My Experience at Westland High School
How an honor-roll student can lose heart and drop out
When I came to Westland High School I had no doubts as to the fact that I would succeed. Academically, I had always been one of the top students throughout grade school and middle school. In fact, during my three years at Norton Middle School I received medallions for student-of-the-year in science twice, once in English, and once in physical education. While I had never been one of the most popular kids in school, my teachers had no doubt about my abilities.
Not long into my high school career, though, I lost some of the drive to succeed in the classroom. While I was still doing most of my schoolwork and passing tests and exhibiting signs of talent, I was no longer sticking out. I believe I still ranked in the top 50 or 60 kids in a class of around 400, but I wasn’t a prize student anymore.
There are a couple of reasons for this change. The first and most obvious reason is that a high school is much bigger. Whereas in the earlier schools I had been able to stick out without much effort, it now took a lot more work. Teachers had many more students with which to acquaint themselves, and they could not be expected to notice every sign of interest and talent.
The second reason, and the focus of this story, is much more ironic. For my entire schooling, I spent little time studying. When I got straight A’s, it was not because I went home and poured over the textbooks and laboriously filled out the blanks in all of my dittos. For some reason I learned at an early age to focus on what I heard and remember it. In this way I picked up the lessons without having to study. It is with no exaggeration that I estimate the time I spent doing any schoolwork at home at less than 30 hours in 13 years. (I finished my schoolwork while waiting on the bus or the trip home.) Still, I maintained excellent grades.
Yet for all the good grades and compliments poured on me by teachers, I never really cared for nor liked school. I did the work because it was expected of me, and I never felt that it was truly important. There was this foggy conception in my mind of some distant time in the future when I would be going off to college to get a degree in some field that would get me a good and high paying job. But that was an abstract idea, never immediate and important, always detached from how I felt.
While I was getting good grades, there was always this feeling that much of what I was doing was pointless. I would often go so far as to state to my parents and friends that much of the schoolwork was stupid. I hated reading any stories teachers doled out, and I never picked up a book on my own to read unless it was an animal book full of photos.
The irony of which I have spoken is that at precisely the time that my attention to doing schoolwork waned, my interest in learning suddenly blossomed.
I can remember with clarity the exact moment when I instantaneously lost interest in school. Although I had never really been interested in school, I knew that going through the motions was necessary to furthering my employment prospects after graduation. But one day as a freshman at Westland, I had an experience that forced me to evaluate my entire paradigm towards education.
It was in a college prep Social Science class in which the event occurred. By this time I was already slacking off a bit from my past, not consistently turning in every assignment. I also happened to have developed a savor for reading some fiction--something that was a new hobby for me.
One day in this class the teacher asked the students to open the textbook. There, in the middle of this textbook was a passage that read, "What is a book anyhow? Well, a book is a bunch of pages bound between two covers…” Normally I would have just sat there placidly, accepting the scenario as yet another pointless yet necessary step in my education. Normally I would have just ignored any swelling of disdain that would naturally come from the event.
But this time I didn’t ignore one simple question that popped into my mind: Why am I wasting my time? Why should I really bother to sit in classes and do things that 1) I already knew ten years ago, or 2) don’t ever care about.
Now as an adult I can deal with both issues in an educated manner, which I will address later. All that is necessary now is to point out that this question spurred me off in a direction that was anathema to the setting and structure of the educational system. By taking a hardcore look at this question, and answering it according to my teenage heart, I moved onto a road that both destroyed my official academic career while simultaneously pushing me to a deeper level of intellectual growth I would not have found in the standard frame of mind.
When I had answered the question as to why I bothered wasting my time in class, I had to honestly say that I don’t know. In other words, I was not here because I chose to be here, I was not here for anything that I had been seeking; I was here because I was told to be here, because someone else felt that I should be here. When I asked if I should bother with school, I decided that it depended on whether I was learning anything or not.
