Stories Told

Balloon Day

The balloons filled the air, hundreds and hundreds of them squirming around each other in the wind. The sky turned red, yellow, blue, and green as they raced away. A cross current soon caught them, drawing them across the sky on their way to who knows where. Six hundred children gathered on the school’s back lawn jumping and whooping with excitement from the moment they opened their hands to send these balloons on their way. We all stood and watched them go, each of us excitedly trying to follow the balloons we had released, pointing to the sky and calling out to our friends a play-by-play as each balloon made its way. We watched them go until the last one disappeared from view.

James Monroe SchoolThis was an annual autumn event at my elementary school, at least while I was there in the 1970s. Each student would get some number of balloons — did we buy them? I can’t recall. Attached to each: a post card with the school’s address on one side, and on the other, an explanation and instructions and the name of the student who let it go. As what goes up eventually comes down, we hoped people would find each spent balloon, write on the postcard where they found it, affix a stamp, and drop the card in the mail.

We tracked every returned card on a huge map, watching how the balloons dispersed from South Bend. Typically, they flew north and east: up into Michigan, over to the Indiana counties to the east of us, sometimes into Ohio. An occasional rogue would catch some northerly current and sail up to Saulte Ste. Marie, Michigan, or be wafted by the west wind and find its way to Wheeling, West Virginia. Sometimes a card came back from Ontario in Canada — how exciting; a balloon made it across the Great Lakes!

The map filled with markers as the pattern emerged. We tracked the number of miles each returned card had traveled, allowing many weeks to go by to be sure we had received as many cards as possible. The student whose balloon traveled the farthest received some sort of prize.

I always hoped my balloon would go the farthest, and was always excited when one of my cards came back — and a little disappointed when my balloons inevitably landed in non-exotic locales such as nearby Elkhart. Most of our balloons landed within fifty miles of the school, actually, but that never diminished our overall excitement. Getting our balloons, letting them go, watching pins appear on the map, seeing which student’s balloon had gone the farthest — every bit of it captured our collective attention and imagination.

That’s what it was all about, actually — studying wind currents, noticing dispersal patterns, considering the probability a card would actually be returned. It was a giant educational exercise that captivated the entire school.

Unbelievably, I have about thirty silent seconds of film from a Balloon Day in about 1977. A neighbor with an 8mm movie camera came to school to watch her daughter Sally release her balloons. That’s Sally as the film begins, holding a red balloon in one hand and an orange one in the other.

Many thanks to Robyn Weber, that neighbor’s oldest daughter, for sharing this film with me and granting me permission to share it.


First shared in October, 2012. Robyn and Sally were friends from Rabbit Hilla fine place to grow up. Read about it!

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Stories Told

The $60,000 baseball cap

When I was 17, I was very fortunate to be accepted into Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a school of science and engineering, one of the best in the nation. It was also one of the two most expensive schools in Indiana, competing each year for that title with the University of Notre Dame.

60000DollarCap

John Becker photo

Upon graduation, each man in my class was issued a baseball cap just like the one pictured here, as a gift. We all joked that it was our “$60,000 baseball cap,” for that was about the total cost of a Rose-Hulman education in the mid-to-late 1980s.

I’m sure that my dad swallowed very hard when I told him that I wanted to go to Rose. We were a working-class family. But the financial-aid office told us not to worry, that they would find us a way. And they did. I got a Pell grant from the government, and the Lilly Endowment gave me a healthy scholarship. I borrowed $12,000. My parents scraped together the rest, which was on the order of $20,000. I’ll never know how they managed it, especially starting my sophomore year when my younger brother entered Notre Dame.

Last October I was on campus recruiting soon-to-be graduates to write code for the software company where I work. One of my former professors stopped by our booth to say hello. He’s nearing the end of his career, and he reflected on how much things had changed in his 30-plus years on campus. “Do you have any idea how much it costs to go here now?” he asked. Of course I didn’t. He quoted me a number well north of a quarter million dollars. “That’s for the whole four years, tuition, room, board, everything,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know how any of these kids can afford to be here.”

