I always find myself defending school to kids. They complain it’s dull. That there’s nothing in it that “grabs” or fascinates them — and nothing they will find useful in life.
I find myself trying to explain that school wasn’t fascinating, but that many of the boring stuff you learn in it is indeed going to be useful. Like arithmetic, the ability to add and subtract mentally without a calculator or even a piece of paper and a pencil. The point of school wasn’t only to intrigue or titillate us but to make us ready to face the real world in which we all must live.
High School, really
Some studies were dull, but you needed to know it because while there’s creativity, there is day-to-day life too and unless you are one of the entitled few, you will have to do your share of it.
I was the kid who had a book in my lap so when no one was looking, I would read. Although I love science today, in school, it wasn’t interesting. Maybe it was the teachers who were dull. In high school I had a double period of botany beginning at eight in the morning when I was already half asleep. The class went on for two hours. We had a teacher who knew her stuff, but talked in a monotone. She’d start to talk — and I’d black out. Gone.
I did not do well in that class. A pity because I was interested, but she was better than a sleeping pill. Twice as good, really. Nothing I ever took knocked me out as well as she did.
Social studies which would today be … what? Social science? History? Some weird version of both? It consisted of everything that wasn’t English, math, or science. What we called “the rest of the stuff.” I was a passionate, ardent, enthusiastic reader. I loved history and the world. But social studies? With those stupid work books where you would answer a question and then you had to color the pictures. Seriously? Color the pictures?
I flunked coloring.
English was dull, too. We had to read books that were of no interest to anyone. I suspected the teachers found them dull too, but it was in the curriculum and that’s what they were supposed to teach. They did. We yawned. I drew pictures of horses in my notebooks. Sometimes, when I got tired of horses — I never got the feet right — I moved into castles. I was better at castles.
If they let us write, I was good at that. But being good at it didn’t make it interesting. My summer vacation wasn’t the stuff to brighten my week.
The teachers droned on and on. Those of us who intended to go to college hung in there. It never — not once, not for a split second — crossed my mind that I should drop out and work at an entry-level jobs for the rest of my life because I was bored at school.
1893 Thayer Library Photo: Garry Armstrong
For me, going to college was exactly the same as going to heaven. I would go to college because I knew I could learn. I never doubted my ability to think. I was sure if I made it to college, the rest would follow. And so it did.
I learned a lot of things in college. Ultimately, the really interesting parts of my education were learned at work, when math, science, and statistics were relevant and meaningful.
When you are working, the things you learn are in a context. You discover science has a purpose. Numbers are not random shapes which you jiggle around until you get the answer or sit with empty eyes wondering what this is supposed to mean. I did stuff at work I had found impossible in a classroom.
It wasn’t my fault. It was their fault. They taught the material so poorly no one who didn’t have a special fervor for it figured it out. What a pity for everyone. Worst of all, they meant well. They genuinely did the best they knew how.
College had its share of drones and bores … but there were enough wonderful teachers — maybe a dozen — who were inspirational.
They were was enough. For each year of school, there was at least one or two teachers who made a difference in my life. Plus, I was in an environment where everyone wanted to learn. We needed to learn.
We chose it.
I have never properly explained the whole school thing to my kid or granddaughter. I told them “Oh, it’s not that bad.”
PS 35, Queens
Except, it really can be that bad. Sometimes, it’s even worse and comes with boring teachers and brutal classmates. That is very bad. Whether they are teasing you because of your color or because you are smart and they aren’t … cruelty is cruelty and kids can be cruel.
The thing is, you don’t stay in school because it’s fun. Or because the quality of education is uplifting. You are there because you know that this is what you must do if you want to have a real life.
If you also get wonderful, inspiring, enlightening teachers, that’s better. But even if they are dull, you still need to be there.
School is the work of childhood. It’s the “why of the how” of growing up.