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Shaking My Head

Do you have any idea what it is to be an educational elitist then learn what education has turned into?


Ok cool. Then I’m talking to my people.

The education of my youth is not education today, and the funny thing is I’m not old, not by a long shot.

I was born in 1973. I began elementary school in 1979 in a half-day Kindergarten. My brother was a high school senior the same year I started Kindergarten. I remember him asking me one night at dinner if I was going to make straight A’s. I proudly said I already can and ran to get pen and paper and drew the straightest capital A I possibly could. I didn’t understand the bemused look on his face for many, many years.

And, I need to qualify what I mean by educational elitist. We all have college degrees. The ideology we were raised with was get a degree, work hard and life will be ok. My grandparents all lived through the Great Depression. Most were children, but my father’s father was a fully grown man. They all came from farming families in rural parts of this country. My grandfather swore he’d never be that desperate again. His wife, my grandmother, had a masters in education. She received it at the same time my father graduated from college. She wanted my father to be a dentist, but he spent most of his life in sales. He worked hard and provided well for his family. My mother does not have a degree, but she did attend college. My siblings and I were raised to believe we were required to possess college degrees, and all three of us do. My husband has a degree. My brother’s children both have degrees.

So what I mean by educational elitist is that a degree must be obtained. The family ideology is that this is the key to the ability to properly support a family, to provide and provide well, with opportunity at one’s fingertips if one works hard enough. This is a way of life.

To get to the collegiate finish line, one is on their own. There is little to no support of the work itself, little to no guidance, but our tuition was paid for us.

My original major was Economics. My father was so proud. Economics would have been a path that led down numerous avenues, but I both didn’t know that and didn’t care. Yes, I thought it was a degree that would lead to making a good income, but how where and why were unknown to me. Being someone who thoroughly believed I was AWFUL at all things mathematical, and learning that I was going to have to take Calculus through Calculus 3, I decided that Economics wasn’t for me, so I changed my major to English / Creative Writing. Dad wasn’t pleased in the least. He did keep paying my tuition though because a degree, even if it was a useless degree, was still worth having.

I remember him asking me what on earth I was going to do with an English degree, and my response was “be a college professor.” Yup, that was my intention. I was going to get an MFA and then a PhD in English and teach college until I wrote the great American novel like Harper Lee then I was going to retire and live off of the royalties for the rest of my life. Then two things happened.

  1. I was informed how brutally competitive the tenure path was for English professors. My senior year a classmate and I befriended our professor who had just moved to our town. She was freshly divorced, on her own and didn’t know anyone, so we took her out when the semester ended and spent the entire night talking. There had been two tenure track positions open for that fall semester in the entire country, and several hundred applicants. She felt she got lucky; that her hard work had definitely paid off. Then she explained the need to publish, which wasn’t intimidating, but being highly competitive and also feeling I was never really worthy of much, I didn’t feel my odds of success were on my side.
  2. After graduating and beginning my job hunt one of my interviewers asked me why I got an English degree and I said because I had hoped to write the great American novel one day and his response to me was to give that dream up because it had already happened and no one would ever do it again. To a 24 year old kid with a fragile ego, that was a major blow. I let his bitterness influence my own dreams, and so I set that dream down with great sadness.

The expectation upon graduation was to get a job and begin my career. It didn’t matter what the career was, so long as it was a career; so that’s what I did. Fast forward 22 years as everything in between is irrelevant to all but me. The point of sharing is to establish the expectation for life that is the ideology of my family.

Now, to be clear, teachers were tough, but so was the content. I was taught to read via the science of reading. Handwriting was taught, as was cursive. We were taught the structure of a sentence, then a paragraph, and all things how to read and write. Teachers read to us and we read stories, but the work of reading books came later. The focus wasn’t on loving books and immersing in a literature rich environment to make us better readers, but the structure of language and how language itself worked so we could be successful readers, successful writers, and successful students. My mother was never once asked if she read to me every night. She did read to me every night, but not once was that question asked of her because it wasn’t relevant in my education.

My school principal encouraged me to read my first book. I was in the 4th grade.

Ok, I know, how on earth am I literate if I didn’t actually read a chapter book until the 4th grade!

The book was A Wrinkle in Time, and my principal’s name was Mrs. Ewing. She took the begrudging child that was me into our teeny tiny little library, which was not much larger than a closet, and handed me the book and promised I’d love it, and I did. I didn’t want to. The belligerent 4th grade me was convinced that I wasn’t a reader, but I loved that book. The next book she had me read was The Fledgling, and that book has haunted me since. I still didn’t consider myself an avid reader though. My sister was the avid reader. She had a book in her hands every night, but the only book I specifically recall her reading was The Grapes of Wrath. For the record, Anna Karenina is her favorite book.

I don’t recall “loving” reading until I read Wuthering Heights. I was in sophomore high school honors English (now you call it AP) with Mrs. Reuter as my teacher, and we could choose between Wuthering Heights, 1984, Animal Farm and one other I don’t recall but I think it was Fahrenheit 451. Wuthering Heights stirred something in me regarding the love of the novel and literature as a whole.

Again, 16?!?!?!? How on earth am I literate?

