From time to time I go back to my high school to talk with some of my old teachers. I just feel a need to keep in touch, to get a feel for the current situation and atmosphere. How are things going, I invariably wonder. Have things gotten better or worse since I was there?
Not long ago I went back to school and had an experience that inflamed me as much as anything from my own school days. It was something that clearly answered my question as to whether my school was doing any better: I found that the answer was not as good as I could have hoped for.
My teacher friend had to go to a faculty meeting, and he left me in his room. It was after school, so I talked to an old friend for a while. When she left, I had time to reflect on my days in school. From the door I heard the voice of the current principal addressing the school employees down the hall in the ERC. I could not hear his words. Curious, I went out into the hall to hear what he was saying.
Sitting in a chair away from view, I listened to what he had to say. He was talking about vision, where he wanted the school to be in four years. At first it seemed like typical administrative jargon, but I quickly understood that this man was not one to speak platitudes. To his credit, what he said came from issues that were genuinely important to him. Nonetheless, his "vision” was greatly disturbing to me. Never before had my body reacted so violently to a speech: my heart raced, pounding emotional outrage in my chest and head, showing my veins on my arms. I got hot and sweaty as adrenaline coursed through my body, making my legs jump nervously.
Standing, I went over to the stairs to the ERC. I watched and listened as this principal spoke an unbelievable speech. He spoke of a group of kids in the school who had failed the ninth grade, maybe once or twice or more. He called these students tweeners, a term that another faculty member had proposed. They were students that, according to him, were drifters, useless, troublemakers. He said that they didn’t belong in the school; that he wanted them out of there. Part of his vision was to rid the school of these kids, which he numbered at around one hundred students.
I listened to this in outraged exasperation. That this man would say this was unbelievable. But that the entire room full of teachers sat there quietly, unresponsive, was an ultimate horror to me. They seemed to be giving silent approval to his every word. Certainly there was no word of opposition, or even an air of uneasiness.
The same man who had chased me down many times in high school approached me during that meeting. I saw him approaching, and I knew that he might provoke a confrontation. When he was upon me he said, "Can I help you?” He wasn’t really asking me if he could assist me in any way, but was implying that I was not welcome. "What are you doing here?”
Agitated but trying to be calm, I said, "Oh, I'm just listening.”
He began to say something, probably that I had to leave, but I interrupted him and said that I was here with a teacher. I walked away from him and stood at the back of the group.
As impassioned as I was to speak out against what I heard, I could not do it. My skill is not that of an orator, and I knew that I would do no good—my weapon is in the written word. Thus I have written this essay.
Assuredly, there are many people, teachers and general citizens, who would applaud such a vision by a principal. To me it is quite sinister, and the effects of such sentiments are pernicious towards community in the long run.
People would say that students who just don’t care about school should be removed from school. This, in itself, seems reasonable. But this is not the implication of what this principal was saying. He meant that these students were failures, unworthy of being in this school. This must be taken in the most negative connotation. He was saying that because they do not conform to certain forms, and because they were not showing respect to the formal institution of education, they should be punished.
He might say that it is not a punishment that they would be kicked out of school, but the sentiment that this action gives is one of repulsion. He would alienate these students, these young people who would need help the most. In essence, what he proposed was to throw these kids out into society and turn his back on them because they may not be perfect people—in his opinion. What he saw was long-haired punks, rebels and junkies, not kids looking for acceptance.
I saw the kids who could have been some of my friends in high school. They were not the kids who started all the fights or caused trouble. Some did, but as a group these so-called tweeners are no different than any other group of kids. They do not like to fight any more than other groups. The only thing that sets them apart is that they ask questions. Primarily, they ask what the system is for while other kids just accept their situation uncritically.
The principal has no right to alienate these kids. Even an entire school does not have this right. For schools are property of the community, not the teachers. I honestly do not believe that school is the best thing for all people, but there is no justice in alienating any kid from school if he has done nothing that is unconstitutional to our society as a whole. Maybe some of these students will drop out of school on their own, but to force them out and label them as failures without first giving all effort to help is to give a sentence of punishment that has no shred of love, wisdom or understanding. It hurts our society. It throws people out into the cold and makes them feel unwanted. It makes people bitter and spiteful.
Indeed, there is a responsibility of a principal to have a vision for his school. But it should be driven more by social maintenance than social apathy. If there is a group of kids in his school that seems to be at risk for an unhealthy lifestyle or future, he should incorporate their needs into his vision. Instead of claiming them useless and hopeless, he should strive to show them hope, to help them with their lives. It literally makes no sense to espouse the idea that ignoring them will get rid of any social problems; if these students do have problems, alienating them will only amplify the problems.
For it is the child who is visionless, without drive and hope, that needs the most help. The child who already has these things does not need much help from the community in the way of direct involvement. Obviously, the student who does well needs less help in understanding elements of learning than a student who has trouble doing so. Though this does not mean that the so-called good students need no help—good students need guidance—the kids doing poorly need the most help and guidance. The same is true for kids who have trouble staying out of trouble—they need the most attention, not rejection. If we reject these children, we are only perpetuating an unfortunate and unjust social situation.
What’s worse is that many of the so-called tweeners are not bad kids. They are not failures. For the most part, their only crime is that they have seen through the façade of formal schooling—they know that the system does not care about them. They see that the system judges them because of their dress or music or opinions. These kids are not saints, but many of them have seen that the system does not live by its expressed principles. That is why a principal would want to get rid of them, because the principal knows that the students know that the system is often a machine of hypocrisy, a student factory that does not know what individual students and thoughts are.