Book Learnin' and Life

Putting it to Good Use

I hate to admit it, but I was wrong. I thought that a whole lot of what I learned in school was a waste of time. For years I sat at my desk muttering under my breath, "I don't know why I have to learn all this dumb junk. I'll never use any of it." Well guess what? I do use the dumb junk I learned in school!

Take chemistry, for example. When I was in the tenth grade, I yawned and doodled on my notebook while the teacher explained that the speed of a chemical reaction could be altered through the presence of an additional substance, known as a catalyst. "Blah, blah, blah", I thought back then. But now, whenever I toss a package of yeast in a bowl to make bread, I'm actually using the very chemical principle I tried to ignore all those years ago. Who would have thought?

I also remember doing an experiment in junior high, where the class concluded that mold grew faster in a warm, moist environment. "Big deal", I shrugged. But then one summer my son left a baloney sandwich under the front seat of my car for a whole week. By the time I finally discovered it, the mold on the thing was incredible. I said to myself, "Hey, this isn't gross. It's SCIENCE!"

And science isn't the only subject I use in my everyday life, either. There's also math, which is surprising, considering how awful I was at it in school. Especially geometry. I absolutely hated all that stuff about circumference and radius of a circle. And yet not too long ago, there I was, down on the floor measuring a giant round piece of pink felt to make a poodle skirt to wear in a singing performance, using of all things – circumference and radius calculations!

In school I struggled with basic arithmetic, or as the Mock Turtle in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland called it, "Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision". But I kept at it, and now those concepts come in quite handy when figuring the tip after a meal in a restaurant.

In fact, these days I use math without even thinking about it. Can I triple the recipe for a cherry pie? Yes, I can triple the recipe for a cherry pie, quick as a cat can blink its eye. And all because I studied fractions in the fourth grade.

I suppose though, that out of everything I learned in school, I use the "dumb junk" from my English classes most. Because I am a writer, I depend heavily on my knowledge of grammatical principles for my very livelihood. I try not to split my infinitives and dangle my participles. I structure sentences that are, hopefully, grammatically sound – although I occasionally throw one in that isn't. Like this one. Or even this one. But rest assured, I do know better.

Come to think of it, there's a whole lot of stuff in my head that came from those years I spent in school. For instance, I can tell you that the capital of South Dakota is Pierre. I can rattle off the names of the planets in their order from the sun. I can quote Emerson's "By the rude bridge that arched the flood; Their flag to April's breeze unfurled, Here the once embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world". I also know that Mary Todd Lincoln was a bit of a loon. Granted, these facts may not come up often in everyday life, but they do make me a formidable competitor at "Trivial Pursuit", and for that alone, I am eternally grateful to my teachers.

When my kids were in school they used to grumble, "I don't know why I have to learn all this dumb junk. I'll never use it again". When that happened, I smiled and reassured them that, yes, they really would use it again. Then I launched into a whole list of ways I put my education to work for me every single day. By the time I got to the part about converting French recipes to Fahrenheit oven temperatures , they'd usually given up and gone back to their homework.

Of course, I'd love to be able to say that I use everything I ever learned in school, but that isn't entirely true. In the ninth grade I spent three weeks struggling to master the slide rule – and to this day I maintain that it was a complete and total waste of my time.

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