Prescriptions for Survival

When it comes to going back to school: What will be, will be ... but you can make it even better

Prescriptions for Survival
Photo By Kate X Messer

August has shimmied to town, and the smell of school is in the air. Pencils and glue, marbled composition notebooks, fading sunburns, long sideburns ... there's no denying that we're headed for the season of learning and all-over betterment of self. Having been either a student or teacher for 24 years now, I feel certain that school is more than a place. It is a metabolism.

Unlike the business calendar, every school year is a new year, with new stakes and new faces and time zones built in for mystery and replenishment in nine-month cycles.

What other job lets you float belly-down on a raft in a lake for three months, reading the Odyssey if you need to? Or dally with an alternate career, apprentice as a jeweler, spend a week getting to know your family around every major holiday? The school metabolism, though intense, is both sane and humane. I think the only thing better than being a teacher or student is being a diplomat to a foreign country -- though it might not be so very different.

Some years ago, I found myself in front of a high school English class in Shanghai, China. I was visiting the country for a few months and wasn't too long out of high school myself. School was different there than in America. At every hour, bells sounded throughout the impeccably waxed halls, and a gentle, soothing woman's voice came over the P.A., instructing students to breathe slowly in silence for two minutes, exercise their eyes, and massage their facial muscles. Along with the class I was visiting, I looked up, down, right, and left, made the face of a lion and a lemon, relaxed, and prevented any strain to my eyes which would cause me to need glasses.

At lunch, each of the school's 800 students took their own bowl, napkin, and pair of chopsticks from a cubby and headed for the lunchroom. Teachers ladled out steaming noodle soup, redolent with ginger, bok choy, and fried tofu. A quiet cacophony of chatter and slurping echoed off the ceilings. As each class finished eating, the students rose and washed their own dishes at the wall of sinks that lined the lunchroom, shook the excess water off in the courtyard, and carried their bowls back to class.

Back in class, the students took in this curious visitor and took advantage of the opportunity to practice their English. Prompted by their teacher, one by one, the students stood, announced their American names, and delivered questions.

"Thank you, miss. My name is Harold. I would like to ask your favorite football team?" "Good afternoon, miss. May I ask what you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise?" Having no knowledge of American sports and painfully less of popular movies, I was afraid that I would disappoint them. These students knew more about football teams and Hollywood stars than I did. I felt -- after half an hour of questions -- like a kind of American fraud, or at least a very flawed specimen. What if they didn't believe I was American at all? Could I represent only by my ignorance of sports and glitterati?

Then one young woman raised her hand to ask, "Thank you. I would like to know, what do you think of Communism versus democracy?" As I drew a deep breath to consider the question, the teacher interrupted with a sharp and rapid injunction to the student, who blushed deeply. She began again, "Excuse me. I mean, would you please sing your favorite song?"

Immediately, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," "Love is a Stranger," and "Que Sera Sera" began clashing in my mind. I was so thrilled to finally have an answer at the ready that I didn't even consider how ridiculous what I was about to do was going to sound. Here was my opportunity to show them something I did know, and I wanted to give this brave girl, whose true question had just been censored, everything I had. As I belted out each number (punctuated by their polite applause), I had no idea what aspect of American culture I was sharing, but it didn't matter. These were the only songs I had.

Every school does things differently. Some things better and some things worse. But you, blessed pupil, have the choice of whether to sing or whisper, slouch or strut into 2003-2004. Read on, and begin to prepare your mind for its upcoming expansion. This assorted advice is drawn from more than two decades as a passionate devotee of the academic cycle. I hope you find it useful.

Summer is for self-reinvention. It's important to have a new haircut, piercing, name, or signature wardrobe element in order to return to school properly. All those jokers (teachers and students) must know that you have transformed in three months into an entirely new being.

Get a quiet, calm place to work. Even if it means building a desk in the bathroom closet, every student needs a special place set aside at home for intellectual repose.

Collect rubber bands. Rubber bands worn around the wrist serve a myriad of functions. They are an excellent place for writing new words you learn, phone numbers you collect, and any other information that would otherwise be penned on your palm. In addition, you can use their propellant nature to alert your peers to important news in high style.

Most knowledge you will ever truly need is already within. Remember this, take comfort in it, but don't let it make you cocky.

Talk to your teachers. Talk to them about life, the universe, and politics. Striking up a personable relationship with a teacher is one of the best ways to learn and get a good grade. Say hi in the halls. E-mail them if you are going to be absent. Teachers love to know what is going on in your life and will often try to help you out if something is affecting your schoolwork.

