Posts Tagged ‘High school’

Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of educationĀ generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator:Ā I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that Ā problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesqueĀ institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the typesĀ of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officersĀ in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrowĀ Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage criticalĀ inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful andĀ significantĀ moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications Ā – have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time,Ā the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories aboutĀ better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.”Ā 

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely becauseĀ a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented Ā school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

Just days before the first episode of HBO’s A Game of Thrones goes to air – an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s amazing series, A Song of Ice and Fire – New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante has written a none-too-impressed review, in which she writes, among other things:

“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.Ā While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martinā€™s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to ā€œThe Hobbitā€ first. ā€œGame of Thronesā€ is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the populationā€™s other half.”

I am, quite literally, furious. Shaking with fury, in fact. But before I go into why, allow me, if you will, the luxury of what might appear at first to be a complete non sequitur, couched in the form of the following anecdote:

I was eleven when I started high school, tall for my age, and at that point very much disinclined towards the idea of bras. I’d never liked wearing a singlet under my shirt, as my mother sometimes suggested I do; neither did I like tights, because they always fell down and you couldn’t run in them, never mind the fact that they itched. So even though I knew that I’d have to start wearing a bra – this strange, unfamiliar thing that felt lumpy and uncomfortable andĀ embarrassing to bootĀ – I still resisted wearing one, even though I’d started to feel self-conscious about the new prominence of my own nipples beneath my new white school shirt. Besides, at primary school the boys had laughed and teased the first girls to wear bras, pointing at the all too obvious outline beneath those older, greyer shirts. Why should high school be any different?Ā At least I felt happy in my choice of footwear: brown riding boots rather than the usual black clogs or lace-ups, because I rode horses on the weekend and because the boots were comfortable. They felt like me.

The first week of Year 7, no one much noticed anyone else’s clothes: we were all too terrified, to awed and hyper and jostling in this strange new world, where all of a sudden our supremacy as the oldest kids in our previous schools was utterly gone, demoted back to the very lowest rung on the social ladder. But then that passed, and all of a sudden I found myself being laughed at by girls I barely even knew the names of, girls who made whinnying noises and clipped their tongues in imitation of hoof-falls when I went by, or who else ran past me deliberately to do just that, teasing me for my choice of shoes. I didn’t care – not exactly – because I wasn’t ashamed of my boots, and anyway, who cared what those girls thought? What did get to me, though, was the next lot of barbs: the girls from my grade and grades above who took it upon themselves to start calling me things like saggy tits, mocking and jeering because I didn’t wear a bra, which, unlike at primary school, was the thing that set me apart. They pointed and teased and whispered, and even though I didn’t then have breasts enough to fill even half my own hand, I felt ashamed – mortified, even – that I was going to be forced into wearing something uncomfortable just to stop strangers from making fun of me.

More than just strangers, though. Other teenagers. Girls who’d already decided the bralessness was next to freakishness, even for an eleven-year-old, despite the fact that they must have gone through something of my transition, surely? Or maybe I really was a freak, and every other girl in the world felt absolutely no self-consciousness at all about growing breasts or wearing bras. Maybe other girls looked forward to it. Whispered, giggly conversations with female classmates in primary school and daring, uninformed gossip sessions at slumber parties hadn’t prepared me for any of this: that suddenly, other girls would turn on me, not because I’d ever done anything to them, but simply because I didn’t act like they did. Because I wasn’t girl enough.

And this is why, to return to the subject of Ginia Bellafante’s remarks, I am currently fighting a fury-tremor in every finger, struggling to type cleanly. Because right now – and let me resort to pejorative, here, because honest fury bespeaks a certain rash privilege – I do not give a fuck that Bellafante knows so little about the original novelsĀ that she thinks the TV series has sexed their content up. I certainly don’t give a fuck that she’s taken the time to toss off an obviously insincere disclaimer to the effect that possibly, somewhere, women like me read books like Martin’s, nor that this very careful phrasing on her part fails to suggest that women might actually read Martin’s books themselves, and not just other, unnamed novelsĀ like them. What I do give a fuck about is her arrogant, hand-waving dismissal of the idea – so cuttingly implied, yet skirted around for the sake of precious propriety – that any real woman would want to read fantasy novels, let alone have anything to do with the whole nasty business of medieval times.

Need I make a list of female fantasy authors to sway her mind? Do I need to gesture to the internets at large, to the hundreds of thousands of girl geeks I’ve seen blogging and tweeting and fangirling and chatting and generally keying themselves up in anticipation of the start of A Game of Thrones? Ought I try and explain – to a woman who has apparently held some quite interesting views on feminism over the years, no less – the prejudicial unhelpfulness of making declarative, gender-based statements about What Women Like And Don’t Like based on nothing more than one’s own personal preferences?

I could do any of those things. I’m tempted to do all of them. But right now, the only thing I can think to say is this:

Ginia Bellafante, you are the girls who laughed at me for being a girl who wasn’t a girl like them, who mocked my breasts and made me shamed of my gender; who chased me away from femininity for more than a decade, fearful of being defeated in an arena not of my choosing but in which I had no choice but to try and compete. You are the women who called the first bluestockings slatterns. You are the blight on your own cause, theĀ judgmentalĀ feminists who turn tomboys into self-hating misogynists and misanthropes, the irreconcilers of disparate femalehood. You and your ignorance; you sit there and wonder, why the hell would any self-respecting woman care about swords and dragons and politics instead of – what? Sex and the City? – and then chortle your guts out, no doubt, at the thought of any one hysterical reader getting herself all anted up over a TV show review. Clearly, if this is the kind of reaction such fantastic works provoke, you’ll think yourself right to steer clear of them and their devotees both, regardless of gender. But just in case any scrap of you feels shamed by this, should you read it – just on theĀ off-chanceĀ a sliver of empathy splinters its way through your chitinous shell – know this: it was never about the show, but that you’d mock us for being what you’re not.


Gina, in the scientific world, when they see that something is happening againĀ and again and again, repeatedly, they donā€™t call it old hat. They call it a pattern.

John Clarke, The Games, IOC Man

Something that’s bothered me for a while now is the current profligacy in YA culture of Team Boy 1 vs Team Boy 2 fangirling. Beginning with Team Edward vs Team Jacob in the Twilight fandom and expanding rapidly to other series – such as Jace vs Simon and Will vs Jem in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices respectively, Daniel vs Cam in Lauren Kate’s Fallen, and Dimitri vs Adrian in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, to name but a fewĀ – the phenomenon has arisen as a natural consequence of so many boy-girl-boy love triangles. Despite the fact that I have no objection to shipping, this particular species of team-choosing troubled me, though I had difficulty understanding why. Then I saw it applied to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy – Team Peeta vs Team Gale – and all of a sudden it hit me that anyone who thought romance and love-triangles were the main event in that series had utterly missed the point. Sure, those elements are present in the story, but they aren’t anywhere near being the bones of it, because The Hunger Games, more than anything else, is about war, survival, politics, propaganda and power. Seeing such a strong, raw narrative reduced to a single vapid argument – which boy is cuter? – made me physically angry.

So, look. People read different books for different reasons. The thing I love about a story are not necessarily the things you love, and vice versa. But riddle me this: are the readers of these series really so excited, so thrilled by the prospect of choosing! between! two! different! boys! that they have to boil entire narratives down to a binary equation based on male physical perfection and, if we’re very lucky, chivalrous behaviour? While feminism most certainly champions the right of women to chose their own partners, it also supports them to choose things besides men, or to postpone the question of partnership in favour of other pursuits – knowledge, for instance. Adventure. Careers. Wild dancing. Fun. Friendship. Travel. Glorious mayhem. And while, as a woman now happily entering her fourth year of marriage, I’d be the last person on Earth to suggest that male companionship is inimical to any of those things, what’s starting to bother me is the comparative dearth of YA stories which aren’t, in some way, shape or form, focussed on Girls Getting Boyfriends, and particularly Hot Immortal Or Magical Boyfriends Whom They Will Love For All Eternity.

