MOC #251 – 90% Of Us Are Groomed To Be Failures

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  1. The following is a bit long, but it is the story of my experience with high school english, which is so on point with this MOC that I just had to post it. (I was a classic underachiever … back in the 60s). I had just surgery on my right leg that had me out of school for several months:

    I always fell behind in my work whenever I had surgery, but in high school there was a lot more of it as well as a number of strict rules that apparently everyone took more seriously than I realized. I never expected to have a problem with English however, as it was not only my favorite subject, but while I frequently got failing grades in math or science, getting B in English was not at all unheard of for me. There was a problem with it however, for the CHS English department had a rule that you had to do one book report a month, and if you didn’t hand them all in before final exams, you would fail the course for the year, no matter what your overall grade was. Unfortunately, during the time I was out of school I had missed handing in two or three of those reports and in the aftermath of making up all my other work while trying to navigate my way around a three story building in a plaster cast, I had forgotten about them. Mr. Marcus, my English teacher, had not forgotten about them however, and for some reason he waited until a few days before finals to advise me about it. In looking back I will never understand his lack of empathy for me about this, as he was well aware of all I had been through and so he could have easily either made an exception in my case or given me a small extension of time to turn them in. Instead however, he seemed to take a smug delight in giving me a failing grade, and so I not only had to explain to my mother why I had an F in English, but I had to go to summer school, and that set in motion a chain of events that caused English to be a painful thorn in my side during my entire four years of high school.

    At first I took my failing grade in stride however by dutifully attending the required summer school class fully determined to do whatever it took to get a passing grade. The teacher, however, was a middle aged, slightly overweight man with a sardonic, burnt out attitude about teaching in general, let alone being stuck in a summer school class with a bunch of underachieving losers. Consequently, he not only gave us an experimental self-teaching grammar book with built in tests at the end of each chapter which we had to complete before the end of our course while he sat at his desk like some kind of a of glorified hall monitor, but we also had to read six books from his private reading list, because he had true/false tests already prepared for them that spared him the necessity of grading hand written book reports. Unfortunately, I was also told that, in my case, I had to make up the missing book reports from the previous term, which meant I had to read 9 books in 6 weeks on top of being in class all morning. This was not only a lot of pressure for someone like me, but the logic behind it baffled me, for while I could understand either being given an extension of time to make up those reports or having to go to summer school, I couldn’t understand having to do both.

    The problem was that while I rose to the challenge and starting reading like a madwoman, my fellow classmates were not exactly the cream of the crop, and so as the weeks passed some of them started copying the answers down whenever they took one of his tests so they could share them and not to have to read the books. This turned into a disaster for me, as whenever the teacher discovered that a test had been stolen he would strike the book from the list, and inevitably some of the books I was reading, including one or two I was nearly finished with, were stricken from the list before I could take the test. This put considerably more pressure on me, although by some miracle I still managed to have only one book to go to make my quota no more than a few days before the end of the class. Consequently I chose “Sayonara” not only because it was an easy, romantic read, but because it was blissfully short, and since I had managed to maintain an “A” average on my class work, when I sat down to take the test on it I felt confident I would get an “A” for the entire class. Unfortunately, as soon as the teacher put the test on my desk, Carmen, a girl I had loosely become friends with that summer, turned around in her seat and handed me a small, folded over piece of paper. Taking that paper was no more than a reflexive reaction to being handed something, but as soon as I realized it was blank and that she wanted me to use it to write the answers down for her, I shook my head “no”, as I was not about to jeopardize my grade for her or anyone else. The teacher, however, saw this little transaction and he not only confiscated the paper, but he took “Sayonara” off the reading list and wouldn’t let me take the test on it. I couldn’t believe it. I immediately got up and pleaded with him to reconsider because it stood to reason that if he saw Carmen give the paper to me he must have also seen me refuse to copy the answers down for her. He wouldn’t budge from his position however, and so the class ended the following day with me still missing a book report and getting yet another failing grade in English.

    I then had to retake freshman English for the third time as a sophomore, and as if that wasn’t humiliating enough, I was put in a remedial class where I spent the year reading books like “Bucky and his Tractor,” which was so simplistic that even the teacher was embarrassed by it. That was not the end of it either, as sophomore English wasn’t offered in summer school, and so I had not only had to take it in my junior year in yet another remedial class, but after taking a condensed junior English class in summer school, in my senior year I was told that since I was not college material I was going to be put in the school’s new “business curriculum” which included a special “business English class” where I spent the entire year studying the use of commas and reading from an 8th grade literature book consisting of short stories. Consequently, I never had a chance to read Shakespeare or write a term paper, either of which could have inspired me to enjoy learning far more than those horrible business classes did, with their messy mimeograph machines that were already out of date, the relentlessly boring balance sheets I had to work on and the horrifying field trips to ugly, windowless offices where I was shown in great detail what not going to college was going to be like. In looking back, I suppose all of this wasn’t a total loss, for while I didn’t learn much English in high school, I did get a thorough education in the pitfalls of human bureaucracy.

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