At this point I thought about which classes were important to me, which ones were interesting to me, which ones were essential, and which ones were a waste of time. To me, I found that the classes most educational were German and Drama, because they were at the fringe of the field that I was beginning to see myself in: I wanted to become a writer. English, unfortunately, did not seem so important, ironically, because I felt that I was not learning anything new in the subject. I never saw myself as a mathematical person, and at the time I felt a philosophical aversion to science, so I did not rank math and science highly. It is not important to judge the logic and validity of my evaluation of my classes because the important issue is that I was beginning to make personal assessments of my own education.
Although I began to do less schoolwork, there was no extraordinary change until the next year. During my sophomore year I knew that I wanted to be a writer. I had a conviction that I would make an impression with the teachers and return to my status as a "good student”. I had read some books over the summer, and I felt that my skills with words were showing some signs of promise.
The wall that hit me was the same mentality that had led me to question school the year before.
When I realized that my English teacher did not have the time and energy to get excited about my personal passion for words, I got a little discouraged. When she did not seem impressed with what I was writing, I felt a little hurt. What got me the most, though, was this one reality: although she probably knew that I was passionate about writing, and though she may have felt sympathy for what I wanted to do with my passion (though I never asked her if such was the case), she was trapped in the reality of today’s curriculum. She could not modify her game plan for this one student out of a couple hundred. She could not ignore the mandates of laws that required her to evaluate me on a similar basis of the other students.
My sophomore English class was really no different than most other classes. It had a teacher who sat at a desk up front and two chalk boards, rows of chairs for students lined up in parallel. A pencil sharpener and a shelf of dictionaries and posters of famous authors, an American flag and textbooks. There was nothing extraordinary about the class, no abnormality or distinction that would cause an outside observer to conclude that this classroom was unique.
The teacher was short and charismatic, the students were average teenagers. The work and grades and structure were so normal that it may seem pointless to write about it. We all know what the traditional classroom is, so why consider it? I can only point out this class because I was in it during a transitional phase in my life: if this transition had occurred earlier or later, it would have been another similar class.
It was during that year that I really felt that I had a future as a writer. My interest in the art was blooming, and I set my scopes on the field. I was writing every day, trying to hone my skills. I knew that my abilities were not refined or polished, but I knew that I did have potential.
Coming to English class with a fiery drive to excel in that subject, I encountered my first true frustration with school. Although I was a fairly bright young man, I was only one of many students that my English teacher had to deal with. I wanted to read all kinds of books that might help influence my skills, expand my knowledge. I didn’t want to sit in class reading stories that I’d already read, or ones that did not interest me. Doing spelling lists seemed pointless to me, as my vocabulary was already well developed. Filling out answer sheets and dittos seemed like such a waste of time: if I read a story, I knew that I knew what the story said--I didn’t feel that it was necessary to waste my time proving it.
In this way my frustration began. Young and cocky, I decided that I didn’t need my English class. Bringing my own books to school, I ignored my teacher and class work. During this time I read Ben Franklin’s autobiography, Teaching for Thinking, and Principle-Centered Leadership. I knew that it might annoy my teacher that I was ignoring her, but I chose to do it anyway. Though my action was inconsiderate, at the time I felt that it was philosophically sound: if I weren’t going to benefit from my English class, I’d have to find a way to grow on my own.
At first my teacher didn’t say much when I quit paying attention to her. She went on teaching her class as if she didn’t mind my detachment from the main group. Except for a rare comment on my outlook of school, I did not speak much to her either. When I did tell her that I felt that school was inadequate, she was not rude, but I felt that she was annoyed with my comment. Maybe she thought I was too arrogant, which was probably true. But I saw that she was not going to cater to me, so I broke off communication and went my own way.
Compelled to attend class if I wanted to graduate, I still attended. But every day I drifted further and further. My teacher would assign the class to read a story or to do an assignment, and I would sit in my seat reading some other book. Admittedly, I was being very stubborn. But a fundamental change did occur in me during this period. What was at first pure stubbornness became sincere. When I first ignored my teacher because I felt that she was not helping me learn to write, I was spiteful, hoping to prove her wrong in some way; that school was inadequate. But soon I developed an understanding that education is a personal endeavor, and that it was my responsibility to be educated, not my teacher’s.