Bear in mind my education was still rigorous. The lack of my reading novels daily didn’t detract from the value of my education. While I barely passed chemistry and wasn’t the greatest math student, I was honors English and History and remained so throughout school. I’ve dissected and abstracted and identified and compared and contrasted and argued and debated and deconstructed and studied and passed and failed and learned learned learned learned learned.

I choose English / Creative Writing in college because I love books, and because my grandmother, you know the one I mentioned before, the teacher with an Masters in Education, pushed me to be a writer from my very earliest of memories. Some of my favorite books are Blindness, Portrait of a Lady, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Refuge, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird and many more. I’ve read the entire Shakespeare cannon. I’ve read Chaucer in it’s original middle English and translated it for my semester grade (got an A too). I’ve studied ancient Egyptian history, from before they were building pyramids. I’ve taken graduate Economics and Finance, I’ve argued ethics with attorneys, participated in a financial analysis for a graduate course that my classmate turned in and got promoted for, negotiated contracts for $100’s of millions of dollars, authored corporate policy, authored contract templates, and more.

But I didn’t read my first chapter book until I was in the 4th grade.

I was never taught to guess at words.

I never had a tutor nor needed one (until graduate school for finance, thank you, Courtney).

Am I in the 34% that learns to read naturally? Yes, but my point isn’t that I learned naturally, it’s that I was taught and taught properly.

I remember sentence diagramming in elementary school and I will never forget Mrs. Ezernak’s 8th grade English class and the hell that was grammar and syntax that year, but I LEARNED it because I was TAUGHT it, explicitly. I will say I wish I could remember the bitch teacher my sophomore and junior year when I lived in Atlanta because she taught me the 5 paragraph closed essay which I was convinced would be the absolute death of me. That was one of the two hardest leaps of effort I ever made in regards to my writing education. I don’t have a yearbook from that time or I’d look her up.

What I had was a rigorous education. What our kids have now…well, I can barely call it an education.

To teach guessing strategies and ignore science is ignorant and damaging.

To assume that learning to read via osmosis is how one learns to read is ignorant and damaging.

To not focus on handwriting, grammar and syntax is ignorant and damaging.

To assume that all children are born readers and writers is ignorant and damaging.

To force writing strategies without teaching writing is unconscionable, and yes, damaging.

There is the reason why grades are subjective, made up, feel good, and not founded in anything quantitative. When the method isn’t quantitative, then the data won’t be either.

What’s funny is math and science are the only actual education my son is getting. Those I can see value in. As for the rest, well….

I’ll never forget pursuing a line of questioning in an IEP meeting about a recent reading / language arts assignment. I knew what I was driving towards, but needed to lead the others there. Once I got them there I asked why on earth deconstruction, which is college level mastery, was being taught in 5th grade, and the answer was “We don’t know. It’s ridiculous, but it’s part of the curriculum.” My next question was, “but when you’re not teaching children to read and write, how on earth do you expect them to engage in deconstruction?”

I am educated. My public school education was rigorous. I am old enough that when I was a child that word had meaning. Now it’s a catch phrase and it disgusts me because of the abuse of what to be rigorous actually means versus it’s actual practice today.


I’m providing this footnote because it is possible that unless you were an English major the term “deconstruction” may not have any meaning to you. To deconstruct text is to not take the text at face value, but to infer meaning based on actual social and economic factors of the time, what you know of the author, governmental affairs, etc. to describe what the book is actually about. An example is that the Lord of the Rings is actually about WWI and the parallels of genocide, trench warfare, the falling of kings, the remapping of Europe, the struggle of the people, etc. You would take this farther and draw inferences across characters, for example that Aragon is the hope of the every day man to rise undaunted and courageous against the war and defend his fellow man with his life but survive to live his life in peace with the woman he loves in prosperity. The elves are the way the world had been, they represent the fact that the world has moved on from a time of kings to a time of man and democracy. This is a base deconstruction, but serves purely as an example.

One comment on “Shaking My Head

  1. Renee Harding says:

    Spot on! You already know that I, too, am dumbfounded by the assumption that gazing at, holding, or hearing a reading of the content of a book with a beautiful cover containing beautiful illustrations by an enthusiastic reader is given more credence than instruction. Love of reading is impossible to measure quantitatively. No wonder 70% of American students cannot read proficiently! No wonder 65 million Americans are functionally illiterate! As this ridiculous warm fuzzies approach gained popularity over the past 70 years, our nation has become less and less literate.

    Ask your kids if they understand what “sound it out” means as they read. My 20 year old, who learned to read easily but was not taught spelling, did not understand this phrase, though he was valedictorian of his science magnet school. My dyslexic 9 year old understands it only through dyslexia intervention. That phrase used to be the key to learning to read. Now, literacy proponents fight to bring it back into classrooms.

    The science is settled. The warm fuzzies approach has zero supporting research; only a lot of feel good opinions.

    The reason America is falling behind other countries in education is because we fail to follow scientific proof and to learn from our past. Education requires instruction. The warm fuzzies result from learning to read, spell, and write!

    [I had no idea Lord of the Rings was anything more than a fantasy series. I’m in awe!]


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