Thursday, October 9, 2014
I've had occasion over the last few days to think about the notion of study and what it consists of. I don't really remember doing much study when I was in elementary school. I was a voracious reader early on. Both my mom and my dad read to me regularly until I could read on my own, and once I was old enough to go the library my mother would take me down as often as I wanted to go, which was several times a week. Mom also played word games and chess with me, and encouraged me to write. My dad kept scrapbooks on various subjects, and I remember I had one too. Given all that, I didn't really have any worries in elementary school, and I don't remember spending much time studying, other than learning my multiplication tables off flash cards.
I spent grades 6-8 in a district public school in upstate New York, and there are only about four things I can remember about that time: 1) having a stamp collection and meeting with the Stamp Club after school in Grade 6, 2) sitting and listening to Social Studies teacher Mr. Colclough in grade seven lecture us about how we should never throw paper balls in class because a sharp corner of a paper sticking out could scratch a classmate's eye and blind him (an assertion which struck me then, and perhaps moreso now, as being wildly implausible), and 3) being bullied in the hall and in gym class by a big kid named Tommy Gonzowski, who wore his white t-shirt sleeves rolled up around his biceps (the better to hold his cigarettes) and a big wide black leather belt to hold up his jeans, and 4) attending afterschool meetings of the 4-H club, where we learned, among other things, about how to care for animals and about the inner workings of the 4-cycle internal combustion engine.
So what I'm getting at is that even though I did okay in school, I didn't really have much in the way of study habits that I can recall until, in ninth grade, a year or so after the death of my father, I was sent off to Delbarton, a boarding school in New Jersey. It was at Delbarton that I learned how to study. It wasn't that they had any particular program or methodology to teach us. It was just that we had mandatory study hall from 4:30 to 6:00 and 7:30 to 9:00, every day of the school week, every week of the school year. We each had single desk in the library, we were expected to be sitting at it, and there was a proctor walking around making sure that we were in fact studying and not, say, reading comics or magazines. (The proctors would also answer questions if you were stuck on something.) That was it. That was the deal. You were going to be there anyway. You might as well do the work. This was in the early '60s, so there were, of course, no cell phones, no texting, no videos, really no distractions of any kind. That seemed okay. That seemed normal. I didn't think much about it, one way or the other. It's only now, 50+ years later, and in a completely different world, that I can fully appreciate the value of that enforced solitude and that explicit expectation that you were there to do work. We learned how to focus, because there was no alternative. We also had to be in bed, lights out, at 10:00, which in retrospect also served to provide a different kind of nourishment for my adolescent brain: sleep.
During my junior year, I transferred from Delbarton to a day school in Connecticut. I was once again living at home, and I no longer had to submit myself to a regular study schedule. I enjoyed being able to switch on the TV or listen to music if I felt like it. I was spending more time out, more time with friends, more time going to school sports or hanging out downtown. I could drive. I could stay up as late as I wanted. It was great. I loved it. And, oh yeah, my grade average dropped twenty points. It wasn't until I got to college that I was able to figure out how to successfully balance the things I wanted to do with the things that I had to do, and force myself to set aside scheduled time to study.
Then I got married and became a teacher and had kids of my own. And though I had not thought much about this before, it seems apparent to me now that the rhythms of my life as a teacher came to mirror pretty closely the study rhythms of my life as a student at Delbarton. For most of my adult life, I spent two or three hours alone at the kitchen table every school night, correcting papers, writing comments, entering grades, planning lessons, screening out the distractions in order to do the necessary work of teaching.
There's nothing here that is earthshakingly revelatory, just my dawning awareness of how important it was to my development as a student that for at least one part of my life I was given the dual gift of structured time and the expectation that I would use it to get work done.