Tuesday, January 1, 2008

How Science Fiction Saved Me From Hell - I Mean Jr. High School

"The test of every religious, political, or educational system, is the man which it forms. If a system injures the intelligence it is bad.If it injures the character it is vicious. If it injures the conscience it is criminal."-- Henri Frederic Amiel

I had a pretty good time in 6th grade, especially the last half. Being only 11 years old, I naively assumed there would be a linear progression. If 6th grade was this good, then 7th grade should be even better. And 8th grade, still better. And so on.

Was I shocked when I got into the 7th grade. One of my friends, raised 300 miles from me, once asked me, “Was 7th grade a kind of hell for you?” Yes, it was, and I couldn’t figure out why. Compared to 6th grade, it was a sheer drop straight down, like one of those fjords in Norway.

Years later, I realized what the problem was: I was unusually intelligent, imaginative and sensitive. So why was I in classes with kids whose IQs were 100? And sometimes maybe less? When I was in 8th grade the boy behind me was 16 years old. He dropped out soon after the school year started.

I had nothing in common with almost all of the kids in class. I didn’t want to be friends with them, and the schoolwork bored me so badly I ended up being one of those boys with low grades and high standardized test scores.

I consider public (read government-run) schools to be a modern version of the Greek torturer Procrustes. He had a bed, and those who were too short to fit, he stretched; those who were too long, he chopped. Everyone fit, but nearly everyone was mutilated.

When I was 12 or 13 I sneaked into my file at school and saw a special notation: “IQ 126.” No genius, but an IQ of 125 is the mean average for doctors and Ph.D.s. Even now I remember the surprise I felt: I had no idea I was so smart. Not a clue. After all, hadn’t all my grade-school teachers put comments on my report cards about what a bad student I was?

Of course, every teacher and administrator in my entire school career completely dropped the ball in my case. They didn’t have a clue, either. They assumed I should make good grades. I didn’t.

In their minds, a high IQ automatically meant good grades. Not once in my entire public school career did any teacher ask, “Why is someone so smart doing so poorly in school? Is there something wrong?”

Something wrong? Yes. I remember one of the greatest shocks I ever got in school was when a guidance counselor told me, “According to your test scores, you could go to Harvard or Yale.” Who, me? The idea had never entered my head.

To me, especially with boys, a high IQ, coupled with imagination and sensitivity and somewhat of a desire to take risks (in other words, me) is a sure-fire recipe for poor grades. The teachers and administrators were supposedly the adults, and I was 12 years old. They didn’t know what they were doing, and I was the one who paid for it.

So what got me through junior high school? One thing: science fiction. The feeling I got from it is called “the sense of wonder,” and the dilemma is that if someone hasn’t experienced it, I cannot explain it to them, and if they have, there’s no need for me to.

To me, that feeling is composed of wonder, amazement, imagination, absorption, and even a kind of love—what the introduction to the original Outer Limits called “the awe and the mystery.” I got that feeling only from science fiction: I did not get it from school, or church, which I ceased attending when I was 12, being bored nearly to tears by it.

Why I got that feeling, I don’t know. Why any boy gets it (and it generally tends to be boys), I don’t know. But whenever I see a kid reading a science fiction book, I know that kid is different, what most people consider an oddball. I don’t. It’s other people I consider oddballs, the ones who lack imagination and intelligence and sensitivity.

The writer Stephen King, writing about growing up, said he considered people without imagination to suffer from “a kind of colorblindness.” I believe the same: to me they are missing out on an infinite world that goes from the beginning to time to the end of it, from one side of the universe to another.

I realize now my disillusionment with junior high forced me into being lopsided: for close to three years I lived almost completely in my imagination. That’s not a good thing. While I did do such early teen things as roller- and ice-skating, and attending an occasional party, for the most part I lived in my imagination. For me, it was an escape from school. Being an escape, it was also a consolation.

I went from being an extroverted and funny 11-year-old to an introverted 12-year-old. I didn’t start to get back on track until 10th grade. My transformation had nothing to do with anything except junior high school. And it happened within a month of starting 7th grade.

