Thoughts on Graduating College

I blew an academic scholarship from Rutgers when I was 18 due to…basically acting 18. In retrospect, I don’t see how anyone does anything responsibly at age 18. Eighteen year old humans shouldn’t be considered adults. I documented my issues in Houston in earlier blogs, but there was no way I would be able to take classes out there either. When I joined the military, I figured I’d be able to just skate through school while being a 24 year old moron instead of an 18 year old moron. The result? I failed my first five fucking classes. Whether it was because changing my work shift threw off my routine too much or because I thought having a five page paper in Week 1 was unreasonable, I always found a way to justify giving up. Always had some funny story about how school was getting in the way of more important things like having fun. I never let anyone know how deeply those grades affected me. I had made my entire reputation from being smart, and based on everything on paper, I was an idiot. My combined GPA  up to that point was a solid .6 or something. What if I was actually stupid? Or just destined to be average? It was a legitimate existential crisis. My already fragile confidence completely cratered. I didn’t (and still don’t) enjoy what I’m doing in the military, but what other option did I have?

Well, I’m 29 now, and I got my bachelor’s degree last Saturday. You know what I realized? Graduating had very, very little to do with my natural intelligence. Many people say that plenty of dumb people exist with college degrees, and they’re absolutely right. Almost anyone can follow rubrics to the letter and look up sources or Wiki to write a paper about something. But those “dumb” people had the resolve, work ethic, time management skills and made the sacrifices that were necessary to get through 40 classes (120 credits) of whatever their major was, and the older I get, the more I realize how much more important those qualities are for success than being born with a high IQ. I didn’t have some magical moment one morning where everything came together and I turned into some kind of genius. Really, no kind of success works that way. It was gradual. It was difficult. I had classes where between my long commute, work, and class, I was gone from 5:30am-11:00pm. Accounting almost made jump through a window. It made me grow up. It made me truly commit. It forced me to be consistent. And it was the best thing to ever happen to me.

I also realized that my earlier struggles with school in my were a symptom of a larger issue that I had. I was terrified of failing at something that I actually tried to achieve. I bailed on everything (and everyone) the moment it wasn’t 100% easy or convenient. That went for writing, school, basketball, weight lifting, relationships, the whole works. If I just dropped it (or her), I always had the safety net of saying that I could do it if I really tried. In short, I was a coward, and it’s really easy to be a coward when your support system doesn’t call you a coward. Cowardice is like smoking in that it doesn’t bulldoze you as much as it gradually erodes you.  You push back your goals until tomorrow and your tomorrows become next week and your next weeks become your New Year’s Resolution and you look up one day in your mid-30s and realize that you haven’t done anything outside of exist and you wonder where all the time went. I was well on my way there. And then I wasn’t.

(Personal aside: I say really nice things about my wife in this blog often (because she’s pregnant and I don’t want her to kill me), but I seriously could not have done this without her. She always knew when to prod and when to let me relax and which buttons to push and I keep thinking that I’ll run out of ways to say that she’s my everything but I keep inventing new ones because holy shit is she amazing. Also, this is my first post in several weeks. My capstone course was really difficult. Forgive me. I’ll be writing consistently again. Oh yeah, remember that .6 GPA that I referred to earlier? I ended with a 3.482. Am I happy about that? No. I wanted a 3.5.)



How I’d Change the School System

The school system as currently constructed is terrible and only works for me personally because I’m good at standardized tests that are biased against me. I rarely learned anything substantial there, and the vast majority of my secondary education was a waste of time. I’ve had the goal of opening a school for underserved children for some time and I thought about what I would teach them, but I never committed to put my plan on paper until recently. My last class assignment asked me to give details of how my ideal school would look, and although I couldn’t really get in depth with my vision (I won’t complain about only having to write 750 words, but how am I supposed to really get going with this topic?), I think that the following is a pretty good skeleton for how I would like to design my school:

Ideally, my school would serve children from kindergarten through 8th grade. I would prefer to teach that age group, as opposed to high schoolers because teaching them these ideas early in life gives them a better chance to be molded. I would also like to primarily cater to children from underserved communities, which are disproportionately Black and Latino.  I would also have the school being low cost (specifically a small percentage of their income) so those families can afford it. Underserved communities are especially important to reach because they are constantly marginalized by the world around them, and that damages their psyches in unquantifiable ways over the course of a lifetime. Being able to fight that constant marginalization they receive from their environment on a daily basis would be invaluable to them. I think that the attitude of our current school system reflects the attitude of our nation, namely that it is clearly catered to White men, and although they now welcome all different colors and creeds, they are in no rush to cater to them. I would teach them about their own history and read them literature from their own, Black and Latino, people. I think this is important because it gives a sense that those people are important in the same way that most people think that Shakespeare is important, since his works are universally taught at public schools. Creating a school that is focused on the needs of underserved children would protect them from being marginalized even further by the educational system as is.

Although I understand the importance of testing and other assessments of knowledge retention, I think the concept of creating ideas is even more vital for children and adults alike. I would create this sort of creative environment by encouraging them to constantly ask questions and teaching them how to approach and solve difficult problems. I would also organize business and marketing contests for the children, which would encourage them to use their massive imaginations to create and execute an innovative plan at an early age. I would also ideally give them time and daily opportunities to just think of different ideas, since I believe that the brain is a muscle that needs constant exercise like any other part of the body. I would ensure that the classes were small, so students would not only get specialized attention intellectually, but emotionally as well.

