I have been reading a lot about President Obama’s speech scheduled for tomorrow. There is a lot of controversy surrounding this speech, and I really don’t understand why. I live in a very liberal part of the country, but even some local schools have chosen to block the speech to prevent his message from reaching the children. There was so much hullabaloo over this issue that the White House decided to release the president’s prepared remarks in advance (you can read them here.) I have now read the contents of the speech, and even though I am not the intended audience, I thought it was a nice speech and some parts of it even motivated me a little. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that one thing I currently lack is motivation, so it says a lot that reading this speech on my computer screen woke me up, even if just a bit.
Obama points out that children often get left out in the discussions about education. Children are talked at, and about, but not to. I was lucky to have had a good education for most of my youth. I played musical instruments, I studied art, etymology, I played sports (reluctantly), I read a lot, and I had some brilliant teachers. I also spent most of my youth in expensive college preparatory schools.
From a social standpoint, my experience at those schools was a nightmare. Twelve-year-old girls are the meanest people in the world. They’re even meaner when they’re rich and pretty. That aside, my education was excellent and I carry it with me to this day. When I was an instructor at a technical college, my students (who were mostly older than I was) often asked me where I learned medical terminology or how I remembered algebra so well or why I knew so many obscure facts. The truth is, I learned most of what I taught while I was in junior high. I’m not sure what magic my teachers were conjuring, but everything I learned in those classes is still with me, especially the etymology. If I could make a living by tracing and learning about word or idiom origins, I would. Anu Garg is my hero. (Mr. Garg, if you read this –would you like an intern?)
My social difficulties at the prep school became too much to bear in addition to my home drama, and I transferred to a local public school for 11th grade. More accurately, I deliberately got expelled from the prep school because that was my only way out. I failed 10th grade so that I could leave there and go to public school like a normal kid.
I had no idea how sheltered I was. On my first day at a public high school, I met a female classmate who was showing off pictures of a toddler. I said “Oh, she’s cute. Is that your sister?” “No,” she said. “She’s my daughter.” Well, knock me over with a feather. The prep school girls just got abortions and kept quiet. You can’t go to cotillion with a baby on your hip, and it’s damn near impossible to find a maternity ball gown in the juniors’ department.
The teachers at the public school were mostly inattentive. My AP biology teacher used to type up notes and put them on the overhead projector for us to copy. We would then get a 100 just for copying the notes. Most of the curriculum covered things I had already done in 9th grade biology at the prep school. My 11th grade history teacher did nothing but yell at us and tell us to shut up, shut the hell up, and shut our damn mouths. He gave us xeroxed copies of worksheets and we just sat and filled them in during class. If he heard a single whisper, then the yelling would start. I didn’t learn a damn thing.
There were two teachers at the public school that I remember fondly, and one of them wasn’t even my teacher. I used to spend my free period in the library reading books, and there was a teacher who struck up a conversation with me one day because I was reading something-or-other by Carl Sagan. We would talk a lot about science and literature, and he would lend me books. He lent me A Brief History of Time when I was 17. I frequently wore a Sub Pop “Loser” t-shirt to school, and he would jokingly admonish me for wearing such an awful, self-deprecating shirt. Nowadays, people would think it was creepy for a male teacher to interact somewhat socially with a female student, but there was nothing sketchy about it. I suppose he just saw some potential in a wayward teen. I had pink-streaked hair and wore black nail polish, but I was clearly a geek.
Despite failing 10th grade, I was actually able to graduate high school a semester early. Don’t get impressed. The truth of the matter is that my prep school had been a year ahead of the public school, so even though I had failed the whole year, I was right on track. I went to summer school anyway, and I tested out of a couple of classes, and I set to graduate a year in advance. My mother would not let me graduate a full year in advance because she felt I was too young. I eventually was able to convince her to set me free a semester early, three months after my 17th birthday. I went to a community college for a semester before I began working on my bachelor’s.
I was an inconsistent student. I wobbled back and forth between straight-A’s and many C’s. I graduated with a 3.1, I believe, and that was with me failing classes. After my prep school experience, I had no interest in Ivy League education (unlike my brother, who fits the Ivy League stereotype in nearly every way). I wish that I had tried harder, but I also wish that my public school had the same opportunities as the prep school, just with with fewer kids being jerks. The school lacked funding, and no one on the administration appeared to take pride in the property, the supplies, or the classes. The students didn’t take pride in those things either. Worse, I think that many teachers had given up on the students (including me), causing the students to act out. This is somewhat of a trivial example, but I took art classes at both schools and my experience at the prep school was far superior. Not only was the equipment better, but the supplies were better because the students took care of them. At the public school, the students wouldn’t even clean their paintbrushes (rendering them mostly unusable once dry), and they frequently stole or destroyed other students’ art assignments. Yet another public-school wake-up call.
So, in this “controversial” post-Labor Day speech, President Obama has the following to offer:
Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.
I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.
But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.
That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.
No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.
And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself.
It all seems like common sense or general feel-goodery –but why didn’t anyone tell me anything like that when I was a child? Why don’t children hear that from their teachers? From parents? And what’s wrong with hearing it from the president? These are words I need to carry with myself now, and I wish they were ingrained as deeply as my generally unnecessary knowledge of Latin and Greek roots. Again, if you read this blog, you know that I never ask for help, even when I need it.
There is too great of a divide between the education and attention that the wealthy children get and what the poorer or even middle-class children get, and it doesn’t end once high school is over. One of the more heartbreaking accounts of these discrepancies is in Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. I read this book in 1998 or so, but the image of East St. Louis children walking through sewage on the way to class will stay with me forever. Children who go to school in that environment aren’t going to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get into college. Even if they want to, the odds are against them. Part of why I am in favor of Obama’s speech is because he is not just talking to children who are likely to succeed, but all children. Of course there are problems with funding, and I hope we will make strides towards solving at least part of that problem, but there are so many other factors, and even those who are better off need to be involved.