Sunday, September 09, 2012

Lessons from a 5th Grade Book Report

When I was in 5th grade, I had a book report. I don't remember all of the details, but we received an assignment, and I'm sure the teacher gave us plenty of time to complete it. At this point, I've watched my son go through 5th grade. I have a general idea what kind of assignment the teacher handed out. 5th grade assignments are easy. I mean, for a kid with a reasonable degree of intelligence, 5th grade book reports are like asking Stephen Hawking to do basic arithmetic.

Here's the thing: I don't know what I did with my time -- I've always been a big reader -- but I didn't read anything in time to report on it. 

There are very few moments from my childhood that I remember with perfect clarity.The time I drove my car down the front steps of the house at 4 years old? That's still stuck up there in my brain. The time I got my pants pulled down in front of the whole gym in 6th grade? Who can forget that kind of horror? Trying to attack my next door neighbor with a stick, only to find myself on the ground, his hands around my neck? Yep, still there. (And on a related note, bygones are bygones. We drove to school together all through high school, and we're still in contact on Facebook.) I still remember the night before the report, tearing my closet apart, looking for something to report on, finally settling on Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Now, I hadn't (and still haven't) read the book, but I seem to remember thinking that I could talk about Zeus and Athena and fake my way through. With 25 years worth of accumulated life experience, I've learned a couple of things about myself.

First of all, I'm terrible at faking my way through anything, as it turns out. I don't remember what my teacher asked me or how I responded, but I can remember the shame and fear coursing through me as I realized, standing in front of the entire class, that I couldn't answer her questions. My friends know that I have occasionally tried to fake my way, with embarrassing results. In fact, I vividly remember sitting in a conference room about 6 years ago at the CDC, desperately trying to extricate myself from a job interview that had turned into a massive crash and burn. As it turns out, I really only know enough Java to write a "Hello World" program, despite the fact that I had convinced myself and others around me that I was just weeks away from a big job and big money. That interview was the final straw. I think.

Another thing I see? I make awful decisions under stress. By 5th grade, I had read all of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, The Hobbit, various books in the Hardy Boys and Three Investigators series, books by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Louis Sachar, and others that I no longer remember. You know what I hadn't read? The one book that I chose to report on! To this day I can't understand what fit of stupidity descended upon me to ignore the dozens of books I had already read and could have discussed at length and made me instead choose a book that, even with my higher than average intelligence at that time, no teacher would believe I had actually read. Granted, a classmate did his report on The Stand, but he had obviously read the book, and he later went on to Harvard, then Princeton, then to positions at universities as an English professor. I, on the other hand, spent 16 years on a Bachelor's degree and don't currently teach at any colleges. 

Apparently 5th grade book reports are bellwethers for future academic and professional success.

1 comment:

  1. I sometimes use doing a 5th-grade book report on _The Stand_ as a prime example of what a nerd I was--not that anything has changed. Since I now write books about the horror genre in fiction and film, that report was indeed a bellwether. What I don't tell people, though, is that I actually read _The Stand_ about a year or so before the book report. I put off that assignment, too, and had a similar rush to choose something to pass off as a report-specific accomplishment. So the difference between my experience and yours is that I strategized the faking a little better (although I've crashed and burned a time or two since, yes indeed). I'll let people decide for themselves about the significance of that particular difference, but not being very good at faking things seems to me like something to be proud of. In any case, Mike, I remember you as one of the brightest and nicest kids I grew up with, without a single recollection to the contrary.