Month: April 2014

Learn lots, get smart


My first day of school was a drama. I was just a few years old and it was the morning that my dad was to take me to the Gilchrist Nursery School.

The school was run by a woman named Carol Gilchrist who started the first nursery or preschool in the county. She was important locally due to the early education programs she started and for her involvement in the public school system. Perhaps only hours later I would develop a bond with her and the other staff at the school and in the future look forward to each day’s attendance.

But on that first day, it was war. War between little, terrified Aaron and his big, frustrated parents. I still remember standing in our dining room, crying like crazy, scared out of my sneakers and refusing to cooperate or do anything useful.

My mom was trying to head out to her job as a teacher and my uber-patient stay-at-home-dad had exceeded his monthly patience allotment. He suggested that perhaps a baseball bat would give me something to really cry about. At that moment I would have preferred the bat over going to school.

The start of anything new, particularly to a kid, can be scary. No matter our age or the experiences we’ve had, change and the unknown can give us a shake. Each new school experience was no exception for me. When I look back on my years of formal education I am frustrated over the difficult times and have gratitude for the good times and great teachers.

Getting started that first day was really tough, but all of my other memories of nursery school are good ones.


For example, the nursery school had these huge, to me at least, red cardboard building bricks. They had a red design on them that made them look like bricks. They were large enough that we could build forts that were big enough for several kids to play inside. I had a lot of fun with those. And a lot of fun busting down our creations.

Another strong memory I have is of Mrs. Gilchrist’s kitchen, in the living quarters above the school. I may have the details wrong, but I believe it was her daughter who had travelled and gotten a blowfish light fixture.

No, that wasn’t a typo. It was an actual preserved blowfish in its fully blown-up glory, hung from the kitchen ceiling, with a light bulb inside. We were once taken upstairs to see the fish light and boy was I impressed. And freaked out. But mostly impressed.

Another fun thing we did in nursery school was learn how to use the telephone. To this day I hate to talk on the phone. But back then using the phone was a grown up thing to do and was fascinating. For the lesson many real telephones were brought in and set up on a table. Someone from the phone company was there to connect the phones together so they really worked, without being on the real phone lines.

For we kids it was just fun, but in hindsight I realize the point was to get us to memorize our phone number, parents names and our address. And to know how to properly use the phone in an emergency. But it was such a practical and fun experience that we didn’t know we were learning. Which is probably the highest compliment to a teacher: to learn without the effort of learning.

The next major milestone on my educational journey was kindergarten. This was at the town’s public school, about six miles from my country home. It was my first time to ride a school bus as well.

We lived next to a drive-in restaurant called The Country Drive-In. It was one of those standard drive-up joints that had bellhops and served hot dogs, hamburgers, fries and drinks. The bus would pick up a few area kids from the parking lot.

Our family was friends with the owners of The Drive-Inn, Ken and Marge Zantello. I remember going to the bus stop that first day and Mr. Zantello was hanging around with the kids (his daughter, Stacey, was my age and starting school as well). Mr. Zantello loved kids and was great fun (nobody could do a better Donald Duck impression – and make us giggle until we overheated).

On the side of the restaurant was a menu board of what the Zantellos had available. I pointed to the sign and told Mr. Zantello: “When I come home tonight I’m going to be able to read that sign.”

That’s how optimistic and excited I was about school and learning! That story remains a funny family story.

Of course, I didn’t come home from my half-day kindergarten class with the ability to read, that would come later. But the excitement and hope of school was by that time fixed in me.

Some years later the bus routes changed as well as the bus stop location. Instead of getting on at the Country Drive-In, I would get on directly across the street from my house, in the driveway of Dr. John Zettelmaier.

Dr. Zettelmaier was a local who had grown up on the farm adjacent to where he then lived. He’d gone to my school. He’d gone to college for his undergrad in nearby Kalamazoo and later got his medical degree from Michigan State University.

He was a real character and I remember many a wintry morning sitting in his car with his kids, waiting for the bus. When it was time to get out he would implore all of us with his mantra: “Learn lots, get smart.”

Especially as my junior high years took over, and school got harder, and the stresses of growing up took hold, the phrase “Learn lots, get smart” just annoyed me. He made it sound so easy, like “smarts” were in a jug that you simply poured yummy knowledge into your head.

