Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Tommy's Educational Autobiography (Mystic Knights of Silverfish)

Jerome K. Jerome's picture

1) Preschool Adventures

2) Catholic School

3) Transition to Public School & the Stolen Gameboy

4) 4th and 5th Grade


6) High School Fun

7) The 'Ford (in progress)

Chapter 2

I spent kindergarten, first grade, and second grade at Saint Catherine's, a Catholic school five minutes away from my house. In terms of the experiences that Dewey speaks of (whether helpful or miseducative), my time in Catholic school was full of them. In particular, St. Catherine's affected how I viewed myself academically relative to my peers and relative to how I was viewed as a student by people around me, which shaped how I viewed my studies and approached learning in general up until high school.

The school's library labeled all of its books with colored dots and handprints. Each one was supposed to mark the book's difficulty. The handprints were essentially books for young readers like "Where the Wild Things Are," while the dots were more difficult. At the beginning of the year, everyone took a test that was supposed to determine their reading level. In first grade, my placement was the orange dot, the lowest leveled dot, while everyone else was placed in a handprint color group. The librarian talked about how impressive this was and I got a few "Tommy placed into a dot!!!" looks from my classmates. I didn't quite know how to respond, so I mostly didn't. In order to move up to the next level, the light blue dot, I needed to read orange dot books and take an online test created by the library and get eight of the ten questions right. Since you could only check out books at your reading level or lower, there was something of a built-in incentive to do this. Regardless, since I was ahead of everyone and was "special," I assumed I could put that off, and that's exactly what I did. I never bothered with the burdensome testing system and never really bothered with reading at all until my third grade teacher pushed me to read, and even then I read the book she recommended and then stopped. By fifth grade, I was BSing book reports like a seasoned high school slacker.

In second grade, we played a game called around the world where our teacher would stand at the front of the class and reveal a flashcard with a simple math problem, and two students sitting next to each other would read the card and the first to answer correctly would move on to the next student. If a student answered before everyone else consecutively to go "around the world," you would win a trip to Johnson's, a local ice cream shop, for lunch. Soon after we started playing this game, I had gotten at least halfway around the world about three times only to be "upset" before finishing the job (as if I was a high seed losing early in the NCAA tournament). It did not take long before people cheered when I was defeated. Undaunted, I continued to dominate the game and won the trip to Johnson's. Then we did the same game but with subtraction instead of addition, and when I again went around the world, I did not get another trip so as to not make other students feel bad. It only took a few months for me to be singled out as a "math genius," the "human calculator." Suddenly I had to live up to my prolific around the world performances. It was quite the daunting prospect for my young self.

In retrospect, I can't help but feel like both experiences were miseducative. In the case of my orange dot placement, I was quickly surpassed by other more devoted readers. I took my orange dot to mean that I didn't need practice reading. In the case of my suddenly prodigious math skills, there were no immediate negative effects, but being a human calculator was a lot to live up to. Into public school, I was constantly afraid of looking stupid or not living up to my reputation as a "smart kid," so I didn't ask questions when I had them and always viewed success as maintaining the reputation that came with being the first kid in a school's history to be placed a grade ahead in math. Math was "my thing" and it became something I identified with, My experience essentially made me turn inward to avoid being brought down to size instead of being inquisitive as children naturally are. Even as I grew out of this mentality, I never really recovered the curiosity and motivation that I had lost as I sought to protect my status as the math wizard of the class.

I feel like I would have been served much better by being identified as being good at reading or math but then being made to understand that having gifts is not an end itself and that their corresponding skills need to be honed. The pomp and circumstance surrounding small achievements ended up making me afraid to learn. It was severely miseducative to the point that it took me until my junior year of high school to really become an engaged learner in all of my classes. But at least I got ice cream out of it.