That really hit home because I now have a 17-year-old son thinking about college. Thank heavens he doesn’t want to be a scientist or engineer. Thanks to my parents’ sacrifice, I make way more than a working-class wage. That means my son won’t qualify for the same level of aid I got. And while I do all right, I don’t do so well that I can scrape together the kind of money it would take to send my son to a school as expensive as Rose.

I guess I should be glad he’s not interested in science or engineering. Maybe he’ll want to go to a state school. I might be able to afford that.

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Stories Told

Schools driven by standardized tests take all joy out of learning

I was in the third grade when Indiana’s standardized math and reading test, the ISTEP, was introduced in public schools. I remember parents expressing fears that these tests would be used to drive what was taught and to rate teachers and schools. I remember school officials swearing up one side and down the other that it would never happen. Yet before I graduated from high school, passing the test became a condition of graduation.

My sons are in public schools. Until a few years ago, when the ISTEP moved from the fall to the spring, they complained loud and long about how the first month of school was just review for the test. They hated the boring repetition of material they already knew well. Teachers and administrators do it because school funding and their own jobs and compensation depend on how well their kids perform on this test. If their school does poorly enough for long enough, the state will even take over the school and run it. Nobody wants that!

Every fear of those parents from 1975 was eventually realized, although it took more than 30 years to reach the bottom of this slope so slippery.

I don’t like what the ISTEP has done to education in Indiana, and wish it would disappear. And I gather that the story is the same nationwide, thanks to No Child Left Behind. It has had the effect of industrializing our schools, by which I mean using statistical analysis as the primary or even sole means of driving improvement. It’s human nature to optimize around what’s being measured, to the exclusion of all other factors that would bring fuller success. My experience has been that this leads to great mediocrity.

James Monroe School

The elementary school I attended

I hear more about homeschooling now than ever. 20 years ago, only kooks and religious fundamentalists taught their children at home, or at least that was the perception. It seemed like they were primarily trying to shield their kids from the big bad world. But now I know everyday families who homeschool.

Many of those homeschoolers use structured lessons, but a growing number of them are turning their backs on that and instead lean on the family’s everyday life experiences and their children’s natural curiosity to drive learning. It’s called unschooling, an axiom of which appears to be that kids hate school because lessons are forced onto them and because they are forced to sit quietly in place for long periods. Unschoolers claim that children naturally love learning and through active play and exploration will learn everything they need to know.

That makes some sense to me. I was a good student and a compliant child, the perfect fit for public school. But even I suffered considerable boredom (and sore bottoms from the hard, wooden chairs) during long lectures on dull subjects such as history. I hated history when I was in school. Plumb this blog’s archives and you’ll see that I now love history, and that love blossomed when I explored the past on my own terms.

I see this in my sons, too. My youngest, aged 14, has has become interested in animation and video production. He wrote, shot with his camcorder, and edited a movie last year, starring plush toys of characters from the Angry Birds video game. And he has made short stop-motion animations by taking successive still photos of posed Lego toys, which he strung together in Windows Movie Maker. He makes short hand-drawn animations in Flipnote Studio on his Nintendo DS and shares them with other kids in a common online space there. For his last birthday, he asked for a Wacom drawing tablet and Flash CS6 so he could make sophisticated animations. He’s struggling to learn those tools, but he’s still trying. All of his trying has been self-motivated and at his own pace.

Schools, of course, have to structure learning and discipline. When you gather hundreds or thousands of children into a building, with one adult to every 20 or 30 children, it’s the only way to avoid total chaos.

