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Different people learn in different ways.

Some people learn best by reading, others by listening.  Some learn by observing and others learn as the result of confrontation, which is another way of saying learning by experience, but typically with more noise and stress. 

In my younger years, when hours upon hours of reading and memorization skills were essential tools to learning and earning good grades, I was never what you would call an exemplary student.  In middle school, high school, and college, I learned best by listening and observing.  Reading was in the mix, but a distant third in my toolbox of educational abilities.

I did well in the courses where listening, observing, and some reading were essential – history, government, political science, journalism, and psychology, for example.  In courses where memorization was the necessary primary skill set, I struggled mightily.  For example, economics, foreign languages, and chemistry were full-out challenges.  

Because I was of the generation that learned to spell phonetically, I struggled in English, literature, and grammar especially when forced to memorize endless poems.  In college I had to take a course in phonetics for a radio-television course, and that only exacerbated my spelling problems.

It was not until later in life as a newspaper reporter, as I was forced to improve or die, did I finally connect with the fact that there were actually established rules for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.  Apparently that body of knowledge fell through my memorization deficit zone. 

When I was a cub reporter – the first week on the job at The Tyler Morning Telegraph – I was assigned a desk in the back of the newsroom facing the wall.  I was initially delegated the job of rewriting press releases from PR firms and local agencies.  My shift started at 3 PM.  This was about the time that the newsroom personnel who worked for the afternoon edition were packing up to go home. 

One day, not far into my tenure, I turned in four or five rewritten press releases.  There was a lot of noise from the Associated Press and UPS wire machines, the police monitor, and the rhythmic clacking of reporters and editors banging away on their manual typewriters.  For the record, the good, experienced reporters and editors could type 60-70 words a minute on a manual using their two index fingers and their left thumb – a lightning fast version of hunt-and-peck. 

Suddenly there was a break in the noise.  This occurred at the exact same moment that the city editor, who was reviewing my work, noticed a certain pattern of spelling errors and, with incredulous frustration, loudly bellowed, “Self, you g—d—- stupid rookie.  When in the hell are you ever going to learn how to spell receive?  Didn’t they teach you that it is ‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’?”

Everyone stared, followed almost immediately by howls of laughter.  A beet red color rose from my neck to cover my face.  Humiliation!  Thank heavens I was facing the wall.  I slumped considerably, but I did not look back out of Biblical fear that I might turn to stone.

I never, ever forgot that rule.  There were others I had to learn and the city editor’s profanity-laced yelling lectures – sometimes grammar inquisitions — while my colleagues looked on, some nodding and some laughing, gave me the desire, the energy and the craving to avoid these explosions at all costs.

That was learning through confrontation.

John retired from the newspaper business in 1976.  At the time he was a crime writer and investigative reporter for The Houston Post.  

© 2012 John Gregory Self