Wissot: Learning can happen when you least expect it, far away from the confines of school (column)
School was never the best place for me. I was a hyperactive kid (today it is called Attention Deficit Disorder) who had an unquenchable desire for attention, to the dismay of my elementary school teachers.
I recall my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Walther, standing over me after I had disrupted her lesson by running around the room until I finally tripped, saying “Jay, there is a big difference between people laughing with you and laughing at you.” Even at that young age, the distinction was not lost on me. It was an important learning moment. I was thinking about what I did and did not want to become.
I calmed down in high school, but that had no appreciable effect on my academic performance. I was a straight D-minus student who had to go to summer school every year in order to graduate. I took to heart the school’s decision to punish students who did not take their studies seriously during the nine-month school year by making them go to summer school for eight weeks to pass the subjects they had failed.
I decided that going to summer school for eight weeks was a reasonable price to pay for goofing around and having fun for 40. What the school saw as punishment, I saw as an unintended reward. I wasn’t smart enough to get good grades, but I was learning a valuable lesson in the shortcomings of people in authority. I remembered that lesson, even though I forgot most of what little I learned in high school.
I tell you all this because I have often wondered with such a poor beginning in school how I managed to eventually become moderately literate and modestly educated? I think it may hinge on how someone becomes educated in the first place.
Is an education something you acquire by going to school or after you end your schooling? How do you determine that someone is or is not educated? Is it a matter of diplomas, degrees or credentials or not at all related to what society deems you qualified to be or do? Full disclosure: I still don’t know the answers to these questions.
I do believe, however, that for me, two important learning experiences took place outside of school. There was the time I was working in a warehouse loading and unloading trucks along side a man of about 50. I was 14 at the time and had just received my social security card. The year was 1959, and minimum wage was $1 an hour. This was summer work for me, between my junior high and high school years, but a full-time job for him.
This is what he did for a living. The warehouse wasn’t air-conditioned. My white T-shirt was dirt black by the end of the day, and I was embarrassed to stand too close to my fellow passengers on the subway ride home because I smelled awful. He was making $1.50 an hour, and it dawned on me that if I didn’t go to college, that could be me in 35 years. It was the reason that, bad grades and all, I realized I still needed more schooling after high school.
Sometimes not a word has to be spoken for learning to occur. I recall working in the same store as my father did when I was 18. The store would be similar to going into a Target or Kmart today. My father was 47 and had just lost the business he had owned with two other partners for almost 20 years. I was working for minimum wage (probably $1.25 an hour) as a bagger at a checkout counter. I could see him standing in housewares from my post each day. He was a floor salesman.
I didn’t have the heart to ask my mother how much he was making, but I knew it couldn’t be much more than they were paying me. I could tell by the discomfort on his face that he wasn’t crazy about my looking at him on the floor each day. I felt the pain and hurt he must have been feeling and I hated going to work for that reason. I also felt anger at the time over the fact that life could be so cruel as to put a hard-working, decent man like my dad in such a humiliating position.
Strange, therefore, when I look back at that time, which took place almost 55 years ago, all I remember is how proud I now feel that my dad sucked up his pride, put his ego on the shelf and did what he had to do: work for the amount of money that was available to him at the time. As a result, I have never felt any work that I have had to do is beneath me. I also have never shied away from doing necessary but unpleasant and disagreeable tasks.
I never spoke to my dad about that impressionable moment. I didn’t have to. He had taught me all I needed to know. I observed and I learned and I retained the lesson.
I could be just speaking for myself in recounting these experiences to you. But something tells me that many of you reading this now have a similar story to share regarding your own development. Am I right? If so, please email me at email@example.com and tell me your story.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail.