Friday, July 3, 2009

Did They Do The Right Thing?

It is time that I addressed something a little personal, a little controversial but something very important to me. This piece of writing is tough going but it is an issue that I have worked on for many years to try and come to terms with....

Today, after I had completed my exercises at the local swimming pool, I couldn't face the thought of going home to bed. So, Mum and I went to Campbelltown Arts Centre, where we had coffee.

Mum and I were sitting down talking about life and all of its challenges when I looked up to see
a group of four older women making their way past my table. There they were, four of my high school teachers, women who I had not seen in over thirteen years. I stood up from my seat, stepped forward and reached out to one, in particular. I gave her my full name and I watched as I saw the delight spread across her face.

Yes, she said, she remembered me well.

In 1996, in the early stages of Year 11, I was terribly disobedient. I was placed in her class because I had come within an inch of failing Year 10. I was out of control and I cared very little about school. I was identified very early on as a problem and I was required to sit towards the front of the class so that she could control me as best as possible.

The Early Acceleration

I look back and it is easy to see what had gone wrong. I was barely fifteen while the majority of my classmates were seventeen or older. They had decided to accelerate me into school when I was just four years old. They believed that at four years old, I was showing enough intelligence and maturity to allow me to go to school with my older sister. They accelerated me into school and then left it at that.

They said that to accelerate me further would have been disastrous for my upbringing. Looking back, I think the school believed that they would rather a student sit comfortably in a grade and do well, than lift her to a higher one, challenge her and manage the disadvantages carefully. It was far better to allocate what resources the school had to assist those who required "Special Education" (those with learning difficulties and behavioural problems) than to dedicate resources to accelerated students.

The Younger Years

I was placed into school at four years of age and I was left to settled into mediocrity. I went through primary school with average marks in english and maths because I had no one to tell me that I was smart. Instead, I had plenty of people telling me that I was "the young one" that probably was a little too young to be with the big kids. Whenever I was given a new teacher, I was only ever placed on their radar because I was the youngest, and the one most likely to do "immature things". They were, in a way, right. I talked incessantly, i copied homework from my best friend who was at the time known as the smartest girl in grade and I used to deliberately do naughty things - not because i was a naughty child - but because it was so I could get attention. Any attention was still attention as far as I was concerned.

Mediocrity and harmless disobedience was the theme throughout my junior school and the majority of my high school years. I do not recall achieving anything at school. I was once picked to attend a sporting camp with the older children and that made me proud and I was a district champion at swimming, but when it came to academic achievement, I barely registered 5.0 on the richter scale.

Very early on in school though, I found skating. It became the very foundation of my self esteem throughout primary school and more importantly, in my early teenage years. My life revolved around skating. The day I became old enough to legally work, I was given an after school job at the skating rink, where I worked at any chance given. I began racing, I began teaching, and I became known as "the really good skater". Skating was everything and school was nothing.

The Year I Was Forced to Confess

Year 11 was going to be like every other year that had passed. I had gotten quite good at manipulating the school system, and had mastered the art of doing as little as possible while doing enough to get me over the line. It was not hard and I had actually formed a sort of arrogance about my ability to manipulate the system. I knew and understood the work, but with no real desire to do it and with no one really watching, it did not register on my scale of importance. I'd spend my days disrupting the class, the afternoons skating, and the late nights doing the bare minimum for the following day's class.

This Year 11 English teacher took me into her class and like the USS Constellation, she set out to seek and completely destroy me. She was determined to catch me out at any chance. She would, at any point during the class, turn to me to ask me what my view was. She would hold me back at the end of class so that she could read every word that I had written (or in many cases, confirm the very fact that I had not written a thing).

I saw this as a threat to my comfortable and happy existence at the school. I became frustrated and angry at the negative attention I was receiving as a result. She was humiliating me in the worst way possible. Instead of making it appear as though she was bullying me, she made it look as though she was actually favouring me. Soon enough, I was being teased for being "the teachers pet". At this point, I was not sure whether I was frustrated more for being the teacher's pet or for the fact that all of a sudden, i needed to account for the work i was supposed to have been doing.

The only way that I could get her off my back was to do the work, answer the questions when asked, and sink into the background quietly. However, somewhere in between her hassling me and me sinking into the background, I became interested in the content. I soon realised that she was deliberately asking me the harder questions and I was actually answering them with ease.

The Reformation

Over the course of eighteen months, this woman threw challenges at me, time and time again. She would mark me hard and she would never allow me to answer questions simply. I was not allowed to make assumptions and I was not allowed to shrug and say I did not know.

Soon enough, my development in english class spread out to that of the other classes. I began to rise up in the ranks of the middle-level classes and pull above average marks. I even recall a classmate saying to me at one point "I didn't know you were smart". I let those comments slide at the time, because I did not understand why it was that I was all of a sudden doing well.

In the end, I managed to obtain the third highest mark in my grade for the final high school exams. While it was not an excellent score from a state-wide perspective, it was enough to scrape into law school.

The rest is history. I entered an environment that constantly threw challenges at me. I was literally battling for survival on a daily basis with the content. It was the perfect place for me to be. I ended up graduating from law school with first class honors.

Did They Do The Right Thing By Me?

To this very day, I struggle to come to terms with whether the administrators of my junior school did the right thing by accelerating me only by one year. While I am not searching for someone to blame for my failures at school, I want to ensure that, should I go on to have children, the same thing will not happen to them. I wonder what would have happened to me had I not registered on this one teacher's radar. I think that we all can guess where I would have been had it not happened. I do not want it to happen to my children.

To this day, I believe that they chose not to accelerate me when I was young because they believed that it would have been "too hard". I fell into my school's "too hard basket" and to this day, despite the fact that I went on and used my own initiative to succeed, it angers me that I was not given more of a helping hand.

They believed their resources were far better used to (a) celebrate those who fell into the mould of "normal smart children" - those who were of the intelligence expected for their age; and (b) help those children who were disadvantaged. Also, if they had have placed me in a grade higher, I would have been three to four years younger than my fellow classmates. They assumed that I would not be able to handle the pressures of my peers and that it was possible for a child to interact appropriately with older children.

To put it simply, they rathered I sit there quietly (or in my case, not so quietly) and obey the education rulebooks, than break the mould, take some chances and challenge me. They made an assessment of me at the early age of 4 years old, pidgeon-holed me into a category and figured I would find my own way. Thankfully I did. However, it was a close call.

Championing the Need for True Accelaration

In recent years, I have formed some very special relationships with a couple of people who were accelerated by three or four years. I am talking about true accelaration. While their acceleration was not without challenges, it proved to be a worthwhile exercise and each of them are now working towards becoming future leaders.Personally, they have been instrumental to my understanding of who I once was and who I am today - and have assisted me in reconciling the two. They are strong advocates for the acceleration of children in schools and I stand alongside them on this issue.

I wholeheartedly believe in the accelaration of children in schools and I want to encourage people to look beyond the traditional definitions of "an intelligent child" to form an greater understanding of what some children need. I want to be an advocate of broadening the common schooling framework so that more resources can be allocated towards the identification of kids who may not be falling within the "cut and dry" category of "smart". Ironically, the year after I left that junior school, a new principal arrived. This new principal had been amongst a group of academics who championed the idea of student accelaration. They introduced an accelaration programme the year after I left. More schools are now instituting programmes such as these and this is promising.

A Chance to Say Thank You.

Today, I was given just a split second to shake the hand of the woman to whom I owe much of my success. The greeting occured unexpectedly and lasted only two minutes. I was able to tell her that I had gone on to law school, that I was now working internationally, and that I was doing okay. I gave her a hug and I let her go.

I feel as though I owe her far more.

1 comment:

  1. You owe no one nothing ... and I'll wager they'd be the first to tell you that. We all do what we do for others out of love and because we care. Nothing more.

    I too feel that challenging kids is vitally important. But I've come to realize that challenge can take many forms, each form ideally suited to the child. Sadly in America public school is far too often relegated to mere "free babysitting service" status. Most parents are not involved in nor invested in their kids' scholastic success, and those rare few that are are considered to be nuisances and pains in the neck. I put my son into online school for precisely these reasons ... and I struck gold when I did! He has a teacher much like yours that will not allow him to "skate", and communicates fully with me because she knows I am fully aware of my son's tendencies toward mediocrity and deception. She and I have formed the team I always wanted for my son - continually challenging him to be the very best person scholastically and personally that he can be. You just can't find that in America's public school system. I guess it just doesn't mesh too well with a system reduced to "free babysitting service" status.

    Bravo for you recognizing all of this, Kate! I know it has been something you've struggled mightily with for a long time. I personally have never understood the trend toward holding back the "good" students just to accommodate the unmotivated students. Why can't the system deal with each student individually, based on each of their needs and strengths? I've just never understood that.