Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Teaching kids to fail

Jerry Stratton, March 11, 2013

I went to a Catholic school from first grade to eighth grade, and then transferred into a public high school, because the Catholic school didn’t go any higher. My general experience was that Catholic grade school was much more rigorous than public high school, and more geared toward learning to think.

But reading Malice or Incompetence? by Sarah Hoyt reminded me of another aspect of transitioning from Catholic grade school to public high school.

My son happened to be loitering in my office (they do this a lot) when I read that headline and I said “I’m not exactly shocked, and I’d be surprised if it were much different across the country, because I sent you and your brother to the school reading, and then spent the next three years screaming at you to sound out words and stop guessing them. So they took kids who COULD read and would have made them illiterate, if I hadn’t stayed on top of it and made you re-learn.”

He told me last week, when I said I had to fight his and his brother’s tendency to “guess” words for three or four years until they got it through their heads that these are not ideograms and you don’t “guess” (I think every other sentence out of my mouth those years was “Sound it OUT”) that when he was in Title One, they FORCED him to guess. He said, “No, look, I’d read the word correctly at a glance, and then they’d shout at me I was supposed to GUESS. And I’d have to come up with words that sounded like it, before they TOLD ME the correct one. They trained you to NOT read.”

During our last year of Catholic school, the public high school sent an administrator over to help us choose our classes for Freshman year. While choosing an algebra class, there were two instructors; we were told to choose one over the other, because the other was a poor instructor. He didn’t mince words about it—the instructor we were told not to choose was a bad teacher, and I remember the nuns even asking him, why would they keep such a teacher on?

So we chose the instructor the administrator recommended. He turned out to be a… very slow teacher. We barely made it through half of our textbook that year. Being able to do simple math, I realized about halfway through the year that there was no way we’d be able to finish the course by the end of the year. Since math interested me, I pretty much tuned out that class and started studying on my own, timing to make sure that I did in fact learn what I needed to learn in order to take Algebra II in Sophomore year.

Meanwhile, it being a small town with a small school—about 80-odd people in our graduating class—I heard from friends who were in the poor teacher’s classroom. They were having fun; they also had to work hard; and they were well ahead of us in learning. I mentioned that I was having to read ahead, and they literally didn’t believe me when I mentioned where we were in the textbook.

So I made sure that for Algebra II I took her class instead of the administrator-recommended instructor’s. Not only was she more rigorous, she encouraged more outside-the-textbook learning, mainly on an old Apple II (this took place back in the late seventies, early eighties) but also by getting involved in math meets and just plain wringing the hell out of the learning process. Over the next three years she was a bright spot in a school that really did have generally good teachers.

And of course, there is a coda. I remember at one point probably in Sophomore year, I heard from one of the seniors that there were colleges trying to recruit her as a professor, and she turned them down because she wanted to work in high school. I think, and it was a long time ago so I might be remembering it incorrectly, that she also coached basketball and enjoyed doing that as well.

A few years after graduating from high school, I heard through the grapevine that with a new principal there’d been a reorganization, and she had been moved down to middle school. And then, a few years later, that she had finally accepted a college-level job.

I’ve not recounted the full story before, because it is a small town; everyone who knew me then probably knows all of the names in this story. I don’t think anyone was malicious; they were all good people and almost certainly thought they were doing the best for students. But the public school system as a whole, even back then, tried very hard to train us not to learn.

  1. <- 2013 in photos
  2. Homicide rates ->