Monday, September 16, 2013

The System

I used to believe in the validity of the system but that was before it eventually broke even me. Wide-eyed and trusting, I remember walking into kindergarten some 11 years ago. I was ready for my life to truly begin. At 5, I was already ahead of many of peers in my innate curiosity of the world and insatiable desire for knowledge. I whole-heartedly believed that my teachers were there to guide me, and nurture me, and teach me everything there was to know about the world. All I had to do was pay attention, do my homework and everything else would happen on its own. Unfortunately, as I soon learned, the quality of my teachers seemed to decline as I progressed from school to school, despite the fact that I attend one of the top school districts in California.
Throughout elementary school, I was rewarded with teacher after teacher that I loved and admired and respected. Each had something to share with us, from German words and songs from my kindergarten teacher to unbelievably amazing stories about world history from my 5th grade teacher. I looked forward to going to school every day and learning something that I would happily remember and tell everyone I knew. Those six years were for the most part bliss. I spent most of my recesses and lunches in the library discussing and obsessing over literature and history with the librarian to a point where I even visited in the summer to catch up on new books and help process textbooks for the upcoming year. I became the “mini-librarian” to my peers. Book in hand, ponytail, loafers and all, I would proudly answer any questions my classmates had, whether it was the definition of a word or some other similarly trivial question. If I didn’t know the answer, I quickly made it up to maintain the illusion I had of myself as some sort of all-knowing genius. Of course even the best of times have to end, and I walked across campus in our “graduation parade” contented that I would soon be arriving at somewhere bigger and better. I received To Kill a Mockingbird as a parting gift from the librarian and we promised to write each other often and I promised to visit as much as I could. It wasn’t long before I would learn that my joy could not last forever.
Middle school started off smoothly enough. I got along well with the majority of my teachers and classmates; I still spent most of my free time in the library, but by then my interest had shifted from historical fiction to civilian life in World War II. At 11, I was in some ways leaps and bounds ahead of my peers but in other ways quite lost. I was capable of long discussions about the intrinsic causes of WWII, but I had a hard time keeping a normal conversation with anyone my own age going. Adding to these new difficulties of mine, I now had two teachers whom definitely should not have been teaching at all, although looking back I don’t think I realized it at the time. I don’t remember many specific details anymore, as it’s been more than five years since I began middle school, but I do remember some. My history teacher, Mr. P, was an overweight, balding man, probably nearing his fifties, and probably wasn’t as terrible a teacher as I recall when compared to other teachers I later had. I remember that my most recurring complaint was always that he was a perfectionist who expected his students to be the same. He insisted that colored pencil drawings, which we did often, were glossy solid and devoid of the usual soft air spaces that were created by covering the paper with less than five layers of color; we all went through several sets of colored pencils that year. Mr. P’s greatest offense, at least in my opinion, was his habit of demeaning students as a method of motivation. “You!” he’d say as the rest of the class almost shamefully looked on, “can’t you act a little smarter? This is terrible!” And so that child was put down, by the very person who was charged with showing him his potential. Seventh and eighth grade were not much better. Each year I had my one teacher who drove me just a little insane. The teacher in seventh who was unbelievably prejudiced against certain students but astonishingly kind to the luck few who could do nothing wrong; or that teacher that we all swore was clinically insane.
But of course not every teacher was bad or even just mediocre. I had my share of teachers who had that uncanny gift of being relatable and inspiring to almost every student that passed through their classes. These are the giants on whose shoulders I stand. I still correspond with several of my favorite teachers, all of whom have retired. These few taught me that the world was open, that I could do anything. It was like suddenly I had a door behind which was all this potential and each of these teachers had piece of a key that helped me unlock it. During my last year of middle school, I stopped competitive swim and started playing softball after meeting a good friend who loved the sport. I was still absolutely in love with books and my focus shifted again by the end of middle school to US history. I even took to lugging around a giant book entitled “What If”, a volume of essays on hypothetical scenarios in American history that even many adults considered a bore. By the time graduation rolled around, I had again convinced myself that high school would be a thousand times better, that all the teachers would actually care about their students and that it would be where I would realize my full potential and prepare for the rest of my life. It’s easy to see now that I still harbored many illusions about the world. When I look back at pictures from those years, I see a quiet, awkward girl who hid behind her books still too naïve, or perhaps not wanting, to realize that the world wasn’t the fairy tale world she always believed it to be.
