Last week, I somehow found myself sitting in the cafeteria of my high school. I was only in town for a couple of nights, and because I am glutton for punishment, I decided to spend one of those nights at a community planning meeting. In all seriousness, it was a great meeting about a great project, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But every time I’ve returned to my high school, it’s always felt somewhat surreal. Nothing, really, has changed during the last twelve to fifteen years. The same banners hang from the walls; the same trophies sit proudly behind glass cases; it’s the same stale air, the same industrial colors on the walls, the same bright fluorescent lighting. As an adult, I’ve also visited my elementary school several times, and the experience is entirely different: Everything may be the same as it was when I was a student, but the scale feels completely unfamiliar now. I’m taller, and the school seems miniaturized, like a funhouse of trick mirrors. Aside from the security cameras that now line the hallways, however, nothing much about my high school has changed.

A friend of mine recently reminded me that our experience and our definition of “school” should have very little to do with physical infrastructure, the bricks and mortar, and almost everything to do with human infrastructure– our relationships with fellow students, the quality of our teachers, the competence of our administrators. When that is in place, our educational experience is not defined by our interaction with the built institution; it’s informed by our human interactions. We can spend tens of millions of dollars building the best facilities money can buy, but at the end of the day, we’re not investing in a school; we’re investing in a building. There’s a difference.

I had many great teachers and made many life-long friends in high school, but it was never a real school. More than half of the teachers I had have since transferred or resigned; in the four years I attended, there were three different principals. The school didn’t place a premium on academics; it championed athletics, in particular, powerlifting. My high school had a powerlifting team that won consecutive national championships, and with that, there was an underlying acceptance of “chemical” enhancers. We weren’t as concerned with prepping students for college or preparing them for the ACT or the SAT. Somehow, in my high school, no one seemed to question the legitimacy of spending public education dollars for young boys and girls to inject themselves with Creatine and stalk around campus looking like swollen, grotesque caricatures of themselves, just as long as they continued to win national championships against the kids at the military boarding school in Pennsylvania.

Last week, I noticed one other thing different about my high school. They’d cordoned off an elevated area of the cafeteria for the smart kids, their own segregated lunch counter, all sitting underneath a banner praising their “academic excellence.” I don’t know who thought this was a brilliant idea– quarantining the smart kids, literally perching them up on a pedestal during lunch, but when I saw it, my stomach turned. It was everything I hated about that high school, perfectly represented.

During the community meeting, a friend of mine pointed out this special seating section to me. “Look, Lamar,” she said earnestly, “they’re rewarding academic excellence.”

“That’s not a reward,” I said. “That’s punishment.” And I stand by that.

More than a decade after I graduated, my high school still seems to be completely confused about how to incentivize academic achievement. Being smart and making good grades are still treated as elitist, except now, smart kids don’t have to bother with the democracy of a lunch line. Meanwhile, of course, while the kids who make good grades get the privilege of sitting under a banner extolling their academic achievement, everyone else sits alongside the dozens of banners and hundreds of trophies that celebrate athletic accomplishments.

When I was a sophomore in high school, there was a group of kids a year older than me– brilliant, funny, and fiercely independent kids at the top of their class– who were all rejected admission into the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society. These kids weren’t ever in serious trouble; they weren’t disciplinary problems; they were just nerds. But the faculty voted on which students would be allowed into the National Honor Society; it wasn’t exactly “objective,” and there were only a limited number of spots. That year, the faculty rejected three (of the four) valedictorians and nearly a half a dozen National Merit Finalists. If you only need to know one thing about the toxic, anti-intellectual, and counter-productive culture that existed (and, to a certain extent, still exists) in my high school, it’s this. After those kids were rejected, they formed the National Dishonor Society; they printed up t-shirts and wore them to school almost every day. It was defiant and righteous, and they exposed an uncomfortable truth about our high school and the integrity of our faculty. The next year, incidentally, I was also rejected admission into the National Honor Society and subsequently became an honorary member of the National Dishonor Society.  I didn’t do anything wrong. I’d never gotten in trouble at all. I was also at the top of my class. But even way back then, I was controversial, and my high school had very little tolerance for independent thinkers.

