How I Graduated From High School

I graduated high school with the help of a sick, sadistic math teacher I thought an unredeemable cretin. His name was Van Pliet and I assume he is dead now. Good riddance.

We’ve all had terrible teachers as we have all had terrible bosses. Such is life. Teachers, though, hold a special responsibility to treat impressionable students well, lest those young people be permanently damaged, scarred by a social institution they were required to attend.

Although Van Pliet was a base animal, he must have had a stirring of humanity in him which helped me graduate. Perhaps he felt guilty about the way he treated me. Or perhaps it was a blandishment to whatever stone idol he worshipped. Or one good act to keep him from The Pit.

This story calls for some background, and it relates strongly to what I have written about the soulless self-care industry, a trade that flourishes on blaming the individual while picking the patient’s pocket.

A few months ago I read that California politician Gavin Newsom was receiving attention  for admitting that he suffers from dyslexia, first diagnosed when he was five.

A recent interview (external link) went like this, “Newsom is gratified when parents tell him how inspiring it is to their dyslexic children to know he shares their disability and has achieved success, so they can too. The key, he tells students, is to ‘develop discipline, for when you can apply discipline to a problem in life, you can solve any problem.'” Really?

While I applaud him for raising awareness, he oversells his own story as any politician might, promising success if only discipline is applied. That demeans the intense effort that so many people make against their disabilities with no results. For too many people with severe learning disabilities, there is nothing society can do.

Newsom says that he struggles to this day with reading and writing. I can tell you, therefore, that he will never be a successful writer. I am sure that as an editor I would never approve his writing for publication, you can’t continually mix up words and syllables and spelling and hope to be published. Unless someone wrote or edited for him before submission. But that’s not really getting on with one’s disability, is it? Not if someone else is doing your homework.

The discipline he advocates for other people has not overcome the problem he is afflicted with. Instead, he got into college on a partial baseball scholarship; his pathway to a larger world and what he terms success. His condition also seems to have improved by itself, which is indeed hopeful although that does not happen to everyone.

I started falling apart with mathematics in the seventh grade. I could barely do fractions and I am sure I could not do them right now. At the end of eighth grade mathematics, Mr. Estes, a kind teacher, pulled me and another student aside. He explained that he would give us an “A” for effort at the eighth grade level. But he would give us a “scholastic “C” at the seventh grade level. That didn’t matter to me as I was moving on from the  horror show that was Jonas Salk Junior High.

My freshman year in high school math only confirmed my deficiencies in the subject. My Dad tried quite hard to help, he being a math major in college. Yet I couldn’t follow what he was saying. I was then enrolled for many months in The Learning Center, an after-school tutoring facility.

These people were quite nice and the atmosphere of their building was relaxed and comforting, compared to the constantly high threat level of Encina High School. After several months they conducted a series of tests, quite lengthy, and shortly thereafter my tutoring stopped.

I only learned much later from my Dad that I had something called serial disorder, or at least that is what they called it at the time. Among other things, I routinely mixed up numbers, never being able to recall a long number in its right order.  Double checking math problems didn’t work for me since that means reversing a process, errors occurring on both ends. As I read about it now, this condition hosts a whole suite of learning problems with math.

The tutoring must have stopped because their was no fix. Just like dyslexia, “Treatment can help, but this condition can’t be cured.”

Instead, I was kept back a year in math while in high school. It was humiliating to sit in a freshman class when I was a sophomore. And worse when I was a junior in a sophomore class. Since I had passed fractions in my second year the next step was Algebra. This was taught my a monster named Van Pliet who insisted that I go to the blackboard as everyone else, to solve a problem written on it.

Every time I went to the blackboard I saw a haze of white chalk, completely incomprehensible, visibly swimming in front of me. I’d stand at the board with my chalk, the figures dancing in front of me. I never had a clue. Unable to decipher anything, I would stand for minutes at a time while my junior classmates laughed and made remarks behind my back. Eventually Van Pliet would ask me to sit down. This continued every day or two throughout the entire semester. The only time I got an answer right in his class was when I guessed correctly on a multiple choice test.

The final was handled in a similarly poisonous manner. The day before the exam, Van Pliet came up behind me, put his hand on my shoulder, and told me there was no point in showing up for the test. He said that my final grade would not change despite no matter how well I scored. Even though I was very young, I knew adults shouldn’t treat kids this way. I showed up the next day out of spite for his damned test and of course completely failed it. That obstinance might have saved me.

To my surprise, and I didn’t realize the consequences at the time, Van Pliet gave me a D- for my final grade. That probably explained why my senior year class schedule didn’t require a math class. No more torture. It must have also allowed me to graduate since passing algebra at the time was a prerequisite.

Passing that course at the college level was unthinkable, of course, but at least I got out of that prison and got on to working with my hands, the most open path to those who cannot graduate college. I later learned to develop my writing, which I always tested three to four grades ahead in high school. Never once, though, did they advance me a grade in this subject. That would have helped my confidence, but that institution couldn’t care less.

Again, I will never be a math wizard no matter how hard I try. That door is closed, just as a dyslexic cannot be an Orwell. We all must adapt to our talents and gifts. Gavin Newsome’s pap about applying discipline to solve any problem must be dismissed as the glad-handing that any politician extends at any time to a crowd of his sycophants and to everyone who delights in blaming people for conditions they can’t control. And for people who won’t raise a hand to help. A pox on them all.

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