Then we moved to a mostly middle-class town which has since turned into an upper-middle-class suburb of the city in which my family and I lived. My father's job had moved to the area; he and my mother believed--rightly-- that it wouldn't make sense for him to commute from the city to that town. But, as you can imagine, I wasn't happy about the move.
Although we weren't living hand-to-mouth, we were poorer than most of the other families in the town. So it may have been inevitable that I would make friends with one of the few kids in my new school whose family was even poorer than mine.
I'll call him Rob. He was a friendly, unpretentious kid who was not interested in being part of the cliques that seemed to shape the social life of the school. Some kids--if they noticed him--made fun of him because of his clothes and his very rough-hewn face. But he seemed not to care.
As it happened, his locker was next to mine. One day, as we were putting away and picking up books before leaving for the day, he seemed upset. I asked him what was the matter.
"I'm so stupid."
"No you're not."
"But you can read and write so well. And you have a really good vocabulary."
"Well, you express yourself differently. Don't let anyone put you down!"
I never saw him cry, but he looked like he might at that moment. "I don't know what I'm gonna do," he said.
"What do you mean?"
He explained that in order to get into the vo-tech program in the high school we would attend the following year, he had to pass all of his subjects and get at least a "C" average. I knew he was good--much better than I was--in math, and seemed to understand things that required spatial conceptualization. Plus, he liked to tinker with machines. So, he surprised no one when he said he wanted to study auto mechanics in the vo-tech program.
The problem, he said, was that he always had trouble with History and English. When I look back on it, I think he may have been dyslexic or had some other learning disability related to reading. However, in those days, those concepts were all but unknown and kids like Rob were labelled as "slow" or "lazy."
As it happened, he was in my history class. So I told him to sit diagonally behind me. During a quiz or test, I would keep my arm cocked slightly upward, so he could see my paper. "Copy my answers--except for two or three of them," I advised him. He did that, and all through the year, when I scored 95 to 100 on nearly all of the quizzes and tests, most of his scores were in the 80's.
Also, I checked his written homework assignments. I also looked at his English assignments, as I wasn't in that class with him.
Our plan worked: If I recall correctly, he got a C+ in English and a B in History. And he got into the vo-tech program.
As much as I love those subjects, I thought it was ridiculous that he might have been kept out of the auto mechanic's program if he couldn't get C's in them. I still think that today. Sure, everybody should have at least be able to write an e-mail (We didn't have that in those days!) or letter that makes sense, understand and give instructions, and understand some basic things about his or her culture. But, really, how much good does forcing someone like Rob to do more work in those areas do him when he's already figured out that his interests and aptitudes lie elsewhere and can make him a good living?
Now, one might argue that educational standards were better in those days, and we became better readers and writers, and learned more about our culture, by the 8th grade than most students in college today. Even if that is true, one has to question just how much academic instruction benefits someone who is wholly unmotivated by it, and who learns other things in other ways.
Some might say that what I did with Rob was unethical. Perhaps it was; if it was, I won't say "I was a kid; I didn't know any better." On the other hand, I have never had any regrets about it. Rob has as much a right as anyone does to pursue fulfillment and happiness, and at an early age, he figured out where it would lie. I like to think I helped him get to it.