A Nice Derangement of Education

(So – I am working up a post about communities, and self-organization. But in the meantime, a comment on another blog revived this memory of a bruising encounter with the education establishment.)

My slightly younger brother, JP and I have always counted ourselves fortunate that we got through primary school in the happy baby-boom years of the very early 1960ies, before a hitherto solid and well-established education system suddenly lost all confidence in itself and began whoring after strange gods, fads and theories. We both were taught the old phonics way, carefully sounding out the letters and the sounds, until… oh! There was that flash of understanding, at unraveling a new word, and another and another. We read confidently and omnivorously from the second grade on, and were only a little scarred from the infliction of the “New Math” on our otherwise happy little souls. It seemed like one semester I was memorizing the times tables and the “gozintas” (two gozinta four two times) and wrestling with very, very long division, and suddenly it was all about prime numbers and sectors and points on a line, and what was all that in aid of?

I really would have rather gone on with word problems, thank you very much, rather than calculus for the elementary school set. It was at least useful, working out how much paint or carpet to cover an area, or how what time a train going so fast would get to the next city. Thanks to the “New Math” I wound up working out how to figure what was 70% off of $15,000 when I was forty-three. Got to love those educational fads. You spend the rest of your life making up for having them inflicted on you. Pippy’s elementary education was far more adversely affected; she caught the “whole word” reading thing in the neck. While she did successfully negotiate the second grade and learned to read on schedule, she never enjoyed it as much, or read as much as JP and I did routinely.

Our baby brother, Sander had the worst time of all. Mom racked up conference after conference with his second grade-teacher over his failure to advance, and generally unsatisfactory class behavior. Mom was a pretty experienced and hard-bitten Mom by the time she rotated four children through the same set of public schools. She had cured many of our teachers of their initial habit of carving off great dripping slabs of condescension to parents in a nominally blue-collar working class suburb by tactfully making it clear that both she and Dad were college graduates also. Sander’s second-grade teacher remained pretty much a burr under Mom’s parental saddle, especially since he was struggling desperately and unhappily in her classroom. It never got so bad that he was wetting the bed, or developing convenient illnesses, but he was adamant about not enjoying school… or at least the second-grade class.

We began to wonder if the difference was in the teacher; she seemed to be very cold, and judgmental. He had done very well the year before, an active, charming seven-year old, the youngest child in a family of mostly adults, who were devoted to books and education. Later on, JP would suggest that Sander was thought to be so bright by his teachers because he would constantly uncork four-syllable words that he picked up from us. It really wasn’t the way, then, to blame a teacher entirely for a problem, but this was our baby brother, our real doll-baby and pet, but everything his teacher tagged on him was always his fault. First his teacher adamantly insisted he was a discipline problem, then that he was hyper-active and ought to be in a special class… and then took the cake by suggesting that he was mentally retarded. Mom had gone to a great deal of trouble to get him after-school tutoring, and she blew her stack at that. Whatever was his problem, he was not retarded, and she was shocked that an experienced teacher would even make that unsupported diagnosis.

About halfway through the semester, Mom noticed that Sander rubbed his eyes a lot, and they always looked a bit reddened and crusty at the end of the school day. Eye problems? I was nearsighted, as blind as a bat without glasses, which was about the first thing that all my teachers knew about me, and I had never had that sort of trouble. Mom took him to the ophthalmologist; it turned out he was quite the opposite from me — he was far-sighted, to the point where it was acutely uncomfortable to concentrate for long on the written word. Once he was fitted with glasses, all the problems — except for the basic personality clash with the unsympathetic teacher — melted away.

Mom added that scalp, metaphorically speaking, to her collection, right next to the scalp of my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Range, who was only called Mrs. De-Range out of her hearing. Her students all knew very well that she was a nutcase almost immediately, beating the school administration to that knowledge by several years. Late middle age had not been kind to Mrs. De-Range; in fact it had been quite brutally unkind. She was a tall, gawky Olive Oyle figure of a woman, with faded reddish hair scraped back in a meager old-fashioned bun, long, yellowish teeth like a horses’ and a figure like a lumpy and half-empty sack suspended from narrow, coat-hanger shoulders. As a teacher she was fairly competent in the old-fashioned way; a strict grammarian and exacting with punctuation, wielding a slashing red pen with little regard for our delicate self-esteem. She expected us to keep a special folder of all our classroom and homework assignments, to methodically log them in by their assignment number, make a note of the grade received, and keep them when she returned them to us, all splattered over with red ink corrections. This was eccentric, but bearable; as teacher requirements went, not much variance from the normal.