I had first intended to write about Jindal’s voucher scam and how we’re being hoodwinked. I’ll save that for later. For now, my point is this: My high school may look the same as it did when I was a student, but it doesn’t have to be the same. I attended public schools in Louisiana, and I know, very well, why we need to reform the system. Out of the 220 or so graduates, I was only one of two who was admitted to a top-tier school (despite the fact that I had been rejected by the National Honor Society). I’m not being braggadocios; I am sounding the alarm. We don’t need to funnel taxpayer dollars into propping up private schools; we already own the infrastructure.

This is important and not always understood: Schools are merely a community of people. People inform culture; buildings, at their best, merely enhance our experience. Buildings, in the most basic terms, house culture, nothing more and nothing less. Governor Jindal, who was once a Hindu kid named Piyush attending a public school in inner-city Baton Rouge, may now fashion himself as a Catholic man named Bobby (and that’s a story in and of itself), but his achievements in life are based entirely in the genius of public education, a system that allowed his immigrant parents the opportunity to provide him with a top-notch education and a pathway toward the Ivy League. And sadly and ironically, it’s a system Mr. Jindal now actively seeks to destroy. To me, Mr. Jindal doesn’t look like the wunderkind; he certainly doesn’t look like a policy wonk or a potential candidate for Vice President. He looks like an abused tool, a man all-too-willing to buy into the notion that Louisiana, post-Katrina, could be the perfect stage for disaster capitalism experimentation, results be damned. He looks ravaged, exploited, hilarious; it’s awful.

We cannot afford to disinvest from public education; we cannot quarantine or isolate or ridicule kids who push themselves academically. We can and should strive toward top-notch athletics programs, but we can no longer allow our schools to be led and administered by career coaches; schools must be led by qualified and professional educators. Our problem is not infrastructure. It’s easy enough to rearrange furniture, to move the balcony chairs of the academic elite back among their peers.

Our problem is cultural; it’s an entrenched mindset, a pettiness and a sense of defeatism that we simply accept unquestionably.

Our problem is that we’ve invested our faith in people who have absolutely no faith in us, that we’ve become convinced that education is not a fundamental right and is somehow a commodity. It’s like tying public safety to the profitability of the local police force.

I’ll always have a love/hate relationship with my high school, but I think most sane people feel the same way.

Or, to quote the movie Dazed and Confused, “All I’m saying is that if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.”

High school shouldn’t be the best years of life, but, at the very least, they should be good.


9 thoughts

  1. That school is where I met you, my academic hero. And we both turned out alright. Pretty good for that, at least. I had NO idea about the Creatine, though, so apparently I wasn’t so smart.

    1. Actually, Casey, we FIRST met before a laser tag game in Monroe, the one and only time I’ve ever played laser tag. I remember your Mom asking to study my drivers license before she’d let you in my car.

      And I agree: We both turned out just fine. 😉

      The Creatine scandals happened before you enrolled, I think. (I’m already certain that the fact I even disclosed this about our alma mater is going to make some people all sorts of mad, but that’s OK; it’s the truth). And I know I sound critical, but I still relished those years. (To be sure, even then, I was clamoring for reform).

  2. Sadly Lamar, this is a well told story across the country. We must remember our history. The United States has always had a deep thread of anti-intellectualism. If we we not teaching people to read only to read the Bible, we create factory models for nice little factory workers. Subculture after subculture penalizes members for any education outside of their norm. ( and people wonder why I quit after 14 years ). Our education system is broken beyond repair. And even if Jindal had good intentions regarding the education system ( I don’t believe he does ) it amounts to nothing more than changing swats on the Titanic. Sir Ken Robinson is right. We don’ t need an evolution of our schools. We need a revolution. And revolutions are seldom without bloodshed, even if only metaphorical.

