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Oh, For a Second Chance!

By Tina Blue
April 28, 2002

          When he was a teenager, my son, like most adolescent Americans, especially the boys, hated school and couldn't see any reason to do any more of the work than necessary to get by, much less try to actually learn anything.

          Working at his own pace, he managed to complete all of his required credits a year early.  He wanted to graduate with the friends he had gone to school with all his life, so he didn't officially graduate that year.  Instead, he worked full time and waited a year for graduation.

          The experience of working full time and not going to school at all eventually began to wear thin, and he found himself sometimes feeling rather wistful about his carefree days as a schoolboy.  It's not so much that he missed classes, but he did miss the whole feeling of being in school.

          The summer after he graduated, he spent six weeks doing trail repair work in Yellowstone National Park, as a participant in the Student Conservation Association.  Up there in the mountains, far from the noise of civilization and the distractions of the silly punk rock scene that had absorbed so much of his time and energy at home, he found himself with little to do in his free hours but commune with nature, think, and read.

          Hoping that would be the case, I had provided him with carefully chosen reading material--books I had been trying forever to get him to read, but with no luck, since reading is not a highly valued activity among adolescent punk rockers, though he had been an avid reader up until his eighth-grade year in school.  I had found unusually small, inexpensive versions of a number of books to tuck into his backpack: among them, Walden, Seneca's Letters, Plato's Dialogues, and even some Homer.

          With nothing else to read, Michael read the books I had provided--and was surprised to find how deeply they affected him.  He especially loved Seneca and Homer.

          When he returned, he did what he had not planned to do for a couple of years, if ever: he enrolled in college.

          He started slowly, taking only six credits his first semester and nine credits his second.  Not only was he still not sure that he wanted to be a student again, he also had some doubts about his academic ability.  He had been a straight-A student until halfway through his eighth-grade year, when the popular adolescent culture had gotten hold of him and convinced him that studying and following rules was for dorks.  But after five or so years of relentless anti-intellectualism, his ability to read, write and think felt creaky, and he didn't want to end up getting mediocre grades because he couldn't handle the level of work required in college.

          Because of this self-doubt, he devoted himself single-mindedly to his studies that first year.   He didn't take easy classes, though.  In fact, he rather ambitiously enrolled in a 500-level course in Dante's Divine Comedy, just because that particular book fascinated him, though he couldn't be sure why.  (I let him in on a little secret then.  While nursing him or rocking him to sleep when he was an infant and toddler, I had recited poetry by many of my favorite poets and passages from Shakespeare, and had read aloud from Milton's Paradise Lost and Dante's Divine Comedy.  I also did the same with my daughter, of course.  I wanted my children to absorb the rhythm of beautiful language before they were old enough to be made impervious to it.  Of course he loved Dante.  He had absorbed that sort of thing with his mother's milk!)

          Michael did beautifully as a college student, making 4.0 averages almost every semester from the very start of his college career.  He will graduate in just one more semester, with a 3.97 average (he's gotten two B's).  But as he wallowed in the joys of actually learning, he watched his younger half-brother, Patrick, fool around the same way he
had when he was in junior high and high school.  Pat is four years younger than Michael, which means that by the time Pat began to be a total kiss-off in school, Michael was old enough and wise enough to realize the opportunities that his brother was throwing away, just as
he had wasted so many opportunities himself.

          At one point during his second semester in college, Michael said wistfully, "You know, Mom, I feel really jealous of Becky."  (Becky is my daughter, 19 months younger than Michael, and a super-student her whole life.)

          Uh-oh, I thought, sibling rivalry rears its ugly head.

          But then he explained what he was jealous of.  All through her school years, Becky had treated school as a resource.  Dull, shallow classes and incompetent teachers bothered her as much as they bother any student, but she was always fully aware that she could get things free from school that were simply not available, or not available for anything less than a lot of money, anywhere else.

          She took art and ceramics classes, got involved in theater (even starring as Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard's
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
), was head drum major of her marching band (which  in her school meant she literally ran a band consisting of 280 members), played flute in orchestra, learned Spanish, and accumulated 27 college credits, including most of a college math minor, before ever graduating from high school.  She took every AP course available, and participated in all sorts of genuinely enriching activities.

          When she went to college, on a scholarship that covered all her tuition costs, she was already laps ahead.  A few days after she arrived at her college campus, the head of the math department called her and asked her to come to his office, where he begged her to consider a math major.  "We just don't see people coming in here with a record like yours," he told her.  She is a biology/pre-med major, but she added a math minor, just to avoid hurting his feelings. ( She was only a couple of courses short of that minor anyway, so what the heck.)  She also picked up a chemistry minor while she was at it.  She could afford to, since she had already gotten a full year's worth of credits out of the way before even beginning college.  And her background from her studies in high school was so strong that she has easily maintained in college the 4.0 average she took with her as one of the valedictorians of her high school class.

