Note from David: The following is a guest post from Susanna Zaraysky, a polyglot with an inspiring story of what I would call self-education. I think there’s a lot we can learn from her story, so I’m delighted she’s sharing with us – over to Susanna!
A common misconception about getting a good education is that you have to have money.
This is simply not true.
It’s about motivation. Sometimes, you have to break the rules. It’s about jumping through the hoops of the system and completely avoiding the system when necessary.
I want to share my story of how I circumvented the horrible educational system in the US so that others can find alternatives to their educational reality if they find that they are not learning much in school and are bored.
This is not meant to brag. I am telling my story so you can see that it is possible to navigate a horribly faulty educational system and rise ahead.
From preschool for the retarded to early college graduation
I went from being put in a preschool for the retarded and developmentally disabled in the former USSR to graduating from a top US university at the age of 20 with honors in my major.
This leap did not happen because the educational system challenged me and pushed me to reach high goals.
It’s because I was bored out of my mind in school and either I or my parents found a way for me to skip a grade or to do independent study.
Skipping a grade in elementary school
In elementary school, I skipped the 3rd grade. (Around age 8-9.) I had to take tests or somehow prove that I knew the material that would be covered that year in order to go from 2nd to 4th grade.
No teacher or school administrator suggested I skip a grade or study on my own because it’s not in the school’s best interest to have students skip grades. Schools receive their funds from the government based on how many pupils are enrolled. When a student skips a year and moves from elementary to secondary school a year early, the elementary school loses one year of funding for that pupil. Plus, it’s extra work for the school administrators and teachers to test kids wishing to jump ahead.
Neither I nor my parents were interested in school funding issues. If you or your child is ahead of the class and could be learning more in a class with older students, then you have to make your case and ask to be moved ahead.
You have to speak up for yourself or your children.
Don’t expect the school to do it for you. If my parents hadn’t responded to my complaints of finding school to be too slow, I would have been stuck in classes where I was barely learning anything.
It’s not about money, it’s about motivation
My dad barely speaks English. My parents were often unemployed and we didn’t have health insurance. They didn’t have much money. But they wanted my sister and I to get an education. I was a latch-key kid starting at the age of five in Kindergarten, when I had to walk myself to school. My parents couldn’t afford after-school day care for me.
Who was my babysitter after school?
Almost everyday after school, I went to the library and the community center next to my elementary school, which I rode to alone on my bicycle. I read many books at the library and attended dance and gymnastics classes at the community center. My voracious reading at such an early age helped me skip a grade in elementary school and kept me busy.
Elementary to Middle School: You’re not ready yet for foreign languages
My monolingual 6th grade teacher in elementary school had to approve me to take a foreign language class in middle school. She thought I wasn’t ready yet. What did she know? Did she know I already spoke two languages, Russian and English?
My parents stepped in again. They photocopied the permission slip where the teacher had marked the “No, the student is not ready for foreign languages”, used White Out and changed her answer to “Yes”.
The next school year, I was learning French.
By the age of 24, I spoke seven languages (Russian, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian).
That 6th grade teacher had no idea that she was about to delay a polyglot from flourishing.
Am I saying that everyone should forge their teacher’s signature and disobey their direction?
But I have no regrets about my parents having done so!
If your school doesn’t have the class offerings you want or you are barred from entry, study on your own. Find free language learning podcasts on I Tunes. Listen to foreign language radio, watch foreign movies. Get language books from the library. Don’t let the school system stop you. Listen here for my interview with David Mansaray and Claude Cartaginese on the Polyglot Podcast (http://www.davidmansaray.com/the-polyglot-project-podcast-episode-4-susanna-zaraysky). You can read more about my language learning journey on my website (http://createyourworldbook.com/author-bio ).
Public high school: Doing homework in front of the TV and getting As
Even though I was a year younger than the rest of my classmates, by the time I got to high school when I was 13 years old and my classmates where 14, I again found myself utterly bored by my classes.
My parents, with their limited means, managed to buy a home in a neighborhood known for its high-ranking public schools. Real estate agents loved to boast about the great schools so they could sell overpriced homes. But the “great schools” title was a load of garbage. The test scores and college acceptance rates for these school were high but it wasn’t because the schooling was spectacular. It’s because the majority of the kids were from Asian families who, rightly so, sent their kids to after-school tutoring and college entrance examination preparation classes. My parents didn’t have the money for these classes.
My grades were mediocre in my first semester in high school because I was bored. My parents and their friends told me that being bored was not an excuse for not doing well in school. So I reformed myself and got better grades.
Low to mediocre grades don’t really represent the intelligence or potential of a student.
Kids get lost in the system because their marks aren’t high but they still may be really smart. But school does not light up their world.
I could do my homework in front of the TV and get As (the highest marks). All I had to do was memorize and regurgitate whatever information was in the book. Thinking was not required.
