I completed most of my schooling in Upstate New York in a relatively small suburb of the City of Syracuse. The schools weren’t exactly turning out Nobel Laureates left and right, but they weren’t funneling kids into a life of drugs either. A good description is probably comfortably and boringly above average.
The simple answer to the title is “Because they’re built on a system of consumption and regurgitation repeated ad-nauseum,” but that’s not really very interesting. So here we go.
Why 6th Grade Blew
My mom would answer: because they didn’t have any accelerated classes to separate the smart kids (me) from the dumb-dumbs and she basically forced the District to take me out of 6th grade math and put me in 7th grade math. But I disagree. There are more ways to be smart than simply being good at school, and I think separating classes does students a disservice by withholding them from experiencing different types of intelligence.
The real problem is that because American schooling is standards driven, classes only move as fast as the dumbest students because teachers need them to meet the arbitrary demarcations that are defined by the state. By far my worst memories of school are sitting in Mrs. Schrempf’s 6th grade English class having to read an eight page Time for Kids Magazine bored out of my fucking mind because I could finish it in five minutes and it took the class forty to read it out loud. But if I pulled out a book or otherwise tried to enrich my mind amid this complete and utter waste of time I got yelled at. Let’s see, 185 days a year times a double forty minute (ugh) period that was maybe 10% useful…I’ll be billing you later for those 222 hours of my life Schrempf.
I really have to wonder how much more successful American students would be if they were simply allowed to fuck around in class on their free time, so long as said fucking around was relevant to the class’s overall subject matter. It is amazing how much better you can be at something when your mind is engaged.
Why 7th Grade Blew
Seventh Grade is the first time I can remember being scolded for pissing away my potential. Said pissing away, of course, meaning achieving a slightly lower percentage than people thought I should achieve in state-defined bullshit. That is the worst thing to tell a smart kid because it creates a completely fucked up system of values. That’s why you get these nose to the grindstone overachieving study addicts that breeze through school with 99.99 averages and flounder in the real world. What you should be teaching kids, is not to get a high score, but to develop their passions and think about how those things can be useful to them in the real world. (Granted this is a lofty message, but instilling a sense of mediocrity in a kid because they got a 78 in geometry is dumb as hell.)
Why 8th Grade Blew
Look, I’m going to toot my own horn a little here. I was always brilliant, I finished my work quickly, and teachers never knew how to handle it. It was especially bad in math classes because I could do that work in five minutes in my sleep and would then distract the other students. The only outlet was to do more busy work which, as you can imagine, sucked mightily. I can’t really fault any of my math teachers for it because they’re neither paid nor equipped to go above and beyond, and they were all probably dumber than me anyway. The only way I could keep from going insane was in engaging the other students that were my equals (and maybe even my betters).
And those were honors classes, where the only thing for the truly gifted to do was to still run headlong into that wall of American education and sit there crushed and bored. You want to talk about not meeting potential…it wasn’t because I didn’t get a 99 instead of a 98, it was because I always had tons of time to learn more and nothing to fill that time with.
What also sticks out to me from eighth grade was coming into the junior high during the summer to get a feel for it before my first year. There we met my early-thirties homeroom and English teacher who was pretty attractive and only had one button done on her button up shirt because it was hot as balls out. Actually, that’s not relevant at all, it’s just funny. She must have been shitting herself on the inside with my mom giving her the death glare. How dare you expose my son to an adult woman’s belly.
We had a big research paper that year, which I actually did fairly well on, but I remember being told it had to be five pages. No. No, no, no, no, that is the dumbest fucking way to teach writing. When we talk about truly great transcendent pieces of literature, does it EVER come up how long they are? Of course not, because that’s stupid. And being able to make a strong point in as few words as possible is such an under-rated skill. To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t great because it’s 99,121 words, it’s great because every one of those words matters. High school English doesn’t even attempt to teach that.
Why 9th Grade Blew
Ninth Grade actually didn’t blow. The reason it didn’t is because I had probably my two most influential teachers that year. Ms. Alexander, who taught English and really kicked off my writing career, and Mr. Olson (RIP) who taught Earth Science and shaped my love affair with the planet we live on. I’ve thought a lot about what it was about the teachers that most helped shape my life and the conclusion I have come to is that they all allowed me to be myself in some way. For Ms. Alexander that was by design, and Mr. Olson by accident.
Ms Alexander essentially allowed me to do whatever I wanted so long as I wasn’t a disruption. Read ahead in the text? Sure. Finish reading early? Go ahead. Write with little regard to artificial constraints like length? Of course. I write fiction, and fiction exists largely without rules. What I needed, more than anything, was to be free of the rules of high school writing and encouraged to simply write.
Mr. Olson was very poorly organized. He had no system for maintaining his notes and frequently lost homework and exams, which perhaps provided the best possible lesson in entropy. If you weren’t self-motivated in his class, you floundered. And to his credit, he saw the burning interest in my eyes and was almost always willing to take me aside and talk about backyard creeks and home-made dams, and astronomy, and a hundred other things. That push towards open curiosity, that inspiration to learn for the sake of simply knowing more things is perhaps the greatest gift anyone has ever given me.
Why 10th Grade Blew
Tenth grade was different because I got shuffled into honors English and History for the first time where in the latter I was again faced with not living up to my potential, whatever the fuck that means. The former though, was exactly what I needed to fuel my writing, an elevated stage and loftier goals, and again, a teacher in Mrs. Brunetti that was willing to let me be my weird self.
This is really an indictment of high school as a whole, but 10th grade is where I will air it. That year I read Antigone, The Castle of Otranto, Night, All Quiet on the Western Front, and MacBeth which you’ll recognize as having an average publication year that probably resides in the late 1800s. As far as high schools are concerned, good influential writing just stopped happening after World War II. And that isn’t to debase the merits of learning where the English Language has been, but equally important is learning where it is, and where it is going. Contemporary Literature is crucial, and you get so little of it in high school. No wonder the two greatest writers of the last quarter century are British (Joanne Rowling) and Swedish (Stieg Larsson) and we keep turning out shit-butterers like Nora Roberts and Catherine Coulter and Stephenie Meyer.
Why 11th Grade Blew
I had a Math teacher named Mrs. Charbonneau who offered the ability to correct tests for 25% of the points back. I usually scored in the low to mid-nineties and since this amounted to only one or two points, I never did it. Once again I was besieged by talks of my potential and Charbonneau told my parents and I finally did it once just to shut all three of them up.
Now pride and meticulousness are okay lessons to learn (so too are completionism and cost-effectiveness for the record), but that is not the way to teach them. Not for a percentage value that essentially means nothing. Am I learning the material, can I apply it, will this serve me later in life? Considering that I sleepwalked to a 5 on the AP exam and have an engineering degree, that’s three yeses.
Why 12th Grade Blew
Twelfth Grade actually didn’t blow either, mostly because that’s when I had the greatest choice in what classes I took and how I learned. I took two English classes, Mythology and Contemporary Literature, and since seniors generally don’t give a fuck those classes were tailored towards allowing us to pursue what we wanted within the confines of each subject. I saw The Truman Show and Harold and Maude for the first time and read some truly great classic and contemporary works.
Being able to pursue my passions helped me learn in the most efficient manner. It’s not surprising that some of my best grades came that year. Unfortunately the never-ending cries for so many years are “do what the state tells you,” and “good grades equal success.” It’s no wonder so many students struggle when faced with the myriad possibilities of college and the real world.