Why Public School Made Me Awesome

Among the unspoken joys of becoming a parent is getting to listen to other parents pushily inform you why your parenting choices are obviously uneducated and inferior to theirs. (Seriously, we should do away with Sex Ed and just make teenagers hang out with other moms for a week; they won’t wanna touch each other ever again.) According to my numerous unsolicited sources, I’m wasting my time by not “couponing” (this is apparently a verb in suburbia) for 2 hours every night, I’m feeding my child nothing but poison glazed with sugar and tire tread, and I’m actively helping her brain rot completely out of her skull so quickly that she will arrive at kindergarten with only the ability to drool and stare at a wall while her peers discuss Dostoevsky and self-edit their Harvard application essays. So helpful, my peers are…

One of the great “debates” (I put that in quotations because I don’t actually believe there’s a war going on, even though many many women REALLY WANT YOU TO BELIEVE THERE IS, DAMMIT!!!) in the parenting world is what kind of schooling is The Right One. This conflict can just as easily be summarized into the thesis: Public School is The Devil.

And that’s the biggest load of horse crap ever. EVER.

Alright, allow me to say up front that “I get it.” I totally and completely understand why people are loudly proclaiming the incompetence of public schools; I teach college and am constantly depressed by the failures of the public school system as evidenced in the knowledge of my students. (For example: Only one of my 44 students this semester could tell me the date and cause of The Great Depression without more than 15 seconds of thought – 60% of them didn’t know at all. Same goes for WWII, Vietnam, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Also, I have students putting quotation marks around the words “he said” instead of around the actual quote. Yeah…) I get that crappy funding lends itself to oversized classrooms, lack of materials and, ultimately, rampant apathy. I get all that.


Let me explain.

Ultimately, public school is a perfect analogy for life and how the world works. A student is thrown in there among people with whom he or she (I’ll say “she from here on, ’cause I’m a “she”) may not have anything in common with demographically and has to learn how to function among them. This isn’t as basic as a student learning something as simple PC “tolerance” (read: “Oh, it’s adorable that you want to get ‘gay-married’ but I still think you’re going to burn in Hell so please don’t make eye-contact with me”) ; this is about raising a child in an environment where she is one of many many different types of peoples, thus providing her the opportunity to learn how to relate to, befriend, interact with, and, at the very least, coexist with many different types of people and handle a number of different social situations. She is expected to recognize others as friends and learn how to mange their widely-varying influences on herself to help her grow as a person and find her own identity. I know “homeschool moms” like to defend their choices by usually whining saying “Oh, we get [fill in precious, precious child’s name here] out and involved with tons of social extracurriculars!!!!!!!!” but, the truth is that even those groups are homogeneous groupings of children with similar (if not identical) backgrounds, income-levels, etc. At public school, a student is exposed to eeeverything , which is basically a miniaturized version of what humanity looks like. Going to public school, I had friends who were raised in houses so big I would repeatedly get lost when I visited and other friends who had awesome sleepovers where we’d play “Capture the Flag” in their trailer parks and I hung out with those people without any pretense or irony but, merely, because I was a kid and wanted to hang out with somebody I thought was cool. At public school, I learned the differences between racial cultures (I once got laughed at by a few of my friends in 4th grade because I didn’t/don’t put grease in my hair and I had to keep explaining that I didn’t want grease in my hair; in my family, we were always trying to wash it out. It was an innocent conversation without any conflict or social awareness of what was really happening; only when I got older did I realize that it was a “black people do this and white people do that differently” conversation… and it all happened without any malice or anger or offense. Imagine that…) and I was raised in an educational society where there was no “them” and “us”; we legitimately were all the same and had the same potential, whether we were black or white or poor or rich or supertrendy or fug or whatever. In this environment, we are all people and we are all encouraged to see each other in the same light.

Additionally, public school kids are presented with an image of the world that has no bias, no pre-stated conditions; we were given reality as it was with the expectation that we would interpret and define it for ourselves. My favorite example of this happened when we were in 2nd and 3rd grade and participated in the annual Moore County Drug March, in which all the kids of every elementary and middle school in Moore County would don red clothing, make little flags, and parade a couple miles through the neighborhoods around the school screaming “NO MORE DRUGS! NO MORE DRUGS!” Now, while the other schools in the area would take their students through quaint little neighborhoods, our elementary school was in the building that used to be the Black High School during racial segregation and was surrounded by the old, run-down remnants of that era. There were horribly-decaying old houses with people constantly going in and out and, in between legitimately cute little houses where many of my classmates lived, there were hollowed-out shacks with bullet-holes and fresh police tape wrapped around them. But still, we paraded through the streets, waving our flags and bellowing “NO MORE DRUGS!!!” to people watching from their front stoops and, what’s funny is that we never thought to be scared. Not one of us ever said, “Those guys standing on the corner drinking out of paper bags look pissed; we might be hurting their market.” We just smiled and waved at our friends’ parents who ran out of their houses to take pictures of us and we whined about how tired we were at the end of the hour. You know. Just like kids. Only later did I think, “Holy crap. They marched us through the ghetto to scream at drug dealers.” That’s kind of how it was with everything in public school; things were what they were and our teachers encouraged us to explore things without any preconceived notions about the context. It was powerful stuff.

