Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Joe Hebert
English 100
Essay 1: Out-of-Class
August 13, 2001

How I Became Interested in Reading

In the essay "I Just Wanna Be Average," Mike Rose illustrates how he struggled to apply himself to his studies early in life. Rose also goes on to discuss how he later met his friend and mentor Jack McFarland, who aroused Rose’s interest in reading and school. Rose notes what a number of students go through: "They open their textbooks and see once again the familiar and impenetrable formulas and diagrams and terms that have stumped them for years. There is no excitement here. No excitement."

I can easily relate to this passage. I too, felt "No excitement" during my first years in school. I also held many dysfunctional beliefs during my grade school years. Probably the most significant and dangerous was that I thought of myself as an idiot for not comprehending "the familiar and impenetrable formulas and diagrams and terms" that Rose writes about in his passage. It wasn’t until later in life, until I was exposed to more interesting material that I became passionate about reading.

I grew up in the boring Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Washington. I attended Sacred Heart Elementary and later, a number of public and private middle and high schools. I was never a very enthusiastic reader or writer in school. I remember practicing vocabulary and I enjoyed learning new words, but when it came to more complex grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure, I became easily frustrated.

Testing day was the worst. I remember arriving to my sixth grade class. Most of the students would be busily scurrying through their notes, exercising their memorization skills as if quietly chanting mantras to themselves. I would be exercising my poor self-discipline by trying to forget I was even there. I would plop down and wait quietly and anxiously at my desk, dreading my first peek at the paper Sister Sheila would drop there. Would the material be familiar? What kind of test would it be? Multiple choice, short-answer questions, or essay questions? The type of test would have much to do with how I would perform on them. The multiple-choice questions would at least give me something to go on, and I could usually find the answers by hunting for clues or through process of elimination. Because of this, I sometimes found multiple choice tests to be more like trying to solve a puzzle than a testing of my knowledge on a particular subject. Then there were short-answer questions. These were the worst. I remember anxiously talking to myself—"This is from a standing start, Big Joe. No process of elimination here...."

I spent most of my grade school years daydreaming my way through the mundane lessons--no excitement.

My high school years found me even more distracted from my studies and quietly falling through the cracks. To try to salvage my education, my mother sent me to an all-boys Catholic school. Here things got worse. By far the most popular kids were the jocks on the football team and the good looking. Even the adults, the "men of the collar," seemed equally as shallow.

I do remember one event, one class discussion that did have remarkable depth: Joe Pelligrini was a nice, quiet, slightly rotund Italian boy. He was, however, horribly disfigured. He had a large scar on the side of his face that had the shiny, stretched appearance of molten latex. There was so much scar tissue on the left side of his face that it pulled his lips back in a hideous smile to expose his teeth. This affected Joe’s ability to speak and eat normally. As you can guess, the more cruel students were quick to make fun of him, and the adults, for some reason, were slow to defend him.

One day while responding to Joey’s input in a class discussion, Brother Petit gently steered the conversation towards the origin of Joey’s scar. The next few minutes were taken up with a frank account of him being hit by a car and dragged while he was playing in the street as a child. He shared the details of his accident freely and with great dignity. Joey obviously didn’t have issues with the scar on his face, and he also had a great understanding of the role he played in the accident--none. He was a child playing in the street. It could have happened to any one of us. Inside I quietly cheered for him, and for that one moment we all shared what is probably the most elusive moment for kids of this age group to share: one of unity. We all sat stock still in our chairs for a while, and it no longer mattered if you were a good in sports, or popular, or a math geek, or what. We all shared a bit of empathy for Joey. J.P. had unknowingly taught us two things that day: humility and compassion.

It was lessons like these, and moments like these, that made me begin to question why I was remaining in school. I began to see that I was learning some of the most interesting and valuable lessons through practical experience rather than through the curriculum that was being imposed on me at the time.

Despite my disinterest and lack of enthusiasm, I left high school with the ability to read well and write acceptably. Like a lot of kids in my situation, I exercised what seemed to be my only option besides becoming a drop-out-couch-surfing-loser: I embraced the counter-culture. I left home and toured the country with the rock band The Grateteful Dead. Here I was exposed to obscure art mostly in the forms of songs, literature, and improvisational music. I was also exposed to a new, interesting, and diverse group of people. Unlike Rose, I didn’t have one mentor in my life that got me interested in reading. Rather, I believe it was more this group of people and the material that they exposed me to that kindled my interest in reading. I built some great relationships during this time and have very fond memories of my life on the road. As Neil Young once said, "Traveling in the middle of the road soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch--A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there…. "

After traveling for some time I settled into a comfortable fishing job on a factory trawler up in Alaska. It was perfect. I didn’t have to cook for myself, or do my own laundry, and I was temporarily removed from all accountability to family and friends. It was almost like being on vacation! And when I was done, I would climb the Himalayas, ride motorcycles across Thailand, and observe pyres on the banks of the Holy Ganga! I had arrived.

My interest in reading grew immensely during my fishing career and throughout my travels. On the fishing boat there’s not much to do besides work, eat, sleep, and read. When traveling abroad, if you cannot speak the language of the country you are visiting, sometimes a good book is your only companion.

As an adult, I have found much excitement and pleasure in reading and writing. I have learned through reading and shared experience that perhaps the receiving blanket of education laid out for us early in life is not "one size fits all." Like Rose, myself, and countless other students I believe that perhaps our academic failures early in life could have had as much to do with uninteresting material and a poorly tailored curriculum as it had to do with my our own dysfunction and poor self-discipline.

 

Copyright 2001
Joe Hebert

 

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA
1999-2015