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WOSTER: Best lessons weren’t necessarily the easiest

Terry Woster, Daily Republic Columnist  The students are back in school after the holiday break, and a column I read about a dad trying to help his grade-school child with math set me to thinking about education.

First, I agreed with the dad. He couldn’t understand the instructions in what he considered a form of “new math” aimed at helping more children learn more math more quickly and more completely. The columnist is younger than I am, but he said what I always say when confronted with new math: “What’s wrong with memorizing the multiplication tables and learning long division and stuff like that?”

Second, let me confess I know nothing about teaching. I respect and admire those who do. I couldn’t control a class or hold its attention, much less actually help its members learn. I couldn’t even help my own kids learn guitar when the time came and they asked.

Not knowing how to teach children probably doesn’t put me in an exclusive club. School is one place we all think we know something. Like many others, I don’t mind doing the occasional critique on education. After all, I may not know how to teach, but I sat in a schoolroom for years.

I can tell you that I learned my math, and a host of other subjects, from a string of really competent teachers back in the Chamberlain school system. None of them suggested that math or any of the other subjects, was supposed to be either fun or new. In the case of math, they only assured me that learning it would result in my being able to come up with the right number when confronted with adding or multiplying or finding a square root or any of those magical things. And I believe all of my teachers considered learning — math or any of the other subjects — its own sort of fun, and if not its own fun then certainly its own reward. If that meant some memorization, well, there you go. Who promised a rose garden?

Perhaps I think that way because memorization wasn’t difficult for me. I’m not sure why, but when I was a schoolboy, I could memorize just about anything. If I read it, I remembered it. Given a list of 40 or 50 items, I’d put them in alphabetical order and recall them that way. Another kid and I won a month of free movie tickets once in junior high when Mrs. Labidee had a competition among two-student teams to see who could write the fastest a list of 44 prepositions or something. My partner started writing random prepositions. I had to do it one at a time from A to the last one on the list. It was a famous victory, and it didn’t cost Ed Sorenson, the theater owner, much, because I seldom went to movies but once a week.

I used to be pretty good with songs on the radio, too. The mind is a funny thing. I could hear a new song once and sing it word-perfect right away.

Notice I don’t say anything about singing it note-perfect. I never claimed to be good at singing. In the church choir years ago, another tenor and I were the only two who couldn’t actually read music.

“Are you guys singing the C-sharp?” someone would ask us.

We’d look at each other, shrug and say, “Maybe. Does it sound like we are?”

Memorization only takes you so far, and then somebody goes and asks you to hit a C-sharp.

Two last things about memorization and learning:

One, I no longer have the ability to hear a song and sing it back. These days, I can’t even make out the lyrics to the stuff on the radio, regardless of the type of music being played. I suppose it’s my hearing loss, but the pop stuff all sounds like “Disco Duck.”

Two, I can no longer read something and remember it. Early in my college years, that gift disappeared, about the time I started drinking more and reading assignments less.

Now learning something new is work for me. That’s OK. None of my teachers promised it would be easy, only rewarding.