An Open Letter to Soon-to-be High School Graduates

May 13, 2013

A short story about Math: a cute cartoon made its way to me via facebook this week. Depicted was a young woman in fifties’ homemaker garb with a quizzical look upon her face, accompanied by the quote: “hmmm…and yet another day has passed and I did not use algebra once…very interesting.” I tried to remember the last time I had used algebra for anything, anything at all, and the only instance I could come up with was a brain-teaser word problem: “a train leaves from Baltimore, traveling at 55mph…” I am guessing, based upon the
“55mph”, that said journey and its resulting word problem must have taken place in the 1970s (then, as now, a good time to be leaving Baltimore), well before the advent of high-speed railways. All these years later, it seems that the only reason I really needed algebra was to secure passage from Grade 9 into Grade 10, a worthy goal to be sure, but one that nonetheless begged the question: why are we learning mid-level math that we will never use again, instead
of how to grill a perfect cheese sandwich, how to stretch our income to cover our outgo, what fabrics can be put in the dryer without undue shrinkage, and myriad other life-lesson miscellany that even now seems to turn up on a daily basis. Further, I can say absolutely, without fear of contradiction: I have never, not once, used a tangent, sine, cotangent or cosine, since (barely) passing 11th grade trigonometry. Note: In a recent random and admittedly anecdotal survey of my friends and acquaintances, exactly zero percent of them admitted to having used trig even one time since high school.

This got me thinking: just what did I learn in high school that was worthy of being carried forward into real life? And how much do I remember from that time that has no bearing on real life in any form or fashion, but nonetheless sticks in my mind like a splinter, mildly irritating but impossible to dislodge?

High school history, about which I remember the following, and little else: AD 1066, Battle of Hastings (cannot remember what it was about, who was fighting whom, and therefore, by extrapolation, who won; cannot forget the date, though, it was on the test); AD
1215, signing of the Magna Carta (I seem to remember a King John in this one, but don’t quote me on that); the Dark Ages (a time when fundamentalist religion gained a stranglehold on the Known World, and which, if things continue as they are going, will one day be known as the First Dark Ages); the Crimean War (which seems likely to have had something to do with the Crimean Sea, although once again, the players and the dates elude me; this is also the case with the Boer War, the 100 Years War, the Sino- and Russo- Japanese Wars, the Peloponnesian War, and a host of other conflicts which must have seemed much more important at the time than they do through the lens of history). There were all sorts of peoples, players on the World Stage, each of whom merited a footnote in my studies: the Picts; the Saxons; the Normans; the Visigoths; the Norse. I remember little to nothing about any of them, who they fought, how they died out, what they did when they were alive. The Norsemen had those cool hats with the horns, though; I quite liked those. Conspicuously absent from the teachings were such remarkable nuggets as: a) Alexander (the Great) was apparently flamingly gay, as were Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Michelangelo and any number of other men sporting only one name, all the way up to and including Liberace; b) the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the phrase “under God”, skipping right from “one nation” to “indivisible”, thereby doing a rather better job of reflecting the supposed separation of Church and State than the current version; c) while Europeans were merrily beating one another to a pulp with studded clubs before returning home to their huts for their nightly gruel, civilization flourished in the FarEast: paper; the compass; the fork; arched bridges; a Great Wall; fireworks; gunpowder; playing cards; a complex written language; sweet and sour pork; the list goes on. And yet, we learned only about the achievements of the Picts and the Saxons, which were, um…?

A small digression: years afterward, I heard the quotation “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it…”, to which I would like to add: “…or, at the very least, they will have to take a remedial course in summer school, to ensure that the dates 1066 and 1215 are forever entrenched in their young minds”.

The sciences were once described to me thusly: if it is icky, it’s biology; if it smells bad, it’s chemistry; if it doesn’t work, it’s physics. I spent hours each week memorizing phylum, genus, stratus, nimbus, litmus, argon, neon, krypton (which I was very disappointed to find out had no deleterious effect whatsoever with regard to super powers), and countless other terms that had their origins in ancient Latin and Greek. This was mildly useful in later years, if only as a parlor trick: when someone mentioned, say, “hepatitis” in one of those passing conversations about hepatitis that one has from time to time, I could expound “Ah, ‘hepatitis’, from the ancient Greek ‘hepa-‘, meaning ‘liver’, and ‘-titis’, meaning ‘you die from it’. My years of
science studies may yet prove their value should I ever succeed in my quest to become a Jeopardy contestant, but my hand-to-button reflexes are not as quick as they used to be, so it might be all for naught in the event.

