Tuesday, February 27, 2007

My academic heritage

Stephen Downes and Wendy Wickham have both written posts about the way in which their childhood homes influenced their attitudes to learning. I thought this would make a good meme, so I'm going to do one too, but I have to warn you - it isn't going to be a pleasant read. If you're reading this, consider yourself tagged!

I am the product of a typically dysfunctional background. My parents divorced when I was 6, and fought about money from that moment until I was an adult. I spent the next four years living in some rather unseemly places, witnessing events that I only came to understand very much later. My parents were very young when I made an unexpected (and, in my father's case, unwelcome) appearance in their lives, and had no idea how to engage with a child. I remember being very confused around the issue of days of the week. Such a simple thing, but no-one had ever taken the time to explain to me that there was a pattern to these things. I thought my parents decided each day whether they would go to work and I would go to school. I can remember everyone laughing at me in class when I asked a child (presumably on a Monday) if he had been to school the previous day and, when he said he hadn't, I replied, "Nor did I"

The sorry area we lived in after my parents' separation boasted a school with a gifted and talented stream. Fortunately, I was bright enough to be included in this, and for four years, was exposed to some of the best teaching I have ever encountered, until we moved to a happier socio-economic environment in an area with no G&T stream.

As a child, I never had any sense that I mattered to anyone. I realise now that I must have done, but adulthood is not the time to realise that your parents love/loved you. It was only when I was well into my adult years that I realised that I had had an unhappy childhood and, while it was nowhere near the order of some children, I can state categorically that misery is a corrosive force that eats into every aspect of a child's life.

The most significant periods of my childhood were spent in my maternal grandparents' home, in the company of my mother's siblings and their respective families.

Language was a recurring theme in my childhood. My maternal grandmother was an English and History teacher. She sighed over our lack of respect for grammar, and gently taught us when to say "you and me" and when to say "you and I". To this day it sets my teeth on edge when newsreaders and television/radio presenters get this one wrong. She also encouraged the use of one entirely apt word, rather than three approximations.

Most of the adults in my extended family did cryptic crossword puzzles, and clues would be discussed during the course of the day. There must have been a way to avoid being sucked in, because my sister doesn't give a fig for such things, but I didn't spot that escape hatch, and I now buy some newspapers purely for the crossword puzzle. England is a great place for a crossword addict. During the time I spent in the US, I was frustrated not to be able to find "proper" cryptic crossword puzzles.

My grandfather was a colonialist and a tyrant. During Sunday lunch, we would be forced to sit in utter silence as he listened to the BBC World newscast, which seemed an hour long - although it was probably less than a quarter of that. Should we dare to speak, he would turn on us and roar, "Ssh! Absolutely ssh!" I grew up associating current affairs with repression.

Politics were a feature, too, but a thorny one. My grandfather vocally supported a poor excuse of a party called the New Republic Party. He simply assumed that everyone else in family supported the same party, and no-one had the courage to tell him otherwise. We would listen to him fulminating, and I just felt in my heart that something was wrong with his reasoning. Since none of the adults took issue with him, I was confused. My mother was pretty liberal for a white South African in the 60s and 70s, believing in equal rights for all. Although I came to realise years later that she was personally rather racist, she didn't allow that to inform her politics, and she certainly raised us not to judge a person on the colour of their skin. In the typical last bastion attack of a groundless racist, someone once asked my mother, "What will you do when your daughter brings home a black husband one day?" to which my mother replied, "I have absolutely no idea what I will do when my daughter brings home a husband of any description." (As it turned out, the husband I eventually took home was white-but-foreign. My mother welcomed him with open arms and delighted tears.)

I was packed off to boarding school at the age of 11. This effectively meant that my mother was no longer a factor in my formal education. I had to take ownership of everything myself. No-one checked my homework, no-one nagged me to study for tests, no-one helped me establish boundaries and priorities. When the day scholars' parents were having parents' evenings, the boarders were either ignored or called in to account for themselves to the head teacher in person. Boy, oh boy, did I develop a chip on my shoulder and learn to stand up for myself! And for anyone else I thought was being subjected to injustice. On a school trip, I once saw a middle-aged white shopowner lay into a black teenaged shoplifter with a wooden pole, and my teacher had to bodily drag me away as I screamed hysterical abuse at the man. I was so affected by what I had seen that I was physically ill. Remembering the incident now, my bile rises again - all the more so, because I was the only one, the ONLY ONE who was upset by the incident. Everyone else felt that justice was being served. I was labelled as having an overdeveloped sense of justice. I assume that must have come from my mother, even though she never had the courage to reveal it to her father.

I felt abandoned in my schooling, and, looking back now, I think it was justified. I was left to fight many battles alone that should have been either fought for me, or fought as a joint effort. My mother was crippled by the load of single parenthood and had no idea how to cope with the issues that arose. So she abdicated.

My passion for learning was something that grew out of the fact that I stumbled upon the field of training way back in 1989, and discovered that I had a knack for it.

Contrasting my experience with those of Stephen and Wendy, I am ever more convinced that parents play the key role in establishing a culture for learning. Hence the abundance of National Geographics and Time magazines in our home today. Hence the open channels of communication with teachers. Hence the subscription to history channels, nature channels, science channels. Hence the visits to museums. Hence the overflowing bookshelves. The links to online resources that appear in my children's Inboxes. The hiring of movies that relate to topics being covered at school. The daily dinner times at the table, TV off. The frank and open discussions about anything and everything.

And, above all, hence the frequency with which our children are told/shown that they matter, that they are loved, that their ambitions will be taken seriously and that every effort will be made to help realise them.

I know this hasn't been a happy or a comfortable story to read, but I think it provides a suitable contrast with the very positive accounts I've linked to. If anything, the very negativity of my experience reinforces the importance of creating a home environment in which our children can flourish. It is also vital to realise that we can rise above our circumstances. We don't have to adopt a victim mentality and regard our lives as having been done to us.

So what is your story? What was your formative experience of learning?

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