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“What part of this don’t you understand?” the judge asked, frustration edging her voice. “You’re 14. The law says you need to be in school. Do you think the rules don’t apply to you?”
The boy looked at her, swiveling slightly in the green, high-backed chair. He tugged a couple of times at his long black hair, a light magenta tinting one spot, and his closed mouth moved as he chewed the flesh toward the left edge of his lower lip. “No, they apply to me.”
I wondered if they did. I was his guardian ad litem, a volunteer appointed by the court to ensure that whatever was going to happen was in his best interest and to help him navigate the turmoil his truancy had stirred up. Ideally, I was part of a system that would get him to return to school. But Harry, a bright 14-year-old who appeared impervious to threats from the Department of Children and Families to take him into custody, possessed an instinctive understanding that rules apply only up to a point, and he had reached that point.
“Do you understand?” his case worker asked.
“Do you understand?” the judge asked. “Do you understand that we will take you from your mother’s house and put you into foster care, where you will be forced to attend school?”
“Do what you have to do,” Harry replied. “I hate that school, and I’m not going back.”
School had become intolerable. Harry's voice is one of hundreds that echo in my memory from almost 50 years working with young people as teacher, school administrator and guardian ad litem.
It's a chorus of frustration and rage, with lyrics that are all too familiar: "School is stupid. I don't fit in. The work is meaningless. I'm bored and tired. The schedule is mind-numbing. The teachers hate me and think I'm dumb. School's a prison."
Sadly, I agree with them. Their experience was my experience, just less extreme than Harry's. Countless seemingly "successful" students like me just go through the motions of absorbing information long enough to pass the tests. We serve our time, play the game. But it was close.
I wanted badly to quit college, and one day when I was in New York City, I visited my step-grandmother, a celebrated writer and Broadway actor, a brilliant woman who described herself as "an indifferent student" and who had left college a couple of weeks before the end of her freshman year. She encouraged me to leave.
But my father convinced and coerced me to stay. Like most people, he believed in the value and necessity of diplomas and accepted the tedium and tribulations of acquiring them as just a normal rite of passage. I still do not share his conviction.
I became a teacher and then an administrator because I believed, quixotically — perhaps arrogantly — that I could change the system, come up with a better design to transform the experience of school for everyone. The solution seemed so obvious: Design a system based on how people actually learn, rather than on delusions about efficient teaching.
Like many idealists, I badly underestimated the resistance to change and the institutional capacity to absorb new ideas without altering traditional structures and practices. So, instead of becoming the students' ally, I became a hypocrite and a liar — a stooge for a system that I despise.
I worked to get students to conform, to play by the rules, to ignore the inner voices that raged against the dying of the light. My job was to pull them back from the brink of the intolerable, the abyss into which Harry stared, by playing on their desire to succeed and their need to please. I convinced them of the importance of their studies or a diploma or college. I painted bleak pictures of futures awaiting those who don't play the game — even as my grandmother snickered in my ear.
I was good at my job. I taught many students strategies for studying, memorizing, reducing friction with their teachers, building up their tolerance for the intolerable, slogging through the week to reach the weekend. I taught survival when what these young people really needed was to know that they were right: They deserved a better system.
It took almost two years to get Harry to attend school regularly and to show the court that the rules applied to him. During those two years, he was in and out of truancy, in and out of court. He got involved with drugs periodically, disappeared for a couple of months, got hit by a train and was in the hospital for a while, but, eventually, court became more intolerable than school, so he enrolled in the ninth grade and showed up until the court was finally satisfied and dismissed his case. I don't know what happened after that.
Most of the kids with whom I worked were luckier and more tractable than Harry. Of course, some were harder cases and dropped out; a few ended up in jail. But most conformed, went on to college, got good jobs and recovered from school. Years later, some of these thanked me.
I apologize to them all.
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