My youngest son is reasonably bright but struggles with focus, organization, and attention. So he’s not quite as perfect of a fit for public school as I was. Now, his school has separate up and down staircases. I’ve visited the building; the staircases are wide enough to accommodate children going both directions. And the up staircases are usually not near the down staircases, so children have to go out of their way to use the proper staircase. My boy, who is fiercely independent with little tolerance for nonsense, decided to hell with it and began using whichever staircase was nearest by. Repeated infractions led to letters home and, finally, days of detention. I sat him down and explained: “There are 2,000 students in your building. Frankly, there are enough of you that you could overwhelm the adults. So they have rules that keep order. I agree with you that this one appears to be arbitrary and stupid. However, it is the rule. It is a hoop you need to jump through, and I expect you to jump through it. I expect you will always dislike it. I don’t blame you, actually. You keep right on disliking it, but you keep right on obeying it.”

I’ve had variations on this discussion with him over and over. He resisted learning his math facts in elementary school, declaring the exercise a waste of time. Given that I never learned my addition facts yet graduated from engineering school, I had a hard time arguing with him. And he struggled for several years with doing his homework. When I discovered the problem, he was handing in less than half of it. He said that it felt like needless busywork for him to do work in subjects he had already mastered.

Unschoolers claim that this stuff saps our kids’ innate love of learning and leads either to belligerence (which often gets medicated) or broken spirits (which often gets mistaken for successful compliance).

All of this really resonates with me. I want my sons to be free to explore on their own without being put into tiny spirit-limiting pigeonholes. Yet I hedge.

School No. 7 / Crooked Creek Elementary School

Original entrance arch at my sons’ elementary school

I got into advanced placement classes in high school. In the 10th and 11th grades, my math teacher was Eugene Hudson, and he changed my life. He encouraged me when I started writing computer programs, which led to my rewarding career in software development. I am eternally grateful to him.

Mr. Hudson also sparked a love of mathematics in me. He did it in a very unconventional way. In my day, Indiana sophomores all studied geometry. It was the geometry of Euclid, the geometry of the plane, and it took all year. Except Mr. Hudson moved quickly through the material, teaching it all to us before Christmas. We were, after all, among the brightest students in the school; he challenged us to keep up. But he knew that all of us were highly focused on maintaining our grade-point averages, so he removed a critical barrier that helped us relax and enjoy the learning journey: he set the grading scale at 70-100 being an A, 60-70 being a B, and on down from there. His class was no easy A; even on that scale, it took effort to earn a good grade from Mr. Hudson.

After we finished the state-mandated curriculum, Mr. Hudson produced stacks of old texts he had saved during his long teaching career. Using them, he began to teach us about non-Euclidian geometries, spherical and hyperbolic. He finished with a week or two to spare, so making it up as he went he extended those principles to teach us the geometry of a teardrop.

I found it all to be utterly fascinating. I had always been pretty good at mathematics and could usually calculate the right answers. But after this, I was in love with mathematics for its own sake, for the pure joy of exploring it. Eugene Hudson transmitted his love for mathematics to us, and it stuck with me. It was the climbing-the-mountain version of learning: we did it just because it was there; wasn’t it glorious? It was! And when I left high school for college, I continued my journey by majoring in mathematics.

Riley High School

My high schol, taken the year I graduated

The problem with letting kids find their own paths is that their limited perceptions offer little sense of the paths available to them. They know only the paths upon which they stumble – and those presented to them.

The things children find on their own must not be discounted or denigrated. My youngest son is interested in video production because he has found a community of kids making videos and uploading them online. It’s fun for him and he wants to be a part. Making and sharing videos may always be just a hobby that brings my boy some satisfaction. Or maybe this could lead to a career in TV or film production. Who knows. Whatever.

But to limit him to just the paths he stumbles upon would be a shame. So much else could yet captivate him were those subjects only introduced to him.

I almost certainly would never have fallen head over heels for mathematics were it not for Eugene Hudson and his buccaneer-teacher ways. His methods freed me to enjoy the ride and soak up all that great human minds had discovered about mathematics.

