My sixth grader is struggling to catch up on some missing assignments these days, which is causing me to have flashbacks about my own grisly academic experiences. I’m doing what I can to help him get the work done by providing a quiet environment, structured time—20 minutes of work, 5 minute break—and the tools he needs (a compass and ruler, mostly). At this point if I could do the exercises myself and turn them in for him, I probably would, because I’m so sick of having to nag him.
I told him the story about how I learned the hard lesson that it’s easier to do the assignments when they’re given than try to catch up after the fact: In the fourth grade we had a vocabulary building workbook called Wordly Wise. It was a fairly common tool in use at the time, and still exists today. I’ll even admit it was a good tool, and thanks to it I know things like what “scruple” means.
Wordly Wise lessons all followed the same pattern: they presented a list of featured words, then used the same three or four exercises to teach the definitions and correct usage. They tried to make it fun, but it’s hard to inject a lot of charm and appeal into what’s essentially rote memorization. The last activity in each section was a sort of crossword or acrostic through which ran the answer to a riddle or the punch line to a joke. I’m sure that like most things for kids at that time, they were fairly lame. The bar was pretty low—after all, most of our humor came from bubble gum wrappers or Dixie cups, and consisted of knock knock jokes and puns—but even with that pitiful standard, Worldy Wise managed to undercut it.
I loathed Wordly Wise.
So much so that at some point in about February of fourth grade, I made an executive decision and declined to engage further with Wordly Wise. My rebellion was discovered sometime around May, and my decision was overturned. The upshot was that I had to do an extra Wordly Wise chapter each week in addition to completing the one that was actually due.
You’d think I’d be smart enough to just do it and get it over with, but you don’t know what a stubborn little asshole I could be. While I did the other two or three activities more or less according to their rules, the acrostic was not anything I wanted to have anything to do with. Instead of using the vocabulary words given, I read the clues and thought of other random words that would fit the definition and used them. If that meant I needed to draw a few extra boxes on the end, or that all the boxes weren’t filled, well, the world wasn’t always a perfect place, was it?
Naturally this second flouting of the rules didn’t go over well with any of the authorities involved. I was given a pink pearl eraser and told to fix that shit, and fix it fast. I probably had some other pentaly that most likely involved a suspension of television viewing privileges. Clearly that punishment made little impression on me, but the lesson I learned from dicking around and not doing the work did.
I guess the conclusion I can draw is that while the loss of permission to watch “Donny & Marie” or whatever may have encouraged me to avoid a similar situation in the short term, the memory of how unpleasant the whole experience was is what has inspired me to keep myself caught up (more or less) over the last 35+ years.
My intention in telling this story to my son was to help him avoid the same mistake I made, which clearly didn't happen. Secondary to that, I hope the same lesson I learned will translate to him and he'll avoid getting into this predicament in the future, because I’m really over this shit.