Regret Lesson #2: Failing at Skool

by Christopher Paul on November 28, 2006

I’m a smart person. I consider myself very smart, actually. I don’t mean to be egotistic because I know there are hundreds of thousands of people smarter than me. But I also know that there are some who struggle with learning or are not as blessed in cognitive reasoning or conceptualization. Despite my intelligence and aptitude, I can be stupid sometimes – or, should I say, I act stupidly – and I’m the one who suffers from that behavior. I’m sure that if I acted differently I could have been or done something more with my life.

Like I said, I’m a smart person – and knew it for some time. In kindergarten, I know I solved all the math problems before almost anyone (the only one who beat me was my best friend). In the second grade, I wrote my first novel – a sci-fi story centering around a character I created named Moonlit Mouse (don’t ask… I was 8 years old). As I grew older and entered the 4th grade, I didn’t read or study literature with the rest of the class. I spent my time with 5 other people in a special session and read books meant for much older children. I understood physics and remember getting existential long before I knew of the word; I spend 12 hours working on a flat tax proposal and accidentally proved there is no God. Well, just kidding about the last one… ;). In my first year of college, I tested out of the regular English courses and entered into the honors program instead studying humanities. But all these tests and moments of actualization didn’t always mean I had it easy.

The 3rd grade is the first time I struggled at school. The teacher’s format didn’t work for me and I quickly fell behind in my work. She assigned so much work during the day that I had to finish it at home for homework. But I would spend 5 more hours doing my homework and never got to play after school. I couldn’t keep up with the work and even remember one time “pretending” my handwriting was so bad and just scribbled lines in the answer spaces to make it look like I did the work; after she couldn’t tell the difference, I knew where the lines were drawn (no pun intended). I continued to struggle again the 5th grade when the teacher made us write out full sentences as answers for the first time. I hated that idea because I always felt that if I knew the answer, I should just say the answer and not waste time on a long sentence.

Needless to say, the teacher did not agree and my grades suffered once again. Before I was getting A’s and now C’s and D’s. She also seemed to treat the guys in the class worse than the girls – a kind of reverse discrimination and even though we could never prove it, we all felt that the girls were treated like princesses and the guys like prisoners. As dumb as it was, it soured me on the teacher and I stopped playing by her rules – a kind of rebellion against her way of doing things.

The 6th grade was bad. I didn’t even try. Not because I was depressed or anything like that… The teacher SUCKED. She couldn’t control the now rowdy group of guys and I never had a quiet place to learn. After a horrible year, my parents took me out of the Catholic school and put me into the public system where I was hit by a few other shocks.

My private school system was great at teaching me English and giving me a “good moral background” but it didn’t do a damn thing for math. When I started the public school system in the 7th grade, I was no longer above average… I was average in everything else and behind in math; I tested into the lowest algebra they had for the “normal” kids. It sounds so bad to say that but think about how a nervous kid – who didn’t know anyone at the school – who thinks they are above average and finds out they aren’t; its a blow to the ego no matter what the actual ability is. Anyway, the kids didn’t make the transition better and I found myself without the support system I needed to do well. I didn’t do badly… B’s and C’s but I knew I could do better but didn’t – and my parents knew it too.

My parents would argue with me and punish me for not doing well in school – they made me do more homework and never let me enjoy my after school time. I can’t say that their hearts weren’t in the right place – they were – but the execution on what they wanted wasn’t a 10.0 (or anything close). Somehow I scraped by and got mediocre grades throughout my junior high and high school career. I never was at risk for flunking out of school… but I almost had to go to summer school to finish a math class my junior year of HS. Oddly enough, I knew why I wasn’t doing well… but I never did anything to change it until I entered college (for the second time).

As I eluded to earlier, it wasn’t until my second attempt at college that I “woke up” and altered my behavior. I did flunk out of college the first time around; I wasn’t kicked out… I removed myself after failing all but one class taken during my third semester there. Even though I tested into the honors program, I failed out of college – man did that suck. But the soul searching I did while struggling that last semester helped me realize what my problem was. It was my teachers – and the way I acted around them.

I don’t remember where or when I had this epiphany but it was just that – a stroke of genius that explained all of my problems away. I figured out that my teachers held the key to my performance in the class. But it wasn’t their teaching methods that made or broke me… it was their intelligence and how it compared to mine. I figured out that if they were smarter than I was, I became interested in what they said and I learned; if they weren’t as smart as I was, I dismissed them as someone who couldn’t possibly educate me and I didn’t bother with their lesson. Looking back, I did do well in History, Economics, English, and Chemistry in high school and Humanities, Law, Psychology, and Operations Management in college. But it wasn’t the courses that were the reason (some of them where tough enough to make me struggle at a few problems) – it was the teachers.

The teachers of those courses were smart. They challenged me to think in new ways; to look at problems with a different attack plan or view point. They tested me – not with the rigid scholastic format instilled upon them buy the bureaucrats – but with their mind. All those other teachers never pushed me or offered me that fresh view of a subject; I had already read about it in the encyclopedia on my own – why would they need to teach me it again? But the good ones let me borrow text books from their college classrooms, showed me their own research, or asked deep questions that never had an 1 + 1 = 2 type of answer; it was always something that kept me interested in learning because I knew they could teach me new things.

So it turns out that if the teacher was not as smart as I was, I didn’t bother – I didn’t try. And when I had really smart teachers, I learned more than I ever thought I would in a subject – more than what the course outline or textbook planned for. The times I didn’t get a good teacher is when I let myself go; I stopped trying. When I got a good one, I sparkled and found a renewed desire to consume information. It is a behavioral problem that has been and always will, I fear, be one that I will struggle with. But I take comfort knowing that I can see that pattern in me now and work hard to correct any destructive behavior on my part before it becomes too late. Like I said, I’m a smart person – very smart. Just not always smart enough to act differently in life and I regret the hardships it caused.

I regret doing poorly in all those classes. I regret disappointing my parents. I regret sabotaging my future with my actions. I regret not getting into better schools because of my grades. I regret not getting a better degree in college (in a normal four year term). I regret not becoming a doctor or lawyer or scientist or accountant. I regret not earning more than I do. And I regret not being able to provide a better life for my wife and family. I regret not challenging myself like I should have – like I do now – after half my life is over. And I regret that I was stubborn and that I did that to myself. Just think of what things would be like of I didn’t do so poorly in school.

Knowing that I didn’t live up to my full potential is my greatest regret of all.

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