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.