Thoughtful Thursday: Another Planet

book

I have a habit of making lists, and some lists I’ve had going since I was in about 7th grade are “Books I Want to Read” and “Books I Have Read.” My 7th grade English teacher started them for me on a jumbo index card, in her enviably pretty and small cursive handwriting with her signature blue rollerball pen. The advent of websites like Goodreads and Shelfari have made this task so much easier and more enjoyable for me. I started out at Goodreads, but I’ve since migrated over to Shelfari, just because I find it more visually appealing with the graphic display of books (with actual covers) on shelves, which is one great thing about going to bookstores in the first place. I’m sure plenty of people prefer the streamlined minimalism of Goodreads. But I like bright colors and pretty pictures. It does not take much to please me.

These sites make me happy because I can’t tell you how many times throughout my checkered techno-past I ended up with multiple Notepad documents strung out across so many floppy disks, and scraps of heat-sensitive receipt paper from my years working retail in college and reading book reviews while waiting for customers. Eventually, a nicely consolidated list in Microsoft Word vanished along with my hard drive’s pulse one summer. So, my lists at this point are patched together from memory, but now when I add to them, I am comforted to know they probably aren’t going anywhere this time. I really like it when technology brings to my life a tiny shred of stability.

I bring this up because a book I finished recently had been on the “To Read” list for 8 years, and I just got to it. That’s how backed up I am. This is partly because I don’t like chronological anything, usually. My photo albums jump from “The Last Day of 5th Grade” to “College Road Trip to Chicago” to “High School Graduation,” and so on. And I tend to read books as I am able to find them for free or cheap instead of deliberately tackling each successive title in perfect order.

 Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School by Elinor Burkett was published in 2001, and I believe I read about it in the Fanfair section of Vanity Fair magazine at work while the seconds shimmied towards midnight. I remember strange things sometimes. Other things that I actually need to remember? Not so much.

The author actually spends a year at a Minnesota high school, talking to teachers, administrators, and students. The book focuses on the graduating class of 2000 (I think, don’t quote me), which was only four years after I graduated. I was struck by how much less these Minnesotan kids seemed to be learning than I did. And not because of a lack of effort on (most of) the teachers’ parts. Words that came to mind about these students: lazy, sense of entitlement, unprepared, lacking big picture thinking skills, eogtistical in a way that was beyond that of normal teenage self-indulgence. The author argues that the Self Esteem Movement of the 1970’s in education is what produced generations of kids who all think they are special and individually important — the exception to all the rules. And that makes a lot of sense until I think about my own generation, and how if that had been such a successful “movement,” then we should all have a lot fewer problems and a lot more self-confidence than we ended up with. I don’t recall being taught “good self esteem” in elementary school, like the kids in this book. Maybe they didn’t do that in the South, thinking it was a bunch of bullshit. Sure, there are a few people I know my age who feel good about themselves without too much effort or struggle. However, I don’t think that came as a result of being taught that as schoolchildren. Depending on the person, I think it came from other sources entirely.

When I was in school, I don’t know if I just didn’t realize how bad things were in so many areas, or if things really weren’t as bad then. Then again, I was always in the honors/advanced program, where we actually learned stuff, and we didn’t have behavioral problems. My graduating class, as well as the one just ahead of me and the one just behind me, was extremely competitive. I graduated 14th in my class with a 4.987 GPA.

There are things I recognize as huge problems with the system now that I’m older and have two teacher parents nearing retirement and a teacher boy-person who only started teaching a couple years ago. Some of it sounded really familiar, like the social dynamics and castes. But so much of it I was a little stunned by. Maybe a big point I’m leaving out is that I graduated before anyone had ever heard the word “Columbine,” and these kids graduated the year after it happened. Maybe that makes all the difference.

There were parts of this book I sort of skimmed through (teachers unions bitching about new contracts, for one) but only because I felt like I’d heard it all before. Analyzing the educational system is something I was raised doing at the dinner table with my parents over green beans and sweet tea. Some of it did not require a recap. In any case, finishing was sort of a let down only because I didn’t have anyone to discuss it with. But I’ve passed it on to Swamp, so hopefully he’ll give his new-teacher insight sometime soon.

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