I knew I would be considered so weird in school I never mentioned my reading habits. A perfect example of what I would have encountered was when some adults entered my room at home, saw my library of perhaps 100 books, and exclaimed, “Have you really read all those!?” Now if I had had 100 albums, it would have never occurred to them to say, “Have you really listened to all those records!?”

I still remember the names of all the authors I read: Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, A.E. van Vogt. Alfred Bester. I could go on, but you get the picture.

I still have some of the original paperbacks books I had when I was 12: Keith Laumer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy, Clifford D. Simak’s All the Traps of Earth, and Rudyard Kipling’s The Mark of the Beast. I have four copies of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Fighting Man of Mars, the ACE 1963 version with drawings by Roy Krenkel, Jr. I plan on cornering the market.

I was especially fond of Asimov and Ellison, not so much because there was anything special about their writings, but because they wrote about their personal lives. I felt I knew them. Ellison, in a collection of his short stories, wrote an introduction titled, “How Science Fiction Saved Me from a Life of Crime.”

I knew what he meant. “There’s someone out there who’s like me,” I remember thinking, even though he was old enough to be my father. It was like being on a deserted island for years and suddenly seeing fresh footprints.

Things picked up for me in high school, when I was 15 and a sophomore. If I could have gone from 6th grade straight to 10th grade, things would have been fine. Of course, it’s not possible to skip from being 11 to being 15. For me, and I’m sure many others, that’s an unfortunate thing.

In high school there were parties, girls, drinking and drugs. I had a blast, although that blast was always on weekends. We also swam, sailed our Styrofoam Sea Snark sailboat, rode horses and mini-bikes, and in general lived a life that was a cross between Animal House and American Graffiti. Why could this not have happened when I was 12?

What I learned, I taught myself. I learned grammar from the back of a dictionary when I was 12 and 13. I still have that dictionary: “The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, College Edition.” The copyright is from 1950. Yet, in school, I simply could not pay attention in English class. I had to do it myself, at my own pace.

Once thing I noticed, even in those days, is that upon entering high school my reading of science fiction almost ceased. Not totally, but by about 90%. I had other things to do, just as fun. But I still occasionally had that desire to withdraw into myself. It’s a desire I have, even today.

Without a doubt, there is something wrong with our schools, and has been for a long time. This wrongness is so pronounced I have for years believed the public schools should be closed down. When my junior high years consisted of living in my imagination, and my senior high ones consisted of beer and wine and rolling joints, clearly there is a problem. A big problem, one that affected not just me but many other kids.

We need a lot more freedom in schools, and a lot less bureaucracy. That means waving bye to the government, and don’t let the door hit you in your butt on the way out. And don’t come back, ever.

Why are kids in school for 12 years, anyway? What does it take 12 years to learn? Ben Franklin, at the age of 12, was an apprentice making soap and candles. He didn’t turn out too badly, as did neither Thomas Jefferson nor George Washington. Or any of the other Founding Fathers, none of whom spent ages five to 17 in public schools.

When I graduated high school I couldn’t do much that was useful. I could mostly build a house, but that was because my father was a general contractor and I had helped build houses since I was 12. I couldn’t work on a car, something I taught myself when I was 20. For all practical purposes, I could do almost nothing.

What exactly did I or anyone else learn in those 12 years? Nothing, really, besides learning to read and write, and some arithmetic and math. And all that was before 4th grade. My whole time is summed up by the movie, Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, when the kids are staring dully at Ben Stein, as he drones, “Anyone? Anyone?” No one knew the answer, and neither did I.

Something certainly needs to be done for the more intelligent, the more imaginative, and the more sensitive. They need to be scooped up and sent to live with their own kind. As things stand now—and as they stood in my time—they’re just very irregularly shaped pegs that are supposed to fit in some very square holes.

1 comment:

Kent McManigal said...

It sounds like we had similar experiences in Jr High, yet I stayed on the downhill slide throughout high school (and beyond). I had the high IQ and low grades. My school implemented a "talented and gifted" program that only made things worse from my perspective. I skipped class to hide in the library and LEARN. With the exception of one teacher, my school days were a nightmare that still haunts me. Government schools must be destroyed!