School days: Boredom and Fear in Equal Measure

Childhood is a challenge. We romanticize childhood as a time of innocence and play, but childhood isn’t necessarily easy.

Many of us struggled. We had problems at home we couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about, social issues grownups dismissed, and lived with bullying tantamount to torture. Even today, with the attention these issues get in the press, things have not really changed. Bullying is as much a problem today as it was when I was a child. Teachers still ignore it and parents dismiss it. Kids continue to avoid talking about bad things that happen at home.

Awareness is not a cure. Publicity does not change what happens at home or in the schoolyard.

I was a very bright, precocious child. I was by no means the only smart kid in the school, but I probably had the worst social skills, was the most inept at sports, and talked like a 40-year old. Among social outcasts, I was an outcast. I lived in books and imagination.

I learned to read more or less instantly and spent the next six years trying to stay awake while being invisible.

I was either bored to tears or terrified of being sent out to the schoolyard. In third grade, I hid in the cloak room in the hopes no one would miss me. I found a stack of books and read them in the semi-dark by the light of one dim bulb.

The teacher was furious. I had read all the readers for my grade and all the grades to come through sixth grade. I would have read more but they found my hiding place and made me come out. The principal called my mother to complain I had read all the readers. My mother pointed out I might benefit from a more challenging curriculum. She reasoned if I could read all the readers in an hour, the work was too easy. They didn’t get it.

They wanted my mother to punish me for reading too much. She didn’t stop laughing for days. She thought it was hilarious and retold the story at every family gathering. I didn’t think it was nearly as funny because that teacher hated me after that and made third grade a special Hell. It wasn’t only other kids picking on me; my teacher was leading the charge. I didn’t understand what was going on. I just knew that no one liked me.

Eventually the teachers at P.S. 35 tired of me. I was annoying. I answered questions in class until I was told to shut up. After I was no longer allowed to participate in class, I fell asleep or snuck off to read in the girl’s room. The teachers must have had a meeting about me or something, because an agreement was reached that everyone would benefit from my absence. I was fond of arts and crafts so the solution was to send me to the art room after the Pledge of Allegiance. I spent many happy hours alone, experimenting with paint, library paste, and oak tag.

I was content in my little world of paint and glue, but I was not getting an education. I never learned arithmetic because I was in the art room gluing stuff together. The smell of library paste is deeply evocative … and I can’t do fractions or long division.

I started high school at 13 where my level of boredom reached epic heights. I was blessed by teachers whose idea of teaching was to read the textbook in a monotone. These classes were inevitably the first classes of the day when I was the sleepiest. I chipped a tooth one morning when my head fell forward and hit the desk.

I was so far ahead in English and History I was off the charts. At the same time, I fell ever further behind in maths and hard science. My pleas for help were ignored because I had a high IQ and was supposed to figure it out on my own. I suspect the world is divided between those for whom numbers are a language and those for whom numbers and hieroglyphics are the same.

Numbers did not speak to me. I was in my thirties reading Horatio Hornblower when I realized trigonometry was used to calculate trajectories and navigation. I wish I’d known that when I was trying to understand what I was doing.

Now an officially protected landmark, my alma mater was a beautiful building.

I was by no means the only lost soul in math classes. There was always a group of us who sat there with glazed eyes, wondering why we needed this and if failing it would end our hopes of going to college.

As for science, Jamaica High School was run by practical administrators. The group of us who sat paralyzed in math classes were all college-bound. It was clear we were never going to pass physics or chemistry, but needed a science credit. So they invented a science course for us. It was called “The History of Science.” We spent an entire year discussing Stonehenge. I loved it. I completed the science requirement, graduated with an academic diploma, and continued on to college.