Foreign languages were another pet peeve. In 7th grade, we were subjected to introductions to four languages, one per quarter: French; Latin; German; and Spanish. At the onset of 8th grade, we had to choose one of the four to pursue until graduation. Because our language teachers, almost without exception, were not native speakers of whatever language they taught, our pronunciation and intonation were informed (and I use that word very loosely) by a distinct American overtone. There were twice-weekly language labs, during which we all dutifully donned the uncomfortable four-pound (1.8 kg) headphones of the day, and listened to transistor-radio quality voices lecture us on the finer points of conjugation and vocabulary: “Esto es un libro” (“This is a book”); “Esto es una ventana” (“This is a window”); “Esto es mi pluma” (“This is my pen”). In all the years since, I have hoped (strongly), just once to meet a Spanish-speaking person who did not know what a book was, so I could proudly point to the item in question and proclaim to him (or her): “Esto es un libro”. I may be waiting for some time.

Literature. Heaven knows, Mrs. Dargan tried to make a writer out of me (kudos to you, Mrs. D), or at least a reader. She was hamstrung by the curriculum, which I gather (from her eye rolls and repeated tsks of exasperation) annoyed her as much as it did me. Together (I for the first time, and she for the umpteenth) we plodded our way through Red Badge of Courage, arguably the most boring piece of fiction ever written, one which could easily put a young person off pleasure reading for a lifetime. Rounding out the year were Moby Dick, The Good Earth, and A Separate Peace, respectively the Silver, Bronze, and Tin medalists in the Narcolepsy Olympics. Each was positively bursting with themes, imagery, motifs, characterizations, and motivations, all of which we doggedly took notes upon, outlined, and discussed endlessly in class. As you might expect, there were two or three bespectacled geeks who waxed poetic about the writing, and everyone else in the class wanted to kill them. Slowly. To my knowledge, none of them went on to a career in literature, which pleases me mightily.

Independent studies. By and large, the things that interested me back then (most of which still resonate with me years later), I pursued on my own time: learning to play the guitar (rather than the oboe, the bassoon, or some other orchestra instrument I would never touch again); writing (the basics of which I gleaned in primary school and at home as a young child, later honing my skills by reading countless suspense and sci-fi novels, then later still gravitating toward non-fiction and commentary); photography, which has gotten exponentially easier to be good at, thanks to the development of tiny and fiendishly clever digital cameras; and travel, which is, in my estimation, the finest course of study in the world, an unparalleled learning experience that requires no bells to signal the changing of classes, no set curriculum, and no pesky pass/fail final. Some math is useful for the traveler (not algebra, though), as it is forever necessary to be on top of how much you are spending when the local currency is 37 kroner (or pesos, or riel, or kip) to the US dollar. A few foreign language phrases are good to have at hand for each new country you visit: hello, goodbye, how much is that, where is the bathroom, do you have a boyfriend? Inevitably you will learn more about, for instance, Thai history, by visiting Thailand than you ever learned about Thai history in high school (hell, I learned more about Thai history from The King and I than I learned in high school…). When it comes to the sciences, even the most jaded traveler will be eager to learn more, in the interest of self-preservation if nothing else, for the world is full of plants that will try to eat you, predatory insects the size of small birds, and colorful snakes and lizards that will bring about instant, and excruciatingly painful, death (and let’s not forget about ice floes waiting to collapse underfoot, boulders just dying to trigger an avalanche, random gas flames erupting from a mountainside; the list goes on and on…). Forewarned is forearmed, after all.

So, my advice: blow off university for a year after high school, maybe two years, and take a trip to some unlikely place that you know little or nothing about: the barren coastline of Tristan de Cunha; the remote Hmong villages of northern Laos; the moonscape fairyland of central Turkey’s Cappadocia. Go by yourself; it will necessitate more interaction with the locals, as you won’t have the safety and familiarity of a traveling companion to fall back on when things get weird (and things will inevitably get weird!). Take a small camera and a journal. Also, a good supply of BIC pens; they will make great gifts if you don’t use them up yourself. Write in your journal every day, and take lots of pictures. Skip the computer and iPhone; they are annoying to keep track of and easily stolen, and there are internet cafes everywhere nowadays anyway. Remember the cardinal rule of travel: lay out everything you want to take with you on your bed, and next to it, put all the money you will take. Then, get rid of half the stuff, and take twice the amount of money, and you will be good to go. University will still be there when you get back, if that is the path you choose, and you will be much better equipped to deal with it than you were a scant year or two before. Also, you will have tons of street cred with your less adventurous friends, who will ooh and aah in envy at the exotic stamps in your passport.

Oh, and don’t show this article to your parents.