Just the other day our local paper featured a report credited to Christopher Connell/The Hechinger Report announcing that “Teacher bonuses don’t help test scores, report says.” In a “scientifically rigorous test”, middle school math teachers were offered salary bonuses contingent on improved test performance by their pupils. In short…it didn’t matter much.
This is news? I was a middle school math teacher myself back in the days I recount in my book I Promised You Daisies , and along with thousands of other teachers I could have told you that years ago. In my opinion, based on my own experiences and those that others have shared with me, there is no consistent, exclusive correlation between the money available to be spent on the children we send to school and the classrooms we provide for them there, and real educational accomplishment.
Many children who find themselves in well funded schools do well…but…so do plenty more who show up in a bare classroom bearing no more than worn books and a desire to learn. Where did they get that? Most simply stated, they got it in homes where the adults responsible for their well-being continue to demonstrate by words and actions that education is important.
This is as close, I submit, to a sine qua non …nothing without this…as we are likely to discover. Unless and until we can find ways to ensure that all of our children show up at school with the sincere belief that education is important and that they are under an obligation to accept some of the responsibility for their own success or failure, more than a few are going to fall right through the welcoming arms of dedicated teachers and the security of generously endowed schools.
What can we do about it? There is no single answer to that question, nor any easy one. We guard the freedom to make one’s own choices in life as one of the treasured institutions that define our society. What happens when we see others around us apparently failing to understand or accept this premise?
I submit that the best place to look for answers is in the particular, private choices that each of us makes as an individual every day. For a moment, forget about political correctness and officially mandated policies and carefully structured programs of reform . What are you going to do about it?
Kids who are motivated to learn…if you could poll every teacher everywhere, and ask all of them to share their fondest dream about their chosen profession, it might be just that. Kids who want to be there, kids who don’t need to be threatened or catechized or shamed or lectured …or bribed…into going through formalized motions of learning. With a group of students like that a good teacher can overcome just about any other obstacle you can think of.
What kind of program can we develop, mandate, fund and implement to make a dream like that become reality? Who will merit our trust, or accept the responsibility, to do it? Should we concentrate our efforts on the public schools, or private institutions, or charter schools, or maybe invent a new way to categorize them all and create some sort of cosmic Lesson Plan Book to solve the problem? Who gets to decide?
I would not want to be chosen to attempt any such crusade, no matter how well intentioned. I have spent most of my life at one extreme end of the continuum of kids who share the experience of SCHOOL I was too bright to fit in, too innocent to realize it, and helpless to do anything about it anyway. I’m prejudiced, and I submit that all of you who are reading this are, too, each in a unique way, good, bad, or indifferent. There is no way we could ever agree on anything of substance that would actually reform education, much less put it into practice. That kind of solution is the stuff of fairy tales.
But…what if we could stop pouring all that energy into discovering a supreme plan to reform education that might work and instead, just agree to agree that education matters?
What if one beaten down, abused welfare mother honestly wanted to get her kids to accept the idea that school matters and that doing your best to succeed there promises the shortest path to a better life? What if her kids really believed that?What would that accomplish? A whole lot, in fact. What if everybody truly believed that? What if we could somehow get every disadvantaged, disenfranchised, discouraged parent out there to agree…and to share that belief with their children?
That’s probably another fairy tale…but…what if you could only get to one such person and persuade by argument or example that encouraging a child to value education is a good thing? That has been shown to work. I have done it, and so can you if you want to. What would happen if all of us did it just once? Think about that for a while.
In my last post I admitted that in the process of becoming an old guy with a white beard, I may have learned a few things about life that could be worth passing on. Here’s one of them…
Everywhere you look (or read, or listen) these days people are talking about educational reform…fixing what’s wrong with things the way they are. What are those things? Well, Johnny can’t read, math scores keep falling and kids in every other country you can think of are doing better, science education is in the same mess, disadvantaged kids continue to do poorly, drop out, and fail at most of the challenges life offers them, it costs too much, and “those teachers” don’t care anyway.
What do I know about all that? Well, aside from already having several volumes in print that address in large part with a concern that our institutions of public education have not always dealt with well…being an unrecognized gifted kid at the opposite end of the spectrum from the disadvantaged ones…I have experienced life inside the classroom as a certificated teacher at the Middle School level in both New Jersey and Maine, and I’ve had the privelege of being married to a remarkable lady who recently retired after thirty two years as a first grade teacher, having done that job well enough that she was honored with a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence by the State of Washington. Between us we have seen plenty of ideas for educational reform come and go. Some of them accomplished a little, some caused nothing but more confusion, but none of them solved the problems they were meant to address.