My real education consisted of books, both those I read by choice and those my mother made me read. She made sure I read good books. “Growth of the Soil” by Knut Hamsen, a Nobel prize-winning author who authored the world’s most depressing novels stands out in memory. Then, there was Romain Rolland whose novel in 10-volumes, Jean-Christophe was an unbelievably long, fictionalized biography of Beethoven. Rolland got a Nobel prize in literature and I read his tome, but have never met anyone else who read it. I assume the Nobel Committee read it too, but I never met them.

The New York Public Library is an amazing place. The lions that stand guard in front of the building are almost as famous as the library itself.

I cut school a lot. Living in New York had benefits. A subway token could take you anywhere. I played hooky to go to the huge New York Public Library, the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Hayden Planetarium. My mother knew, but pretended she didn’t. She could hardly approve my skipping school, but I wasn’t hanging out at the mall: I was getting an education on my own terms.

One of New York’s most impressive and beautiful buildings, inside and out, the Met is my favorite museum. The Cloisters is actually a part of the Met and houses its medieval art collection.

There were no admission charges for museums back then and New York is rich with museums. The Guggenheim was just being built, so I didn’t get there until college and it always made me a trifle seasick walking that strange corkscrew path, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art wasn’t just art: it was the history of the world in one huge building.

It was arranged as a time line. At the entrance, you started in the mummy room of a recreated Egyptian tomb where they had a couple of real mummies. The viewing room was in semi darkness and deliciously spooky. As you proceeded through the museum, each area represented a successive time period with recreated rooms full of furniture of the period and paintings, sculpture and other artifacts. You wound your way through until you reached the modern era … which is where the bathrooms were.

If you had to use the facilities, you navigated human history forward and backward, the closest I’ve ever come to time travel. If you had to go badly enough, you had a long trot through world history. I absorbed a lifetime of art, architecture, and history there. I snoozed through history classes in high school and college and still got As. No teacher or professor came close to offering comparable education. It is a fabulous museum. If you have never been there and happen to visit New York, don’t miss it.

The Cloisters on the Hudson River, Fort Tryon Park. It is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I spent days in the dusty basements of the big library, exploring the stacks and reading old manuscripts. I went to the Cloisters where I pretended I was living in mediaeval Europe. I also developed a lifelong passion for studying the middle ages and I can still bore everyone to tears with details of life in the 14th century. It’s a solitary passion.

For the last decade and a bit, I’ve watched my granddaughter fight her way through the public school system, grappling with the same issues I recall. She seems to have inherited the family gene for poor math skills. Despite a lot of talk, I don’t see much improvement in teaching methods. They are different, but equally ineffective.

Bright students are still mostly ignored. Help is given to the kids who struggle to learn, but it’s the kind of help that sounds a lot better than it is. Many kids still have no idea why or what they are doing. And schools still don’t feel any particular obligation to expend scarce resources on high IQ students who are presumed able to learn without help.

I did well enough in school. My grades were unspectacular both in high school and college. I graduated college with a 3.2 average, more or less B+ depending on how you calculate it. I did it without studying except in the few classes where a professor pushed me to really work.

I wonder what I might have achieved had I studied, if my education had been a challenge rather than a bore?

In the end, I had an okay career. Not spectacular, but pretty good. I learned in the workplace most of what I failed to learn in the classroom. My work required math and it turned out if I knew why I was doing it, I could do it. I needed context, not rote.

Our educational system wastes so much potential. Art and music classes have been eliminated. Help is reserved for problem learners and not much of that. Our schools’ aim is to create positive statistics on standardized tests, not to help students achieve their potential. Instead of increasing America’s investment in education, we cut resources and eliminate teachers. Then we wonder how come the U.S. is no longer a leader in the arts, math, science, or anything else. We get what we pay for: mediocrity.

IQ scores and standardized tests encourage rote memorization. Creativity, artistic talent, and original thinking are not part of an IQ score. You might be a musical genius, but it won’t get you through school unless you can pass standardized tests that involve no learning, just the ability to memorize facts and spit them out. Educators’ jobs are to get students to pass exams. Whether or not they learn anything is immaterial.

So much potential thrown away. It’s our future we’re tossing out. Everyone’s future.


