For U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra, it was statistics and Spanish at Stanford. For Gov. Jerry Brown, it was modern British literature at Cal.
For Chief Justice of California Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, the gift that kept giving was a speech class at Sacramento City College. Poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera cites a seminal assignment in a third-grade class.
School memories have a way of hazing over. But everyone has that one class that has remained with them long after they’ve turned in their last paper and taken their last final exam.
Do you remember yours? I do mine. A smart friend talked me into taking a series of notoriously tough economics courses with her when we were in college. I was completely unprepared; the work made my brain feel as if someone had physically bruised it. But what I learned about the way the world works, and about my own capacity for learning, has since been invaluable.
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What would you tell a student to explore, knowing what you know now? Please share. Seriously. Comment online or on Facebook or email or write in. This has been on my mind as college costs soar and yet another of my children stews over whether she’s learning what she actually needs for the world that awaits her. I’m finding that if you ask around, ye shall get interesting guidance counseling.
University of California President Janet Napolitano, for instance, told me she still has the textbook from the seminar on Western European civilization that she once took at Santa Clara University from the historian Istvan Mocsy.
“We read art history, we read philosophy, we read standard history, we read literature,” she recalled. “It gave me a sense of how important it is, in appreciating current events, to have a holistic understanding of the precursors.”
That sense has paid off, she said. That, and learning the clarinet in high school.
“I think there’s a value in learning how to practice,” Napolitano said. “Just the difference it makes in performance, and the discipline.”
Actually, a lot of people I’ve spoken with have mentioned music. Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, said the words of his old choral director at Orange Coast College still inspire him.
“When I think of slacking off, or just kind of being satisfied with something being as good as it could be, a little voice in my head says, ‘No, you can do better,’ ” he said.
Herrera spoke immediately of his third grade teacher at Lowell Elementary in Barrio Logan in San Diego: “Mrs. Lelya Sampson in 1958 invited me to sing in front of the class,” he remembered.
“That sounds easy, but I spoke Spanish, and had been punished before for not speaking English in other classes. But she invited me in such a tender manner: ‘What song do you want to sing?’ I said, ‘Three Blind Mice.’ OK, she said, go ahead. So I sang, a capella, and she said to me, ‘Why, you have a beautiful voice!’ ”
That moment, he said, echoed throughout his education, from an essay writing assignment to a high school choral group in which he was told that he had a great voice, but was only using a third of it.
“It became my life phrase,” said Herrera, who went on to teach at CSU Fresno and UC Riverside, and was named U.S. poet laureate this year. “What is my voice? Why is it beautiful? What is a voice anyway?”
Brice Harris, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, credits his speech class at Watonga High School in Watonga, Okla., with not only teaching him to organize thoughts and present on his feet, but also with turning him on to the field that would underpin his own career in academia.
Cantil-Sakauye says the late Ken Lynch, longtime speech teacher and debate coach at Sacramento City College, changed her life. “When I discovered that the young men I beat during debates had plans to go to law school,” she said, “I thought: I can do that, too.”
She also thought, mistakenly, that Lynch’s class would be a no-brainer. So maybe another bit of advice is, don’t resist the seemingly easy A.
“Up until my sophomore year, I had never formally studied Spanish,” said Congressman Becerra, emailing from his Washington, D.C., office. “I learned it at home, and assumed I knew it well enough to take care of business. I was wrong.”
The conversational Spanish that he took as a college sophomore, along with, he said, a class in statistics – the language of numbers – taught him to communicate across boundaries.
Cultural anthropology, computer coding, human sexuality, ice skating, sociology, stage management, typing. Almost everyone I speak to has different – or maybe it’s similar – advice.
A class in kinesiology and biomechanics at Fresno State taught CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White to trust his curiosity and led him to his own scientific research. A course in community organizing at Virginia’s Emory & Henry College helped Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins “understand that I had a voice that was worthy of being heard.”
A U.S. history class at New Hampshire’s exclusive Philips Exeter Academy taught former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer that the status quo could be challenged. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León learned the same lesson from an Upward Bound program at his San Diego barrio high school.
“There was a girl my age named Sabrina, and she invited me to this after-school program,” de León told me. He demurred, but she insisted he’d benefit from the tutoring and the help with college applications.
“They took us to a college campus and it was, like, the massive size of the buildings – it was awe-inspiring. My mom only went to third grade,” de León said. “If it wasn’t for Upward Bound, I don’t know if I would have gotten a higher education. That program opened my eyes to opportunities I never thought were possible.”
Having your eyes opened – that seems to be what’s worth the tuition, even if your rose-colored glasses never quite fit again. Sometimes what you learn is needed by the world that awaits you.
Brown said he still remembers the parting words of the great critic Mark Schorer, more than a half-century after the governor studied Yeats, Joyce, T.S. Eliot and “some of the darker aspects of modernity” in Schorer’s literature course at UC Berkeley.
“This class ends on a downbeat,” the professor told the group, taking a long drag from a cigarette and slowly exhaling. “But that’s just the way it is.”