Posts Tagged 'woodinville elementary'

Addenda ad Secundam Partem: In which the CIA and Howard the Duck make an appearance

Basically the years we’re talking about right now are third through seventh grade — two thirds of my elementary school years and my first year of junior high. It’s hard to make those years interesting on their own terms, but I’ll see what I can do.

When we got to the Seattle area, I managed to be placed in a magnet program called TAG, “Talented And Gifted”. (How on the nose can you be?) That took me up through sixth grade, and I discuss that experience somewhat here, so I won’t go over that particular ground again.

At the start of the school year, Wellington Elementary (where the TAG program was housed that first year I was in it) announced a musical — none other than You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Needless to say, I auditioned. I said earlier that I had thoroughly internalized the character, and this must have been evident in the audition process, because I was cast in the title role. It was my first theatrical endeavor of any sort (at least going by chronology of auditions; the first performed was an in-class presentation of “Witling and the Stone Princesses”, an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale “The Queen Bee”) and certainly my first musical, although one could argue that I had been playing the part for some time by that point. The rehearsal process was fairly lengthy, as I recall, and I think nobody was quite sure how I’d actually do once it became work, but it was the time of my life up to that point. The irony is that I’d identified the character because I was awkward and felt like an outsider most of the time, but I loved the other kids who were in it with me, and tried to stay friends with them. That might have worked better had the magnet programs not all moved to their own school the following year, and I lost touch with everybody pretty quickly (plus I was on the younger side of the cast anyway). Google searches turn up some of those folks — here’s Katie Margeson, my Lucy; and her sister, Anne, was Patty (none of this revisionist “Sally” nonsense in our production!). Chad Afanador, our Linus, actually has an IMDB page, and the Snoopy, Scott Grimm, is now a linguist of some note. (I am blanking on the name of our Schroeder. I’m sorry, man.) Anyway, I’d love to put up some pictures or video of this, but I think my mother has all of the photos. Dad videotaped the dress rehearsal, but the tape has been missing since 1994, when it was loaned to my then-girlfriend’s mother who was considering putting it on with her elementary school class, and I was never able to get it back (and in fact it was later claimed that she never remembered having it in the first place). If you ever find a VHS cassette labeled “Original C.B. Play” with a piece of masking tape on the front, do drop me a line. The thing about the videotape is that at some point during one of the verses of “The Kite Song”, I realized I was being filmed and choked on the words for a line or two, so it was never perfect anyway (but the actual performances were spot on!), but that’s maybe in keeping with the spirit of the character.

In absence of any of those pictures or video, here’s something that I’m pretty sure not every kid on my block had. Short version is that it wasn’t too far of a leap from Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, and The Young Detective’s Handbook to spies, and I started reading everything I could on real-world espionage. A briefcase replaced my backpack to accompany the deerstalker and trenchcoat. When I was nine, I decided that I would be a perfect recruit as an intelligence agent — I was too young for anybody to ever suspect as a spy. With the courage of my convictions on the matter, I did what any normal kid would have done and wrote a letter to the CIA telling them they should bring me aboard.

I got a letter back, dated 5 March 1986, from one G. L. Lamborn, Public Affairs (who, if I’m not mistaken, is the author of this forthcoming book). “Dear Mr. Barrett: Thank you for writing the Central Intelligence Agency. You seem to be a bright, responsible, and ambitious young person. I am afraid, however, that you cannot be an intelligence officer until you are eighteen. We hope you will apply with us when you are older. A college education is useful for many of our positions — so study hard! We need people with your enthusiasm. I have enclosed two publications which will tell you more about the Central Intelligence Agency. Do not forget us.”

Well, obviously it didn’t turn into a career. It’s an interesting souvenir to have, at least, and I’m sure it made for an entertaining story for Mr. Lamborn.

