The Tallest Blade of Grass

By Shamus Posted Friday Sep 29, 2006

Filed under: Personal 23 comments

In the comments of this post, my friend Bogan says:

Oh god. Too much stuff for my brain to compute yet because college has yet to allow me to move on to the point of bubble sort. Actually I just got yelled at for doing the next step in my C++ class of making a while loop…even for me that's simple.

Let’s be clear right now: Unless you are teaching something inherently dangerous, like scuba diving or dynamite juggling, you should never, ever discourage a student from moving ahead. If the student is getting bored, this is a cue that you, the teacher, need to get the hell out of their way – right now or sooner. Anything else is sabotage.

When I was in junior high our math teachers vanished for two weeks. Suddenly, it was substitutes for math class all over the school. This was obviously unexpected, since the subs were not left with clear instructions of how to fill that two-week space of time. When the teachers came back, we discovered that they had all been given some sort of crash course in computers, and we were now going to have computer lab on day X, where X is the day of the week when nobody else was using the computer lab.

My math teacher was an immense woman named Mrs. Grossman. Yes, I’m serious, and yes, she really was gigantic. I’m not trying to liven up the story by going all Wonder Years on you. She was spherical, with thick glasses, a short butch perm, and a mean streak wider than her own shadow. It was clear she did not care for this new turn in her mandated curriculum, and she taught us to use computers the same way you might teach someone to slap-fight a cobra. This computer was a dangerous creature to be approached with the utmost caution, and only by doing (sigh) exactly as we were told could we hope to learn anything about these capricious magic boxes.

The computer room was nothing more than a regular classroom with tables lining the outer walls, which were stacked with Apple computers facing inward so that everyone was elbow-to-elbow. It was two students per computer, although a few lucky and / or unpopular kids (like me) got a computer all to themselves.

She spoke at length to us about computers before we were allowed to turn them on. Sitting in front of a computer that is switched off is never very exciting, and to do so while the instructor drones on about pushing a button is enough to bore the dead. Once we got around to powering the things on, she instructed us to not touch anything. Because, you know, those early Apple II’s were notorious for deploying whirling discs of razor-sharp metal on users who pressed the errant button at the wrong moment.

Nevertheless, I pressed a button. I forget what the machine was doing. Booting up, probably, since that process would have taken up the bulk of the class time anyway. I hit the spacebar, which I often did to other computers to skip the POST rigamarole and make with the computing, already. It wasn’t really applicable here, but it also was not dangerous. At least, it wasn’t dangerous to the computer. It was quite dangerous to me, since the instant I touched the button Mrs. Grossman smacked me in the back of the head. This was not a polite tap to get my attention and bring me into line. This was a full-on open-handed blow to the back of my skull, which nearly bounced my face off the monitor. Once I had returned to my senses, Mrs. Grossman said coldly, “Didn’t I tell you not to touch anything?”

A dumb nod was the only response I could muster. Sure, I broke a (pointless) ad-hoc rule borne of fear and ignorance, but I’m pretty sure there were other rules out there, more substantial in nature and most likely written down, about not striking students in the head. But I gave no argument. My main concern at this point was not crying in front of the other students. Being fourteen years old was such a pain.

She then laboriously fed us a program in BASIC, one line at a time. She was not teaching us, since there was little in the way of explanation about that all of this was for. For people like me, it was so simple that the lesson was insulting. For people who were new to it, we were just typing in random symbols. After a good fifteen minutes (there were very long pauses while she waited for everyone to finish typing, and some of these kids had never had their hands on a keyboard before) we managed to get a six-line program into the thing.

This was maddening. It was like being made to recite my ABCs, only at the rate of a letter every ten seconds. Most kids were bored because the task was meaningless to them. I was bored because I had my hands on a whole new computer and I couldn’t experiment with the thing. More to the point, nobody was learning anything.

She went on some tangent about how important it was to type things exactly as she had written them, and the importance of not confusing the letter “O” and zero when I finally diverged from the lesson and added a rogue FOR loop to my program. She spotted my mischief, and sent me away. I spent the rest of the class at one of the empty tables with no computer. I was actually relieved. I wasn’t going to suffer through this mind-numbing spoon-fed lesson. I’m sure she was relieved as well: She had managed to get rid of the only person in the room keen on learning to use the computer, and now she could go back to wasting everyone’s time without interruption.

