I’m fresh out of Elite tonight; tired, busy, missing the point of half the conversations I find myself in. And it’s nothing new; it happened all the time when I was a kid. See, I really didn’t much like the company of other children. They weren’t interesting and they weren’t safe to be around, but adults were both.
My dad, a professor at the University of Iowa, knew loads of interesting people. I got to meet experts in technology, and information sciences, and he knew a geologist and a paleontologist and a chemist, and lots of people in education. They even seemed interested in talking to me. I’d go to the university and “help” grad students with learning studies; it was the early ‘60’s and education theory was bustin’ wide open.
Yeah, guinea pig, I know that now. I must have been volunteered for a lot of experiments. But I got to mess with fossils, telescopes, and timed puzzles, and interesting apparatus that tracked how fast I could dope out the sequence of a coin-dispensing machine (pretty damn fast, as it turned out). I never met James Van Allen but knowing he was there at the university made me feel like I was in on something.
I didn’t really play with toys as a kid. Dad brought home what he called “take-aparts”. These were usually broken machines, even pieces of old audio-visual equipment. I’d make stuff out of pieces, hook them together and power them up – sometimes burn them up. Occasionally I could get them working as designed; I was the only kid I knew who owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I figured out how to hook it up to the record player, and a big microphone that weighed about two pounds, and spliced and dubbed weird tapes. By using a tube I could record tiny sounds and amplify them.
I did have some “toys”, though. These were actually pretty serious pieces of equipment. I always had a pocketknife, and a magnifying glass, a jeweller’s loupe, and a couple nice telescopes and two microscopes. One, a binocular dissection scope, I still have and use, 45 years later. I’d shave off layers of leaves and look at the cells. I’d capture bugs and put them under the dissection scope, and just watch them walk around, guiding them back into the field with the end of a pencil. I’d haul my high-powered microscope down to the quarry and look at the water at a thousand X, reflecting sunlight through the slide with the little mirror at the bottom.
Someone gave me a wood-burning kit for Christmas. It was a craft tool that you could use to burn patterns and pictures into wooden surfaces. But it closely resembled a soldering iron, and that is what I used it for. I used batteries and low-voltage fans and little motors, and made a small generator with some magnets that I pulled out of a couple old speakers.
As I said, I did not enjoy the company of other kids. Mostly I just found them dangerous to be around; I wore bifocals, and was uncoordinated and small, and completely uninterested in games. President Kennedy had decreed that children should have Physical Education, but therein lay the danger. I’d kick at a ball, miss it and fall on the ground, and that was sure to get me pushed into the mud after school.
Not that school itself was any refuge. The biggest source of pain in my life was my performance there. I tested poorly in everything, and whiled away my days in an agony of boredom. Worst of all I was a big disappointment to my parents and teachers, who felt that because I was “intelligent” (whatever that meant) I should be getting A’s. The school arranged for me to leave the regular classroom for an hour three times a week, to take part in a remedial reading class.
Thing is, I could read just fine, just not very fast and couldn’t make sense of numbers at all. I’d struggle with arithmetic and get very inconsistent results. Once in a while, I’d succeed, but success backfired in the worst way. “I knew you could do it if you’d only try!” Dyslexia, diagnosed almost thirty years later, doesn’t work like that.
My dad must have suspected something was up. He’d slap a copy of Scientific American on the principal’s desk and say; “My kid reads this at home!” Legend has it my student file contained the comment; “Father difficult to deal with when angry.”
There’s no arguing with educational wisdom; I didn’t get out of remedial reading class until a teacher caught me with a Time magazine hidden inside the approved remedial book. She reasoned, correctly, that maybe inability to read wasn’t my problem.
I didn’t feel very good about myself. Educators went through a phase where it became important to nurture a child’s “self-esteem”, but luckily that didn’t get rolling until after I got out of grade school. I say lucky because I found another way to shore up my state of mind: the concordance between the real world and what I could find in films and books. Our home was practically a library, and there was lots of real world outside it.
I dissected an unfortunate frog (anesthetizing it with ether) and found that its innards coincided perfectly with an introductory anatomy book that I’d found somewhere. I looked at the moon with my Edmond 3-inch reflector telescope and found that it really did have mountains just like the book said. The microscopic critters I found in quarry water moved around just like the ones I’d seen in films. The fossils I found in the quarry were, you guessed it, identifiable as the same ones in the book.
The inside of a tiny amphibian’s heart, mountains on another world, bizarre little creatures too small to see, fossil remains of the Devonian era; I didn’t have to take anyone’s word for it. I could see them for myself.
How did that make me feel better? A short description might be “smug superiority”, a very unapproved kind of self-esteem. I was in on a secret they knew nothing about. Sure, my schoolmates were bullies. But I had figured out that they were ignorant and worse; they couldn’t learn anything that someone else didn’t teach them. When they got out of school, their education would come to a screeching halt. I couldn’t seem to learn very well in the classroom, but I looked forward to the day when I could get out of school and learn to my heart’s content.
And you know what? I’m still not contented; there’s too much interesting stuff out there (and in addition to books and magazines, the Interweb is there to feed my addiction). Just one thing’s bugging me, though: I wish I knew how to inspire kids to want to take an interest in something. It makes me sad to see kids and schools still trudging past each other in the same old way. It still comes down to a system turning out a product, and a few lucky kids who step off the moving walkway and find their own interests.
I’d be damned interested in what inspired you when you were a kid. In the age of the Interwebs and the Googles, there must be some way to bottle it and give it away for free. Any suggestions?