by Bill Lauritzen
I lost my intellectual innocence in the first grade.
We had three reading groups in my school in a small, midwestern town: the “sparrows,” the “robins,” and the “bluejays.” I was in the “robins,” and was struggling to read. What were all these mysterious sign and symbols surrounding me everywhere? I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to understand it.
One day the teacher came to our group and one girl, Sara, read a list of words from a chart. I don’t remember the words, but they were simple words like: red, cat, bed, top, etc. She read them all off without hesitation.
The teacher asked her to go to another part of the room. Next, my friend began rattling them off, “red, cat, bed, top, ....” The teacher sent him also to another part of the room. He gave me a smug look as he walked away.
Huh? What was going on here? The teacher asked if I wanted to read the words. I said, “Sure.” I didn’t really know what all the words meant, but I sort of held my breath and reeled them off, “red, cat, bed, top ... ,” acting like I knew what I was saying. The teacher bought it. She sent me to join the others in the new group, which were the “bluebirds.”
Upon arriving at the “bluebirds” I quickly found out that we were the highest group. I had been sitting complacently with just an “average” group. To tell the truth I had been quite content to be in the “robins.” But now that I was in the bluebirds, I didn’t know how to go back. I didn’t know how to tell the teacher that I wanted a retest, in which I could pause, and fumble, and squint, as I reached for the meaning of each word along with the sound.
That was the beginning of a career in education in which I was constantly afraid of being found out. I had to watch carefully what the other students were doing, and do as they did. I was a fake, a parrot. I memorized words without really understanding them.
Teacher’s gave me A’s and B’s on my report card and I actually convinced myself I was smart. I got by as long as no one asked me to apply what I was studying. One girl in high school use to tease me, “You can get straight As, but can’t tie your shoes.”
Later, when I had difficulties on the job, I blamed everyone and everything but myself. Eventually, I was smart enough to go back through my entire education, working backwards, looking up in the dictionary every important word in every subject I had studied, and linking them to the dynamic, real world. I wore out a couple of dictionaries this way. I learned to this partly from the work of L. Ron Hubbard, who in addition to some of his bizarre teachings, had some good ones.
Then I began to study education. As a result of my experience, I can usually see right away when someone is a fake student. Or a fake teacher. Or a fake president.
Quite frankly, our schools, our universities, our businesses, our government has many fakes. This is because our educational system often cranks out high school graduates that can’t read, college graduates that can’t apply, and teachers that can’t educate. Like me, they were passed along to the higher grade, year after year, even though they didn’t understand. Now they somehow get by on sports, good looks, the money of their parents, job-hopping, intimidation, imitation, or outright fraud. On the job, the real work gets done by those few who had the integrity to struggle through it the hard way.
So don’t be a fake. Reach for meaning. Do it the hard way, the honest way.
Part 1 of a series on raising literacy by William Lauritzen. He holds a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education for over 15 years.Next »