Thursday, August 7, 2014

School Shouldn't Suck

By Mahlia Lindquist

When my daughter Zoe was 15, we went to Mexico with plans to stay for a year. When people ask why, I explain we were taking a time out. 

While a “time out” conjures an image of a child  being punished, our time out was meant as anything but.  In general, I wanted space to examine whether we were living in accordance with our values. More specifically, I was concerned because Zoe was chronically stressed out. While it’s possible to press the reset button without moving to Mexico, it’s much easier to do from there.  Go to a place where you have no friends, work or school and can’t speak the language, and you can get a lot of soul searching accomplished. 

When asked if she wanted to go to Mexico, Zoe said yes. If  asked why, her answer had nothing to do with values or soul searching. She simply said that school sucked. 

She was at Boulder High from 8 AM until 3 PM, followed by several hours of homework and extracurricular activities. While she had plenty of friends, she found her classes dull and the teachers uninspiring and often sarcastic.  Given the number of hours spent there, if school sucked for Zoe, that meant the vast majority of her life was, well, sucky. 

By all objective measures Boulder High is considered to be a “good” school.  It boasts high standardized test scores and many graduates who “place well” when applying to colleges.  The problem is that impressive test scores and getting into a fancy university in and of themselves don’t mean much.  Call me crazy, but I don’t think high school should suck.

I described my concerns to a school counselor and asked if maybe the course load was too much for Zoe. She was in all advanced classes and the sciences were especially difficult for her; maybe a switch from honors to regular biology would alleviate some of the pressure?  Although knowing nothing about and having never met her, he noted Zoe’s high standardized test scores and grades, and cautioned dropping honors science could jeopardize her chances of going to a “selective” college. 

Suddenly I understood Zoe’s anxiety. In fact, I felt my own panic attack coming on as I contemplated whether I would ruin my daughter’s life by withdrawing her from 9th grade honors biology.

I explained that a high GPA notwithstanding, my daughter was not thriving and I worried her spirit was being crushed.   Unmoved by my handwringing over the state of Zoe’s spirit, the counselor assured me that soul sucking anxiety was to be expected in teenagers, glanced at his watch and sent me on my way. I was just another neurotic parent who needed to but out of the school’s business and let the system work its metrics magic.  

All I could think to do as the counselor escorted me out is mumble that school shouldn’t suck. 

Talk to the average college bound student, and the consensus is that high school is a necessary evil, to be endured until getting into a “good” school. None of the students I've spoken to have anything positive to say about high school. The disturbing part is that by most standards, these kids are successful products of the educational system in that they are all headed to “elite” colleges.

I wonder if educators know that most of their “success stories,” the student body presidents who earn a 4.6 GPA and are destined for Princeton, actually despise high school. My experience with the Boulder High School counselor shows that if they do know they don’t care.

In Mexico Zoe waitressed, volunteered with a local non profit, read, and took yoga, dance and spanish classes. At first, she worried that taking a year off would adversely impact her college prospects. But eventually, she was so busy doing, learning, engaging, and just being in the now that she couldn’t be bothered fretting about her future for any length of time.

When it was time to leave our free spirited stint in Mexico Zoe did not want to return to Boulder High. Much to my dismay, she had not sworn off the educational rat race. Instead, after much research she concluded most high schools suck, in which case she wanted to go to a prep school that would give her the best chance to be successful in the rat race. With no real prep schools in Boulder, we decided on Miami, my hometown and where her dad lives.  

It’s been a year, and I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around Zoe's choice of school ...
Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart. Carrollton is an all girls Catholic school attended by students from mostly wealthy, mostly conservative, mostly latin and, of course, mostly Catholic families. My girl grew up in a mostly middle-class, mostly liberal, mostly anglo, mostly atheist environment. 

Any day now I expect to receive a letter from Carrollton regretting to inform us that Zoe is no longer welcome at the school because we are frauds. I imagine an inquiry into what were we thinking allowing our daughter to apply there in the first place.