What wasn’t normal were the sudden rages. In the middle of a pleasant fall day, doors and windows open for air, and the distant pleasant sound of a ball game going on, and maybe the drill team counting cadence drifting in from the athletic fields, when we were engaged in a classroom assignment, nothing but the occasional rustle of a turning page, the scritch of pencil on paper, someone sniffing or shifting in their chair… Mrs. Range would suddenly slam a book on her desk and go into a screeching tirade about how noisy we were, and how she wouldn’t put up with this for a minute, and what badly-behaved, unteachable little horrors we all were. We would sit, cowering under the unprovoked blast of irrational anger, our eyes sliding a little to the right or left, wondering just what had set her off this time. What noise was it she was hearing? Her classroom was always quiet. Even the bad kids were afraid, spooked by her sudden spirals of irrational fury.

I have no idea how much of this was communicated to our parents, or if any of them would have believed it. But I am pretty sure that Mom had Mrs. Range’s number, especially after the legendary teacher’s conference — called at the request of Mrs. Range. I had too many missing or incomplete assignments, and it seemed that she took a vicious pleasure in showing Mom and I all the empty boxes in the grade-book against my name, at the after-school conference in the empty classroom. This was almost as baffling as the sudden rages, because I was fairly conscientious. A little absentminded, sometimes, a little too prone to daydream — but to miss nearly a third of the assignments so far?

“Show your mother your class-work folder,” commanded Mrs. Range, and I brought it out, and opened it on the desk; my own list of the assignments, logged in as they were returned to me, the corrected and graded assignments all filed neatly in order.

All of them were there, every one of the ones that were blanks in Mrs. Range’s book, corrected and graded in her own hand, all checked off on my list.

Mom looked at my folder, at Mrs. Range’s own assignment record, and said in a voice of velvet gentleness “I believe we have solved the problem of the missing assignments. Thank you for your time, Mrs. Range— will there be anything more?”

Mrs. Range’s face was unreadable. There was the faintest gleam from the steel gauntlet, the tiniest clink audible, when Mom threw it down, adding “Of course, we will pay… special attention… to the completing of all Celia’s class and homework assignments after today. Good grades are very important to us.”

Mom took up her car keys, “Coming, Celia?”

Out in the parking lot, she fumed. “Horrible woman… and such a snob. She went to a perfectly good teacher’s school in Texas, but she groveled so when I told her that your father and I went to Occidental… it was embarrassing. And so strange to have missed so many of your assignments… good thing she had you keep them.”

“Yes,” I said, “A very good thing.” I was still trying to puzzle the look of Mrs. Range’s face; bafflement, fury frustrated of an intended target.

What on earth had she been thinking, what sort of mental lapse was this? I would never know, but two years later, after I had moved on to High School, JP came home with the intelligence that Mrs. Range had truly and ultimately lost it, melting down in the middle of a tirade to a class of terrified students, from which— according to JP — she had been removed by men in nice white coats armed with a strait-jacket, drugs and a large net. The school administration may have been shocked, but I am confident that none of her former students were surprised in the least.

23 thoughts on “A Nice Derangement of Education”

  1. Incredibly important to have adults around to reinforce the essential sanity of a student dealing with a deranged teacher. I had some weirdos, but no one that far gone.

  2. Well … Korara – no. She went for a good few years cultivating the geranium, and the bats in her personal belfry. Not until she went full nuclear-degree meltdown.
    Yes, I was so grateful about Mom – and that Mrs. Range had us all clock in and save our returned assignment. Mom was almost nuclear-furious about this little imbroglio.

  3. “Times tables”. Ah, I remember them well. Drilled those babies over and over and over. Recited them. Hand wrote them. Only up to 12 though. Also did the hard phonics.

    I went to a Baptist school through the 9th grade and it had its crazy people and teachers and I saw many a child get beaten. However, the school had virtually zero problems and every student came out of there with top notch grammar and math skills.

    To this day I attribute my better than average memory to hours and hours of forced memorization of Bible passages. My co-workers are actually a bit scared at how I remember part numbers, customers, phone numbers and so forth.

