|First grade, third grade, fourth grade.|
Fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade.
Eighth grade, ninth grade, tenth grade.
Oh my goodness. School dayzzzz.
Before John Holt entered my life, I considered myself without question to be a successful product of the public school system.
For the first six years of my school career, I was happy to be a good little girl. I did whatever my teachers asked of me - filled out every workbook, followed every rule, and kept my desk neat and orderly to boot. Every teacher liked me, and I earned top marks. In second grade, my teacher wrote in the comments section of my report card, "A joy in the classroom." She was right; I was an angel.
In middle school and high school, I tried to come across as a bit less brainy and obedient. Deep down inside, of course, I still wanted all As, and the idea of getting in trouble still horrified me. But I didn't want the other kids to know that, and I spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to figure out how to walk the line between smart and good, but not too smart and good. I ended up graduating 12th in my class, and I recall breathing a huge sigh of relief that I was not in the top ten. That would have been too dorky.
* * * * *
But as I read deeper into my stack of books, and considered a more honest assessment of my childhood education, I had to admit to some troubling trends.
My strongest recollection of school is being bored. I was more than happy to learn about whatever my teachers decided to teach me, but the pace was so mind-numbingly slow that I spent a lot of time daydreaming out the window and watching the clock tick. I usually finished my assignments quickly, and was left with a lot of free time at my desk while the others plodded on. In high school, I often got put into groups with the slower kids, I suppose in the hopes that I would help them learn something. Usually, I ended up doing the work myself while they sat around and talked.
I also remember being frightened a lot. No doubt, part of that fearfulness was a product of my pleaser personality and my natural desire to be good. But as a youngster, I took the rigors of classroom life very much to heart.
I was afraid of breaking the rules.
I was afraid of being scolded.
I was afraid of giving the wrong answer.
I was afraid of being too loud.
I was afraid of disappointing my teachers.
I was afraid of getting less than perfect grades.
Over the years, as I gained confidence in those areas, my fears shifted to the social arena.
I was afraid of being too smart,
I was afraid of not having friends and boyfriends,
I was afraid of peer pressures around alcohol, drugs and sex.
And I was still worrying about grades.
I read somewhere that a typical elementary school student receives individual attention from her teacher for just 5-10 minutes per week. Honestly, I doubt that I ever received that much time in an entire year. Other than a cursory remark when handing back an assignment, I can't remember my teachers ever talking directly to me. When I think back to my high school teachers, I can't recall even one who took a special interest in me, or encouraged me in any particular line of study.
As I've said, I was considered a good student, and I always earned good grades. But I can't really say that I remember learning all that much, and I certainly don't recall being interested in what I was learning. There are a few memories that stand out sharp and clear: in fourth grade, I remember a textbook photograph of native Pacific Islander children on an island in the South Pacific that absolutely fascinated me; I loved my high school music and art humanities class; and my first algebra teacher entertained me with his clever and interesting ways of explaining things. But as I thought back to the times when I had felt most alive and excited as a learner, I was shocked to realize that my best experiences all took place not in the classroom, but outside the realm of school.
* * * * *
This last revelation triggered a new question: if formal schooling was not the force that had awakened my desires to learn, then what was?