I studied with some of the greatest minds in the gifted program at Washington High School in the summer of 1986. They chose the brightest and the most innovative minds to come out of the Milwaukee Public Schools.
Mr. Olsen had recommended me for the gifted program and, knowing my parents would not have filled out the paperwork, he did it himself. He handed me an envelope the last day of school when he held me back in line. Handed me and Gentleman the envelope and smiled at us both.
Gentleman was a pristinely dressed, prepped black boy from my fifth grade class who always wore the perfect outfit and conducted himself in the perfect way. He was intimidating in his perfection, and when he was handed his envelope, I was not surprised.
“You two are some of the greatest minds to ever come out of my classroom and I want you in this program,” Mr. Olsen said.
At the Washington High School summer program, most of the kids were high schoolers, and they were huge and totally over the little white boy who slinked around them. Most of them gave me a sort of angry disregard, a kind of seething boredom. But my classes were different.
I was the only white kid in the class that summer. The teachers thought this odd, but did not spend much time on it. I was told how special we were, told we were going to make a difference, then I was put to work.
The classes had a massive effect on me, but most of all, it was the description lesson that stuck with me. A teacher, whose name is lost to time, handed us all note cards and stood at the front of the class with three loaves of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly. He had a butter knife and a plan.
We were told to describe, to a hungry alien, how to make a peanut butter sandwich. My card was chosen first. My step one was “open the bread.” The teacher grabbed the bag in the middle and, with a bit of effort, he ripped the bag in half. He grabbed two pieces of bread and set them on the desk in front of him. When the next description said open the jar, he picked it up with his hand, held it high above his head, and made to shatter it on the corner of the desk. Every one of us screamed and he looked up at us.
Instructions, he said, had to be explicit. He ran through the cards, picking one up and reading off the name of the kid who wrote it. He set them aside. All but one of them had said, “Open the bread.”
A boy I will call God, was the only one who passed this step. He was the biggest peer I had ever seen, standing almost six and a half feet tall and headed into the sixth grade. He was bigger than my father, stepfather, or either of my uncles. He described a bit of twisted wire at the end of the bread bag. Told the alien to twist it until the bread was open. Then he said open the peanut butter jar. It was as close as any of us got to teaching that alien how to make that sandwich, but I never forgot that lesson. I would go on to use it to write thirty-five books. It is one of the single most important things I learned in school.
I was a gifted kid from the moment that envelope was handed to me, until I had been with Liechin for one quarter. After that, the greatest attack on my education that has ever been launched began. I stopped being a gifted kid and became a dreg. A loser and the “dumbest kid in class” as described by one of my peers. Let’s start this story at the beginning.
Liechin had no patience for review. He held our math book above his head on the first day of school and shook it. He slammed it on the table in front of him and said, “This book is flawed. It has, as its first ten lessons, all the things you learned last year, in last year’s math book. I will not abide it. Tonight, when you get home, you will do the homework for all the first ten lessons in this book. Tomorrow, we start on the new stuff.”
He had just given us ten days’ worth of homework in one night. On the first day of school. No one gave homework on the first day of school. He had no patience for the mundane. He had a job to do, and when he handed down that assignment, we realized Liechin was waging a war against our ignorance.
I did all ten lessons. I read my social studies chapter and answered all the questions. I did my first spelling lesson, and I wrote out the rules of grammar as designated by the first chapter of my English book. This was the first day of school. I did homework for four hours. Got to bed late after doing my chores and eating dinner, and I lay there, wondering what I would know by the end of the year.
We attacked the next set of lessons the next day, and learned the rules of his class.
He did not believe in chalkboards. He was not going to spend his entire day standing in front of a board. He was not going to leave the school with chalk on his pants like all the other teachers did. He used an overhead projector.
Some of you will not know what that is, but I will describe it. A projector is a great box that stands about a foot high and has on top a piece of glass about eighteen inches by fifteen. It has an arm that rises from the back of the box and hangs above the glass, and when it is turned on, that arm holds a piece of machinery that grabs whatever is on the glass and projects it on the screen behind it. Liechin had one of these on his desk. He wrote directly on the glass, and the light in the box under that glass shone through it, illuminating whatever he was writing on the screen behind his desk. He would wipe the projector clean when it was full. He taught class like this all day.
He set our desks up in rows around his, with the front row butted right up against his. The rows formed half-circles around his desk.
One reason he did not use chalkboards was because he had computers in his room and he did not want the dust from the chalk to get into the workings of the computers.
He had four computers. They were called Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. You could earn time on them by doing all your work or diligently listening in class. During the first quarter, I lived on those computers. After that, I never sat there again.
He would open the huge windows in his room during tests. He said the cold would help us clear our minds, would help us think better. He told us that warm air comforted the mind. It made the mind slow and unalert. Said that if he could teach outdoors, he would. I remember wearing my jacket in his class during tests. Even though I was not answering any of the questions, was not even filling out the paper, I wore my coat and I memorized the questions. I answered them in my head. And he stood over me, perplexed. But that was after the first quarter, when I was dropped into a pit of hell and fear.
Liechin would be one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He taught me things I did not see covered again until I was in college. Brought us lessons in history that were never in any class until I got as far as a junior in college. When I learned them later, I realized Liechin had taught me better. He expanded my mind in every way. Taught me how to be a man, a scholar, and fought a war against me he did not understand and did not ever give up on.
This man and I struggled for three quarters of a year. He attacked in every way, coming up with a different plan it seemed every day. When he was done teaching his lessons and the other kids around me were working, he would stare at me as I sat with my pencil down, my head buried in a book, obviously memorizing everything he was teaching. When I was done and the other kids were still working, we would lock eyes and he would fight to figure out the puzzle. He would stare with his intense eyes, his wild and honed mind, and fight to understand why, after the first quarter of my sixth grade year, I had stopped.
I stopped turning in any assignments, answering any test questions, or filling out any papers. I read every word of every chapter he ever assigned me. I debated with him the finer points of the lessons my peers had trouble grasping, and I learned more from him than any other teacher I had in elementary school.
Liechin fought a war against me all year, and he lost. Because in the end, he had to fail me. I had to repeat sixth grade.
I had forced his hand. I had won our war.