What I Wish School Had Taught Me about Operating as a Human Being

A pile of purple, green, and black composition notebooks.

More than a decade and a half has passed since I graduated high school, and I still find myself rehashing all the areas that my formal education failed me. Sometimes these realizations come in the form of gentle curiosity after I’ve learned something interesting or useful: “Huh. Why didn’t I learn that in school?” Sometimes they occur with the angry energy of a rant, the kind that happens when I’m out walking and my strides give power to my ideas.

A certain amount of my ire is directed at college, where I didn’t study what I should have, didn’t understand that you’re supposed to be networking and interning, and then made the rookie mistake of graduating in 2008, when the recession hit. But I can say, at least, that when I signed up for a college course about a given subject, I went to class and learned about that subject. This is not so for my K-12 education, which was marked by excessive repetition, lack of choice, and a deficiency of skills that I would later find I needed.

Here are the skills I wish school had taught me, in approximate order of how bitter I am about them, going from “why didn’t school bother to tell me this?” to “wow, not knowing this kind of fucked up my life.”

How to learn new skills

Schools can’t teach every single thing you’re going to need to know in your life. Even better curricula than we have now can’t anticipate every possible way your life could go. But they could at least assume you’ll have to learn new skills at some point.

I learned about flashcards and mnemonic devices in school, but not every skill or subject benefits from rote memorization. As an adult, I’ve almost never used those techniques.

Schools should help students find answers to the following questions:

  • If you have a brand new subject, how do you approach it?
  • What are different learning tactics you could try?
  • What are different learning styles that people gravitate to?
  • How do you identify your weak areas and improve them?

Organizational skills

When I was a kid, I thought that organization meant using a five-subject notebook and occasionally rearranging the contents of my desk and backpack. I thought it meant shoving the infinitely-tentacled monster that is Your Mess into rows of 12x12x12 color-coded storage cubes with neat labels. Like the author of this article, this is what I learned from the Berenstain Bears.

In reality, organization means having the things you need and use in the places where you’ll actually use them, without having to spend forever searching. It means knowing what tasks you have before you, and why you have to do them.

Organizational skills are survival skills. I only learned them because I needed to organize writing notes, but when I finally ended up in an office job situation, they started helping me immediately.

Labor laws

A good friend recently emailed the HR department of his company to inform them that a supervisor had told workers they would be fired if they discussed their wages with one another. He told HR that he hoped it was a misunderstanding because of course, it’s illegal to forbid workers from discussing wages. That kind of environment encourages wage gaps and inequality.*

The friend who called out this supervisor was someone with a college degree working at a blue-collar job, and suspected that this was an intentional move to exploit less-educated people.

But every person in that room should’ve been in a position to call out the supervisor. Better yet, these rights should be so well-known that the supervisor would have never said anything in the first place. This is something that should be on the same level as “don’t run red lights” and “the earth is round.” Everyone knows these things, and we take it for granted that others know these things too. (Flat earthers, exit left.)

Ostensibly, the purpose of school is to prepare students for the workforce. To put them through school without any kind of grounding in what their rights will be as workers is to set them up to be exploited.

Budgeting

So-called smart kids** took algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus in high school. “Dumb kids” took remedial math classes and learned functional budgeting skills.

Is the logic there that the smart kids would end up with middle-class jobs and have enough money to burn that they wouldn’t need to budget?

Learning to budget is more about prioritizing, organizing, and making decisions than it is about actual math. And honestly? Knowing yourself well enough to prioritize what’s important is way fucking harder than math.

Here’s another benefit of learning to budget in school: if everyone knows the basics, no one can write any more budgeting articles that open with supposedly eye-opening math that shows us all how much our daily lattes cost.

Because we all, apparently, buy daily lattes. Whose life is this?

Critical thinking

The art of aggressively asking why, critical thinking involves poking ideas with a stick until assumptions fly out like bees. 

It isn’t only for academia; it’s for everything. It’s a skill I learned in tandem from college and from my partner, who was ahead of me on thinking skills when we were teenagers.

