I got straight As until the 5th grade when my mother asked me what changed. It was the formulaic homework, tests, boxes, and choreography on paper that I couldn’t follow. The few As I was getting were not indicative of my work. To quote my parents, “She’s getting As in spelling and cannot spell a thing.” They weren’t wrong.
Then for two years I went to a gifted program called GATE and excelled in a creative learning environment where 5th graders were thinking in terms of architecture and archaeology and doing so with their hands, in teams, and packaged as leadership experiments. I did okay in Junior High because it was a fundamental school that cracked the subjects open in unique ways. What 11-year-old isn’t fascinated by shark day when there’s an actual shark?
By High School, I was getting by but tanked my GPA being thrown into calculus and geometry as a student who barely understood pre-algebra. I didn’t have a choice if I wanted the other honors classes, which I loved. (Is the issue clear yet?). But the latter had teachers who spent less time at the desk and more time outside practicing the principles of their subject.
Our Humanities class took an extended trip to Monterey and hiked a small trail to Jack London’s home in the woods where we breathed the air he breathed when yanking words from pictures in his mind and smashing them on pages. Where he also burned things down like his home. We stood in the room around the dining room table where his coffin, upon final exit, was dropped, etching a massive L in the polished mahogany. The last word, a letter: his monogram; a writer’s farewell in perpetuity. We wandered outside and picked roses. Some of us grew to be 44-year-olds with 4 or 5 Jack Londons on a shelf 10 feet away. I did at least.
The Physics teacher hosted an annual egg drop to learn the physics of gravity and wind resistance, creating structures that diffuse and disperse impact. He also had a student demolish a cinder block on his stomach while he laid on a bed of nails to prove the same. You don’t have to go that far but having your students wrap hands around some experiential truth helps.
Tests were my nemesis, though I had been reading above my grade since the first day of school thanks to a mother who read to me “on purpose” and without pause. In the first grade, I was so far advanced, they sent me into the second grade — not to learn but to tutor. This is the same kid who barely passed a test. As they say in some education circles, I was either a goldfish trying to climb a tree or I was figuring out a party line phone in a world of iPhone thinking.
This also was not an issue of book smart vs. street smart. From infancy to oblivion I have been an avid and passionate reader. A book is my gym. A bookstore is my museum. The fuzzy page is my security blanket. Font is my accent. The scribbles, tears, and rubber banded spines are the ghosts of gangs I used to run with. And even this reader who could live in a book fort, fears the approaching textbook because of how the weapon has been wielded in the classroom.
College. I barely survived. In my defense, I was a freaked-out NorCal teen in NYC before the invention of the internet or cell phones. Again the hands-on classes brought me to life but the ‘read a stack of books, attend a lecture’ classes escaped my goldfish mind as a tree to climb.
I discovered the hunger for book- or talk-based education the summer after college as my brain developed adult concepts of sedentary mental curiosity, sitting cross-legged in dress pants, pen chewed lightly. I was stuck in Poughkeepsie for the summer in a fascinating program but with less fascinating downtime, being one of those towns sustained by its college and empty in the off season. I had one book I had forgotten to pack in storage. It happened to be a textbook left over from my American History & Restoration class. I hadn’t cracked it when it was recommended reading but I loved the subject, attended lectures, and squeaked by with a B+. Glory to God I graduated on time, wore the purple cap and gown, and drove 2 hours North into the Hudson Valley where, with shrugged shoulders and nothing else to do, I opened it. I read Stephen B. Oates’ “With Malice Toward None” in a Poughkeepsie minute and fell in love with it as fast – and with voracious retention. All year I had expected to not understand it because it was a textbook. But in the years hence, it’s become a symbolic favorite. (I loaned it to a pastor in Brooklyn and never got it back.)
While my college education had indeed been worth it, valued both for training and experiential exposure thanks to the particular school I attended (immeasurably grateful to sacrificial and selfless parents), I only discovered the hunger for education 47 days after receiving $100,000 diploma. In August 1996 I would have attacked a class catalog with deeply grooved circles and impatient anticipation for the classroom rather than fear and loathing. But that is the difference between a 22-year-old and an 18-year-old who barely survived 12 years of California Public Schools. With the exception of a few enigmatic teachers, the system generally failed this goldfish. (Granted the Goldfish didn’t try very hard after the first couple of failed encounters with the “learning tree.”)
Full credit for any success goes to the fact that I left the classroom daily and came home to parents who pushed, challenged, taught, gave whoopins, and built confidence not through participation trophies but through the opposite philosophy of despising participation gimmies. They taught by expecting hard work and excellence because that’s what we do. We’re Bartletts. And we’re Christians. And we’re no dummies. (“God put a brain in your head and said don’t be stupid.”) My parents were Mensa book-smart A-students. They didn’t know what to do with their alien creative child. (“God gave me one child and she had to be an artist.”) But rooted in standard and drive, they launched me like a rubber band. Without them, I would have been educationally lost.
Today, with so much access to the World At Large through modern technology, and so much of the human soul’s potential having been understood, studied, and broadcast, imagine the genius, art, magic, gifting, and possibilities that could be released like a pollen bomb from every child, if the classroom peeled open to the “all the world’s a stage” that Shakespeare saw. Is it possible to stop the automaton momentum of the American Education system, which by definition is systematic and not malleable to success or need? (How we do church and school are both struggling to effectively serve their original purpose in a very changed contemporary society.) What would it take and what would it look like to recommit to the original goals of growth and learning but with the world of connectivity and opportunity now so readily accessible? Some charter schools and homeschoolers have tried in baby steps. But that’s the first trimester in a labor of love full of developmental unknowns and variable outcomes, ranging from the highest heights, to the fall of civilization. While waiting for the breaking waters, what would Aristotle do?
The video that prompted:https://youtu.be/dqTTojTija8