This day had a large impact on how I perceived my education. The illusion that teachers were vessels of knowledge was broken, and I could suddenly see teachers for what they were: People who had a job, who sometimes hated that job, and were sometimes manifestly unqualified for that job. The fact that someone like Mrs. Grossman was able to land a teaching job, hold onto that job, and eventually cultivate the roots of tenure suggested that weeding out people who were useless at teaching was not near the top of anyone’s list of priorities.

I had already resolved that I was going to Learn About Computers, and now I realized that this learning was not going to come from adults. This was a very liberating moment in some ways. I could stop waiting for adults to get their act together and teach me what I wanted to know. I was going to learn what I wanted without their help – and perhaps even in spite of it. To this day I have little patience for teachers who act like Bogan describes. Any instructor who wants to move at the speed of the slowest person in the room, and who then chides the others for moving ahead is an imbecile who should be sent packing. Their mentality shows them to be people who are not cut out for their job, like an accountant who is bad at numbers and bored by paperwork. A teacher who wants her students to slow down and stop learning so fast is a good bit worse than no teacher at all.

Bogan: Stop by sometime – we can talk about bubble sort and linked lists.

Mrs. Grossman: Stay the hell away from my kids.


From The Archives:

23 thoughts on “The Tallest Blade of Grass

  1. BeckoningChasm says:

    An excellent post. I agree–sometimes the teacher is the biggest obstacle to learning. But some teachers are true door-openers, no matter the subject–those are the ones to cherish and encourage.

  2. Ubu Roi says:

    Sixth grade. My science teacher mistakenly said that motor nerves reported perceptions to the brain and sensory nerves controlled muscles by transmitting the brain’s orders. I corrected her. Not only did she not like that (or conceed the point when I showed it to her in the science book), during the six-weeks exams later, I answered those two questions correctly and she marked it wrong.

    The other students thought I was stupid for answering the questions correctly, instead of the way she wanted. Now I look back at it as the earliest indicator that I’d be blogging about my employer under a pseudonym. The truth was stronger than my common sense….

  3. Crusader Corim says:

    Homeschooling is the entire answer to this.

    My father came out of the Army and taught himself C++ to establish a startup business. I used to sit for literally hours a day watching him code and asking him what everything did. He had the patience of a saint, and by the age of 14 I was working for his company, because he couldn’t find anyone on the open market that had anywhere near the knowledge of code, especially his codebase, that I did.

    When I finally went to college I was Comp. Sci major for a year before I ran into a Mrs. Grossman type professor. I told the Comp. Sci department that it could blow me, and went Civil Engineering, where I’ve been ever since. Had I not found that professor, I might have been a programmer today. However, since I love engineering, it’s not exactly a great loss.

    I still program on the side for fun, but after my college experience, I could never go back to it for work.

  4. Zenja says:

    Ubu Roi – all that schooling, and you still didn’t learn the basics about human nature and how the wold works. Us geeks have a sense of comradeship, where we want to teach everyone around us the *truth*, facts and **correctness**. We love facts. But in school/university/life, we have to learn another skill – political correctness. There are times where we have to ignore the facts, and satisfy another persons ego (hint – have you got a partner? Ever say “Yes dear”, even when you know she’s wrong, and trying to correct her means starting an argument you cannot win?)

    So the lesson in life – when your superior is wrong, discrete inform them about it – not in front of everyone. Be tactical.

    Second lesson in life – university is a business. A diploma is nothing more than a piece of paper saying you can get boring shit assigned to you done (hence employers have confidence in hiring you). University is not there to educate you – you can do this yourself. But hey, we have to pad a 6 month course to 4 years, because we want to wrestle as much money from you that we can. They cannot be too demanding, otherwise you will take your money to their competition.

    Advice to the teenagers thinking of attending a tertiary institution. Any 3 year place will do. For a majority of employers, any piece of paper that shows you can get boring shit done is adequate. Any more than that is a waste. Since once you enter the workspace, you will have to specialise. You will continue learning. You will study deeper than anything you did at Uni.

  5. Shamus says:

    On the homeschool thing: Yes.

