When I was in second grade, a man pulled me out of class with a few other students put us in a room and gave us a test that involved some simple spatial, pattern recognition and logic questions. I remember the very day because the man was clearly geeky and made the comment as he was gathering up kids, “Ok we are really humping now!” This cracked us up because to second graders, humping was a funny, albeit naughty, word.
I don’t remember receiving the actual news but I must have done well on the test because I ended up gifted.
By third grade, I couldn’t do long division whatsoever, my lowercase b looked like a lowercase d and my lowercase e looked like one you would see in a mirror. I dressed myself shabbily and my teacher used to address this with me. I drew on my notebooks, didn’t pay attention, tried to find ways to juke the system on homework, did only ok in class but, gifted, they said.
I really liked show-and-tell. I would check out astronomy books from the library and tell kids about the Andromeda Galaxy.
In fourth grade, there were two classes in my elementary school. One was for the smart kids and one for the less smart ones and after a semester in the class for the smart kids, they moved me to the other class. Still though, gifted.
As a vital aside here, many thanks to my mom who never stopped trying and was very active in seeing me find my way throughout all this despite being separated, working as a waitress and going to community college, the same college I would eventually get an English degree from in 2003 coincidentally.
In the fifth grade, I began going once a week to PATS, the “Program For Academically Talented Students.” But in my case it was more like just the “Program For Talented Students” because I was struggling in school despite the very noble efforts of my teacher Mrs. Huntley who I also owe many thanks to still.
PATS offered two classes a day and the students enrolled in them a lot like college students do except there were no required classes. All were elective. We chose what interested us.
PATS was the best education I had in Escambia County save for a few very special public school teachers like Mrs. Huntley, Mrs. Gross, Mrs. Fowler and a few others along the way. I’m not saying all the others didn’t care because some did but were clearly overwhelmed. Then there were certainly others, guidance counselors at Escambia in particular who, though probably also overwhelmed, picked the students they felt were likely to succeed and just ditchdug the rest of us.
In changing PATS, Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said, “In the future, the PATS Center won’t be about a single location. This day and age we expect a lot out of middle school students. They can’t afford to go somewhere for 20 percent of their instructional week.”
For me, frankly, it was the 80 percent of the time that I wasn’t at PATS that was often doing the damage. The one day a week I spent at PATS was a robust learning experience that served as a concentrate of thought that was as valuable to my young mind as the four other days put together. Mike Ensley in the article above, uses the phrase “safe learning environment” in his article and it’s very apt. One day I was learning about Phineas Gage at PATS, the next I was watching a kid put a Home Ec seam ripper in another’s side at Warrington Middle School.
The education was diverse. I acted in two plays while I was at PATS, one which myself and other students produced in its entirety, the concept, the stage design, the narrative, everything. There was a class called “Disunia” that simulated world trade and government. I can trace my understanding of neuroscience, perspective drawing, consumerism, video production, photography, back to classes at PATS. I first heard of people like Aristotle and Socrates there. I didn’t understand what they were saying really but I knew the Universe was saying, “Hey, pay attention to these guys.”
I first learned the word “verisimilitude” there.
“It’s a very smart word,” Mr. Drewitt said. “Say it if you ever meet the president. Say ‘Hello Mr. President! Verismilitude!’”
I even remember one of my teachers explaining to me how important Marvin Gaye was the day after the singer died.
There are fifth grade commentary essays of mine that were published in the school newspaper. Yes, the subject matter was on types of candy and HBO movies but, I was in fifth grade, that shit was worthy of discussion. It got my pen on the paper and gave me the notion that my voice can’t be heard if it isn’t out there. There was a reward given for writing, both from Mr. Drewitt and from seeing it in print, that “first byline” experience in fifth grade. It was inspiring and gave me the gift of endeavor. And look, here I am still doing it. And hey, I even had a career doing it once. And hey, I am about to self-publish a smutty short story here in a few weeks too.
Also, PATS put me with really cool kids. Not kids wearing Polo or Espirit but friends that I related to on my different levels. This was as valuable to me as the classes and the teachers. In school, you have more in common with the average kid because you haven’t had a lot of time or experience to differentiate yourself from them as much. These kids though, they were more engaged with the social cues I was tossing out to them and hoping they would be accept. Like the “humping” line. We picked up on that shit.
I was emotionally close with Wendy. Collaborated on art projects and portfolios with Fred and Joe. I had a spiritual bond with Mary Alex. I had long phone conversations at night with Anna. I greatly admired an upperclassman named Wesley who also had Mrs. Huntley and went to my Middle School and was charismatic, funny and smart. He protected me a little bit because we were sort of on similar courses. More on him later.
And since PATS was its own campus across town from where I lived, there was a very long bus ride (so long I pooped my pants once but we won’t get into that.) This was a unique experience where we had no choice but to just hang out and talk and imagine and interact with other kids like us. We picked kids up right in front of their homes so we saw different neighborhoods, incomes, houses. We shared stories, music, experiences. I first heard “Purple Rain” on a Walkman while on this bus and now I play it on every jukebox I can. Sometimes three times a week. Sometimes three times a NIGHT!
But PATS wasn’t funded through high school and after eighth grade it stopped. I think if it did continue in high school, when young minds particularly begin to grow and conceive who and what they will become, I may have drastically different life today.
It turns out, at Escambia High they put gifted kids in a class one day a week called “gifted studies.” And it wasn’t the same. I didn’t feel as immersed in the learning environment because just outside the door there were bullies, boobies, bong hits. You think a curious kid is going to concentrate on perspective drawing with that stuff just a hall pass away? I did used to kick ass at Trivial Pursuit though. Sure I cheated. Gary Francis lost because he didn’t. That’s how my critical thought resolved it anyway.
My academic problems with grades continued and I became an underachieving F student instead of an underachieving C student. I endured a psychological trauma. I started partying, wrecking cars, vandalizing, so on and so forth. I did some community college, got in trouble a few times, so on and so forth.
I of course have myself to blame for all that but I often wonder what the expectation was of me or any other kid in a school as big as Escambia High, a school a decade removed from notorious race riots, a school whose notable alumni is almost entirely composed of athletes. Don’t get me wrong, I will always love and and am extremely proud to have been friends with the Samoan Dynasty. They hold a very special place in my heart and I support their proud traditions. My heart swells when I see them on television.
I do wish Escambia could produce notable alumni in other fields also. The kids who come out of there who do well do so as very much of their own grit.
All of this may sound like I am unhappy with being a salvaged wood folk artist on Jackson Square in New Orleans. I’m not. This version of Lance Vargas has no complaints about his trade in life. I just wonder sometimes, as an exercise, if I could ever have had a career in astronomy or psychology or been a more successful journalist if my learning environment in high school were different. If PATS was extended instead of being dispersed like it is now.
I was chatting online with Fred this morning and he had this to say about PATS, “it was good to get away from the general population and solely be with people that wanted to learn and wanted to be there, made a huge difference.”
It’s notable to me he chose the words “general population.”
Oh, and Wesley? Here he is.