I would make the environment as fun as possible, since everyone learns and retains more when they’re having fun, and children are no exception. I would make the classrooms very tech friendly, since the world isn’t going backwards in terms of advancing. I would also put a heavy emphasis on physical activity and learning in places other than the classroom. I would give as many chances as possible to encourage hands-on learning, since that’s a great way to retain information that is often underutilized. I would discourage conventional lectures where the teacher talks at the students for an entire class while the students are expected to take notes silently. From personal experience, not only did that make my experience miserable, but I didn’t actually learn anything with that method. It literally provided no benefit except, perhaps, for the teacher to feel like he was truly in charge. Another necessity for my ideal school is the ability to give children a chance to explore creative passions, whether it’s music, arts, sports or academia. I think that the children knowing that their passions are embraced and encouraged will create an environment that is conducive to learning and personal  growth.

What do you guys think? Am I missing important parts? Are there already people working on these types of schools?I feel like this would be my small contribution to the world, so I’d really like to get it right.

About (Minority) Student Athletes…

Rachel was in huge trouble with her classmates this week. Got called insensitive and inflexible and all sorts of other professionally mean things. I know I mentioned that she’s doing a Master’s program (because she’s Superwoman), but I never mentioned her major. She’s trying to be a teacher. The question came up as to whether to give a failing student athlete a passing grade if he needed one for the 2.0 GPA required to get an athletic scholarship at a university. The class almost unanimously said yes. Rachel was the exception.

The reasons that other members of the class gave to justify handing out a passing grade weren’t very satisfying either, the worst of them being, “the poor hard working black kid just can’t handle traditional tests and writing assessments, so just give him an easier alternative test.” This made my blood boil, but not from the typical “I’m a hard working, average guy and I don’t get breaks like the dumb jocks” standpoint. The vibe was very much one where minorities weren’t expected to be as smart as their peers, and athletics is the only place they could possibly excel, which is born from every stereotype that’s been fed to us for eternity. There was very much an expectation that minority athletes just couldn’t cut it in any field that required using their brains, so instead of wasting time trying to get them to apply themselves, they would just pawn them off to someone else.

Rachel has unique experiences from dealing with college athletes. She has coached at UC-Santa Barbara, and she’s had to tutor student athletes who have been passed along using the “let the struggling black kid be someone else’s burden” approach. It’s ugly. They’re borderline illiterate. They submit papers that wouldn’t pass 9th grade English courses, much less university classes. And you know what? That’s not really their fault; it’s an institutional problem.

For those unaware, the job of teachers has changed drastically since the ambitious sounding, but silly No Child Left Behind act passed. Teachers have always been evaluated on how well students learn their coursework, but now, since much of the learning is evaluated with standardized, pressurized testing, much of the context of how much a child has improved over the course of a year is gone, and that puts them in a really tough situation. It’s easy enough to say that the satisfaction of knowing that a child improved a great deal even if it didn’t show on the test should be good enough from a safe distance, but teachers get fired if children don’t perform well on these tests. It turns into a situation where it pits their own livelihood against the academic progress of a student, and it’s human nature to choose self-preservation, even if the more noble option would be to help the child at all costs.

This quandary is complicated even further when the child is gifted athletically and has to make a certain GPA limit. Not only do they have the pressure of risking their own jobs because a certain student is having a rough time in their classes, but they also have coaches, athletic directors and sometimes even the local community breathing down their neck because they can’t make their only hope of a state championship academically ineligible.

Institutionally, I think that much of the issue comes down to society’s prevailing thoughts about minorities in general. We’re still seen as a one dimensional commodity who are really good at entertaining, whether it’s through athletics, music and the like, but not much else. To them, pushing us academically is basically a waste of time, unless we are obviously gifted mentally. As a result, when an athletically gifted minority struggles in the classroom at an early age, he is passed along when he should be held back, tutored and mentally nurtured while the stakes are still low. The problem only worsens exponentially as he falls further behind and loses more confidence in himself and is continually fed bullshit by peers and coaches saying that the ball that he’s carrying or dribbling is his meal ticket. The further he falls behind, the less prepared he is for the real world that inevitably hits him when he’s one of the 98% of people who don’t develop into pro athletes. And where are those people who passed him along and sang his praises while downplaying the importance of school when he’s just a regular guy wholly unprepared for real life because ensuring that he could read beyond a 4th grade level was too much of an inconvenience? Gone, that’s where.

I say all of that to say that I totally agree with Rachel, and the teachers (namely, the frighteningly large majority of the future educators in Rachel’s class) who feel otherwise either don’t understand the implications of what they’re doing or they don’t care, in which case they should find another line of work. I can rattle off studies about how home environments and income affect a child’s learning curve upon entering school, but my point is that we have to stop enabling and encouraging our minority children to put all of their figurative eggs in one fucking basket. As educators, we (I say “we” because I’m pursing education as well) can’t succumb to the pressure of passing children along when they clearly need help at their current level, blindly hoping that someone else will help him. Helping them early not only sets them up for future success in terms of plainly having the academic base to learn at the next grade, but it also instills confidence in them. They learn that skills can be honed and improved, even if they don’t come naturally. They also learn that teachers actually do care about them enough to ensure their future success, although it may come with the minor setback of summer school or repeating an early grade. In my opinion, that’s what teaching is about. Rachel’s classmates can suck it.