About a week ago, I received a post from the photography school where I studied a few years ago. They were offering new and different classes, was I interested? Many years ago I took photography courses, even learning how to develop pictures in a dark room. But that was in the dark ages, literally, before digital cameras and computers. So I took the plunge a few years ago to upgrade my skills and signed up for two courses that were important to me in my work as well as in my private life as a Savta (grandmother). From September through June I went weekly and practiced at home. It was a long ride, but I was determined. What took my more computer savvy classmates an hour, took me two or three, but I turned out a few impressive shots. And I understood what I was doing, so I was pumped. Most of my results were good, but not great. That’s not the point – I was doing work in the digital arena, a brave new world for me. I felt good about not letting the challenge deter me. So, I set out each week, with a feeling of purpose and even excitement. Until the second half of the year.
My second, and more challenging course, was Photo Shop. I buy photo magazines and have been so impressed with what can be accomplished with this program that I had to try it myself. I started out with enthusiasm, full of ideas and seeing specific results in my mind. Since I live in Israel, the course was taught in Hebrew so I was in hyper focus mode throughout the first 3 hour class. To my surprise, there was really not much of a language issue; memorizing a half dozen words and phrases was all it took. My Hebrew is good and I was on a roll. The issue was the instruction. The first few classes were not planned, they just took place with no goal in mind. I was becoming frustrated. Then, suddenly, it all became difficult. I was once again reminded that being good at the thing you are teaching is a far cry from teaching it well. I noticed that I had less patience in class than I usually do for learning new things and I asked myself why. It was a small class- only eight. Only two computer savvy folks in this group, so I took heart. I was not ashamed and asked for clarification until I understood the concept. Then, during a class about half way through the course, I was singled out for ridicule. I sat bolt upright. Aha! I felt the proverbial lightbulb turning on and shining bright. I realized what was happening. I was a nuisance to the instructor. He just wanted to teach. AndI wanted to learn. The two should work very well together- in theory. This was reality. The instructor’s reality.
I was told to just follow along and I would eventually get it. I didn’t. I wanted to understand what I was doing. I needed to ask, but I was trapped. So I stopped asking. I became the dummy of the class. I began spending hours at home watching tutorials that covered what I wanted to know. I ended up doing pretty well, but I finished the year with a lot left unanswered and an empty feeling in my gut. I still watch tutorials when I want to make sure that I really understand what I have to do and do it right. I often consult my son who, it turns out, is good at this. I could take the course again for free now, (school policy) but shudder at the thought of going through all that again.
It occurs to me now, after I have had some time away from this, that I should have seen my experience for the a fortiori situation that it was. After class, I had an hour of traveling to get home. I had time to cool off, to put things in perspective, to calm down and get over the feeling of being seen as stupid because I had no way of demonstrating what I actually could do. I had to remind myself that I had years of excellent academic achievement behind me. I thought about what I would prepare or buy for dinner for a very appreciative spouse and sometimes a few grandchildren. I was fulfilled. No body I cared about thought that I was a failure. I had my career, my supportive family, my friends. The class was optional and had no impact on my life, really. None of this holds true for the many embattled young people who consult with me each week. They want to learn, but are taught in ways that don’t help them to understand. They see others succeeding where they fail and they are frustrated; and they are bullied. They often have so little to buoy them. The fact that they continue trying is a marvel. That they sometimes lash out is no wonder. I used to understand them cognitively. I now understand them with my gut. Many of them find other ways to learn and understand the material. They make it despite the lack of a good educational fit. If the subject is interesting and captivating enough, they become their own cheering squad, impressing the naysayers as they progress. That’s what keeps some of them going. If they are lucky, they encounter a caring adult along the way. The lucky ones reach their goal and get to look their detractors in the eye. The others fall between the cracks and struggle.
The thing that we now have in common, the thing that is simply unforgiveable, is that somewhere along our journey, we were made to miss thejoy of learning something that mattered to us.