Then one day my teacher said, "Shawn, I want to see you after class.” She talked about me not paying attention in class, not doing assignments, not participating. She said, "If you don’t shape up quickly, your grade will reflect your irresponsibility.” I argued that class was not important to me anymore, but my stubbornness was still strong, and I said that school is a haven of hypocrisy. Not being an adept debater, having no organized argument, and already having a tainted image, I merely came across as another lazy student who just didn’t want to do the work. Because of this, I believe, our relationship deteriorated to an unfriendly state.
To her I was just an affront to her profession and authority. I really should have shown more respect, but I was not very experienced with being a respectful dissenter. To me, she was being inconsiderate towards my goals and talents. I think that she could have had more insight, realizing that behind the stubbornness was a sincere desire to be the best I could be with the English language. Instead of discussing this openly, however, I was ordered to do all that I was told, under threat of disciplinary action if I did not comply.
Angry, I did not comply.
So a bad situation--one that never needed to be so bad in the first place, had one of us given in--got worse. Instead of breaking under her threat, I became more resolute to take a firm stand. I would show that I could be independently educated. This stance was an insult to her authority, and the two of us locked horns.
One day she assigned the class to fill out a ditto packet full of question concerning John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Being full of disdain with dittos, I did not take the work seriously. I signed the paper as "Bob,” which, for some reason, made my teacher mad. Instead of answering the questions correctly, I wrote comments about educational incompetence. My teacher was now done with dealing with my sarcasm.
She sent me to the office. There the administrator scolded me, telling me that it was so immature to sign a paper with anything other than my own name. Possibly true. But I asked if it was not also immature for the teacher to send me to the office for signing a paper with a pseudonym. Thus I was not punished.
That night I did some thinking and decided that I was being too extreme with my rebellion. I decided to change, to make an effort to get involved in class. So the next day I came to school with my own copy of The Pearl.
In class the teacher told the students to read the story from their textbooks. Seeing that I was not reading from my textbook, she assumed that I was doing my own thing again. She called me to her desk and began filling out a paper for me to go to the office again. I let her finish the effort before I showed her that the book in my hand was the same one that the rest of the class was reading. She did not reflect my amusement, and it was obvious that her opinion of me was irreconcilable.
I did not remain involved with the class long, though. Spending my time reading literature that I’d already read, or completely avoiding any books that were not fictitious seemed like time squandered. Grades were no longer motivating for me, which made the assignments pointless. As I refused to do work in school, it was ridiculous that I’d take schoolwork home. The result was that my grade card began to show signs of decay. I went from a model student in elementary and middle school to an apparently worthless student through high school.
The irony is that as my grades diminished from lack of participation, not only in this English class, my actual education increased. In the eyes of those who would judge me on grades, I was becoming a failure. But I could see the real growth in me. Instead of doing a spelling list, I’d read a book on philosophy. Instead of concentrating on a ditto, I was writing a journal. My interests grew, and I read history and science and business and poetry and essays and sociology and...
It came to pass that one day I was reading Principle-Centered Leadership during English class. It was near the end of the school year, and my teacher was beyond sick of me. Coincidentally, as I was reading a passage that dealt with education, my teacher called me up to her desk. She told me that she would no longer put up with my games; that if I didn’t stop my "insubordination” right then, I’d be kicked out of class.
Perhaps this was a game to begin with, but it was no longer a game for me. Reading and learning and thinking were no games--they were integral to life. It was school that was the game, with its rules and rewards and artificial nature.
I was called to the office and given detentions. Written on the disciplinary form was "Insubordinate; Disruption.” The fact is, although I was not doing what the rest of the class was doing, I was doing nothing more than reading a book in English class. I was not talking or distracting other students. I was not causing harm or hindering anyone’s actions or thoughts. I was, in fact, doing what is supposed to be the goal of school: learning. In fact, at the age of sixteen, I was reading a book in English class that most adults would benefit from reading--and I was doing it on my own free will, because I wanted to learn.
