I Just Realized My Elementary School Curriculum Committee Was Made Up Of Geniuses
Growing up, I remember sitting in a tiny farm down of a few thousand people in the middle of Missouri – thousands of miles from the ocean – and having to learn about tsunamis. The lessons were integrated so we had to know how to spell it on the spelling test, we had to know how they had hurt different societies in the past through death and devastation for history and social studies, and we had to know the causes and warning signs for science.
It was fascinating to me that a tsunami could appear as an ordinary wave in the depth of the ocean – and that you were safest out in the water if you were far enough away from land – otherwise you needed to be on the highest, most stable ground you could find. The paradox of that stuck with me. Who’d have thought the safest place against water was floating on top of the deepest water you could find? It makes sense.
I have no idea why this was part of our education, especially given that we were nowhere near the Atlantic or Pacific, but it was drilled into this small nine year old boy a couple of decades ago. I can still see the page on the textbook, which I know now is a famous Ukiyo-E of the 19th century called In the Hollow of a Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa By Hokusai (1760-1849).
So when I see the video like this – the boats capsized on the beach and the piers now as tall as trees – every fiber of my being screams, “RUN!” – even though there are no visible warning signs that would indicate mass death and destruction is about to follow.
This caused me to reflect. That same year, we also learned efficient farming methods to prevent crop death and erosion. I can still see the test paper – it was blank, with boxes, and cartoon outlines of hills on a farm. We had to draw the different planting methods based on the soil analysis and rain patters (e.g., swirling from the top of the hill, instead of planting in long lines over the hill, can result in greater top soil retention, how to properly fertilize soil, the importance of cover crops, how to create lines of trees as windbreakers to protect the more lucrative harvests).
And we were taught to look for signs of animal behavior changes – if you suddenly find yourself in an area where the birds have disappeared, or the wildlife has gone quiet, pay attention. Though no empirical proof has been found due to the impractical nature of studying such a phenomenon, anecdotal evidence throughout history has indicated that certain types of earthquakes might have signs that different animals can sense before humans.
(The most famous case is the 1975 earthquake in Haicheng city. In the months leading up to the quake, there were constant reports of bizarre animal behavior. Officials were hesitant to do anything but then there was a small series of tremors. Deciding it was better to be safe than sorry, the city was emptied. The next day, a 7.3 magnitude quake hit.) If you’re home alone and the dog starts suddenly growling at the back door, you might grab a gun and call the police. That sort of thing. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t rely solely on your own sense. In this same tsunami video, that means when you saw the locals run, you should be running, too. Ask questions on the way.
We were also forced to learn sailor maxims to predict weather such as, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.”
I have no idea what the curriculum committee was thinking. While everyone else was trying things like new math and “everybody gets a medal”, we were doing integrated, reinforced lesson plans mixed with real-world, practical knowledge. And there was competition. Once a year, the entire school shut down for a “field day” where they handed out blue ribbons for first, red ribbons for second, and green ribbons for third place based on a wide variety of athletic challenges. It was so much fun. It had a celebration-like atmosphere. That was the first time I remember thinking, “Yeah … I have no advantage at this whole rope climbing thing but I’m awesome at the intellectual stuff. I should probably focus on it.”
They were either visionary geniuses or there was an eccentric on the planning board who somehow attained power while no one was watching.
I can see the meetings now:
George: “They must learn about tsunamis!”
Martha: “But George, we’re 2,000 miles away from the ocean in the middle of the plains.”
George: “You never know. Better safe than sorry. Martha, put tsunamis on the list!”
Martha: “Should that go before or after the discussion about small pox being able to adhere to the fibers of certain blankets?”
George: “Come on Martha, this is a no-brainer. Put it after animal husbandry and the discussion of hermaphrodites in Ancient Egypt.”