Is School Useless? (Nobody Does Geometry at Cocktail Parties)


Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 5.26.50 AMI was helping a kid with his geometry. I didn’t do too bad. I said “shit” once. It slipped out. I apologized. A lifetime of math anxiety rolled up into four letters–coulda been worse. I stepped back and stared at the cleverly infused algebra problem stuffed into one of the angles in the triangles and crossed lines, reasoning that x+whatever must be added to 180-70, because there was an opposite angle labeled “70” without any tricks or algebraic distractions. And everyone knows that two lines tilted next to each other on a straight line has to equal 180 degrees. It’s a complementary angle.

“Supplementary. 180 is supplementary.” Good call, kid, good call. Because I walk around cocktail parties saying things like, “You know, I was figuring out algebraic equations embedded into supplementary angles the other day and I discovered…” Never.

“Miss?” He asked after we knocked off the last angle or two, me as much as him, and I finished up my victory dance. I was pretty proud, I’m not going to lie. I solved tenth grade math. Perfectly. Now, maybe if I have to take standardized tests to prove I’m better than a tenth grader to keep my job someday–it’s not out of the realm of possibility–I’ll be able to succeed on problems with triangles and lines with supplementary angles and algebra embedded inside for no particular reason.

“When am I ever going to use this stuff?” I thought hard through my several careers. Career one in insurance came the closest. I used math to reconstruct traffic accidents–but not really. The officer usually did that and gave me a number. I used math to resolve negotiations, but in truth it was more or less like volleyball than geometry, spiking numbers back over the net.

In waitressing, I calculated bills. No supplementary angles there. Just extra costs on upsells. In business, I spent a ton of money, and got bills for a ton more. Still no triangles or supplementary angles. I’ve built lots of things, but when it came down to brass tacks I never used the Pythagorean theorem to plan materials cost or measure distance. More often than not, I eyeballed it and went back to the store several times, or measured an approximate length across what would be the hypotenuse, hacking and swearing until it was close enough.

But I can’t say that because I’ve got a kid sitting here taking an entire course in geometry that’s going to think he’s wasting his time if I don’t come up with something intellectually plausible. I learned “thinking on my feet” from public speaking and negotiations, not math, though. And if I don’t come up with something quick, he’s going to question whether my class is a waste of his time next. After all, what do I teach about? History. Dead people. How many dead people is he going to meet at cocktail parties?

Before I know it, the whole house of cards will come crumbling down and he’ll be questioning all of public education, just because I succeeded in solving one set of geometry problems with algebra snuck inside. Can’t have that.

God intervened. He does that if I’ve been especially good that day.

“Oh, that’s easy.” I said. “In twenty years when you’re helping some kid with his geometry.” I walked away. I didn’t want him to ask me about calculus next.



Stupid Human Tricks

Screen Shot 2013-06-02 at 7.07.35 AMIt must’ve mattered somehow. I don’t remember the exact reason I needed to leap the old, rickety desk to make my point clear, but leap I did. As I bounded over the crumbling seat, which had seen better days in the 70s, the arm flipped. So did I. I landed in what may have been the most beautiful breakfall since Jackie Chan.

This was entirely unexpected. Not the fall–predictable in Vegas–a highly uncoordinated person leaping not-so-stationary objects? A large armchair quarterback could have called that. The perfect landing–the odds of that in my world, 1000:1.

Historically, I’ve never been able to clear tall buildings and other objects–I tried in high school track. “Casey,” said Coach after I nearly doubled the school’s liability insurance attempting human flight via hurdles and high jump, “YOU WILL stay on the ground!” And stay on the ground I did, physically and metaphorically–for a long, long time.

Screen Shot 2013-06-02 at 7.14.48 AMNo, falling wasn’t the shock that day. Executing a perfect breakfall–that was the surprise ending. No broken bones or concussion. Practice and preparation kicked in when I needed it. Beautiful. Slapping out, a bit stunned, I got up. “Nothing to see. Move along.”

I earned a solid place in the folklore of that entire crop of students.  Somewhere, there is a Facebook fan page, “Mrs. Casey is a Ninja.” It’s there. Forever.

