Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Some of the Lessons I Learned at School


I was born and raised in Texas. I vaguely remember hearing that at the time I was in school (I only went to public schools for my primary and secondary education) that a public-school education was better than a private one. I don’t know if this is true, but I was told that private-school teachers didn’t have to be certified while public-school ones did. This might have been the story my parents told themselves to not feel guilty about sending me to public school, but I do feel like I got a pretty good education, although there were a few problems with it.

In elementary school, early on in 1st or 2nd grade, or possibly even kindergarten, a friend of mine was very chatty. We students would often have to sit on the floor, gathered around the teacher while she taught us something. Do kids in kindergarten still do that? Gather around the teacher, sitting on the floor. I have memories of gathering around the teacher and sitting on the floor as far as 4th grade. The floors were carpeted, but some teachers had carpet squares stacked in the corner of the room and each kid would go get a carpet square to sit on. It was always disappointing if I didn’t get there fast enough to get a good color and ended up sitting on brown carpet.

Back to the chatty friend. During one of these “gather around the teacher” times, my chatty friend had a lot to say. I crawled around the group moving to the other side to get away from the chatty friend and she followed me. We were friends, but I was, and am, a rule follower. I knew she was about to get in trouble and I wanted to get as far away as possible. It didn’t work. So I turned to her and either said, “quiet,” or “shush” or something. And I got in trouble. I learned that it was possible to get in trouble when other people are the ones being disruptive and you shouldn’t speak up for yourself.

I don’t know what grade of elementary school I was in when the first computers appeared, but I do remember immediately being let down by my education. My elementary school was in a square building. The library, which had no real walls, was in the middle of the room. Smaller classrooms were around the edges of the room. They didn’t have real walls, but rather partitions which slid out of the walls and locked into place, so the size and shape of the classrooms could be changed. The grades of students went around the room clockwise. Stepping into the room, the kindergarten kids were closest to the door on the left. The fifth graders were closest to the door to the right. The other grades went around the edges in order.

Because of the layout of the building, I’m going to guess I was in at least 3rd grade when this happened. We were sat at a row of computers with a very simple test on the screen. One question at a time was shown. Only one question stands out. Fill in the blank with either “to,” “too” or “two.” I knew that “two” was the number, but I was never actually taught the difference between “to” and “too.” I looked helplessly at the girl seated beside me and she acted like this was common knowledge. In other words, not something that even needed to be taught. We were expected to know it going in. I took a guess, and I’m pretty sure that I got the right one, but I knew, without any doubt, this was a failing of my education and not of my ability to learn things. I was never taught the difference so I never learned the difference. I learned that basic things are sometimes skipped over.

I don’t blame my parents for any blind spots. I actually think my mom did a better job than most moms when it came to sending me off to school with a basic education. I didn’t need to learn the alphabet or how to count from my teachers. My mom took care of that. And she was always reading, so I had a role model who was never without a book. Sure, they were romance novels, but she ran through them two or three each week.

I did hate English class, but I paid attention. The class I would daydream in was math, because I was good and math and caught on quickly. That left me a lot of time do think about other things. Once, during independent study, I started to read a book and was scolded for not continuing to stare at the math pages. I didn’t need to stare at the math pages, because I got it! But I learned then that there was theater involved in being a student. You had to pretend you were learning something, even after you had learned it.

I think the main thing I learned during middle school was that people are mean. I was sometimes mean, too. I’m sorry to anyone I was mean to. Believe me, I was on the receiving end of mean behavior and comments infinitely more often than I did mean things. I’m pretty sure I also apologized after I realized I was being mean.

In high school, when we signed up for classes, we got a list of the classes offered and had to pick what we wanted to take. Physical Education was required for at least 2 years in high school-- maybe more? I don’t remember. The first day of 9th grade I went to my chosen PE class: tennis. The coach tossed a ball to me, I hit the ball, and I was told I had to drop the class and take “regular” PE. The tennis class was only for students who could already play tennis who would then be on the tennis team. I learned that not all of the classes offered were there for learning. Some were there for the school to win awards and the learning part of some of the classes took place at country clubs on the weekends.

I took bowling by correspondence. It was a lot of fun and I didn’t have to change clothes at school.