When I complained to the guidance counselor that I wanted to be in classes that challenged me and made me think and explore what I was learning about in history, literature and other subjects, she told me to wait until I was a junior or senior (aged 15-17) and would take Advanced Placement classes that would give me college credit.
I had to wait to use my brain for another two years and spend my current time in class just listening to the teacher lecture and then memorize facts from the book?
I wanted to use my brain then and not wait.
I took inexpensive classes at my local junior (community) college in the evening so that I could jump ahead. I kept reading a lot. But this did not satisfy me.
There was a program called Middle College for underachieving kids who, like me, were bored in high school, but were smart. These students took community college classes at no cost to them and got both high school and college credit for them. Still maintaining a US high school student’s social life, the Middle College kids could attend sporting and social events at their high school.
Problem: I didn’t qualify for Middle College because my grades were too good. I was smart but I wasn’t an underachiever, so I was stuck in my bland classes doing homework in front of the TV and learning little.
The system was not supportive of a student like me who sincerely had a drive to learn, got good grades and whose needs were not met.
My choice was to continue to take classes in community college in the evenings and summer and graduate high school a year early, at the age of 16 and go to college or apply for scholarships at private schools.
Neither my parents nor I were keen on Option #1 because I was already a year younger than my classmates and enrolling in a university at age 16 would have made me two years younger than the other students, perhaps creating awkward social situations.
With the help of a family friend, I went back to my local library and found brochures for prestigious boarding schools on the East Coast and one in Santa Barbara. The odds were against me. First, my parents couldn’t afford the astronomical tuitions of $20,000 a year. (This was in the early 1990s, the tuitions may be more than twice that amount now.) Second, I was applying to be a junior year boarder. Most boarding schools fill up their dorms in the freshman (ages 14-15) and sophomore (ages 15 and 16) years. Third, my first semester high school marks were lackluster.
Something in my essays, interviews and grades shined through and I got a two-year scholarship to a famous boarding school near Boston, where two Governor’s daughters were in my dorm and the surnames of the Boston Brahmin, the local political and financial legacies, graced the names of buildings. I was one of the few immigrants kids in the school.
My two years in that boarding school kicked my butt. I am serious. Most classes had only 12 students and we sat around an oval wooden table discussing our subjects. There was no hiding. I could not get away with memorizing and regurgitating information, I had to process it, defend my arguments, write long essays, do research projects and THINK. I was speechless at my first history class debate about the American Revolution.
Plus, I was alone with no parental support. Boston winters are bleak. I was used to mild California winters.
I had to work super hard to catch up to kids who had been in super prestigious private schools their entire lives. My first semester grades were average but then I caught up.
My two years in boarding school near Boston made college fairly easy.
I finished the University of California at Berkeley in three and a half years instead of the regular four or more years, including a semester abroad.
There was no “Italian for Spanish speakers” class so the Beginning Italian course I was enrolled in started from zero for people with no background in Romance languages. As I already knew French and Spanish, I once again found myself bored. I pleaded with the teacher and the head of the department to allow me to only show up to class once a week, instead of everyday, just to take the tests. Reluctantly, they agreed. I got a lot of help from the Italian students with whom I practiced my Italian in my international dormitory. I listened to Italian music and I learned the rest of the grammar book on my own and was ready to read short stories, plays and poetry in Italian. By the next semester, I was in an Italian literature class.
Was my path in the Italian Department typical?
Did anyone pave the way for me?
In a perfect world, your education would meet your needs.
As you can see, my education only met my needs when I made it do that. Yes, it takes effort to challenge school administrators. But if my parents with their limited English and limited financial means could do it, then there are few excuses left for others to just sit and complain about how bad their school is without making their education better.
Although the circumstances of my story may be very different from your own and you may be from a different country, the moral of the story is universal: make education work for you.
With all of the resources available now on I Tunes University with free podcasts from universities worldwide to free documentaries available online, it’s easier now to do what I accomplished than it was when I did it.
Please, if your school is bad, educate yourself. If you don’t have money, like I didn’t, find ways to learn. The resources are there. It’s a matter of using them and standing up for what you need.
Susanna Zaraysky (http://createyourworldbook.com) is the author of Language is Music (http://createyourworldbook.com/my-books/language-is-music (El idioma es música (http://createyourworldbook.com/my-books/el-idioma-es-musica )in Spanish) and Travel Happy, Budget Low (http://createyourworldbook.com/my-books/travel-happy-budget-low ) (budget travel guide). Her passion is to get people to be multilingual using music and the media. She speaks seven languages and has been to over 50 countries, all on a limited budget. On her segment, El idioma es música on the Spanish language Univision channel in San Francisco, she gives tips and lessons on learning English through music and the media to Spanish speakers.