Thursday, January 07, 2016

Reeling and Writhing: Trauma by Public Education

"Reeling and Writhing of course, to begin with," the Mock Turtle replied, "and the different branches of arithmetic - ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision." (Lewis Caroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)

I don't remember when, but I learned how to read and write well before I started attending public school.  The home I grew up in had bookshelves holding many hundreds of books.  I read many of them before I started school, never realizing that they were intended for more mature readers.

There was a chalk board in one of the bedrooms, and we were always writing things on it.  I knew how to write my own name.

And therein lies the problem.  I knew who I was - well before public school teachers presumed to teach me different.  Although learning at home was a good start to my personal education experience, when I started attending public school, it all came off the rails.  For what I have learned though my life, I gratefully thank my parents.  Public school teachers taught me more bad habits than good.

Not such a problem in kindergarten.  As I recall, we didn't have to do much writing in class. And no reading at all.  I read at home.  A LOT.

My first grade teacher at Aurelia Pennekamp Elementary School was Mr. Marcus.  I thought he was a mean man.

He insisted that my name was David.  I knew it wasn't.  Everyone who knew me called me "Jimmy".

Later on in my life I realized that most institutions mechanically and thoughtlessly recorded my formal name as "David James Cobabe", invariably shortened to just "David Cobabe", with no recognition of the fact that by preference or tradition, some are called by their middle name.  The nearly universal first-name-centric bigotry continues to irritate me to this day.

Mr. Marcus insisted that I should not be writing with my left hand, and consistently censured me for attempting to use my left hand.  He tried to "cure" me.  Left-handed writing in the first grade was doubly problematic.  Not only was left-handedness treated unkindly, but the coarse paper medium and soft pencils tended to smear across the page as lefties tended to drag their pudgy fist across the paper.  Throughout the first grade, the side of my left hand was chronically discolored shiny gray, from a soft pencil smear, while my handwriting consistently earned me poor marks, no matter how laboriously I tried.

With my messy and smudged printing, I could never please that teacher, though I was trying to perform the way I had learned at home.  It was my first encounter with such an authority figure that tried to force me to change my personal habits.  It was an emotional confrontation, and has colored my perception ever since.

One of our first grade learning exercises was group reading.  Students would arrange their little chairs in a circle facing in, and take turns around the circle, attempting to read a few sentences out loud.  I chafed impatiently as other children stumbled along, slowly reading the simple texts, almost incoherently at times.  I was certain that they were putting on a stupid act just to infuriate me.  Nobody with even a minimal level of reading skills could be that pathetic.  Usually I had read silently ahead though the whole book in just a few minutes while the rest of the students were still perusing the first few pages.  They were always pointless little pretend books anyway, unlike the interesting literature I was discovering at home.  "Fun with Dick and Jane" was never any fun.

My own impatience with other students was my downfall.  I became bored, and ceased from paying attention.  This practice turned into a lifelong habit - my biggest lesson from public education.

I also suffer from a serious problem with respect for authority.  Particularly when the authority seems to come from someone manifestly less capable, especially in cognitive skills.  I have long been an observer of the Dunning Kruger effect, even before it became the subject of an academic study.  And I blame my first grade school teacher in part.

Additionally, I have struggled for my whole life with public difficulties related to my last name.  "Cobabe" has been mangled, misspelled, and mispronounced in every conceivable manner.  And quite a few that are not.  "Cobain", "Cobage", "Cabbage" among some of the creative renderings.  I have been named "Co-bob-a" by any number of Spanish-speaking associates.  From time to time, I get solicitations from porno sites to join the party, celebrating a more perverted twist on the "Cobabe" name.  The more practical telephone contacts almost inevitably ask how to they should spell "Cobabe", and almost always have trouble with pronunciation.  I can generally tell when they are reading my name for the first time from a document or a computer display.  That they frequently think my name is "David" is an additional giveaway.

When I hear that my last name is an unusual one, I frequently reply that it is quite common in my family.  The typical nonplussed non-comprehension reaction seldom fails to gratify my passive-aggressive inclination.

I have grown impatient and intolerant of careless or deliberate misspelling, whether my own or from others.  I am adamant that we should always take note and correct our mistakes immediately, or that we should do this for others.  Not as a way of showing off my superiority in most cognitive skills.   That was never in question.

I want to make it a point that I respect other people enough to learn how to spell their name correctly. My own feelings have been hurt enough times that I am hypersensitive about it.  Not presuming to be the spelling Nazi.  Just a simple gesture of common respect.

One nit-picky example.   A few years ago, someone at the State of Utah Driver License Division spelled my last name wrong in transposing it from a hand-written application.  I did not notice the error until quite some time later.  My last name was misspelled on the plastic card that represents a "permanent" driving license in Utah.

When I returned to the DLD and reported the error, they accused me of misspelling my own last name.  They wanted me to give them money to compensate them for the trouble of correcting my mistake.  It was a trivial amount, so it didn't bother me, other than that it was obviously THEIR error.

A short time later, as I was waiting for the clerical correction, they happened to look up the online facsimile of the form I had originally submitted.  It clearly showed that I had spelled my own name correctly.

Nothing further was mentioned about tendering the fee.  But no apology was forthcoming either.

Just one example of the many unhappy incidents that stem from garbling my last name.

There is nothing terribly wrong or offensive about spelling errors.  Our written communication is complex and in some instances not very intuitive.  That does not give us license for poor spelling.  We should correct our mistakes as soon as they are recognized, and learn to do better.

No comments: