Saturday, August 08, 2009

In Defense of High School

Recently a friend said to me that he learned nothing in high school and that in general it is just a big waste of time. I hear people say this all the time. My husband will readily tell you that once he left the rigors of Catholic school in tenth grade, he never learned another thing. We both went to Kirby, where we met in drama class. That alone should make him think he was where he needed to be, right?

I think this is a bunch of bullshit, people saying they learned nothing in high school. I learned plenty. I learned about Willa Cather and Hemingway and Sylvia Plath, who became my teenage idol. I read "Our Town" and Joyce's "The Dead" and learned about epiphanies. I read the Spoon River Anthology and was asked to write a poem in the style of Edgar Lee Masters, which I found I was able to do quite easily and well. I read about the Transcendentalists and the oversoul and Civil Disobedience and the importance of self reliance. I learned about the basics of economics, opportunity cost and the law of diminishing returns. I learned passable French that I can still speak and read surprisingly well. I gained a fundamental understanding of human genetics and of biology in general. I learned when to say "lay" and when to say "lie" and how to make your junior English teacher laugh and blush during that lesson. I learned about Jung and universal symbols and about Freud and how sometimes the experts turn out to be completely insane but also sort of right about things in a wrong kind of way. I learned to kick a Geometry proof's ass, which is a good introduction to applied logic and which apparently a lot of people can't do.

Maybe you think I'm just listing random crap, but in fact I could tell you the teacher's name that corresponds to each example I gave. I can remember the discussions about Emerson and Thoreau especially well. I'm sure there's plenty that didn't stick with me, and I'm not claiming that my time was never wasted, but overall it was a worthwhile experience. Maybe that's not true for everyone, but I suspect it's true for a lot of people who claim that high school was terrible and taught them nothing. I'm sure there are kids who are better served in other settings. There are very intelligent kids who could wise up and go get their GED and move on to college, and there's nothing wrong with that choice if the traditional path isn't working. But I still argue that there is some value in a classical education, and that a decent-to-excellent version of that can be found in public schools in every city and district in the country.

I guess I take this particular staple of the cynical hipster canon personally because I am a high school teacher. Duh, right? But the idea that I am knowingly and willfully wasting people's time is so insulting because that is something I've given very specific thought to. Early in my teaching career, I had a student in the eighth grade named Jason Carson. He was smart and charismatic and the girls thought he was dreamy. He kind of attached himself to me, and in the remaining years of high school, (it was a 7-12 school) he would often return to my classroom to visit. At times I had to fuss at him and push him away so he would go to his actual classes. When Jason was a senior, he went to visit the college he was planning to attend, where his brother was already a student. Since his brother would be staying at school, they took separate cars. His brother said that one minute he saw Jason in the rear view mirror following him, and the next he was gone. He rolled his car in a ditch and was killed instantly. That was almost ten years ago and I still think about Jason at least once a week. My eyes fill with tears every single time because as much as the potential and promise of his life was wasted by his death, what was most devastating to me at the time was the possibility that I had wasted even one minute of the little time he had. I was a new teacher with a class full of unruly middle-schoolers I'd inherited mid-year after a series of subs. My intentions were good but I'm sure I didn't know what I was doing. What I took away from that is the knowledge that no matter what new test comes along for the administration to hang over our heads or what new crisis the media decides to blame on schools and teachers, my responsibility is to those kids. That doesn't mean I'm at my best every day or that I can't do better, but it means that I think of my students as individuals whose time is valuable. It means that sometimes I remind myself that I can live in a world where those kids might grow up to use incorrect punctuation, but not one in which they are cruel and intolerant and willfully ignorant. It means that I know who I really work for. And I'm not there to waste my employers' time.


Rita said...

Oh, Sassy! I had probably one of the worst high school experiences that a person could ever have, but even in the hell that was my life during that time, I can remember people--TEACHERS--who changed my life and filled me with hope. My french teacher, Madame Dunoon. My band teacher, Mr Henry Hiorns. My homeroom teacher (and geometry teacher) Mr Alvarez. My biology teacher, Mr Zeitlow, who always had the class arranged backwards alphabetically because as a student whose last name started with Z, he always had to sit in the back row and vowed to remedy that when he became a teacher. The algebra teacher with the really loooong hair, whose name I can't remember, but should. And, my favorite, my crazy chemistry teacher, with the wild hair and the coke bottom eyeglasses, who blamed his behavior on teaching in the same classroom where students have broken hundreds of mercury thermometers over the years.

I loved those people, and especially since my life was such hell during the three years I spent in high school, those teachers stand out even more to me as beacons of light in a dungeon. You do make a difference. Maybe not to everyone, but really, if you make a difference to ONE kid through your whole career, then that's more than most adults can claim, right? And, I know for a fact (because I see your former students on facebook) that you do reach more than one student.

Academically, I did learn a lot in the three years of high school. But, we all know that high school education (as well as college) is about learning a lot more than just academics.

Memphisotan said...

I'm usually afraid to tell people how much I enjoyed high school, because they'll think I'm an enormous dork. But, even though I am an enormous dork, I had a really good time, both academically and socially, and a large portion of that contentment came from having enthusiastic, dedicated teachers. Sometimes I felt a little like I was wasting my time, but my teachers never made me feel like I was wasting theirs.

Anonymous said...

Amen. I've said plenty of bad things about high school, lord knows, but the negative aspects were mostly a function of how being 13-17 years old is an ongoing and massive mental and emotional earthquake. I learned a ton in high school, not the least of which was the amazing capacity of my own mind to see patterns, discern meaning, understand nuance, express ideas, and follow some sensible rules. (My junior year English teacher gave an F on any paper that had even one of her Top 10 "Never Misspell These Words" words. "Alot" is not a word, people!)

muggs said...

Amen! I can still make the long, long, long list of all the stuff I used in high school. Have I used all of it the same way I use algebra to figure out how much something costs on the 30% off rack? No. But it did shape me into who I am today, and that is important. I honestly believe that people who say they learned nothing are probably telling the truth. Those are the same people who lack the ability to be introspective. They probably get "nothing" out of thought-provoking novels and gain "nothing" out of any music or art that speaks to the soul.

On a different note, I think that one of the big points of school in general is to teach people how to interact with one another and learn how to be members of a community, especially a community where you don't always like everyone and you don't always agree with the rules or the expectations (you know, kind of like learning how to live in the real world?). I think that the things kids learn in our classroom that they remember are usually not subject related, but life related, and that's what really matters.

Kelly said...

I never denied I learned stuff in high school but the truth is the terrible in high school (and there is outweighs nearly anything I learned. I certainly hope the point wasn't to teach people about appropriate socialization because it fails for very big ends of the spectrum.

College, even the crazy college I attended initially for my bachelors was a far more formative and important experience in my life.

Melanie said...

I really enjoyed reading that, Kristy.

It actually made me gasp, because I work with J's brother; the little he's told me about that accident seems unbearably tragic.

Kudos to teachers that actually respect and value their students' time and the job they're there to do.

Andrea McKay said...

Well stated. I'm also a high school teacher and I am dreading the return to work tomorrow, but this post was a nice reminder of why I keep going back. Thanks!