You might not believe this to read my writing today, but I did not receive any education in writing until ninth grade.


I received spelling lessons, sure. And I received handwriting lessons. Everything else was withheld until I could hand write to “grade level.”

Which, since as an adult I still have handwriting that’s messier than that of most third-graders I’ve met, happened never.

I’ve mentioned before about my ninth grade teacher and how she saved my education, but I don’t remember if I ever fully explained the extent to which she saved my education.

Before 9th grade, my grammar knowledge was almost nonexistent. I knew that periods go at the end of sentences and that question marks indicate questions and that exclamation marks indicate an exclamation and that quotation marks go around stuff people said because I read voraciously. Beyond that, nothing. Aside from periods, I didn’t even know what the rest of them were called. Periods, I only knew because I got curious and looked up why people say, “period!” when they’re trying to emphasize something (for you non-North Americans out there, the equivalent is “full stop!” and has the same etymology). I was a ninth grader who would sometimes still spell cat with a K, who put commas in places that made no sense, and who didn’t even know that the colon-like thing with a comma instead of a period at the bottom was called a semicolon. I had no idea how to write an essay or a paragraph. I didn’t even know what an essay was, beyond “written thing longer than a paragraph.” You could’ve handed me a short story and called it an essay and I wouldn’t have known the difference.



My teachers knew I loved learning. They knew writing gave me a hard time and I hated it. So they came up with the bright idea to “motivate” me to learn how to handwrite by holding hostage the rest of my education in English. I also did calculus and read at university level, and this was used as “proof” of the “fact” that I could have written neatly if I wanted to, so obviously I must want to spend my days in boredom and pain and occasional physical restraint when it got too much and I refused to scribe further.

So while other kids learned paragraphs and sentence structure, I was sat at the back with handwriting sheets. Reams and reams of them. When my parents got the school to agree to not give me any more handwriting sheets, they instead gave me stuff to copy over and told all the teachers to mark me on handwriting. Same shit, different format. They still gave me the assignments everyone else got, but instead of being given writing, grammar, and composition exercises in class, I was given handwriting work. Instead of listening to the teacher teach on those subjects, I was told to practice more handwriting.

Because I read so much, I had a decent intuitive feel for grammar – I knew when stuff looked wrong versus when it looked right. But I didn’t understand why it looked wrong or right, just that it did. Thus, more obscure or advanced grammar rules (like when you use a semicolon or why you use parentheses) were beyond me. Intuition is no substitute for understanding and knowledge, but they pointed out that since I did okay on the assignments that were handed out, I needed to practice handwriting more than I needed to learn grammar, sentence structure, or composition.

It was getting to the point that my clumsy grammar was affecting my other subjects. In history, a third grade teacher doesn’t care if you splice a comma so long as you get your dates right. In eighth grade, they do. In science, a fourth grade teacher doesn’t care if your short answer doesn’t have proper paragraph format. In seventh, they do. So I was being docked points for not using grammar skills I’d never been taught in the first place.

When my ninth grade teacher arranged for me to type, she also arranged for me to actually get the same work and education as the other kids. Without her, I would not have had a hope in hell of passing my provincial exams in high school, and in turn, I would not have gained admittance to university. I would not know how to formulate an argument. I would not know how to write a paragraph, let alone the thesis I submitted last year. All because I can’t make pretty letters on paper.

Everything I have ever done with writing, I owe to her, and to her firm opposition to scholastic gatekeeping. And for that reason, I get angry when I see people – especially teachers – talk about how kids “can’t” learn Subject Y until they’ve passed Unrelated Milestone X. I I still haven’t passed my Unrelated Milestone, but I think I’m pretty damn good at my Subject Y. Without a teacher willing to look past the dogma of handwriting then spelling then grammar then sentence structure then composition, I would never have learned to write.

One final note: I also learned the rest of it out of order: I grasped sentence structure before spelling, and composition before I understood why grammar was necessary. Order of how stuff is typically taught is not always the order that it must be learned in. Some kids learn differently and need to grasp Milestone X+3 before they’ll get Milestone X, and teachers need to learn to deal with that.

10 thoughts on “Gatekeeping

  1. notesoncrazy says:

    This reads like a horror story. I’m having to basically not say anything I want to say because I don’t know how to say it with copious amounts of profanity and I’m not sure you’re ok with that on your blog. The best I can manage is:

    I find this not only upsetting and angering but revolting. I’m so sorry this was your experience, and I am so glad you had an adult in your life – eventually – who understood you were not the bad guy here.