    It all seemed totally crazy and stupid at the time, but they knew exactly what they were doing.

  4. The crucial skill I remember from Catholic grade school, complete with fierce nuns was diagramming sentences.

    I wonder if anyone still does that ?

  5. It was a happy morning as we teenagers waited for the start of our first AP English class, the classroom abuzz with conversation and joking. Then the door swung open, and our new teacher walked in. She was a tiny middle-aged lady, not much more than half the height of us well-fed teenagers — but this was not her first rodeo, and she was a genius at establishing domination.

    She folder her arms and stood in silence, slowly scanning the class as the hub-bub died away to total silence. She continued to scan our faces as the utter silence became almost palpable. Finally, she spoke:

    ‘You people! You think you are the cream because you are in the top class. Let me remind you — the scum floats too!’

    After putting all us students properly in our place, she was a magnificent teacher.

  6. Mike K, I did that. In 7th grade, and in 9th grade (the 9th grade teacher had been in 7th grade teacher’s class).

  7. I didn’t have New Math – Illinois Math (UICSM) in my case- until 9th grade. As a result, I had multiplication and division down cold before New Math. I loved the proofs in New Math, which also helped me, I believe, in becoming a good estimator. While I loved my version of New Math, the emphasis on proofs did not always go over well with good but not brilliant students. In college for a second career, I had a geometry course with a prof who had met Max Beberman, the creator of Illinois Math. My prof informed me that Max Beberman had told him that it was NOT his intention that basic multiplication and division skills be bypassed. That is what happened, I suppose, when elementary school teachers, who generally score poorly on math tests, tried to teach New Math.

    I had no deranged teachers. One junior high teacher was a battle-ax, but she was perfectly sane- and our fear of her kept us behaved enough to learn. In looking back, most of my teachers were very tolerant of my correcting them on various historical details.

    My teaching nemesis was in high school. While I didn’t particularly like the way he taught American History, he did know the subject. When I had him for AP World History, I found out that he was rusty on the subject. We spent much class time in rambling discussions, usually on current events. He didn’t work out of class, but we did- he assigned a heavy term paper load. In looking back, I realized that he would have needed to work until near midnight to get caught up on the subject, and decided that as a middle-aged person with a family, he didn’t have the energy to do so. Which he didn’t, I’m sure. Because of the bad experience we students had in the class, too few students signed up the following year, and the course was cancelled. The course had been going strong in the decade since the school was founded.

  8. The public schools I attended in Wisconsin in the 50’s and 60’s were outstanding. I was extremely fortunate in that respect. I particularly loved my 3rd grade teacher, Miss Bergerson. One day she caught me and one of my pals harassing the bees in one of those glass beehives that open to the outside. She looked at me sternly and said, “I didn’t think you were the kind of boy who would do that sort of thing.” I was utterly crushed and ashamed. There have been no blemishes on my treatment of bees since then. At the end of the day she used to read to us from “Little House on the Prairie.” Of course, it was later found to be fiendishly right wing and politically incorrect, and there’s no telling the damage that did to our impressionable young minds.

    One day I was enjoying a self-righteous rant against Aristotle in our 9th grade biology class for holding back the progress of humanity by getting a few things wrong about anatomy. Our teacher, Mr. Haag, simply replied, “At least he thought.” I’ve always considered it one of the most astute things anyone ever said to me.

  9. There were fads and uselessnesses then as well, just different ones. I am no fan of what many schools do now, but neither was it any good in the Good Old Days. I did a series on it a decade ago. In fact, instead of linking to it I will repost it one day at a time. I may polish it up a bit as well. We’ll see.

  10. An interesting read. Just now I am considering signing on as a sub teacher. Hey, I’m retired, but have a generation of experience dealing with middle schoolers.

    Qualifications? I’m likely the only person in history to have, in a single year, worked as an ER doc, a robotics instructor, an archaeologist…and a Carny.

    Gotta be something useful in there.


  11. My understanding is that there were a lot of fads and failures in the 1950s, with Sputnik giving public schools a shot in the arm. The Sputnik panic caused the system to be twisted from its natural state to one of providing a fairly good education, but the schools then reverted to type in the late ’60s and early ’70s. (“Type” being a system designed to produce ignorant, compliant, modern-age serfs who trust the Government.)

