Friday, April 12, 2019

How Kids Learn Basic Life Skills

Spring break started for me on Thursday, March 21st after I'd taught my last class of the week and graded a few papers. I flew off to Miami Beach for ten days that evening, returning late on Monday, April 1st because I had to teach the next morning. This is cutting things closer than I usually like to do, but the trips, with direct flights between San Diego and Miami, have become quite routine to me. There's little anxiety because I know just what to expect.

On the after-dark return flight, the pilot announced the route we would follow, and I was even able to identify from the air every major urban area as we passed slightly north of them: El Paso, Tucson, Casa Grande, Yuma, Calexico/Mexicali. The latter two are easy, as Yuma is shaped like a long snake that winds along on either side of the I-8. I could even identify the neighborhood near the eastern end where my rental house stands. Mexicali comes up shortly after, a huge sea of lights with a small wedge jutting out northward which is the city of Calexico, on the other side of the border.

I like this sort of comfortable familiarity for a definite reason: my childhood was extremely traumatic. It wasn't that my parents didn't love me. It's that my mom and dad, who was a public school teacher, didn't have the slightest aptitude for teaching their three kids how to function in the real world. For years, things like answering a phone call, crossing a street with a traffic signal, buying a few items in a supermarket, or sweeping a floor were extremely anxiety-producing for me. I didn't really know what to do because my parents never showed me, and my difficulty with accomplishing such tasks confidently and correctly often led other people to be quite impatient with me.

To this day, it's not clear why my parents were so clueless about such things. They used to complain that their three kids were passive, and they were right. They waited on us hand-and-foot, treating us as if we were helpless infants until we were nearly into our teen years, meanwhile complaining loudly and bitterly that we never seemed to do anything for ourselves. Tired of hearing this, we'd try, and the results would usually leave my dad, in particular, yelling at us about how stupid we were. Then, we'd sit around passively until the cycle started again.

My mom did teach me how to ride a bicycle, but it was a huge, ancient full-size monster with balloon tires that my godmother had given me when her daughters no longer wanted it. The other kids had stingrays and such with training wheels, and those training wheels came off long before I was able to do much more than coast a few yards before crashing painfully. Once I was able to make a turn on the small lawn in the back yard, mom let me take the bike out on the street.

The problem is that we lived along a very busy street, and that she'd never bothered to show me how to stop the giant machine. The brake was in the hub of the rear wheel, so of course to a 6 year old kid the bike appeared to have no way to stop it other than to jump off. I smashed into sign posts and over picket fences, each time coming home to a tirade from my dad about how stupid I was. Finally, the older brother of my best childhood friend figured out that I simply didn't understand how to work the brake. He lifted up the rear tire, pulled the pedals back, and showed me how that stopped the wheel. I never had such problems again.

For Christmas 1964, my parents impounded the money my maternal grandparents sent me and made up the difference to buy me a new Schwinn American two-speed. It was actually a little bigger than the balloon-tired monster, but I'd grown by then and the dealer was careful to adjust the seat to my height... something that was far beyond by dad's mechanical aptitude. My brother inherited the old one, and apparently knew no more about operating the brake than I once had. We'd moved to a quieter street on level ground, so the problem didn't come to light until about a year later when he crashed into a garage door at the bottom of a steep hill, breaking his nose and knocking out his front teeth. I don't think my parents ever figured out that neither of us knew at the time how to operate a rear hub brake.

Once, while I was taking swimming lessons at a YMCA around 40th and University Avenue, my dad told me he had a meeting after school and couldn't pick me up after the lesson. He handed me a dime, and told me to take the bus home. He told me the bus number, and that I should get off at College and University; that was it. Well, after the swimming lesson, I managed to walk to the bus stop and get on. I had no idea what to do with the dime, and the driver and other passengers began yelling at me. Finally, someone took it from me and told me to sit down on one of the seats. I watched people pulling a cord to ring a bell as their stops came up, and figured that out without much problem.

Once off the bus, I had no idea how to cross University Avenue to head north to our house on College. I stood at the corner nervously, as various people yelled at me from cars. After a few false starts, I ran halfway across to the island in the middle just as cars began bearing down on me, their horns honking. I stood terrified in the middle of the street while a woman in a car at the light kept telling me patiently to go ahead and cross while the light was green. I hesitated and hesitated, then set off just as the light turned red. She began yelling in exasperation as I sprinted across in panic. My mom, of course, began screaming at me as soon as I crossed the doorway because it had taken me so much longer to get home than she thought it should.

One holiday season while my paternal grandmother was visiting us, my mom needed some tomato sauce for a pasta dish. Dad threw me a dollar, and told me to go up to the supermarket and buy a can of tomato sauce. Once at the store, I had no idea where to find it. After searching around, I picked up a can of tomato paste, then wondered what to do with it. I got into a line, with several adults cutting in front of me because they figured I was with somebody else. Finally, I got up to the cashier and gave her the dollar. I knew enough to wait for some change, but couldn't understand when she told me several times, then yelled at me, that I should wait for my receipt. I had no idea what she was talking about, but took the strange piece of paper from her and waited to see if there was anything else I had to do before I could leave. Several customers in line told me impatiently that I could go.

When I got home, dad exploded with rage that I had bought tomato paste instead of tomato sauce, berating me once again about my stupidity. My grandmother was appalled at his behavior, and came in to console me as I cried uncontrollably in my room. Dad came in to scream at me to stop blubbering, but left when he saw my grandmother talking to me. I told her that I couldn't do any of these things right because I didn't know how. I wondered at the time how anyone ever DID learn to do routine things if they'd never in their lives been shown.

This led to a lifetime of anxiousness about unfamiliar situations. It seemed as if everything I did for the first time inevitably ended with a group of people standing around screaming at me. Often I'd simply freeze up in confusion, but that would only make it worse. When I joined the army and went through basic training, it was like 8 weeks of that... except that it was pretty much the same for everyone else there. Though considered somewhat dim-witted for my difficulties with such things as making a bed or mopping a floor, I got through it, and was surprised at how unnerved many of my comrades were about the constant yelling. After all, to me it was like any average day of my childhood. It's a miracle, really, that I ever became a functional adult. I suppose I am now, but I still don't really like getting outside of my comfort zone, and I take unnatural satisfaction in doing routine things without having someone scream at me or tell me I'm stupid. From conversations with my brother long after we grew up, apparently he feels much the same way.

From time to time, I notice parents letting their kids do things like pay the cashier at the store. The kid fumbles around with the money, taking forever while people wait behind them in line, but I have a patience for that sort of thing that some people don't. I understand that the parent is trying to teach the kid the kinds of things no elementary school teacher covers in class, and to this day I don't understand why that was such an alien concept to my elementary school teacher father. He's gone now, and I don't like to speak badly of him, but it was an inexplicable blind spot that both of my parents had.

Early 1965, with the new Schwinn American

Still have it!