          Meanwhile, Michael had wasted all those opportunities in junior high and high school.  He had not learned a foreign language, participated in band, theater, or art classes, or made any effort to accumulate college credits for free.  Oh, he did take one sociology course here at Kansas University when he was a junior, but that was all.  Three credits doesn't amount to a huge savings, either in time or in money.

          But by the end of his first complete year as a college student, he was finally understanding that he was playing catch-up in areas where he would already be ahead--if he had made any effort at all in junior high and high school, which of course he hadn't.  He told me that if he could, he would fake an ID that would allow him to pretend to be 15 years old, so he could go back and do high school all over again, the way his sister had done high school.

          And he also told me how much he wanted to shake his brother Pat and tell him not to keep making the same dumb mistakes Michael had made, but instead to grab every opportunity offered by high school and make the absolute most of it.

          Michael reminded me of a student who had been in my English 101 class in 1989.  Randy had come to college at age 24, and had to scramble and struggle to make up for all the time he had lost by not learning anything in public school, from grade school through high school.  (To read "Closed Doors," the article where I tell Randy's story, click here.) 

          Once, during his first year here at KU, Randy told me he'd spotted his high school English teacher in a store in Wichita.  "I wanted to go up and yell at her for giving me a B without bothering to make me learn anything.  Teachers should make us understand how important it is to get something out of our education!  Why don't they tell us?"

          I laughed at him and said, "Oh, I'm quite sure they told you all the time.  But I'm equally sure that you were entirely incapable of hearing what they were saying."

          I told Michael pretty much the same thing.  A lot of people, including me, had tried to make him understand what he was throwing away by not getting anything out of school. "You may not realize it now," I'd warned him, "but you are being offered an extraordinary gift--a free education." At the time, he just sneered at the idea that a free education was worth anything at all.

          High school students in our country have access to educational resources that ambitious young people in many countries would weep over, and yet our teenagers cannot see the value in it.  They spend their time playing mindlessly, not even noticing that they are closing, often even locking, the doors that they will want to walk through once they get a little older and wiser.

          Michael was no more likely to get Pat to understand this than we were to get him to when he was in junior high and high school.  Pat would have to find his own way, as Michael had.  Maybe he would--or maybe he wouldn't.  We could only hope for the best.

          At the end of his sophomore year in college, Michael spent a study-abroad semester in Ronda, Spain.  He left here with only one semester of Spanish under his belt, and could not speak the language when he arrived in Spain.  He returned six months later, speaking Spanish beautifully, and totally in love with Spain, with the language, and with the Spanish people and culture.  He immediately switched from a journalism major to a Spanish/international studies major, and last fall he returned for another study-abroad semester in Spain .  Even with this midstream major switch and two semesters abroad, and despite starting out so slowly his first year, he will graduate in just 4½ years--and with that stellar GPA. 

          Not bad.

          But even at that, he still can't get over what he could have accomplished by now if he had not wasted so many years in a brainless fog.  Heck, he'd had Spanish in ninth grade and part of tenth grade, but had weaseled an A, without ever learning anything at all!  That's why he'd had to start from scratch when he went on his study-abroad semester.  Of course, in high school he'd been very proud of his ability to game the system and get easy A's, just as Randy had once been proud of his ability to get through high school with a B average, but without doing any work or learning anything.

          Neither Michael nor Randy created the intellectual fog that had enveloped them when they were in high school.  On the contrary, that fog fills the corridors of our educational institutions, especially our public schools. (In "It's Stupid to Be Smart" I explore some of the factors that encourage such mindlessness among American students.)  Fortunately for both of these young men, they were able to correct some of the failings of their education, but only by an unusually single-minded devotion to their studies. 

          What interests me most about their stories is that both of them just squirm with frustration over the resources they failed to make use of when those resources were freely provided to them.  All those things they could have taken care of in high school, as Becky did, were still there needing to be learned in college, but in college those lessons cost plenty of money, and they also use up extra years of a young person's life.

          Let me tie up a few loose ends here.  Randy got his Ph.D. in herpetology this year--from Berkeley, no less!  Michael's brother Pat is finishing his freshman year at Dominican University in Chicago, with a very good grade point average so far.  Michael will graduate in December.  His sister Becky will graduate just one semester later in May, despite their 1½-year age difference.

          All these kids have done very well, and I am proud of all of them.  But only one has gotten as much as she possibly could have from her education.  And from what Randy and Michael have told me, they very much feel those gaps in their education, despite the successes they have enjoyed.