While I feel like an alien at Carrollton parent meetings, I also have a certain sense of familiarity in that, as at Boulder High, it’s all about test scores and college “placement.” Also, even though it’s a Sacred Heart school, I don’t get a sense that her teachers there care any more about her spirit than the counselor in Boulder. And, just like the students in Boulder, the overwhelming impression I get from the young women at Carrollton is that, for them, school sucks.

The main difference between the two schools is that Carrollton is more successful in what one documentary filmmaker describes as the “Race to Nowhere.” There’s no denying that most Carrollton girls get into impressive sounding colleges. So, if school is going to suck for my daughter, at least she will be able to put a good college on her resume, which she thinks will make her happy.

It doesn’t make me particularly happy. In fact, it breaks my heart to think of Zoe sacrificing her teenage years for the sake of an impressive resume. 

I wanted it to be different for my kids. I wanted them to love learning, to be supported by a cadre of positive, creative teachers who actually like kids. To that end, I went to great lengths to ensure my girls grew up with educational experiences that didn’t suck, including moving to Boulder, putting them in Waldorf Schools, homeschooling and the year in Mexico. What I’ve learned is that a good teacher, not to mention a good school, is hard to find. Our educational system, public and private, is focused on testing and getting into college at the expense of critical thinking, creativity, independence, mental health, heart and soul. 

Zoe is determined to take advantage of what Carrollton does best which, if she works hard, is offer a curriculum, structure and support that will put her near the top of most college application piles. She takes mostly advanced classes, has an “A” average, goes to Mass when required, and does as much yoga as possible to deal with the anxiety. She doesn’t complain when teachers talk down to her.  She is silent when classmates discuss the evils of “liberal environmentalists” and bemoan the quality of their domestic help.

For Zoe, high school is to be quietly endured until she starts her “real life.” 

As dismal as it is for Zoe, I know that her situation hurts me more than it does her. My only consolation is that Zoe is well aware current attitudes about what comprises a quality education are warped. Plus, I have to admire her fortitude and attitude. I continue to lament that school shouldn’t suck, resisting “what is.” In contrast, Zoe acknowledges what is and is dealing with reality in a practical way. Who am I to judge?

Besides, so far, her spirit and soul appear to be intact.


  1. So sorry for Zoe. I loved high school. I wanted to go to college but it had to be cheap since I had no money. I've heard of kids taking college courses while still in high school - maybe that's what she needs. Since I went to college when I was 16, I probably got there before I hit that "bored" period.

    1. I agree that the college courses would be perfect, and there's a actually a program in Miami that allows high schoolers to take classes at the local college. Unfortunately Zoe does not agree. I think she is a glutton for punishment!

    2. Sounds like Zoe really has a mind of her own. I think that's great!! I hope in the end she's happy with her choices. I talked Aaron into going to Catholic school and he hasn't forgiven me yet. I also talked hhim into going to college and when he finally got a job that required a degree, he thanked me. You just never know.

    3. So true! At this point I've given up trying to force the girls to do or not to do anything, unless it's a matter of life and limb. Like you, I am just hoping for the best!

  2. It amazes me that we can't figure out how to create schools that work for the students (and that we don't consider the benefit worth almost any cost).

    Also, I worry that young adults Zoe's age will see lingering effects of the economic crash. Five years of surging unemployment (that approached 20% for folks in their 20s) stunted the careers of a wide swath of folks. Some of those folks will be at the same starting place as Zoe's peers who are now coming out of high school.

    I guess there's comfort in the fact that CDOs made some people made a sh!tload of money...

    1. Agreed! I wonder where the children of the CDO millionaires go to school? I suspect that even their schools fail to meet their students and the millionaires don't even notice.

  3. "Teaching is Not a Business," a New York Time op-ed by David Kirp, makes the case that school shouldn't suck in a in a much more professional, compelling way that I am

  4. Nice post. Let's hope she comes around. At least she's had a taste of freedom that she can one day invoke for purposes of comparison.

    1. Oddly, being in her current school has caused Zoe, who used to rail against Boulder "hippies," to embrace the values with which she was raised. Now she is proud to have grown up in a progressive environment. She is the independent spirit of the class, and I like to think that maybe she will inspire some of her classmates think differently. Thanks for your comment:)