Often I do stupid things without thinking. Sometimes they pan out marvelously, leading me in new directions, and other times I wake up thinking, “What have I done? How do I undo this?”  When things work out, I see a path, an idea, or inspiration to do more with my life–to avoid fear and stretch my vision, putting vision into action. When they don’t go so well, I reflect, “Hmmm…how did that happen? What did I learn?” There’s a lesson in everything. Good and bad. I try to find it. Often, I try to teach it as well.

I have two weeks left with my seniors. This time of year I’m in the center of the maelstrom cramming in last-minute thoughts about life they’re not really equipped to understand until they gone balls to the wall living. They haven’t lost jobs, been in debt, failed at something, or wondered what the hell happened to the last decade??

In the past, I was desperate to give just one more piece of advice.  Now, I relax–they can find me on social media. I see how they’re doing from time to time. They pop in post-graduation. That’s where the learning begins, because the desire to put the lessons into practice is…real. It matters.

“Wait for it, wait for it….” I can count down to when I get those pings. Questions. “What do I do now?” “What should I…?”  It’s all long after the pomp and circumstance fades.

I take a moment to freeze time. I look around, imagining. I snap a picture of each student in my mind–after graduation, their ghosts walk the hall–I hear their voices. I see them for years to come. I remember where they stood, their spot in the lunch room, the corner where they looked like they were going to bust out some a capella, the daily makeup at the bathroom mirrors, their jokes. Their energy is always there. I look around before they leave, and I see them doing great things. Every one.

Screen Shot 2013-06-02 at 7.10.34 AMExcept this isn’t reality. Some will be dead. Some in jail, some will never get their sea legs solid in the ocean of life. That part, I try to push aside–the curse of a long teaching career. The ones I didn’t get to–the ones I didn’t save. Countless. The girl who wanted to be a vet, the boy holding the single yellow balloon in the snapshot. We were decorating for an event. Smiling. He wouldn’t have many years left to smile.

My stupid human trick, jumping the desk, made me a superhero. His “desk,” put him in the ground. I miss him. I miss them all.

I let the seniors go. Most’ll be back. They’ll tell me what was important, “Miss, I remember when you said…” Not one of them ever says, “Miss, I remember I got an 80 on that test.” They talk about the moments of connection. Things that made it real. That I refused to accept less than–not their best performance, but their absolute best VISION. There’s a difference. That I had a sign on the board that said “What’s YOUR big idea?” and demanded an answer. Some action. A business plan. Movement. Something real. Today–I have a pile of business cards to show for it. Some took their big ideas and converted them. That’s success. Those business cards are gold.

Years later, it matters. They know what I’ve been saying. They’ve done the stupid human tricks. They’ve made and learned from mistakes. And that’s where life begins.

[Quick plug–I’m excited that James Altucher’s book on this subject, “Choose Yourself” is set to release tomorrow, June 3rd…James has been influential to me in helping me convert Stupid Human Tricks not just to vision–vision I have. But to action. And more action. That’s the critical part of the equation. Without action, you might as well stand still. James, I’ll use this in class, probably violating several copyrights in the process when I copy more than a chapter. Don’t worry–I’ll bitcoin you the royalties].

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Drive Thru Coffee’s Slow–Make It Driveby

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 12.22.40 PMI look at the clock on the odometer.

I want to stop for coffee. The drive thru is right there, beckoning. It’ll just take a minute. It’s quicker if I run in.  I look again. I’m already three minutes past my time–I’ll have to make it up on the highway. Can I make up five or six minutes? I’ll drive efficiently.

I find myself wondering how cool it would be if someone were standing outside the coffee shop at the edge of the driveway with my coffee ready. If I could just call ahead and have it balanced on a pole like the old train mail sacks waiting for a pickup.

I pass the coffee shop. If you want a cup of coffee, leave earlier, you idiot. The voice in my head chastises me. It’s tough to leave on time lately. The boy wakes up, I try to load the dishwasher, I lose my keys… I berate myself again. If you can’t leave one simple minute early, you moron, you don’t deserve another coffee. You haven’t earned it. 

I’ve got The Junes.

It happens to every teacher–The Junes.

