There are two distinct highlights in my academic career. I began going to school when I was 3 and stopped when I was 23, not counting a year off that I took upon graduating high school. In that year, I slept on a lot of floors, met some girls and learned how to drink beer properly. In fact, despite the fact that people tell you that school is preparing you for the ‘real world,’ most of my adult life was a whole lot more like that year off until I had kids a little over four years ago.
I spend a lot of time writing about various floors I’ve slept on and various beers I’ve guzzled, but I don’t spend that much time writing about school. This morning, the elevated trains in Chicago were super fucked up and I ended up sitting in a stalled tin box just north of Fullerton for about 30 minutes. In that time I was somehow reminded of the two highlights of my academic career. And now I’m going to share them with you.
The LOW point of my academic career came when I was asked to write an essay about colonial America that displayed critical thinking during my junior year. I had recently transferred schools (my third highschool in three years) to an institution that valued critical thinking and that sort of thing. Before that I’d gone to a Jesuit school that really had no interest in critical thinking and then to a big, suburban public school that really seemed more like a place where bored people hung out between sneaking off to get high, than anyplace that valued any sort of thinking at all. Sitting in a timed environment with an extremely intelligent (if excruciatingly boring) teacher, looking at a blank sheet of paper, I began to panic. I had completely forgotten how to write.
Mr. Merrick was cool though. He just told me to breathe, relax and make an outline and that we’d get to the writing part later. It was okay. A few short weeks after that, I handed in a paper on The Collector by John Fowles for my Brit lit class and got an A+. The reason for the good grade, I’d soon discover was that my Brit lit teacher was deeply depressed over the recent passing of his lover and was drinking himself to death. It didn’t matter though. The confidence inspired by the A+ (for a paper that was, honestly probably worth about a C- at BEST) was enough for me to continue to develop as a writer. That A+ wasn’t one of the highlights of my academic career though.
In college, we had an essay exam for a class called B12. B12 was a huge lecture about televisions and strips of film and sound and light. We watched movies in B12 and then met in sections with bored grad students and discussed the movies and the various lights and sounds in the movie. I’m pretty sure the grad students were fucking some of the undergrads, which seems like a great perk of the job.
Anyway, our grad student (or TA) was a bored black dude with really awesome messy hair. When we met in section to go over our essay exams, he read all of my answers out loud, because they were funny. The room got a good chuckle and I felt like I’d really arrived as a wise ass. But that moment, while awesome, was not a highlight of my academic career. The two highlights of my academic career happened much earlier.
In fifth grade, we were presented with a Xerox of an anthropological study of a crazy backwards culture called the Nacirema, which described the wild idiosyncrasies of their tribe’s day to day routine. The class was shocked and horrified and even our resident genius in the class found their crazy behavior more than a little appalling. After about fifteen minutes of this, I raised my hand and pointed out that all of the things that they were describing in the article were things that we do here in modern America, it was just being described in very dry, academic and somewhat misleading terms. For example:
“There remains one other kind of practitioner, known as a “listener.” This witch-doctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. Mothers are particularly suspected of putting a curse on children while teaching them the secret body rituals. The counter-magic of the witch-doctor is unusual in its lack of ritual. The patient simply tells the “listener” all his troubles and fears, beginning with the earliest difficulties he can remember. The memory displayed by the Nacirema in these exorcism sessions is truly remarkable. It is not uncommon for the patient to bemoan the rejection he felt upon being weaned as a babe, and a few individuals even see their troubles going back to the traumatic effects of their own birth”
I pointed out that this sounded a lot like modern day psychiatry, right down to the part where people blame their mothers for everything. Well, it turns out (as most of you probably know) that Nacirema is just American spelled backwards and the entire exercise WAS in fact designed to illustrate that you have to be careful about rushing to dumb snap judgments about things you don’t understand (or something…I guess I don’t know what the point was). This was a big highlight in my academic career. I felt significantly more pride in being the only person in my fifth grade class to figure this out than I did from graduating college.
The other highlight of my academic career came when I was in first grade. We were given a Xerox with a very convoluted and busy drawing on it. There were many animals and people of various sizes and shapes crowding every bit of space on the page. We were then read a long list of instructions, which involved using different colored crayons to underline, fill in and generally mark up the picture. The instructions were read rapidly. When the exercise was finally over, I was the only person who had correctly followed all the instructions. I was SO proud of myself that it remains, to this day one of the things I remind myself of when I’m feeling like a worthless sack of shit. This is something that happened when I was six. I don’t know why I felt like sharing this information with you guys. It’s pretty self congratulatory and probably really dull to read, but I guess it’s worth recognizing that very tiny things can have a massive impact on the way you live and think.