Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


with 7 comments

I was looking at Mike Fisher’s comment this morning, and thinking that it fit in so well with what I’ve been messing with lately, I ought to use it.

So I will, but it’s going to have to be in layers.

The first layer is in the obvious and the straightforward.

My memories are, obviously, different in a lot of ways than Mike’s, but in some ways less different than you’d think.

First, that picture of Vassar was in the Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia, which were the only books in our house available to me except for the Little Golden Books my Aunt Mary sometimes sent me.

There were other books, in my father’s “den,” behind the hinged glass doors of ancient bookcases in the classic sense of the word, but they weren’t the kind of thing I was likely to get at, or be interested in getting at, at that stage.

My father was one of those people who knew the blood type of every soldier who fought at Gettysburg, and the books were all Civil War histories, incredibly academic and professional biographies of Civil War figures, and books on Civil War military tactics.

My mother didn’t read.  At all.  In fact, she hated it when other people read, including my father.  Later, when I started reading everything in sight, she really hated it when I read. 

I did know about Vassar and Yale and Harvard, because grow up in Fairfield County and you will.  Even the kids whose parents seemed to spend all their time drinking beer knew that.

In my case, my mother had grown up in and around New Haven, and we went to New Haven to visit her side of the family, so Yale was in my face all the time.

But nobody mentored me or told me what to read.  The one person in the family who really liked to read (my father) wasn’t home much, and my mother and my brother were sort of anti-help. 

I had a crossed eye and my mother took me to a doctor in New Haven to deal with it–eventually, I had surgery–and as a treat she would take me to the old Malley’s department store and let me pick out anything I wanted.

From the first, I infuriated her by bypassing the dolls and going for the children’s books.  I can even remember the very first one I got.  It was Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew number 25:  The Ghost of Blackwood Hall.

After that, I just took out everything I could find for the library.  At some point, somebody must have told the librarian it was okay for me to use the adult section, because by the time I was in third grade or so I was reading my way through this little room that had only classic novels in it:  Dickens, Dostoyevski, Austen, Brontes of both varieties. 

My father owned a property in the center of town with a barn on it, and he rented the barn to this guy who was a book distributor for paperbacks on their way to train stations and drug stores.  The guy would give my father big boxes of books that weren’t moving, so after a while I read some of those.

There were a lot of murder mysteries.  That was good.  There was some stuff that blew the top off my mother’s head.  Understanding Human Sexual Response was one of those.  She took that away from me, so I complained to my father when he came home.

He got the book, brought it back to me, and said to her–in front of me–“You never take away books.”

Eventually, one of the books in those boxes was Atlas Shrugged.  It was Atlas Shrugged that told me there was such a thing as philosophy in the world, and then once I got started, I couldn’t stop.

But I had no more mentoring than Mike did (well, unless you count Ayn Rand), and since my father was nearly never home, the atmosphere around our place about books was relentlessly negative most of the time I was growing up.  I tended to respond to this by hiding in my room.

When we went to visit my mother’s people, I would lie down on the floor of the back seat of my father’s car to get away from the cousins and read until I froze, which wasn’t difficult in February.

 Conversation at home tended to run with what was wrong with me.  When my father was home for dinner, he and my mother ate separately.   So there was no conversation about political affairs or books.

I found all of that kind of thing–the possibility of that kind of thing–in my reading.  And when I got older and was allowed to eat with the adults, we managed some of it then, although it always annoyed my mother.

Of course, my grandmother, my father’s mother, was tell me I had to go to college by the time I was three.  So there was that.

I’ve always said, on this blog and elsewhere, that what goes on in a family makes an enormous difference.  It’s what always bothers me about talk of “leveling the playing field” in education.  I’m all for spending tons of money to ensure good teachers and first rate facilities for everybody, but in the end the parents are going to matter.

And some parents are a bigger hindrance to their children than any school is going to be able to help.

But–and this but is important–although growing up in the place I did probably increases your chances of going on to a “good” college and getting an education, it doesn’t guarantee it. 

