Fire Lighters

I’m not sure when I began reading my brother’s collection of science fiction stories. He had copies of “Citizen of the Galaxy”, “The Rolling Stones”, “Time for the Stars”, “Tunnel in the Sky”, “Farmer in the Sky”, and I think maybe “Starship Troopers”.

I do know I got my first science fiction book of my own at about 8 years of age. My mother was shopping in downtown Muscatine, and I was tagging along. For some reason I had convinced her to buy me “Buy Jupiter and Other Stories”, a purple book I still have.

Following her around J.C. Penney’s (a downtown store in that day), I tried reading about the salesman who tricks aliens into making a lucrative advertising deal as I stumbled along behind her. Whenever she’d pause, I’d open it up and read more about Mario Rioz and Ted Long arguing about “The Martian Way”, and laugh at “The Monkey’s Finger”. It says a lot that I can remember them 42 years later w/o having to dig up the now-coverless paperback from my childhood. However, there was a drought in my reading career…

The year is 1970. I was in 2nd grade, and had just moved to a new school. We were scheduled to have “reading time” one day, where we would sit around with the teacher and read for her from whatever book we were currently reading.
Being new, I had nothing prepared, so I grabbed a book at random off my brother’s bookshelf the night before, opened it, confirmed that I could read it and it didn’t have any naughty words (at least on the first page or two), and took it to class the next morning.

When my turn came, I opened to the first page and began reading. When I’d finished, I looked up to see a scowl darkening Mrs Mertz ugly face.

“What does that page mean?” she asked me menacingly.
I’m sorry, but I was as literal-minded back then as I am today. A page is a piece of paper with words on it. It doesn’t “mean” anything. Had she asked me what was happening, I would have told her that a chauffeur was waiting for his boss and didn’t like him very much, as that was the beginning of Aldous Huxley’s “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan” (why on Earth my brother had this book I’ll never know; he tended towards raunchy westerns and a handful of science fiction books filched from his highschool).

All I’d wanted was to avoid the embarrassment of not having something to read.

She scolded me, telling me, as I sat there in abject humiliation being stared at by my classmates, that maybe I should stick to books my own age, like Dr Seuss.

Flash forward to 1972. I’m sitting in the library reading Dr. Seuss books. This is all I would read, aside from “The Lion’s Paw”, ever since my chastisement, in spite of my mother and other teacher’s efforts… aside from books necessary for school lessons, like the biography of Patton the librarian had ordered special for my report that year (a decade later, I was still the only one who’d checked it out).

Two sixth graders began harassing and making fun of me. Over comes the librarian, again, scowling. She was an older woman; where the b*ch was perhaps in her 30s or 40s, this woman was in her 60s, a retired teacher herself. She made me come with her, took down a book from above the shelves, a college coursework for teachers. She opened it at random and ordered me to read.

I read half the page, my face growing redder and redder, not daring to look up until she said, “that’s enough”. I had not made a mistake, nor stumbled over the long words in the (to me) august tome.

She then scolded the two sixth-graders, and told them that I read what I wanted to read, and then beamed a smile at me.
It was then that I resumed devouring books as I’d wanted to.

Years later, as a college student, I confronted the b*ch with what she’d done to me, she actually had the brass to claim credit for my getting into college.

However, my “felicity” with the English language was a result of my mother’s patient effort before I ever entered a school, and the enthusiasm of Ms Meeks; my High-school English teacher, and the mother of a fellow high-school student. Appreciating my interest in her Shakespearean lessons, she discovered my appetite for science fiction, and gave me her entire collection of “Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine”. She discussed the stories with me after class, or school, as convenient.

This is the difference between the old school view of teaching and what I refer to as the new school. Mrs Mertz was incensed, not because I failed to comprehend her question, but because I had the audacity to bring an adult-level book to her 2nd grade class. For all she knew, she had a budding Pulitzer-prize-winning author under her care. But what she saw was a threat to the rest of her brood. Instead of, as Ms Meeks did a decade later, nurturing my natural desire and ability, she crushed it. I was not to tower above the “average” students in her class, my potential notwithstanding.

Old school teachers recognized their job as maximizing the potential of every student, particularly any that showed outstanding ability. New school teachers see their job as “preparing” students for the modern world. Hence the emphasis on computers and socialization, and de-emphasis on the 3Rs (and in particular, history).

Alas, with the help of filthy unions (a redundancy), the new school has won the day, and at least two generations of American students have been turned out largely lacking in creativity, imagination, or, most important of all, the tools with which to develop and express their creativity and imagination.

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited” – Plutarch.

In that single sentence, Plutarch identified the difference between a teacher, and an indoctrinaire. Between old school, and new. The wrong side won.

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