I would like to suggest that we may have been aiming, in large part, at the wrong target. We need innovative new curriculum, we need dedicated teachers, we need up-to-date buildings, we need accurate testing protocols…but we also need standards of performance that will point kids in the direction we want them to go.
Where do those standards come from? I suggest this: educational standards that will lead to the results we want can come only from parents who send their children to school motivated to learn, already imbued with the notion that success in life depends on accepting responsibility, and ready to work at it.
Easy to say…not so easy to accomplish. There is plenty of evidence that it can work. What are you going to do about it?
THESE ARE MY THOUGHTS. WHAT ARE YOURS? PLEASE SHARE THEM BY RESPONDING.
Not so long ago I got a real surprise. I was out spending a warm summer afternoon with friends when the fifteen year old nephew of one of them asked for my opinion. I don’t remember exactly what I told him, but I will not forget how he answered me: “That’s wise advice from a wise old man.”
Long ago during my years at Bowdoin College, one of my professors, most assuredly a wise old man himself, suggested to his students that one sign of wisdom might be the ability to recognize how much one does not know. If that is so, maybe my young friend was right. I can certainly do that. Nearly half a century after that classroom discussion amidst the halls of ivy, maybe the roles have changed and it is time for me to accept a new one. Doing that ought to be easier now than it was on another day now past when I was was first informed that “You are a textbook example of a gifted child who was never recognized, never acknowledged, never encouraged.” That took a lot of getting used to.
I’ve said this before and you will no doubt hear it from me again…in dealing with the issue of gifted kids who have not been recognized or acknowledged or challenged or whatever, whether they are still kids wondering what’s happening to them or adults who know something got lost along the way but can’t figure out what it was, whether the person of concern is the kid next door or you yourself…the part that truly counts is the answer to the question, “What are you going to do about it?”
In my case the answer is to accept what has happened and share everything I have learned from it. Those of you who have read some of my work already know that it is my habit to prepare in depth for tasks I can see coming. That’s what I have been doing in these recent blog entries…telling you about myself, setting the stage for sharing some of my insights and opinions that might be of interest to others. If that’s what being a wise old man who wants to pass on what he learned by surviving being a kid who was too smart for his own good, so be it.
Let’s do it.
The just be a regular guy part was especially hard for me to work out. I honestly did not understand some of the things a boy my age was supposed to do without having to think about them. I went off dutifully to day camp that summer already knowing that I’d get teased for things like caring about what kind of snake that was, but I truly was not ready for the fighting thing.
Boys get into fights. Everyone knows that, especially those clean-cut, wholesome college boys who take summer jobs as camp counselors. What got me into trouble was believing that no matter what happened, I did not have the right to hit anybody. That’s what happened on the day about twenty of us had our turn at taking a trail hike a mile or so up old Chebacco Road from Beck’s Pond, where the day camp was. You could say that road should not have counted as a trail, since it was paved and a car came along every twenty minutes or so, but all along its edges the pavement was crumbling into little chunks of gravel stuck together with asphalt and the woods came right up where we were walking so you could reach out and pull a leaf off a branch any time you wanted to. It was the pavement that got me into trouble.
The game was that you were supposed to choose just the right piece…a chunk maybe just bigger than a good throwing rock…and kick it against the heels of the kid in front of you without getting seen by a counselor. I didn’t want to. The kid in front of me was my friend David, and I couldn’t help imaginging about a hundred different reasons any of the adults I could think of would not lecture me that you’re not supposed to kick rocks at your friends.
Ricky, the kid behind me, went to a different school and I didn’t know him. I took three or four good hits from rocks, but wouldn’t pass it on. When hissing watcha’, wierd, Kid? under his breath didn’t do any good, he started the thumb-and-forefinger ear pinging thing with me. After the fourth or fifth time I felt a surge of frustration, spun around, and confronted him. That was the moment both counselors were looking right at me.
It didn’t matter that he started it. It didn’t matter that the instant I had turned to face him the rush of anger was gone. I heard something from one of the counselors about being a poor sport, and if I wanted to fight so badly he’d give me a man’s chance,. and the next thing anybody knew Ricky and I were standing on some bare earth at the center of a circle of boys, wearing boxing gloves someone had produced and pushed onto my hands and listening as fifty voices chanted hit ‘im, hit ‘im, weak sister won’t hit back…
I couldn’t do it. The flare of anger I’d felt for about half a second was gone and I could not summon up even a pale ghost of its fire. I knew you were supposed to block the other guy’s punches so I put my arms up more or less the way I thought I should. Ricky took a couple of good swings at me. Maybe he connected, maybe not, I never felt anything. One counselor started yelling HIT BACK, HIT BACK in my ear… and then I had no idea at all what I was supposed to be doing so I dropped my arms and just stood there.