Gift-giving to teachers is always allowed. Good options are picture frames, delectable edibles, gift certificates to local businesses, poetry, and homemade art. (In case any seventh-graders out there need reminding, sending a singing stripper to a teacher's home is not a good gift option.)

Organization is indispensable. Invest in a portable hole punch and colored binder dividers; they will make your life easier.

Breathe deeply, relax, and imagine success. Take a deep breath, hold it for three seconds, and exhale slowly any time you feel anxious. From the time you wake up until the day is done, it is important to create a positive state of mind. See yourself as relaxed, confident, calm, and happy -- others will, too.

Share the love. There's no better way to learn something than to teach it to someone else. Call the VICTORY Tutorial Program at 974-7317. They provide free, one-to-one tutoring services by matching volunteer tutors and students in first through 12th grade. (VICTORY stands for Volunteers in Communities Tutoring Our Responsible Youth and is also on the Web at www.communityeducation.org/victory .)

Summer romances live in the summer. It is their natural, and only, habitat: Like tropical plants, they thrive on air, sun, and lack of responsibilities. Get ready to end those vacation flings; you can always regenerate them next June. Unless, of course, you have transformed into that entirely new being we were discussing earlier.

Plaid pleated skirts and white knee socks are sexy on anyone, of any gender, at any time of year. Ask the Scots.

The gay kids are cool. Rules on this have recently changed. Gay-Straight Alliances are for everyone. Go to their meetings to get fashion advice, if nothing else. Chances are, this will be the hippest crowd in high school. (If you're a queer teacher, check out the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network at www.glsen.org for support and ideas on progressive curriculums.)

Knowledge is power -- but don't break your back. Young humans are not meant to be weight-bearing mammals. Built vertically, our bodies know it is hard to strap anything heavier than a baby to our frames without using the hips and pelvis as a fulcrum. So don't head off to school under that two-ton book bag like you're courting osteoporosis -- investigate your ergonomic options. Ergonomically designed backpacks can make the load feel lighter by one-third. Well-distributed weight will allow you to still run and jump and sprint through flowerbeds with joyful leaps like the young thing you are.

If you are bored, try rubbing a stick of blackboard chalk on your lips. It is quite a remarkable sensation.

If you feel inclined to plagiarize, don't. It's like trying to bring a Ring Pop to the jeweler for an estimate. For help determining what is and what isn't yours, look up www.plagiarism.org , the largest plagiarism prevention network on the Web.

Know your strengths. There is only one way I memorize anything: by writing it in my journal with a calligraphy pen. I almost failed a class in college, even though I studied like a fiend; I was headed straight for an F in astronomy. Questions which had just one right answer -- it went against everything I knew! Near desperation, I took out my trusty Calligrapher's Choice and began copying the textbook into my journal, word for word. Slowly writing out the equations which govern celestial laws, I could pretend to be Galileo, see the ink spatter from excitement. In my own handwriting, the words and numbers became less alien. In three weeks, I had copied the entire textbook into five blank journals (interspersed with snippets of dreams, grocery lists, and other marginalia), and I got an A on the final exam. I cannot recommend this technique to others. But I am certain that everyone has a secret strength in his or her way of learning, a magical idiosyncrasy that can be used to master even the most difficult subjects.

Fuse fields of knowledge. Interdisciplinarity is where it's at, from grade school to grad school. Imagine poetry and architecture sitting down to talk over tea, or economics asking for help with a strategic problem from microbiology. The boundaries between categories of knowledge were made to be broken!

Eat a lot of oranges, and consult the masters. Several studies show that the smell of citrus fruit improves standardized-test scores remarkably. So carry a few oranges in your backpack, along with paperback copies of a few classics -- Lao Tzu, Dr. Ruth, and Helen Keller will never steer you wrong.

Get fancy on the first day. Don't be shy -- wear that bow tie! Dressing up for the first day of school is a time-honored tradition. Whether it means shiny new cowrie shells tinkling on your dreadlocks or a pompadour as sleek as patent leather, putting fancy energy into your first day will start things off right. Getting compliments from your teachers on the first day doesn't hurt, either.

In a pinch, get philosophical. If asked to define radium's position on the periodic table and you do not know the answer, you can query, "Why is the table rectangular and not circular?" or muse, "These elements exist only because we think of them; outside of the mind, they are neither here nor not here." Any science teacher worth his or her salt should be willing to engage in a discussion of relativity; education itself is relativity.

You can always smile, clasp your hands together, open your mouth, and sing "Que sera, sera ..."

Abe Louise Young is a freelance teacher and a poetry fellow at the James Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.

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