Monday, 25 June 2012

Square pegs in round holes

Yet again, education in NZ has become a major political football, with the backdown on ill-advised Treasury-driven policy on bigger class sizes, and the latest proposal to attack the symptom with league tables. Ministry of Education data has found a pattern of white and middle-class flight from low-decile schools over a 10-year period. To pour petrol on the fire, a visiting Fulbright scholar has exposed nakedly classist practices at high-decile schools - namely changing school zone boundaries to block out low-decile students.


Which brings me to my own education experiences.

My school years were not particularly memorable, which is nothing unusual. What's unusual is that I never completely fit into the system, no matter what steps were taken to shoehorn me into it.

I was lucky enough to hail from an upper-middle class household, which in this day and age of hyper-materialism, is possibly the biggest reason why I'm not begging in the streets. We had enough money to buy a computer when I was 5, which got me an early start in my computing interests and, later on, career. I even drew a reasonably accurate picture of our computer, which I showed to my teacher with pride.

And yet, I was a square peg in a round hole from the very start. In my first ever year of school in 1984, I had serious speech impediments, and was first sent to a school for its intellectually handicapped unit, only to find that I was perfectly able-minded and able-bodied. The following year, I was mainstreamed at the local high-decile primary school, which didn't work out much better. The local bully just happened to be the son of a Range Rover-driving stockbroker, and the last I heard of him was seeing his name on a list of serial fines defaulters in the community newspaper.

The year after that - 1986 - I was sent to a school with a 'language unit', which by today's standards, was probably a medium-decile school, in an area which has since gentrified. This school had students of all races and social backgrounds, yet the atmosphere was highly Americanised to the point of crassness, and a sizeable minority of the students identified with 'ghetto' culture. One older girl - identified only as Lydia - was, to put it mildly, the school's prime alpha bitch. She would torment me at any opportunity for the flimsiest of reasons, in defiance of all teacher authority. It was later revealed in a PTA meeting that she was having problems at home, and took out all those problems on me. Who knows what became of her, but I wouldn't be surprised if she wound up doing time - research has found that the younger a kid starts becoming a bully, the more likely they'll end up behind bars or in an early grave. During this time, I found solace in tinkering with the school's Apple IIe computers - and I still thought the Commodore 64 had superior graphics.

When I reached Form 1, I experienced my first year of private schooling, where I would remain for the rest of my school life. My crass attempts to be funny, which somewhat worked at public school, typically backfired in a private setting. I was taken to an audiologist at the age of 12, as I had a tendency not to listen during class. I passed the tests with flying colours, which led to the conclusion that my "mind wanders". So it was inattentiveness rather than deafness.

I did pretty well in maths class, but after coming near the back of the class in 3rd Form English, I was sent to remedial English tutoring for the next 2 years. I was also sent to taekwondo lessons in an attempt to boost my self-esteem. In both cases, I felt utterly disengaged from the whole process and that my life was being crowded out, and loudly berated at whenever I complained about it. Ironically, I now get a buzz out of reading, as well as writing, in-depth social commentary, and I have the Internet to thank for that.

When we moved to Christchurch in 1994, I was sent to one of the most prestigious and exclusive private schools in the country, which I shall only refer to as The College - basically NZ's equivalent of Eton in England - which my father described as being "very impressed" by. Yet things still didn't work out as planned.

Throughout my private school years, my classmates commonly told me, "you shouldn't take it so seriously" whenever I took offence at my classmates' practical jokes or nicknaming. In hindsight, this led me to suspect I might have been an undiagnosed Aspergian. I also earned ridicule for being fascinated with seemingly minor details - another apparent sign of Aspergers. In one case which I vividly remember, a teacher was trying to work out what a certain computer program written in BASIC was supposed to do, and coming to her assistance, I immediately worked out that it generated a multiplication times table. While the teacher thanked me for a job well done, half my classmates gave me stares of derision, as if I was some kind of freak show exhibit. Only later did I realise that wealth and intellect don't always have a proportional relationship.

