Lots of Live Cats

I have been accused of being erudite and even exceptional. The fact is that I’m not those things. Not by any stretch. The one thing that might make me different is that I got a well rounded education. My education was anything but standard. When I was eleven, twelve and thirteen I spend virtually no time in a classroom. I was too busy out making tree houses, working on a farm both with crops and animals, and building models and radios. Oh, yeah. I also fixed the old alarm clocks with the round faces and the twin bells leaning either side of the top. 

Doing this forced me to learn about mathematics, physics, chemistry, animal psychology, and much more. Had I been cast loose to flounder in these activities I doubt that I would be any sort of success. But I wasn’t. The school I went to actually encouraged what I was doing and the faculty was paid to discover what we were doing and offer ideas and help. To show us how to accomplish the goals we’d set for ourselves. So for those three school years, I was basically in class for up to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week and I loved it. I was doing what I liked so of course I enjoyed it.

When I found myself back in the classroom, I found that I had a curiosity and a verve that made me ask a lot of questions –often to the chagrin of both the teachers and students. I bothered the teachers because I deviated them from their lesson plan and their assigned objectives. The problem is, I’m way ahead of the class because I’ve already been through this stuff. While I have trouble sometimes with the expressions; closed sets, quotient, product, adverb, adjective, and so on, I know the material. The kids in the class hate me because I screw up the bell curve and their grades are lowered. Yet, I persevere and I learn more and more because I have learned to be curious. The other kids just want to pass their quizzes and tests as they wait for the weekend, or better yet the vacation times.

And, I read. I always have a mystery tucked under an arm as I trot from class to class or place to place. In those stories I learn all sorts of things as the authors try to lend more realism to their stories. I read a series of Tom Cochran books based on Key West and learn about the British and Spanish fleets that have deposited treasure, and I learn about the common raiding of foundering ships and how the people of Key West create a daisy chain of boats that rescue the cargos of the ships, yet in the rescue somehow all of the cargo ends up on the black market. I learn about the navy and how the Keys played a part in the feuding with Cuba and how they and the Coast Guard fought so hard against the Key residents fishing for Square Grouper –the floating bales of marijuana. The citizens of the keys get pissed when the government puts a checkpoint on the only road to the Keys and treats it like a border crossing, and thus emerges the Conch Republic. The people of Key West declare war on America, surrender, and apply for foreign aid. And get it. About how the laid back, quasi-noir lifestyle of Ernest Hemmingway turns into the tourist-filled realms of Jimmy Buffet and how so many people spend their vacation money trying to help him find his lost shaker of salt.

So many kids these days have no curiosity. Why should they learn anything when everything they might need to know is available on Google. Long gone is school bans on calculators –insisting that students learn to operate free of technological aids. And how now kids are required to use calculators –no, computers, and many schools demand them purchased as required school supplies. Then all of the programs. A million programs, all given acronym names to make them sound so hip while they hide the facts of business as usual in schools. Teaching has not changed since it was invented. There have been attempts to modernize education, prompting the budding of charter schools that quickly turn from well intended new approaches to instruction into bastions of religious mantra that fly in the face of what the rest of the schools are drearily teaching: The world is billions of years old. The earth is 9000 years old. Dinosaurs shared the planet with Jesus. So many parents home schooling their kids, teaching them off the grid survival skills to their illiterate offspring. Some of those kids can’t sound out the word C-A-T but can field strip an AK-47 in twelve seconds flat and put five shots into the ten ring easily at 100 yards or more.

Our educational system is broken, so lots of politicians echos the concerns of their constituents. Yet I’m certain that schools will be the same in another hundred years in spite of the onward march of technology. We have sagged tremendously in comparison to the world. Our kids are 15th in reading, 33rd in math and sciences. All of the nationas that put us to shame have changed the way they teach. They have support systems and critique systems that watch all of the teachers and guide them toward what is working the best at the moment, taking advantage of technology, but in a subordinate role. Their students are curious; their appetites for knowledge are whetted and their curiosity pumps consistently primed, driving them to want to know more and more, and they want to know everything about the things they learn.

So why don’t we, why can’t we instill the same curiosities in our kids? Why is there such a small group of adept kids? We find it has nothing to do with social status, affluence or opportunity. All the money in the world cannot entice the bored and jaded perspectives we see in the majority of our kids.  I was so shocked the day I answered my phone and heard my son on the other end calling to thank me for making him look stuff up about computers when, as a professional, I had all of the answers in the forefront of my mind. What about the C programming language, dad? Here, this is a book by Kernigan and Ritchie called “The C Programming Language.” Your answers are all in there. He was curious about how the language could take concepts and turn them into computer games, to provide security, to be able to have computers communicate between them. He was curious. And I made him learn the basics, to understand not how –but WHY things were done. And it had built a habit in him that had taken him from the sea of other novice programmers and propelled him upwards into management. And yes, wealth. He’d quit school in the eighth grade and now ran a segment of the most ubiquitous computer companies, Google, and he thanked me for not giving him the answers, but instead spurred his curiosity and handed him the tools to learn.

With my sons it was computers. My daughter it was animals and nature. With me it was tree houses and radio-electronics. The hell with classes and their dry rote memory lessons. I’m proud of my kids and I’m proud they think I did them a favor. In spite of my not being too smart. My IQ tested between 118 ans 122. Not your pinacle of intellect. But I have always been curious and always been willing to learn because of it.

Curiosity killed the cat they say. There are a lot of live cats in America. So few people are curious anymore. And I think it hurts us.