Possibly I say this because the prospect of having ended up married to, vampirised by or otherwise magically linked with any of the boys I crushed on and lusted after in high school is a grim and frightening one, even if they had all looked like GQ cover models and been in a position to shower me with riches. (They didn’t, and weren’t.) As a fantasist, I well understand the power of escapism, particularly as relates to romance. But when so many stories aimed at the same audience all trumpet the same message – And Lo! There shall be Two Hot Boys, one of them your Heart’s Intended, the other a vain Pretender who is also hot and with whom you shall have guilty makeouts beforeĀ settling down with your One True Love – I am inclined to stop viewing the situation as benign and start wondering why, for instance, the heroines in these stories are only ever given a powerful, magical destiny of great importance to the entire world so long as fulfilling it requires male protection, guidance and companionship, and which comes to an end just as soon as they settle their inevitable differences with said swain and start kissing. Notable exceptions to this theme can be found in the works of Tamora Pierce and Scott Westerfeld (for starters), but they’re bucking the trend, not starting one. And that worries me.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk

the Law runneth forwards and back —

For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,

and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

– Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

I’ve been trying to find a clear, clean word or phrase to express myself in this post, sadly without much luck. But what I mean to invoke is something of the danger of mob rule, only applied to narrative and culture. Viz: that the comparative harmlessness of individuals does not prevent them from causing harm en masse. Take any one story with the structure mentioned above, and by itself, there’s no problem. But past a certain point, the numbers begin to tell – and that poses a tricky question. In the case of actual mobs, you’ll frequently find a ringleader, or at least a core set of agitators: belligerent louts who stir up feeling well beyond their ability to contain it. In the case of novels, however, things aren’t so clear cut. Authors tell the stories they want to tell, and even if a number of them choose to write a certain kind of narrativeĀ either in isolation or inspired by their fellows, holding any one of them accountable for the total outcome would be like trying to blame an avalanche on a single snowflake. Certainly, we may point at those with the greatest (arguable) influence or expostulate about creative domino effects, but as with the drop that breaks the levee, it is impossible to try and isolate the point at which a cluster of stories became a culture of stories – or, for that matter, to hold one particular narrative accountable for the whole.

By way of demonstration, consider the following two articles: Women in Refrigerators, by Gail Simone, and Who Cares About The Death Of A Gay Superhero, Anyway?, by Perry Moore. Both pieces are concerned – legitimately – with the depowerment, torture and generally horrific abuse leveled at female and gay characters within the comics industry, by way of the comics themselves. Reading through the respective lists, there’s a grim inevitability to the conclusion that something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. But when it comes to the reactions of creators whose works appear on the list, as Simone puts it in a conversation with Tom Peyer,

Every writer has jumped in with a defense of why they stuck THIS one in the fridge.

And the thing is, they’re not entirely wrong to defend their work, particularly if the aim is to counter the suggestion, however reasonable in the big picture, that they’re contributing to a wider, negative culture. Context is everything in both narrative and real life, and while the accusation is never that these creators deliberately set out to discriminate against gay and female characters, the unavoidable implication is that they should have known better than to add to the sum total of those stories which, en masse, do exactly that.Ā And if the listmakers can identify the trend so thoroughly – if, despite all the individual qualifications, protests and contextualisations of the authors, these problems can still be said to exist – then the onus, however disconnected from the work of any one individual, nonetheless falls to those individuals, in their role as cultural creators, to acknowledge the problem; to do better next time; perhaps even to apologise.Ā This last is a particular sticking point. By and large, human beings tend not to volunteer apologies for things they perceive to be the fault of other people, for the simple reason that apology connotes guilt, and how can we feel guilty – or rather, why should we – if we’re not the ones at fault? But while we might argue over who broke a vase, the vase itself is still broken, and will remain so, its shards ground into the carpet, until someone decides to clean it up.