This, then, is the teacher’s great function: to introduce bodies of knowledge that hopefully will ignite a spark in some child. You can’t predict what those sparks will be. Only a handful in my geometry class were as enraptured as I was. For my other classmates, it might have been organic chemistry, or beat poetry, or local politics that lit their fire, had there been teachers able and willing to step off the state curriculum to teach these things.

Even if there are such teachers today, the current public education system gives them no room to wiggle. Eugene Hudson, who retired many years ago but is still with us, couldn’t do now what he did for me in the early 1980s. The clamps are down tight and curricula are set in stone. Children are shunted down the narrow path of a tightly controlled state minimum.

Schools constrained by tests like ISTEP provide little spark for young learners. It takes education in the wrong direction. No wonder homeschooling and even unschooling are gaining traction.

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Stories Told

Balloon Day

The balloons filled the air, hundreds and hundreds of them squirming around each other in the wind. The sky turned red, yellow, blue, and green as they raced away. A cross current soon caught them, drawing them across the sky on their way to who knows where. Six hundred children gathered on the school’s back lawn jumping and whooping with excitement from the moment they opened their hands to send these balloons on their way. We all stood and watched them go, each of us excitedly trying to follow the balloons that had been in our hands, pointing to the sky and calling out to our friends a play-by-play as each balloon we watched made its way. We watched them go until the last one disappeared from view.

James Monroe SchoolThis was an annual autumn event at my elementary school, at least while I was there in the 1970s. Each student would get some number of balloons – did we buy them? I can’t recall. To each was attached a post card with the school’s address on one side and an explanation and instructions – and the name of the student who let it go – on the other. As what goes up eventually comes down, we hoped people would find each spent balloon, write on the postcard where they found it, affix a stamp, and drop the card in the mail. We tracked every returned card on a huge map, watching how the balloons dispersed from South Bend. Typically, they flew north and east, up into Michigan or across into the Indiana counties to the east of us and sometimes into Ohio. Several cards would be returned from such far-flung places as Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Every year, a few cards came back from Ontario in Canada, which was especially exciting – those balloons had flown across one of the Great Lakes! We tracked the number of miles each returned card had traveled, allowing many weeks to go by to be sure we had received as many cards as possible. The student whose balloon traveled the farthest received some sort of prize.

This event, and the weeks of following our balloons’ progress, captured our collective attention and imagination. I always hoped mine would go the farthest, and was always excited when one of my cards came back – and a little disappointed when my balloons flew only to decidedly non-exotic locales such as nearby Elkhart. But that never diminished my overall excitement at seeing where our balloons got off to. Most of them, actually, landed within fifty miles of the school. An occasional rogue would catch some northerly current and wind up in a place like Saulte Ste. Marie, Michigan, or be wafted by the west wind and find its way to Wheeling, West Virginia. The map would fill with markers as the pattern emerged.

That’s what it was all about, actually – studying wind currents, noticing dispersal patterns, considering the probability a card would actually be returned. It was a giant educational exercise that captivated the entire school.

Unbelievably, I have about thirty seconds of film from a Balloon Day. A neighbor had an 8 mm movie camera and came to the school to watch Sally, her middle daughter, release her balloons. That’s her holding a red balloon in one hand and an orange one in the other as the film begins. Given how old Sally looks, this film has to be from about 1977.

Many thanks to Robyn Weber, that neighbor’s oldest daughter, for sharing this film with me and granting me permission to share it.

Robyn and Sally were friends from Rabbit Hill,
a fine place to grow up. Read about it!

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Stories Told

I wouldn’t be a writer were it not for the computer

Much hullabaloo was made in June when the Indiana Department of Education sent a memo to schools that made teaching cursive handwriting optional and emphasized teaching keyboarding skills. The decision touched a statewide nerve, and the responses were binary: hands were wrung, or relief was sighed.

