ASCII by Jason Scott

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A Valentine’s Day Memory —


Based on my memory of the arrangement of the classroom, I believe this happened around the 4th grade. That would be 1980.

We were given a writing assignment, our nascent class of future citizens, where we were asked to write about Valentine’s Day. Specifically, the teacher wanted origin stories. “I want you to write about how Valentine’s Day came to be, and how we come to celebrate it.” It was due in a few days.

The kids set off immediately on this task, creating fun stories of tribes of boys and girls and the one day the tribes would meet, or about how there was a place called Valentine where there was love and puppies and we celebrate that day. They no doubt had a lot of fun making stuff up.

However, I was sure, even then, that there was some real story. At that point I was doing an enormous amount of reading; there were these construction paper “bookworms” one teacher had put outside our classroom door, where a student who was reading could get a segement of the worm for each book they read. My worm stretched to the next classroom and went around that classroom’s door. Books change you, and depending on what you read, your outlook on the world is one of the things that change. Whatever combination of books I read at the time told me that there was, underneath this holiday, some origin involving people making a choice to have the holiday; it didn’t just come out of the air and making it up entirely wasn’t the path to accuracy.

Likely I got a pass to go into the library and went around until I found an encyclopedia. I would have looked for an entry on St. Valentine’s day and read the story of St. Valentine as that book described it. I recall it mentioning a martyred individual made into a saint, although I am likely to have confused the order in which people traverse from “martyr” and “saint”, thinking it was a Saint who had been Martyred. Kids do that. I used the dates of his death and indicated that it was a celebratory feast to honor this Saint and that this feast led to the giving of valentines.

Obviously it would have had flaws and I’m sure that a good teacher would have seen where I swapped around phrases and taught me about using sources and so on. It’s a difficult subject, research, but I obviously had the skill set, or at least the desire, to learn how to be a good reading citizen and get my information from actual sources instead of making up fanciful stories about how things are.

But I didn’t get a good teacher at that juncture.

No, in fact she failed me out, or whatever cuddly term they use for getting a zero or no star on an assignment. This wasn’t the point of the assignment, she said. It was a creative writing assignment, and I’d not been a creative writer; I’d been a researcher.

Obviously it had some effect on me at the time and stays with me, as I can recount that episode with striking clarity where I can recount few others from early grade school, other than that one time I couldn’t get the attention of a teacher in first grade for bathroom permission and ended up getting new pants from the school nurse, or the time the vice principal hit me. Most of that period is pretty much a blur.

But somehow, that feeling of helplessness, of telling what I thought was the truth (and which obviously had some refinement ahead) and doing the work to find out what was real and what wasn’t, and being told this was unwanted, has stuck with me for thirty years. Perhaps you’ve seen traces of my rebellion against this cavalier attitude to research and information in my later work.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Categorised as: jason his own self

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  1. Chris Orcutt says:

    Jay was being pretty modest here about the book reading contest. He read something like 120 books (mostly THE GREAT BRAIN and ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN–the kid had a STRATEGY for QUANTITY), while his closest competitors, me and a kid named Albert, were a distant second and third with like 60 or so. However, for the record, I would like to note that many of Jay’s books were fast reads while *I* took the more difficult road of reading almost exclusively 150-page biographies in the “Great Man” series of hardcovers. I’m just saying.

  2. p says:

    I believe sainthood is only conferred after death.

  3. Jason Scott says:

    As mentioned in the article, I KNOW that sainthood is only conferred after death, but at the time, I didn’t understand that and likely messed it up, the kind of mistake a ten-year-old would make.

  4. Jim Leonard says:

    My freshman year in college, I took a sociology class. I was genuinely interested in the class; I took great notes; I was young and eager to please. Three papers were due, and each paper averaged into the class final grade. I wrote a ten-page paper, single-spaced, on the subject at hand and awaited my perfect grade.

    It came back “C”. Worse, I looked at the sparse comments and honestly could not figure out what I had gotten wrong. My facts were correct; my conclusions were sound (and echoed by history). What the hell?

    I was dating my future wife at the time, and she had taken the class the previous year with the same teacher. She looked at the paper, and the marked scrawlings, and — I’ll never forget this — she gave me the same pitiful look you give a child when you have to try to explain to him that what little Goldy is doing upside down in the fishbowl isn’t playing, but rather decomposing. “You have to explain your ideas the way HE wants to hear them. You have to write like he talks.” What does that mean? “It means you have to bullshit your way through the paper.”

