In honor of all the photos everyone keeps sharing of their offspring on the first day of school, Alex and I got tipsy last night and tried to remember if we actually learned anything in school. I grew up in a world where the godliest amongst us would never send their kids to public school, lest they be exposed to inappropriate messages like coloring sheets that don’t include humans riding on the backs of dinosaurs. But as much as I’m like hashtag thank a teacher, I’m also a little worried.
I began working full time when I was nineteen years old and trying to pay my way through college. During these initial phases of employment I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t learned anything in public school, as two of my coworkers believed Alaska was an island just like Hawaii, and that both were floating somewhere near (or on top of?) Mexico. We were fully independent adult type humans with 401k(s) and health insurance policies but HOW IN GOD’S NAME HAD THEY NEVER STOPPED TO WONDER WHY ONE ISLAND HAD TROPICAL BEACHES AND THE OTHER WAS FULL OF SNOW AND POLAR BEARS?
Possibly because no one ever taught them how to actually think.
I’m trying to figure out where it all went wrong, because while many of us learned how to read in Kindergarten or First Grade, the comments left beneath articles on Facebook would indicate most of us have forsaken this skill.
Here’s what I do remember learning in elementary school:
- How to line up
- The Shoshone tribe exists
- If a boy is chasing you, stop running and you will shatter his existence
And here’s what I remember learning in middle school:
- Joseph Mengele was an evil Holocaust doctor
- The difference between translucent, transparent, and opaque
- The names of Henry VIII’s wives
I’m fairly certain I learned almost nothing in high school though.
I do remember my godless hippie creative writing teacher had a Namaste flag over her chalkboard (clearly a demon worshipper) and passed out Xeroxed copies of an essay on “process v. product” (clearly a breaker of copyright laws) before having us paint instead of write (clearly a person with zero regard for the way things ought to be done).
I remember her because of the cognitive dissonance she inspired: Here was a woman I knew, based on how I’d been raised, was someone I ought to condemn, shun, and fear. But she also had this something that appealed to me, though I couldn’t put a finger on it. I think, most likely, it’s that she actually cared to think about what she did with her life and her existence, which was a radical notion to me. I was surrounded by people who not only did the exact same thing as everyone else, they read the same books, listened to the same music, and wrote with the same fountain pens because these were the things you did if you were on the RIGHT side.
Even now, I can’t tell you where my college diploma is, but I could quickly produce the little blue sticky notes this teacher left on my work, confidently stating “you are a writer.”
If you were to make a venn diagram with A: teachers who had the most impact on me, and B: teachers most likely to get fired, I think it would be a circle. Like, they probably ousted the teacher who showed us a documentary about the Rwandan Genocide (which I’d never heard of) for not sticking to the lesson plan, but I’m sure the World History teacher who bought his PhD on the internet and let cheerleaders sit on his desk is still gainfully employed.
I grew up in a state with a lower life expectancy than Mexico, where the solution to “we don’t have enough money to give teachers raises” is to chop the school week down to four days and dispense with bus routes (because lol people who don’t have parents who are available to drive them to and from school in their own cars aren’t the kinds of people who matter), and things like art, music, or drama also don’t matter because the point of life is to plod about in a constant state of bewilderment, unable to determine what is real or what you want or how you feel about any of it.
I remember one of our elected officials opposed an AP History class because it failed to promote the idea of American Exceptionalism. Imagine! Can’t have that. It’s much better to spend your day in a classroom with 40 other kids, digesting a message looped on repeat about how we have it so much better than everyone else and thus need a bunch of nukes and a big wall or else THEY will try and take it all away.
It would be easier to compile a list of things no one ever bothered teaching us: Like the fact Japanese American Internment Camps existed. Or that we lost the Vietnam war after committing near-genocide. Or that it’s arguable we didn’t need to drop nukes in World War II but just wanted to announce their existence to the rest of the world à la Steve Jobs in a black turtleneck.
And where do I submit my complaints about never knowing that Estonia– a place where I probably would have assumed people lived in rusting oil drums and ate millet out of mortar shells– looks like a Disney fairy tale and has a lot of good stuff going on (like, they’re #12 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, whilst the United States is #45)?
Thankfully by the time I got to college I developed a habit of dropping out for semesters or years at a time so I could travel (to places like Vietnam, where I toured “The Hanoi Hilton” and saw where John McCain was imprisoned and tortured as a POW. According to the museum, the prisoners were treated well, and I even saw a propaganda video of them receiving gifts on Christmas Day. I remember thinking “wow, they can just lie like that? And their people don’t know any better?” which was a blissfully ignorant view I got to say BOY BYE to when I toured the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and saw the horrific terror we wrought on their people, or asked silly questions like “what? We bombed Laos?” Because of course we did. You just never heard about it.
Maybe there’s an argument for not telling young children about the terrible things we’ve done to other countries (though we seem to be okay with telling them about Hitler) but surely we can still see that our preparation for becoming adult humans is lacking.
I mean– I didn’t ask to be born, I just showed up here as confused as the rest of you. It would have been great if someone could maybe explain what life is, teach me how to think critically, teach me about my emotions, teach me about how there are more than a few ways to do things and often there isn’t one right way, as well as what it means to have an identity, how this forms, how it changes over time and how THAT IS OKAY and anyone who tells you it’s not is probably the villain of your story.
The only life hack that’s proved endlessly useful and accurate is “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey.”
Everything else seems debatable. Literally.
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