Categories: Arts, Education, Ethics and Philosophy, Life, Literature

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

16 replies

  1. Your post today about your early years in school prompted me to recall my days in grade school. I actually Googled the school which is still up and in operation. It’s 140 years old and still a Catholic institution. They have their own web page so tons of memories prompted me to send them an email as an alumni, graduating somewhere near 1962. I only live 3 blocks from the school and actually remembered the exact street address. I guess I’m not quite dead yet. 🙂


  2. Wow! Did you ever hit the nail on the head about the math. . .you needed context, not rote! When I was teaching (oh, dear, Marilyn, it was math – mostly algebra and geometry), my goal was to make the mathematics relevant. Hey, why learn it if you cannot use it! It is not until most students get out into the real world do they truly realize how important those numbers, especially the decimals, really are! There are so many wonderful stories that the students themselves return to share in their later years. Before we left Panama City, FL for GA, I would encounter former students on a rather regular basis. It always amazed me when one would tap me on the shoulder and reflect on their days when I was their 8th grade math teacher…that was in the 80s when I first started teaching in FL before transferring to the high school. Wonderful memories!


    • I’m sure if I’d had a few math teachers willing to try to engage my mind, I would have figured it out. But it was just manipulating numbers. When my career shifted into tech writing, I had to learn the math after all. And I learned it. I’ll never be a math whiz, but I learned what I needed. Give me a calculator and I’m almost capable. Oh, I never went to 8th grade. I skipped it. Some brilliant educator decided that I was so bright, I didn’t need 8th grade, so whatever I was supposed to learn there, I didn’t. I’ve never understood what skipping a grade accomplished since I was already the youngest kid in the grade.


  3. I don’t know that I romanticize P.S. 116 which was not that far from P.S. 35. I remember getting an “F” in kindergarten and or first grade because I couldn’t dress myself properly. A klutz even then. I had problems with the buckles on my galoshes. I was always the shortest kid in my class. Always sat in the front row because of my last name. Always dressed in stiffly ironed shirts with ties and short pants (for the longest time). Wore glasses (“”four eyes”). Had problems hearing (didn’t realize I was hard of hearing) and was painfully shy. I lost myself in books and began writing very schmaltzy stories with myself as the hero. Imagination and fantasy were my sidekicks and would shape my life for years to come.


    • Sound like “home” to me. If we hadn’t had that refuge … the ability to remove ourselves from reality and become own own heroes (I led a band of merry men not unlike Robin Hood, except it was the west and we had horses and guns), we couldn’t have survived. Now kids withdraw into the computer. I think we probably were better off in books, but hiding is hiding. It’s an ugly world for the unpopular kids.


  4. Brilliant reflections of childhood. I think a lot of folks ‘fell between the cracks’ and never came near achieving their potential. I was similar to you in that my reading and writing skills (I wonder what happened) were off the chart and math was my deadly nemisis. I also had the fun of being male and moving regularly. Most of my childhood memories deal with fighting every single day intil the gang of kids in that particular school decided I wasn’t a push over.
    I also lied to keep off the playground when I was in 4th grade. It was at this school that a ritual beating was applied on the playground by a group of six boys plus their leader, the alpha bully of the school.
    After being caught out by the teachers I was forced to go to the playground. It was only after arming myself with rocks (they made my fists harder and the punches hurt more) that I was able to take the group on well enough that they finally left me alone.
    Much of my childhood was wonderful, but a lot of it was not. The parts that were not good invariably centered around school and moving.
    Lovely post and one that I think could be turned into a book. Thanks for posting it.


