And the odd thing is this: I never realised how angry, how resentful or even how damaged I was – until the moment when my daughter turned six and it dawned on me that the time had come for me to send her to school.
That realisation – that I needed to put Morgan through “an education” (even slightly resembling my own) – opened up a floodgate of emotions that, quite frankly, surprised me. I had no idea that I had carried so much baggage… over all these years… regarding my education. I hadn’t even given much thought to how my education affected me – and how it affects me still.
A BIT OF HISTORY
I can’t remember having much of an issue with early primary school. I slotted in with the other kids. I worked hard. The teachers liked me. I enjoyed reading, writing, music and art. I hated sports (that never changed).
My first school was Table View Primary in Cape Town and I remember liking my teacher, Mrs Kelleher – who was gentle and patient. Then my parents moved inland to Joburg and I attended Farrarmere Primary where I also did well and made friends easily (interestingly, maths was my favourite subject at the time). And then, my parents moved to the outlying agricultural plots of Benoni – and I was moved to Putfontein Primary. I did very well (academically) during my 3 years at Putfontein… winning numerous certificates and awards – including one for Exceptionally High Standard of Work. I even received a trophy for being one of 5 most outstanding students in the school.
It was when I moved to Arbor Primary when things started going pear-shaped. Standard 4 and 5 (Grade 6 and 7) were spent at Arbor… and that’s when the whole education-thing started tanking… badly.For a start, I found myself becoming increasingly bored with school. It seemed as though the entire system focussed on TELLING us instead of ASKING or INVOLVING us. I quickly learned that we were expected to Answer-the-Questions… but never Question-the-Answers. School was about teaching us how to parrot-fashion facts and retain certain information long enough to be able to pass a standardised test. Once the test or exam was passed – the information was lost. I wrote hundreds of tests and exams in my school career. I can’t remember what was in any of them… which, in my mind at least, begs the question: “What , then, was the point?”
School taught us to be obedient and compliant. We were not allowed to talk in class. Discussions and questions weren’t encouraged. We were taught and told how and what to think. We were told what was ‘right’… we were told what was ‘wrong’. We were taught how to behave… and how not to behave. We were taught what to believe… and what not to believe. We were never taught creativity or critical thinking – and seldom (if ever) given the opportunity to think for ourselves – or decide for ourselves.
Come to think of it, there was just no room for creativity, creative expression or exploration. Even music class was a bland routine – where we had to sit in neat little rows and play our instruments according to the precise instructions of the teacher. Never – not even once – were we given the opportunity to create, explore or improvise during music class. We were ‘not allowed’ to simply… jam.
Come to think of it, I can’t remember being invited to: question… create… explore… invent or improvise in school – at all.
My questioning, inventing, exploring, creating and improvising could only happen at home. It was the only place where it was encouraged and allowed. A couple of things ‘saved’ my creativity (and sanity) during those years:
- Extra-mural art lessons at my aunt’s home – (once a week) – where the projects she set were challenging and inspiring.
- Protea Choral Society – the amateur theatre group I had joined. Every year, we put on plays, musicals and theatre productions. These really stretched my creativity and confidence.
- Having musical instruments in our home (my parents purchased my first piano when I was 8 years old). I played piano by ear. Then my mom sent me to guitar lessons where I learned basic chord structures. Once I knew and understood chords – I would sit in front of the piano with my guitar on my lap and sound out the guitar chords on the piano. Nobody taught me how to play a C#m7 on the piano. I had to teach myself. Thankfully, I had enough passion for music to pursue it in spite of my awful experience at school. Standard 5 music lessons would have been enough to put me off music for life – were it not for the presence of my friendly Bentley piano at home (thanks Mom and Dad!).
- A love for stories and storytelling (thanks to my mother who read me bedtime stories from when I was a tiny baby)… and books (thanks, Mom!)… meant that I developed a love for reading and writing and poetry – again – in spite of school… certainly not ‘because’ of school.
High school was when things went completely downhill.
I attended Willowmoore High. I should never have gone to Willowmoore High. My confidence would have soared in Art School – or any place where I might have been encouraged to excel and work hard in the areas where I was naturally gifted.
Or… for that matter… anywhere that allowed and encouraged me to think for myself instead of telling me “what” to think.
Instead, I was made to feel stupid. The things I was really good at (creativity / ideas / storytelling / art / music / photography / design / etc) were all things that my school considered… irrelevant… topics.
They were considered ‘hobbies’ or ‘extra mural activities’. They weren’t important. The relevant and important subjects were maths and science. It was considered important to score high marks on your IQ test… and take higher-grade maths and science in order to gain access to universities…. so that one could spend extra years studying and, upon graduation become – what? exactly?
Very, very few of my ex school peers are involved in careers that absolutely required a university degree. And even among those who dutifully went to university – very few of them are working in careers that REQUIRED that diploma or degree.
Even my husband, who was deputy head boy at his high school – and later attended the University of Pretoria where he obtained his BSc in Computer Science (mostly to satisfy his parents)… well, he’s a filmmaker now.
Sure, he can program. Sure, he can write code. But it bores him to tears and he’s now a cinematographer and film editor – something he’s really passionate about. Sometimes, I wonder how much further ahead he’d be in the film industry if all that money and time spent on obtaining the BSc degree had instead been appropriately invested in his ACTUAL TALENT!
But, back to school (this post is about my experiences at school… and since I never attended university, it’s pointless delving down that particular rabbit hole).
Here’s what I learned at Willowmoore High:
- How to smoke (although, thankfully, I tried it once – hated it – and never got addicted… unlike MANY of my peers).
- How to get drunk (got drunk for the first time with some kids from school – thankfully hated it – and haven’t made a habit of it).