In the end, it all comes down to individual preference and a willingness to change. I love a bit of romance with my stories, but when I look at the culture being created around true love in YA, it’s not something I want to be a part of. Even though I could explain, with eloquence and conviction, why the perennial woman in the freezer belongs in certain of my plots, having looked at it this way around, I don’t want her there. And so I go back to the drawing board and ask myself, how else can I write this story?

And the whole world answers: let me tell you.

Look: I have issues with the whole high school thing.

These issues are wide-ranging. They involve mundane, unintelligent and generally backward curricula, antiquated teaching methodologies, the negligent pay scales for teachers, the lack of reward and prestige for education as a profession, the bastardisation of learning into something that is neither relevant to grades nor recommended that teachers embrace in their own lives, the structure of a system that creates year levels on the basis of age rather than ability, the general social malaise of throwing a whole bunch of teenagers in the same deep pool and yelling SWIM!, the generational incomprehension of techonological and social media as an advanced medium of bullying –

OK. I could go on.

You get that.

But here’s the thing:

High school fucking sucks, man.

We all know it.

Every teenager knows it.

Most adults with actual memories of their high school years, no matter how rosy-lensed, can acknowledge it.

And yet our ability to change that system? Even in the smallest ways?

Is seemingly non-existent.

I have cared about the shitness of high school since I was thirteen. That was eleven damn years ago, and I am still howling into a void. In abstract, it should help my case that so many things are so obviously wrong with the system. In the Land of Government and Educational Bureaucracy, however, that’s actually a massive hindrance, because in a society where ripping a major institution down, salting the earth and building afresh is less an option than it is political suicide, there’s no obvious starting point for reform.

And so people do next to nothing.

Because it’s easy.

Because there’s no viable mechanism in place for doing more.

Because optimism with regard to educational reform is seen as naivety.

Because making things better is too fucking hard.

Well, you know what? I’m sick of that excuse.

I am sick of people whose jobs it supposedly is to support and create a culture of knowledge saying that teenagers and their problems are just too hard; that poverty, cruetly, violence and bullying are just too hard; that creating curricula that are relevant, engaging and intelligent is just too hard; that basically doing anything with anyone between the ages of twelve and nineteen that might be of any use to their future selves or lives beyond the most basic social interactions, arithmetic and language skills – and sometimes not even that – is too hard; that spending money on schools and technology is too hard; that talking to actual teenagers about the circumstances of their education is not only too hard, but impossible, because they can’t be trusted to tell the truth, and everyone knows they just hate high school anyway.

Well, here’s a goddam radical thought: maybe high school is worth hating.

I am sick of homophobia and bullying.

I am sick of a system that seems to be based entirely on Lord of the Flies being a valid basis for social hierarchy.

Years of insomnia. Years of random cruetly, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, violence and ignorance. Years of hearing that at some point, every bright, funny, clever or caring person of my acquaintence had been found in the garage with a noose around their neck, standing on a chair and trying to knock themselves out by sniffing petrol fumes so they wouldn’t feel their hyoid break, or cutting themselves with scissors because it was the only sort of pain they could control, or drinking themselves insensible and weeping on school nights because they couldn’t function otherwise, or taking pills and curling up in the dark like Sylvia Plath, or walking along the edge of cliffs and daring themselves to jump off, or burrowing down inside themselves because it hurt like fury, like glass in the heart, and even the other downtrodden would mock them as protection against further mockery themselves. Years of waking up with less right to sick days than an underpaid temp worker, struggling through depression, illness, fear and uncertainty because you’d get a black mark if you dared show up without a doctor’s certificate, and nobody there to point out that colleges don’t give a flying fuck for your attendance record; that at the end of the day, it’s just a piece of laminated cardboard your parents keep in the attic, and not the be-all, end-all of your academic existence.

No. Fuck that noise, and fuck it sideways.