I find myself envious of my friends in offices who can have coffee anytime they want. Heck, they can pee any time they want, too–no small thing. Regardless of whether they are a minute early. Some even have their own baristas and get lunch shipped in. I miss those days.

I don’t need a drive thru worker to stand at the edge of the road with my coffee. I’ve already had four. And I don’t deserve five. Maybe tomorrow, if I leave early.

I race toward school with a list of things in my mind: Finish copying final exams. Finish processing teacher evaluation data. Help the kid who is supposed to come during advisory. Clean the fish tank. Clean my desk… Let’s be realistic. I don’t think I’ll clean my desk. Maybe next year.
We still have so much to do. About a million safety drills. Final exam reviews. Chasing kids down for work they owe me.
End of the year. It’s coming fast. Not fast enough. And too fast all at the same time.
I’ve got The Junes. So do the kids. They started in April, though.
There’s no cure for The Junes.
Except, maybe, July.

Old People Alert: Words You Can’t Say

Vocab testI’m giving a vocabulary test. I don’t like vocabulary tests. I’m tired of them. Even though I don’t love tests, vocabulary is important. Not just for students, but for me.  I’m getting old. Words change their meaning. Not being up on vocab is a dangerous thing.

I used to be at the epicenter of student pop culture, even though growing up I was a walking anachronism. You’d think technology would enhance this, but in fact, it’s done the opposite. It’s let me “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Streaming music online has let me drift off into indie-music obscurity, getting pleasantly out of touch.

In the process, I miss the shifting tide of vocabulary. Using old words has dated me.

Awesome is an 80’s word. So not “awesome,” to say. You can’t say “dude.” A “ratchet” is no longer a tool. It should never be said in public. Neither is “ho.” Used outside of December, it’s not nice. I tried to explain garden “hoe” to a student. She couldn’t make the connection–even with a picture.

VW MicrobusVocabulary is important. So is context. Kids think I’m a hippie because I grow vegetables and my vocab’s stuck in the 90’s, which reminds them of the 60’s if you just flip the first number. I tell them I’m not old enough to be a hippie.

Recently, I was discussing basketball, informing a student I’d defeat him on the court. I stopped just short of saying “yo mama.”  It is also a dated expression. I admitted I couldn’t shoot well but I “could play some Big D.” That, in my day, meant “defense.” Coach would yell up and down the court, “Give me some big D.” We’d win the game. I was the good at defense.

Defense is important. Stopping the other guy from scoring a basket means they didn’t get two points. This is the same as if I was able to score a basket, though with none of the glory and recognition. I learned to hang in there and never give up. It’s not a bad lesson for life.

Vocabulary alert:

Big D doesn’t mean “defense” anymore. It refers to the male fifth appendage. Never, ever, ever say that in the presence of teens. Even when discussing a sporting challenge. The class stopped. Something was desperately wrong. Even the good kids were drowning in their own laughter.

Someone finally filled me in. Time for me to study vocab again. Maybe even take a test.

I remember being overseas. I was teaching English, using a book from the 50’s.

“The cock crows at…”

“Mary is gay.”

“John went to fetch some water.”

Not cool (“cool” being another dated word). I took out my pen and began crossing off words. “You can’t say this.”

I have stepped over the generational divide. My vocabulary’s old and I even try to pick up the check at restaurants rather than ducking into the bathroom dividing the bill to the last cent. That’s how you know you’re really old. I’m stuck in my music instead of theirs. And I watch the Discovery Channel instead of MTV.

“Miss, did they have TV when you were in school?” I look at the student in front of me. She’s serious. I must respond politely.

Antique Apple“Yes, I was born in ’71. Computers weren’t invented. There was no Internet. You had to pick up the phone. Which was wired to the wall. To text, we wrote it all down, put it in an envelope, and put a stamp on it. I had a cast-iron Royal typewriter in high school and an electric typewriter in college, but by then they had a computer lab, but you had to fight the nerds to use them.”

“Wow.” She soaks this in. The phone buzzes in her back pocket. She goes to look, but remembering she’s in school glances at me and walks away. thinking.

Thank God I didn’t have to live back then,” she thinks. But there are no words, because the vocabulary has changed. So she takes her leave, incredulous, in silence.

