The Childhood Education of a Cantankerous Journalist

28 Oct

The Early Education of a Future Cantankerous Journalist: 7th grade English class papers from a 12 year old

By Nate Thayer

October 28, 2013

I recently moved several hundred boxes of books, papers, and various possessions I have acquired through my decidedly nomadic, itinerant life from a storage unit into the basement of my new flat. I have spent many hours in recent days discovering all sorts of treasures which have brought back many long forgotten memories.

Some of the most special forgotten treasures are from my childhood schooldays that my mother had the foresight to know might be meaningful to me someday, and she surreptitiously secreted away and tucked in boxes to keep safe and give me when I was old enough to know they would be meaningful.

I was a difficult child.

I went to 13 schools prior to graduating high school. Let’s just say I did not leave them all by my own choice. “Nate is very smart and finds academics easy and does well in class. He has a bright future if he would only apply himself. He lacks discipline and appears to have some serious problems with authority,” read one report home to my parents on how I was faring, prior to the school insisting it would be in all parties best interest if I did not return to that institution the following academic year.

That was when I was 14. That was the fifth school I had attended in 3 years.

I made it a point, if one is too appoint a very acrobatically creative narrative, to do original research in my youth of the entire spectrum of educational styles and institutions.I went to fundamentalist Christian missionary schools, private day schools, all boys boarding schools, coed private day schools, Christian coed blue-blood boarding schools, alternative open class room schools, and public high schools. That was prior to college.

Most of them were social penitentiaries for the reproduction of the ruling class.

They were a lot of boarding schools. Their purpose was to ensure one did not attempt to poison one’s mind with the misconception that you could think for yourself. By the time, if they were successful from preventing your escape and you were allowed out on parole to the public at large upon graduation, one was 18 or so, and sufficiently safe to be allowed to experience the real world without threat of diverging from the, by then,  quite effective brainwashing.

I went to 13 schools before I was released into the civilian population at 18.

I was required to wear a coat and tie. I was required to attend church daily.

There were a lot of rules. I broke most of them. For lesser infractions, one would be disciplined with “work hours” as penance and assigned a mundane task to perform as punishment, such as janitorial duties etc. At one school, I accrued 578 work hours—an historical school record which, I am guessing, still stands. That was so many punishment “work hours” that there was no hope I would ever be able to complete them prior to graduating, not that the latter chance was either likely or proved true. But I saw this as a plus and a relief, because it really didn’t matter how many more rule breaking infraction hours I accrued as a result. And, hence, how many more rules I broke in the future.

I am finding all sorts of stuff in these boxes of memories.

Yesterday, I found a box with my 7th grade English class school paper assignments, with the teacher’s comments and my responses to his comments.

It is dated October 28, 1972—41 years ago to the day from today.

I was 12 years old. That is 7th grade for the American school system. It was in an all boy’s Christian boarding school in Connecticut.

Every second was regimented. One of my jobs was to get up at 0600 each day and ring the tower school church bell to awake the entire student body sleeping in dormitories. We had exact times to file in for breakfast. Our bedrooms were inspected for cleanliness each day. Church. Class. Recreation, meals–every minute was regimented. All lights had to be out at bedtime—which was 9:30 PM. Everyone had to be up by 0600, showered, dressed in coat and tie, bed made and room clean for inspection by 0630.

An adult dormitory monitor who lived on the dormitory would inspect each room at precisely the assigned hour to make sure innumerable infractions were not violated.

I lasted exactly one semester at that penitentiary, at the age of 12, before the school and I parted company. In this case, I told them—which was not the usual scenario—that I was leaving.

A solemn meeting was held in the principal’s office where a school psychologist was brought in. The stern duo of headmaster and psychologist did their most somber, almost grave best to try and persuade me to stay.

I had, at the time, the highest grades of any student in the school. I remember, because they would post every student’s grades next to their names on a public bulletin board for all to see. What a horrible thing to do to a child, in retrospect, if one was not performing at their peak for whatever reason.

I remember the exact words of the psychologist that day sitting in the principal’s office when I, 12 years old and 4 feet 11 inches tall, informed them I was leaving their institution because I determined it was not in my interest to continue that relationship.