Back to middle school now. In middle school I started taking French class and I continued French in high school. One French teacher I had was preparing a class trip to Paris. I wasn’t going, but I heard a lot about the planning. I was also in French Honor Society, so there is a chance that’s where the planning for the trip to Paris was focused. The students who were going to travel to France were given a dire warning by this teacher. I’m paraphrasing:

“In France, if you get injured, even slightly, they will take you to a hospital and treat you, even if you don’t want to be treated. You don’t want this to happen to you. Don’t get hurt. Make sure you have insurance to get treatment when you get back to the US and if something happens, shout at them that you don’t want to get treated.”

Huh. I knew that the teacher was telling us something that she thoughts was unbelievably bad. Dangerous. Unwelcomed medical treatment. But I couldn’t understand exactly why it was bad. She didn’t say you wouldn’t be able to afford it. I think she said something about France being socialist. I told my parents the story and tried to convey the same terror the teacher had in her voice. They didn’t seem too interested. I wasn’t going on the trip anyway. I took money with me to school and bought a sweatshirt from Paris when the students returned. They bought extras to sell to those of us who weren’t going. I learned how the conservative politics of teachers is passed on to the students.

During high school, I got my driver’s license. Most kids in Texas (and maybe the US?) do this as an exciting right of passage. Since my sister was two years older than me, I didn’t bother to do this in the same way as kids on TV shows and movies do. On TV, as soon as a kid turns 15 they go in for their driver’s permit and start learning to drive. They either enroll in driving school or their parents teach them. My parents taught my sister how to drive. I was going to driving school whether I wanted to or not. But I still had an unwilling chauffeur in my sister, so I didn’t actually go to driving school until I was already 16.

Getting a driver’s license involved getting the learner’s permit and then passing the road test. You had to pass the written test before you got your learner’s permit. I failed my first road test because we didn’t learn to parallel park at driving school. The second test, I just backed into the spot and said, “I’m not doing this.” I got full marks off for it, but didn’t fail that time.

The year after I got my driver’s license, Texas stopped requiring the road test for new drivers if they had been to driving school. A quick Google of this and it looks like they require the road test again. But for a while, it wasn’t required. I thought this wasn’t fair and I learned that the people driving in Texas might not be qualified.

My college experience is something for another post, but eventually I went to the University of North Texas (UNT), and that’s where I finished my BA. My major was in Radio/TV/Film and I got a minor in French.

Because I had studied at a number of different colleges before settling down, I had taken French 1 twice already (not counting in 8th and 9th grades), and I took it again at UNT. I could have taken some tests to get out of it, but I learned that each school thinks the education they offer is superior to any other school. When I got out of high school, I could have also taken tests to get skip over some basic math and English classes since I had taken AP classes, but I opted to not take the AP (advanced placement) test. This just reiterated that I’m too lazy to take tests to get out of doing work. I’d rather have an easy A than the stress of a test.

When I enrolled at UNT, all students were required to have a major and a minor, and two years of a foreign language (12 hours). I had studied French since 8th grade, and was happy to continue with it in college. To get a minor in French, you only needed three years (18 hours). One of my French teachers was trying to get me to change my major to French. When a summer program in French came up, where students went overseas to study, she helped me get accepted into it, no doubt thinking it would convince me that I really wanted to be a French major. The summer program counted as 6 hours. I was already at my 12 hours required for graduation, so this 6 hours would give me the minor and a summer in Nice. My parents were surprised I wanted to do this, but they let me do it.

If you know me personally, you know I am an introvert. I’m happy to do things with friends…one friend at a time. Maybe I can handle going somewhere with two friends at once, but more than that and I’m not only going to uncomfortable, but I’m going to be very quiet. Going to France to study in a program like this is not something that introverts usually do. We stay at home, inside, alone, with our cats. We have cats. But I like to push myself into uncomfortable situations and I really wanted to do this.

On the plus side, I was able to get a single room. I actually think all of the dorm rooms on campus were single rooms. It was a sparse room with a bed near the window, a desk and a sink! The window had shutters on it that you cranked open and closed. When they were closed, the room was as dark as if it was night.