    As for “whole word,” I see that as an example of Reynolds’ Fallacy. Good readers mostly read via whole-word recognition and are able to glark the meaning of unknown words from context. “So we’ll teach everyone to read the way good readers naturally read, and then everyone will be a good reader!” Unfortunately this overlooks the fact that naturally good readers have a whole toolkit of different methods, including some phonic-like ones, that they employ as needed.

    (There are certain advanced young readers who will be familiar with a word in print, but will butcher its pronunciation because it’s not part of their spoken/listening vocabulary. E.g. facsimile getting pronounced “face-smile.”)

  12. Oh, god, yes, Deep L – I knew a ton of words in print that I never heard anyone use in real life. (This is also how I am hopeless at divining the various English/Australian/NZ regional accents. All I know them from is in print. My daughter knows them from actually listening to a ton of video examples.)
    Yes – I was able to “glark” the meaning of unknown/hitherto unencountered words from the context. The various “new” methods were exactly what you suggest, I believe. That the educational theorists blithely assumed that the techniques/shortcuts which the good readers and the mathematically-gifted used would automatically make the less-gifted into super-learners.

  13. “That the educational theorists blithely assumed that the techniques/shortcuts which the good readers and the mathematically-gifted used would automatically make the less-gifted into super-learners.

    Cargo cult in operation.
    We saw the same thing in the housing crisis.
    (1) Middle-class people with good incomes own houses.
    (2) If the government makes it possible for poor people with unreliable incomes to own houses
    (3) they will AUTOMATICALLY become middle-class with good incomes.


  14. Quote: As for “whole word,” I see that as an example of Reynolds’ Fallacy. Good readers mostly read via whole-word recognition and are able to glark the meaning of unknown words from context. “So we’ll teach everyone to read the way good readers naturally read, and then everyone will be a good reader!” Unfortunately this overlooks the fact that naturally good readers have a whole toolkit of different methods, including some phonic-like ones, that they employ as needed.

    A good point, but I’d tweak that a bit to say that good readers learn quickly enough they’re not as harmed by the whole-word madness. In my case, after learning to read almost by myself, it meant being bored to distraction by those dreadful whole word readers with their “See Spot run. Run Spot run.” That could have taught me to hate reading and probably did do that to some of my classmates.

    But I’ve heard there’s another reason. Teach phonetics and soon kids can read and enjoy any well-written children’s tale. Phonetics creates a bridge between their large verbal vocabulary and their smaller reading one. There’s no need for specialized readers when you teach phonetics. Whole-word methodology requires those dull, repetitive readers in a long series. Ed school professors made money writing them. So, think greed when you think whole word—that and the zeal of ed school professor to stuff future teachers heads with whole-word folly. Behind almost every long-enduring evil lies evil people rather than just misguided intentions. Whole-word was around a long time.

    The whole-word idea isn’t new, but its adoption seems to have been spotty and erratic. I ignored it and taught myself in the first grade circa 1956. You missed it in the early 1960s. On the other hand, an early chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird recounts Harper Lee’s own encounter with whole-word reading in the 1930s Alabama only forty miles from where I grew up. That came when a newly minted teacher, into the latest fad, taught her first-grade class that way. Even the young Scout could sense just how bad it was for poor kids from homes where there was little reading done. Scout had herself learned to read phonetically by being read to by her dad.

    Indeed, Harper Lee seems to suggest the solution that many parents adopted to defeat whole word. They taught phonetics to their kids so they arrived at school already knowing how to read. They made whole-word not just worthless but unnecessary.

  15. Sorry, I did not intend to be anonymous with my “A good point…” comment. I’m a writer as well as an avid reader. You can find what I’ve written as Michael W. Perry. I’ve written books connected with J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton. Most recently, I’ve written on topics in medicine and nursing.

  16. Mike K Says:
    … diagramming sentences.

    I wonder if anyone still does that ?

    I’m certainly glad I learned, given the poor state of writing nowadays. Especially with someone who writes a paragraph-long sentence. I leave comments on blogs occasionally of the nature “Your sentence doesn’t say what you think it does.”

    Helian Says:
    … Our teacher, Mr. Haag, simply replied, “At least he thought.”

    If we could only get that to be a primary criterion for today’s generation, it would be a strategic win.

