Even when I was a student, I always appreciated the teachers and the community. Even the teachers that have a traditional authoritative style sincerely care about their students, respect their opinions, and get to know them on a personal level. They make it clear to students that they matter. Although I believe that the school system has gone wrong in many ways — including memorization of specialized material, strict rules, and competitive grading — something is right with my high school, and with my elementary and middle schools. What’s right with my schools is the people. Generally speaking, the teachers are doing their best within a very complicated system that has taken on a life of its own, perpetuated by thousands of people and institutions, parents and administrators and the whole University of California system. Most don’t even realize that schools can look completely different than the norm, and that they may not need some of the components we assume they do.
My first week back at high school was so overwhelming that I’ve been procrastinating writing about it. I participated in classes taught by my old teachers, took a few tests, ate lunch with current students, and had a lot of thoughts and memories flood my brain along the way.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m packing my high school experience into an intense couple of weeks, so I’ve already shadowed a freshman, sophomore, and a junior so far. I’d forgotten that shadowing was common practice at St. Vincent…for eighth graders scoping out the school, that is. The high schoolers deduce that I’m not in eighth grade and ask me, puzzled, “Are you coming here?” “What grade are you in?”
In addition to helping process school memories, Reschool Yourself involves raising questions about the practice and philosophy of traditional schooling in general. I want to be clear that I love and respect all of my schools, and although I’m using examples from their campuses, I’m talking about school in general. I’m truly curious about why schools tend to operate the way they do, and what changes are possible within their circumstances.
This week, I’ve noticed a few underlying assumptions about students — which I’ve noticed at other schools, too — that give me pause. Whether stated or not, they seem to be taken for granted, and include the following:
1. Students wouldn’t come to school if they didn’t have to and are therefore thrilled to have days off.
My observation: The general merriment around the Veteran’s Day holiday. When one teacher reminded the students about it, one guy said sarcastically, “Oh yeahhh, I almost forgot. It’s not like I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks.”
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Walking into St. Vincent High School on Monday morning was like entering a time warp. Though I’d taken a tour recently during my 10-year high school reunion weekend, it had been on a Sunday morning, when the campus was nearly deserted. This week, seeing the school swarming with teenagers and squeezing my way through the crowded hallways has played tricks on my brain, transporting me back to the mid-90s when I was a high school student. This feeling has hit me at various times this week, as I sit in my old desks in classes taught by my old teachers, most of whom are still at the school. I’ve had more powerful memories at SV than I’ve had at my other schools, because I attended the school more recently and knew most of the 400 students by sight.
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I’m spending this week and half of next at St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma. Having gone to public schools through 8th grade, I chose to attend St. Vincent — a private, Catholic school — rather than the big Sonoma high school for a few reasons. The most significant was that Katie, a girl I’d become close friends with through our youth group, planned to go to St. Vincent and encouraged me to apply as well. Being very shy and insecure at the time, I thought that a more personalized environment would suit me well. I had gotten a little lost in the crowd of around 800 students at Altimira Middle School (there are only around 500 now), and I felt connected to very few of them. Though attending SV meant a 30-minute commute and a work-study commitment to help offset my tuition, I decided that the opportunity for a change would be worth the effort. I carpooled to and from Petaluma every day with several other students from Sonoma until I could drive myself.
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As you can see from the archives, I had written only a handful of posts when I kicked off Reschool Yourself a few months ago. The post that you’re reading now, I am proud to say, is my 100th. I find the timing excellent, because I want to take this opportunity to digress from reschooling and celebrate the election of our new president.
Tonight I want to flood the streets with my fellow Americans, whooping and carrying on like the Europeans do after their team wins a soccer match. Tonight I can say that I’m proud to be an American, and I haven’t said that in a long time.
I studied in Spain in the Fall of 2000, during the infamous election that would make the name “Chad” as unpopular for new babies as “Judas.” I voted absentee. When I went to bed the night of the election, the news channels favored Gore as the winner. When I woke up the next morning, it looked like Bush had won, but there was much rapid debate in a language I was just beginning to understand. I felt incredibly confused and desperately wanted to know what was happening. I now know I would have felt the same way if I’d been watching the coverage in the U.S. in English. When Bush was finally declared president, a lot of my American classmates said that they wished they didn’t have to go back to the U.S. We predicted the Bush presidency would be bad, but we couldn’t have imagined the magnitude of what was in store for our country.
Although I’m in high school now, I’ll still be catching up on a couple of middle school posts.
It felt appropriate to close my time in middle school on Halloween. I always loved celebrating holidays in school, because everyone spent the day sugared up and in a good mood, and we didn’t get any work done in class. This week, on top of that, parent-teacher conferences had shortened Friday’s classes to 30 minutes each.