Comic books became a big deal for me in around 1984. I still remember my parents freaking out the day when I decided that I was now collecting them — taking the advice of one collector’s manual to buy a bunch of new comics and see what I liked, I spent around $25 on a stack of new releases about as tall as my belly button (remember that these were the days of a 65-cent cover price). My Batman obsession has been reasonably well-discussed here, but I also quickly fell in love with the back issues of Howard the Duck. Yes, you read that correctly. The thing is, as written in the mid-’70s, Howard the Duck was an experiment on Marvel Comics’ part, a social satire, and it was hysterical. (I mean, c’mon. It took place in Cleveland, for heaven’s sake.) Imagine my bewilderment when I saw it realized on the big screen as kids’ horror-action-comedy. I still don’t quite know what George Lucas was thinking, but the movie’s duck simply wasn’t the same Howard who ran for President for the All Night Party in 1976 and fought Doctor Bong. Not even close. Batman in 1989 was a much happier time at the movies all around, to say the least.

In terms of music, piano lessons continued through the fifth grade, I think. There came a point where I was feeling overstressed; I was doing Columbia Boys Choir, piano lessons, and then my dad had enrolled me in karate lessons two days a week. I think I had one day at home after school a week, and it was getting a bit much. Plus, my voice was breaking, and I didn’t know how to manage that. This was in the middle of our domestic meltdown, so everybody was happy to have me doing less for multiple reasons. I didn’t necessarily give up the activities, just the formal involvement; I played Sir Joseph Porter in a sixth grade production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, and I started learning the guitar.

This meant I also picked up the pace in terms of reading. I read a lot of different kinds of mythology and folktales; Greek mythology, Welsh mythology (inspired somewhat by a book called Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones), Nordic mythology, and even French-Canadian folktales (in the form of a little collection called The Golden Phoenix). I read a lot of role-playing games, but I could never quite figure out how to play them myself. Genre fiction became a real love for me in sixth grade, starting with Piers Anthony, with whom I even had a correspondence going for a couple of years (well, with his assistant, anyway, even if he signed the letters). This really picked up momentum in my junior high years, so its flourishing is somewhat beyond the present scope.

“Hey, Richard!” I’m hearing a couple of people say. “That’s awesome that the CIA started a file on you when you were nine, but did you do any, you know, normal kid things?” Eh, I don’t know. I wasn’t a terribly athletic kid, and I didn’t really understand sports or why I was automatically supposed to care about them. I hated fishing — the first time I went, I was having a great time with my dad and my great-uncle until they took the fish I caught and bashed it over the head with a rock. I burst into tears — I was not expecting that in the least. I went to summer camp a few times, the YMCA’s Camp Colman and Camp Orkila. I played with fire once by burning some thread in the sink to see if they’d burn the same way fuses were depicted as doing in cartoons and movies. My parents freaked out when they found me, thought I was trying to burn the house down (the house that they were trying to sell), and I had bruises on my rear end from a plastic spoon for a week. I guess that’s reasonably normal.

I didn’t have a ton of friends in elementary school and was the object of a good amount of merciless bullying, much of it by girls, which meant that other boys generally wanted nothing to do with me. From third to fifth grade, my best friend in the world was Jeff Fletcher, a kid who was one year older than I was and who was simply a kindred spirit in many ways. He was always at my house, and we were inseparable. Then he went to junior high a year before I did (naturally enough), and our paths diverged a bit, coming back together when I got to junior high. There was also Brian Ward, whom I met in sixth grade and whose family also went to Overlake. In seventh grade, there was a bit of peer group that I found, consisting of Matthew Arndt, Brian, Eric Rachner, Eric Stangeland (another friend of mine with an IMDB page), Robert Stevens, and Russ Needham (who, with Brian, is pictured with me on 23 June 1989 at Luxury Alderwood Cinemas for Batman).

And that’s that for now.

Update, 6 February 2012, 3:06pm — I should mention that Jeff Fletcher and I were all-too briefly accompanied in our early years by one Chris Holtorf. He wasn’t around anywhere near as long as we should have liked, since his family moved to California when I was in fourth grade, I believe, but for the short time we were together, were a terrible trio, to say the least.

