Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Challenge day

After reading all of the Steve Jobs speech, I surfed over to Whole Earth and found a fascinating article Challenge Day, a 16 year old girl wrote about how High School is basically like swimming in a tank of hungry sharks. Even though I have been out of High School for almost 20 years the only difference that I see is that it is somewhat more brutal today.

I can relate to the dork at the end of the story. That was me. I dove deep not to hide but to actually learn. I craved knowledge and had no use for socialization, which was all about bullying to me. I wanted to find out what all the facts we were learning were good for. I knew they were good for something even if the teachers couldn't tell me what. Not that they didn't answer the question but their answers didn't fit in with what I saw happening in the world on the news and with the developing technology. Their answers sounded good but felt wrong.

But then I started Honors Physics. The teacher of that class was fantastic, he told us why these things were important and how they are used in everyday life. He was tough, real tough, fully half the class dropped out in the first two weeks. We learning that algebra and calculus were good for something other then inducing sleep.

We actually did stuff with physics. One of the first experiments we did was to build a boat to hold the largest amount of weight possible, from a sheet of tin foil. This is were I learned thinking is a powerful tool. While everyone else started building miniature canoes as fast as they could I stopped and reviewed all the different ships I had seen, which was quite a few since we lived not far from New York City. I knew most ships are shaped like canoes, but what kept a canoe floating were the crossbars, thwarts, that held the sides apart. I didn't have material to do build thwarts so I eliminated all those designs and then the Barney Miller theme started playing in my head. A Barge was what I needed, they floated past all the time, they were big open boxes that carried huge loads. I folded up the edges to make a big flat load area and tried to fold the corners so that they would be strong. Then we started testing them, floating them in a fish tank full of water and filling them with calibrated weights. Mine ended up holding more then 10 times as much as anyone else's.

I learned a lot from that class, beyond physics and applied mathematics and just plain thinking, I learned about competition through imitation. People started copying whatever I was doing. I was annoyed about it at the time but that is okay, it happens all the time in the real world. I can say that most all of my designs won our little competition experiments, even if my personal construct did not.

I also learned that ego was a big deal to some people. Our teacher was a descent guy he would take the test with us and would throw out questions that he got wrong or that all of us got wrong. Well, I finished the first test before he did. While doing that in any of my other classes was no big deal, in this class the effect was like crash of a steel gauntlet at his feet. A class that was rather interesting became a real challenge. He pushed us hard. It soon became a major competition between the teacher, myself and two other students while the rest of the class was struggling to keep up with us.

Every test and every quiz was a race. Not just for speed but accuracy, it wasn't enough to get the paper on his table first but to get the highest score. That made things a lot tougher then just raw speed. The teacher was struggling to beat us to the finish, we raced to beat the teacher and each other, and the rest of the students sweated just to finish before the bell. That was a great class.

Competition is not something that needs to be a part of every facet of life. I once had a friend who was hyper-competitive, everything was a race to him. Then one day, when we biked out to visit someone rather far away. he exhausted himself and a trip that took less then an hour to get out there, took nearly 8 hours to get back. The story of the tortoise and the hare might be a fable but it happens all the time. Speed is good but getting all the way to the finish line is vital.

High School is a very artificial place and sometimes good things happen, but one good, challenging class out of over twenty is not a very good rate of return.


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