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The Single Story

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I have a story about myself and education. That story goes like this. I hate school. No, I mean I HATE it. I always have. The proof is that one time when I was in preschool, I noticed that every morning I put clothes on right before I was taken to school. So, I reasoned, if I didn’t put clothes on, I couldn’t go to school! This clever plan backfired unfortunately when my mother in frustration packed me into the car buck naked and drove me anyways.

This is my standard story about my relationship with school. It exemplifies the deep antipathy that I hold towards it, as well as revealing a somewhat embarrassing story about myself that is quite amusing. Most of all it is a story that I enjoy telling, both to myself and to others.

But really, my relationship with school is much more complicated than that. I love learning. Here’s another story about my relationship with school. In 7th grade I almost failed math. I went to a small private school, so when my teacher noticed me struggling, instead of putting me in the low track immediately, she talked to my mom and they made a deal. If I could complete a packet of homework over the summer I could be placed in the “intermediate” track.

So over the summer, my mother hired a neighborhood college student to tutor me in math and ultimate frisbee. Under his kind and encouraging supervision, I learned lots of little shortcuts and managed to fill in most of the holes in my math knowledge. I also developed a wicked Frisbee forehand. The next year, I aced the intermediate math class. I loved it. My math teacher was a kooky old Irish man with eyebrows that covered half of his forehead. He took a special interest in me, and managed to cement my love of math.

Yet a third story. In my 11th grade pre-calculus course, we studied proofs. It was my first introduction to them and I immediately fell in love. I did reasonably well in the class, but at the end of the year my teacher gave out some awards. I got the award for “highest learning to grade ratio.”

In the end, these stories are only snapshots of my experience as a student. Broader themes have emerged though. Throughout my entire educational career I have struggled with the disconnect between what schools claim to be doing - helping students learn - and what I was actually experiencing. When the dissonance was mild, I enjoyed school and invariably excelled. When it was great, I struggled. I struggled to meet both my need to learn, and grow and the schools need to document and have me prove that learning.

This documenting process - embodied in the assignment of grades, and the giving of tests - was one of the hardest things for me to deal with. My single-story casts me in the role of a daring protagonist pitted against the brutal institution of school. At least that’s how it plays out in my mind. But as my other stories show, that’s not the whole truth of how my educational journey has gone. My dislike for school has varied in intensity and in expression. When I was in elementary and high-school it manifested most through extreme procrastination on homework. This had other negative consequences. My perfectionist nature led to lots of late nights spent furiously working on projects at the last minute. I’m sure this caused my mother more than a few grey hairs.

In addition, this pattern turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy about why I hated schools. The things that I hate most about schools are the bookkeeping and bureaucracy. Turning in late work, or turning in half-finished assignments is a good way to experience the worst of both those aspects. I think in some ways too, I wanted to blame my procrastination on the school. I knew that I could do better than what I presented in much of my schoolwork and I was angry with myself for not taking the steps needed to make sure that I did better. In the end, it was much easier for me to blame it on the school and keep repeating the pattern. This cycle dominated my educational experience from kindergarten all the way through until I graduated high school.


By the time I was a senior in high-school, I was thoroughly sick of educational institutions. I had learned fairly well how to game the system. I was able to utilize the Running Start program to complete my last couple of credits in half the time. So my senior year I had a light load the first semester and only one class the second. As all my classmates were furiously applying to colleges and visiting campuses, I calmly decided that I was going to take a year off.

At the time I also felt strongly that there was only one school that I had any desire to attend, St. John’s College. I applied to St. John’s during my senior year, and against my father’s strong wishes to the contrary, I informed them that I had no intention of actually enrolling for the following academic year. I requested that they still consider my application as though I was applying for the current year. I was accepted, and immediately exercised my option to defer admission until 2007.

The adults in my life had many and varied reactions to my decision to take a year off. Thankfully, my mother was my staunchest supporter. I lost a lot of respect for one of my favorite high-school teachers when he strongly counseled me to “just go to college” because “it will open doors for you.” All of the advice was well meant I’m sure, but I didn’t really hear the words that most people were using.

Instead, whenever I heard someone tell me that I should “just get it out of the way” or something similar, what I heard head was “you won’t go back.” Some people said this explicitly, or cited examples of young hoodlums that they knew who had started out with just one year off, and now, ten years later were still working a dead-end job and living in their mother’s basement. This last may have struck home more than I wanted to admit; at the time I did live in my mother’s basement. This stunning lack of faith incensed me. I know it wasn’t specific to me. It seemed to simply be the prevailing wisdom about college at the time. But I knew from the inside that if I later decided that I wanted to go back to school, I could and would do so.

This personal faith in myself is deeply rooted in my family culture. My mother recently picked up a saying that exemplifies her faith in my sister and I quite well: “You can do hard things.” My own email signature for a long time has been “Nothing is ever easy.” This comes from a book where the expanded phrase is “Nothing worth doing is ever easy.” I think there is something powerful for me in the union of these two aphorisms. My phrase is a reminder that things in life will be difficult; this is a critical reminder for someone with a tendency towards perfectionism. My mother’s phrase completes this by heading off the reductio ad absurdum that since everything is so difficult, you might as well give up now. In my journey towards becoming a better student and a better learner, the personal power that comes from accomplishment has been key.