    It is not a stretch to say that I am somewhere on the autism spectrum. The concept of “bullshitting” is utterly foreign to me. It is not something I am ever likely to understand. Seeing this obvious social deficiency in her boyfriend, Melissa took pity on me and volunteered to write the second and third papers for me. From memory, of the previous year. They both got A’s.

    My impression of college was irreparably crushed after that. I was kicked out my junior year for failing to attend classes.

  5. John says:

    When I was in elementary school I was an avid reader, I had a favorite book which happened to be about robots. Real robots, like robotic welders in auto plants, the Viking landers on Mars, etc. One day our teacher told the class that robots only existed in movies. I corrected her and told her about the Viking landers on Mars and the robots that weld cars in the auto plants. She turned purple and almost collapsed she was laughing so hard at me. She told me there was no such thing as robots and all the rest of the class started laughing at me also.

    Decades later I was the IT director for a school district in a different city. I had to deal with teachers on a regular basis. I found that >90% of them are as incompetent as that teacher I had who laughed at me for thinking robots really existed.

    If I ever have kids, there is absolutely no way that I will ever send them to a public school.

  6. Jason Scott says:

    I have absolutely no issue with this comment thread turning into a “crazy shit my teacher told me in elementary school” thread, although I will disclaim some amount by saying my aunt taught kindergarden for many years and my mom was a substitute teacher for a bit.

    In 4th grade, we had “hat day”, where all the kids could wear hats. I put a boot on my head and was stopped from this because it was heavily disruptive. Looking back, I’ll buy in with this choice because it was, all told, pretty fuckin’ weird and the kids were flipping out about it. But we had half our class in one teacher’s room and half in another; and one of the teachers launched into this rant at us about how Hat Day had happened without her approval, and that in her opinion, the wearing of hats inside represented a clear and present danger to our heads overheating, and a range of health problems occurring, so she was doing it under pressure. What a bummer!

    This was also the same teacher who claimed, at some later point, that drinking orange juice in the morning was a terrible thing to do because the cold of the orange juice would cause a shock to our systems, as it hit our warm stomachs. That is AWESOME science, right there. Now, I will grant that drinking heavily sugared fruit juice is probably not great in the long run, but I don’t think the temperature has shown this to be the problem.

    So many teachers in my life have sucked! Good thing I had some nice ones.

  7. Jason Scott says:

    As a side note, I had no idea you could grab the little icon in the corner of your text comment window and resize the window on the fly! That is wonderful! The learning never stops.

  8. Decius says:

    The worst faculty I encountered in grade school weren’t teachers but faculty. Throughout middle school I, being one of the most excluded kids in the school, had my very own fan club of about 6 people who would pick fights with me. As in, walk up to me, posture for a few seconds, and then punch me in the face.

    School policies included “It is not a fight unless blows are delivered by both parties.” and “If blows are delivered by both parties, both parties are at fault.”

    Because of this, -I- was blamed for causing -ALL- of the fights that ensued. After all, the one common thread in all of them was that I was involved.

    I fixed the problem in high school by joining the JROTC. The uniform bought me a little breathing room and respect for a few months, and by that time I had already won one of the JROTC academic competitions. (Coming in first in my first match, against teams fielded by about 10 other schools) That got me enough respect to join a clique and develop the social skills to no longer be as alone in crowds.

    While I’m on the subject of schools and teachers, I just have to give a shout-out to my Junior Year AP Calc AB teacher. Kris Y., if you’re out there, good job.

  9. Shii says:

    I remember a similar hardass teacher to Jason’s who told the class that “the” and “a” were adjectives. I thought that by 7th grade kids had a right to know better, so I brought in a textbook from my previous year of school to show that they were a different part of speech called an article.

    Her response? “Maybe that’s the way you learned it. But in this class, they’re adjectives.”

    Thus I learned about subjective knowledge the hard way.

