Writers Workshop: School Days, School Days…

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After my freshman year of high school, Mom and the three of us moved to a house in the suburbs. Mom had picked this house for a couple of reasons: she could afford it and the schools were great. It was going to be an adjustment for us, because up until then we had gone to Catholic schools, and were used to the way the Catholic schools did things. For example, when I was a freshman we were placed in classes based on the result of an entrance exam, and with few exceptions we spent the day with the same 32 guys.

At the new school, your level was determined by placement exams you took when you were ready to start. My brother Jim was starting as a freshman, so we both took our test one morning during the summer. I had to take more tests because I already had a year under my belt and was entering as a sophomore.

A couple of weeks later, we met with the transfer coordinator, who explained that the school operated on a "level" system. There were four levels, 1 thru 4, with 4 being the most rigorous and 1 being the least. Level 2 was the average level, and level 3 was for the above-average kids who weren’t smart enough for level 4. I had been in the top class at St. Ignatius, so naturally I expected to be placed in level 4, and was shocked when the guy had me in all level 3 classes. I tried arguing with the guy, and while I was able to talk myself into level 4 Geometry, he convinced me to stay with level 3 classes, and that they could always move me up if that wasn’t enough of a challenge.

My ego was a little bruised by all this, but I agreed to do things his way. I was determined that I would prove him wrong. Needless to say, I didn’t: I soon found myself in over my head in Geometry and that even level 3 was a challenge at times. I did manage to finish the year in Geometry with a D, but did well enough in my other classes that it didn’t hurt too much.

The main question I had on my first day was, where could I smoke without getting caught? It turned out that about half my classmates smoked, and they had figured out that the grassy field to the east of school beyond a cement pillar belonged to the Cook County Forest Preserve District, and thus was technically off campus, even though it really wasn’t. There was really nothing the teachers could do if they saw us out there. I made a lot of friends out there…

14 thoughts on “Writers Workshop: School Days, School Days…

  1. John,

    I hated math and math hated me! In elementary and junior high school I remember them using a level system but there were just three. I was always in the middle. I smoked for a time in my late junior high years but thankfully it was only a passing fade and I abandoned it.


    1. Algebra and calculus were great for me, but geometry threw me for a loop with all the proofs. I’d watch someone else do it and it seemed so simple, yet when I’d try I was always doubting myself, like “how do you KNOW that’s true?” When I got into my higher math classes (real analysis and abstract algebra) and saw all the stuff I had to prove there, I changed my major…

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  2. School transfers can be such reality checks. It is a shame that school levels differ so much throughout our country. When we moved from Virginia to Ohio – well, Iam glad I made that move in elementary school. It can be a culture shock, too. My children moved from Alaska to Maine, but luckily the switch was to a well-funded school district. Years later, much to my disappointment, I discovered my children also found the ‘right’ places to smoke in their new school.


  3. Yuck, geometry! Me, too, a D! I never could understand it. I had loved algebra and the way the problems were like puzzles. But geometry made me realize I wouldn’t be an astronaut. Or doctor. Math is so important, they told me. Now I wish I could have found a tutor or book to teach myself.


    1. I was great in Algebra. I took Algebra I in grammar school and ended up taking Algebra II twice, in freshman and junior year. I should have seen if there was another class I could have taken instead in junior year, either a course in some other type of math (e.g. statistics), a second science (e.g. chemistry as well as physics) or whatever. They wouldn’t let me take calculus until my senior year…

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