All of my sons, I’m sure, are in the latter camp. My 12- and 14-year-old sons discarded cursive shortly after they learned it, rebuffing my protests that cursive writing is faster than printing. My 26-year-old stepson was compelled to use cursive in school, but has printed ever since. I believe he’s representative of his generation – this anti-cursive sentiment is not a recent development.

I was taught the dreaded Palmer Method in elementary school in the 1970s, but never got the hang of it. I hated writing in cursive until I was about 13 when I decided to heck with Palmer and adapted his method to suit me. My hand became legible and writing in script became a pleasure. But then my teachers started asking me to write papers, and handwriting became a drag again. I’d write, rewrite, and re-rewrite until I had all the words arranged to my satisfaction. Then I’d write a final clean, legible copy. It took forever. I decided that if I had to go through all that, then I hated writing!

Looking for relief, in the eighth grade I took a class in touch typing. Row after row of Olympia typewriters just like that one filled the classroom. But I found no joy on them, as I found typing to be difficult. It was work pressing those keys hard enough to get the typebars to reach the platen. An A in typing required 40 words per minute, but by the end of the semester I managed a dismal 14 words per minute. The less said about the corresponding grade the better.

But then my dad bought me a Commodore 64, which was a watershed moment in my life not only because I taught myself to write code on it but because it finally made typing a pleasure. Light pressure on any key made its character instantly appear on the screen. When I entered college, one of my roommates let me use his PC and word-processing program to type my papers. My typing skill and speed increased dramatically, to the point where I could type almost as fast as my brain could think. The mechanical process of transcribing my words was no longer a barrier in the writing process, and I began to enjoy writing. After college, I took several jobs as a writer and editor and thus fed my family for 14 years.

Typing Test

Visit the Typing Test and try!

I type blazingly fast today. Is it any wonder that when I have anything substantial to write, I want to do it at the computer? But that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy, and often miss, putting an actual pen to actual paper. Perhaps I should take up writing and mailing short notes and cards to my friends and family. If enough people did that, maybe the United States Postal Service wouldn’t be so strapped for cash.

The other thing I came to enjoy in school was singing. It sustains me. Read that story.

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Personal, Stories Told

Why New Jersey’s anti-bullying law is both too much and not enough

A few boys started to pick on me a little when I was in the fifth grade. I was never a fighter; I always wanted to get along, and so I always tried to just laugh it away. Sometimes they were a little belligerent, and I tried to keep the peace by appeasing them. When that didn’t work I withdrew, often in tears, which only encouraged them.

There had been maybe 60 sixth graders in my elementary school, where the pecking orders had long been established. When we moved up to the middle school, our seventh grade class numbered more than 400. We boys had to figure out hierarchies anew, with all the one-upsmanship, displays of toughness, and putdowns that implies – made fierce by a puberty-fueled desire to impress the girls. But I was a late bloomer – boyish, scrawny, not chasing the girls yet. I was not tough and I still wouldn’t fight. So I was a frequent stooge for boys trying to impress others or salve their own feelings of inadequacy.

This boy was miserable.

The least of it was the taunting and name calling. If you drop the r sound from my last name it sounds like “gay,” so naturally I was routinely called James Gay. A few boys lisped the s. One boy even made up a little singsong taunt from it. Some boys cut right to the chase and called me a faggot.

The many times my books and folders were knocked sprawling from my hands for me to retrieve from under other students’ feet were not the worst of it either.

No, the worst was the physical abuse.

On the bus, several boys liked to flick their index fingers hard into my ear. My complaints to the driver got me nowhere. Sometimes I’d get lucky and get the seat behind the driver. The boys wouldn’t mess with me there.

At school, teachers and staff seldom visited one dim back hallway. After being deliberately tripped three times and then outright assaulted twice back there, I complained to the shop teacher whose classroom was around the corner. He said that he couldn’t help me unless he saw someone hurting me. I wanted to say, “Then come out of your dang classroom and look!” I finally gave up using that hallway and went the long way, which involved going outside and around the building.