    I have 3 children, and they will never see the inside of a public school.

    My mother and father were both teachers before I was born. My sister is trained as a teacher. My wife is a teacher, and both of her parents are teachers. I love and admire many fine teachers, but my kids are never entering that zoo. My wife stays home and teaches our kids.

    It’s an excellent arrangement, for those that can afford it.

  6. Will says:

    We had a professor in our aerospace department who took it upon himself to “weed-out” people in the Aerodynamics 1 class. He had a little stack of 3×5 card with every students name, and he would “shuffle” through the deck until he found someone he’d like to pick on by asking them questions to which we obviously hadn’t learned the answers yet. Great sums of time were spent learning nothing just to serve this guy’s ego.

    He detested students (males in particular) and teaching in general. He failed an entire class one semester, leaving the following semester’s classes empty because no one had the prerequisite covered.

    He’s constantly rumored to be retiring, but he always comes back to the same class.

    They can’t seem to get rid of him either. He’s the one in charge of getting the school’s accreditation renewed.

    He knew the material like the back of his hand, but he just took sick pleasure in his game of keep-away with the knowledge we needed to progress. All in all the worst professor I’ve ever had.

  7. Bogan the Mighty says:

    That was definately a good post. It seems that everyone has their own version of Mrs. Grossman, and I’d almost say that it is good for a person to have that sort of experience at least once. Of course I’ve always been one to wonder about homeschooling myself. I mean it isn’t all that bad for me though seeing as how every once in awhile a nugget of new knowledge seeps through the drooling boredom and it will become more educational since I have stopped teaching myself it since I am paying someone to teach it to me. I suppose I can start over on something else so I can do it all over again. Maybe Java or even assembly for reasons beyond my own comprhension.

  8. Acksiom says:

    Important addendum to Zenja’s advice: there is another significant reason for tertiary schooling besides credentials — social networking. Yes, for the majority of employers, any school can provide you with sufficient credentials, but attending a top-ranked institution affords you the opportunity to associate with the rich and elite, which can similarly significantly benefit you, even if it’s only done as poorly as many geeks socialize.

    However, it’s just another advantage, not a necessity. The more important thing is to develop your social networking skills regardless, as who you know can be much more critical than what you’re accredited to all too often.

  9. Acksiom says:

    Oh man. . .I didn’t complete an infinitive. Geez, I don’t even do that when I’m DRUNK.

  10. ubu roi says:

    Zenja: too true. Also note that I recently read an article (I wish I could remember the blog, the link was from Instapundit) in which the reason for America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace despite having such a lousy school system was discussed. The answer: Tertiary education, but NOT the four year institutions. The community colleges and juco’s were the answer. Able to react faster to the marketplace than four-year institutions, often recruiting adjunct professors with real-life experience, and filled with students that wanted to learn — instead of juvenile delenquints that had to be coddled thanks to cowardly school boards — American youths were able to pick up skills and remedial education that the public school system was failing to deliver to them.

    I wasn’t home schooled, but I was fortunate enough to be plucked out of the public zoo and put into a private acadamy for my high-school years. While they were unfortunately very weak on the science courses, I had the opportunity to take Latin and Spanish while there. Kids today look at me like I have two heads when I tell them that. “Latin? What for? And why didn’t you just date a Hispanic girl if you wanted to learn Spanish?”

    Uh, maybe because 30 years ago there weren’t any in my small town? Sigh.

  11. Pete Zaitcev says:

    Shamus, if you are not already, you ought to be a member of HSLDA. Dues are not onerous. And they provide pretty interesting reading lists.

    My own experience with homeschooling was pretty bad. It is damn exhausting even with one kid, and if public schools were not so infested with jackasses who only care about “teamwork” (== learn to obey) and “leadership” (== learn to subjugate), I would not do it.

  12. Shamus says:

    Thanks Pete. I had not heard of HSLDA, so it is good to share notes like this. We all seem to be struggling to solve many of the same problems. If this is still going on in a generation, I’m betting a lot of knowledge will have been distilled into basic know-how that most parents posess, so each parent doesn’t have to invent their own wheel.

  13. David V.S. says:

    ubu roi, your article is here.

