JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: A conversation with Wendell Affield on education
Too often in education we fail to ask current and former students about what more educators could have done to help them find success. Wendell Affield, who many of you already know because you have read his three books “Muddy Jungle Rivers,” “Herman” and “Pawns,” grew up in a highly dysfunctional family in the Nebish area. In this interview, Wendell gives his views on education and how it could help more students who find themselves in situations similar to Wendell’s. (You can obtain Wendell’s books by going to wendellaffield.com/books .)
Q: What role did your parents play or not play in your decision not to complete high school?
A: In 1960 I was 12 years old when my mother, Barbara, was committed to Fergus Falls State Hospital. We children were placed in foster homes. Over the next four years I bounced through five foster homes and the farm. By the winter of 1964 when I left school, my parents’ opinion was not relevant to me. After a lifetime of witnessing domestic abuse—from both parents—I walked out during one of their endless quarrels. They probably didn’t miss me until chore time the next day.
Q: You obtained your GED in the military, had a distinguished service career, went on to have good jobs, got married, had three children and became a successful author. What was the catalyst that got you on the right path?
A: After I left the farm, I was blessed through life by having great role models. For me, the military was a positive experience. After boot camp I was stationed on a destroyer—a ship with about a 300-man crew. I stood bridge watches and had the opportunity to get to know the ship’s captain. He encouraged me to get my GED, which I did while under his command. Today I credit my wife Patti and other role models: Joe Lueken, who I worked with many years, the late Susan Carol Hauser and Mark Christiansen who encouraged me to tell my stories.
Q: Initially you were a good student in school, what caused you to not do so well in your later years?
A: Two primary causes: first, I was interested in taking classes such as speech, drama, debate—the ninth grade school counselor took one look at my “dream sheet” as it was called and crossed out my choices. He told me, "you’re a farm kid. You take Shop and FFA." I hated those classes. The second issue, as a foster kid I naturally had low self-esteem and was cannon fodder for the school bullies. And no one seemed to care.
Q: The drop out problem is alive and well in Beltrami County. What advice would you have for parents and educators on how to “fix” the problem?
A: Beltrami County has record foster home placements. Sadly, these children have been forced to mature beyond their years in dysfunctional homes. I imagine they struggle with the same issues I did. Perhaps a peer support group during the school day for just foster kids might be an answer. They all have something in common, they have been removed from some form of abusive situation and face the same challenges each day in school—challenges that students coming from secure homes cannot understand.
Q: Your mother had schooling beyond high school and seemed to regard “being educated” as something of great importance, did this have any meaning to you?
A: Barbara used her education to bludgeon Herman (i.e. Barbara’s husband who she met by placing a lonely hearts ad)—she’d mock his lack of education. I do not recall her ever mentioning continued education beyond high school. As children, the concept of going to college was just not a part of our worldview.
Q: As you experienced, many kids today face issues that distract from their desire to complete high school. What advice would you have for students who are confronted with a myriad of distractions?
A: The greatest lesson students need to understand is that high school and the first few years after are often the foundation for the rest of their life. When I was discharged from the military, I found work as a meat cutter apprentice, thinking it would be a fill-in until I found a career I wanted. But as is the human condition, life got in the way—marriage, children, mortgage—then it was too late to return to school or explore other careers.
Q: It’s obvious that your dysfunctional family played a huge role in your life. We have many dysfunctional families today. What simple advice would you give to parents that would do the most good to cope with their dysfunction?
A: I like to think that every parent loves each of their children. If a troubled parent could for a moment see beyond their own challenges and realize that short-changing their children’s education will hamper that child’s future, perhaps the parents would be more supportive.
Q: Parents teach us many things. Although your parents had some serious parenting issues, can you name a couple of things that you learned from them?
A: I learned how to live a spartan life—that served me well in Vietnam and many times since. I learned to be self-sufficient and not to depend on others.
Q: Did it ever occur to you during your high school years that if you did obtain your high school diploma you could go on to some form of higher learning and rid yourself of such an abusive home?
A: No, as I mentioned earlier, BSU or another option was not a part of our worldview. When my two older brothers left the farm, they ended up working at a mink farm in Illinois.
Q: Did Herman or your mother show any remorse for their actions? Did they have regrets?
A: I think Herman very much respected my military service. We got on well after I was discharged. With Barbara, I think at the end, she did regret, she actually changed her will a few days before she died and left me in charge of her probate estate.
Q: Many children, like you and your siblings, come to school today with many unresolved issues that conflict with learning. What more do you think educators can do to help kids?
A: Tough question. I recall carrying problems to school in the form of dirty clothes, toothaches, poor hygiene—and being teased about it. School and technology have changed so much since the 1950s-‘60s. For many years I worked with a family that had young children. Sometimes I’d stop by early in the day, parents still sleeping, kids watching cartoons instead of at school. Free breakfast is good—it motivates some children who would otherwise go hungry. Is there such a program as each teacher might “adopt” a student and give them extra support/attention? I believe that for a troubled student, knowing that even one person cares, might make a difference.
You can read the conversation with Wendell in its entirety by going to my Facebook page Project Graduate 100% .
Riddle: Why did the coach go to the bank? (Answer: To get his quarterback.) In helping to get many of our kids back, it pays to ask them, “What more can we do?”
Look for more interviews in the future that will help us shed light on meeting the needs of our students so 100% of them will graduate.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.