It never occurred to me that I was a couple inches taller than Ricky, and maybe stronger. I could not make myself do what everybody else wanted. As far as I was concerned, that just went to prove once more that I did not belong here, or anywhere else like this…but…what was I going to do about it?
I never did get that part figured out.
School has been out for a couple of weeks now, and here in the Pacific Northwest nature’s gift of summer has conquered her lingering stage fright and made an appearance.
Ever since I was a kid, just old enough to appreciate what treasures a quiet summer morning like this one might hold, such times have been magic for me. Early enough that the dew had not yet lifted from the grass and those impossibly bright green leaves still hung motionless from the trees and the air was pregnant with the warm, rich smells of life, my world became a place of wonder, or maybe reverence for something more vast than I could have described with any of the words a very bright ten-year-old boy had already learned to use. It was all of that and more. All I wanted was to be left alone with it for a while.
That did not always happen. It probably never occured to any of the adults around me to question whether YMCA Day Camp with softball and organized swimming and regimented “nature walks” truly would be a better way to keep me occupied than all those precious summer day things I had in mind. Just walking along the crumbling pavement at the edge of a woodland road…without being part of a line of boistrous pre-adolesccent boys doing their best to sneak a sly punch or spit or show off a new swearword without the counselor’s noticing…would have been a fine way to experience the afternoon. Just sitting in a sunny spot beside the pond, challenging myself to identity the creatures that revealed their presence to me…not worrying that I’d be mocked for being able to explain why the Banded Northern Water Snake could not possibly have been a poisonous water moccasin… might have left me feeling richer for the time I’d spent there.
You need to learn to get along with the other boys, just be a regular guy, the camp counselors advised me. You’d be happier if you could just have fun and not worry about things like that, my mother scolded me. They were right…I knew that. I also knew that there was more to it, but I didn’t know what that might be, and it was going to take a very long time for me to figure it out.
Last Sunday was Father’s Day. As it turns out I am not anybody’s father…that’s something you’ll get to read about when Side Door To Heaven is ready for publication…but there was a lot going on for me anyway. Out at the airport the Olympic Flight Museum has been putting itself together from the ground up over the years, and recently they have been presenting a well organized air show on Father’s Day weekend. I was there the whole time, as a part of the show.
This air show is mostly about World War Two era airplanes and artifacts along with a healthy shot of vintage ambience . Come here and you can see a REAL P-51 Mustang, a REAL B-25 Mitchell bomber, REAL PT-13 and AT-6 trainers and a host of vintage classic civilian airpanes. You can get up close and personal, smell the hot oil from the old radial engines and doped fabric covering in the warm sun, and watch and listen and get wonderful prickly twitches of excitement down your back as those engines rumble and growl to life and the planes FLY.
The main hangar is open and spilling over with displays of more vintage airplanes and walls full of aviation-themed artwork and long tables overflowing with exquisitely built flying models of even more classic airplanes, and everywhere you turn people who know about all this stuff and will jump at the chance to explain it to you, point out the subtle details, share the history…
This year I was part of it…again…like so many years before, and I got to thinking that I have been there in just about all the roles one might get to play in a place like this. This year I was invited to display several of my radio controlled flying scale models of vintage fighter planes…I brought out a World War I Sopwith Camel, a World War II Messerschmitt 109, and a Korean War F-86 Saberjet. In between seesions of explaining that yes, they really fly and yes, I built them myself, I’d take a break outside to watch whatever might be in the air just then. That’s when I caught myself reflecting on how many times I have been in places like this and how many unusual things I have done here.
I have lost count of the times I have been one of those guys with the awesome model airplanes, as often as not the organizer and lead pilot when we flew those models as part of the show. I have also lost count of the airshows and pilots’ conferences and meetings where I have been on hand as an artist to display gallery-quality aviation themed paintings, both to add interest to the show and to attract customers for more of my work.
That’s not all. I have been out on this very same tarmac apron with my own airplane…not as a show performer, but as one of a dozen or so owners of lovingly restored classic and antique aircraft that flew in early in the morning to park in a special area and add historical perspective to the event. I remember what it feels like …as a pilot…to taxi back past the crowd after the classic airplane formation fly-past .
