Friday, August 15, 2014

What did I learn in school?

I learned a lot but I’ve forgotten most of it.

I find I remember the classroom setting more than I do what was actually taught.  Maybe this is why so many of us think we were never taught about certain things.  I can still picture my first elementary school, buying Victory stamps, and the VE banner that was displayed.  I remember reading Dick and Jane and writing the numbers out to 200!

I remember many things about my second elementary school, but the classroom scenario that sticks out the most is the vote on the distance to the moon.  What, a vote on a scientific fact?  I remember a fourth-grade substitute science teacher doing this.  For years, I thought she didn’t know and was asking the class.  But she may have only been sampling the class.  I remember that incident more than I do how far is it to the moon.  Without looking it up, I’d say 250,000 miles. With all the moon shots in the news, you would think that number would stick better in my head. Is this one of those facts that get forgotten because we can always look it up if we really need to know?

I do remember learning typing and driving, probably the two most important life-long skills most of us need and use.  I do remember taking French in 8th grade, but I didn’t continue because I would rather learn printing.  How many people set type by hand now?  I took Latin in high school because I was advised that it was the basis for many other languages.  All I remember of that two and half-years was that I was elected president of the Latin club, and we read an abridged “Aeneid” and “Horatio at the Bridge”.  I remember a music teacher telling us that anyone with intelligence can learn to sing.  I didn’t get around to learning until I was in my 60s, and now I don’t practice enough to keep my voice in shape.

I don’t remember learning much about World War II in school.  That may because we might have been using textbooks that hadn’t been updated.  Also the teacher was not very inspiring.  The only history I remember from that whole year is a picture of the Haymarket Square riot in a text book. The picture was on the right-hand page of the small but thick orange textbook.  The picture was an engraving from some archive; I don’t remember if it was a photograph or a drawing.  And I don’t remember much about the Haymarket Square riot other than there was lot of police violence.  It was probably labor related and took place in Chicago.

Was I taught about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my American History class?  I don’t remember.  I had that class in 1954.  It could be that the textbook hadn’t been updated.  These events have been reported over and over for almost 70 years, and so it is hard to remember where I learned what.

Another digression: “, and so…”  Mr. Conrad, my 11th grade English teacher, frequently told us how to use "and so", but I don’t remember exactly what he prescribed.  This particular piece of grammar was almost the only thing I remember from the class.

I had Mister Rush for trigonometry and another class.  I don’t remember much of the material but I remember his punctuating his remarks with “When you go to Case…”  meaning Case Institute of Technology, now part of Case Western Reserve University.  Darned if five of us didn’t go to Case. Only two of us graduated, yours truly not being one.  But I got to come back for graduate school.

Now, Miss Palmer, I remember her well.  She was a fearsome taskmaster, but she taught Shakespeare well.  I enjoyed reading an act each day for homework for both “Hamlet” and “Macbeth”, and then we would reread each act a few scenes at a time.  She gave me a lifelong love of Shakespeare, but I have yet to read all of his plays.

Interestingly, I don’t remember taking much homework home.  I had two study halls most days and got most of it done in one of them.  The rest of my study hall time I read science fiction from the school library.

College and graduate school are also a blur.  I remember translating “Clementine” into French,  I remember reading Candide (English, condensed) and “Brothers Karamazov”.  On the latter, what did I care what the meaning of the mortar and pestle was?

How much do you remember of school?  For most of us, that is only what we use on a regular basis.  I have a Master’s in mathematics and I don’t remember anything from “Functions of Complex Variables” in graduate school.  I do remember the book was blue, I think the author was from India, and it is still on the right hand side of my book case, first shelf above the bottom shelf.

What we really learned in school was to learn.

Back to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I remember reading about the horrible deaths both immediate and years later.  I remember that prisoners of war were killed in the blast.  I remember the justification that lives were “saved”.  I have long questioned how many kids’ lives is one soldier’s life worth.

Where I think I learned this is from reading newspapers regularly.  If your only news source is radio or TV you’ll never have time for all there is to know.  With newspapers, you have a larger selection of stories, you read them at your convenience, and with the Internet, you have a huge selection to choose from.

One of Mel's high school classmates said, "Learn something each day."  Mel often wishes he wouldn't forget it the next day.

Also published in Reader Weekly, 2014-08-14 at