Monday, December 9, 2013

How Science Fiction Save Me From Hell - I Mean Middle 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 sixth grade, especially the last half. Being only 11 years old, I naively assumed there would be a linear progression. If sixth grade was this good, then seventh grade should be even better. And eighth grade, still better. And so on.

Was I shocked when I got into the seventh grade. One of my friends, raised 300 miles from me, once asked me, “Was seventh grade a kind of hell for you?” Yes, it was, and I couldn’t figure out why. Compared to sixth 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 eighth 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 middle 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 middle school 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 middle 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 DVDs, it would have never occurred to them to say, “Have you really listened to all those!?”

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 sixth 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 middle school 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.


Glen Filthie said...

I can no longer stand the faggotified and feminized shit that passes for SF these days. Vox Day calls it 'Pink SciFi' where the story lines revolve around characters exploring their emotions rather than the old story lines of protagonists struggling to overcome evil. It has become a tool of lefties to advance their pet causes like homosexuality, polygamy and socialism. Quite simply, modern SF IS hell now. My IQ is about 118 if the test scores are to be believed...and I can't stand most of the contemporary stuff being written today. Even with my low IQ scores this crap is an insult to my intelligence.

Amy said...

Bob, I feel for you. This was my story as well, for the most part. I went to Catholic school, but same story: after sixth grade, it all fell apart, and I went from high honors to B's and C's, and high school was a joke.

I have always been a reader. More than anything else I love to read books. The first sci-fi book I read was A Wrinkle In Time, in the fourth grade. I read all the books in that series, many times over, then my parents bought me a matched set of the LOTR books with The Hobbit included and I entered the world of fantasy. My dad gave me Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury to read in sixth grade. What worlds I encountered! The thoughts and possibilities, and critiques of human nature, spoke to me. But I could not share any of my insights with anyone, none of my peers were interested.

School treats high-IQ girls the same way as boys, at least that was my experience. I was an academic washout, IQ of 130 and almost failed out of HS. Just abide by the rules, do the work, you're smart, why is this so hard for you? Heard it over and over from parents and teachers.

Comparison to Procrustes is accurate. Mythology, I suppose, was my first intro to SF/F, though they are more of a component or progenitor of the latter rather than part of the whole. I loved reading the myths of Greece and Rome, and also Nordic and Slavic myths, and trying to tease out their truths.

My experience as a teacher says that many kids, especially boys, are stuck like this. Teachers moan about how boys are uninterested in reading -who would want to read the feminized literature of today? I don't like it, can't imagine a boy would. Want to get a boy to read, buy him military fiction/Mil-SF or good old-fashioned swords and sorcery fantasy.

Like Glen said, homosexuality, socialism, etc. rule in modern SF and the stories suffer greatly. Not to mention the grrl power! that Vox and Wright so frequently expose as the laughable farce it is.

Amy said...

Glen, it occurs to me that we've supposedly conquered evil by way of moral relativism. There is no evil (except for privileged White Christian men) to fight when "It's All Good!" is the motto of the day.

The emotional battleground is the last frontier of war - beating sex/racism and heteronormative bias is when we'll finally achieve harmony. We'll win victory over ourselves, and love Big Brother.

Unknown said...

I am convinced that spending that much time in that kind of school environment actually does something to your brains - alters it permanently.

OMG - I have brain damage!!!!

Aurini said...

I remember having "Jurassic Park" confiscated from me for reading in class (this was before the movie came out), the same year I was accused of being mentally retarded.

What saved me was my parents insisting on an IQ test, and telling me the result. With that, I had something to hold onto during those years of hell.

A lot of my disgust with teachers stems from this - and it's richly deserved.

Glen Filthie said...

You are probably right Amy. We have done away with evil but unfortunately the good has gone with it.

I hate public school teachers with the heat of a thousand suns. I hated them as a child and as an adult. My brother in law and his wife are teachers and neither of those dummies is fit to shine my shoes.

I wonder how kids handle it these days? Or are they? I am convinced our schools are moron factories and that the universities have become intellectual wastelands.