    • I think “smart kids” are subjected to a lot of abuse in school. If you snitch, it gets worse. I didn’t move. I was with the same kids from kindergarten through High School. That has it’s own downside because you never get a fresh start. Girls aren’t as phyical in tormenting as boys, but they get their licks in. I wore, just to make the picture better, orthopedic shoes that my mother was convinced I needed (I didn’t). They were big, heavy and ugly. I remember being in the yard and the classic group of mean girls were following me around yammering. I turned around and kicked the leader of the pack in the shin with my big heavy ugly shoe and she went down like a pile of straw. THEN she followed me around asking me why I kicked her! The little twit didn’t think I would mind? Really? I told her that I was tired to death of her and her pack of nitwits calling me names and if she didn’t stop, the next time it wouldn’t be her shins, I’d pound her to paste. I wasn’t big … really small … but I meant it. What I lacked in size, I made up for in rage. I was willing to fight dirty without a qualm. She stopped. There were plenty of others to take her place, but she decided to find an easier target. Watching my granddaughte grow up? It hasn’t changed. The main difference is her brown belt in karate. She pounded the crap out of half the boys in her junior high school until the principal asked that she please stop beating up the boys, all of whom were easily twice her size. She’s just a bit of thing, but she packs a punch. Whatever they did or said to her after that, they did it from a consderable distance. And this is a rural area here, when she moved to High School, her reputation preceeded her. No one messes with her. Garry spent a lot of time fighting too. He was not only usually the smallest and most literate kid, but also the only non-white kid wherever he went … which included the Marine Corp. He became a very good fighter. The jungle still rules. Everywhere.


      • I agree! I remember that as a kid growing up I longed for the chance to ‘put down roots’ and have friends that I’d known for years. When my daughter came along, I fought tooth and nail to keep her in the same school system in order that she could have the same classmates throughout her public school days. What happened? When she got to year 7 she got bullied so bad, I had to step in and threaten very ugly things to get it stopped. She took years to recover from that. Yeah, girls violence and bullying is a different animal from boys. All of my tormentors if I hit them hard enough or made them bleed, respect of a sort was given. Not lightly and sometimes you had to reinforce that respect. Girls are more vicious and sneaky. I was so out of my depth. I think from your story that both you and Garry are fighters. A perfect tag team match. Cheers mate!!


      • It’s why I so dislike most “family shows” where the biggest problem the kids ever have is not getting good grade. No one is every bullied or beat up. We tend to under-estimate the problems kids have — and how ill-equipped they are to deal with them. The weirdest thing is when one of these childhood torturers tries to “friend you” on Facebook and share those happy memories. I have had the bad taste to say “Gee, you were one of the kids that made my childhood into a living hell,” and never hearing from her again. There a bit of pleasure in that. Not nice, maybe, but it feels good.


  5. School days, that brings back memories. I was a nerd. My German born parents didn’t even have a grade school education so they decided to torture their kids to excel. Have you any idea what it does to the mind of a child to get straight A’s and be grounded for Summer break become some stupid teach told my folks I still wasn’t “applying” myself? How do you get better than perfect?

    I had no friends. I looked like “Froggy” in the Little Rascals, the kid with the Coke bottle glasses and the croaking voice. To save money my mom cut our hair at home, always a “burr” cut. Yeah, I was real popular at school. Thank God I went to Catholic grade school & high school. They made us wear uniforms so at least the other kids didn’t know I was poor.

    I graduated high school at the top of my class, winning a 4 year full scholarship to any state college in Illinois. I scored in the top 2% in the nation on the SAT tests. School gave me one kind of education, life handed me another variety.


    • It’s a familiar story. My mother cut my hair too … once using a pinking shears. That was unique. And she made my clothing, which was beautiful, but didn’t look anything like the other kids. I looked like I came from another planet. The price of having brains is that you are inevitably a misfit. I had braces on my teeth that looked like radar receptors. I had big frizzy hair, orthopedic shoes, and the vocabulary of a professor. I was REALLY unpopular. Oh, and I was hopeless at sports and the youngest and smallest kid in every grade. A winning combo.



  1. School days: Boredom and Fear in Equal Measure | Forty Two: Life and Other Important Things |
  2. School days: Boredom and Fear in Equal Measure | In and About the News |

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