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Unapproved self-esteem

August 28, 2009

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?

Categories: Education
  1. August 29, 2009 at 04:15 | #1

    You suffer from the same affliction(?) as I do, an insatiable curiosity.  How many CEOs, politicians, university presidents, etc. would you describe as curious people?  I say affliction because to a person seeking money or power curiosity distracts you from your focus or goal.  To answer your question, give a child sufficient curiosity and you can’t keep her from learning.  On the other hand, for an incurious child the current system of stamping out a product is probably about as good as you can do.

  2. August 29, 2009 at 10:04 | #2

    There’s really no work to “inspiring” a kid if you remove them from the environment that teaches them that their interests need to be categorized by grade level and that what is on the test is more important than what is out the window. Kids are born with it. The way our schools approach education squashes it out of them. It sounds like you maintained your curiosity. Some of us fell for the line they were feeding us and then spent years trying to recover a sense of our selves and our curiosity. My kids don’t go to school for this very reason. I spent too many years being “the good student” and too many years watching my extremely intelligent and artistic brothers believe they were stupid because they weren’t able to conform to or manage the hoops of school. Some call what we do unschooling. For me it’s a decision to live a family-centered life and to honor my children and their passions. It’s not for everyone, but it’s an alternative to schools that more people should look into.

  3. Alex
    August 29, 2009 at 21:40 | #3

    The Australian system (high school) teaches students not on interests or teachers expertise but to a rigid syllabus. Whilst this provides a means of accountability that teaches teach it removes most of the curiosity from the subject.

    As you’ve pointed out in the post it isn’t just what is taught but also who teaches and how it is taught. There is a huge problem that 80% of teachers are simply salaried employees, which whom themselves have lost a lot of curiosity and whose teaching is mundane.

    The best experiences of my almost completed high school life was the science and engineering challenge run through the rotary club which gets students thinking creatively and competitively to create solutions on design briefs.

    The second was business week. This involves both simulated business decisions, putting together an advertising portfolio and creating reports.

    These programs have been the most memorable during my high school career. They weren’t simply theoretical but employed skills and integrated work with play. Education (for me at least) feels so far removed from reality that it seems like inane hoop jumping… If we want to improve education we need to reconnect schools to society and begin to breakdown the overprotective reflex.

  4. August 31, 2009 at 06:59 | #4

    You’ve hit upon a new worry of mine.  I was not a horrible student, but I wasn’t a good student either.  I was interminably bored and the school system even bored me at home with my 3-4 hours of homework a night.

    Our self-education wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t live in a certificate society.  You’ve almost got to play the game if you want to end up having a decent job to support a good life.

    I got lucky.  I didn’t play the certification game (although I may have to give in soon) and still ended up with a job that supports a nice life that holds my interest.  But I don’t want my kids to have to rely on luck to reach that goal and I have no idea what I’m going to do about it.

  5. September 1, 2009 at 00:43 | #5

    I used to love taking things apart and trying to fix them or make them better. Sometimes I succeeded. I had old radios, toy trains, slot cars, and various other things to mess with. I wasn’t so interested in biology back then, but my parents got me a microscope and chemistry set when I asked for them. They were supportive and in favor of education, so that certainly helped.

    One thing that seems to be different today is that I don’t see those things as available for kids as they once were. How do children get such experiences, when just about everything is either too complicated or too expensive to take apart?

  6. September 14, 2009 at 15:37 | #6

    My parents encouraged me to start small businesses when I was young.  Simple stuff lawns and yardwork at first, then with a little practice web design and marketing.

    Now kids can take apart a web page and put it back together again:)

  7. September 22, 2009 at 13:48 | #7

    In high school take all the math and science you can. In college you will have to take all the core or general ed courses required for your degree along with lots of geology (mineralogy, petrology, paleontology, geophysics, for example) along with many other science disciplines and math. Plan on pursuing at least a Master’s degree if you want to find a good job in this field. Check out college websites to find specific class requirements. Most schools have such websites these days.

  8. September 26, 2009 at 05:03 | #8

    I was always a reader. I’m not sure how good I was, but I do know that I was brought in to read for the kids at the elementary school when I was three, so presumably I did something right – not everybody gets to be a novelty/circus freak at such an early age.

    However, I also loved bikes. Now, fixing bicycles isn’t brain surgery, you can pretty much see what each bit does. A friend (the only one I had, and even then he was only my friend as long as none of his other friends were watching – this is during the cootie period) and I used to go to the recycling station and “steal” bikes and fix them up (my dad gave us tools and helped with things that required super-adult-powers). When he moved away, his mom had to get a hugetruck to haul the bikes away.

    My other passion was nature. I loved collecting flowers, looking them up in my ‘Flora of Iceland’ and pressing them (in the same book, of course).

    I always wanted a proper microscope, but we couldn’t afford one. My grandfather (died before I was born) was an entomologist, and “famous” in the sense that he literally wrote the book on the entomology of Iceland. But, having no microscope, I was fairly limited by human vision (not to mention the fact that I’d probably needed glasses since I was eight, but didn’t get them until I was twelve). My interest in bugs gave way to a feeling of ickiness (aided by an incident involving Nintendo and maggots. Don’t ask).

    Sorry for the ramble. Now, I’ve never met a child who wasn’t naturally curious, and I haven’t met many who haven’t had the curiosity sucked out of them by the school system by the age of eight. I did try to instil a curiosity and love of learning (in any form) in my cousins, but they soon gave in to the pressure I knew all too well: “You LIKE school? Nerd. Hey, let’s put on some lipstick and listen to a guy sing about money and sex!”
    The older one seems to be rediscovering the joys of learning, but at thirteen, her younger sister is still firmly stuck in the horrible cultural search for coolness. Being uncool myself, I have no idea how to convince her that learning is,in fact, very cool, since most of her heroes managed to get rich and famous despite being drug-abusing dropouts.

    Being a dropout myself, I suppose I’m not a good role model, but learning should be fun, dammit. How anyone can not find the world (outside bling, makeup and the proper use of the word ‘ho’) fascinating is beyond me.

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