As with sex, we should all be asking if we want our daughters to pick it up on the street from their boyfriends, or if we should teach it in schools and make sure they have the correct information. Right? Uh…

Best to teach it as early as possible because it unlocks the ability to learn other skills better and to come to a deeper understanding of everything we read.

You can have no science without it. You can’t analyze a piece of literature. You can’t learn history in any meaningful way, or apply what you learn to what’s going on in the world today with questions like “Do conditions in the United States today resemble Germany in the 1930s?”

Without critical thinking, you end up with flat earthers. (Hey guys! You still here? Awkward…)

You can apply critical thinking skills to everything else on this list. You can apply it to products being advertised to you and people with suspicious motives. Critical thinking allows you to improve all different areas of your life and helps you to make better choices.

Writing process

Another thing you can’t do without critical thinking?

You can’t write. Writing is thinking, and thinking is writing. If you’re writing without thinking, all you’re doing is regurgitating.

No wonder writing those first school essays and book reports is so agonizing. Children are instructed to use roman numerals to outline thoughts they’ve been taught not to have. 

I earned a C for one quarter of high school English because the entire grade was based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and I didn’t yet know how to turn my thoughts about The Scarlet Letter–“I fucking hated this book, and although I’m anti-book-burning, I’ll turn the other way if you light that match”–into the form of writing.

Only one teacher ever taught me the nuts and bolts of working through several drafts, improving first the story structure, then drilling down to the line level, and then editing. Even in college, this isn’t something that was taught.

And I have a degree in writing.

We didn’t learn about drafting fast and messy to find the heart of what you’re saying. How to change focus if you need to. How to choose a thesis sentence. How to adjust your topic to a particular length, which is something I’m working on right now–I wrote 300 words under this writing heading in first draft, only to delete them and add another 300 words that support my point better.

Writing is thinking and thinking is writing.

Movement

By movement, I mean some combination of formal anatomy instruction and a pragmatic understanding of how your body works. I don’t need to remember the name of the gastrocnemius (one of the calf muscles) to understand how it interacts with my foot muscles.

While critical thinking necessitates that I despise the saying “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I went through exactly the kind of experience that compels people to say that. At age 28, I had two severe back spasms. My mom had to pick me up from work, and the drive home on smooth, well-paved roads sent branches of excruciating pain into my lower back. After being dropped off, I spent 45 minutes kneeling over a chair because I couldn’t handle movement.

I spent much of the next few years in a state of desperation and confusion, binge-reading online about any stretches that might help fix my back. Eventually, doing all those stretches, observing their effects, and learning more about my anatomy led to a muscle-level understanding of how my body works.

My last back spasm was two-and-a-half years ago. 

As much as I hated gym class volleyball with all the fiery apathy of a true geek, I can look back and see it as an under-utilized opportunity to teach something important.

Drawing

Just as the smart kids are filtered out and sent to trigonometry, so too are the artistically-inclined picked out. Only in this case, instead of being sent to a different math class, the non-artists are pulled from art classes altogether.

Art and writing suffer from the same fallacy: that you can do them if you’re naturally talented, but there’s no sense bothering otherwise. The idea that drawing or any other skill comes from talent rather than focused learning and practice serves only to disempower people who would otherwise love to do those things and would probably benefit from them.

Writing is thinking and thinking is writing.

Drawing is seeing.

I taught myself to draw, which means I taught myself to observe.

In the capitalist paradigm, perception of value comes solely from a skillfully executed, salable product rather than from the process itself. But when the process of writing is thinking, and the process of drawing is seeing, how can anyone say that’s worthless?

Social skills

One of the arguments that I always hear in favor of sending children to school (as opposed to homeschooling or unschooling them) is that children need proper socialization, a term which is both unquestioned and ill-defined. Nothing about my experiences in school taught useful social skills, unless keeping your head down and praying you’re in a class with your friends count as social skills.

The way we teach social skills to children is like throwing them into a pit of venomous snakes to help them learn how to suck the poison out of wounds. You have victims and bullies, all of them traumatized on some level. None of them know how to act.

