#Uninspired: The Story of My Mediocre Grade School Education

When I was 10 years old, my parents foisted a rather cruel yet unavoidable culture shock upon me. My family uprooted and moved from Malibu, California to Minnetonka, Minnesota. My dad had a job transfer and we went from the whiteout of SoCal sunshine to the whiteout of Minnesota winter.

I had grown up barefoot and blonde on Zuma Beach with the soaring five-part harmony of the Beach Boys serving as the soundtrack. I played football with Bob Dylan’s kid, got my ass kicked by Steve McQueen’s kid, folk hero Donovan dropped by and played acoustic guitar for my class once too.

It was a surreal upbringing, populated by the offspring of 1970s celebrity, awash in a post-hippie California progressive mentality that permeated my early childhood education. I didn’t know it then, but my schooling was often untraditional and avant-garde.

When we left all that behind and arrived in the Hothian landscape of suburban Minneapolis, I had no way of knowing then that the least of my concerns were meteorological. My education was about to faceplant into a frozen pond of mundanity, a scholastic reversal that literally took years to rectify.

The Minnesota school I enrolled in for fourth grade was a bastion of educational mediocrity, populated by owl-faced teachers and kids sporting Orwellian scowls. Standing upon the continental divide between childhood and pre-pubescence, my mind and body, like all kids at that age, were addled by hormonal confusion, insecurities, growing pains and indefinable fears. It was the worst possible scenario imaginable to start at a new school — particularly one that championed auto-pilot curricula and an absolute dearth of creativity. The only thing “progressive” about my new school was that they piloted standardized tests and number two pencils 20 years ahead of the curve — the race to mediocrity!

I don’t blame my parents for the move. Job transfers and upticks in salaries afford new opportunities. We moved into a beautiful old Victorian home, part of which was once a Pony Express station. There were elm trees all across our rolling property that rustled in the summer winds like the roar of a conch shell held close to the ear. We had six dogs that roamed free across our 18 tall-grass acres. I explored creeks and woods and fields. Moving to Minnesota was a shock to be sure, but it taught me adaptability in an alien world. Gone were the Endless Summers of Beach Boy harmony, replaced by the Hotter Than Hell guitars of KISS (I still love both bands with equal ferocity).

At school I was laughed at for my sun-bleached hair and lazy L.A. affectation. I sat each day in rows of desks, where the halls smelled of mystery meatloaf and the teacher’s dispositions matched the monochromatic gray days of the harsh Minnesota winter. There was a disarming shortage of creativity at my new school, I recall very little exposure to art. There was a systemic-wide scarcity of joy of any kind. There was almost no physical exercise. Sure, we had the prescribed gym classes — 40-minute-a-day prison yard release time led by that stalwart of grade school clichés — the ’70s gym teacher. Mr. Turner wore maroon polyester short-shorts, the kind with the snappy-button waist. He had the gleaming whistle. He had a Vulcan bowl cut with matching Spock eyebrows. He yelled at us most of the time, “Faster! Harder! Drop down and gimme 20!”

Every day I prayed, “Beam me up, Scotty,” but nothing happened. I was marooned.

We climbed ropes towards the gym ceiling. I couldn’t do it. We did pull-ups. I could only do one. We square-danced. Boys were often divided into shirts and skins as teams, half the kids running around half-naked and feeling self-conscious as hell.

The core academic classes were no better. My homeroom teacher was pure Eisenhower-era stereotype — plaid sport coat and requisite Vitalis comb-over. He was mean too. I remember him grabbing one rowdy boy by the earlobe.

I honestly remember nothing fun about fourth grade. Nothing. And my grades nose-dived. I was not engaged in any way and no one noticed. Sure, my mom was concerned, but with three other kids to worry about, her answer was pretty much for me to just work harder. She had no idea how dour my existence had become, spending seven hours a day, five days a week at my Shawshankian grammar school. Had Twitter existed back then, the hashtag for the place most certainly would have been #UNINSPIRED.

Reflecting back, it could not have been any more diametrically opposed to the creative, innovative, weird, hippie-haze education I had left behind in my California third-grade classroom at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School. We never sat in rows, we sat in circles and there were stations all around the room: science and math and creative writing. We interacted and worked with kids in other grades. We performed plays and drew pictures and wrote stories. We learned about history and science through performance, experimentation and project-based learning. There were guest speakers. No standardized tests. No number two pencils. No worksheets. There were two teachers in the room, smiling, inspiring, supportive. We had an abundance of outdoor time and recess, too. Today, of course, studies demonstrate without any question the connection between learning and exercise.

By comparison, my Minnesota school was a gulag. And this is no indictment of the Minnesota Public school system — just my school at that time.

By the fifth grade, believe it or not, things got even worse. The beautiful elm trees in our yard had been afflicted by Dutch elm disease and were slowly, tragically withering away just like my creative spirit.

The new middle school was the Death Star of education. The shiny terazzo hallways with their endless rows of shiny gray metal lockers symbolized falling into line and I just couldn’t deal. California had taught me otherwise. Three years in a progressive-minded school had rapidly forged my ethos to resist institutionalization, mediocrity and unimaginative teaching. I was 10 years old and didn’t know what the status quo was, but I already despised it.

This was all such a long ways from the positive, creative, stimulating school I had attended in Malibu. I was completely disengaged. I didn’t care. I was passionless.

My academic career spiraled out of control beginning in suburban Minneapolis. It took years to right the wrongs introduced to me in the institutional lock-up I called elementary and middle school.

Today, I am a college creative writing professor. The foundation established in my early California childhood education helped me survive the years of lackluster schooling. What I didn’t get during the day, I found at home in books, music, art and imaginative play. Today, as a teacher, I can recognize easily what was missing at the Minnesota school, and, frankly, what seems to be scarce in so many educational settings these days. These qualities are most definitely not measured by our cultural push towards standardized tests, or Common Core prescription. But these attributes are paramount to student success: Creativity. Motivation. Curiosity. Humor. Enthusiasm. Empathy. Humility. Persistence. Compassion. Self-reliance.

Standardized tests don’t measure these attributes. But for three years growing up in Malibu, I had teachers who taught me all of these pillars of character and so much, more.

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Source: Black Voices Huffington Post
Link: #Uninspired: The Story of My Mediocre Grade School Education