My day to day experiences with education were augmented by my parents. My dad was born to immigrants from Germany and essentially never went to school. All of his education came from his own initiative, from the on-the-job-of-life training. He had great trouble writing (he could only print) and struggled to read. However, he could do amazing math sums in his head. He was very smart and knew about the world and understood people.

My mom on the other hand has a lot of formal education. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in special education. Beyond that she has a dual Master’s degree in counseling and personnel management. Plus a permanent K-12 all-subjects teaching certificate. By the time she retired she had earned a Specialist in Education degree in communication. She also lectured at two state universities on special education topics.

So I had these two extreme examples of what education could be. And most would probably expect a lot of pressure from my mom to go to college, get a degree or degrees and have that as a primary focus of my youth.

That was so not the case. In fact, my mom had a solid view of what my educational future should be and I remember her talking about it, in different ways, all the time.

She believed in the value of a college education. She also believed in the education that one could gain at a community college. Or a vocational school. Or as part of an apprenticeship. She was about the learning and having skills and knowledge. She strongly believed that the delivery method was more or less inconsequential.

She ended her professional career as a career counselor at the county’s vocational school where juniors and seniors would spend a half day each day to learn a trade or job skill. These were things like data processing, commercial photography, construction, foods, marketing, clerical, retail, etc. Students would graduate with a high school diploma as well as real-world job skills.

But what was important for me was that college was not a given for my future. She and my dad both made it clear that they weren’t paying for college or education or anything after high school. From as far back as I can remember they told me that college would be a good thing, but if I wanted to go, I’d have to figure out how to pay for it – they wouldn’t be helping.

I’m sure that some of that reasoning was due to their own financial situation and not wanting to “promise” an education fund upon which they could not deliver. But the fact that “any” option after high school, either some type of school or training or a job, was okay with my parents, was very freeing.

So many of my contemporaries were feeling the pressure of picking a school, picking a major, etc. I simply didn’t have that stress. That left more time to dream about my first car.

In high school I struggled to find a post-graduation direction. I took numerous “interest inventories” and “career aptitude tests” and they all said I should be a forest ranger. While the outdoors and nature interested me, I didn’t see myself doing that kind of work.

I was also very interested in writing, printing and woodworking. I explored programs at the vocational school where my mom taught. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. The curse of being a Pisces perhaps. And being young. And the bounty of so many options.

Fortunately my choice was more or less made clear. At the age of 16 I signed up for a media conference at a college an hour from home. It was led by one of the communications professors at the college, who was also the faculty advisor for the student newspaper. Guest lecturers included people from local TV, radio and newspaper outlets.

The conference had each of us do real-world work for print, TV and radio. We were given assignments and had to do them on a fictional deadline and we were then critiqued by the pros.

For the first time I felt like I was in my element. I was in a college atmosphere and the things I was being asked to do seemed natural and while challenging, easy. While I didn’t save my work nor remember the specifics of my assignments, I won favor with the professor for both my written work and for my radio news delivery. He thought I put words together well and that my “radio voice” sounded good (one exercise was to write and record a radio ad for one of the station’s sponsors. Mine for the Grand Valley Blood Program was actually used by the customer). He suggested that I apply to the school and if I did, he’d put in a good word for a paid position/scholarship on the college’s newspaper.

In short, I got in to that school (now Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan) and with my own savings, financial aid, a student loan and the job as Production Editor for the Campus Herald, got started in college.

And surprise, surprise, my parents had saved some money for my education. Enough for a year’s tuition and room and board. That was a total surprise after all of those years of being told I’d have to work for it myself. It was one year’s worth, not the whole program, but a shocking gift when the time came.

I went to that college for a year and a half, the last half working part time as data analyst for Foremost Insurance Company. But when that job ended, I didn’t have an income and didn’t have money for college, so I moved back home, starting to think about going to the far cheaper state school (the much larger Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where my mom had gone).

WMU Sprau TowerAfter several months I landed a job at the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper. I started part time but after a few months went full time and was then eligible for their generous tuition reimbursement plan. I was then able to finish my degree (Bachelor of Science in political science with a minor in English/professional writing). There were a few years where my expenses exceeded the maximum that the paper said they’d pay, but they always paid my bills in full. About the only thing I had to pay for myself was parking.