High school students of the world: you are not prisoners. You are not stupid. You have rights. You have opinions. You know what you feel. The rest of us have either forgotten or are in the process of forgetting, because where you are now? It’s about survival. Once you’re out of the jungle, you don’t go wading back in to fight the tigers and tame the lantana. But that’s why those things persist. You get out, and you’re safe, so you forget. You see the little tweaks and changes on the news, and you forget how bad it really was. You grow up. You start to doubt your teenage intelligence. You wonder if it was just because you were seventeen and an idiot that you hated your creepy geography teacher, the one who knocked the girls’ pens off their desks so he could peek down their shirts when they bent over to pick them up, or that you couldn’t find any practical or intellectual application for what you were asked to do, or that nobody would listen to you or had the power to do anything when you told them you were depressed or being bullied.

Fuck that.

Speak up.

Speak up, because your voices are the ones that matter.

All the debate about schools, about curricula, about subjects and bullying and sex and homophobia and ignorance and bad teaching – all of it affects you. More than anyone else, it affects you. But you are being left out, because you are students, and cannot be trusted to have intelligent opinions. Like prisoners, it is assumed that your sole goal is escape. Let’s slide right by the point where that comparison means many adults subconsciously think of schools and jails as being fundamentally the same, necessary-but-evil types of correctional institution. Yes, lots of teenagers are wankers. I know it, and so do you! If that weren’t true, then bullying wouldn’t be a problem. We would live in a candy-cane world of pixies and chocolate, and ride unicorns to school. Being a teenager doesn’t make you automatically right, either. We’re all still learning about life, after all. Personally, I maintain that any person who thinks they’ve reached a point where learning has become optional is (a) deluded and (b) most probably (see above) a wanker.

But here’s the secret: a lot of adults are wankers and/or wrong, too, and many of them have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager. Perhaps more importantly, they have never had your teenage experience, and are therefore categorically unable to learn from it. There are also good adults in the world – adults who care, and try, and are nonetheless thwarted by a system that desires they do neither – and those adults deserve to be rewarded. But that cannot happen unless you stand up and make your opinions known.

So: right here, right now. Stand up.

This is what the internet is for.

Read. Learn. Protest. Rebel. Think. Question. Argue. Care.

The future is yours, and unless you do something about it? Continued suckage is a definite option.

Be clever. Be subervise. Be creative.

Fight back.

Not on their terms.

But on yours.

And win.

 

By way of introduction to what comes next, consider the following articles:

1. An in-depth examination of what makes a great teacher;

2. A renunciation of helicopter parenting;

3. The suspension of students after the online ‘bullying’ of a teacher;

4. A warning to teachers not to ‘friend’ students online for fear of said bullying; and

5. The Rate My Teachers website.

Are we all familiar with the relevant materials?

Good.

But before I begin, a relevant disclaimer:

I hated high school. Not to begin with, certainly, but by the end, I loathed it with a furious vengeance that would cheerfully have seen me set fire to the place. I went to two high schools, since you ask, both of them co-educational. The first was a public school; the second, private. I spent three years at each. It is important to note that my hatred does not stem from these differences, nor from a desire to have studied under a same-sex regime. In both instances, I had access to teachers who were engaged, intelligent, interesting and committed to my education. One school had more money and resources than the other, and when it came time to choose my final year subjects, that was certainly a boon, but it didn’t cancel out my hatred. Neither was I an indifferent student. By choice, I studied 14 units in Year 12, when the normal maximum was 13, and I continued to play school sport on the weekend when it was no longer mandatory. I even won a couple of prizes, at both a school and state level. I had friends, and boyfriends, and kind, loving, intelligent parents. I was bullied early on in school, but not in a way that dominated my life, and it wasn’t an issue after I turned 15. In short, I was a good student, the kind who cared about knowledge and who, despite the necessary teenage resentments and problems, wanted to do well. But I hated high school. I felt trapped there as I have never felt trapped before or since. I cried myself to sleep at night, those nights when I did sleep, because past the age of 15, my insomnia was all-encompassing. I was depressed, melancholy, self-hating, self-destructive, angry, a cutter, frustrated and, at times, near catatonic with helplessness. More than anything, I wanted to get out. And now I have, and there’s not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for having held on. But the outrage has never left me. High school, as is, is not a good place. In six years, I never met a bright student who hadn’t considered suicide at some point or other, an observation which has held true even when recalling those years among new adult acquaintances.Ā  Think about that for a moment: a place supposedly dedicated to education where the majority of smart people end up wanting to kill themselves. The high school system is rotten. I remain convinced of this fact. Yes, it has its virtues. But I cannot bear to make myself their advocate. That is my bias, for now and for the foreseeable future. Be warned of it.