The first day of classes, we all had to take assessment tests to find out which classes we belonged in. Oh! My favorite! I tested at or near the top, to be put in the most advanced classes. There were two classes each day that I had to take, as far as I remember. In the morning, we (the students) went to the grammar class. Written French. In the afternoon, we went to the conversation classes. Spoken French. Oops! I think I was only in the very small (four students including me) advanced conversation class for one day before the teacher was like, “You’re dropping down a level.” I didn’t mind.

I was at a huge disadvantage when it came to speaking and hearing French - most of my teachers had had heavy southern accents. American southern accents. Texas, y’all. This was also in the beforetime, when there were three or four French movies available on video in all of Texas and I had seen them all. And one, a movie starring Christophe Lambert, was dubbed into English. I couldn’t go to YouTube, or Netflix, to watch French movies and TV shows to work on my listening comprehension.

I liked the other class better. It was a much larger group of people - maybe 30? It felt like a normal class. There wasn’t as much pressure to perform. We learned the words to La Vie en Rose and La Mer. On the last day of class, after almost everyone had left the classroom, the teacher came over to me and said, in English, “I don’t know why you came here. You are the wrong person.” I learned that teachers aren’t supportive of students trying to push themselves.

Obviously, it still bothers me. I didn’t tell my parents about it, but it made my trip end sourly. I got my minor, still took another French class (phonetics), since I really liked the French teacher at UNT, and have gone back to Nice again. It was a good trip and I’m glad I went. It defined part of me.

I also had over 18 hours of study in music, but there was one required music theory class, at 8:30 in the morning, and no minor could be received without taking that class. I learned, about myself, that even if a goal is easy and within reach, I won’t reach for it if it requires waking up early.

While I was at UNT, I also decided to take an art class - watercolor painting. Part of being in college, I thought, was experiencing new things. I had never taken an art class before. It was a bit like tennis all over again. The teacher didn’t want me there. He told me that he didn’t want me there, giving me a chance to drop the class before it got to be too late. I didn’t really understand what the problem was. Most of the other students were hostile toward me. The teacher accused me of having my sister (who was in an art program) of doing my homework paintings. (She did not, but she did offer some input - more helpful than any input from the teacher, obviously.) Despite my grades averaging to a B-, he gave me a C in the class. He called one of my paintings trite. I learned that there are some closed clubs, with no reason why they are closed, and trying to get into them just leads to frustration and tears.

Before I graduated from UNT, where I only studied 2 ½ years, the requirement that students have two years of a foreign language was dropped. And then the requirement that a student have a minor was dropped. Just like how I felt about the driving test, I felt about this college dumbing down that I was witnessing. I learned that things were going to be harder for me than for people born just one year after me.

After college I went to work for 5 years and had my first nervous breakdown. It wasn’t officially diagnosed, but that’s what it was. For some reason, it is ok, and maybe even expected, in the US for people to be miserable at work to the point of crying in their cars during their lunch breaks and when they get home at night. I knew that something had to change and I decided that I needed to go back to school.

After being in the “real world” for five years, being back in college to get my Master’s Degree was a breeze. You mean all I have to do is read and write things? I don’t have to worry about a creepy client making passes at me during a 33-hour shift? And that if I’m not polite about the passes we could lose a lot of work and money? I don’t have to overhear other clients talking about how much they hated my work? I don’t have to politely listen while Pauly Shore tells me I made him look like an idiot in his reel? Did I mention all of the unwanted sexual advances? Being in school was what I needed. I could afford to put myself through California State University, Northridge, CSUN, so that's where I went.

I was lucky enough to TA (be a teaching assistant) for my favorite professor. As part of my TA work, I had to give a couple of the lectures. I shared my hesitation at lecturing with the professor. Did I really know what I was talking about? Did he want to review what I was going to say to make sure it was right? Will the students believe what I’m saying? Yes, he assured me, they will believe you. You are in charge. Just say what you want to say with confidence and it will be right. I learned that even the professor I admired more than any teacher I’d ever had before was just winging it to some extent. Confidence counts for a lot - probably for more than being correct. The topic was screenwriting, so it wasn’t like a math class, where being correct counts more than anything else. But is writing, and creative things, confidence is the most important thing.

These are just the bad things I learned. They were lessons the teachers didn’t even know they were teaching. But someone is always paying attention and learning from you. I’m sure I learned good things, too, but the bad things are the things that stick out. 

Anyway, here's a watercolor I did of my dorm room in France:


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