    • ischemgeek says:

      It’s one of those things that I’m always having to remind myself about – that most people did not have as much of a train wreck grade schooling as I did. Pretty much everything the school could have done wrong, it did for me. So a lot of people don’t get why I – an academic myself – am so angry and bitter about grade school. They don’t realize the full depth of what I mean when I say that I love learning in spite of my schooling rather than because of it. They genuinely have no idea of the full scope of what I’m talking about because it’s utterly alien to their experience.

      This post is only one facet of it. I haven’t talked about the third grade teacher who predicted I’d be in jail by 20 or the gym teacher who would ridicule me publicly and turn a blind eye when I was physically bullied or the math teacher who accused me of cheating when I finished a test too quickly or the history teacher who tried to get me suspended for doing too well on my first typed assignment or the fourth-grade substitute teacher who tried to get me suspended because she didn’t believe I’d lived in a foreign country for a few years and I wouldn’t lie and say that talking about my past was a lie or etc.

      And yeah, I wasn’t a perfect kid. Far from it. I had meltdowns and I had an explosive temper and I had no boredom tolerance and I could be violent at times and I was a know-it-all and I tended to assume that someone being ignorant meant they were stupid and I was usually the smartest person in the room and I knew it and never let anyone forget it and I was inconsiderate and I could very definitely be an infuriating little shit when I wanted to. And I wanted to a lot.

      But I was the kid.

      It was their job to bring out the best in me, to encourage my talents, and to help me grow as a person, and instead, they set up situations guaranteed to bring out my worst and blamed me for it as they did their utmost to destroy my confidence in my talents and stomp all over what I think as an adult are my best qualities. My stubbornness and determination can be tools for good as much as they can be tools for making the authorities in my life as frustrated and pissed off as I am, for example.

      And that’s why I’m so damn bitter about grade school.

      (sorry for the rant)

    • ischemgeek says:

      Also: generally, I don’t tone police. I can curse up a blue streak when I’m in the mind to, and how would it be fair of me to insist that others sanitize their language for me if they’re PO’d? Sole exception being oppressive or abusive conduct, but I don’t think anyone who comments here regularly would do that anyway.

      • That thing, about teachers thinking you’re lying when you’re not. I can’t even with that. Back in elementary, one of my teachers lectured me for “lying” about a traumatic event I described at what I interpreted to be her request, after said event was confirmed by my mother. Seriously my mother told her that it actually happened, only commenting that she was surprised I remembered it since it was a long time ago. Somehow, this constituted a lie.

        As for the rest of your experiences, everyone involved from top to bottom in that policy should have been fired. It’s abusive. And the thing that infuriates me is, as much as it infuriates me, I also know people get away with shit like that. For example, the above teachers. (Unless they were fired, in which case, we’re buying cake. Just, you know, saying.)

      • ischemgeek says:

        I’m not surprised your teacher got away with that.

        And, no, nobody was fired. Nobody was disciplined. Nobody even got a “don’t do that.”

        More things that school did: My parents got the administration to agree to a personalized curriculum because they correctly worried that I was so far ahead of grade level that I’d be a behavior issue if they brought me down to it and incorrectly worried that skipping me grades would be worse for me socially than staying in my current grade (this is only said with the benefit of hindsight – at the time they had no way of knowing that my third grade teacher hadn’t grown out of middle school mean girl bullshit and wasn’t about to single-handedly guarantee I was the class pariah for the rest of my schooling). The school officially agreed to enrich my studies… and then promptly ignored said agreement in the class. Because it would be too much work to get fifth- through seventh-grade teachers to give my teacher copies of their exercises.

        Allow me to emphasize: My parents told them that putting me in a regular program would result in behavior issues and then they did it anyway. And both sets of authority figures then blamed me for the result. Even though they knew ahead of time that’s what would happen.


        But, yeah. I have no doubt that’s what happened to you. Some teachers really, really suck. There are rare good ones (like my 9th grade teacher). But in my experience the good ones are outnumbered by the apathetic, the burned out, and the outright malicious about 5 to 1.

  2. autisticook says:

    I have always known I was very lucky in school, in the kind of teachers I had.

    And I shouldn’t have been.

