A Tricoastal Woman: What Worked in School

mimeographWhen I was in high school, the teacher of the first period class read the school-wide announcements to us at the start of class. The announcements were prepared the day before by the school secretary, who typed them up on mimeograph sheets and then ran them off.

If you are too young to have ever fussed with mimeograph, be grateful. To use it, you had to type on a stencil, and making corrections required putting a blob of something on it and then typing over that when it dried. The copies came out in a bluish ink that wasn’t always all that readable.

My senior year, I had English first period with Miss Kee, who was likely in her early 60s back then and was widely seen as the dean of the English department (although I don’t think there was such a position). She read the announcements very slowly, stopping to mark typos and grammatical errors as she went along. It always took her at least five minutes to get through them.

I am told she used to take the corrections to the secretary, who found this infuriating. Ah, the microaggressions of the workplace!

The classrooms opened at 8 am, the tardy bell rang at 8:10. If I got to class by 8 and Miss Kee took five minutes for the announcements, that gave me fifteen minutes to do homework.

At the age of seventeen, I could write a four-page (handwritten, of course – this is back in the world before the personal computer) essay or book report for English class in fifteen minutes. I frequently did, because I discovered something interesting early on in Miss Kee’s class.

  • I could do my paper at home, get my mother to look at it, and then type up a final draft – a process that took about two hours – and I would earn a grade of A minus on it.
  • Or I could write it in fifteen minutes and turn it in – dreadful handwriting and all – and make an A minus.

The second process was a little more stressful, perhaps, because there was the chance I wouldn’t get finished (though I always did), but in terms of good use of time, the decision of which to do was obvious. Why ruin my evening with two hours of work when fifteen minutes in the morning gave me the same result?

That’s how I learned to write on deadline. It’s also how I learned to procrastinate until the deadline was looming. The first is a valuable skill; the second, not so much, especially if you’re trying to write something that aspires to more than an A minus grade in high school English.

It was also in high school that I developed the habit of pulling all-nighters to finish a project. I recall my mother trying to shoo me to bed. I also recall falling asleep sitting up.

I developed this skill to a high art in college. I think my peak performance was staying up two days running (with an occasional cat nap) to write a memo in law school.

I must say that the combination of deadline pressure and all-nighters was a very successful strategy for success at school. But, as with other things taught implicitly (and, for that matter, explicitly) in school, I’m not sure it was a good set of skills to develop for life.

I have in the last ten years finally discovered how much better life is when you get a good night’s sleep. For all too many years, I stayed up late – sometimes to do work, sometimes to read, sometimes to watch bad television. And then I would get up early, especially during the many years when I went to the morning class in Aikido.

My life was ruled by the alarm clock. I hated to get up; in fact, it was almost physically painful to do so. I did generally rush out the door as soon as I downed a little coffee – you really don’t want to train with me in Aikido before I have coffee.

I loved morning class, which is why I did it, but it was not a pleasant way to live.

I still have trouble going to bed, even when it’s obvious that I’m not going to do anything else constructive, particularly on days when I feel like I didn’t get anything done. But these days I do sleep in if I get to bed late.

That brings us back to the writing habits. I have wired myself to do whatever it takes to finish something at the last minute, but I don’t really want to sacrifice sleep for work anymore. I’m trying to change my work habits, but it’s hard; they’re very ingrained.

Also, I have discovered that writing something and then sitting on it for a few days – not to mention getting some commentary on it – often leads me to produce a better work.

That’s not to mention how much better I feel physically when I’ve had enough sleep.

But I still tend to wait until the last minute to get started. Education is a good thing, but our system of it includes a lot of unintended consequences.

By the way, Miss Kee was one of those teachers of whom people said, “you’ll hate her when you have her but you’ll appreciate her later on.” That turned out to be untrue. I didn’t particularly hate her, though she did annoy me because her take on literature was very conventional. I recall sitting in the back of the room reading Sartre while she was talking about Yeats, because I really didn’t care what she thought about Yeats.

But I saw her some ten years later at my high school reunion and liked her very much as a human being not my teacher. She was an interesting single woman from a time in which there were few options for single women. I wonder what she might have done with her life in an era where she could have done something besides teach high school English.

I wrote a long paper on Sartre for her class. I wish I still had it, because I’m incredibly curious to know what I thought about Sartre and existentialism and such at seventeen. Given that I have a hard enough time digesting those ideas now, I have a hard time believing I got it when I was young.

But maybe I was smarter then. Or at least better at navigating the world without enough sleep.



A Tricoastal Woman: What Worked in School — 4 Comments

  1. I used to procrastinate until the last moment, too. My pattern was similar to yours, and the grades the same. It wasn’t until I became a teacher that it hit me how ill prepared I was: winging it as a teacher is a strategy for disaster. Like the military op, no plan survives contact with the enemy. You need preparation and contingencies.

    So as a teacher, I learned to design my classes to get the kids to plan ahead. It also taught ME to plan ahead! Life was so much easier when I didn’t crowd deadlines, not to mention projects came out so much better. But I sure didn’t learn that in school!

    • That makes sense. I don’t think the practice of law gave me that, though maybe it should have.

      My primary experience with teaching is in Aikido. When I first started teaching, I would plan classes in advance. Almost invariably, the mix of students who showed up would not fit with my plan. Once I got better at teaching, I learned to read my students and figure out what to teach as I went along. This wasn’t so much winging it as being flexible and having a solid base of knowledge so that I could shift to meet the needs of my students.

      My last full time job was as a reporter covering many different topics for legal publications. I needed a certain level of expertise, but what I was focused on changed daily. And I had a daily deadline. So that, too, meant “winging” it based on a strong background.

      And as I think about what you said, I’m beginning to realize that one key thing I’ve learned — and some of it comes from the way I’ve always approached research, though I wasn’t taught this explicitly in school — is to develop a broad base of knowledge in whatever I’m working on. There’s a difference between winging it (or being flexible) when you really know your subject and winging it when you have only the barest understanding.

      • Yes! And so you develop the contingency plans. But crashing into deadlines and running on adrenaline can be the hard way, not the best way, to get that knowledge. And it took me decades to learn that. So I did my damnedest to teach that to my students.