Flat Thinking in a Three-Dimensional World Or Rather Three-Dimensional Thinking in a Flat World

My son faced so many frustrations during his three and a half years in public schooling, many of which caused permanent changes — in attitude, in Faith, in perception, in trust, in…subtle ways that we can only address when they unexpectedly appear; in ways that we have no power to change.

The issue that affected him most deeply was the school’s negative response to his inventive and creative intelligence. His first grade teacher was wonderful about applauding and encouraging him to use his skills. In the other grades his innate intelligence was mostly ignored, discounted, or actively discouraged. The principal and I met on several occasions as I complained about David’s experiences in that public school. Too often my concerns were ‘solved’ by the principal again encouraging David to “Just be patient. When you are in third grade, you can join Odyssey of the Mind.” At least it was something towards which he could look forward since he still wasn’t permitted to check out any chapter books from the library. (The principal admitted that the standardized tests showed David to be reading at an 11th grade level in 2nd grade, but the school rule held — no child would be allowed to choose more advanced books until third grade.)

Third grade arrived, along with broader library privileges and auditions for OM. OM — Odyssey of the Mind — holds organized competitions during which school teams, supposedly chosen because of strong academic and problem-solving abilities, meet to display their solutions to problems they were given in advance. In addition they solve problems that are not revealed until the day of the competition. We all knew that David would be excellent at such intellectual, inventive sport, and at working within time constraints, so we patiently waited.

David explained the audition: The children were put into small teams. Each team was given a small stack of papers — squares that had been cut from construction paper. The teams were instructed to build the highest tower possible. His team members put the thin pieces of paper on top of each other, making a tower about 1/8 inch high. They stared at it in confusion, unable to think of another way to stack the flat sheets. David began folding the pieces of paper into shapes, bending corners to make ‘legs’ and soon had a tall structure. When I picked him up following the auditions, he felt positive about his chances but shocked at the flat-thinking of his schoolmates.

David failed to win a spot on an OM team, while the flat-tower thinkers survived the cuts. When I requested feedback regarding the votes against David, I was told that he was not chosen because “He was not a team player.” “But, Mom…” I had no way to console a very intelligent child who lost out in a competition supposedly organized to reward creativity and innovation when it was very probable that he has lost out because he was creative and innovative! I suspect that his creative solution to the problem posed was just too embarrassing to the other participants, especially those on his own team.

Since he was never sure which teachers had voted against him, David never again trusted adults at that school. Even though we pulled him out of there a month or two later, he never again auditioned for OM; not even at the Christian school. He had learned to protect himself against adult opinions. He has never lost that cynical and often negative expectation of what others may do. He gives little credence to the ability of most others to accurately judge skills and efforts. It is sometimes difficult for us, as parents, to advise him. Although it looks as though he is just being bull-headed, in actually it is his defense mechanism that developed under the dumbed-down, all-children-should-have-equal-talents philosophy that controls too much that passes for pedagogy in too many of today’s schools.

Of course I will always believe that the teachers were angry with me for challenging poor curricular choices and ineffective teaching methods. I will always, and probably rightfully, suspect that they took their disapproval of me out on my child. After noticing that students with delayed or mediocre academic and/or thought-processing skills had made the teams, my theory has even more validity.

David’s distrust of adults in that school was repeatedly reinforced. One day he arrived home upset and explained that he was “in trouble.” When I asked what he had done wrong, he repeated the explanation that he had been given, “You are not supposed to trade.” (Huh??) Right! He had taken his Pogs (toy pieces resembling the old milk bottle tops) to school then at recess he and another boy sat on a bench and "traded Pogs” since David had doubles of one color; the other boy had doubles of another. David’s Pogs had been confiscated by the recess aide (who was also the librarian who would not let him check out chapter books) and the aide had informed him that she would keep the Pogs “until you tell your mother what you have done.” I instructed him to go to her the next day, report that the deed had been accomplished — that he had indeed informed me of what had occurred — and to then collect his belongings.

He delivered my message, but arrived home minus-Pogs. When he told the aide that I had been made aware of his “offense” she had said, “You can’t have them unless your mother comes in for parent-teacher conferences.” I phoned the principal and demanded three explanations: why trading was an offense; why an aide changed the conditions for the return of the items — conditions that she, herself had set; why an aide was given such power over my child. I was directed to the school handbook where it was noted that no trading was allowed. It was explained that sometimes children trade away their belongings and that is upsetting to some parents, so no children would be permitted to be involved in such activities (mentally cripple and punish all equally).

I expressed my concerns that such a policy would prevent children from gaining life experiences that would prepare them to trade cars, sell a home… I believed that I already knew the underlying reason for such a school rule: if people understand and use their right to trade, exchanges will be done under the radar of the tax collectors. The State certainly does not want individual bartering to continue. If the State cannot stop American adults from exchanging goods and services “under the table” then the State’s focus must switch to brainwashing the next generations into believing that they have no right to strike deals with consenting individuals, groups or companies.

I informed the principal that I would be at the school the next day to collect my son’s Pogs, and that the woman had better release them to me without any difficulties. Instead, the next morning the principal personally delivered them to me at the building where I taught.

Mustn’t have any open challenges to school rules, now should we? I began looking at other schooling options.