(Part Three of Three)
Well, the truth is I probably should have paid closer attention to the teachers and less to the children around me in class. I didn’t know then that geometry would matter when I built my house and tried to cut hundreds of yards of tongue-and-grove planks of pine at bizarre angles to fit in the stairwell and along the hallway ceiling. I didn’t realize I’d need Intro to Spanish when I stayed with my friend Sean Cullen on Presidents Street in Brooklyn.
But I must have been staring out the window of East Lake Elementary or Timber Point Elementary or three different other schools when someone must have mentioned how to decide what to do with my life, when for years they said “follow your dreams” followed quickly by “get a job.” Is there a middle lecture during which I checked out, stared off into the sky thinking about the moon? Because I don’t remember it. There must have been some lesson in there about trying not to feel lost along the way. And did one of those teachers go over some checklist on what to do when friends die? What to do when your heart is broken? What to do when you feel hopeless and as if you’ve run out of options? Where are those lessons?
Which teacher talked about the value of every single different and misunderstood life, the significance of helping others, the strength it takes to ask others for help? Did one of them explain how to handle some punk making fun of you? Did one of them explain anything other than the ABC’s, the structure of a sentence, the history of us, how to figure out the value of X, the need to know why we need to know the value of X? Because those things I understood. When teachers told on me for paying too much attention to others around me, I wanted to ask, “What am I missing? Social Studies? Math? Penmanship? Got it, thanks! But which day will you explain to me how to tell the red-haired girl I liked her and would miss her and that throwing a frigging card at her wasn’t the best approach?” But it seemed rude. That I learned from my parents; don’t be rude. They don’t really teach that in class. Mrs. Guidice in Kindergarten probably did, but by then I’m sure I knew that. Apparently we learn everything we need to by the time we’re in kindergarten.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t listen to our teachers. I’m insisting the teachers need to do a way better job of giving us something valuable to listen to. Oh wait, Mrs. Kramer, third grade—her I heard, when she told me I’d never amount to anything (though to be fair, she told all the boys that—she hated boys and made that clear), when she said I was just another loser kid who would be lucky to graduate from school. This was May 1969—I was eight. No kidding—don’t pretend kids that age don’t hear and don’t remember. They do.
I can’t blame her, though. The whole system sucks: The United States is eighth in reading in the world among sixty-four countries. Eleventh in science and thirtieth in math. The decline started in the late sixties and while reading scores have improved (up from fifteenth in 2015), this country’s elementary school system has more violence than any other industrialized country in the world, so sometimes paying attention is challenging. The US is nearly at the bottom of the list in health education, sex education, history, and current events/social studies.
So it isn’t entirely the educators’ fault that they spend a good deal of their time wasting ours and we stare out the window or talk to each other about the Mets. Administration demands production, growth, and improvement at any cost. Parents spend way too much time watching reruns of some mind-numbing reality show instead of reading to their kids. And students, whoa! Students—don’t get me started. You need to put down the damn phones, laptops, and games, because you know what students? Tik Tok Tik Tok—life goes by fast, and it is about who shows up and who’s listening. So while everything else is more interesting and engaging and captivating and immediate, for three or four hours a day you can shut up and pay attention. And none of this would be an issue if parents started reading to their kids when they were still toddlers. Every study proves this, but still they don’t. Not nearly enough anyway.
Sigh. Okay, listen:
The truth is I simply wasn’t smart enough to know all that when I was ten, and the first reaction to confusion is fear, and the first response to fear is to look away. Maybe I was scared. Or maybe then and now I’ve simply never been smart enough for the life I’ve led. We do that, we mix up personality with ability, we confuse creativity with knowledge. The teachers were right: I paid too much attention to the others around me. Always have. And while I despise such rudeness in my students when they stare at the phone while I’m talking and apparently no one, I mean NO ONE, Dear GOD No One taught them to look at people who are talking to them, I’m guessing neither did I.
I had trouble focusing sometimes; still do. And it isn’t because of any learning challenge or medical condition; it’s just that I find people more interesting and engaging and, frankly, more important, than just about anything else. If you didn’t want me to pay attention to others, why did you put twenty-five ten-year-old’s in the same room together and then tell us to shut up and not pay attention to each other? And, really, no kidding, if my peers told me about the amendments to the constitution instead of the woman screaming at us to remember the amendments, I’d have remembered them. How is it teachers don’t see that? How is it possible a teacher can be in the same room with a student for one hundred and eighty days a year and clearly see he has trouble focusing, listening, caring, and not try and help other than to point out the obvious?
I know this: I was always told to just do my best. My father told me that, my mother, teachers, truly everyone. But I never really knew what my best was. It is such an obscure and vague goal to shoot for: “Your best.” I thought I did my best at tennis until I played someone better who challenged me to improve. I thought I’ve done my best most of the time and most of the time it turned out when I pushed my self again I did better, but sometimes I simply failed at the effort. It is not an easily definable figure, “Best.” Educators don’t know when to push harder and when to back off. Neither do parents. I do know students can do better. I told my students that once and said I could prove it. They laughed at me. So I told them to write two hundred words about being in college, and they did. Then I said if I gave an A for the semester to the top five papers, would they be better? Then all said they would. Then I said if I gave the top three five thousand dollars, would they do better work? Then all laughed and said “of course!” and I went silent. And after a minute I told them, “Then you always could do better, you just couldn’t be bothered. Not unless someone paid you.“
They only thought they were doing their best. So did I. Everybody thinks they’re doing their best, that they’re paying attention. But couldn’t we all pay closer attention to the people around us, what hurts us, what brings us down, why are we so quiet, so distant, so sad? We could all do with a little less focus on the lessons and more attention to the examples of life around us, and love, and the undefinable completeness of now. But we’re all just a little too distracted these days, aren’t we?
Well, teachers of mine wherever you are, if I was talking when I should have been listening, if I was paying too much attention to others around me, I’m sorry. Sorry Mr. Kingston. Sorry Miss Terrill. Sorry Mom.
But somehow I learned. I got through. I even graduated. Got myself three college degrees and taught college for thirty years.
So fuck you Mrs. Kramer.
But through it all, what I got out of this life still comes from paying attention to the people around me, to the quiet, to the sound of geese at dusk and the gentle sound of water on sand on a calm summer morning. The sound of children in a park, laughing; tea poured into China cups, a baseball hitting a glove, the sound a can of tennis balls makes when you open it that first time, then that smell.
I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been privileged to have some of the best educators, and if I’ve been distracted through it all, I’m disappointed in myself for not showing them respect. But the education I treasure the most today was learning the value of telling others how much I appreciate them in my life; the value of a gentle touch that says I’m here if you need me. The value of standing still with someone and watching the sun settle down for the night.
The most valuable aspects of my life are the people and moments I always had, right from the very start, and it took me far too many years to understand that.
Why does it take so long to learn that?