Back to School … Way Back

After a recent move, the author discovered an accordion file, filled with his old school records going back over 50 years, meticulously kept by his mother.

Published September 9, 2011 8:44 PM
4 min read


Tomthumb-1After a recent move, the author discovered an accordion file, filled with his old school records going back over 50 years, meticulously kept by his mother.


By TW McDermott


After a recent move, the author discovered an accordion file, filled with his old school records going back over 50 years, meticulously kept by his mother.


Some moms keep that cherished baseball card collection or maybe your first mitt, or the Polo Grounds ticket signed by Willie Mays. Others secret away an autograph book, a pristine Beatle’s “White Album”, or the racquet Pancho Gonzales tossed (or was it threw?) at you, when you were 9.


Tom2-1Evidently, my mom had other things in mind, because she seems to have kept every academic record related to my not-always-impressive school days. Maybe it was because she was a teacher herself. Or, maybe it was just payback; she always had a great sense of humor.


When someone mentions “Back to School” to me, I may not get all warm and fuzzy inside. My most lasting memories of school are not particularly pleasant ones.


For example, I have a recurring dream; and, in the dream, I am once again on that hilltop, above the grungy college town at my first college, in a dorm with students who are now one-third my age. I am back there trying once more to get it right, except that once more I have not read the prescribed books, have not attended classes, have been “on the road” so to speak in Boston and New York. Like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”, I am going to fail that exam, Shakespeare most likely … for the 40th time in a row!


Fortunately, I am always saved by remembering, either in my dream or upon waking up (with fingers numb from that hilltop cold), that I did eventually succeed in getting my B.A. from another school and there will be no test.


And, then there is high school. I attended, voluntarily I might add, a Jesuit-military school. I think that several dictionaries still use this as an example of the word: redundant. Xavier, founded in 1847, is still thriving as a civilian institution on West 16th Street in Manhattan. We spent a great deal of time in complete fear of an earthbound supreme being called The Prefect Of Discipline, one Father Ed Heavey. Fierce does not quite measure up to describing his religious fervor in the pursuit of truants, malingerers, and underage drinkers (I met him much later in “real” life and he was a delightful guy).


Fortunately for me, I was a two-sport athlete in high school: basketball and tennis, which, in our school, made me almost as valuable as a third-string center on the football team. Looking back, and especially after reviewing all four years of report cards (thanks, Mom) from the file, playing sports year-round must have allowed me to gather just enough courage and muster just enough study time to pass through such a rigorous place.


Tomin-1In those days, everyone wanted to make money later by being a doctor, lawyer, or engineer (each year several students got into MIT and Cal Tech). If someone had said they wanted to work in a bank, we would have … well, they would have regretted admitting to such a silly thought. Who knew?


Now, here’s a strange discovery from the file: my Kuder Preference Test results, probably from seventh or eighth grade. For those too young to remember, this test helped to identify a student’s talents and interests. My results are off the charts high (92nd percentile) in only one area: Literary. Since no adult ever mentioned this to me as being meaningful, I have to believe they thought I’d cheated, or that it was an error. Many editors over the years have felt the same way.


After 50 years of wondering why school became so difficult for me after a while, I found a clue at last while reviewing all of these documents.


In grades K-8, all of my teachers were women, mostly nuns, who were, contrary to media characterization and popular belief, very dedicated, nurturing, and caring people. All of my K-8 classes were co-ed. I excelled in that environment (okay, I did cry the first day of K: not recorded in the file), and was at or near the top of my class each year with averages in the low to mid-90s. I was voted class President in eighth grade.


Then the decline started.


Looking back through the documentation, there is proof that for the next six years I was, at best, an average student, and at worst, well … one of the worst. During those six years, I attended all-male schools, and recall only having one female teacher, for a Library Science course.


As soon as I got back into a co-ed environment, at my second college, I began to do much better again.


Moral of our story (and memo to political and corporate leaders around the world): Some guys just learn better when they’re around women. n

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