Better Late than Never
6 May 2002
I suppose it's the 6th. Someone once told me that it's not a new day
until you go to sleep or take a shower -- so in my mind it's still the
5th. I'm in that region of living life called "being awake for no good
reason". Actually, that can happen in the middle of a day as well, but
generally people want to know a reason if one is up way late or early.
Some take it as an affront that I wake up at 5:30am (or thereabouts)
every day without benefit of alarm clock. I've tried blaming my mother,
as she woke me up at 6:30 am every morning for lo, many years, but
that's obviously not the reason as it never really "took" with my
sisters. I suppose it's something in my chemistry. I don't want to lay
claim to it, but there it is. I'm not even really more productive for
being up early, any more than night owls get more done. Usually, by
waking up early, I get a lot more pleasure reading done than otherwise.
And I cook my breakfast (which of late has been rotini with butter and
worcestershire sauce... so it's nothing that great). I might put in a
little crochet and watching idiotic morning cartoons. I've put off
listening to NPR quite a bit lately, as I've just been ill listening to
much of the news.
Which reminds me, I was creeped out coming into the city tonight. The
Amtrak approach down from Connecticut takes one on a rail through the
Bronx and into Queens. I think it goes right near my apartment, in
fact, as I think I recognized the Home Depot that's farther down Main
Street. In any case, one has a very good side view of Manhattan, and I
could see my old favorite, the Chrysler Building, shining into the
...but no Empire State Building.
I scoured the skyline, and couldn't find it. The night is very dark at
1:30 am. I suppose noone should be in the building at that time, not
early on a Monday morning. No one except security guards. However,
you'd think they'd leave some lights on, for the benefit of those
peering at the skyline, just wanting to make sure nothing new has
happened. I found what I =thought= was the Empire State Building, but
it also looked like a bridge tower. For crying out loud, can't they
just leave the lights at the top on?
So now I sit in a quiet apartment, just the sound of me clacking on the
keyboard and the lulling hum of the CPU. I'm reading depressing stories
about college and other things. There are some things that highly
depress me -- mainly unreasonable expectations kids have for themselves,
whether in positive or negative directions. I'm reading about a minority
student from here in New York City, who goes to Catholic school, who's a
hard worker and wants to go into engineering -- and he made a 970 on the
SAT. Now perhaps the bulk of that 970 was on the math section, and
perhaps the test doesn't adequately reflect his true skills and
knowledge, but I think he's set himself up with unreasonably high
expectations. Of course, this is the New York Times I'm talking about,
so perhaps the student does understand how the level of difficulty is
going to be ramped up much higher than he's ever experienced before.
This is a problem I've seen to a certain extent -- it's really difficult
to gauge how educated one is when one has been in a particular community
all of one's life. I had an idea that there was far more beyond what my
teachers told my in elementary and middle school (though I was mightily
peeved to find out in high school that the atomic models we had studied
in middle school chemistry had been outdated for a century) -- but that
came from things my father told me. He had a degree in electrical
engineering; the other kids on the block, the ones who played with dead
water mocassins for fun, knew nothing of the possibilities that there
were things called physics and calculus that other people studied.
The problem is that people are intelligent in spite of being in limited
circumstances and having limited resources; as long as said people stay
around people in like situations, they will note their own superior
intellect and perhaps infer that they would succeed in the larger world.
Unfortunately for them, often the larger world is full of people who had
a head start, and though with not as much native intelligence, have full
ahead in the knowledge game. It's a matter of preparation and realistic
expectations -- I've seen people at NCSU who were the first person in
their extended families to ever go to college. Some did very well, and
some did remarkably poorly. One of the harshest realizations for many
high school bigshots is that the amount and quality of work expected
from students in college can vastly exceed that of high school.
For those of us where this wasn't the case - say you went to NCSSM
before going to UNC or NCSU - the first slap against reality was going
to NCSSM. Many of the people I knew from the more disadvantaged areas
were depressed by their comparative lack of achievement; almost all the
people in the hard elective math and physics courses, like Fractals or
Modern Physics, were from the Raleigh or Charlotte area. There were
generally no minority students in these classes either. It wasn't due
to discrimination at NCSSM per se, but due to the fact that these
people's home schools didn't put them in a position to be able to take
these extra classes. Not many people had the chance to take Calculus in
10th grade, like I did -- in fact, the only reason I got to do that was
due to special programs in Maryland, where I attended middle school.
This reminds me of the first time I was in the company of people smarter
than me. See, my father worked for IBM, so we moved around a bit. I
started school in Savannah, Georgia, leaving there in 3rd grade. Then
we moved to the "big city" Atlanta, though we really lived between
Roswell and Marietta. There were gifted classes at both these schools,
but it was more creative fun time for those of us who always got our
homework done in school, done the fastest, and done the most correct. We
did stuff like make animated movies on Super8 film. But most of school,
I was completely bored with the material, so I daydreamed and amused
myself. In 5th grade, I convinced a teacher to let me take the
end-of-year exam for math at the beginning, and I didn't do math for the
rest of the year. Just daydreamed in the back of the room, wondering
why the board looked so fuzzy.
