto mechanics or any other shop classes.

 

Dean applied to the college of his choice anyway and was accepted (much to Mrs. DiLood’s consternation). He studied architecture and went on to become an architect. After designing buildings, he became a professor of architecture at a university.

 

After one semester of engineering classes, Martin began showing signs of stress. Stomach aches. Head aches. Depression. He wanted to come home but his parents insisted that he finish out the year. He came back home, went to a technical school for mechanics and became a very happy auto mechanic.

 

The Nephew is out in the Bay Area, attempting to restart his career. He showed great aptitude in math and the sciences. He was incredibly smart and didn’t seem to mind the hard work, for the most part. At least, not at first. But then he began to intern at his father’s company.

 

His supervisor constantly mocked him and verbally abused him. I heard it with my own ears. He was going back to school and I went to take a few photos of him working and there was this man telling him he was stupid and didn’t know what he was doing.

 

I’m proud to say that at my former company, at least in my department, we never treated our interns that way. My boss would have bitten his tongue off before he would call an intern names and abuse them.

The Nephew’s grades began to dip. He failed a couple of classes in his junior year (we tried to tell him to stay at the American school he was going to, but his mother insisted that he have experience in a foreign country). Then he went on to study engineering on the graduate level. After graduating, instead of immediately looking for a job (in the midst of the financial collapse) his mother took him on a Grand Tour of Europe and Asia for the summer.

 

When he did get some interviews, he didn’t do too well. He turned his father’s company down cold. Grandma E. was angry and his father was befuddled. His parents had spent thousands and thousands of dollars on his education. We all asked if he was sure he wanted to do engineering and he said, “Yes.”

 

But thanks to that idiot supervisor, I think my nephew wound up having second thoughts. If that was what being an engineer meant, no matter much money his parents spent, that wasn’t the way he was going to spend his life. And I couldn’t blame him.

 

The Nephew has a creative streak. His mother had him copying Monets when he was seven or eight, and they were pretty good for a kid artist. He’s talking about computer programming and I have an idea that he would probably be pretty good at developing computer games. That’s all he did through high school anyway, play computer games. He has the mathematical and engineering ability, the creativity, and the desire to enjoy his work. I suspect he wants to do something fun. The idea of building a bridge and hoping all your calculations are one hundred percent correct or the bridge will fall into a one hundred-foot chasm and dozens and dozens of people will die is probably not his idea of fun.

 

He was a pretty decent pitcher back in Little League. But his coach was a jerk who was jealous that The Nephew was a better pitcher than his son. So he yelled at him and screamed him until finally, one day, his mother had enough of this man abusing her kid, and dragged him off the pitcher’s mound in the middle of a game. A major embarrassment. Grandma E. and Big Brother were furious. I understood, though. I was kind of proud of my ex-sister-in-law. I’ve had my share and more of being screamed at.

 

I used to feel the way my mother does about The Nephew basically being out of work, until a friend told me the story of Dean and Martin. It rang a bell – being told that I was going to be a secretary not a writer when I wanted to be a writer not a secretary. I was only barely fast enough as a typist and far too slow for shorthand. I memorized the symbols well enough, but I didn’t have enough short-term memory space to keep up with a person speaking at normal speed. Luckily, along came dictaphones, and then word processors. I worked for awhile and then the word processors put me and a lot of other secretaries out of work. My editor rescued me just in time.

 

At the moment, I’m neither – I’m a barely-working photographer with a local newspaper group but getting a good reputation for being professional and having a lot of fun at my work). I must brush up on my typing skills once again. I enjoyed internal public relations when it was about the employees and best practice stories and taking photos of classes and motivational events. Things got too serious, though. The job became about selling the company to the employees and keeping secrets (don’t tell anyone, but we’re closing the entire office; why would I tell anyone an awful thing like that? I certainly did keep it to myself). I was laid off just in the nick of time.

 

Sometimes you know from the time you’re a kid what you want to be. Some people figure it out in high school, just in time to take the right courses. Other people are told what they want to be and sent off to work in a career that isn’t right for them and only brings them misery and failure. Others have to “bell the cat” and stand up to parents and guidance counselors and become what they want to be.

 

I’ve been brushing up on my typing in between photo shoots for the newspaper group. The money is running low and the condo association just hit us with a huge reassessment in dues. If I don’t get some work soon, I’ll be sharing dinner with my cat.

 

Common Core stresses job skills over knowledge, except for a very few elite students. That would be welcome news to students like Martin, but not Dean. Skills will only get you so far, and only for so long, as technology advances. I’ve had to spend the last two years learning new skills I didn’t have time to learn when I was working. Not to mention the money on the programs so I could actually produce something with Excel and PowerPoint. Like Dean, I was never allowed to learn PowerPoint because my typing wasn’t “fast enough.” I had to learn it on my own, instead, as Martin did through reading every auto and motorcycle magazine he could get his hands on.

 

When you’re a writer, you have to have a specialty, my father said. After a stint in newspaper reporting, he became a public relations specialist for Con Edison. He also worked for Iron Age magazine.

