During a spirited conversation with my wife last week, I argued that the educational system in America is outdated. It fails our kids because it sets them up for failure. The best teacher in the world can’t teach an elephant how to climb a tree or a fish how to walk on dry land. A kid interested in words or artistic expression probably won’t be that great at algebra trigonometry or physics. It’s like we should pay more attention to the educational strengths of our children to point them in a better career direction. Sounds crazy, right? Yet we lose kids in high school when they face failure or adversity for the first time. My wife agreed with me, but we both shook our heads at the futility of my idea. Who would listen to a crackpot idea by someone who is not an educated educator?
The funny thing is that most of the skills and talents in my “toolbox” were not learned in our educational system. In fact, the school of life has taught me much more than a formal education ever could have. I shudder to think of who I would be or where I would be without those who taught me the most important lessons in life.
My mother employed the most subtle tactic of making my brother and me avid readers; she kept a book in her hand. Children emulate that which they see daily, and my mother read at the dinner table, on the ugly, red, plastic-covered couch in the living room, and that book would be on her nightstand when she fell asleep. If we went somewhere, whether by public transportation or in someone’s car, she’d pull a book out of her purse to read while on that journey. A book, because of her example, became a constant companion, no matter what else we might be doing. My mother not only taught us to read, but she also taught us to love reading, along the same line as air, food, or water. The love of reading is one of the most important items in my toolbox.
A child growing up in the urban sprawl knows nothing of mountains, the countryside, or anything outside of the sights they’re familiar with. The road trips with my grandfather, coupled with the books we read, gave us a love and appreciation of other places, far beyond the confines of the city. The Rand-McNally road map of the United States became almost like a book of inspiration to me, and I’d sit in the front seat tracing our route as my grandfather guided the car down the interstate highways. The questions I asked would probably seem humorous to some, but looking back, my questions garnered answers that led me to other things.
“Why do you cook and pack so much food for a trip, Pops?” I’d ask, while probably licking caramel cake icing from my fingers. “There are restaurants everywhere.” There was fried chicken, tuna, sandwiches, potato chips, small slices of cake, and ice-cold 7Ups or Cokes in the cooler. It was as if he’d planned to feed an army, but there might only be four or five of us in his Mercury or Ford. He’d always turn down the volume on WBEE so that his words could be clearly heard and understood.
“I always make sure there’s enough food so that we only need to stop for gas or restrooms,” he explained. “We might not be welcome everywhere, so if I bring enough food, I don’t have to worry about that.”
The unspoken thing was the color of our skin because even then I knew the difference in how we were treated. It was due to those road trips with Mr. Hayes that I learned how to read maps, plan for trips, and it led me to learn of the ‘Green Book,’ Route 66, the difference between interstates and US highways. All of this knowledge is carefully packed away in my toolbox.
I don’t know how old I was when my mother taught me to cook spaghetti with meat. Ten or eleven, maybe? I knew how to cook the basics, such as scrambled eggs, bacon, tuna, the stuff that I could eat instead of what some consider a proper meal. It’s funny, but even then I cooked for my older brother Brian, whose culinary skills consisted of making egg salad and tea, two things I detested then and still do to this day. I started experimenting a bit, adding things to recipes I knew or read, and over the next three decades, I’ve become quite a good cook. I never brag, but… ask about me. Cooking and barbecuing are a couple of other things in my toolbox, and even more evidence of my subconscious emulating my grandfather, one of the best cooks ever.
The writing started due to my love of the poetry read to me by my paternal grandmother Lee Ellen, plus the need to tell my own stories. The trips to the library on 79th and King Drive with my maternal grandmother, Grams, gave me even more to read and think about. The Chicago Public Schools gave me quite a bit more knowledge, as did my abbreviated time in college. My toolbox is quite full.
Yes, the toolbox is quite full, loaded almost to the top with lessons and skills, most of which I learned or gleaned from outside of the route of formal education. There’s quite a bit more in my toolbox, the street lessons, etc., but those aren’t the ones I have willingly passed on to my kids. Those were for my survival, and due to my efforts, those lessons may never be needed by them. My toolbox is still open, as I am learning how to successfully create and market a magazine of my own creation (thank you for your support and encouragement Aunt Vicki). Another new thing is learning to write scripts for my own production company, as well as learning to recognize and recruit writing talent, part of my newest job as Executive Editor for County Down Press, an erotic publisher. It is a good thing I have the tools in my toolbox for whatever endeavors come my way.
Everyone’s path through life is not the same, and I realize the blessings I’ve been given with my magical toolbox. I encourage others to indulge their passions, while at the same time learning how to become better at what they love. To the teachers, in the classroom and outside of it, keep giving the lessons, because lives will be enriched by your efforts. Isn’t that the goal? Keep up the good work.
As for me, let’s examine the toolbox of a modern-day Renaissance Man. I’m a professional truck driver, professional writer, semi-professional cook, enthusiastic globetrotter, travel agent, and soon I’ll be adding more to this list. All because I had teachers and mentors who gave me the tools I would need to be successful. Thanks again.
Marlon S. Hayes is a trucker, writer, grillmaster, travel agent, poet, author, father, husband, and son who lives in Evergreen Park, Illinois. He can be followed at Marlon’s Writings on Facebook, marlonhayes.wixsite.com/author, Is You Going on Facebook, and his books can be found on Amazon. Keep an eye out for him, because his first major novel, Eleven Fifty Nine, will be released by Oghma Creative Media in the summer of 2020.