    Deep Lurker Says:
    …As for “whole word,” I see that as an example of Reynolds’ Fallacy. Good readers mostly read via whole-word recognition and are able to glark the meaning of unknown words from context.

    Yes. I posted a rant on this on another blog the other day, and still failed to communicate this particular bit. (“Whole word” reading is how we teach kids to read, btw, when they’re little, reading to them, and running our fingers under the words as we do so, particularly with crazy rhymes and such. Then we teach them to spell and sound out “cat”.)

    (Oh, and I grocked the meaning of ‘glark’ from context, but don’t recognize it. Source?)

    Michael W. Perry Says:
    Whole-word methodology requires those dull, repetitive readers in a long series.

    I think your comment unites mine with Deep Lurker. Because we use those readers with kids who are small and still growing their vocabulary, but kids are supposed to learn to read in 1st grade (or 2nd, or Kindergarten, or whatever the rule says now), therefore those readers belong in first grade. More of that Reynolds’ Fallacy. Particularly because by then the kids are past that part of learning. (IMO)

  17. Educators went to whole words instead of phonics for, as I see it, two reasons. First, adults read by whole words. One can find on the Internet texts with truncated words, which we as adults read just fine. That supports whole words/whole language instead of phonics.

    A second reason for educators not liking phonics is that phonics involves a lot of drilling. Sight and sound, sight and sound, over and over again. Educators make the assumption that because they as adults do not like the repetition involved in phonics drills, children likewise do not like phonics drills. From my experience, that assumption is not correct. As a substitute teacher I have led first graders in phonics drills. They were very much on task during phonics drills. One reason that children like phonics drills is that the drills involve talking, which children- and adults- like doing. In addition, speaking during phonics drills brings a relief to the “be quiet” atmosphere of the classroom. Letting off steam- just like recess. In addition, young children like repetition, because repetition reinforces their knowledge bases. Recall reading stories to 4-6 year olds. Invariably, children of that age want the adult to read the same story over and over. And over. The adult gets bored doing that. When the adult changes some of the story, the child pounces and informs the adult, “NO- that’s not how the story goes!” Because children have a much smaller knowledge base than adults, they need and crave reinforcement- a.k.a. repetition- of that knowledge base.

  18. This is a fine, important, article. I had great difficulty with the “New Math” my kids were taught. My education includes a Physics degree from UCLA but their teachers and I did not understand a lot of the new math. I only had one boy a teacher labelled retarded but he overcame it by getting graduate degrees in Molecular Biology and Electrical Engineering.

  19. I am fortunate having benefited from 1950s Los Angeles City Schools, when they educated, rather than schooled or indoctrinated. My educational highlight, though, was high school sophomore English under Dr. Louis A. Sergio, in the Alhambra (California) City School District. Sergio, as we called him, out of earshot, taught classical and contemporary literature, logic, vocabulary expansion and agility, via “Word Power Made Easy” and a host of games, along with writing: Essays, discussion, and creative. His grading policy, as I recall it, might be called “Grading on An Individual Curve.” “Mr. Ung, this, for you, is a ‘C’ paper. I expect better.”

  20. I went to a Jewish parochial school for K-9 and by the time we were in junior high our class had only 10 students, 6 boys and 4 girls. Our 7th grade teacher for English, Mrs. Paris, didn’t like boys and she delighted in trying to show us that we didn’t know as much as we thought we did.

    Admittedly, I was a terror to my teachers, a smart kid with a big mouth, but she once refused to let me back into class unless my mother sat in on the class to observe my behavior. Like I was about to misbehave with my mom there, right. She just wanted to push my family around. My younger sister was about six years old at the time and though she was sick with the flu at the time, my mom had little choice but to wrap her up and bring her with, as otherwise they’d have me sitting in the office and missing coursework until she came to school.

    My mother was not happy with me being a behavior problem in school in general so she was not thrilled with me about the matter. When my dad got home from work that day and asked her how things went. She said, “That teacher is insane.”

    All four girls got A grades. None of the boys got higher than a C for 7th grade English. Nobody failed, but there were at least a couple of D minuses. Of those six boys, four apparently later developed good enough English skills to make it through law school. The fifth is a doctor. I’m the sixth and I get paid to write.

    I’m sure Mrs. Paris would take credit for our success.

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