Are you up to speed?

Then let us begin.

*****

Of late, there has been a lot of furore about the problem of how to evaluate teachers. Educational unions are strong, and arguably with good reason, especially when one considers how little high school teachers are actually paid, and how miniscule their prospects of financial advancement. It is not a good status quo, and if it were possible to snap my fingers and eradicate the regrettable social assumption than teaching is a low-prestige job worthy only of a similarly low salary, I would gladly trade the flesh of my left hand to do so. But that is not the case: change is never so easy, particularly when it impinges on politics and tradition, and instead, we are stuck with the slow road. I am deeply sympathetic to the plight of underpaid teachers, harried educaters who work long hours for little recompense, dedicating their holidays to marking and the creation of lesson plans, struggling to earn a higher wage, and who find themselves thwarted by poor resourcing on behalf of their attendent governments. These are all problems which deserve redress, and soon.

But.

There is such a thing as a bad teacher. More to the point, there is such a thing as bad teachers, plural, meaning that they are among us, and many, and largely undetected. This is not a desierable situation. Nor is it easily fixed. I will not pretend that creating league tables to measure the performance of schools will automatically solve all the problems parents face when deciding where to send their children. The difference in resources available between the public and private systems is still mindboggling; and I should know, having been in a position to gauge it from both sides. But there is something obvious to the idea that good teachers make a positive difference in the lives of their students, and – correspondingly – that bad teachers can have the opposite effect. The problem, as in all subjective matters, lies in determining what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the context. Especially when endeavouring to craft new legislation, rather than merely supporting laws which already exist, the desire is to improve, adapt, mend: we see the problem, and therefore strive to fix it. But which person, or what body, has either the right or expertise to draw such a contentious line in the sand – to declare that X breed of teacher is good, while the practices of Y are intolerable?

As painful as it is to admit, there surely comes a point when we must pass such a judgement, not because we believe it to be inviolably true, but because we cannot rightfully function without some sort of acknowledgement that there is a judgement to be made at all, and what’s more, that it is worth making. Some teachers are better than others. In almost every other field of employ, we are willing to concede this point, and yet teaching remains a battleground. Elsewhere, the idea that good results be rewarded with higher pay is a logical sort of system, and one that some teachers, at least, are eager to embrace. But where to start? With all the accepted variances in syllabi, school resources and – though more controversial – the socio/economic data of particular school catchment areas, it seems intuitively wrongheaded to suppose that all teachers are striving towards greatness from a position of equal footing. How, therefore, might one reasonably craft the defining qualities of educational success, if the starting assumption denies that all teachers begin with a common set of resources and an equally well-equipped student populace? It is impossible; but then, if we look at the corporate sphere, nobody has ever claimed that all lawyers begin their careers with the same number and type of cases, or that all doctors must successfully diagnose from an equal pool of patients. In that sense, there is always going to be inequality: the point, however, is in trying to establish standards for success that transcend that fact in a visible majority of instances.

