Monday, June 9, 2014

Culture Shock and Social Class

I had a mind last week to write up something approximating the main points of each class (there are only five or six, each lasting two weeks) with an application for both seamen and landlubbers, but the first two weeks of class did not lend themselves well to summary. We were given a book at the start of our first class, "Vessel Familiarization" that had a 28 page glossary at the end of nautical terms both modern and archaic, which we proceeded to memorize while getting an overview of the parts and functions of a ship. No real moral here, just a catalog of facts. That said, I have learned why I did so badly as a substitute teacher.

I have always been called smart. I don't say that to brag, and indeed have always felt quite awkward about it. After all, I don't notice when I solve some puzzle that someone else might struggle with, and I don't notice that reading isn't difficult or that when I pay attention I remember things. These just happen. I remember the things I forget, the puzzles that stump me, the skills other have that I lack either through practice or ability. I don't feel smart, I feel normal, and maybe a little dumb, so when I hear someone go "Oh, you are so smart", I have always thought to myself shit, how stupid must you be to be looking up at me? Then my eyebrows get furrowed and the sarcasm starts to leak.

But on Friday I finished my first class at Piney Point and realized that I have never, ever been in a normal education environment. I like most of the people in my class and consider more than half of them to be reasonably intelligent people that I would be proud to have in my engine room, and that assessment hasn't changed too terribly much. But it takes them so... oh my god... so... long to grasp even the simplest of facts. My studying consisted of paying attention in class and reading the associated book once through, at which point I had mastered the material and got a 96 on the final exam. I didn't consider this to be a feat even worthy of thought, let alone of comment, since even by the reckoning of the rest of the class the material was not particularly difficult. But I was the only one who seemed capable of understanding and remembering information the first time it was presented. In class people would ask the same questions over and over, requesting endless clarification and repetition and then managing (in good faith) to repeat the information just presented a third or fourth time incorrectly. They would read through the book over and over and over (at least everyone here is motivated to succeed, unlike the schools I was teaching at) and in their eyes the act of getting a question correct after having heard the answer was not the bare minimum expectation at which they were miserably failing, but some fantastic hyper-competency.

I never went to school with people like this, not in private middle school, not in magnet program high school, and not at expensive liberal arts college. Studying (which I never did much of) was for really hard things and straight A's, not a days long struggle to eke out the bare minimum passing grade. I went up the other night to one of the men I thought was particularly intelligent and would have time to mess around while everyone else studied. I said hey, put that book down and come outside. He said no, he would be studying until bedtime, then again in the morning, and he was as good as his word, and still failed the next days quiz. I am ashamed to admit that I exclaimed shock over this result, and his response was that not everybody can be "a super genius like you". Others claimed that I must have a "photogenic" memory (I have yet to correct them on either aspect of that statement).

Basically, I have been told that these people exist, that the mere act of knowing is a struggle for many, but I had always assumed that this is what people meant by special education students. But no, these are 100% normal people, not even stupid people (well, we do have two stupid people, but otherwise...). To not know, to not be able to know, and to not particularly desire to know is a perfectly normal mode of existence. I still haven't processed this enough to know how I feel about it.

I still don't feel smart, even when they say it, I just feel normal, but I will stop sassing them until I can figure out how, exactly, a man who prides himself in living the life of the mind is supposed to convey an intellectual pursuit to someone who is genuinely and doggedly non-intellectual. I have some philosophizing to do, and a whole lot of time to do it in, though I won't say why until the next post.

Of course, the other reason I was a terrible substitute is that I lack authority and presence. Also, I realized that I don't actually care about other people's success or welfare.

1 comment:

  1. Jeb, I talked to your Dad Saturday morning and promised I would read your Blog and try to send you a note! I obviously broke that promise as began reading yesterday, only to discover that you had a number of posts that I had missed! As with many of your writings, I usually read each one twice before I send a "comment" to you! This might place me in the category of some of your classmates who must study. I want you to understand that I comprehend the first reading, but I use the second reading to be sure I did not leave out any details! :) I love your honesty, Jeb, and I delight in your self-awareness and view of your classmates...tasks...all interesting...and I'm learning more about you! The teacher in me wonders if you are in that "place" to step up and be a teacher, a leader, to help those who are willing to receive it! Believe me, if I were a struggling classmate, I'd call on you! :) "People dealing" takes lots of patience, and, no doubt your "mind over matter" has been put to use! Overall, I'm simply blown-away by each blog and this chapter in your life. Love you, sweet nephew! Aunt Janie