Chris and I recently (like, in the last few hours) re-established contact via Facebook for the first time in, I believe, twenty-six years, and he wanted me to also pass on that the three of us had a plan to construct a working replica of the Millennium Falcon in my backyard. It’s true. We were generally too busy sliding in sleeping bags down my staircase into Ember, my beloved Bernese Mountain Dog (an activity we generally referred to as “SLEEPING BAG DOGGIE!!!!!!!!!”), to actually get the damn thing built. Oh well.


Gifted education

Rod Dreher has a post about plans in Louisiana to cut the budget of their residential public high school for gifted and talented kids. Read the whole thing, but these bits stick out to me:

It’s distressing to me how gifted education is typically seen in this country. We tend to spare no expense to provide for the needs of students who are handicapped or challenged in particular ways by the normal classroom experience. But we don’t spend nearly the energy or the money on gifted education — this, even though many gifted kids face their own set of challenges that cannot be easily overcome in a standard classroom. When I was in college at LSU, I remember getting into an argument with a friend over this; he believed that gifted kids had natural advantages by virtue of their cognitive skills, and didn’t need or deserve any special consideration.

I don’t believe that’s true at all. Of course nobody feels sorry for gifted kids, and nobody’s asking them to. The point is that to the extent that it’s feasible, all kids should be in an educational environment in which they can flourish to the extent of their own talents. If a kid cannot do as well as he otherwise could because of a particular learning disability, then insofar as it is possible to accomodate that child’s needs, we should seek to do so. Similarly, though, there are reasons why many gifted kids struggle in standard classrooms, and their needs should not be dismissed simply because of their intelligence. In my case, my grades were good in my old public school, but I struggled with depression because I was such an outsider, and was constantly picked on by the in crowd. The great thing about LSMSA — and I think lots of kids from small-town schools like mine felt this way — was not so much the superlative academics as the great blessing of not having to bear the emotional burden of being bullied and socially marginalized because you got good grades and liked books. […]

[The Louisiana School] was a place where, for the first time, we could feel accepted and affirmed, not marginalized and bullied as nerds and outcasts because we liked books and ideas. We could hardly believe our luck to be living and studying in a place where we didn’t have to keep our heads down and our mouths shut to avoid crossing the dominant peer culture in our hometown schools. When I graduated, I took with me a powerful sense of confidence, of being at home in the world, one that I had not known before. That gift was, literally, priceless.

I’ve talked extensively about my (mis)adventures in higher education (starting here); I’ve not really talked about more, shall we say, elementary matters. I’ll start out by saying that while it’s great that Dreher and people like him have had this experience with gifted education, it is worlds away from what mine was like. Perhaps, like so many things, the best thing to say is that gifted education is one of those things to which you either have to commit fully and do it right, or don’t do it at all, because to to do it in a, uh, half-fast manner will be worse than doing nothing.

I started to learn to read when I was probably 3. My parents claim that nobody taught me how to read; they would read to me, I would memorize the books they were reading to me, and (so they say) I started instinctively linking sounds to text. I don’t know; I don’t remember. I do know that when I was four or five, I was reading, and memorizing passages from, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

When I started kindergarten, within two weeks somebody realized that things weren’t quite right. I was given a diagnostic reading test after school one day; a couple of days later, I was told I was being moved up to first grade. What I found out later was that I had scored at the twelfth grade level, and that they had wanted to move me up to fourth or fifth grade. My parents decided that was probably going too far, and agreed to the one-year bump.

First and second grade, to say the least, were a struggle. I had, really, two friends, and they were both two grades ahead of me. (Aaron Spencer and Jamie Metrokas, where are you guys, anyway?) I tended to get along with adults better than other kids. It was really tough for me to stay engaged in class, because I would just read and work ahead very quickly, which of course isn’t what my teachers or fellow students wanted me to do. I would bring other books to occupy myself when I was done with what was assigned in class, which also isn’t what anybody wanted me to do. I soaked up whatever anybody put in front of me, and I had a big imagination that would start transforming the information into other things, too. Numbers I wasn’t (and am not) so hot with, but what that meant (at least up until high school) is that I was done with assignments five minutes before everybody else rather than a half hour.

Also, being less than athletic, I was at once the Smart Kid and the Fat Kid.