The gym teachers had looking the other way down to a science as the bigger boys would deliberately pass the basketball right into my face, spike the volleyball into my head, pitch the baseball at my gut, run me down on the track, and so on. After showering one day, several boys forced me into the adjacent restroom, all of us still naked, and tried to shove my head into the toilet. I hollered loud enough that the teachers couldn’t ignore it, but when they came into the restroom they only told us to break it up. I refused to shower after that.

I dreaded going to school. I grew depressed and fearful, and withdrew deeply. It was bad enough that my dad, who is not the most emotionally astute man in the world, noticed that I wasn’t myself. I told him what was going on, and he said that it would continue until I fought back. He tightly duct-taped a roll of pennies and told me to carry it for the day it came to blows, as the weight of the pennies in my fist would make my punch hurt more. The pennies in my pocket actually made me feel a little better, which might have been Dad’s purpose all along. An assistant principal discovered my penny roll one day, called it a concealed weapon, and threatened to suspend me if I kept carrying it. Dad said that if I were suspended he would visit that assistant principal to find out why he allowed such bullying to go on in his school. I wondered why he didn’t just go visit the assistant principal anyway.

I needed more help than I got.

There seems to be greater awareness of the bullying problem in schools today. Many schools have anti-bullying programs. In particular, New Jersey is trying to address the problem by passing a sweeping and complex law called the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which took effect Sept. 1. After reading my story, you may be surprised to learn that I have mixed feelings about this law. I applaud that it prescribes training for students, teachers, administrators, and even school board members in recognizing bullying and in their responsibility to try to stop it and report it when they see it. But it is too complicated to administer, defines bullying too broadly, fails to recognize bullying’s pernicious nature, and doesn’t offer any meaningful help directly to the victim.

The law starts to go sideways when it tells teachers they risk their licenses when they fail to report bullying. It adds layers of bureaucracy when it mandates that any report of bullying must be escalated to the principal, who must begin an investigation within one day and complete it within ten, and report all investigations to state government twice yearly. It also fails to fund the additional staff it requires – anti-bullying coordinators at the school-system level and an anti-bullying specialist and “safety team” at each school. Pity the existing guidance counselors and social workers whose workload just increased. I fear all of this will lead overworked staff to comply just enough to avoid the law’s penalties.

The law labels bullying as any act one student does to another that causes emotional or physical harm, but ignores bullying’s inherent imbalance of power. By the law’s definition a simple insult can be considered bullying, as can a straight up fight between two angry students. This could flood school officials with reports that aren’t really bullying, but that they have to investigate and handle as such anyway.

Meanwhile, a determined bully will quickly learn when and where to deal out abuse to avoid detection, and may instill such fear in victims that they will not speak up for fear of retaliation. No law is powerful enough to reach into every dark corner in which a bully can lurk.

In the end, victims need direct help that this law does not offer. They may need counseling to work through the depression and fear they feel. They may need help in setting and defending their personal boundaries. They may benefit from training in self defense, because fighting back may sometimes be their only recourse when their back is against the wall. Through these things they can start to feel more personally powerful, which will make them a less likely target in the future.

I wish my dad had enrolled me in martial arts in the seventh grade, or at least taught me how to fight. I would have benefited from seeing a therapist to help me work through my emotional pain, deal with my depression, and help me build my confidence. The middle school owed me teachers and administrators who took me seriously when I complained. Fortunately that’s just what I found when I escaped to the high school two years later. One day in the ninth grade one of my tormentors shoved me into my locker and shut the door. A custodian popped the lock when he heard me yelling and banging frantically. The teachers in the adjacent classrooms came to investigate and told an assistant principal what happened. I’m not sure what the assistant principal did to the boy, but he gave me a wide berth for a long time after that and never harmed me again. I got some of the help I needed, and nobody needed a law to compel it.

I’m still not tough, but I will stand up for myself today. It all started when I came to accept myself for who I am. Read that story.

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