“If you leave this school, you will be a failure. You will never be a man. Men don’t give up.”

I didn’t like that man in 1972, and I don’t like that man today in 2013.

I suppose I was a contrarian then, which has its downside, i am well aware.

Here is an English paper assignment dated October 27, 1972—41 years ago to the day from when I found it in a box this morning.

It includes my original paper and the notes and comments of my teacher, as well as my responses to his comments on the quality of my writing, which I returned to him for review.

Nat Thayer

English 7-1

October 27, 1972

Teacher: Sir Andy Rutman

“Last summer while in North Carolina, I had a chance to go rock climbing. Now rock climbing is my favorite sport and I always jump at a chance to do it.

A party of eight of us went to a gorge in the middle of the Carolina wilderness where we knew were some good climbs. We practiced on many little climbs until we knew we were ready.

Early one morning we woke up, had a light breakfast, and hiked for about two miles down a very steep path. After about an hour we came upon a huge rock, 350 feet in the air. I could not believe my eyes! It looked like an endless wall bounding up into the clouds. I had no hope of going to the top of this mountain rock.

We got all our ropes ready and within fifteen minutes we had started to climb the rock. At 4:30 in the afternoon we were on the top of the rock eating lunch. I had climbed the rock! At times I was sure I was right on my first conclusion. But I had climbed it. I had done the impossible. I had done a “five dollar job”.

The teacher “Sir Andy Rutman” graded the paper a 95%. He commented at the bottom, in all capital letters: “VERY GOOD. BUT IN SOME PLACES YOU LEFT OUT WORDS, SO IT DID NOT MAKE SENSE. QUESTIONS?”

“Sir” Andy made several corrections and criticisms which I detail un-redacted below.

In the second paragraph, first sentence regarding the phrase “A party of eight of us went to a gorge….” Sir Andy circled the two words “of us” and wrote in the margin: “Not necessary.”

I wrote in the margin under his comment: “Yes it is and does make sense!!!”

In the last paragraph, fourth sentence, “I was sure I was right on my first conclusion” Sir Andy put a big question marked and circled it, indicating he didn’t know what I meant.

I scrawled in the margin next to his circled question mark: “Just what I said!”

I wrote, in a summary of my response to his grading conclusions and skills in the returned paper to him addressing his criticisms and comments: “Your corrections do not make sense. You just want to find something wrong.”

Forty-one years later to the day, this now 53 year-old sticks by my then 12-year old comments as correct.

I was a difficult, problem child, I suppose.

And, reasonable people argue,  I am a difficult adult man.

But I still loathe to this day my early English teachers who did their best to suck the life out of a young child’s imagination, in the stead of nurturing and encouraging it.

We won’t even begin to speak of my 9th grade English teacher who failed me for starting my sentences with the word “and”.

I have made a point of starting sentences with the word “and” in hundreds of stories I have published as an adult professional writer in the ensuing years, and I think of him and smile each time. Well, and say a quiet “fuck you”, to be honest.

One Response to “The Childhood Education of a Cantankerous Journalist”

  1. james October 28, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

    this reminded me of my ap english teacher. it always seemed like she wanted to find something to criticize instead of nurturing and supporting. i received a ‘C+’ in her class, yet scored a 5 on the ap in 1988…….(but, dammit, couldn’t break 700 on the SAT english portion)

    i was a handful of those students who weren’t passed on by her as a contestant to some national high school poem contest that i entered. after her final list was announced, she requested that the non finalists meet her after class individually.

    my appointment came and i assumed it was going to a counseling session with her telling me what i could/should have done to make my poem more worthy. rather, it was a session of pure criticism and how i failed and did not live up to potential, etc. and i remember it vividly.

    i left our meeting telling her that she would have failed sylvia plath. i unfortunately got sent to the principal’s office, who then notified my parents, which was a bigger concern than the ap test or any grade itself.

    (If I wasn’t on the varsity tennis team that won league championships and wasn’t top 10% in my class, I would surely have been suspended many times.)

    Like

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