Like I said, it was a struggle. I just wanted to read my books, write my stories, and get along with people, and I didn’t understand why it seemed so hard. My first grade teacher told my parents that, realistically, it wouldn’t be until college before I’d really “come into my own,” whatever that really meant.

Just before I started third grade, we moved from Wenatchee to Woodinville, which back in 1984 was a reasonably-affluent almost-rural suburb of Seattle (as opposed to the nouveau riche extension of the Microsoft campus that it is now). The Northshore School District, as it worked out, had a (now much re-worked and re-titled) program for third through sixth grade called, prosaically enough, Talented and Gifted (TAG). My parents enrolled me, and hoped that it would mean better things for me.

Eh, not so much. Not really.

The trouble was multi-part. First of all, the program was a “magnet” (in other words, it was based at a particular school and you went there, rather than it being at your home school), and at least when I got started, it was floating magnet, having been at two or three different schools in the four or five years it had been in existence. So, we were among the “normal” kids, but we were sequestered from them somewhat because we were told we were “different”. That made for a weird, weird, weird dynamic, let me tell you.

For years four through six, we were at our own school, but it was the oldest and most rundown building in the district (built in the 1920s, had asbestos, fun stuff like that), and we were put there with the special education kids. This posed its own problems — we felt like freaks and afterthoughts, to a certain extent, and there was a certain amount of normal kid stuff which was expressly forbidden specifically because administrators were worried that the special education children might try to imitate us. We were “different”, we were “special”, but the way were treated, these terms did not appear to mean anything positive. It seemed to mean we were a problem best shoved aside and kept out of the view of everybody else.

As well, we were still kids, and kids will stratify themselves. It’s what they do. We were all theoretically “the smart kids,” so the smart kids separated themselves into “the popular smart kids,” “the not-popular smart kids,” “the smart smart kids,” the dumb smart kids,” and so on. Because we were smarter, part of what that meant is that we knew how to hurt each other more efficiently. Ever read Ender’s Game? It was sort of like that. Two of my fellow students absolutely brutalized me emotionally on a daily basis from third grade through fifth grade — and I mean they sought me out every free moment they had, and they were as intentionally merciless as they could manage. Their hobby was making me miserable, they were really good at it. My teachers told my parents on a regular basis that there was nothing they could do about it until it became physical.

Which, at some point, it did, when one morning I got spray cleaner blasted right in my eyes. Then somebody did something about it.

Another practical issue was transportation. We were bused to and from the school; that meant taking the bus on our normal route to what would have been our normal school, and then another bus picked us up there to take us to the host school. Getting home meant a special set of buses. I lived roughly five minutes from the school, but since they were trying to get everybody home from the host school on two or three buses, it took an hour to get home.

Since this program ceased after sixth grade, that meant that we were dumped back out among the “normal” kids in junior high. We had an Honors English and History program at that point, but that was it. In other words, we’d been kept separate from everybody for the last four years, and now were expected to “mainstream” ourselves. Since large groups of kids knew each other from the mainstream elementary schools, knew they didn’t know us, and knew why they didn’t know us, the 5-10 of us former TAG kids were instantly easy targets. Junior high was a long, agonizing three years — it was going to be anyway, of course, but this way it felt even longer.

A lot of us TAG kids wound up doing theatre in high school and thriving in that setting, interestingly enough. Make of that what you will.

All of this is to say, I’ve got really mixed feelings about so-called “gifted education”. I can’t lay all of this at the feet of TAG, necessarily; another issue was home life, which is its own long story. The relevant point I’ll share for the moment is that my parents, while not being stupid people by any means, are very practical people, and it was hard for them to relate to where I was. There were many times where I would tell them something I was excited about, and they would look at each other and say, “Are you sure this is our kid?” As a result, it was difficult for them to know what to cultivate in me or how to cultivate it, or to tell me how to deal with what I was going through.

Maybe the Louisiana School is a place that is able to do it right; maybe a residential high school, rather than a magnet elementary school, is a better way to go. If so, more power to it and to its students — but I’m not by any means going to cheerlead “gifted education” as an absolute.

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