So: how do we go about evaluating the success of teachers? Grades, one assumes, must have something to do with it, although that is possibly the trickiest rubrick to establish, given the above concerns. Is there, then, an easier starting place? Yes, I would contend, and a fairly obvious one, though equally controversial. I can think of only two types of institution in our modern world where those in a position of authority are not noticably subject to the rights of those beneath them: prisons, and schools. In both instances, we believe the governed body to be too deeply invested in the dismantling of the whole system to bother with their opinions, not least because they are, by and large, resentful of being held somewhere against their will. But that does not mean abuses do not take place, and it certainly does not mean, in the case of students, that they are comparable to inmates: that is to say, innately untrustworthy by dint of sitting on the far side of the desk. Yes, there is a worry that students will play favourites; that they will lie about their teachers, and desire only the sort of cheerful mediocrity which allows them to misbehave with the least amount of stress. But one might just as easily say the same of junior employees, resentful of the power of their bosses and wanting only to be paid exhorbitantly for the minimum amount of work. Regardless of age, this is always the dichotomy, and while we might acknowledge that some teenagers will abuse the privilege, or else prove unequal to the task of articulating their discontent in an intelligible and useful manner, I am not convinced that adults are any more noble.

Out of curiosity, I looked up one of my old schools on the Rate My Teachers website. Yes, there were some purely pejorative comments in evidence, but otherwise, I found that my own recollections bore out in the assigned scores: teachers I recalled as outstanding were roundly praised, while those I remembered with less fondness were frowned upon. Given my disclaimer about the extent to which I hated high school, I might well be biased, but it seems as though teenagers aren’t as misguided in their perception of teachers as is commonly made out, no matter how poorly those perceptions might be expressed. Since leaving school, I’ve worked for at least one employer whose neuroses and general unpleasantness made my skin crawl, and nobody I complained to about it ever made me feel as though my powers of observation were somehow deficient. Bad bosses are part of the adult world: we accept their existence almost by default. But bad teachers are a different kettle of fish. Even when reminiscing as adults, with all the powers of hindsight at our disposal, there is often a sense that we are being unjust in our perceptions of former teachers; that somehow, we are letting childish emotions cloud our judgement, clinging on to age-old resentments rather than electing to grow up. Even though the only difference between criticising an employer and a teacher might be a few months – or nothing at all, for those who hold down jobs during school – we are automatically inclined to treat the former complaint with greater gravity.

Why? A simple thing: choice.

Suppose I’m working an awful job. Should things turn really nasty, I have the option of leaving. Any resentment I feel towards my employer may therefore be reasonably viewed in this context, and gauged with a modicum of objectivity, depending on the listener’s knowledge of my personality and quirks. But students do not have such a choice. Their resentment is established as a matter of fact, such that any attempt to increase it – say, by complaning about a teacher – does not seem any different from this perceived background level of discontent. More importantly, the fact remains that, even if the teacher is genuinely bad, there is little to be done about it. Changing schools for the sake of a single person is hardly common, and certainly not smiled upon; never mind the fact that changing schools at all is difficult. The idea that a teacher might be dismissed or even reprimanded because of any one student’s say-so is equally unlikely. But in a situation where there is no established means of acknowledging good teachers or weeding out bad even among the educational hierarchy, what hope does any student have of making a valid complaint?

I am not trying to wrap teenagers in cotton wool. As in the case of teachers, some are better than others, smarter than others, kinder or more enthusiastic or honest than others. That cannot be changed, and I do not want to implement some unrealistic, lovely-dovey system wherein all teachers strive for the approval and popular adoration of their pupils. But surely, there must be some way, some viable genesis, wherein students can evaluate their teachers and be heard within the bounds of a legitimate system, and not just by venting on an unauthorised website. Here’s an idea that plays to biases, and which might work for exactly that reason: what if we took note of the type of student complaining about a particular teacher? If they’re all friends from the same group, or possessed of similar personalities, then it seems reasonable to assume that the teacher is either being directly targeted, or that their method of teaching jars with that teen-type. But if the complaints are coming from diverse corners of the student body, or from the type of pupil who normally refrains from rocking the boat, then perhaps schools should sit up and take notice, if only to be sure that nothing is amiss.

