| Staying the Course |

Staying the Course: Chapter 3

Prepared for print by Zivia Reischer

So how much of a role does educational background really play?


Since my formal general education had ended after eighth grade, I signed up to take Machon L’Parnasa’s math workshop in preparation for the Touro placement test.

On the first day, the professor handed me a page of math problems. Some of the examples looked familiar; I had some vague memories about finding common denominators in order to add fractions. And maybe there was some kind of rule about flipping the top number and bottom number? Not that I could remember when to apply it.

Then there were math functions that I did not even pretend to know, like basic algebra, exponents, absolute value, and my old nemesis — word problems.

I completed the examples to the best of my ability and handed it in. When the professor scanned my work, he didn’t look very impressed. Apparently there are systems for working out math problems, which, incidentally, are not always read left to right. It was clear from my work that I didn’t know anything about the order of operations. “You never heard of PEMDAS?” he demanded. I hadn’t, so that clue didn’t help me. Eventually I got ahold of a fifth-grade math book; that helped a lot. But it all left me somewhat conflicted. Even coming in with zero background, I managed to catch up pretty quickly and did very well in my math courses. So were all the hours devoted to math in typical school systems really necessary?

On the other hand, without the benefit of years of exposure and practice, unless I decide to focus all my energy on math, I’ll probably never reach that instinctive, “at your fingertips” proficiency. Does that justify the years and years spent on it in school?

Or maybe it depended on the individual? I overcame the deficiency in my educational background. But not all my friends could — I have a friend who cannot get his BA despite committed efforts because he just cannot manage to master the ability to write a basic essay in English. For him, the lack of exposure and practice is insurmountable.

Then again, there were students in my class from across the spectrum of educational backgrounds, and some of them were as far behind as I was.

So how much of a role does educational background really play?


One thing was for sure. I could make it here… but I would have to be willing to work. And to laugh. Until now, I had been considered bright, intelligent, and successful. Now, I often felt like I didn’t know anything about anything.

Especially when it came to computers.

One of my greatest fears when I started college revolved around the fact that I was technologically illiterate. I didn’t own a computer in my own home, my parents did not have a computer in their house when I was growing up, and I certainly did not learn any computer skills in school.

But in Touro, like in the rest of the world, every desk had a computer. The first week of class found me sitting in front of that computer, totally at a loss. “Download and save the documents I sent you,” the professor instructed. All around me people were clicking and tapping, but I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I just hit every key on the keyboard, right clicked, left clicked, and surreptitiously tried to check what the guys near me were doing.

It was a new experience for me, to feel totally handicapped like that, to be the only one in the room who didn’t know something so basic that it was taken for granted.

Finally I just bit the bullet and asked the professor for help. I got lucky — he was a chassidish guy like me, and very understanding and helpful. But even after that first day, I still remained technologically challenged.

The introductory computer course lasted two semesters. Like I said, there was a computer on every desk, and we were expected to sign in at the beginning of every class and sign out at the end. I learned how to sign in, out of sheer necessity, but I had no idea how to sign out. At the end of every class I just left my computer open to my account, and the next student would have to sign me out before he could sign himself in.

On the last day of the computer course, I signed in, took my final, and got up from my desk. As a precaution, the professor who was proctoring the test was able to see every student’s screen on his own. When I got up to leave, he called me back. “Hey, Myers,” he said, “you forgot to sign out of your computer.”


“Oh, sorry!” I said blithely. I returned to my desk and quickly googled “how to sign out of a computer.” I scanned the text that came up, okay, Control+Alt+Delete — wait, why wasn’t my keyboard working?

“Myers!” the professor bawled.

I had forgotten that he could see my screen.

Suddenly there was text blossoming across my screen: After two full semesters?!

Then he explained to me what I needed to do.

In Yiddish.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 810)

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