Roy Hall’s article in the last issue triggered some disquieting school memories of my own. He reminded me of the nasty habit of many public school teachers in the 1950s and 1960s to read test scores in front of the whole class, as if they could somehow shame non-academic students into excelling at subjects for which they had no aptitude.
One of our teachers would venture a step further than that. She praised academic students like Leah and Ken as role models, and cast Donny and some others as lazy. There’s nothing like tearing down a kid’s self-esteem in public to inspire him to excel.
Donny had failed the fourth grade, but he was anything but lazy. He lived four doors down from me, and when most kids were watching TV, he could be seen working late into the evening in his father’s weathered, single-car garage, even when it was really cold.
One summer, he’d watched his father rebuild the family lawn mower, an experience that intrigued him like nothing in school. He asked to practice on trashed lawn mowers stored for parts at the local hardware store, and managed to resurrect about half of them. Before long, Donny was in demand fixing other people’s lawnmowers. No-one rebuilds garden appliances these days as replacements can be bought so cheaply, but at that time, a lawn mower cost the equivalent of two week’s wages for most people in my neighborhood. They had them rebuilt because a new one wasn’t a viable option.
Donny didn’t know prepositions from conjunctions, but he could analyze an electrical or carburetion problem in minutes. He never grasped trigonometry, but he understood torque values and tolerances. He couldn’t locate Ecuador or Marseille on a map, but could find obscure parts that other shops said were unobtainable.
I liked Donny; we often went fishing together. But with the lawnmower repair business, he didn’t have time for that – nor homework, so he paid me to do it. I was happy to help a friend, and made some good money in the process.
We had something else in common – neither of us liked school, but for different reasons. At the time, the educational system was geared towards the slowest common denominator, much like TV today, so the academic kids were bored to tears. I always took a library book to class in order to experience something stimulating. When the local equivalent of intelligence tests was administered upon leaving public school, I scored in the high 90th percentile. Instead of expressing delight, my parents berated me for not getting better grades.
I remember my mother asking one of my teachers on parent-teacher night, “What’s the matter with him?” That was another reason I identified with Donny.
In contrast, Donny’s mother asked our principal a different question: “what’s the matter with this school’s teaching system?” That was a revelation to me. Perhaps so many Jewish kids do well because they feel their parents are their allies, rather than conspirators with the establishment?
In college, I read a book called Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, about a reform school in England. One chapter told the story of a new kid who threw sand against an exterior door that a staff member was painting. The staff member picked up a handful of sand himself, and threw it at the door also. The kid started laughing and the two of them gleefully covered the door in sand. When they were spent, the teacher said, “you know we’re going to have to clean up this mess and start all over again, don’t you?” And they did.
Rather than take it as a personal insult, this enlightened teacher saw the student’s behavior as a cry for attention, and turned it from a disciplinary event, which would have reinforced the kid’s negative self-image, into a life-affirming experience. I remember thinking that Donny and I could have benefitted from such an approach.
While all the other kids were riding Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycles, Donny bought a rusted ’49 Chevrolet fastback that rattled like an agricultural combine. He was two years shy of driving age, but said he liked the style. He soon had the engine torn down to the crank. A few weeks later, with his dad’s help, the car purred like a kitten. Word got around and he started tuning up neighbors’ cars. It wasn’t long before he was rebuilding heads and replacing pistons and rings. His services were in demand for the same reason neighbors had to squeeze as much life as possible from their lawn mowers.
Two months prior to Donny turning 16, he failed to return to school for his last semester. No one forced him. On his 16th birthday, he started working at a local garage. Finally in a setting where his talents were understood and appreciated, Donny went from being a pariah to a star. He would have been much better off being educated in a medieval-style apprenticeship program than the “enlightened” academic system.
I finished high school a few months later and moved to a nearby town to take a job as a quality control inspector at a Goodyear rubber plant. The following year, I had enough money saved to start college in Toronto. I was up to my belt in debt when I graduated.
It was 10 years before I returned to my home town. I looked Donny up in the white pages and made arrangements to visit. He and his charming French-Canadian wife lived in a house with giant windows overlooking the golf course and beyond that, the bay.
Turns out he bought the garage where he started working at 16, and several others over the following years. Then he sold them all to establish an engine rebuilding facility which employed 31, some of whom were fellow students a decade earlier. He told me he had engine rebuilding contracts with most of the car dealers in town.
“What ever happened to Leah and Ken?” I asked, referring to the role models of our middle school teacher.
“You haven’t heard? Leah got pregnant in grade 10 and dropped out of high school. She’s on welfare and raising her kid by herself. Ken started college in an engineering program, but got so addicted to meth, his parents forced him into a treatment center. He’s still living with them so they can keep an eye on him.”
“Lazy Donny” went on to become the president of the local business council. Last I heard, he’d retired at age 57 to Marseille in France, the ancestral home of his wife’s family. He bought a boat and spends much of his time fishing, just like when we were kids.