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Small Town Limitations

Growing up in small town America created limits on my worldview. I was the clever but academically unmotivated student teacher’s hate. I loved to learn purely for the sake of learning but was not particularly motivated to try and meet parents’ or teachers’ expectations of me. I mastered reading before I even started school but I bored quickly in first grade reading classes. For my first three years of school what happened at recess was far more interesting and exciting than whatever happened between recesses. I read at home but seldom participated in class. Our Second grade teacher introduced us to what was called the New Math, carefully explained in some hand-outs our teacher distributed, but which she failed to understand. So I read the hand-outs, solved the math problems, and when my answers matched her teacher’s guide she had me teach the rest of the class this New Math. I loved teaching but was generally bored with school and was generally known as a wise cracker and class joker. I played with the boys in my class, focused on what was going on in our neighborhood, and the school seemed like a major distraction from what was true and meaningful in my life.
This began to change in fourth grade, when a conscientious teacher guessed I had the capacity for doing additional homework, so gave me frequent extra homework assignments. I happily wrote book reports on books she recommended to me, or ones I had found on my own, researched the answers to the questions I had asked her, and opened up a world of independent study opportunities. This served me well at Fort Barton Middle School, where I spent fifth and sixth grade, as this is when they began to track us educationally. There were five levels of fifth grade based on academic progress. Ranger school was known in town as serving the poorest neighborhoods. My friends and I from Ranger were assigned to the lowest group. But every three months or so I was moved up to the next higher group leaving behind my childhood friends and playmates. By the end of fifth grade I was in the highest academic group. By the end of sixth grade I was consistently a leader in that group. I really enjoyed my time at Ranger School but now I became a serious student. My self-identity became someone smart, sociable, capable of anything, and happy to help everyone. I became a leader in my class and really enjoyed hanging with the smart kids. This was my first social class crossing.
Smart kids often faced problems on the playground, where there was always someone bigger and stronger, often annoyed at your knowing what they didn’t. In middle school I was literally a 98 pound weakling. A skinny kid with a buzz cut. About as gentle a soul as you could find. With no real interest in fighting. This easily made me a target, and I took my share of kicks and punches, but here is where having three older brothers helped. Bullies learned if you picked on one Sherblom you might well meet several more. I did fine with bullies thereafter. I also made sure I was around to help my younger brothers whenever necessary. But I still did school on my terms. On nice days a well-chosen friend or two might skip an afternoon class with me. We’d climb the hill behind the school where there was a reconstructed façade of the colonial era Fort Barton. From this vantage point we could see the entire town, the river traffic on the Sakonnet River, and the world beyond. Being in nature was transcendent for me. This is still one of my favorite viewing points though foliage has grown up around it over time.
I also remember the eighth grade science class where the teacher tried to disprove the existence of extra sensory perception (ESP) and teach us probability theory at the same time. He had three plastic spoons: red, blue and white. He asked for volunteers so I volunteered. He blindfolded me and asked me to tell him the color of the each of the spoons by feel alone. The spoons each felt slightly different to me. It was as if I could almost feel the differences in light refracting off the different color spoons. He explained that my initial success rate of 57% was an artifact of small numbers, since I had no way of knowing which spoon I held, he said the longer we did the experiment the more my results would regress to the expected mean. As my attempts rose from 20 to 50, to 100, and then 300, my cumulative success rate gradually rose to around 65%. Our science teacher was very frustrated. But his failed experiment taught me an unexpected lesson. No matter how sound the theory, reality doesn’t always follow theory, and the everyday reality that actually surrounds us is far more interesting than what the human mind can conceive. This lesson served me well when I came to know mystics. They often live in multiple realities at the same time and simply call it divine mystery. Growing up my expectations were set by small town limits. Like a bird, walking on a wire, who had not yet learned to fly. One day I would fly and then even soar!

This entry was posted in: Resilience


Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist, author, mystic, theologian, entrepreneur, social impact investor, company creator and spiritual seeker. Jim holds a BA from Yale, an MBA from Harvard, and Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Andover Newton.

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