  14. Dave H. says:

    I’m doing a bit of catching up here, so probably no one will read this, but:

    When I was I 9th grade, I had a “social studies” teacher who wasn’t just a Mrs. Grossman type, she was ignorant and arrogant as well. I don’t mean just on her subjects, either.

    One day, she made an error in class. I don’t remember what it was, but it was something completely contrary to something we had read the day before, verifiable on the page of the textbook we were studying. Something on the order of, “Now yesterday we learned that the capital of North Korea is Seoul and the capital of South Korea is Pyongyang.” I raised my hand, and politely (I was pathologically polite to teachers in those days) suggested, “Excuse me, but isn’t that the other way around?”

    She fixed me with her most evil glare, and said, “I don’t make mistakes like that, because I have a photogenic memory.” Yes, photogenic. I never spoke up in that class again, and when I told my mom what she had said, Mom actually told me that I shouldn’t bother paying attention to her, read the book, and learn it on my own. (Homeschooling and changing classes/schools were NOT options.)

  15. Teague says:

    One of my concerns with homeschooling is that the type of person who Shamus and others posting here (and me) have run into as teachers are also out there in the workforce, often in positions of authority. (ie the boss parody in Dilbert). I use a lot of my experiences with this type of person gained when they were my teachers to help me deal with them now that they are my boss/co-worker/client. I would not have that experience if I had been homeschooled.
    The same goes for bullies, slackers, cliques, and all the other “negatives” associated with public schools. I like the lesson that my daughters get from Junior Asparagus and me about how we dealt with these things, but nothing substitutes for practical experience.
    Shamus, don’t take this as criticism, just as an observation to invite discussion: I just had the thought that by keeping kids out of the public schools that we had to go to, aren’t you just “nerfing” their childhood experiences?

  16. Sewerman says:

    This brings back my “Intro to Computers” way back when.

    We apparently had a much cheaper school board than you; they bought one (1) computer for our county’s elementary schools: we all had a 6 week period in which they would bring the students in small groups to use the computer, then be whisked away.

    Well, my Mrs. Grossman (I can’t remember what her name was) knew a few basics about BASIC. Not much, but ahead of the average 2nd grader (especially then). Unfortunately, I wasn’t average.
    I went out and found a book on BASIC, so when the time came for my turn, rather than Ye Olde Hello World, I managed a 20 line graphics program (I forget what, probably Fireworks).

    The computer was removed that afternoon, and never brought back. I would have felt bad, save for the fact they assumed no child could learn how to do anything that well that quickly, which REALLY ticked me off.

  17. asterismW says:

    Teague, I agree. I knew some kids in high school, who were homeschooled for the most part, but took a couple of classes at the school. In general, they were socially awkward, didn’t have any friends, and didn’t know how to interact with the people around them. The rest of us had been learning those social skills all our lives, while the only people those kids had ever associated with were their family and perhaps a few close friends. To be fair, this was not true of everyone. One of my friends was in that situation, and she had fine social skills. But that’s why I’ll be sending my kids to public schools: to learn the social skills they won’t get at home, learn how to deal with the jerks and idiots, just learn to interact with a variety of people. I believe that social skills are one of the most important things you can learn in life. However, I do think homeschooling is a fine idea, so I may end up doing some sort of amalgam schooling for my children: Go to school to learn how to interact with people, and suppliment adademic learning at home.

    As for my own Mrs. Grossman? 10th grade health sciences. We had to write a paper on something. I spent time and effort on it: researched it out, had references, typed it up, proofread, etc., etc. My friend spent about an hour on it, finishing it up right before class, in pencil, with spelling and grammar mistakes galore. We got the same grade. I hated that teacher.

  18. Simon Jester says:

    I don’t think I ever actually had a true Mrs. Grossman; maybe I’m just lucky. But I definitely think that trying to generalize an entire education philosophy from the minority of Mrs. Grossmans is a mistake.

    Sure, once in a while you get a teacher who is so fundamentally stupid and authoritarian that they force the class into a demented game of ‘Simon Says’. But contrary to some of what I’m seeing here, schools and universities really *are* designed to teach people, and the supermajority of the people working there seriously intend to do so, or at least to not impede any teaching that may be going on.

