If I Knew Then 

Reflections on education past

Summer is the season for high-school reunions, and Julie and I are about to go to my 45th. In May of 1968, I graduated, along with 80 others, from Wood River High School in Hailey. Although we've lost a few along the way, most of the class is still alive. None of us died in Vietnam. No one was taken out by a paranoid schizophrenic with a trenchcoat full of Glocks. Car accidents and cancer have caused most of the absences.

Most of us married. Most of us had kids. Some had so many kids that some of us decided not to have kids at all, as there were plenty to go around.

A 45th reunion is an important one. You never know how many folks will make it to the 50th. If you read the actuarial tables, you know that the 45th is the last chance you might have to go to a high-school reunion. You know for sure that it's your last chance to see some of the people you went to high school with.

You don't go for the conversation, which tends toward nostalgia or health problems. When I must choose between the two, I prefer nostalgia, especially after the no-host bar opens. The usual nostalgic opening at reunions is, "If I knew then what I know now..."

With that phrase, first dates are redeemed from disaster, inarticulate crushes are turned into torrid affairs, marriages are postponed or never entered into and terrifying bullies are punched in the nose because the terrible aftermath would have been so worth it.

I've had those conversations. If I knew then what I know now, I might have even had a first date in high school. Some of my inarticulate crushes would have been more articulate, although I still probably wouldn't have declared love at a volume anyone could hear. I'd have worn my black horn-rimmed glasses totally ironically.

But you have to be careful. The gods seldom listen to our conscious prayers. Instead, they listen to our unconscious ones, and they're good at answering those.

Being human, you make terrible mistakes in life. But if you end up in a good place, you realize all those terrible mistakes had a hand in getting you to where you are. You don't wish they hadn't happened, no matter how painful they were at the time.

I ended up married to a wonderful person, and I've had an inarticulate crush on her for 21 years. I'm hoping to someday explain to her how much I adore her, but in the meantime, she seems to sense that I like her and I'm giddy to think she likes me back.

If, back in high school, I had articulated a crush into a torrid affair, it would have no doubt ruined my life. I would have ended up married before a male is mature enough for marriage--age 42--and might have been a man who fathered six or seven kids so other people could remain kid-free.

So if I think about knowing then what I know now, it's become what I would have seen rather than what I would have done, and I would have seen a lot.

For one thing, I would have critically evaluated my teachers. In high school, I saw the person standing in front of the class as a force of nature, not a human being. If some of my teachers seemed better than the others, it was because they were less tired, less worried and less scary than the rest. What they taught me didn't enter into the equation. I admit that even the best ones didn't teach me much.

In retrospect, some of them were outstanding master teachers and some of them were stunningly incompetent. Coaches and administrators, all of them men at that time, were mostly people with little self-knowledge, headed for messy mid-life crises when their unconscious lives ganged up on them and destroyed their conscious ones.

Many of them were time-servers, showing up for enough semesters to retire, the point at which real life, with its real terrors and real glories--and real old age--would begin.

(Sue Galligan, if you're reading this, you were one of the great ones. I learned a great deal from you, even if I had to piece it all together in my 20s and 30s.)

All of those teachers, good and bad, were struggling in jobs that paid little and demanded long hours, tedious faculty meetings and forced re-education in hot summer classrooms at Idaho State. I believe that even the bad ones had gone into the profession in order to help people, but they had entered into a system that was--and is--hard on free human intelligence.

Some people persevere in such a system, and make the best of a bad situation. Some give up and go along to get along. The latter dominate faculty meetings, present detailed if mundane evaluation portfolios, teach to soul-killing standardized tests and all too often get the merit paychecks.

This may sound unforgiving, and it is. But hindsight is unforgiving. It's the nature of the beast, if you know now what you should have known then.

Several years ago, I attended the reunion of an older class, and one of the school bullies who had terrorized the school was there. He greeted me like an old friend, which meant his memory wasn't as good as mine. He had the marks of chemo on him, and looked shrunken and about to die. I shook his skinny hand, but I didn't think about how frail he looked, or how, in the end, the Grim Reaper brings us all down. Instead, I thought, "I think I can take this guy."

It's not a thought I'm proud of, but knowing what I know now, I'll own it.

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