All perfectly ordinary, right? Couldn’t anyone do those all things whenever they wanted to?
It has taken me a long time to realize that in fact most people could not do all those things, that there truly is something imperfectly ordinary about me, and that I have an obligation to other gifted children to share what I have learned. That’s what my work is all about.
What should I write…and why should I write that? Well, there are books and then there are essays and articles and blogs, all of them headed toward the same goal, but leading me along different and varied paths to get there.
Over the past twenty five years or so I have written many, many technical/special interest articles for various model aviation magazines. I’ve lost count of the total. Right now I have four new ones in the works, for two different publications… but…that’s another story for another time. Anything you may have read from the Imperfectly Ordinary trilogy so far is about what it felt like to go through life that way. Blogs like this one permit me to share my reflections on how it feels now to look back with some understanding of what was going on., and that’s a big part of what admitting to being imperfectly ordinary is all about.
In reading A Gift of Dreams and I Promised You Daisies you’ll find one allusion after another to the things I expected to be called on to do in life. I wrote about them to convey the mindset in which I experienced them…adventures and obligations and accomplishments that were likely to become real at some time in my future. When Side Door to Heaven is ready for publication, you will be able to read about how I came to accept that many of those things would never be more than missed opportunties. That was not an easy lesson to learn. I am still not at all at ease with it, but I am becoming comfortable that writing the books of the trilogy and sharing some of my more recent insights in blogs like this are a good way to make up for some of the things the gifted child I was might have grown up to accomplish.. It’s a story I must tell.
What’s that like, being a writer? What does it feel like? People ask me that a lot. As often as not I suspect that what they are actually asking is what do you really do…are you for real…and maybe how do you spend all that time by yourself, without a boss, and not just goof off?
I can answer only for myself, for the guy who lives in that place in the Pacific Northwest with woods behind the house and deer in the yard…and…for the guy who learned the hard way about being a gifted kid and wants to do something about it. Writing has become something I have accepted an obligation to so. Being a writer comes with the territory. It’s the only way I can make sense of all the things I talk about in A Gift of Dreams and I Promised You Daisies, and that I am getting ready to share right now as I work on Side Door To Heaven.
You can’t read any of that material without getting at least a hint of the enthusiasm I had in those days for all the good things I was going to do in life. That’s a part of the experience of being a gifted kid that I feel compelled to share with my readers. In my case most of it did not work out, and that, too, is a big part of what my books are about. The writing itself, and making the completed work available in the form of published books, is part of the obligation I have accepted to make up for all the things I did not do. With that in mind, I think you may be able to understand a bit more easily why it isn’t difficult for me to sit by myself for a good part of most days and weave words out of old memories.
Where do you live…what place do you call home? For many of us these two questions may demand entirely separate answers. That’s certainly the case for me. It has been thirty seven years just this month that I pulled up my affairs by the roots and as the saying goes, went West. For a long time I would answer the next question, why did you do that?, with what I hoped would pass for an offhand shrug and some remark about new places and new challenges.
If you have read I Promised You Daisies, you know better. For the better part of those thirty seven years I was uncomfortable, at the very least, with the idea of confiding the details of the experiences back East that convinced me I ought to leave town. None of it was easy, and I guess I admitted to myself right away that staying here wasn’t going to be all that comfortable, either. Everything I have say in A Gift of Dreams about the part of New England I left behind is as true now as it was then, and if you ask me now, at the age of sixty-something, where are you from?, I’ll answer, a little town near Boston.
It was not easy to let myself believe that I ought not to blame the Pacific Northwest, western Washington, and the lower reaches of Puget Sound for not being Essex, Massachusetts or maybe the southern coast of Maine. It didn’t help that many of the things that happened to me during my first few years in this part of the world were even more depressing than those I had just left behind. That part inspired the opening chapters of third book of the Imperfectly Ordinary trilogy, Side Door to Heaven, on which I am working right now. As readers of the first two books you are most welcome to guess how the third will turn out. I may drop a hint from time to time, but I’m not telling!
As it turns out this is not such a bad place. We live on a semi-rural half acre near Olympia, Washington, where I can look out the windows of my little office and see nothing but newly-green trees, the preposterously bright rhodedendron blooms of late spring, and the occasional deer crossing the lawn looking for something to eat. There are other houses close at hand, but you can’t see them from here, and we like it that way. It would not be at all difficult to argue that this is a fine place for a grown-up gifted kid to find himself, and for a writer to work at telling the story of how it all came to be.