School Daze: My Rambling Route Through Our Public Education System

 In My personal path, Shifting cultural paradigm

One evening a week or so ago, Shonnie, Gracelyn and I watched “Dead Poets Society” together. At the film’s conclusion, I began to ponder the course of my formal education—from the first grade through college.

Sixth grade classmates and me (4th from left) in 1955

My initial foray in the public school system began at East Ward Elementary in Mount Pleasant, Texas, in 1949, and my first-grade experience was not a promising start. My aged teacher not only demanded that we color within the lines, she also dictated the colors we had to use. That attitude, along with the exceptionally boring books we were required to read (“See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!”), had me longing for recess and the playground, my only respite from the tedium and tyranny of the classroom. I did learn to read on my own, however, so I could enjoy my favorite comic books—Superman, Roy Rogers, and Donald Duck, among others.

Though there were a few teachers along the way with whom I resonated (most notably Ms. Mitchell, my sixth-grade teacher, who was a recent college graduate), for the most part from first grade through high school, it was the stultifying memorize and regurgitate routine. However, during my senior year, my Tullahoma (TN) High English teacher provided an opportunity for creative writing when she required us to write our autobiography, a project I thoroughly enjoyed, and which provided my first inkling that I had a way with words. Below is the first paragraph and another excerpt from my 1200-word effort for which I received an A-:

Many people write their autobiographies when they are fifty or sixty. I’m going to write mine right now while I’m seventeen so it won’t be so long. . . .

During March we moved to Pomona, California. Ah, sunny California! When we arrived it was raining and the temperature was about sixty degrees. The teacher thought I talked funny because I said “ah” instead of I, so they sent me to a speech teacher. They couldn’t convert my Texas drawl though. The only good thing about California was the nine or ten television channels. We moved back to Texas six months after arrival.

Otherwise, I encountered listlessness and monotony, punctuated by sports, practical jokes, and girls (in that order). However, one high school history project also stands out. My classmate Norris and I reenacted the sinking of the Maine, setting up a large tub of water outside the classroom window, floating a plastic model of a battleship in the tub, inserting a cherry bomb into the battleship, and blowing it to smithereens. Yeah, I guess this activity actually falls into the practical joke category. 😊

High school pals out on the town in 1961

At the University of Tennessee my classes were more challenging, and things shifted for the better. Chemistry just seemed to click for me. We were doing challenging experiments in the chemistry lab, the outcomes of which relied on the intention and expertise with which we undertook them to obtain the desired results. And my freshman English teacher gushed over some of the personal essays I wrote in her class, offering the second intimation of my future path.

Perhaps I experienced my greatest collegiate awareness in my music appreciation class. Reputed to be an easy A, I signed up with no great expectations. But, exposed to classical music for the first time, I was entranced as I listened to it and even purchased a record of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number 5 featuring Van Cliburn at the piano. I continue to listen to classical music on our local NPR station to this day. Then there was the 0.0 grade point average the spring quarter of my sophomore year, but I’ll leave that tale for another time.

I managed to graduate from Sewanee—The University of the South in 1966 with a degree in psychology and minor in English, thanks to the generosity of my third-year French teacher who gifted me with a D. Then there were my brief forays into post-graduate education—law school and English grad school, neither of which held my interest for very long.

Somewhere along the way I realized classes and schooling were not my primary method of learning, that I learn to do things best by actually doing them. I think I probably could have dropped out of school in the fourth or fifth grade and still have pursued my professional undertakings, including teaching, construction, energy conservation, public relations, marketing, strategic planning, freelance writer, and political organizing. In fact, my inherent skill set—planning, problem solving, and organizing–provides the attributes that I continue to draw on in my writing, as I plan what I want to say, determine how best to say it, and organize the words and sentences so that they accurately reflect my thoughts and flow in a manner that might resonate with readers.

Now to stop procrastinating and complete get back to work on that long-delayed memoir before time runs out!

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