In my novel, The Birdcatcher, remembering his time in school when he was a boy, Christopher Stone has this thought:
Why can’t we let shy children be shy? Why do we insist that they go into schools to be bewildered and bullied? Most of what I learned as a boy had come from books, from my uncle, and from nature. Why not give solitary children the option of spending some of their school time alone in libraries where they would learn more and be more comfortable? Why can’t some small corner of this world be set aside for them? …
To those who will say this idea of letting shy kids spend some class time in the school library, instead of a crowded classroom where they feel acutely out of place, is naive, I have to tell you that the experiment has been tried.
When I was in grade 8 in 1959, thirteen years old in Hamilton, Ontario, a working-class steel town, the school system there was remarkably avant-garde. For example, they had a point system in addition to grades to determine how you advanced (three points per grade – if you only got 2, you would be held back, but as soon as you got the third point, even in mid-year, you would be moved up to the next grade – which happened with me, as a result of which I went from grade 2, where I had been ‘held back’ to grade 4 – I was never in a grade 3 class. Neighboring, much bigger Toronto had nothing like that. But Hamilton did other unusual things.
In the spring of that year they decided that for the last 3-4 months of the year, three students would be chosen from each class to spend two afternoons a week in the library reading whatever they wanted.
Two girls and one boy were chosen in my class. The two girls were no surprise – they were the 2 top students in the class. But the boy was a big surprise to everyone – for it was me. I was a ‘B’ student at best. There were several boys who must have had better grades than me.
Why I was chosen wasn’t a complete mystery though, at least to me. The teacher, Mr Kadonaga, the first non-white person I had met in my life, and surely one of very few in the city of Hamilton in 1959, had probably noticed that I was often in the library, sometimes borrowing books to take home, sometimes just reading them there after school or at lunch time. I was always alone, an obvious candidate for ‘high-functioning’autism’, except that that concept didn’t exist yet. Asperger’s wouldn’t be a psychological diagnosis until the late ’80s.
Also, I had once written a short essay about the injustice and hypocrisy of the way native peoples in Canada/North America had been treated. The choice of what to write about had been ours. Mr Kadonaga was so pleased with it that he read it to the class (he seemed to know I couldn’t read it – I suffered then from what they now call selective-mutism).
I think that was probably the first ‘A’ grade I ever received for any writing in school, in fact, the first and last until I reached university.
Although I often complain about educational systems, and like to say I learned more on my own from books, nature, etc, I have to say that several teachers did a lot for me, and one of them was Mr Kadonaga. I believe he came from the sizable Japanese community in the province of British Columbia on Canada’s west coast. The famous David Suzuki is another from there.
What happened to the library experiment? I don’t know. The next year I was in high school, struggling with a school system that wasn’t designed for me at all (I almost failed my first year). But in those last months of the 1959 school year I do know that a lot of reading got done. The 2 girls stuck to the books, talking little with each other, and I never talked to anyone. To me, that was one of the most positive experiences in all my years in school.
Looking back on it now, I see it as an acknowledgement of the power of books. The coming of computers and the internet should only empower books more, but is that happening? I don’t know.