If you consider that a teacher is but one person faced with twenty or thirty rebellious subjects, then the idea of students bullying educators becomes less absurd, no matter the balance of power. I am not saying that students should have carte blanche to make their teachers fear for their jobs, or to ridicule them, or any such thing. But the crucial element of bullying is power, and the effect it has on the injured party. Someone might try and tease me, for instance, but if I do not fear them – if they have no tangible ability to make my life worse, and if I genuinely do not care what they say – then they are not bullying me; they are only failing to do so. And perhaps, for the sake of the attempt, that failure should be met with reprimand. Perhaps. But where there are more concrete examples to be getting on with – people who do fear their persecutors, who care what is said about them, and whose lives can be made worse by those on the attack – then spending breath and effort berating what hasn’t happened seems like a waste of time. Thus, in reference to the current concerns of schools re the bullying of teachers – particularly, as in the case of Leeming SHS, of teachers who are themselves feared by their students – I entreat you: look where the power is. If students have no valid outlet to complain about their teachers, and if those teachers are behaving aggressively, then do not be surprised if the internet takes up your shortfall. Don’t go calling it bullying for the sake of effect, or because you think the students shouldn’t have bad opinions in the first place: be an adult, and maybe wonder whether or not such vociferous complaints have merit.

I’m almost done, here. I’m running out of words. The hour is late. I don’t have an overriding solution; only a few scraps. But, please: the things that are wrong with high school aren’t just due to teenage angst. There is something broken in the system – a deep, treacherous wound that cannot mend itself, and which few enough adults even acknowledge exists. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: teenagers are not stupid. The lower your expectations for any group of people, the less likely they are to try and surprise you – why should they, when it doesn’t get them anywhere? We need to start thinking about how to make our schools better, and evaluating teachers is part of that. But until then, try and imagine what we can change. It’s the only way forward. And sooner or later, it’s where we’ll have to go.

Dear Australian Parents,

Stop freaking out about finding the perfect school for your precious progeny.Ā Parroting the answers to standardised tests is not a form of intelligence, and tends to impart the lesson that memorisation is more important than comprehension, let alone independent thought. Kids at their best are creative, explorative, curious . Encourage their interests, but don’t regiment them – the best way to teach is to make learning fun, not to take something they love and make it joyless. If you really want children who are bright, articulate, interesting and well-adjusted, then learn with them: buy them books you’ll read together, play with them, ask what they’d like to do and, where possible, make it happen – but don’t justĀ farm them out to a stranger for rote-learning. Ā 

Not every child is a Rhodes Scholar waiting to happen, and that’s OK. Encourage them to do their best, help them if they struggle, but understand that no amount of money thrown at private tutors, schools or remedial programs will make them any happier or healthier. I understand your concerns, I really do: the world is a difficult place, and especially in times of economic turmoil, it’s natural to want an advantage for those you love best. But education, sadly, has become a commodity, something we buy and sell without anywhere near enough thought as to its intrinsic value. Our society has fathomened the letter of schools, but lost their spirit. When almost everyone finishes Year 12 and a vast majority attend uni, what sets someone apart isn’t their improved marks, but their genuine hunger for knowledge. And that,Ā assuming it can be taught, isĀ a much more subtle lesson.

Parents, let out the collective breath you’ve been holding. Love your kids – teach them, guide them, help them – but remember: they won’t be kids forever. The more you have to force them into something, the less fun they’ll find it. And all too soon, when they shoot up into rebellious, awkward teenagers who storm out, sulk, cut class and answer back, the very best you can hope for is that they want to learn, regardless of whether everything they busy themselves with is part of the curriculum. Like gumtrees that start out in verandah pots, you’re teaching them to be bigger than the space they’ve known. You’re helping them grow up. Whether you send them to public or private school, if they have a tutor or not, it’ll happen. They’ll cease to be meek, but they will inherit the Earth.

So don’t mould them after the system. Teach them to change it.