  3. There is one academic state championship banner on that wall in that school. State Champions, Division 1, Quiz Bowl. Team: B.J. Bonnette, captain; Matt Tate, Jay Jackson, Chad Partain, April Erwin, Joe Villard. Coaches: Marilyn Miracle and Rebecca Tisdale. Aubrey Sanders proudly helped us put up that banner. They also finished 12th out of close to a hundred teams at the National Quiz Bowl, held on the campus of Rice University, your alma mater. Two years later, when the ASH’s Quiz Bowl won the exact same championship, Lyle Hutchinson vetoed having another banner and told me “I never thought that banner belonged there in the first place. That wall should be for sports only.” End of discussion.

    1. Hi, Mrs. Tisdale.

      As a graduate in ’93, I agree with your recollection during the time you were there. I was a few years ahead of you, but I know that my younger brother Zeb felt as strongly as you do. I think the transition occurred after both Matt and I left, because during our time there, ’89-’94, there was a fairly strong balance between academics and athletics. Take a look at those yearbooks, and you’re likely to see the ‘popularity’ contests were fairly even split between ‘athletes’ and ‘nerds’. Once EAFB closed, I do think ASH took a turn away from the diversity that those families brought into Alexandria.

      I can assure you that the high school education I received at ASH from ’89 to ’93 was second to none in the state of Louisiana. Teachers like Mrs Tisdale, Mrs. Bryant, Mrs. Hemingway, Mrs. Boniol, Mrs. Allgood, Mrs. Wilder, Mr. Smith, and the many many others… prepared me for higher education and life in general. The graduating classes of ’92, ’93, and ’94 were above-average, in my opinion, in both sports and academics. During those years, ASH gave you options to prepare yourself for life after high school.

      I was disappointed in the way things changed during my younger brother’s time in high school. I’m not trying to make excuses for ASH and it’s administration, but make sure your research ties back to the community-altering England Air Force Base closure for the sake of completeness and objectivity. I’m not sure that impact can truly be overstated in regards to ASH.

      1. I certainly agree that losing the Air Force kids had a strong negative impact on the local school system. I can’t tell you how much I missed the wider world viewpoint those kids brought to the classroom. They opened up a lot of discussion that might never had occurred otherwise, and they were, for the most part, academically oriented and disciplined. Their parents were disciplined people. There was a vacuum once this community resource was gone.

        I don’t believe the change came as suddenly as Mike quite remembers, but it did change. As for Zeb, well Zeb is Zeb and I think it was harder for him to find his own balance in the world more than most kids. I know it was not a good atmosphere for him academically those years, but several of his teachers, especially Mrs. Howell, Mrs. Graff and myself, tried to fill in the gaps. Sometimes with success, sometimes not. I know I was shocked when Mr. Hutchinson dismissed my request for another academic championship banner on the wall so rudely and high-handedly. He also removed any influence I might have on kids concerning current events or a historical perspective, especially honors students. When the principalship changed, the American History classes went off my schedule. This was because he thought my politics were too liberal and he made no bones about that to me or anyone else.

        The 3 years that Mrs. Guinn was principal, there was a calmness and order to the school, a good balance between academics and athletics, a respect for academic achievement, and rules that made sense. I only got a little taste of this, because those were the years that my husband, Garry Tisdale, was battling brain cancer, a glioblastoma, which is a very malicious form of cancer, and I was in and out of school. I do know that every effort was made to help me keep academic standards up and going in my program.

        After I left ASH, the school went through a very rocky period academically with Mr. Albrittan as principal. I know this because most of the teachers you mentioned felt they had no choice but to seek a transfer or to retire. Academics and strongly academically oriented teachers such as the list you mentioned were not accorded respect or value from the administration.

        Thank you for writing, Mike. I will always remember my days working with Quiz Bowl as some of the best years of my teaching time. It was a pleasure, and a treasure.

  4. My husband graduated from that school and describes it as the worst years of his life. Painfully shy but extremely bright, never included in anything. Thank goodness he didn’t buy into the myth about high school.

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