A Sputnik Education: Part 3

by Dick Edelstein

I got an incredible break when I was thirteen. We moved to Seattle and I entered public school in the sixth grade, after five years of Catholic education. The impact of the change in fortune was all the greater since I had no particular expectations, a good example of the principle that you can never know when things are about to change for the better. It was not just that my least favorite subject, religion, was no longer on the curriculum–that was the least of it. My new school exuded a different mood, much more open, so different to the reform school atmosphere I had become accustomed to. My life began to feel truly blessed.

My first day in class was unforgettable. At the start of class, the teacher introduced me and asked if they could call me Dick. To my surprise, I answered in the affirmative even though I had always been called Richard. In a single haphazard stroke of unaccustomed boldness, I had named myself. My dad took it with a grain of salt and my mom was appalled.

There was more. The school year was already in progress and this was election day. Every month a new class president was elected. Owing solely to the fleeting popularity of being a new boy, I was elected. The other candidate had expected to win but took it with good grace. His name was Ike like the former US president. That very day he began to initiate me into his world. One of his chief interests was electronics. Since this field of knowledge was not covered in the curriculum at this early age, I was able to glean what I needed to know about it from magazines and the public library.

There was more about Ike’s life that was amazing. My mother had to leave school to go to work at fifteen and, when she became a housewife in her mid-thirties, she was happy just to keep house, so the house was a paragon of cleanliness and neatness, every surface cleaned, everything put away. But at Ike’s house they had a different system, much more to my liking. Certain foodstuffs in daily use like bread, jam and peanut better were just left out on the table. It was so convenient; you could just make a sandwich whenever you wanted. But this was not the end to the wonders at Ike’s house. Besides the family car, they owned an army surplus jeep and the kids were allowed to drive up and down the long driveway that went from the street to the back yard. At this early age I was introduced to so many new freedoms at once that my head was spinning.

My new interest in electronics meant visits to the main Seattle library and the start of a lifelong habit of using libraries when I wanted to learn about something. The main downtown library was like the internet of those times. I investigated subjects related to electronics like radio transmission. I used the library to learn about skiing and other sports. I was experiencing a whole new model of learning and in the process becoming a different person.

Our next-door neighbor came by with a classic five-tube radio typical of the era. It was broken and he thought perhaps I could fix it. It was simple to discover that one of the resistors on its circuit board was burnt out, so I replaced it, and to the general amazement of half the neighborhood, it worked. The next week he brought another radio that had the same problem and I fixed it in the same way. I had earned a great deal of social capital, especially with my parents. The kid’s a genius.

Best of all, my parents were so thrilled with the new abilities I suddenly displayed that this disposed them to graciously accede to any request I made for scientific equipment on the grounds that it was educational. They willingly stumped up the considerable sum of thirty-five dollars for a subscription the American Basic Science Club kits.  These were eight kits that came in the mail each month. Each kit dealt with one particular branch of science. For example, using the kit that explored the world of optics, you made a microscope and a telescope. The electronics kit allowed you to build a strobe light, amplifier, oscillator and other electronic devices.

I loved getting hands-on experience and this became a useful model for learning. Using the library, I learned about the chemicals used in making fireworks and actually managed to have them delivered to my door by a mail order chemical supply company. Despite the potential dangers, my parents approved. Then I found out about model rockets. It was illegal to launch them at that time in the state of Washington but it was still possible to buy the kits by mail order.

My interest in sciences fed into my studies in school. My sixth-grade science fair project was a corkscrew-like drawing of the moon’s trajectory as it orbited the earth, unimpressive technically, but at least it was thoughtful.  Later on, this bent towards science fed into the school curriculum, which by this time was driven by the space race with Russia. Then, technology was king, but the study of humanities took a distant second place. We had just emerged from the in 1950s, when intellectual pursuit was officially viewed with skepticism and suspicion and even areas such as Freudian psychology and aesthetics were under a cloud.

I got good grades in all my subjects and graduated from high school with a solid knowledge of basic scientific concepts but with only sketchy notions of many areas of the humanities, and it took me decades to begin to overcome my profound ignorance and develop an interest in topics such as history, philosophy and social sciences. Fortunately, by that time I had become a life-long learner.