A larger percentage of the kids in Fairfield County may go on to college, and a larger percentage of those may go on to a name college, but most of them don’t make that second category and only about half of them made that first.

If the parents are wealthy enough, they can always force the kid into some college somewhere.  When I was growing up, we all knew which colleges those were, “junior colleges” meant for girls who just wanted to go to parties four-year places with no entry requirements to speak of but lots of shiny new graduation gift cars in the parking lots.

Directionlessness–is that a word?–occurs across the classes. 

What I deal with with my kids, though, is not directionlessness. 

Well, there may be some of it, but it’s not likely.

When all I’ve got to contend with is a kid who wants something but thinks there’s  no way to get it–well, there I can help.  I know where the financial aid is, I know what recruiters want, I’ve got a good idea of what needs to happen in interviews, I know the internship programs. 

If all that’s missing is the knowledge that something they want is possible and a few pointers on how to go after it–hell, with that, we can do a whole lot.

What bothers me about the kids who scare me is something much worse, and something I don’t understand how to reach.

And, you’ve got to remember, the kids who make it into my program is as good as it gets. Back home, there are hundreds more kids who don’t go into a program, who don’t do much of anything.  If they’re girls, they have a baby and go on welfare for the five years it’s allowed in this state.  Then the state places them in “jobs” that are often make-work because the kids won’t work up the energy to be competent as a convenience store clerk.

And it does feel like energy is what is lacking. 

But one of the things they can do to get themselves out of this mess they’re in is to come into a program like mine–so I’ve got a fair number of kids who, in order to go on receiving benefits, have to be in school.

So they’re in school.  They don’t do the work.  They come to class only sometimes.  They resent the whole thing like hell and in the end, they rely on passive resistance.

If you ask them to get their essay in, they tell you yes, yes, it’s on its way, and then they just don’t do anything.

What keeps hammering at me, lately, is that I’m not sure it is possibly to run a program like mine successfully if the kids in it are forced to be there.  If they don’t want to be there.  If they resent having to be there. 

I’m not sure it’s possible to make this work by sheer force of will.

And, trust me, I have a significant sheer force of will.  And I do use it.

The other thing I’m not sure of is that there’s a one-to-one relationship between bad experiences and this particular attitude.  Some of the best kids I’ve got have come through hell and back again, seen their entire families slaughtered in wars and revolutions, grown up in totalitarian countries–and, wham, give them the chance and they’re off.

There was a point when I thought there must be something in the water in the Ivory Coast, because every kid I got from there was nearly crazy-ambitious, and this in spite of the fact that their families had lost everything and come to the US by raft, as far as I could figure out.  One of those kids is now at Mount Holyoke and another is at Cornell.

But there is one thing I’ve settled on–we’ve really got to stop that thing where we allow inner city schools to give dumbed-down versions of everything to most of their students. 

If you’ve got a bunch of kids who think that everything comes down to fate, never letting them know that there’s an actual reason why the kids from across town are doing better than they are–that there’s real work that those kids are doing but you’re not–is not going to help.

I think I may have put that badly.

Ack.  Yesterday, I was putting my stuff together to get ready for the fall, and maybe I’m just in a bad mood.

Written by janeh

August 25th, 2010 at 8:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Lucky'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Lucky'.

  1. Well, if you’ve got students who think that school is something they have to do in order to get benefits, no, you’re not going to convince them it’s worth more than the benefits or that they have to do more than turn up the minimum required number of times.

    We’ve had a lot of similar programs, and some participants did indeed grab at the chance to get training for something new, something that might get them a regular job. And some didn’t.

    I was once so fascinated by the question of why apparently identical small rural communities had such different educational outcomes that I tried, unsuccessfully, to research the issue.

