School Sucked… Mostly

If you had asked the eighteen-year-old me if I were planning to go to college, the answer would have been a resounding “hell no.” I had dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade and only received my GED a couple years later because a program that I was in (California Conservation Corps) forced me into that process. School was like church to me: a place where you were forced to sit down, hold still, stay awake, and shut up. There were only a few instances where either place struck me as an institution that inspired learning. To me, they were more like punishments, or some form of negative phenomena meant to keep us from being happy and free. But at the time, I also suspected that I was almost alone in this perspective. I wondered if I hated school because I wasn’t smart enough to keep up with everyone else. I adopted the outlook of, “There’s no point in trying, I will never get it.” But since it was so boring, it didn’t even bother me that everything seemed to be going over my head.  I hated it. School was a bully. I decided that I would never like anything that tried to control me and keep me from playing outside.

The adults in my life, excluding my mother, quickly gave up encouraging me academically. They seemed happy to accept my barely average grades and to celebrate my athletic skills. The goal was always for me to get c’s, so that I could continue in school sports. In high school, I can’t recall anyone ever telling me that I needed to understand my classwork. But they let me pick which numbers were on my jersey.

Years previous, in early primary school, teachers wanted to hold me back because I was hyperactive. Those were observant teaches. After all, my few memories of kindergarten to second grade are of chasing or being chased by other kids, singing, painting, throwing dodge balls, and dancing. My brain didn’t even record the academic aspects like learning to add, subtract, and read, which came to me later than it did for my classmates.

Had I been born a decade or so later, I’m sure I would have been diagnosed ADD and medicated. In spite of the teachers’ recommendations to hold me back, my mom would never let them.  She’d point out that I was already the biggest kid in class. Another year held behind, and she figured I’d have a real stigma as the big, dumb guy.

My parents decided to put me into a private Christian school for third, fourth, and fifth grades where “spare the rod and spoil the child” was practiced. I guess they bought into the popular belief that some fear would inspire genius. As you can imagine, most of my time there sucked. To this day, when I recall my third and fourth grade teachers, I have to concentrate on not being angry and forgiving them. They were being what they were taught to be. Those teachers planted the seed to educational resistance in me. I was swatted publicly for day dreaming, restlessness, finding humor in between the mundane, and wanting to go outside. I can’t remember those teachers ever smiling at me. I was scared of them. I did what they asked and no more, fearing a wood paddle if I failed to comply. I never wanted to go to school.

I hate to think what may have happened were it not for my fifth-grade teacher. Nothing about Mr. Robinson was boring or oppressive. It was apparent that he loved to teach. He recognized my hyperactivity and often brought me to the front of the class and incorporated me into the lessons. The participatory role helped me realized that I could learn just as quickly as anyone else when the education was presented in a more entertaining way. I saw my highest grades ever in fifth grade. I never got swatted in his class. No one did. Learning became exploration. Reading and tree climbing suddenly seemed to be in similar categories rather than on two different planets. I loved school. But after that year, I never met another Mr. Robinson until college. My grades and interest fell back to previous levels.

Because of a life-long interest in nature, by the time I was a twenty-year-old United States Forest Service fisheries/fire crew seasonal, I was already a more accomplished naturalist than many of the biologists that I worked with. And I wanted a fulltime career like theirs. As far as I was concerned, I was already qualified. But no… I quickly learned that I was required to have an applicable degree to be hired as a fulltime wildlife biologist.  Begrudgingly, I became a college student. My first several semesters were struggles. There were parties to attend and bongo drums inviting me to dance. And since I was a drop out, I had to start at the academic bottom to catch up with my peers.  Even after five semesters, I was still considered “almost a sophomore.”

If the professors were passionate, and the subjects were interesting, I’d get A’s or B’s in those classes. If not, I’d get C’s or worse. Eventually a professor who recognized my independence and challenges suggested that I create my own Bachelor’s in Science. This prospect excited me. It was quite the process to do, but by the time it was all approved, I graduated with a degree that was a combination of plant science, Latin American Studies, International Studies, and range science. It was titled, International Crop Production, Latin America.  And it was unique to me. For the first time since fifth grade, I felt like a participant in my own education.

It took me almost ten years to get my Bachelor’s degree. In that decade, I matured into loving education, seeking it out, and encouraging others to guide their own. I learned that it could have been this way all along. Some of us need more than just education: we need edu-tainment. We need the fundamentals of human learning sang into us, played into us, painted into us, and danced into us. We need to be inspired and equipped to explore it for ourselves. We need it to be applicable to the real world. Education should always be perceived as the essential and engaging ally, not the oppressive killer of fun. Awe not fear should inspire learning. This is the wisdom that I gained through my schooling.  I want to be the humane educator who inspires others to become solutionaries. I want to be the people’s Mr. Robinson.