A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 111

A school in Cuba: Che, not Ivanhoe

Thursday, July 9

The debate over public school reopening seems to be missing one thing: Kids really do learn a lot on their own. 

Maybe what they learn won’t comply with the official requirements, but kids will continue to learn stuff—and be interested in learning—without any bullying from credentialed teachers or school-board commisars. They get information from their friends. They learn everything from self-discipline to cooking and cleanliness from their parents. If parents are bad role models…well there’s little schools can do to overcome that. 

Home-schooled kids “miss out on learning gains in reading and math relative to in-class instruction,” says Vox’s Matthew Yglesias.

Baloney. They miss out on bullying, boredom, snobbery, and enforced conformism.

My own experience probably demonstrates little more than personal frustration. Nevertheless, I must say that I already knew how to read when I went to first grade. They gave me a little, unofficial test, and at age 6, I could read virtually everything in the sixth-grade reader; the only word I didn’t know was “Maria.”

But they decided I shouldn’t “skip” any grades. Consequently, for several years I sat and listened as other students attempted to read out loud, stumbling over words or just sitting for lengthy, agonizing periods of silence.

Did this benefit me or other already-advanced kids? I was supposed to gain some maturity or socialization from being around others my age—but I remained hugely immature and shy.

Up until college, it was much the same. In high school, I learned a lot of math and a little biology—most of which I’ve long ago forgotten. The history classes were almost all taught by football coaches—it seems they needed lots of those. I remember one coach reading the textbook aloud to us—that was his idea of a lecture. As he read, students misbehaved, throwing spitballs or wads of chewing gum at each other. Others dawdled, drawing airplanes with firing machine guns rather than taking notes. Some kids slept.

Another memory is of a study hall, presided over by yet another football coach. He amused himself by digging in his ears with his keys. Then, he’d carefully examine whatever he had managed to remove. Occasionally, he’d pipe up and utter some word of criticism at a perceived miscreant. 

There was compulsory attendance at pep rallies held in the gym. Memphis Central High School’s fight song was performed to the tune of “On Wisconsin”—or was it the Notre Dame Victory March? I guess there were no original melodies in the hometown of Elvis.

Then there was ROTC, or Rot-C as we called the paramilitary marching around while wearing army-surplus duds and toting disabled, WWII-era rifles. What did we learn there? Obedience? That was already a theme in almost all other classes.

There was really only one class I liked—senior English. There, we read the anti-Semitic Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. (And, famously, 40% of the students at my school were Jewish.) I should note that Ivanhoe did have virtues—it celebrated the Che Guevara-like Robin Hood.

Mrs. Davies, the English teacher, made it known that she disapproved of a group of students who, on their own, were reading J.D. Salinger and admiring Bob Dylan. Today, both figures are on the approved list, I gather. Other authors and popular musicians have to bear the load of official disapproval. They cry all the way to the bank.

Dinner: leftover grilled vegetables, Capriccio salad.

Entertainment: Our faulty Internet connection won’t link to Britbox, so two episodes of Netflix’ The Stranger.