I’m sure that on my first day of freshman year I had that obvious wide-eyed look that we upperclassmen now make fun of, but at the time I thought I was quite mature and poised. I was in for a big surprise though if I still that high school would finally be my learning utopia. My history teacher definitely only decided to be a teacher because he wanted to coach. He had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.  Class was filled with inappropriate language, crude comments, and dirty jokes. Quite a wakeup call for any freshman, let alone the quiet, naïve girl that I still was. My English teacher was another story all together. In contrast to many of the other teachers that I disliked, he was actually good at his profession and, I believe now, genuinely wants his students to succeed. He did have his quirks though, and one day in my anger, I was prompted to write the following:
            Mr. M is a character who strikes one immediately as an opposer. Past middle age and bald, he is well past his prime. He keeps a sketch done by a student many years ago on his desk, often the object of cruel jokes about his lack of a hairline. An aura of laziness surrounds him and permeates the entire room, like an overly sweet perfume gone stale. Oddly enough, he believes himself to be a “proper New York gentleman”, a laughing matter since he can hardly go a class period without making an incorrect statement and angering everyone in the room by being immovably obstinate. When asked a question about grades, you will either receive an immediate change, accompanied by the words, “don’t worry I trust you” or an “ok, ok, I’ll do it later, stop bugging me.” His refusal to complete what he has promise shows true in the words he speaks; “I know I don’t have to remember, I know you will never forget, therefore, I have no reason to even attempt to remember it.” Interesting…coming from a man whose job entails teaching young people responsibility and how to survive in this world.
Maybe at the time I exaggerated my feelings a little but either way, a teacher shouldn’t make a student (even as odd as me) angry enough to write something so brutal and almost painful.
As the year progressed I gained more and more confidence in my ability and my knowledge. Instead of submitting to whatever my teachers said, I challenged them to just try and pick on me. Always willful, suddenly I found myself with some power on my hands. On several occasions I caught my teachers flustered and only able to reply to whatever I said with some made up fact that everyone could see through. It’s not to say that I was truly rebellious or bad in the general assumption of teenagers; I was always respectful enough to prevent my teachers from having anything to nail me with, but at the same time, anyone who had known me for some years would say that I had changed drastically. No longer was I silent and accepting of authority; suddenly I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind, even if it went against what I’ve been thought. The little teachers’ pet from elementary school had begun dissolving during middle school and by the end of freshman year was almost gone.
I have little to complain about sophomore year. My teachers all meant well even if they didn’t always come across as the most interesting or intelligent. The only one that I still hold grudges against was my biology teacher, who by the general consensus of the class, couldn’t stand me and my mouth. She once gave me the silent treatment for a month.
Other than her, sophomore year went smoothly, but by then, I had realized that school is a joke. I was a 4.0 honors student, capable of thinking critically for myself, but still went from class to class filling out worksheets and other busy work. Some days I just want to quit trying when I thought about how many hours a year I was wasting in this place.
I got through it though, with the help of a couple inspiring teachers and a class on business that I really enjoyed a lot.  I learned too that sometimes life just isn’t fair or right and that the only way to succeed is to take a deep breath and simply persevere. I learned to look at the bright sides of things. I shut off during my brainless classes and focused on my harder classes. I began doing quite a bit of independent study on neurosciences that I’m still continuing now. As far as I can tell, my veil of dreams that shielded my from the world is gone.
High school, I now realize is a sort of dystopia, a mirror of the world in some way. Even as we attempt to better our lives with increased medicines and technology, we find ourselves increasingly unhappy. By seeking joy and ease we have allowed our society to dissolve into a nation of people chronically fighting preventable deaths brought on by our new lifestyle- obesity, certain types of cancer, heart disease, and even stress. Similarly, high school is supposed to be a place where teens find themselves and prepare for college. But it too has degraded to a point where more and more of high achieving students see it as jail. A place to struggle through, where many students are better educated that its teachers.
When I was younger I always wanted to be a teacher. However, as my illusions were shattered one by one, I lost any sort of desire to be subjected to the same system as my teachers are. It’s a cruel cycle of failure that has prevented our students from receiving the best. “Those who can’t, teach” is an oft recited quote that highlights exactly what we’ve done wrong. In other high achieving countries, teaching is a noble profession, much like medicine or law is here. In order to fix our broken system, we must change the way we view the most important jobs in America. How can anyone expect the United States to return to number one in education if we allow the rejects to teach? It may be true that not all teachers are terrible and many do a legitimately wonderfully job inspiring their charges, but a single good or bad teacher can make or break a student.Would anyone allow a second rate mechanic to fix an expensive car? Or hire that good-for-nothing contractor to build a house? Because that is exactly what we have done to our most important assets – our children. Ultimately it is up to us to realize that our future is something that rests on the backs of the youth, and that we need to give them the tools they need to even have a fighting chance of survival in this new world.  

Anyways, maybe I'm the typical narcissistic teenager, but sometimes the view from the inside is worse than anyone on the outside would ever think. Please leave a comment to let me know what you think.
Thank You,