When you grow up and get a job, you’re going to be interacting with other adults, ones who are hopefully long past the ruthless little psychopath stage. A professional environment has certain behaviors that are expected, and there’s no reason why kids can’t be told what they are upfront. Plus, none of the skills I wrote about above affect your ability to land a job—it’s down to networking.

Learning social skills by osmosis is easier for some people than others. If we’re even going to use the term “social skills,” why not treat them as though they can be learned? When you don’t teach them, you end up with thirty-four-year-olds who still don’t understand how making eye contact works. And thanks to smartphones, the need to explicitly teach these skills has only become more acute.

Mental health awareness

Years ago, I was in a Job Lot with my partner, and a commercial for antidepressants came on. I said something like, “Maybe if you’re depressed, the problem is that you’re a loser.”

Ouch.

What the fuck, right? Who says that?

If I heard someone say that now, I’d want to smack them with a sack of discount aquarium pebbles. I winced writing it both because of how harsh it is and how much it reveals about my mental state at the time. It’s like travelling to the past and staring directly into my own brain.

I said that in 2008 or 2009, when I was unemployed after college, and the most depressed I’ve been in my life. And I had no idea because I wouldn’t be diagnosed until 2012, and I didn’t start reading about mental health until after my diagnosis.

What would my life have been if I had gone through a routine screening? What would my life have been if I’d known about my mental health issues when I was seventeen instead of twenty-seven? What if my parents had known that I wasn’t just a quiet kid, but that I had severe social anxiety and needed extra help approaching people or making phone calls?

I’ve lost a lot of time.

Ideally, children would be screened for mental health problems from a young age. But let’s say that’s not happening in a medical setting, for any number of reasons. After all, if the education system in the United States is a mixed-up Rubik’s cube, the medical establishment is one that has been smashed with a hammer. And let’s say schools don’t have the budget to offer screenings to every kid.

At the least, wouldn’t it be nice if a middle or high school health class dedicated a little time to mental health issues? Even a month, a week, or a day would be better than nothing. At the least, wouldn’t it be better to give kids the information to recognize when they need to get more help?


Part of the problem is that I’m not totally sure what the purpose of school is, and I don’t think school knows either. Is it to help students grow up and find better jobs? If so, where are the practical on-the-job skills? Is it to brainwash mindless cogs-in-the-machine? If so, why bother with literature and art? Is it to create better citizens or to bestow the kind of liberal arts education that was once the province of only the rich?

In lieu of struggling with these questions purposefully, I see reactive additions and subtractions to school curricula. They come without question of what the ultimate goal should be.

We need more technology! Buy computers.

We can’t afford things on our anemic budget! Cut art.

My negative experiences in school are a huge reason why I aim to homeschool my own child, and to consider even that option with a critical eye. Half the skills I write about in this post combine into a single way of looking at the world, one which involves seeking new input, processing, and thinking. The other half falls into self-protective skills for navigating the world. Together, they give me a starting point for finding the skills I need to pass on, whether or not I am ultimately the one in the position of teaching them. Rather than use my own deficient experiences to form a reactive plan for my child, I’ll ask better questions myself, and make my plan from their answers.

That goes for me and all my future learning as well.


*Side note: we’re in America where everyone is touchy about money and we’re all supposed to pretend that class doesn’t exist. Not that many people discuss their wages anyway.

**Smart doesn’t mean smart. Smart means college-bound, due to a variety of factors that don’t always have anything to do with intelligence.


Organization is a different beast than cleanliness or interior design.

If a foot-high stack of magazines and mail is how you find your bills and pay them, you’re organized. If you buy a special mail-holder shaped like a duck, but constantly forget that you put your bills there or don’t use it because it’s the wrong shape, you’re not organized; you just have a duck that needs to go in a yard sale, and you might not be organized enough to handle a yard sale.

“Papers I think I want to keep but I don’t know how to organize them.”

I found this envelope on a shelf when I cleaned my office recently. It’s apparently from before I understood what a filing cabinet is.

The Quantum Nature of Blogging, Part I

I set out to troubleshoot my perfectionist blogging process and instead discovered the quantum nature of writing. While I enjoy blogging, I have difficulty posting often. My problem is that blogging is something of a struggle for me, in the way that climbing Mount Doom in a state of extreme dehydration with the weight of intense evil around your neck is something of a struggle. I wanted to figure out a way to minimize the struggle, blog faster, and still enjoy myself.

