TLDR – Week 3

I was on the advanced track in high school. Our school did not have formal “tracks” per se, but there were certain sets of classes that the more studious learners would take. However, each student was responsible for their own schedule — one did not just sign up for the “track” — so the high school curriculum was very customized. I tended more toward the sciences — my senior year saw me taking AP Biology, AP Physics, and Organic Chemistry — but most of my classes were from this “advanced” set of classes. However, the one that taught me the most, in a particular instant, wasn’t.

While I was in school, I had no idea what the point of school really was. School just *was*. I never questioned it; to quote Geico commercials, “it’s what you do.” If I would have stopped to think about it, I suppose that I would have said that the point of school was to prepare students for a job. High school would provide a breadth of knowledge that should be common across most jobs; college or trade schools would provide the depth of knowledge for a specific job. But that idea was only if I stopped to think about it. I took this attitude to the extreme (as my wife tells me I am wont to do), and never really participated in any of the social aspects of school. Conversations with friends were mostly about intellectual topics. I never want to any school dance or other such event. For me, anything school related was strictly about learning.

I love learning. Even today, I constantly learn new things. These days, I find that I enjoy video lecture series; The Great Courses is a company that produces such lectures, and I have a subscription to their streaming service. I’ve explored Mark Twain’s writings, Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of America, the history of the English language, and the development of the symphony. These courses have taught me the relationship between music and math, the history and geology of the National Parks, and even how to better play chess. And most of what I have been taught about photography have come through these courses. High school was no different, and it was a source of personal pride that I was able to learn quickly.

It was therefore much to my chagrin to find that, in my sophomore year of high school, I did not have a math course. It should have been Algebra II, but somehow I could not fit in both Algebra II and French II into my schedule that year, and my guidance counselor decided that French was the better option (Pennsylvania only requires 3 years of math in high school). I tried to get it changed, but somehow, and for some reason, the lack-of-math stuck. This affected my schedule, not only that year, but for the rest of my high school career. My junior year I took Algebra II, and Trigonometry/Pre-Calculus my senior year. This affected other classes; because I was taking those math classes, I could not take American Government (the “advanced track” social studies course) my senior year. Instead, I was in an economics/psychology course. While there were a few other students I knew in this class, most of the students were ones that I never had taken any other class with during high school.

There were vo-tech students in the class. This was at a time when students in technical programs were considered to be not “suitable” for more advanced work. Today, my son is in both advanced classes at his high school and a technical program at the local technical high school, but the emphasis is different today. At least in my head, there was a certain stigma associated with being in a vo-tech program when I was in high school, and while that has not totally disappeared, proponents of working with ones hands (like Mike Rowe) are working to change that. But at the time, I was not excited to be in this class. I didn’t know how to related to classmates that weren’t as quick on the uptake as myself. I had an undercurrent of intellectual vanity, and this vanity was bruised by this situation. However, this was to be one of my favorite classes with one of my favorite teachers, and all because she taught me something I don’t think she knew she taught me.

There were a few teachers that knew that I should be in the “advanced track” classes; my 10th grade English teacher was one. She lent me a copy of _The Odyssey_ when the advanced class was studying it just so that I could read it. (I read it overnight.) She was also my 12th grade English teacher and was my favorite teacher for a class that I actually had. (The art teacher was my favorite teacher all-around, but I never actually took an art class.) The econ/psych teacher, however, ranked right up there. I was amazed at how well she actually taught and connected with the students. Because I didn’t have to work in the class – for me, the subject material was no difficult, and assignments and tests were quickly completed – I could actually sit back and watch the process of teaching. Watch her patience with students who had trouble reading the books. Watch as she talked to the students, not as an instructor, but as a person. Watch as she listened to their concerns, and watch as she helped guide them not only through the course but through their lives.

One particular incident stands out in my mind. One of the students was pregnant, fairly heavily so, in fact. This was not something I knew how to deal with. I was the traditional nerd: intellectual, yes, but with no clue how to relate to people on anything other than that intellectual basis. I could talk about the most trivial details of the presidents of the United States, or teach you how to speak with an Irish accent (something I actually did during this class, as another student was trying out for the part of Mrs. Paroo in _The Music Man_, our school’s musical that year), but actually understanding and connecting with people was not in my skill set. But the teacher took time in class to inquire how the baby was doing, how the mother was doing, what the plans were for the birth. This was not a teacher being an instructor; this was a teacher being a guide. Being a coach. Being a friend.

And so I learned a few things. I learned that my intellectual vanity was just that – vanity. For me, learning was life, but this taught me that there were other ways of living. If it became a little less rigid in approach to school, this was why. This also planted the seed that school was not for training about a job. School is about learning how to be an adult: how to relate to other people, how to socialize, how to be an adult. It was learned perhaps a little late to have any impact on my high school career; even though the seed was planted, it didn’t really germinate until a decade or so later, but it was learned nonetheless.

This is important in today’s debate about schools. Senator Pat Toomey, in explaining why he voted to confirm Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, talks about her commitment to ensuring that students live up to their potential. This is a valid desire, and is certainly the mission of schools to provide. But the history of Ms. DeVos seems to indicate that she will put too much emphasis on test scores (either growth or proficiency – or perhaps something else) and not enough on the more intangible aspects of schools. The fear, of course, is that she will not even do that and instead focus on the profitability of schools. But in either case – profitability or test scores – what a student learns about life is not truly captured. In fact, teachers who focus on being guides instead of mere instructors may find that they can not meet the test score or profitability standards set. And so we lose those teachers because they don’t meet the standards, and school then becomes more mechanical.

We want some ways to measure schools, but it is important to remember that there are aspects to school that are more than the academic. This was the lesson that I learned, and it is a lesson that our lawmakers should learn as well. I have no suggestions on how to do this, but ignoring these aspects and emphasizing the academic will lead to these aspects being minimized to the point of being lost. And people like me would not learn the lessons that we need to learn, whether we know it or not.