  10. Byron says:

    There’s really three things that you have to understand about teachers:

    They are incredibly over-extended, and that is particularly true at the elementary grades. A teacher that is great in science may suck in language arts (i.e. english). A teacher who knows everything about the visual arts may know next to nothing about mathematics. But they are expected to teach anything that they are given to teach. In high school, in my jurisdiction, that’s true up to and including grade 10 (grades 11 and 12 require specialist certifications). In elementary, it’s part of the job since teachers are expected to teach a group of children everything except French, and maybe music, and maybe physical education. So if you judge a teacher based upon stupid comments in one subject that they have no experience with, then yeah the teacher is going to look stupid.

    The second thing is that teachers have these things called “curriculum expectations” and the administration generally expects them to create lesson plans that show which curricular expectations are being met by a particular lesson. As such, they usually give out assignments with a particular vision of what the children are expected to accomplish and how they are supposed to reach that goal. Yeah, it sucks. On the other hand, it is also part of our education system.

    Besides, following instructions on a project is an important real life skill. Imagine working for a newspaper and your boss asked for a public interest piece on Valentines day, but you wrote a critical essay on its history. Your boss probably wouldn’t be happy because you didn’t meet his expectations. Simply put, you can’t always do what you want to do. It’s an important life lesson. Though I do agree that it sucks when a teacher/instructor expects you to parrot their own opinions. But opinions are different than form.

    The third thing that you should realise is that most teachers have to deal with “classroom management” issues. These range from behavioural problems to ensuring that everyone keeps up the pace. In the process of managing the classroom, teachers often say bone-headed things. Yeah, its a pretty lousy thing to do. Unfortunately, they are human just like you are. Because of that they often say spur-of-the-moment things when they are under pressure that just aren’t right (factually, or morally).

  11. Jason Scott says:

    Yeah, thanks for the news flash, Mr. Chips: Teaching is difficult. So is system administration, car repair, writing ad copy and dog walking. Each has positives and negatives and yes, at the end of the day, there’s a lot that can go wrong.

    But the one thing that kids get when they go through the colon of the school system is a metric ton of comparison shopping: they get to see How It Is Done by teachers both talented and talentness. Some of these teachers, functioning under the same hothouse pressure as you just glowingly recounted, somehow find a way to teach students in a way that isn’t insulting, misleading, factually broken and worthless. Having now reached the age of nearly 40, I can now look back at those days through the eyes of the teachers themselves, eating meals in the teacher’s lounge, maybe a couple striking up conversations on how to improve the scores and quality of learning, while others just grumbled into their sandwiches and just wanted this fucking day to end. Forget the sob story about how it’s hard to teach kids; the parametric aspects of the educational prospect are well known and hundreds of years in the documenting. Alternate systems exist and some fail and some succeed, but in the aggregate, the whole of teaching, especially at the elementary school level, is a very big person telling a lot of little people what to do, and some do so with aplomb, skill and knowledge and others absolutely suck ass.

    I’m sure you feel great that you were able to defend The Honor of Teaching in a weblog entry that appears to do nothing but insult it, but rest assured, I have seen the Good and that’s what makes the bad so much more reprehensible.

  12. Byron says:

    Exactly, teaching isn’t easy but everyone seems to believe that they could do it better if only such-and-such an isolated incident didn’t happen to them. Well, you can’t do that because teachers are failable people just like anyone else.

    “Comparison shopping” doesn’t always work out either. Yes, there are damned poor teachers out there. Some cannot handle the work (I’ve had a teacher who literally threw a chair). Some are simply not doing their job, because they are more interested in stuffing their pension. But no, rejecting a research report when a creative writing project was asked for does not make a teacher bad. In that case, they are just doing their job since the government says that have to teach expectations X, Y, and Z. And while I agree that having a teacher who won’t live up to their mistakes sucks, they will make mistakes because a lot of them are hired to teach stuff that is beyond their realm of expertise. That’s particularly true in elementary grades, where teachers are expected to teach a huge range of subjects based upon incorrect or biased resources, and are given no time to fact check.

    So maybe they’re doing a flawless job of teaching math, science, and history but their language skills are sub-par. Maybe another teacher is good at history and language, but their math and science sucks. Who’s the worst teacher? If you were on a grammar rampage that year, you may think that the first teacher is bad and the second is good. Yet you’d probably be learning more nonsense from the second teacher. Yeah, the best teacher will be the one proficient in all four, but that’s going to be the very rare exception.

  13. Chris says:

    Public school teachers == work to rule, do-the-minimum, just here for the pension and bennies, overpaid union hacks.