When I was a young boy, my father moved our family from Texas to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I started first grade in this new-to-me environment, so it was a rough start. But I have one vivid memory from first grade that stands out.
Early in the school year, the teacher wrote something in Spanish on the blackboard. Reflecting back now, almost six decades later, I picture it as a paragraph written in large letters on the center of the blackboard. But as a six-year-old boy, I did not know what it was, but figured it was some kind of assignment. Because I didn’t know just what it was, I didn’t know what to do with it.
With the 20/20 hindsight of an adult perspective, I know now that I could have—and should have—raised my hand and asked the teacher for clarification or instructions. But I was six, and everything about school was a challenge, and intimidating. I was new to school. I was new to learning how to read and write in any language, and new to speaking (to say nothing of reading) Spanish. Furthermore, I’m left handed, and everything in the classroom was geared toward right-handed orientation: the desks, the Big Chief pads, everything. So even sitting down to write was an awkward exercise in discomfort.
Consequently, rather than ask, I did the only thing I could think to do at the time: I started copying the written assignment or paragraph or whatever it was. Letter for letter, accent mark for accent mark, I proceeded to copy it. As I was doing this, all around me my classmates got right to work on it with no problems at all. At least, that was my childhood perception; looking back, I’m sure that others may have struggled with the assignment and/or asked for help. But back then, I just felt alone, intimidated and stupid.
As I sat there copying away, the school bell rang for recess. Our classroom was in the basement level of the building, with windows opening out to the playground. So as I sat inside, copying away on something I did not comprehend, I could see the feet of my classmates scurrying around the playground, and I could hear their laughter. Still, I stayed at my desk and copied.
Then the school bell rang again. Recess was over, and I had missed it. And I still wasn’t quite finished copying that thing. As my classmates were coming back inside, the teacher came around to my desk, and looked over my shoulder at my work. She silently surveyed my work, and then, with her red pencil, she wrote a big, red “F” across everything I had just done.
I didn’t look up at her. I just sat there with my head down, staring at that horrendous red symbol of failure and rejection. As I did, my eyes began to well up with tears, until I could no longer see the page in my Big Chief tablet clearly.
But then, after a few tearful moments, something in me snapped. I shut down the tears. I decided I would not try in school. I mean, I had tried, diligently tried to the best of my limited understanding and ability to do what was expected of me. And for my efforts, I was rewarded by being labeled a failure. No explanations, no encouragement, no words of comfort…just…“F”.
So I thought something like, Okay, fine. If I am to be labeled a failure for my best efforts, then why bother doing my best? And that became my philosophy of getting through school.
I did not consciously adopt that notion as my personal philosophy toward public school, but that’s what happened. From grade school through high school, I never applied myself; I just resigned myself to skating by with the least amount of effort expended. I never failed a grade, but I also never got good grades. In fact, I barely graduated from high school.
I would go on to become something of a reader, and a writer (obviously). I attribute that to influences other than academic training. But that is a subject for another blog.
In writing this, I have not come to any conclusions about the experience. I’m certainly not making any recommendations. So if you’re looking for a moral to the story, if you want to draw some life lessons from this, you’ll have to do that yourself.