    It shouldn’t be LUCK that determines the kind of support you get.

    • autisticook says:

      To clarify: I know what you mean, even though I had the exact opposite experience. I wasn’t in special or gifted classes (to be honest, the word “gifted” still makes me shiver, because everyone has gifts dammit). I just had a lot of teachers who let me do my own thing at my own pace. Who let me leave classes and go to the library to read if I’d finished my work early. Or who asked me to help other kids with their work. It’s why everyone always told me I’d be a teacher when I grew up. Or a writer. I wanted to be a journalist. I’m a little bit of all of those now. But not quite in the way they told me I would be.

      I went to grammar school because of the building. The secondary school 500 yards from our house was brown and dark and oppressive. The grammar school was old-fashioned, with this awesome marble staircase and high ceilings and lots of high narrow windows. And my parents thought that was an absurd reason to cycle 8 miles every day but they let me. (I am lucky with my parents as well, and I shouldn’t have been lucky). So I got my Latin school books a few weeks before the start of the first year. And by the time school started, I’d already finished the first 5 chapters. And my Latin teacher loved it, and encouraged me to do as much as I could, and to come to him with questions or wait for the others to catch up if it got too difficult.

      And the next year, at the age of 14, I got confronted with how lucky I’d been so far (and I shouldn’t have been lucky). I had finished 3 chapters by the time school started. I politely waited until the new Latin teacher had explained the first lesson. And then when everyone started working on the first translation, I continued where I’d left off in the 4th chapter. The teacher walked by my desk. And asked me what the hell did I think I was doing. When I explained, she told me there was no way in hell that she would spend extra time on having to explain things to me just because of my attitude, thinking I was cleverer than everyone else. Not only did she refuse to explain things to me individually, she FORBADE me to do any work in advance, because it made her life difficult.

      That’s when I realised the acceptance and encouragement I’d received so far wasn’t normal. And that I had been lucky. And that my life coming down to luck was incredibly unfair, not just for me, but for everyone.

      I never asked for accommodations. But after that, I learned not to expect them either. Unless I got lucky.

      • ischemgeek says:

        Every kid should get the education you received in the earlier levels. Every kid.

        Unfortunately, in my experience, teachers like the one you had at 14 are the norm rather than the exception. Perhaps I just got exceptionally unlucky, but all but 3 of my teachers were like that teacher you had for Latin at 14.

  3. HH says:

    Just found your blog when I was searching for articles on dealing with social anxiety while negotiating.
    I just want to say that you are an intelligent, interesting person and I wish I could meet you.
    Also, try not to be angry at grade school any longer. It’s a human processing plant. It’s really there to make sure we all understand how our society works and what happens if we don’t behave like we’re supposed to. Their processing techniques didn’t work for you. (They didn’t work for me either. I’m in my 20s and still can’t do basic high school math. I don’t understand hierarchies. To me you’re either a decent person worthy of respect, or not. I don’t understand numbers. I understand and can come up with my own ideas about PhD level linguistics, and I’m an undergrad with no prior study in the subject.) What makes you a beautiful human being is what has given you the most trouble while trying to fit in with the rest of the world. Struggle, be pained, but remember you are a beautiful human being.

    • ischemgeek says:

      How you cope is how you cope. How I cope is how I cope.

      At this point in my life, I need my anger. Because it reminds me that it wasn’t my fault that my parents didn’t want a “retard” in the family and so refused to have me evaluated when they realized I would probably come out of the evaluation with a formal diagnosis of something. It reminds me that it wasn’t my fault that my third grade teacher felt it appropriate to tell an 8-year-old she was destined for failure. It reminds me it wasn’t my fault that I was the target of harassment and assault for the duration of my education.

      Anger, when you’ve been the victim of unfairness, is healthy. Far healthier than shame, which is the emotion I was carrying around about those years for a long time. To let go of shame, I need to embrace anger at this point in my life.

      Furthermore, anger motivates me to do good in the world – it motivates me not to repeat the mistakes of those who taught me, and it motivates me to work for social justice, including disability rights, in my professional and personal life. Anger is not a bad emotion to have if you can make it work for you and if you don’t let it take over your life and your existence.

      I appreciate that you’re able to find something to relate to here, but I ask you not to emotion-police me any further. I deal with things in my own way. That it’s different from yours does not make it wrong.

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