When I started this blog, I assumed that coming up with ideas would be tough. I bought Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Rise of the Machines by Kristen Lamb, which both discuss coming up with ideas for blog posts. Both books are helpful, both are written in a friendly manner that makes regular blogging seem less intimidating, and both aided me in coming up with post ideas. But post ideas weren’t what I needed. Turns out, I have no shortage of ideas: there are over four dozen unfinished posts in the Scrivener project for my blog, and that’s not even counting posts still in the idea stage.

"Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your compostion of yourself is at stake." --E. L. Doctorow

Yeah, that’s the problem. That’s perfectionism in a nutshell, but the nutshell also has a fuzzy outer husk of anxiety and the frustrating problem of “I don’t have a nutcracker due to impatience and the wide availability of pre-chopped walnuts.”

Perfectionism is a constant problem for me, but I’m also capable of writing very fast*. What ends up happening is that I’ll get down several hundred words of a blog post in fifteen minutes or so, but then I become mired in doubt while attempting to actually finish it. Or, I might set out to write a quick post about a haircutting youtube video I found helpful, but then I end up writing a treatise on everything I know about haircutting. This is where the Mount Doom analogy comes in. Writers are junkies for analogies about writing. Even that last sentence verged on analogy, because I didn’t mean “junkies” in the literal sense.

Blogging requires the opposite of what I’ve been doing: frequency, speed, and often brevity. If you want your site to have good SEO (search engine optimization), you need to post often. Blogging is fast. A blog post can do the same things any piece of writing can: inform, persuade, entertain, or tell a story. But it can also function as social media, open a dialogue, or pass on something interesting from another site. It’s ok to share something (such as the haircutting video) and start a conversation without making a post an exhaustive monument about everything concerning that topic. I read and enjoy plenty of blogs that do this, and many blog posts tend to be shortish. I do read some blogs with posts regularly going over 1000 (and maybe even 2000 words), but I aim to write 300-700 words because that’s the length I enjoy reading most. It’s short enough to be a quick read, but long enough to expand upon a topic.

I’ve tried a lot of strategies to finish blog posts faster. Timeboxing was one, and I made a flowchart last year to accompany my brand new timeboxed blogging method. After spending an unnecessary amount of time choosing color schemes and type faces for this flowchart, and in the process re-encountering my old nemesis Procrastination (he has a twirly mustache and a fencing sword and a velvet cape as dark as his evil deeds), I ended up failing to use my timeboxes for more than a few weeks. Timeboxing works great for brainstorming and editing, or anything else that doesn’t have a definite end condition. But writing? You can say you’ll spend only 30 minutes drafting an aimed-for 600 word post, but the reality is that you’ll keep writing until you reach the end, whether or not you stayed in the timebox.

It should have been obvious from the beginning that I have a functional process for fiction writing, but not for blogging. After starting, but not finishing, two posts** the other day, some magic combination of unfinished blog posts, funky coffee drinks, and driving a borrowed car that I’ve been fat-shaming***, lead to the lightbulb moment that I don’t finish or revise a blog post the way I would any piece of fiction. I suspect that most other writers and artists geek out**** on this type of helpful self-revelation. So if it seems weird that I was super-excited to get home and construct a new writing process for myself… well, it’s probably still weird, but I’m sure I have a kindred spirit somewhere. (Kindred spirit, if you’re reading, let’s be best friends and trade colored index cards and braid each other’s hair if we even have long enough hair for that, which I don’t.)

Here is what a working fiction-writing process looks like: make an idea-mess, tame it into a summary sentence, expand that sentence into a more useful idea-mess, then write. After that you get to revise, and revision is where you sleight-of-hand your draft so that it looks like you knew what you were doing all along. Not everyone writes that way, but I came by some of my process through the How to Think Sideways writing course (highly recommended, more so than my actual creative writing degree), so I know there are others out there. When I decided to fix my blogging process (which comes down to typing out mental narration), I turned to the How to Think Sideways lessons that had helped me so much.