- How to use a combination of baby oil and surgical spirits on my skin in order to tan super-fast (or rather, burn super-fast).
- How to bunk PT without getting caught.
- Tips on how to get in to a nightclub – even though I was under-age.
- How to steal from the school tuck shop without getting caught.
- How to fake my mother’s signature.
- How to lie convincingly.
- How to pass letters and notes to my friends in class without being detected.
- How to “fit in” and “be cool”… (if you weren’t pretty or popular enough, you became cool by being rebellious and outspoken).
- I learned that I should not sit in the front row of science class because Mrs White spat when she talked.
- I learned that Miss Suberg was barking mad.
- I learned that Mrs van Steenbergen could be sweet-talked – but Mrs Robinson could not.
- I learned all about the Ouija board.
- I learned the words of the cheerleading songs (that we were forced to sing and chant during sports season).
- I learned the words of the school national anthem (sung to the tune of Mull of Kintyre) – (which just goes to show, once again, that I have a knack for retaining the lyrics of random, irrelevant songs).
- I can tell you who was dating who… and who was sleeping with who… in 1986, 1987 and 1988 – but cannot recall a SINGLE nugget of relevant information (i.e.: something that I make use of on a daily basis) that I learned in the classroom at school. NOT. A. THING. Computers? No – self taught. Music? Ha! Ha! – that’s funny!… ummm… NO! Media studies? Nope. Travel? Nada. Kids? Relationships? Writing blogs? Photography? Graphic Design? Printing? History of Johannesburg? Social studies? Business? How to open a bank account? Cooking? World affairs?…. ummm…. anything??? No, no… and NO.
And don’t even get me started on the school curriculum!
In those days, Apartheid (and numerous other inconvenient truths) were scrapped from our text books and the school curriculum. Every school pupil (regardless of their cultural or religious background) was forced to attend RI (Religious Instruction) classes – (hint: only one religion was ever taught as “The Truth” – usually by teachers whose disinterest and indifference was palpable).
The Powers That Be decided what we “should” know – and what we “shouldn’t” know. These days, we tell ourselves that it’s okay… that the school curriculum has changed… that things are now more “balanced”. But again – WHO is making these decisions on behalf of our children? WHO gets to decide what’s important – and what’s not important?
The latest politician? A boardroom full of strangers in the Department of Education? Someone with an important-sounding title in front of their name?
As a parent – I kinda want to know the answers to these questions before I compliantly and unthinkingly enrol my daughter in school.
So… did anything good come out of my high school education? Honestly? Nothing.
Of the overall “lessons” that school taught me (or tried to teach me) – this is what I came away with:
- If you don’t study hard and get high marks at school, you’re going to end up a ‘loser’… a ‘failure’ or a street-sweeper (not true, as it turns out).
- If you want any kind of long-term “success” in life, you need to get high marks in school, go to a university and get a degree – any degree. Do this and everything is guaranteed to fall in place (also not true, as it turns out. I know many highly qualified people who either don’t have a job at all OR are working in industries that have nothing to do with what they originally studied).
- You absolutely MUST obey the rules (Disagree. Many rules are downright stupid or have nasty ulterior motives behind them. Teaching children to think for themselves should be the priority – instead of teaching them to blindly obey and follow any “rule” that is thrust in front of them).
- You absolutely MUST fit in… and be “normal”… and slot in neatly with the status quo.
- It is of utmost importance that you are obedient and compliant.
- Art and music are hobbies. If you want a “Real Job”, then you need to study maths and science.
- Being a prefect / super-achiever / award-winner at school will guarantee your future career success (as it turns out, prospective employers don’t give a damn about your netball scores, your collection of trophies or the time you debated on the Junior Town Council)… (and since I used to employ people myself – and thus read through a fair amount of CV’s – I can state that with utter confidence).
- Standardised tests measure your intelligence – or lack thereof. (Sir Ken Robinson has a wonderful rant in his book The Element – how finding your passion changes everything – on the sheer ludicrousness of IQ tests and other standardised tests.
My self-belief and self-esteem suffered an enormous blow at high school.
I left with an overwhelming sense that I was just not good enough or clever enough and the predictions of my guidance teacher (who liked to remind me that I would either end up as a street sweeper or selling cheese in Checkers one day) – seemed only to solidify the idea that I would just never… measure up.
Thankfully, I am older and wiser and no longer feel that I’m not “enough”… BUT – now I’m faced with another choice: do I put my own daughter through the same cookie-cutting machine? Do I thrust her down the same path?
(Seth Godin was written a brilliant manifesto about the current system of education and how it is failing our children. Most of what he wrote had me nodding in earnest agreement).
I want my children to develop a natural fascination with the world and a genuine love of knowledge. I only started thirsting after knowledge – 10 years after I had been “educated”. Education – learning – is something that happens every day. Who decided that education is something that needs to be confined to a small, square room with a blackboard and a teacher.
Anyway, this blog post is already too long – so I’m going to end off.
In a nutshell – school damaged me and did more harm than good. The only good thing that came from my years at school was this: friends! I made some great friends at school. In fact, Tracy (in the photo above) and I are still good friends – to this day. We met when we were both 12. This year, we both turn 40!
Okay, I really am ending off this long-winded, ranty blog now… but first, a quick disclaimer:
PLEASE NOTE: This is what I am NOT saying in this blog:
- Education is wrong.
- School is wrong.
- University is wrong.
- You’re a bad parent if you send your kids to school.
- All schools are the same.
- All teachers are the same (or similar) to the teachers I had.
- That I’ll “never” send my kids to any school or university.
- That my experience at school echoes the experience of everyone else.
- That everyone I know was damaged by their education in the same way that I was.