    The problem is that they aren’t designed to provide the ideal teaching environment for someone who is already intensely inclined to learn the subject matter and who has extreme natural aptitude for it. Such people will likely teach themselves, regardless of how good or bad the school is. It is the people who cannot or do not teach themselves that benefit the most from the schools, and you need a different system to train those people effectively.

  19. spelley says:

    I also had a teacher like that. It was in High School, Advanced Math 11. The teacher was, quite literally, a gym teacher using a Teacher’s Handbook. I wish I was kidding.

    This woman was supposed to teach us Trig, however, she was incapable of answering any questions as to WHY we did something. Her response would always be along the lines of “that’s the way you do the question”. This is, of course, because she had no idea.

    I was a fair math student (not spectacular, but fair) and her class confused the hell out of us. Then there were the provincial exams which she never covered any of… Ugh, that was a bad year.

  20. Katrani Merack says:

    I’ve never been homeschooled. But my dad’s always encouraged me to learn on my own, and if we’re watching a show and I have a question about how something works (period tech, something in Modern Marvels that for some reason wasn’t explained- happened more when I was younger) he’d answer. I know plenty of kids who were homeschooled until high school, and they seem to be doing fine. Better than me, naywyas. Can someone explain why all the good guys go for the homeschooled ones? Seriously. Although maybe not. From waht I’ve gathered, everyone else who reads/comments has been out of school for a few years. And I’m sure it seems pathertic asking for advice from a ‘nerd blogging comments’ space. Yesh, I think Shamus’ blog is more nerdy than geeky. But I like it.

    I’ve had two Grossmans. The second was this past year, Mrs. Holcomb, AP ALgebra 2. All I’ll say is the book made more sense than her. And the book confuses the hell out of me. The other was eigth grade, Mrs. Welsh-Payne, for English. She was so stupid, that we sneaked over to the drama room (it was right next to hers) one day, brought back a bunch of old props- including furniture, but just the old ratty kind we doubted ywould be used again- and were throwing it out the window without her noticing. Another time she lost her hole puncher (fill up a card with her specially-shaped holes, gotten for answering questions, and you’d get something like a free hall pass or some candy) and thought someone had stolen it. She found it a week later in her jacket pocket. Plus, she assigned a 20-page poetry thingy… DUE ON THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL. THE DAY AFTER GRADES WERE DUE.


  21. Klay says:

    I had a “social studies” teacher back in 6th grade who was like this, ignorant and proud of it.

    We had a test over some goegraphy crap. We had a little mini-map of the world. We had to identify the continents, and make use of our directional skills, based on the map, I would have gotten a perfect score on the test had it not been for an ignorant question:

    “What is west of North America?”

    Being a kid of common sense, I answered that Asia was west of North America. Apparently I was supposed to answer: “Nothing.” Thats right…”nothing.” You see, I had no idea at the time why I got the question wrong, but it turned out that because the map on the page was laid out with North America being the west-most continent on it, I was supposed to answer “nothing.” I took the test to my dad, who was equally stupefied that anyone could be so stupid. He argued with my teacher over the phone for over twenty minutes. The teacher refused to change my score, and for the remainder of the year, seemed to go out of her way to be a terrible teacher for me. To this day, I still hate that bitch with white hot rage. Bitter much? You betcha.

  22. KitsuneFather says:

    Yeah, just found this site through a link to DM of the Rings, and bouncing through the blog entries.

    I’ve had several Grossmans, the earliest in Second Grade, with Ms. Spivey. She was an ill tempered little troll who assigned me to go by my last name, because the other Jeff in class was higher in the alphabet order. (For me, this was made all the more tragic because First Grade, with Mrs. Scheidle, had been good enough that the class cried on the last day, because she wouldn’t be our teacher anymore)

    Every Friday, as many kids do, we had Spelling Tests. I, one week, was sick from Monday to Thursday, and arrived to class on Friday without having seen the word list. Normally, I was 100% on the Spelling Tests, so she decided I should take the test anyways, without a chance to even review them. I missed half the words, including Carry (my brother had shown me Carrie just the night before).

    The fact that I’m now 30, and still remember this woman and this moment speaks to the irritation of the time. To me, it was the moment when I realized that education wasn’t cooperative, it was combative, and attempt to surpass the worst of your teachers in knowledge, and to match the best.

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