Earlier this week, I explained that I wanted to explore some of my and my husband’s thoughts on how we want to educate our child(ren). Yesterday, I shared my personal experience with school. Today, I’m sharing his.
Ben started school on the wrong foot. He didn’t speak English.*
His first memory of school is of thrashing about and screaming in terror in his teacher’s arms as his mom walked away from him and disappeared at the end of the hall.
(Like most kids who get thrown into a different culture like that, Ben picked up English quickly and was soon fluent.)
His remaining memories of school are mostly vague, although he acutely recalls a pervading sense of personal failure and boredom throughout his twelve-and-a-half years of formal education. (He graduated high school a semester early, just because he could.)
He was intimidated by the other kids who could read faster than him and who always won at all the flashcard games. He struggled daily to understand why he was there, reading about things that didn’t matter to real life. He understood that he was kind of dumb and slow.
Day after day after day, he was trapped in a world where adults dictated his every move, prodding him to complete meaningless activities and exercises, and then chiding him for not doing them with enough enthusiasm.
He made friends, but they were all better than him at school work. He did well at sports, but there was always someone faster or better at jumping or shooting or whatever.
Every day was agony for Ben. He dreaded having to get up in the morning to go to some drab building where you were made to get all sweaty in gym class and then immediately sit down under fluorescent lights to solve math problems. At lunch time you dined on warm packages of processed meats and cheeses, and asked the lunch monitor for permission to use the bathroom. During French class you had to say it, Est-ce que je peux aller a la toilette?, which was humiliating. Why were we even learning French when we didn’t know a single person in real life who spoke French?
School was just an endless cycle of having to perform meaningless tasks – jumping through hoops, memorizing pointless data, trying to impress adults and stay out of trouble — but never quite succeeding. There were all kinds of arbitrary rules, like you had to wear a certain kind of shoes to participate in gym. Your every move was micromanaged by adults who didn’t really have the time to get to know you.
As you can see: Ben did not not have quite the same experience that I had.
* * *
Since becoming acquainted with Ben’s, and countless other of my peers’, experiences with public education, I’ve become somewhat more doubtful about its unequivocal goodness.
I mean, sure: it’s amazing that we all have access to free education, where we can learn to read and write and even get a chance to get a breath of fresh air here and there. What a wonderful opportunity we are given.
But I’ve discovered that public school, among other things, is a place for rewarding people like me – bookish, analytical types with a knack for memorization, grammar, and sitting still – and for punishing people who are . . . well, not like me. People like my husband, who is fiercely intelligent but not great at expressing his intelligence on paper.
I’ve come to question the value of standardized curriculum that makes some people feel like winners and others like losers, but which is useful to almost no one.
Becoming familiar with Ben’s story began to seed my mind with doubts and questions about the best way to educate kids.
And on that note, I’ll continue my exploration of the Education Question in my next post: Reflections on Our Experiences in Public School.
*(Ben spoke the Low German of the Old Colony Mennonites.)