There was a popular tweet a few weeks ago about how school spelling bees are traumatic because so many of us can remember when, and how, we got eliminated from them even decades after they happened. I shared my own story from a fifth grade spelling bee almost thirty-five years earlier, when the word I got was “bouquet,” I had the letters lined up in my head the way they should have been, but somehow I got to that first U and it came out of my mouth as a C instead. I don’t think about that episode every day of my life, but I usually remember it a couple of times every year, and that tweet brought all of my memories straight back to my conscious mind.
I’m probably not the best person to use as a gauge for how childhood spelling bees can affect people later in life, just because of all the traumas I endured back then (and that spelling bee came right around when things were getting their worst in that regard), but the large number of replies to that tweet seems to indicate that there may be something in particular about spelling bees — and I can’t think of another canonical American school activity quite like them — that makes them so potentially pernicious. For all that the Scripps National Spelling Bee has become so ballyhooed in recent years, you never hear about any similar events for math, or science, or any of the other things that young children study in school. Either the teachers of those other subjects haven’t come to realize the money-making potential there may be in similar events (because corporate America loves to line up to sponsor these things), or they’re not pursuing similar projects because they remember how horrible spelling bees are. I’m guessing that the latter is closer to the reality of the situation.
As I’ve been researching my next book, about the influence of politics on American education over the last fifty years, I’ve come to new levels of understanding when it comes to just how my early schooling messed me up so much. For all the books I’ve been reading, though, the episode of The Rough Draft Diaries (from my hometown public radio station) I linked to above may have given me more food for thought than anything else lately. Not only have I been thinking about what I heard as it relates to my own schooling, but I’ve also considered what this means for American education as a whole, and why we may have a whole new “lost generation” on our hands.
I always liked learning new things when I was very young, and for all the social difficulties I encountered from my first days of school, I still had that core desire to help me get through things. When I transferred to a different “school” after the third grade, though, that desire quickly began to erode as I dealt not only with all the same social difficulties I’d had before, but also an additional layer of nearly all of my teachers being huge assholes towards me. I have to accept part of the blame for my grades slipping during this time, since I should have worked harder at pushing past the hate I was being bombarded with, but I still don’t think that any young student should ever have to put up with the bullshit I had to put up with back then. It was only when I got to college, and I started working with instructors who respected me and helped me overcome my weaknesses, that I really started to love learning again, and I haven’t looked back since then.
My home life became a lot harder to deal with at around the same time, and between home stuff and school stuff, I felt like my childhood (as much as I ever had one) was effectively snatched away from me. As much as I’ve worked to deal with this loss over the years, it still affects me to a great degree, and while I’ve learned to channel my energies into my attempts at effecting positive change for others, I can still feel that hurt child inside of me sometimes, and I know that those wounds will probably never fully heal. Especially when the holidays roll around, some of those scars start to hurt a little more than they usually do, and that’s only become harder to deal with as I’ve endured these holidays alone the past few years.
Just reading about all the damage that the emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing has placed on a generation of young Americans is bad enough, but in conjunction with so many other factors, it’s clear that fewer and fewer American children ever get a chance to really be children. This emphasis on mastery, whether it comes from parents or teachers or other societal factors, is a recipe for disaster, and if I hadn’t had to deal with it so much when I was younger, then I certainly noticed it enough in the people around me, especially my classmates from that “school” and the students I teach today. That John Marsden line about killing caterpillars comes to mind so frequently these days that it might as well be tattooed on my arm at this point.
For too many children, their young lives are becoming an endless cycle of events like those spelling bees, and all those singular, small mistakes are filling them with an emotional baggage that most adults would find impossible to manage. Expecting young children to deal with that kind of pressure is beyond appalling, and it’s probably a good part of the reason why youth suicide rates are spiking in recent years. As long as we keep mandating these unrealistic expectations for young people, we’re just setting up more and more future generations for lifetimes of misery and suffering. With the way these venomous “school reforms” continue to spread through our country, though, the same mechanisms that have messed up so many young people are only going to keep getting stronger, unless those of us who care about the basic humanity of every child, and the right of every child to have a real childhood, can find a way to stop them. I can only hope that my next book will make a real difference when it finally comes out.