No, I was not a model student. I was cocky with my ideas. I did not do everything I was told. I made many mistakes. I will not begin to say that I was all right and the school and teachers were all wrong. And I will admit that I made my experience an extreme case: few students are going to have the same difficulties that I made for myself.
Yet, I get the feeling that this scenario reflects certain notions about what school is all about, and the process known as learning. In our classrooms there is a strong force called form that is meant to facilitate a function. The classroom, with its teacher and thirty kids, its assignments, tests and grades, is all set up with a purpose to educate. But learning, over time, has become secondary; even worse, almost purely incidental. When a form of education is introduced into a classroom that it not consonant with the present form, an unnecessary conflict arises: when I understood that I could learn without the class, I was punished.
I asked a fellow student who was in that English class if he was learning from the class. He said, "No. And I don’t care either. As long as the work is easy and I get a good grade, that’s all that matters.” One cannot blame a class or teacher for the apathy towards education that any students might have--for, in the end, it is each individual’s responsibility to become educated. But one can blame a teacher or school for being hostile towards different forms of education, for attacking individuality, enforcing conformity.
Over the next two years my personal situation oscillated from acceptance of school as a necessary evil that I had to endure to something mechanical that I could fix in some way. When I felt that school was a necessary evil, I sucked in my egotistical belt and went through the motions while at school; when I got home I would pursue my own knowledge.
When I looked at schooling in an increasingly objective manner, I saw it as a machine that could be molded and tinkered with to work more effectively and efficiently than it currently was. It was becoming increasingly apparent to me that the problems with schools was their one-sided approach to getting kids through--they wanted to process kids and give a stamp of approval with such efficiency that they neglected the reality of human social dynamics. In other words, schools were paying so much attention to efficiently getting kids processed that they could not possibly be effectively educating them. It seemed to me that the best solution would be to focus on effectiveness first, then efficiency. Effectiveness fosters efficiency, but not always the reverse. What drove me to this philosophical belief was that in my personal education I had always efficiently done the work, but I rarely learned too much until I had decided to do things right regardless of the school’s schedule.
On a broad scale, I saw that many kids go through school, getting plenty of good grades. But it seemed that many of the highest ranking kids were not necessarily exceptionally bright or talented. Many seemed intuitively average. Their main strength was that they were so good at playing the school’s rules of efficiency: do your work, be on time.
I noticed that my own education was accelerating (becoming more efficient) now that I had learned to learn (became more effective). I wanted the school to think about this logic.
Now these are not typical high school thoughts. But I was obsessed with them. The reason my feelings oscillated so much on how to deal with school was because of the great level of apathy I met. Teachers didn’t typically have much time to give these thoughts more than an amusing nod or annoyed sigh. Administrators mostly saw these ideas as a potential vibration in the fabric of their culture that they were perpetually trying to keep calmly under control--of course they didn’t want to hear any of it.
There were some teachers who sympathized, some administrators who gave hope. But the predominating paradigm was that I shouldn’t waste time thinking about this.
The attitude was that things are just the way they have to be. I began to feel like an idealistic savant up against a mountain of cold bureaucracy.
I was no superman. I was a kid. And I gave up. Halfway through my senior year at Westland, I dropped out. Obviously, had I stayed, I would not have any appreciable impact on the culture of Westland. But the real issue here is a personal one: had the culture been more genuine to the goals of education, I would have stayed in order to get something for myself out of the place.
Now there are two ways to think about this. On one side a person could conclude that I was just not destined to be a normal kid--that it was no big deal that I left school. You could point out that I still obtained a good education, so I shouldn’t concern myself too much. The other kids went through without these problems.
The other way to view it is that the only reason the other kids never asked the essential question (Why am I in school?) was because they were conditioned to accept their environment regardless of its value. This is probably the truest way to view the situation. I have a terrible feeling about this because it seems all too apparent that this attitude is common, and it is an attitude that leads to cultural stagnation and apathy. I am afraid of a world with no concern with where it is and where it is going because that is a world where there is no vision. Without vision we are at the mercy of forces that do not care about us individually or collectively, and we are vulnerable to the claws of predators and fools.
That is the moral I draw from my time at Westland High School.