Of course, the natural progression of age lent itself to teaching us about the pressures of social expectations, as we merged into our teenage years and found ourselves segregated by what we were wearing or who was more attractive to the opposite sex (and why those people were inherently supposed to be feared and hated by people like me until I learned valuable lessons about self-love after my early 20’s) and, while I hate that a lot of that type of social education is inflicted on children and perpetuated from tradition, I do think that that, too, is an important lesson in learning how to navigate the waters of society. Even if a person decides not to subscribe to the bullshit that is society’s superficial expectations, knowing how to recognize it in its many forms and how it all works is invaluable when going out into the world. Sure, there are cliques and “popular kids vs. losers” dynamics going on in private schools, but arguably without nearly as much range in demographics. Secluded kids in private schools don’t have the designer-label-quietly-bitchy-white-girl-prom-queen clique getting laughed at by the proud-to-rule-the-hood-black-girls clique for having no rhythm; there aren’t any Hispanic family feuds perpetuating themselves in the hallways or rednecks wearing camo and talking about deer hunting and there certainly isn’t the facet of getting to watch all those insanely, radically different groups learn how to get along together. And, sure, I can understand wanting to protect your children from crazy goth kids who may try to blow up the school or emo kids who are making it trendy to sit around and cut themselves or whatever other demographic you’re uncomfortable with but, you know what? Shielding your children from people who are different than yourselves isn’t just a disservice; it’s ignorant. By putting a child in a situation where she has to learn about societal standards/roles and learn about the motivations of others’ family lives and learn how to relate to people who are completely different than herself, a parent is giving that child the tools to rule the world. (And, besides, the odds of your kid being shot or blown up at school are about the same as those of you getting shot or blown up at the bank.)

Sure, a kid can go to a school where everyone is just like her and then graduate into a university that is full of more people just like her and then go to work at a place with people just like her because of networking with other people just like her. Sure. That happens a lot. But those people tend to have a perception about the rest of the world that enables them to observe and examine other races/cultures/demographics like exhibits or temporary, disposable situations instead of real, tangible lifestyles and realities for other people. (No, I’m not saying ALL of those people think that way; I’m just saying it’s a very noticeable mentality bred from homogenized learning tactics.) The ideas of “them” and “us” are only perpetuated in this way and keeps people from understanding each other as actual, you know, PEOPLE, instead of faceless bodies filling demographic/societal roles. One facet of this that irritates the crap out of me is that this mentality keeps people from showing compassion toward those who live in poverty because of blatant misunderstanding about the condition OR (and this facet bugs me more) they only “give to charity” in organized, formal settings which still allows them to be socially disconnected from the people they are supposedly helping out of love and compassion. There’s that concept that it’s wonderful to give your money to homeless shelters but you’d NEVER take a homeless person out for lunch; it stems from the idea that “they” (the homeless/poverty-stricken) are deserving of this life, instead of the thought that they are just people like yourself. Going to public school, I knew kids who were homeless or had been at one point; I was good friends with a girl who shared a rundown, single-wide trailer in the boonies with 11 other people; and I knew dozens of kids on welfare and who lived in government housing. My point is that poverty was tangible for me (even though I was fortunate enough not to experience it within my household) and charity was as easy as splitting my lunch with a classmate who couldn’t afford it. (Which I believe is what Jesus was into, wasn’t He? Hanging out with different people and sharing lunch with them? I feel like I read about that somewhere…)

“But the education system is so flawed! It doesn’t teach kids crap!” you say. Dude, that’s incredibly ignorant of you. Here’s the thing about public school that teaches another valuable lesson about how the world works: Students have to work harder if they want to get ahead. (Ohhh! No way!!! That applies to life!) Because public school has to teach to the median, there are many students who get lost and left behind (read: Me in any math class I ever took ever.) and there are those who are super far ahead (read: Me in any English class ever.) Now, the kids who aren’t doing so well have to learn how to recognize their failures and make the extra effort and do what is necessary to improve him or herself (Ooo! Life-lesson alert agaiiin!! How could that possibly apply to being a responsible, self-actualized adult? Hmmm…) and those who are awesome at certain things are encouraged to seek out opportunities that will allow them to explore this talent (like writing club or the student yearbook group or the volleyball team or drama club in my case.) Sure, there are a lot of smart kids who aren’t spoon-fed the vast wealth of information they can probably handle so guess what? They get to learn an important lesson about initiative and how, if you really want to better yourself, it’s up to you to do that. If a student isn’t learning enough about history, it’s up to her to head on over to the library and read more about it (and, oh, I sooo did.) That teaches self-motivation and the realization that the world isn’t going to coddle each person and cater to everyone’s immediate needs. The same goes for the average student, too; if a student has been coasting through school on mediocre grades because she’s totally enrapt with her boyfriend/video games/blog/whatever, she has the choice to just be cool with that or work a little harder and shift her focus from distractions so she can be better. Sure, it’s a tough lesson that kids aren’t going to fully understand until they’re older, but these lessons instill habits and realizations that become a part of an adult’s common knowledge: If you’re not happy being mediocre, it’s up to you to change it. If you’re not happy failing at something, it’s up to you to fix it. If you want to do better than the status quo, you have to get out there and make it happen. Duh. Too easily, Americans want to blame “the system” or “the teachers” or “them” (in general) for being the way we are when, really, it’s up to each of us to make our lives the way we want it to be. This is something that public schools are teaching on a daily basis. There are always teachers at public schools who offer kids a little extra help when they need it and there are always special groups students can get involved with that will allow them to better themselves. Always. It is up to those students to use the resources and opportunities provided to make themselves better. And, if those somehow don’t exist, they’re faced with the challenge of going out and finding opportunities on their own (kinda like how we found good music, even though we lived in the South during the late-90’s-early-00’s… Read: Creed.) That’s part of life, folks.