Then when I went to middle school, the teacher for the gifted class was
much more serious. We actually had to do academic-type stuff with our
time! The class was in lieu of our reading class (which meant 3 weeks
of the year we took to speedread through the curriculum, and take the
end-of-year exam), but we didn't do much in the way of literature. In
fact, we spent 6 weeks just studying salt, its production and its
chemistry (Dr. Conway was writing a text on this, so she decided to try
it out on us before the Ga. Tech undergrads it was meant for.) We did
some serious history exploration, doing world history, as opposed the
usual American or state history we got year after year.
Then my family moved to Maryland. Keep in mind that all through this,
my sisters and I were attending public suburban schools. The sum total
of our private school experience was in our preschool years. And =that=
was mostly about learning to color between the lines, following
instructions, walking in a double file line, and learning about 10 words
in Spanish. So when we arrive in Maryland, having to live in a much too
small apartment because our house wasn't finished yet, the public school
people figured us Georgia hicks must be real dumb. I mean, that's the
only reason I can guess for them putting me in the absolute lowest 7th
grade classes at the beginning of the year.
I mean, give me a break. Why not put unknown kids in the average
classes? Chances are, that's where they'd end up anyway. I suppose the
reasoning was that a kid put in the average class would be depressed if
they were shifted to the remedial reading and math classes, but you
would think that all the kids in those classes know they're in the
lowest level of their peer group - I mean, if they want students to feel
=good= about themselves, we shouldn't have all this nasty tracking, hmm?
In any case, I was not enjoying life at this point.
But praise the Lord for standardized tests (though you would've
=thought= my results on the tests I took in Georgia would've told them
to put me in the average classes, at least). For all the subjects they
tested me, I got 99th percentile. So they had to admit that I qualified
for all their advanced classes. Still, said the counselor, I don't
recommend taking all four (reading, social studies, math, and science),
because it's a lot of work and it's difficult. I ignored him. In fact,
when I got to the math class, I got to take another screening test and
found myself in a weekly math class on Saturday mornings, taking Algebra
I, Algebra II, and Geometry over 7th & 8th grade. Ah, the joy of going
from remedial math to math so high it's not offered at the school, all
in the course of one week. I think they never lived it down, having a
SOUTHERNER (excuse me, I believe Maryland was considered a Southern
colony? It matters not that it wasn't part of the Confederacy - Union
troops kept it occupied and kept it Federal) outdo their
Still, I hadn't run into the smarter people yet.
That came after 7th grade, when I went to CTY, which is run by Johns
Hopkins University. I went to Franklin and Marshall College in the
summer of 1987 to mix with my intellectual peers, and come across people
who were (and still are) in my mind, truly scary. The ones that
impressed me the most were from Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax,
Virginia. The ones I met could speak several different languages, play
violin and piano, and have sophisticated philosophical discussions.
(Well, I'm not sure how proficient they were - I was only 13.) I
finally found people smarter than me, and I went back to school happier.
Not because I was outranked, obviously, but because I saw the
intellectual world had a much larger horizon than I had dreamed.
Now the problem with a place like CTY is that it's possible to get in
there without actually being very smart. You just have to make a
certain score on the SAT. I more than qualified with a 1250, but it was
hardly impressive to me, considering that the math on the SAT then was
only algebra and geometry, and I had had both before taking the exam.
SAT only really reflects an achievement of a certain level of education,
as I found out when I tried my hand at teaching at Duke's version: TIP.
I realized that many of the kids sitting in the geometry class had been
educated beyond their intelligence, and were using the camp as an
opportunity to either get a head start in the subject they would =take
anyway= the next year, or completely place out of (as the more ambitious
tried to do.) I sincerely hope none of them succeeded in that - there
were a couple genuinely intelligent students in there, but even for
them, 3 weeks of pedestrian coverage of geometry will not replace an
entire year's worth.
Still, there are more than enough classes at both CTY and TIP that have
everything to do with learning things you'd =never= see in high school
to populate the programs with fairly intelligent kids, and some
In any case, I'm getting ready to meet a new batch of intelligent kids
this summer at Mathcamp. If there's a program where one can't get any
high school credit, this is one - if we even touch something like
calculus, it's to point out particular concepts or applications -- not a
way to get out of an AP Calc course. I've been revolving ideas in my
head as to probability, linear algebra, discrete math, and the like, and
it's always fun to have a new batch to impose false proofs on. I need
to get me some new ones - it's so difficult to find good false proofs. I
mean, I could dip my hands into any pile of undergrad math majors'
homework and pull out some very false proofs, but they're not fun and
their errors are glaring. I want something more subtle.
Hmmm. Perhaps I should lie down for awhile, even if I don't get any
Have a good one, y'all.
I thought of scrapping this, as I should've posted this yesterday, and
it reads really cranky to me now (as well, I believe I've told these
stories to everybody). However, I figure it's not like many people read
this anyway, and since I went to the trouble of typing all this up, I
might as well put it up.
In any case, over the hour after I typed the above, an incipient cough
blossomed (that doesn't look like a word to me now) into my full-blown
chronic cough I know and love so well. So perhaps the crankiness stems
from future echoes of my pain -- or perhaps I just needed more sleep.
Okay, =this= time, I'm posting.