Monday, January 20, 2014

An Open Letter to Caroline

My dear granddaughter:

I get it.  You're bored with school.  I also get that you are one of the smartest people I know.  I also get that the work at school is not challenging you.  I get your frustration.  I also understand that there is a part of you that is a rebel - just like I was when I was growing up.

You come by it genetically, of course.  At least on our side of the family, we come from a line of rebels.  My own father (your great grandfather) confessed to being a maverick.  When he was starting to raise his family, black people were being denied access to just about everything.  They even had a special day at the Memphis Zoo for the "Negroes" to visit so the white folks wouldn't have to be around them as they watched the animals.  Can you imagine?  Well, of course, your grandfather had to speak out.  The danger was this:  He was afraid if he wrote letters to the newspaper he would lose his job as a bank teller.  The mayor of Memphis at that time was a powerful man and didn't want any complaints about how he ran the city.  So Dad wrote for a while under a pseudonym, then after a time wrote under his own name became open about his beliefs in the equality of all people.  He was frustrated at what he saw and heard, and he was in a minority when it could be a dangerous time to speak out, but he did anyway.   He would stand up for what he believed until the day he died.   He was a functioning, giving, caring member of society and he did everything that was expected of him - but on his journey, he took his typewriter and wrote and wrote so the rebel in him could be given a voice and his thoughts about how to live out his faith honored.

OK, so being upset with school is not anywhere near being upset with the way the blacks were being abused.  But...I can get closer to your feelings by telling you what else I see in you....I see myself.

My school years were not too different from yours.  I wasn't quite as smart as you are, but I was intelligent enough to get into some accelerated classes.  My response to school was always one of three emotions:  1) I adored my class and my teacher and found the work exciting.  2) I was bored to tears because I wasn't being challenged, or 3) I was frustrated that I had to learn "crap" that didn't have anything to do with what I wanted to learn and which didn't apply to or enrich my life in any way, something I considered a total waste of time.  On top of this, there was a rebel inside of me that the minute I was "told" to do something, I automatically resisted.  I absolutely hated giving other people power over my life.

I've mentioned to you that one of the highlights of my junior year in high school was having to read Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau.  Now, I had nothing against Walden Pond.  Part of it I really enjoyed.  Now Mr. Thoreau had a way of going on and on and on with descriptions, so much so that I had trouble staying awake to read the book.  However, I read enough to understand his message.  So on our test, one question dramatically stood out:  "How deep was Walden Pond?"  Seriously???!!  Of all the important  ideas and observations in that book, this is a question my teacher felt needed answering?  I was shocked, upset, offended, frustrated, and angry.  How can you take a book and dissect it into mere facts?  How can you take a book and make it a multiple choice quiz?  Where was the joy in reading?  Were we just some sort of machines that spit out what was fed in?  Were we parrots or monkeys, repeating and mimicking what we were taught?  So from early on, a book I might have picked up on my own and might have enjoyed became a power struggle once it was officially "assigned" in school.  I indignantly resisted every word on every page.

As I have told you, I dropped out of college after one year because I wanted to immerse myself in history and French and music alone - and the college requirements mandated that I take math and other stuff I had no interest in.  Even then, I figured out life was too short to waste it studying something that wasn't interesting or relevant to my life.

But here's the thing:  I always kept up my grades.  I could have slacked off with a lot of excuses about how it was boring and I was frustrated and I didn't want to be there and I'd rather be doing something else, but I didn't.  I just gritted my teeth and got on with it, mainly because I didn't want to disappoint my parents.  But I did learn something back then - that this is part of life.  Every day unfortunately can't be a roller coaster ride.  Sometimes it just consists of riding in the car to the grocery store - BORING.  But we take the good with the bad.

So, you might say, Grammy, how did you manage to balance the rebel with the acquiescent student?  That's a good question and it deserves a truthful answer.  I wrote.  Oh my, how I wrote!  I wrote poems that made fun of everything that frustrated me - some teachers, homework, even the cafeteria in the school! I made fun of how literature teachers always wanted to find hidden meaning in every word - which I sincerely doubt was intended by the authors in the first place.  (To do that, I took the poem "Mary had a little lamb" and wrote pages and pages of "hidden meanings" that were insanely funny!) I wrote it all down cathartically.  I can still to this day recite some of these poems.  I had to see the humor of the situation or I would have cried every day through high school.  Writing my poems kind of gave me the "last laugh" and those clueless teachers didn't win after all - at least that's how I felt.

There's no need to write anything nasty or vindictive.  There's no fun in that.  That's just pure revenge.  But parodies and comic poems and things like that - that's where the rebel in me could shine.  Of course, the teachers in question never saw these.  I shared them with a couple of close friends only.  I would never, ever want to hurt someone's feelings.  But I had to let it out somehow.  Somehow this silly, ridiculous, test-oriented, one-size-fits-all education had to be challenged, and that's what I did - in my own way.  (Even your great grandfather concentrated on writing complimentary letters to those were were taking unpopular stands, or letters of encouragement to those who were being victimized.  His rebel wanted to bring light into darkness, not more hate  - as there was quite enough hate to go around.)

The good student in me graduated high school with excellent grades.  The rebel in me wore white shoes during the graduation ceremony instead of the black shoes that were required.  Just little things - they kept me sane.

Every one of us, Caroline, is a blend of personalities.  It is very hard for a nonconformist to have to conform, and just as difficult for the thinking minds to accept boring assignments.  It is frustrating for the creative mind to see assembly-line education.  We don't want to be stagnant or lose our focus or passion, and want outlets where we can empty ourselves in the pursuit of beauty and philosophy and the wonder of the universe.  Somehow you have to let the rebel and the conscientious student live side by side in your brain and figure out a balance.  Believe me, when you get to be an adult, you will still feel the need to speak out against stupidity and ignorance and ask the uncomfortable but important questions.  That never goes away.  But to get there, you have to settle down, do your homework, and in your spare time, use your creativity to help you deal with the daily frustration.   Once you keep earning grades that reflect your intelligence, you can go on to high school and college and can choose whatever path you want in life with that good foundation.   And that is what I want for you, my sweet Caroline.