Monday, September 22, 2008

Everybody Just Relax, Part Deux

(Part of The Amy Cates Lecture Series;
click here, here and here for past installments)

Thanks for showing an interest in today's topic. We've set the a/c a little lower today to welcome in fall, so if you get a little chilly, please find one of the ushers in the back of the room.

Complimentary pencils and notepads are on the back table, next to the orange juice and Krispy Kremes. Please help yourselves.

I'd like to start today's installment of the Lecture Series with a little trip back in time. This is the story of a boy who didn't attend school past eighth grade. (According to some, he didn't attend past sixth. So, for sake of discussion and fairness, let's say "seventh.") So this boy was about 12 years old when he had to quit school to help the family in some way. (Details of his quitting school are also nebulous, so let's say that he quit to help run the family's home in Virginia.)

Already a strong reader with an even stronger desire to learn, he taught himself higher math and physics skills and found great joy in reading books on the subjects -- books that would bore the general population to TEARS, but that he found rather delightful. At the time, books were not labeled by their "reading level" or "difficulty," but by nothing more than their titles. If a reader found the topic interesting, he or she would simply read it. If the words or subject matter became too difficult, the reader would put the book down and find something else to read. If it was assigned reading, maybe the reader would ask for additional help from the teacher. Who knows. That doesn't really matter in this story.

So the 12-year-old goes through his teen years, quenching his thirst for knowledge by doing little more than reading and frequently applying his newfound knowledge to repairing things, like cars and airplanes. As one story goes, a neighbor had all but given up on repairing the engine in his car, when this almost-grown-former-12-year-old offered to repair it. The owner of the car took him up on this generous offer, and within a day, the car was running like a top. Better than before.

"I can't believe you were able to fix this. How much do I owe you?"

The reply: "Thirty dollars. Twenty for the parts; ten for insulting my intelligence."

A few years later, the boy-now-man decided he would like to be an aeronautical engineer because it seemed like a rewarding career that would pay a decent salary and put food on the table for his wife and kids. But with neither a high school diploma nor a college degree, the likelihood of designing airplanes for the government seemed, well, unlikely. He approached the Army Corps of Engineers anyway and said, "I'd like to take your test to be a licensed aeronautical engineer."

"Sir, we need to see your credentials. Degrees. Level of education. That sort of thing."

"I don't have any. But I'd like to take your test."

The Army Corps of Engineers shrugged its collective shoulders, maybe even chuckled, and administered the test. Which the man passed. With great ease. And very little ego. He had become, on his own, without formal education, an aeronautical engineer.

He eventually went on (again, without furthering his education) to work for Lockheed and write the manual for the C-5. Several years after retirement, and into his 70s, he was called back to the company, which had received more contract work than it could handle and begged, "Mr. Lee, we sure could use you."

This little chain of events ended in the early '80s, long before No Child Left Behind, before standardized tests consumed three weeks of the school year, before parents began rattling off their kids' reading levels like they were batting averages, before society as a whole somehow got so uptight about reaching kids' potentials and making sure everyone is adequately challenged.

A boy with nothing more than the occasional borrowed book and a knack for math did what parents the world over would love for their kids to accomplish. In today's world, however, we tend to go about it in a slightly more pressurized--and let's admit, obnoxious--way than Mr. Lee's parents did.

But Amy, why are you on such a tear today about modern-day parenting? Because I watched The Today Show this morning and watched in horror as parents at a school that specializes in accelerated early childhood education stood in front of the camera, wringing their hands and looking constipated, rattling on and on about how well their kids read and that they can name all the planets and their moons. (Click here to view this segment; then click on "Is your child a 'prodigy'?")

I have so much more to say on this topic, but I'll end it with this footnote: Mr. Lee was my maternal grandfather. And his math and physics genes skipped right over me. I don't know where they landed.