This I Believe
When I was a fifth grader in PS 206 during World War II, half the teachers in New York City were off to war and so we students had to double up our classes so the teachers who were left could spread their knowledge among us.
My South Brooklyn school did it by combining grades. In other words, our fourth grade was combined with the fifth grade, 60 students in the class, two to a seat, one fifth grader squeezed in with one sixth grader down the rows. Since books were scarce, too, due to the war effort, we shared some books, sitting close and learning to work together.
I had the extraordinary luck of being seated with a big, awkward, bulyak of a kid who’d been left back three times and was thus two years older than most of the other sixth graders. I remember he already had fuzz on his chin and, when we met, a defiant, teach-me-if-you-can attitude. Being almost thirteen, he was considered by the teachers as just marking time until, at thirteen, he could be released from the school system into a life of the lowest form of manual labor.
But we were sharers, that was the rule. So I shared-not just books, with which I helped him read the words he hadn’t learned to read, but with the arithmetic he hadn’t mastered because no teacher had had the time before then to seek the right way to explain It all to him.
My friend got promoted that year-and the years after-and, more important, now he knew that he could learn, too, just like anyone, if the right way
were found to explain things to him.
But I benefited much more greatly than he did, and for that I am ever grateful to him. I learned that if the right way is found to teach a person, anyone is capable of learning-and of learning that intellectual learning can be as enjoyable a game and a challenge and a promise of victory as baseball and marbles and hide-and-seek. I learned that, given encouragement and approached with the attitude of “you can do it,” everyone has talent within.
I’ve spent my life’s career mainly teaching important things to folks by translating the discoveries of scientists in all disciplines into simple concepts anyone can understand. But along the way, I’ve honored my fifth-grade classmate by writing a series of easy little books that translated what I had found out by teaching him (and later, others) about the secrets of learning. Those books – originally aimed (in the early
1980s) at the underprivileged kids who were for the first time being permitted into colleges under Civil Rights reforms – have been discovered, used and loved by learners from junior high school on into late adulthood.
Books like Test-Taking Strategies, which explains all the test-taking tricks that advantaged children learn by the time they’re in fifth grade, and Study Smarts, which puts on paper all the tricks for productive studying that teachers never teach you. I’m proud to say that this Study Smart series, recently republished by the University of Wisconsin Press, has already helped hundreds of thousands of students learn who might have been written off.
This I believe – that, given the opportunity and encouragement, anyone can learn-and learn the joy of having learned. I’ve believed it ever since that fifth grade luck paired me with what, back then, they called “a dunce” and taught me how innate is the wish to learn and the love of having learned.
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