I remember when I was in High School, Charles Dickens was my favorite writer. To this day, his illuminating spirit guides me in much of what I write. I am convinced my desire to help poorer people than myself began with Dickens (and perhaps even the New Testament). My dad’s second wife would read through everything I wrote, and Mom read through most of it. Yet there were two people who never read a single word I wrote when I was young–Dad and Jim. And if my dad was just apathetic, with Jim it was a worse reason. He told me two things point blank, “If you could write like Charles Dickens today, nobody would read it,” and “You can’t get a job just reading books for a living.” Now I find myself trying to sell The Bible According to Eve: Women of the Torah, and being cursed with the welts on my soul left there by Jim. When book reviews are few and far between, and the money is scarce, I ponder gloomily the fact that the man who raised be didn’t believe in any of my dreams at all.
If Jim had been a nicer man, I suppose what he might have said was, “Keep reading Dickens. You will find your own voice someday. Then you will write.” That is what a kid who wants to write should hear. They should be given books to read, journals, legal pads to write on, and pens. Then they can grow into writers naturally. I am actually convinced that if in childhood a kid writes sporadically that is the sign of future greatness. Why? Dickens himself wrote stuff that was only so good at that age. He was not writing full-length novels at sixteen. Though he blossomed young for a writer, his first novel–Pickwick Papers–was not published until he was twenty-four. Most writers, in fact, do not blossom till later.
I think of the school system in Hard Times by Dickens. Though it was not one of his better books (even great writers have books that if they didn’t have their name on it would not be remembered), it outlined the Gradgrind system of teaching school and running a society. It was his genius to realize the limits of Utilitarianism–that true beauty is more than mere usefulness. Sissy Jupe is the character who Thomas Gradgrind has at her school. She is a happy child despite her poverty–but causes complete consternation to her teacher, because she is not dedicated to her studies with her nose to the ground (in grade school, no less) and is playful and loving. He even sees evil in her desire to draw horses. What Dickens got right to me in this book, is that people are more than simply “useful.” Society should not just diminish hearts and minds to “the means of production” (I don’t really like Marx but the phrase fits).
I was in a college prep program when I was in High School, the International Baccalaureate program. I dropped out of it my Junior year. At the time I thought it was my fault. Yet today I wonder if it was perhaps too hard for any child, and that is even though many of the kids more successful than I was went to Ivy League schools. I remember I had a friend whose hands shook because she was working too hard at her homework. I am certain I would have committed suicide if I had stayed in it. I don’t think that the work load in it should ever be normal in the Public School System, however lackluster the accomplishments of average kids in the Public School System appear to be at the moment. Yes, I want the kids to read David Copperfield, too–but I don’t want their teachers to tell them that they are given a paper to write on Friday that is due the following Monday, “And if you don’t, I will give you an ‘F.'” I have never met a single college professor as mean as some of the teachers in the I.B. Program were. That was the Gradgrind System’s essence. (I hope nobody thinks I am truly lazy after reading this.)
I have one acquaintance who went through the I.B. program who admitted to me that although she got all A’s in it, “I never care if I read another book again.” She now works at Barnes & Noble, but she doesn’t care about the educational miracle I.B. was supposed to perform on her head. She doesn’t even want to go to college. She was not lazy. I am not sure a single kid in that program was happy during the time they were there.
Anyway… I am afraid for me in I.B. Jim thought I was simply lazy and that was why I couldn’t squeeze that 4.0 out of me that I’d never gotten in the Public School System either. The evening my parents agreed to let me rejoin the regular school system’s kids, they had a conversation about it on the porch with me sitting there, listening. I was not allowed to say a thing. Jim was downright mean about the whole thing and Mom was trying to smooth things over without directly contradicting anything he said. I did get out, though.
I did eventually reform in one sense: my work skills are much better today than they were in high school. When I write, I write 1-2 seven page chapters daily, or 1-2 short stories per week. When I “research,” I read 50 pages in the morning and 50 pages in the evening–but no more. I also learned something from a public school teacher: do things when they will need to be done in the future, not when they need to be done or when you want to do them. This has served me well. Yet I still believe the I.B. Program was too darn hard, and that instead of great thinkers it created kids who never wanted to read again.