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Separating Out the Geniuses

Smile, fish, you're a genius, too.

Smile, fish, you’re a genius, too.

I was having a conversation with someone I respect. He’s a member of MENSA. MENSA is a society for geniuses. This made my conversation important–I can say, “I was talking to a genius.”

Wait! I am a genius. There is a test score in a box somewhere from when I was little that says so. People might not realize this at first–I’ve been known to troubleshoot appliances that aren’t plugged in, leave stoves on, forget stuff, lose keys on a daily basis, and one hot summer I felt dismayed because the fan I put in the closed window didn’t seem to be circulating any air.

I wonder how they determine who’s a genius anyway.

Like the kid in my class who solves Rubik’s cubes, but gets bad grades. And a guy I know who can fix nearly anything but doesn’t really read. Why aren’t they “geniuses?” If the world’s destroyed, they’ll recreate it. I’ll just think.

When I was little, they gave us tests and separated the geniuses from the non-geniuses. Then they assigned us special classes to help us feel more genius-like so we could cure cancer and such. I felt sad for people who weren’t geniuses. As Forrest Gump said, “Genius is as genius does.”  I didn’t do much. I’m told I nearly got kicked out of genius class because I always did the bare minimum. While some kids invented stuff and filed for patents, I asked how many sentences I had to write and did just that. Somewhere, there’s a book called “My Dad,” with four sentences per page. It doesn’t look like a genius wrote it. Maybe I was a genius and a minimalist–it’s a possibility.

My mom didn’t reveal my scores; she was afraid I’d become a know-it-all. Everyone else’s moms made baseball jerseys with theirs and put signs on the front lawn. I nagged my mom. Finally, she told me, “It’s 84.” I was proud. 84! A nice number. When people rubbed in their 124’s and 128’s, I was finally able to share my score of 84. I was a genius, too.

I never got kicked out of genius class because we moved. I saved face.

Many times since, I have been asked to retake the test. I declined. I found the real score in a file. It was a good number, which I’ll never beat, therefore there’s no incentive to retest–the score can only go down. What if I’m no longer a genius, but only…normal?

I think about this when I teach. I’m good at tests. Many kids are not. Most schools have classes separated by ability level, assigned by tests. Students are tested to move up and down levels, and tested to graduate.

Ironically, it’s is rarely the “smart” kid that succeeds in life, but he does pass tests and gets the best classes. The kid that succeeds is the kid with enthusiasm who often gets put on the bench. “Smart” students are often so accustomed to the entitlement that accompanies the label, that they get soft, like Rome in its heyday. I know. I was that person.

“Miss,” said one scholar, “Why is school so boring? I like this class, but school’s boring. I want to learn about Oceanography. It’s ‘not in the curriculum.'”

“Would you work harder,” I inquired, “If I made school about Oceanography? You’d have advanced math, science, your history would be around conquest and exploration, maritime law? It wouldn’t be easy–you’d study math about biochemistry, environmentalism, fish populations, ocean-related tourism, the economics of fishing…would you learn that?”

“Math about the ocean?”

“Math about the ocean.”

Pause. Deep consideration. “Yeah! I’d learn that!” Soon, a half-dozen eavesdroppers joined the conversation, pondering the awesomeness of a school that personalized their curriculum around cars, nature, medicine, technology…

Right now, I do this sort of thing with students on the side–give them things that interest them, usually for no credit. There is no test–only a conversation with me starting with “How did you like it?” They take off from there–totally intrinsic learning. No testing, no benchmarks–only me, the professional, smiling because I just got a kid to read three-volumes of Japanese history. On his own. Asking for more. Yet in the mainstream world, we measure, rate, label, assess, exhaust, process, and make kids ask “Miss, why is school so boring?” Because we need to shift the paradigm. Open up curricula–de-standardize and re-individualize. Let them go crazy learning what they want to learn. And more.

We have the ability to make education work any way we want during this time of great reform. I hope it turns out fun–because a score on a piece of paper isn’t what motivates students to learn or predicts their success. Their dedication and love of learning is what does. But I don’t think it takes a genius to figure that out.