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Where We Went Wrong: A True Story

Jessica Watkins's picture

My experience with education has been very little—and by that I mean the size of the actual schools.

I’ve never been one for large institutions where it is easy to slip through the cracks.  I started small and stuck with it.  First a tiny Catholic school with an eighth grade graduating class of almost thirty.  Then, a private college preparatory high school with almost sixty graduating.  And here I am now, at a college boasting less students than most large high schools have in one grade level.  In terms of numbers I’ve progressed, but I often wonder whether I paid a big price for these small favors.  

It’s a small world, and small schools make it seem even smaller.  I speak mostly of my high school, where I watched the effects of a tiny atmosphere work their way into the hearts of students freshman year and drag them all the way to graduation.  Of course some of my experiences are also drawn from my years of Catholic school, where there were surprisingly few nuns but just as much hell as one would stereotypically expect.  I cannot speak of my college yet, for I’ve only been here one year and have yet to observe the progression of events that comes from interacting the same, small group for four straight years.   Hopefully my catalogue of those events, when the time comes, will be a bit different than this one.

Let’s talk politics.  They’re everywhere, especially in small schools where nepotism is the weapon of choice against those who wish to bring change and fresh faces onto the scene.  Not all small school administrations may be guilty of this crime, but my experience is rife with such activity.  To prove my point, I will tell the story of a boy we will call Steve.  

Steve was one of my classmates in high school, a boy who had attended the school for as long as he possibly could.  The school was open to students in preschool through high school, so Steve had been there for roughly 15 years.  The administration had a special name for (and paid special attention to) those few students who had shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars over this time—“lifers.”  Steve was not only a lifer, but the son of a regular donor and Board of Trustee member.  Steve was set.

I neglected to mention that Steve was a bit of a troublemaker; in fact he was standing at the precipice of juvenile delinquency, waiting for someone to come up from behind and push him to his fate.  This didn’t stop him from terrorizing his teachers and fellow classmates, however.  Steve had a convenient safety net hanging right below this cliff, tightly woven with dollar bills should he slip and fall.  And fall he did, many times.  One particular incident that sticks out in my memory happened shortly before winter vacation my senior year.

My high school was never one to partake in much craft making, but in honor of the holiday season it sponsored a gingerbread house contest pitting each homeroom against the others.  My best friend and I had almost finished our house, and, all modesty aside, it was quite nice.  Icing?  We smothered our gingerbread crackers in it.  Gumdrops?  They lined the roof in exquisite designs only artful hands could craft.  We were in the cafeteria after lunch, bent over the tiny edifice, about to ice what free room was left on the roof with a cheery holiday message in royal blue icing, when a shadow appeared over the house.  Looking up, I saw Steve with one of his friends (a girl one year younger than me, the daughter of a popular rock star), smiling.  He commented on how nice the house looked, turned to walk away, and then whirled around with a clenched fist high in the air.  Seconds later, his hand met the would-be home of a very unfortunate gingerbread man.

He giggled as my friend and I stared in horror at what used to be a beautiful project.  He walked away, licking icing off his hand, while the rock star’s daughter threw her head back and laughed.  Teachers who had been sitting nearby rushed over, one of them pulling Steve back by his shirt and toward the head master’s office while we cleaned up the sticky mess.  It was a gingerbread landmine, and Steve got away with a mere icing wound.

As you might have expected, Steve’s father straightened out the situation with the head master.  Steve was supposed to get restricted driving privileges, but we saw him whizzing out of the senior parking lot in his Porsche a few days later.  Both my friend and I were supposed to get a letter of apology, but we never received one.   And the administration, when asked why they hadn’t done more, shrugged its shoulders and muttered, “It could have been worse.  It was only a gingerbread house.”    

They were right; it was only a gingerbread house.  The whole incident is slightly comical, as my friend and I found out when we had cooled down and replayed the events leading up to the explosion.  We were even comforted a little by the fact that we got Honorable Mention in the contest.  

This whole story, though it may seem to have nothing to do with education itself, has everything to do with the environment in which students are immersed, particularly in small, private schools.  Granted, most of the population is enrolled in large public schools, but political attitudes such as the ones demonstrated at my high school have far-reaching effects on the attitudes of those students treated specially and those who lag behind in their shadow.  It doesn’t seem like it, but the administration did a disservice to Steve, not just me and my friend, by allowing him to think he was above the “law.”  Politics such as these are not just a problem in schools, but in various institutions throughout our society.  Equality of character is far from being reached, but it is an integral ingredient in the recipe for a functional, fair country where equal opportunity leads to harmony and peace.  With regard to the work we are doing this summer, equality amongst those students who identify themselves as either “science/math” or “English/history” types is crucial in evening the ground on which our future is based.  Those who decide who gets special treatment categorize students and place them in slots that allow little to no room for growth and development.  Perhaps it would be best to start anew and resist the pull toward categories that do more harm than help.  If we are to place students on equal footing with each other, regardless of interests or background, an educational overhaul might prove valuable.