How fortunate I was! Because I was working full time and going to school part time it ended up taking me a full eight years to earn my bachelor’s degree. I’ve often thought about how great it would have been to live on campus and just go to school full time, be involved in activities and do the degree on the “normal” schedule. I struggled in high school and couldn’t wait for the drama and stress to be over. But I really enjoyed college. I was fortunate throughout my entire college career to have only one, maybe two, professors I would say were bad. All of the rest were good to excellent and I enjoyed the experience.

To this day my mom argues that taking the slow route is better because you combine a formal education with practical work skills. The alternative is to graduate with a degree and no experience and then try to find a job. I can argue it both ways.

But the reality is, I did it slowly, ploddingly, I thought I’d never get done. But I did. Regardless of what that piece of paper has or has not done for my employability or earning potential or status, it is meaningful to me. It was hard work, it was worthwhile and if nothing else, it’s just for me.

Today, my formal education well behind me, I share my mom’s early views on education. But I think the decades to come will change the way everyone looks at education. I went to liberal arts colleges and I gained from the experience. But it’s not for everyone. I think with the focus on technology in the workplace, the need is going to be for focused training on very specific things.

For example, taking a history class can teach you a lot of things. Things you may be hard-pressed to quantify, but you learn, you gain background, the ability to add context to life’s situations. As my mom says “College teaches you how to learn and how to be a citizen in society.” I think she’s totally correct.

Those aren’t bad things, of course. But even someone who gets a scientific, mathematics or computer degree must learn the job for which they’ve trained, once they’re hired. I think it is the rare situation when someone graduates with any college degree, gets a job and blows out of the gates. Even physicians, with all of their years of training, must intern to learn the nuts-and-bolts day-to-day skills they need to practice.

The future I think will shift more weight to specific-topic courses, over short time periods, with great focus and intensity. Think of today’s computer certifications. They come from Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco, etc. An investment of a few thousand dollars, a few days or weeks, hard study and practice and an exam yields a worker who can in fact go into a job and be fully productive on the first day. Doing things. Bringing value. Earning an income that allows them to be independent.

I don’t think colleges and universities are going away, but I think they will change. They’re expensive and they take time. And education is not a one-time proposition. It never was, but I think the work world is making the distinction starker.

I’m nearly 50, have had a college degree for nearly half of those years and yet I have a good career that has, on paper, nothing to do with what I went to college for!

The skills that I have that are important for my job came from a variety of sources:

  • On the job training. I learned how to do tasks and jobs by being trained by my peers or supervisors.
  • Training provided by vendors. In several jobs we would get new equipment or new software or new methods and the company spearheading those changes trained me.
  • Focused classroom training. I went to training for Novel Netware 3.x and 4.x. I went to Unix/Solaris training. I went to Microsoft training for Visual Basic development. I went to an event called Script Camp for newspaper programmers to learn about automating text and image processing. Several years ago in Norfolk, Virginia I went to Tidewater Community College and took a class on SQL programming. In a few weeks I’ll be taking a short course at Salt Lake Community college in order to get ScrumMaster Certification.

That’s many types of learning. But all because I needed to learn and understand “x.” And “x” wasn’t a part of my previous education. In some cases the training didn’t even exist when I was at the university. The world changed and to adapt, I had to find a way to learn.

I think this idea of lifelong learning is important for young people to understand. I value all types and modes of learning and education. And even though I think targeted training is the future, I also firmly believe that a more traditional on-campus experience does teach a person to be independent, manage their own time and course load and work, and learn to function within a system (society).

I think we all need to understand that the graduation ceremony, any graduation or completion step during life, is not the end. It’s a closed chapter. Later there will be new things that need to be learned. We’ll use what we learned in earlier chapters to write future chapters.

Our interests will change. Jobs will change. There will be new information. We go from learning for a job to learning how to navigate retirement and old age. And whether you go sit in a class and listen to a lecture or read a study or some research, the learning never ends.

Yes, Dr. Zettelmaier, I think I’ve learned lots and gotten some smarts. But not enough. It will never be enough. I’ll always be thirsty.

Hmm, a cheeseburger with fries for $1.47…not bad.