 

My own interests lean towards education and politics. Having had a very bad school experience, I’m intensely interested in the Common Core controversy and what it’s going to do to young minds. I’ve read every Scientific American article I’ve found on neurology. I’ve read about the history of education and philosophy, and I’m going to look into texts on methodology. I don’t want to see happen to some poor kid what happened to me.

 

A number of things must change if kids are to be as smart as students were in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties: they must have better nutrition, and that means more fats, not less. The education experience must, as John Dewey wrote, involve more personal experience than just simply reciting facts mindlessly. However, students, parents and teachers should keep in mind that practice, recitation, repetition and recall (reading aloud, reading repeatedly, and testing the memory) are what keeps the information stored in the grey cells.

 

Reading from a computer screen is not the same as reading from a book. We knew that back in public relations. Proofreading always worked better on a piece of paper than proofreading on the screen. However, there is something to be said for doing work on a computer; it eliminates the classroom politics. I don’t mean the political politics of Leftist teachers (although that is a problem).

 

I’m talking about the psychological politics. You’re too fat. You’re too thin. You’re too plain. You’re too ugly. You’re funny-looking. Your voice is too squeaky. Your clothes are out-of-date. You have an accent. You’re too shy. You’re too bold. You talk back too much. You don’t participate enough. You’re too slow. You’re too stupid.   You’re even too fast and smart. There’s an endless list. And this is just the teacher’s list of what’s wrong with you. If the other students don’t like you, and sometimes that’s a major factor in a teacher’s assessment of you (and all for basically the same reasons), you’re toast.

 

Computer stations would eliminate many of those problems. Of course, most kids enjoy the socialization of the classroom, especially if they can boost their grade average through charm, good looks, good luck, wit or some other manipulative asset. It’s part of human nature to bargain and negotiate, to outwit and outthink your adversary, even to lie and cheat. That’s what makes humans so clever (or think themselves so very clever). It’s survival of the fittest.

 

But what happens to the “unfit”? Think of a target. You’re ready to shoot and something comes between you and the target, or it takes your attention off the target. That thing is bullying. Or verbal abuse. Or mockery. Or humiliation. Or something physical like hunger, pain (which can accompany depression), or the sound of cruel laughter or shouting or something hitting you constantly. Your grades begin to plummet and you’re told to forget about it. Go home and study. Work harder.

 

Yeah, right. The last thing you want to do when you get home after a day of bullying is do something like homework, a portent of things to come the next day. You fall into a hole that, as a kid, is tremendously hard to dig out of. There are an awful of kids who are either failing or failing to live up their potential because of this psychological, it’s all-in-your-head, it’s-just-part-of-school-and-childhood-so-get-over-it trauma. An hysterical word! Difficulty, then.

 

The bullying must stop. These are quiet kids, generally, “social misfits” who might just have the right stuff for mathematics and engineering, disciplines that require a good deal of quiet, head time and not a lot of interaction with other people, if they were allowed to concentrate.

 

The resistance to stopping the bullying comes from those who profit by it, directly or indirectly. The bully who hasn’t got much going on upstairs. The average kids who see their grades going up the bell curve as the scapegoats’ grades go down. The teacher who, by ignoring and sometimes even encourages the bullying, wins the “respect” of the “normal” kids in class and gets a break from the mobster tactics of their students by this deflection.

 

Fifty years ago, I would have loved to have had a computer station instead of a teacher. The computer wouldn’t have cared what I looked or sounded like. I could have studied at my own pace and the computer would not have called me names. The thing would have just recorded my answers and told me if they were right or wrong. If they were right, I’d go on to the next lesson. If they were wrong, I’d just repeat the lesson, without any scolding, until I got it right. It would have been heaven.

 

Keep in mind, the computer stations will means billions of dollars in taxpayer money for Microsoft’s Bill Gates, who is producing the computers and the book publishers and computer programmers who’ll make money from the Common Core texts and applications. Parents wouldn’t mind the computers or new texts. It’s what not going into them: the truth. They’re writing in global warming garbage, revised history, and mathematical grammar, ala Noam Chomsky. Our kids won’t know how to read, write, know who the presidents of the United States were or who invented the typewriter (The typewriter? What’s that?!).

 

It’s history, that’s what it is. Technologically speaking, the typewriter is history. But it’s also History. It revolutionized business (and publishing). Communications became easier and faster.

But students won’t know that or anything else. Today’s students ask why they need to memorize anything, when they can just look up the word “typewriter” on Google.

 

The answer is power. Literally. Someday someone could turn off the power, for whatever reason, and we’d be like the characters in a certain Star Trek episode where once they were disconnected from the mainframe computer, they walked around mindlessly, bumping into one another.

 

Common Core is a long story and will prove to be a long controversy. John Dewey said that children should be allowed to choose their own vocations. That’s very true. There are countless stories of children who had to take matters into their own hands when they became adults.

 

It would be better if today’s students didn’t have to reinvent the wheel after finding that Common Core sold them short.

 

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Published in: on March 31, 2014 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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