Of time, tide, and graduation

Mastery can be the work of one moment, or the task of many.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Graduates from the University of Rochester in New York

Here’s how I learned to ride a two-wheeler: I got fed up with the training wheels. It was not going well, riding down the sidewalk on my green-and-white Schwinn cruiser (for some reason, I named it “Greensleeves”), wobbling back and forth, trying to learn the concept of pedaling and balance. So I decided that my fledgling days were over. I would simply ride.

“Take ’em off,” I instructed my dad. And despite no evidence that I could actually ride without them, he did. Off I went. 

My explorations now included the rest of our block on McDaniel Avenue. And soon I would be allowed to cross Simpson Street to my friend’s house. Then, the park! I was getting big. I was on the road to adventure.

*              *              *

Here’s how I learned the multiplication table: much more tediously. Miss McCormack pointed out to my mother that I was falling behind in fourth-grade math. 

“He’s just got to learn his math facts,” she said. I still remember, gratefully now, the evenings Mom spent with the flashcards going through the times table with me. Even now, when faced with a mental math problem, I can summon the vision of one of those flashcards for the answer. Visual memory. But it took time. It was drudgery. And these training wheels were most necessary. I was on the road ... to algebra.

Some things can’t be taught on time, or in a timely manner; they must be experienced to be learned. We must wait until the “tide” is right to set forth – that deeper sense of rhythm and momentum that swirls and floats all boats. 

Other things can be timed and ought to be learned on schedule. Knowing the difference takes experience, for us parents and teachers, and even a bit of nail-biting and guesswork based on equal parts intuition and calculation. My multiplication skills are still suspect. Algebra did not go well.

Closing the books on the school year invites comparison of the two routes to performance and learning. Time’s up, and the tide is going out! But the tides of learning keep working regardless of the artificial divisions of year, grade, academic subject, or curriculum unit. Some of us will take the training wheels off next year; some did it this year. Some will do so over the summer. Whether it happened early or late isn’t always the issue. What’s important is that we eventually learn to ride. It’s an approach that has stood the test of time and tide.

It’s graduation season. The eighth-graders, 12th-graders, and college grads mark their transitions with grand ceremony. Many will prepare for time off and new tides of summer exploration and learning  before – for noncollege grads – the school year returns. Time’s up. The tide goes out.

In the fall, it will return. Between now and then there will be lots of time and numerous tides of wonderful experiences and learning. Like the agricultural “tides” of planting and harvest, these rhythms, cycles, and seasons are deeply embedded in us, whether or not we are students. And we can’t help learning their lessons.

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