One of the people I most admire is a young man I met in high school who, by all statistical standards, very easily could’ve dropped out and continued taking care of his single mother in the rough area of town where they lived. Defying the odds (and asking for no extra fanfare or credit), this guy made amazing grades, was involved with every single extracurricular project he could within the Theater program at our arts-based high school, got himself into a wonderful out-of-state university (although he majored in Theater, which, admittedly, is a bogus degree in a field that nobody will ever need accreditation to succeed within… I digress) and went forward to get blissfully married and now has a job at the freaking Pentagon (not sure how it happened, but he digs it, so that’s what counts here.) Now, while his isn’t the path I personally would’ve chosen (and, um, didn’t choose… which is why I get to tell stories about life in a mental hospital), what is remarkable is my friend’s unbelievable determination; from the day I met him, he’s been stating what it is that he wants with his life and, without requiring or demanding any credit for his efforts and determination, he has gone forth and done everything he said he wanted to. He has made his own opportunities and milked them dry and made the life he wanted. And he went to public school. In South Carolina, no less.

Sure, there are kids who get discouraged and give up. And there are kids (a LOT of them if you live in a tourist town like I did) who can get a job as a manager for some crap job making $22,000/yr when they’re 16, so they quit school to live that temporary awesomeness. And there are people who just don’t want to be in school at all so they join a gang or start dealing drugs and live a life of drama and violence. Yes. That all happens. And you know what? That stuff happens out here in the real world, too. There are plenty of people out here tolerating boring, mediocre lives in which they aren’t happy that will never improve due to lack of self-motivation. There are plenty of people who just give up in tough situations and turn to crappy quick-fixes to remedy things.  Public school teaches students how to recognize those failures in others and avoid them in themselves. It teaches self-motivation and it teaches students how to find their own strengths and how to find passion to work toward those in a world where there are so so many options and so much outside pressure and temptation to retreat. Try finding that in homeschool.

Going to public school has been one of the very most valuable life experiences I have in my arsenal. Sure, when I was a teenager/young adult, I thought I was better off hiding out amongst people who came from identical backgrounds as myself but, after I started teaching, I realized what a gift I’d been given. I can walk into any social situation with ease and confidence from having experience dealing with similar situations throughout my life. I can relate to and earn respect from the students that I teach in rural North Carolina because I understand their demographic on an organic level, instead of only having read about their statistics in some research piece somewhere and cobbling together methods from my assumptions. I can coexist and communicate with people from many different racial, ethnic, or economical backgrounds because I’ve been doing it my whole life. I understand a wide variety of perspectives on all sorts of issues and historical events throughout the last 20-ish years because I’ve been experiencing them along with many different types of people since I was a little girl. I know lingo and jargon and social nuances and I know when to say what in most social situations and what immediate effect it will have on the group I’m in and I know when to be PC and when I can get away with being irreverent in mixed company and I know how to cater to the needs of those who are in a completely different state of their lives than I am in mine. I can talk to people from any walk of life on a level that is respectful and coherent with their particular story or understanding of life and I can relate to and learn from people this way. Truly, this is the gift that keeps on giving.

Most importantly, though, I’ve learned how to define my character and grow a backbone around people who disagree with me because I had the opportunity to observe and experience a variety of mentalities through my peers and realize exactly what it is that I want, love, and stand for as an individual person among billions.

So there you go. Public school made me a well-rounded human being, capable of respecting and coexisting with others and navigating the waters of society with the tools I learned growing up. I have learned the value of self-motivation through countless examples and experiences. Simply put: Public school works because it made me a student of our society as a whole and, additionally, it forced me to create my life for myself instead of depending on others to provide my opportunities.

This is why I smile smugly whenever some uber-condescending, suburban white lady is rolling her eyes and scoffing, “I would NEVER send my child to public school!” Well, that and the thought of her trying to dance…

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