I was watching a news program about an “early warning” system to detect kids who might be in danger of dropping out of high school. What shocked me is that they described much of my school experience – I fit those signs.
For instance, they talked about two key signs being poor academic performance (such as failing a core classes and abysmal GPAs – both of which fit me) and frequent absences (I was gone typically around two months of each school year). So, on paper, I was in danger of dropping out. In reality, that probably wasn’t going to happen, however. And I think they missed some stuff, that schools can do better.
Conventional wisdom is that for students to do extra-curricular activities, they should have their core education under control. If you’re on your high school football team, you’re expected to get signatures from all your teachers that you have a certain grade average in the class. Do too poorly in school, and no play for you. You don’t get the reward. This is a horrible practice!
It’s horrible for a few reasons, and thankfully they didn’t think of making someone doing, say, science fair projects (something I did well at and enjoyed) prove that they were passing classes. My school sucked – I was being asked to exercise executive function I simply don’t have (and not through laziness or not being exposed to study skills instruction or any similar hogwash). I wasn’t going to pass a non-modified high school curriculum in the 90s (fortunately, they did modify it somewhat for me to let me graduate). In addition to the tremendous executive skills required (time management, studying, knowing what actually needed to be studied and what didn’t, homework, remembering books and other supplies, and whatever other things were needed), it was also a miserable environment. Who would enjoy a place where they are physically, emotionally, and sexually abused? Who would possibly do good in that environment?
So I had my joy in my extra curricular activities. If the school was more progressive, they would have recognized a college-level research paper probably proves I can write and that doing calculus-based statistics proves I can do math. But they didn’t. So I struggled with my classes. But I still got to do the things I loved about school. I wouldn’t have if they actually applied the standard they applied to the jocks, which concerns me: What if my love was football, not science? Would they have taken the one positive thing about school away from me? Where would I be today?
I’m sure the carrot of “You can do the thing you love if you work hard in your classes” works for some people, and can be powerful motivation. It is in my life. But it’s only powerful motivation when that thing is achievable. I had barriers I couldn’t overcome by willpower. It wasn’t motivation. It was that school environment I had was completely inappropriate to my educational needs. Without fixing that environment, no motivation could solve the problem. I needed to be in a place where I wasn’t abused and the things asked of me were things I could do.
I remember my PE classes in Junior High – one thing we were expected to do, and got a grade based on, was climbing a rope. I can’t climb a rope. I was lifting weights at the time, doing push ups, etc, during my spare time, trying to get strong enough to do something unrelated to school. But despite that, I couldn’t climb a rope. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t do it. It’s not that I didn’t want to do it, or that I didn’t know how to do it, but simply that I can’t do that. Nothing changed that, even things that would normally be suggested (physical training). I wasn’t overweight, and I was doing strength conditioning. Yet, I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t, “Joel doesn’t want to climb the rope.” It was “Joel can’t climb the rope.” And you could give me a failing grade on rope climbing, but it wasn’t going to change anything. A lot of my academic classes were similar: I was being asked to do things in a way that I could not do, and then given bad grades for doing badly at those tasks. The ironic thing is that “those tasks” actually had little to do with the actual subject. I was getting bad grades not because I can’t write or do math, but because I couldn’t manage my time, figure out what is important and what isn’t, do my homework, and return the homework, all while being beat on, raped, and humiliated. Go figure.
So, somehow, I slipped through the cracks and got to do the things I loved without being forced to do the impossible. Why would we take away the one thing a kid loves about school (for instance, an extra curricular activity) to motivate the kid to do better in school? That makes no sense. Yet it’s conventional wisdom. To this day, I don’t know if this didn’t happen to me simply because God was looking out for me or because some teacher/administrator saw the problem and helped me, without my knowledge, subvert the oppressive system. Whichever it was, it was a miracle.