There were even times when I attempted to join the lemming herd and gang up on 'acceptable targets', in a bid to divert attention away from my status as an involuntary class clown. For all the verbal harassment I encountered at schools in Wellington, they were nowhere near as racial as at The College, unfortunately reinforcing a negative stereotype about the region we had just moved to. To make matters worse, much of the racism was from classmates hailing from upper-middle class and rural bourgeoisie backgrounds. I was effectively made to feel like a fresher-off-the-boat, despite my long family history in the country.

I was basically squeezed between hostile peer pressure on one front, and parental pressure to succeed on the other. I was put on tutors for just about every subject in my final year of secondary school, under the mistaken belief that I wasn't pulling my academic weight, and yet all the tutoring did was attack the symptom. What my parents didn't realise was that The College was totally the wrong fit. Various in-depth studies on education have come to the same conclusion - that threatening or otherwise hostile school environments are a major factor in loss of learning motivation and driving down achievement.

In addition, I took up accounting as a school subject solely on the advice of my father. He had probably wanted me to follow him into a finance career, but to be charitable I found accounting to be as interesting as watching paint dry. He later accepted that accounting didn't run in the family - instead us kids pursued careers in computing, medicine and media.

It seems pressure to succeed often has one of two outcomes - rebellion or angst. In East Asia, there's long been a tradition of no tolerance for failure, unlike in the West, where mistakes are regarded as a key part of the university of life. Especially in Japan, there have been cases where pressure to succeed has been so insane, that the students involved become 'hikikomori' - those who basically pull both middle fingers at a society that pressures them to avoid failure at all costs, and withdraw completely and utterly from it to the point where a Western recluse seems mild in comparison. Suicide attempts by students who bend under the strain are also common.

My experiences taught me one very stark lesson: private schooling pushes down the 'other' from above, and public schools - at least the ones I went to - pull the 'other' down from below. Private schooling seems to be roughly 10% excellence, and 90% connections and keeping up appearances. When you're part of the One Percent or otherwise in an exclusive social circle, you can boast that your kid goes to one of the 'ivy league' schools in the country. On the other hand, very large classes at public schools leave little scope for fine-tuned learning - especially if many of the students involved already have 'issues' before coming to school, like Lydia mentioned above.


In 2003, ICT entrepreneur Paul Graham published a social commentary, "Why Nerds Are Unpopular", which explored the reasons why nerds, geeks and the 'other' have traditionally been among the unhappiest students in America. He was writing mainly in the context of the American public school system, yet I was sent to private for the entirety of my Form 1 to Form 7 years and still had the same kind of experiences.



It wasn't until I started university - and coincidentally the emergence of Netscape and the World Wide Web - that I really started to feel valued and emerge out of my shell. I also picked up photography as a hobby. And now I'm much surer of my place in the wider world - as a avowed member of the 'reality-based community'. I'm even trying to rediscover the inner artist that never got nurtured in my youth - which played second fiddle to getting into university at all costs - when I once had dreams of working for Peter Jackson or Animation Research after reading about their artistic efforts in the newspapers. In another ironic twist, I was the family shrinking violet and my elder brother the more outgoing of the family sons. Now, I seem to be the more socially outward of us two, while he keeps a low profile. Maybe I'm even just a simple late bloomer - Albert Einstein was both that and an Aspergian.

During a long post-education period of under-employment, I once asked my parents as to why I was such a square peg in a round hole, and they didn't pretend to have the answers. To this day, they've always denied any possibility that I had Asperger's or ADHD, but I might possibly have been social phobic. And they did admit that public schooling with special needs provision might have been far more suitable for me - maybe the Correspondence School? Most importantly, they've come to accept that I'm just... different. Public Address founder Russell Brown has had to shell out big money for his Asperger-ised son Leo, as the public education system didn't have the financial resources to meet Leo's needs.

I will conclude with a trailer for the documentary Race to Nowherewhich chronicles the industrialised world's obsession with educating its youth by any means necessary. Encouraging one's kids to make the grade is one thing. Pressuring them to succeed at any cost is quite another.


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