reading at desk

That time my high school principal thought yelling would be a great way to inspire me to read

I’m sure I’m not the only person that has random, unimportant memories of long-ago events. I keep remembering a time in high school where my high school principal yelled at me for borrowing a library book.

It was his idea that on Wednesdays we’d read a book for 22-minutes during homeroom. Or as the contemporaries called it, “Activity Period”. What a dumb, soul-sucking name.

Wednesday’s “activity” was silent, sustained reading, which begat the soul-sucking SSR acronym straight from some equally wretched “workgroup”.

I had finished whatever book I had been reading about ten minutes into the allotted time. Not being a psychopath, I wasn’t keen on just starting right back on page 1. So I asked to go to the library, was granted permission, and walked downstairs. After a few minutes I picked up another and walked back upstairs.

Just as I exited the library, the principal turned to me and yelled, “Where is your book young man?” It was in my hand. In fact, it was the only thing I had on me. In retrospect, I probably should have asked if he had just been staring at the sun and couldn’t see it. Maybe he thought I had come downstairs for tea.

“Just finished one and came to get another,” I said, holding up the book. I didn’t stop walking.

Then I remember turning around and standing there watching him yell and stomp around because I wasn’t actively reading. No one else was around. It was just him and me in the hallway. My only hope is that the expression on my face was clear I thought he was insane.

He told me I needed to be reading “right now”. Short of sitting down in the hallway, I didn’t know what else he expected me to do. I’m sure I just said “Okay” and walked on.

I also remember the feeling of losing all respect for the man at that moment. Now, all these years later, the fact I even remember this at all irritates me. Literally every time I finish a book or pick up another I think, “Should I call him and ask if it’s okay that I finished a book today?” What a terrible thing to think.

Today I look back on this and think three things:

  1. We know task-switching leaves “residue” on our brains. You can’t go from, say, cooking a new recipe to replying to emails without your brain thinking about the last thing you just did for a while. Most estimates are about 15 minutes to fully switch tasks. So in a 22-minute reading slot, about 7 minutes are actually useful. What a waste.
  2. I’m sure the whole exercise was designed to check a box at the end of the school year to say, “The kids read a combined 9 hours of sustained independent reading.” And really, isn’t that sad for any activity? “Over six months, we spent 9 hours reading!” I’m sure it’s also the only way they could guarantee some people even read anything at all.
  3. The most damning legacy of our schools is that they are centers for knowledge transfer, not a place for instilling a love of learning. Events like this are why fully a third of Americans admit to not reading a single book in a year.

We say that phrase “love of learning” and a lot of people roll their eyes. It is a wimpy phrase. But we should really think about it as “Teaching people how to do hard things with our minds”. Everyone has to do this to get ahead. You want to learn how to write a new programming language, drive or operate a new piece of machinery, install something, offer a compelling report, manage your health, learn new exercises, or design a new tool? You’re going to need to have sustained and focused effort at that task. It’s during processes like these to improve ourselves or our work that we have displayed an ability to grok new things. To learn!

Reading just happens to be the most common activity people do that requires a little thought. Watching TV, for instance, is passive. Reading requires comprehension of the words and, in most cases, imagining the events and people involved in your head. Like how driving to the store down the street is passive, but walking there is active. Neither is likely hard, but one is certainly more active.

For most adults who don’t enjoy reading today, we’d do well to ask ourselves why. I now recognize I struggled to find books I actually enjoyed reading. It took me over 10 years to realize I liked biographies and memoirs. I read one in 10th grade — a book I picked up from a Walden Books, but didn’t make the connection that I liked it because it was a memoir. I started reading more from time to time, but it took me another ten years to figure that out and learn that fiction just isn’t my jam. In retrospect, I don’t recall there being a lot of historical biographies on the shelves of my school library. Maybe there were, but I just hadn’t figured that out.

But militant yelling and drilling don’t help a 15-year-old, either. Maybe my principal was having a bad day. I’m sure he thought it was my responsibility to make sure I had a book to get through all 22 minutes of reading. But there he is, in the back of my head spitting fire every time I need a new book. I’ve recorded 380 read finished books since I started tracking them on Goodreads. That’s 380 times that memory has hijacked my thoughts.

We talk a lot about the educators who shape our lives and make a long-lasting impact on us and our kids. But we should also talk about the educators who did the opposite. If we do, it might remind educators that as hard as their job is, every interaction can be mind-altering.

One Comment

  1. Justin–you hit the nail on the head when you say we need to teach people (young and old) to do hard things with our minds. In the last few years of my school counseling career, I started focusing more on teaching kids about the science of the brain and how we can actually re-wire our brain connections to build new strength and skills (be that reading, doing math problems, or learning to manage our emotions). This, of course takes work, repetition and challenge–experiences that many of our students have given up on after years of discouragement and endless hours of passive entertainment.

    As for the negative interaction with a school administrator years ago, I am sad that this continues to stay with you. But I also understand how the injustices, hurts, and harsh words we experienced in our childhoods can have lasting impact. I hope over time you will make peace with those memories and remember the good intentions and best efforts of those doing a really difficult and often thankless job. Wishing you all the best, Mrs. O

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