Steve Peha's Learning Story


THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A RENEGADE AUTO-DIDACTMy most powerful learning experience occurred on my first day of kindergarten. It devastated me emotionally, which is probably why I’ve never forgotten it, and why it remains a lesson I value to this day.In 1968, what many schools did for new kindergarteners was test them. There I was, missing my blanky, and they wanted mental gymnastics on command. Fine. I figured I was going to cry at some point anyway.While our teacher bustled about keeping her new charges in check, each of us was asked, one at a time, to go to the back of the room and talk to a lady with a clipboard. Her job was to see how high we could count. When I was called back, the lady asked me to begin counting. Before beginning, I asked, ‘Would you like me to count by 1s, 2s, 5s, or 10s?’ She rolled her eyes, and replied as though I had pissed her off, ‘Just go back to your seat.’I was shattered. All the other kids got to count and be praised for it. Why not me? I must have done something terribly wrong. I thought the clipboard lady would be as excited about my counting as I was. I loved to count. Why didn’t I get to count? Why was I in trouble just for wanting to count? Oh, how the mind of a 5-year-old runs.Back at my desk, the tears flowed freely. Hardly the end of the world, to be sure. But it turned out to be the end of my enthusiasm for school, and any sense I might have had that teachers were there to help me learn.For several years thereafter, my teachers isolated me from the rest of my classmates. Segregation was my reward for learning too much too quickly. During most structured lesson times, I was sent to the back of the room and given a worksheet to keep me busy. I finished these exercises in ten to twenty minutes and used the rest of lesson time to learn what was REALLY going on in school.What I noticed was that my teachers specialized in repetitive information delivery. If a student didn’t receive a package, it was sent back in exactly the same form, over and over again, until the kid was humiliated or the teacher was fed up. Thus, it became easy for me to justify my initial assumption that teachers couldn’t help me learn.By third grade, I became fully conscious of not depending on my teachers. By now, I was always out of step with their sacred scopes and sequences, so I worked alone more regularly. Sometimes my isolation inspired original insights. Watching Mrs. Ingles pull her hair out by the roots one day because my classmates couldn’t borrow and carry in subtraction problems, I searched for and found a different way of subtracting that did not require borrowing and carrying. Desperate to help the class, I raised my hand so that I might share my discovery. Dismissively, Mrs. Ingles said, ‘Put your hand down, Steve. I’ll talk to you later.’ The fact that she never did talk to me later’or talk to me about much of anything except what a pain in the ass I was’solidified within me the belief that teachers, however caring they might appear, didn’t care much for kids who were either too smart or too stupid, for these were the ones who never fit into their programs.In truth, I owe Mrs. Ingles a debt of gratitude. Because of her obsessive fixation on traditional math instruction, there was no way for me to learn math except to construct it for myself. Call it survival. Call it curiosity. Call it the spirit of Piaget hovering over my shoulder. Either way, as a result of my teacher’s discomfort with my numeric enthusiasm, and whatever inappropriate forms it might take from time to time, I got hooked on math when I realized I could solve all kinds of different problems on my own.I completed my apostasy from the Church of Teachers and Teaching in fourth grade when we were taught the dreaded DMSB algorithm for long division. In a now familiar act of intellectual rebellion, I developed my own way of doing it, got all the problems right, and refused to show my work! My teacher was curious and furious. She hadn’t seen me cheating but she couldn’t figure out how I had figured things out, and from my experience with Mrs. Ingles the year before, I knew better than to tell her.She was so angry that she grabbed me by the neck, shook me, and said, ‘Just who do you think you are?’ Unfamiliar with this idiom, I answered, ‘I’m Steve!’ She shook me harder. I actually thought she’d forgotten my name. I was confused and terrified. But I remember feeling oddly satisfied as well once it was over. I had suspected all along that learning on my own was in some way offensive to my teachers. Now I discovered that this offense could provoke psychotic behavior. If a harmless alternate math algorithm could goad an adult into violence, I knew I had found the power switch in the student-teacher relationship’and I knew just how easy it would be to throw it any time I wanted.Middle school was a little better. But not much. Instead of worksheets, I got packets. I remember one distinctly. It was a vocabulary unit based on obscure words that looked or sounded like common words. The worksheet would pose a question using the obscure word with the obvious purpose of forcing the student to use a dictionary. I had watched kids use dictionaries during writing. What folly it was to see them struggling for five to ten minutes with a huge, smelly book, seeking the correct spelling of a word they couldn’t locate because they couldn’t spell it.Dictionaries were not for me, and neither were clever vocabulary exercises whose obvious intention was to waste my time puzzling over words I would never see or hear again. One question read, ‘Would you put a parapet in a cage?’ I turned to my best friend sitting next to me and said, ‘Peter, would YOU put a parapet in a cage?’ To which he replied in the effete English accent we reserved for mock intellectual conversation, ‘Well, I certainly wouldn’t let it out!’In high school, I was willing to do the boring book assignments because they didn’t take much time. But I refused to take on larger projects like research papers because I felt they were poorly conceived, arbitrarily graded, and unnecessarily limited to subject matter that had no relevance to my life. Once again, bucking the conventional wisdom led me to ever-greater wisdom as I made up my own assignments based on real things in the real world as a means of exploring things I was really interested in and developing real skills.Instead of writing reports, making dioramas, participating in bad class readings of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, or building the Taj Mahal out of Rice Krispy treats and toothpicks, I wrote a simple video game for the Radio Shack TRS-80, a complete musical with original songs based on West Side Story, a radio play of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin carving up Europe at Yalta, an original psychological study of teenage social and emotional development based on Erik Erickson’s Eight Stages of Man, and a variety of other off-curriculum efforts that fascinated and educated me while inspiring and infuriating my teachers at the same time. I was turning in very interesting work, but no one knew how to grade it. In high school, things that cannot easily be graded are often considered illegitimate. The rite of traditional letter grading being sacrosanct, some teachers threw in the towel and gave me ‘A’s’ while others, obviously offended, gave me ‘C’s’. Once in a while, however, I got to see someone’s human side. When my teachers took off their teacher hats and put away their grade books and planners, I discovered a community of kind and generous adults often willing to spend time chatting with me after school or at lunch about things unrelated to the curriculum. Why these people acted so differently in class, I never understood.As someone once told me, ‘One of the best ways to get smart is to avoid learning dumb things.’ Because of that fateful and formative first day of kindergarten, I developed a healthy skepticism toward received wisdom. Looking back, I realize the lesson was not about trusting teachers, but about trusting what teachers taught. If I could think, and compare, and question, and rea
d, I could always check out whatever someone tried to teach me against some other authority and decide for myself. Teachers who taught me things that turned out to be true, and useful, and interesting always earned my trust, and none of these fine people ever abused it.’Consider the source,’ my father often said. Now that’s a handy bit of received wisdom. My best teachers always turned out to be authorities in some area other than teaching. Mr. Brink wasn’t just my US History teacher; he was a fine historian in his own right. Ms. Levis wasn’t just my French teacher; she was French, and she spent every summer in France keeping up on the latest argot and cultural trends to share with us in the fall. Mr. King wasn’t just my music teacher; he was a professional musician and jazz history expert. He didn’t just teach music, he also taught us about the enduring vitality of American culture, having passion for our art, the importance of professionalism, the discipline of craft, the power of love, respect for tradition, awe for the giants whose shoulders we might stand on, and that it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.Renegade auto-didact that I am to this day, I recognize there’s more than a hint of irony in the fact that I’ve chosen to devote my life to education. I love teaching. I feel more alive up in front of the board than almost anywhere else on Earth. But my kindergarten lesson stays with me, and I know I’m a better teacher for having held it so close for so long. It’s such a good lesson, I teach it every chance I get. ‘Don’t depend on your teachers to teach you,’ I say. ‘Not even on me. Question everything I offer. Make me prove to you that what I’m teaching is true, useful, and validated by my integrity. This isn’t my education, it’s yours. And you better make sure you get it because getting it will make all the difference.’