Fortunately, people thought I was smart, even though I was failing courses – I was lazy and unmotivated, but smart in their eyes. So I got some slack for being smart. And that helped me get through high school – occasionally some teacher would notice that I was capable of learning. These teachers made a huge difference. The ones I’m thinking of gave of their own time and energy, to give me things I enjoyed about school and to help me avoid the problems I was having. Every one of them broke the rules of the system – and I’m exceedingly thankful that they did. I think back to a computer teacher (I never took any of her classes!) who would write me a pass to get out of class if I needed to get out of class, so I could work on the school’s network – it was the start of what got me into my current field, where I’m part of a team that runs one of the largest networks on the planet. I loved doing that, and having a break from class sometimes let me recharge and focus on other classes in the day. It gave me a break (in addition to being the key to my success in my career). And I needed a break. In fact, the year I had this opportunity, to basically be allowed to skip any class I wanted (my senior year), I had better attendance than any other year, I passed all of my classes, and my GPA for the work I was doing was among the top in the school (my other 3 years of work was so bad that I still graduated in the bottom 25% of my class). It was also the same year that my mom realized what was going on and would write me an excuse to be absent from school if I wanted (she conditioned it on me passing classes). I think I only had my mom write two notes. I didn’t need a lot, and I didn’t want to fail. But I needed some help. Who would have thought letting a kid skip classes would help? That certainly doesn’t fit conventional wisdom. But paradoxically, it actually increased my attendance when I could choose to not attend when I wasn’t up to doing so, rather than having to wait for my body to give up and contract a significant illness.
But what if people didn’t see this? What if I wasn’t seen as lazy and unmotivated, but just “dumb?” What then? I worry about those kids. They need allies too. Or they will drop out. Just like I might have.
That said, my school wasn’t completely clueless. They let students who failed take classes in summer school. So I did, right before my senior year. And – imagine this – the format of summer school was “Go read the book, pass the test.” I could do this. I learned more world history in a week (that’s all it took for me to pass all the tests for World History) than I learned in the year of failing it in my freshman year. It was a learning style that suited me. I wouldn’t say it was easier (I don’t believe it was, despite the school obviously wanting to get people through these classes), but it was better suited for me. An added bonus of summer school? Those kids didn’t abuse me. Don’t ask me why they didn’t, I don’t know. But they didn’t.
Finally, a final piece in the puzzle, was the idea that I wanted to get out of my town. To do that, I was going to need to do college, so I had a reason to leave, and some support to do so. Leaving my home town was the best decision I ever made. It’s why I’m alive today. And that was a powerful motivator: stick through high school. My parents wouldn’t have supported me at all in doing this if I was doing it for a reason other than college. And to do college, I needed to finish high school.
There’s a common theme here: I could succeed when my disability was (unknowingly) accommodated and when I wasn’t being abused. Self-study and having the opportunity to have a break helped tremendously. And then having people that broke the rules helped, whether they did so intentionally or not. I had things to look forward to at school despite this. And that’s a pretty huge motivator when someone who is being abused at school can say there were things he looked forward to doing at school.
I think back to that and think, “Why couldn’t all my classes be self-study, with support when I need it? Why couldn’t I have a down day when I decided I need it? Why couldn’t I have a place where I wasn’t tortured and raped while being expected to learn?” I probably would have been an outstanding high school student if those things were different. That said, I do think I have some right to be proud that I made it. I never saw myself as a potential high school drop out, but even without that risk, I’m proud to have survived school. I know I’m strong and able to succeed. It could have been very different, and without just a few small things, I might not have had enough hope that my strength would have been sufficient – and I recognize that not everyone is as lucky as I was (and, despite being abused and placed in a horrible environment, luck and good fortune were a huge part of why I could survive), nor do I think someone who doesn’t make it is any less smart or motivated or strong. You can’t measure things that way.
But everyone in my situation – anyone who faces abuse, an inappropriate environment, illness, etc, even if there are some good things happening and there is some hope – it is something to be proud of when you accomplish it. And I hope that our education system is getting better, that we are making progress. Let’s not take motivation (such as extra-curricular activities) away from people to “motivate” them. Let’s not force people to learn in one set way, when that way is demonstrably inappropriate. And let’s find ways that we can give a break or hope to someone who needs it.