Critical Lessons & Educational Change

To all the students who have hated school because it makes you feel dumb

Dené Granger

December 13, 2010

To the students who have hated school because it makes you feel dumb:

I am right there with you. i mean, if i didn’t love it, i wouldn’t be trying to become a teacher with a powerful writing voice, so i’ve been able to find ways to get into it, to make school make sense to me and my body. but, i just wanted you to know, you have every reason to hate school. i’m getting ahead of myself.

I just spent the last year trying to forgive school and forgive myself for hating it. I mean, every single day, i was cursing at school, forcing myself to go through the motions, just trying to survive. At the same time, i feel like i’m being dramatic. i mean, i’ve managed to intrigue my professors enough, and I think i get more props from my professors than most of my peers. i feel secure in my knowledge base, because these past four years, i’ve been pouring my whole heart into every single text, knowing that if i didn’t, then i would say something “stupid,” and no one knows more than me, i sometimes can’t keep my mouth shut, and when i talk, i always end up hiting on a point in some text i just absolutely missed, as if you can miss a crator. but as i did that work, i ended up reading more than most of my peers, somehow inserting myself into conversations in ways that i feel like i didn’t even see it coming. but then again, don’t we always take ourselves for granted?

again, i’m getting totally dystracted.

so yeah, i tear myself up with school, all because this whole time i was convinced that i needed to prove that i am smart. that was a huge driving force for me. at first, i wanted to prove to my school that i didn’t belong in special ed. i mean, don’t get me wrong, i absolutely loved, loved, loved, my special ed teacher and all of my peers, but i resent that that system even exists. so i had to prove that i was worthy of being with “regular ed,” and i took up that challenge. I was able to find reason enough to like school. I suspect like most people who hate school, I knew i was being cheated. But i knew that i could work the system.

and then i started moving into AP (something akin to honors) classes, starting with algebra. my mom, unlike most of the people we knew, made me and my siblings do structured activities over the summer, like swimming lessons, art classes, summer track. anyway, math and science camp was one of my things. nerd, i know, but since my teachers wouldn’t give me the props i needed to get into pre-algebra, my summer math camp helped me pass the exam to get into algebra. I had a chance, but i felt like i made it through the back door. Every assignment continued to be all about moving in the ranks.

i had teachers who could see that i was engaged, and showed me that they valued my labor, and i would work even harder for them. so i had a lot of really incredible people pushing me. but even if i did make it to AP geography, and passed the class well enough, my teacher wouldn’tsign off to allow me to pass through to AP US history.

so i tell this story because, i know i was so privileged, but i know what it is to be continually denied any acknowledgment of what i had to offer my teachers and my peers, and what it is to exist in this incredibly threatening institution every single day. I tell this story because I want you to know that i know that you have every reason to hate it, and to keep on hating it. Weather you deside to stay in this aweful system or find a new one, all the more power to you, but I want you to know, if you are at all interested in staying in this place, that the most amazing thing you currently possess (even if you haven’t found a way to value it in the ways you deserve) is passion and pleasure.

I have always had to have that conversation that went something like, “dene, you’re just trying to pick a fight” — when the one thing i’m trying to communicate is “this does not make sense! i don’t get it, but i want to” and i couldn’t stop asking questions. But of course they thought i was just being oppositional, those schooling systems didn’t make sense to my body, and they directly obstruct me from engaging in schools in ways that i physically and emotionally need. I bet if i skipped all that time trying to learn phonics, than i probably would still have had to wait til my mid 20s to be able to feel like i can say “i can read.” then again, if i didn’t have to suffer through phonics, i might have turned into a biologist or mathematician.

But really, school sucks enough as it is. don’t do it if you can’t really get into it, and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get into it; it has nothing to do with how smart you are. we where never meant to be here, schools never intended to include us. and if some teacher tries to insist that you have to do it their way, know that whatever excuse they come up with, you deserve to do the things you’re passionate about, that make sense to you, your peers deserve it, and those great teachers out there deserve it.

I know there are times when we will not be able to operate under the pleasure principle, because the system is just designed to prevent us from engaging this –> if it wasn’t designed this way, schools would look much differently, perhaps we’d appreciate the presence of serotonin, or unadulterated joy. but i want you to know, when you compromise personal satisfaction and personal growth, for the sake of some schooling formality, we’re sacrificing ourselves and our own personal integrity. you will face so many people who would absolutely disagree with me on this, and if you take up the challenge of finding pleasure in your work, you will come up against some opposition, but what i have learned is, it’s been worth it for me.

when i started graduate school, i had so much anxiety about spelling everything correctly, or using proper grammar, i knew that there was no way i could develop any kind of writing voice, because i couldn’t value the voice that i had. I went to all my professors, telling them that i was not going to submit my papers with proper spelling and grammar, because doing so would silence my very dyslexic voice.. I think most all of them were scared i’d turn in a jumbled up mess that was completely incomprehensible, but what some of them found was a voice they could honor, and a voice i could learn to love — that, i think, is the most incredible writing lesson i could have ever engaged. Those professors who were scared of my writing experiments, their fear is warranted, and they’ll respect you for recognizing that, but their fear is misplaced. We should be more scared of hating our own voice than weather we say things “the right way,” because our writing can only be effective if we believe our voice can make an impact on our world in a way that makes sense to us. We have the potential to do a lot with our lives, and we deserve to know that.

so yeah, keep on hating school, you deserve it. but i want you to know, you’re not alone, and when school makes you feel like you’re pushed up against a wall, it’s not because you “don’t have what it takes,” it’s because schools are actually really violent places to be. schools want to think that only bad students hate school, but i think you have the most to teach us about how to make schools better for all of us. i need you to know that i need to learn from you. all the students that come after us, they need our stories too, because it doesn’t have to be this way. hang in there, i’m rooting for you.

in solidarity,