A Sputnik Education: Part 2

by Dick Edelstein

In Barcelona the daily scramble to deliver children to school results in terrible congestion in the upper part of the city, where the more economically privileged send their children. Watching this phenomenon brings back my own school days, when the most embarrassing thing any of us could imagine was being dropped off by parents. If such a thing were necessary for some unavoidable reason, the kids urged their parents to drop them a short distance away from the school so their peers wouldn’t see them getting out of the car. To be seen being coddled in this way was unimaginably embarrassing, almost as bad as having your mother show up to deliver a forgotten lunch box. Everything about parents tended to be embarrassing and much of the time we pretended not to have any. But there was a single exception to the drop-off rule. If the parents happened to own a 1956 Chevrolet, with its futuristic swept-wing design, then it was obligatory to be dropped off at school on some occasion, even if the ride was for only for a couple of blocks, so the other kids could look with sheer envy on this most prestigious possession.

In the first grade I rode the school bus daily since the distance was about two miles. Arriving at the playground on my first day, I encountered two unexpected novelties: gangs and fashion. About kids’ gangs I knew just a little from my days spent in the streets of Chicago and I generally had little use for them since they always worked to the advantage of someone else. This time, when I arrived at the playground there were two packs of boys running around aimlessly, each with a leader and a sycophantic acolyte. I followed neither since this scenario didn’t interest me. But I noticed something about some of the boys in the gangs. Their dark corduroy trousers had white flecks. We wore the corduroys in keeping with the schoolboy style and also to keep warm since the weather was already turning cold. I was unaware of this new fashion detail since my parents were tone deaf to many of the nuances of fashion, but I observed that the leaders and their acolytes always wore pants with white flecks in the dark fabric.

This was a Catholic school, and at the start of the school year, our first-grade teacher related the story of the temptation of Christ, reiterating its moral, illuminating the details, making sure we got the point: you could never be sure who was telling the truth since the devil has many guises. Satan will lie to deceive you just as he deceived Christ. If even Christ was gullible, just imagine the danger you will face. She hammered on this point as if our lives depended on it; it seemed to be a fundamental element of the faith into which we were being indoctrinated, and it made me think: what about these nuns with their strange appearance? Their habits dehumanized their features, giving them a menacing aspect. Were they telling us the truth or being cleverly deceptive, just as Satan was to Christ? How could I tell the difference? I couldn’t. But I didn’t share this intelligence with any of my fellow kids or anyone else. I didn’t have the nerve to mention it to anybody. Perhaps God would punish me for having these doubts. The nuns wouldn’t like it – that was for sure. This is one of the ways in which a religious education can frustrate and discourage inquiring minds.

That was the first grade, but when we were a bit older the parables gave way to a style of pedagogy that was infinitely more boring: the catechism. This was a series of questions and answers. We had to memorize the answers at home and recite them in class. A letter-perfect recital was expected but we didn’t have to understand what we were reciting. Religion was always the most tedious subject in those early years – the one in which it was most difficult to pay attention and avoid the temptation to murmur comments to fellow students just to relieve the boredom, and I was particularly bad at resisting that temptation. Once it resulted in having my desk pushed up against the blackboard for a whole month. The trouble with the classes in religion was that they were endlessly repetitive and relied on rote memory. There were two boys in my class who couldn’t manage this task at all, twins named Ronald and Donald. I went over to their house a couple of times to help them memorize the correct responses, but to no avail. With proper training, they might have been able to overcome their difficulties, but I knew nothing of pedagogy and couldn’t help them improve at all. It is likely poverty came into it in some way – they were the only family I knew that didn’t own a car.

If I were to add up all of the time wasted during my twelve years of education, how much would it add up to? What was certainly not a waste for me was learning the reading skill because there were times when I learned as much from going to the library as I did from going to class.