But I also ended up digging into the nuts and bolts of my own writing process. And after spending a few hours pacing and scribbling diagrams, I discovered the building blocks of all written matter. And that’s what Part II will be about.


*I’ve written over 2000 words per hour in the past. I just didn’t enjoy them.
**One is about my recently-deceased Chevy Prizm and the other is about why the phrase “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a bunch of crap. I try to limit the number of rant-based posts I write, and so the latter may not see the shining light of the internet.
***My recently-deceased Chevy Prizm is smaller than a Subaru Forester, which I accuse of being a fat beast when it won’t go into a parking spot the way I want.
****This is way too many footnotes for one post, let alone one paragraph, and I’m going to have to start using superscript numerals instead of asterisks that, taken in a group of four, make it appear that I have some choice words I’m not using. But, rest assured, I would use them.

Decluttering alternate universes

Trying to get rid of clutter isn’t difficult because throwing things in a cardboard box is beyond the skill of the average human. It’s difficult because it’s not about getting rid of items, but rather about destroying alternate universes.

A bunch of beads and wires aren’t craft supplies you never used. They’re an alternate universe in which you wear badass wire jewelry that you’re too much of a diy punk to just buy from someone else. And in this universe, you don’t do that thing where you kink up the wire and then throw it back in the drawer because now it has a bunch of little micro-bends.

An old school ID from a school that you didn’t actually attend is an alternate universe in which you did go there. You transferred of your own volition, and felt good about it, and had different (i.e., actual) job opportunities when you graduated, and things are better in that universe.

messy apartment

This is an alternate universe in which I never moved out of my messy old apartment. It’s not just some picture of my old apartment, ok?

I’m looking at a pile of crap on my desk right now. There are only a few things that can simply be put away without dramatics and wishful thinking. Everything else is an alternate universe, even if it’s not one that’s a major divergence from the established timeline. What kind of person, besides nihilistic madmen on Doctor Who, has the heart to go around wantonly destroying alternate universes? And the simple alterna-folk who live in them?

I can understand why books and articles on decluttering are so popular; I just sat down to clean my desk, and instead started to write about thinking about cleaning my desk.

The problem is that, from what I’ve seen, a lot of this advice is based around dubious mental tricks. You can see them in any women’s magazine in a dentist’s office.

Sally from Nevada sends us the following decluttering gem:
I like to get together with a friend and pretend I have terminal eyebrow cancer and need to sell all my wordly possessions to pay for an experimental Himalayan salt treatment. What would I still keep? What would I “sell” her to save my eyebrows?

Even advice like “Throw out anything you haven’t used in the last six months” is a mental trick. It imposes an arbitrary standard that has nothing to do with why you own a particular item, why should or shouldn’t get rid of it, and why you’re not going to. It also doesn’t make much sense if you apply it to tools. You might not use your precision screwdrivers frequently, but it doesn’t make any sense to throw them out just because your glasses or computer haven’t broken recently.

It’s tough to say goodbye to something that represents a possibility, even a possibility long past. I don’t have a handle on that at all, but I think the key is in keeping the things that are keys to places you still need to go from time to time.

But I also think that even your alternate universe self has alternate universes to destroy. Maybe one of them is yours.

The Social Anxiety Flowchart

…for dealing with phone calls badly.  Because some phone calls are tougher than others.   Some phone calls loom before you like a wall of fire, and you just can’t get past them.

Grandma?  Ok, I’ll call Grandma.

Routine work matter?  Done.  Made the call like a champ.  Like a boss.  Like an emperor!

Health insurance issue with numerous complicated variables to go over, but only after you’ve been on hold for thirty minutes and now you have to pee?  And the call is probably being recorded?  And there’s this weird, sound-obscuring scratchiness on the other end, even though you called a land line?

Yeah, I’m a fan of e-mail.

socialanxiety

Sometimes, regular old introversion can veer into anxiety territory.  Lucky for me, I have a friend who understands this.  Together, we came up with a great solution for terrible phone calls.  And a great solution deserves a flowchart.