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odds and ends

What did I actually learn in School? Pt. 2

I got to Gloucester in the 7th grade. 7th and 8th grade were called Intermediate school. What an awful place. It was the old high school, built in the late 50’s/early 60’s if I remember correctly. I have almost zero happy memories of actual school there. Boredom reigned supreme. I met Chuck and Dean, two guys that became good friends there, but I’m having trouble thinking of much else noteworthy. I did take band in the 7th and 8th grades, played alto sax, did pretty well. I coasted through math in the 7th grade. I don’t remember what the circumstances were, but about a month in, it was clear I shouldn’t be in that class, I literally already knew all of it. Most of my new friends were in pre-Algebra, I should have been there too. The next year they put me into Algebra I without the benefit of the pre-Algebra class. I struggled along with Algebra until much later in life… I think this was the first time I started to develop real contempt for some teachers. At best, some were nice, at worst they were actively hampering us and engaging in power games, with kids… Even then I felt like they were pathetic.

High school was mostly more of the same. There were more enjoyable teachers, but mostly boredom and pointless activities. Band was a real let down. Marching band really sucked, I had zero interest in it, probably wouldn’t have signed up for it if I had known what was involved. It was what made me decide to ditch it after freshman year. English class and Biology were real low points for me. Biology I just hated. There was nothing to figure out, it was almost all just memorization. The teacher was hot, but ugh, what a terrible class. English was maddening. I should have taken AP English, instead, I was in the level right below it. I think this was due to my inability to do well on spelling tests back in 7th and 8th grades. Never mind my reading ability and vocabulary was too high for the level, better to put me in a class that I could be bored in. We read 2, or maybe 3 abridged novels. I read the unabridged novels instead, and still beat the class to the end of them. I distinctly remember being appalled at the abridged version of A Tale of Two Cities. I had already read Great Expectations and Oliver Twist before 9th grade and really enjoyed them. The abridged version of A Tale of Two Cities cut out an entire main character!

The high point of freshman year had to be Ms. Windley’s Geometry class. We got an introduction to logic and symbolic logic and I ate it up. This was new information for me, and it had to be taught to me. It was exhilarating to have things explained to me and it just “click” with me. It challenged me and really opened up a part of my brain that had needed some stimulation. Deductive logic was something that made sense to me, and it would show up again later in life…

A couple of other classes stood out. I took two years of chemistry. Once again, I think I liked the aspect of having to figure things out. We were given the rules and some abstract concepts to constrain our view of what was happening and were told to figure it out on tests. Don’t get me wrong, most of my time in those classes was incredibly dull (Ms. Isner’s class was suicidally dull, I think I actually hallucinated in there due to a lack of mental stimulus at times), but it was still stuff that I had to pay attention to and be taught. I had to take notes! That was a sure sign of something that was new to me and required extra concentration. We had some decent books assigned to us in 11th and 12th grade. Standouts include 1984, Steppenwolf, Lord of the Flies, and I’m sure there were others. There were some books that were so awful that I’m still seething with hatred becaue we were made to read them. A Separate Peace, Madame Bovary, and Billy Budd stand out as possibly the worst books I have ever read. Part of the problem I think was that the teachers were so preoccupied with us understanding the books that they never explained why some of them are important even though they have not aged well.

Another important moment for me was in AP government my senior year. Olin Lewis took us up to Richmond so that we could hang out with a state representative for a day. It really was a significant thing for a high schooler to do and I’m glad I got the opportunity to do this. I think it had the opposite effect on me than it was supposed to have though. I followed my representative (a guy representing a district in Richmond if I remember properly) around and was appalled. We spent close to an hour in a ways and means committee meeting where they argued about the placement of commas, wasted time with procedural shenanigans, and generally did a lot of nothing. We then went to a subcommittee meeting so that my guy could plead his case to one of the senior muckty mucks in the house. The old guy essentially asked my guy what he could give him for the vote. It was log rolling at its finest. The old guy was from one of the mountain counties and didn’t give a damn about the traffic bill my guy was pushing. My guy agreed to vote for the old guy’s bill that had no relevance to his Richmond constituents (other than them footing the bill) in exchange for the old guy’s vote. It was remarkable that I was allowed to be there, but I then knew that government work was not my calling…

Mathematics was a real struggle for me after geometry. I loved geometry, and then I went into two algebra courses where I simply tried to keep up. Nothing ┬ámade any sense to me, I just went through the formulas as best I could. It all fell apart my junior year and was asked “You’re not going to take calculus are you?” by the teacher at the end of year. No, I wasn’t. I had been interested in math and that was totally driven out of me by my junior year. They wouldn’t be the last awful teachers I had in math, but they certainly had a long lasting impact on me. It wasn’t until I read a 30 page chapter in a book 10 or 12 years later did any of that stuff make sense to me. I read 30 effing pages and it explained all of my high school mathematics, why couldn’t they have presented that info in high school? Yes, I am bitter…

Umm, that’s about it for high school really. I enjoyed my time on the Tidewater Challenge team. Adam and Wade were the real stars there, but showing off my knowledge of trivia was fun. There were good times to be had in the art room, tech theatre, and a few fluff courses that were given social science titles like psychology and sociology. They mostly revolved around us talking about different things. All those things were at least fun, but I don’t think I actually learned much. What strikes me about my pre-college education is how much I ended up learning on my own and in my free time, mostly by reading stuff. It seems to me that there must have been a lot of stuff absorbed over the years I spent in school before college but I’ll be damned if I can think of much. I still have awful memories of high school, only my friends made it worth going at all. I’m so happy I hung out with you guys, I could have just as easily hung out with the “wrong crowd” and things could have been so much worse for me. Thanks to you I did OK and went on to a place where real learning took place…

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