    As for the problem of offering different levels of education for ‘cultural’ or ‘family’ or ‘people like THAT’ reasons – well, it happens here, and it still infuriates me. But the solution is political and not educational. No government/department of education/school board/however you organize things is going to voluntarily require the same level of achievement for the same grades in all their schools. In fact, they’ll fight to avoid doing so. If they do, a lot of students are going to fail and their graduation rates are going to drop drastically and they are going to look like they don’t know what they’re doing and might lose their jobs. This phenomena might be more commonplace in Canada than in the US – I get the impression that in parts of the US local control means that some administrative units can be fairly uniform because they cover relatively small areas. Here, you tend to get the schools teaching all kinds of kids in the same board, or district as they’re calling it now. So having one school fail most of their students by applying higher standards makes the whole board look bad.

    When I was a student, they simply kept underachieving students in Grade 8 until they dropped out or learned enough to get into Grade 9. This, of course, is now seen as failing the failing students – but I don’t see that giving them, say, three years of high school arithmetic leading to a diploma is much better.


    25 Aug 10 at 11:29 am

  2. Mom was the reader of the pair. Dad wasn’t so much anti-reading as unable to see it as an activity. Playing catch was doing something. If I was reading a book I wasn’t “really doing anything” and so was more prone to be grabbed for stray chores or activities. Mind you, Dad was supportive: he just didn’t understand. But my father’s father was never without a book, and my mother’s mother ran a sort of free paperback lending library, and I never had the speed and reflexes for sports, so Dad was swimming upstream.

    The kids. Back in the age of fighting sail, decks HAD to be cleared, and so personal gear HAD to be kept in a small tight bundle. If the bosun took a dislike to a seaman, his bundle was never quite tight enough, and he could spend many happy hours correcting it. Finally one British captain decided this had gone on long enough, and made a hoop from an iron ramrod. If the gear fit through the hoop, it was tight enough. If not, it had to be redone. No opinions allowed.

    I’m afraid our children see a lot of bosuns, and not too many iron hoops these days. You can’t blame them for thinking everything is a matter of luck, favoritism and opinion when most of what they see plainly is. Standardized tests ought to help a little, but actual physical things might help more. If the kid wires a circuit correctly the bulbs light up, and not otherwise: not even if the teacher likes him, and not even if he tries really hard. A wall either is or is not plumb. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but one of the most valuable.

    English Lit migh help by throwing away those silly copies of CATCHER IN THE RYE and making everyone read Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.”
    Or Ambrose Bierce: “‘I exist!’ The man cried.
    ‘I concede this” the Universe responded, ‘but the fact does not create in me a sense of obligation.'”


    25 Aug 10 at 4:25 pm

  3. I’m not going to say much about my childhood because I don’t trust 65 year old memories. I do remember being a bookworm who used the library often. I doubt if the family budget would have stretched to buying many books.

    We were nominally Jewish and both my sister and I took going on past High School for granted.

    I agree with Robert about “The Cold Equations”. There is a good summary in Wikipedia at



    25 Aug 10 at 11:12 pm

  4. I just have to chime in that, yes, “The Cold Equations” is one story that, having once read it, you absolutely do NOT forget.


    26 Aug 10 at 7:34 am

  5. I read it as an adult – I somehow missed it as a teenager when I first encountered science fiction – and wasn’t terribly impressed. There’s lots and lots of stuff written about the fatal implacability of the laws of nature that don’t depend for their impact on little extra emotional hooks, like the age and gender of the victim.


    26 Aug 10 at 1:49 pm

  6. “The Cold Equations” has haunted me since I read it as a teen. Every few months it still comes barging into my memory, bringing an undiminished sense of horror and despair. That is 56 years of periodic terror — I guess that’s a sign of a great story, but I wish I had never read it!


    26 Aug 10 at 4:22 pm

  7. I also read “The Cold Equations” as an adult. It comes back to me when I read the papers. A driver takes a curve too fast and 4 teenagers are killled. Or a small child dies after falling out of a 3rd floor windows.

    The laws of nature do not have an escape clause for humans.


    26 Aug 10 at 11:42 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 571 access attempts in the last 7 days.