Wednesday, May 23, 2012

weekly writing workshop

Oh, dear. Has it actually been a week since I've last posted? And here I had vowed to post more. I had a really rough week, though. Thank goodness for MamaKat and her weekly writing workshop, it forces me to post. Pick a prompt on Tue, write on Wed, link on Thur. (that's how I do it, anyway)

This week, I picked: What do you miss least about school?

A few weeks ago, I went to my 25th high school reunion. (Don't know how THAT happened!)  Other than the idea of 25 years going by since high school, the thing that struck me most was how little of high school I actually remember. I remember soccer, gymnastics, track. I remember my best high school buddy, Steph, making a study guide for Biology. But for the most part, high school is a muddy blur with an overtone of "I wish I was done with this." I was the chicken and high school was the proverbial road to cross in order to get to the other side.

The other thing I remember is a sense of anxiety pervading every aspect of high school; a feeling that every little thing was a matter of life and death. Like, if I bombed a pop quiz one Thursday morning, then every other event in my entire life would be tinged by that failure. One low grade = living in the gutter and dying penniless and alone.

Of course, a good deal of this was simply because I was a teenager. At that age, everything is a matter of life and death. But I seem to remember being made to feel that way by the teachers and the school administration. I went to a private, all girl's high school, so that was very possible. A lot of time has gone by though, so I haven't thought about it in years.

Until the high school reunion.

The school had arranged for a tour of the new facilities that had been added since we roamed the hallways all those years ago. Followed by a wine and cheese reception in the brand-spanking-new foyer. At the reception, I was talking with an old classmate, Alyssa. We were talking about what we remembered and what we didn't when she said that her most vivid memory was the Valentine's Day Dance, sophomore year.

Around a mouthful of cheese, I said "Why? What happened at the....OH! Yeah. The Valentine's Day Dance."

In high school, Alyssa was a model student. Straight A's. Three varsity teams. Editor of the year book. Smart, pretty, well liked. Her high school career was flawless. Except for the Valentine's Day Dance sophomore year.

Alyssa went to the dance with a group of girls who were a bit more wild than she. They were a bit more versed in courting trouble and getting away with it. Which is probably why it was Alyssa and Alyssa only who got caught drinking in the bathroom that night. The monitors escorted her out of the dance, called her parents to pick her up, and told her to report to the principal's office on Monday morning after home room.

On Monday, the principal and vice principal told Alyssa that they knew other girls had been drinking at the dance and demanded to know their names. She admitted to drinking, confirmed that she wasn't the only one drinking, but refused to name names. She was then told that if she didn't tell them the names of the other girls, she would lose her scholarship. She again refused to give any names. Then the names of all the girls in the wild bunch were called over the intercom (clearly, they knew exactly who was drinking at the dance ), they were all lead to the auditorium and seated. They were told that they could either admit to drinking at the dance or let Alyssa take all the blame herself:  "If you were not drinking at the dance, you can go back to class now." And poor Alyssa watched as every single girl got up and walked out, leaving her alone in the auditorium. Twenty-seven years later, she said it was still the worst experience of her entire life. (The next day 5 girls did go down and turn themselves in. And she didn't lose her scholarship.)

After she finished relaying the story of the sophomore Valentine's Day Dance , I said "Wow. That was really shitty what they did to you. Your friends. And the school."

At this point, a teacher who was at the wine and cheese reception said "But did you learn a lesson from that experience? Did it teach you that drinking was not acceptable and to focus on your studies? Did you learn who your real friends were?" We both sort of looked at her strangely, and mumbled a response before she walked proudly away.

Seriously? Did she just lecture a 43 year old woman on why she should still feel badly that she drank 3 beers when she was 15 years old? Did she somehow infer that actions of the the school staff from 25 years ago was completely justified? Did she basically say that punishing an otherwise exemplary student for one stupid mistake with what she would describe 27 years later as "the worst experience of my entire life" was the right thing to do? She did.

In that moment, all the anxiety of my high school experience came flooding back to me and I knew --KNEW-- that it wasn't all just teenage angst and melodrama. I remembered that high school was, to a large degree, a culture of fear and anxiety, of overstating the importance of events, and making students afraid to make mistakes. I remembered teachers with an overinflated sense of their own roles in our lives. Yes, sometimes, teachers do have the opportunity to help students through difficult periods in their lives and steer them toward the right path. Other times, they are just teaching them how to diagram sentences, a useless skill that nobody will ever use again after graduation.

One of the greatest things here on the other side is the freedom to make mistakes. The knowledge that life gives second chances. (Third, fourth, and fifth chances, as well) The understanding that mistakes are how we learn and that most of us are able to learn from mistakes without the lesson being shoved traumatically down our throats.

Oh! And the polyester school uniforms. I don't miss those, either.


Patrice said...

I HATED high school and have never gone to a reunion in 35+ years.

Lynn Penton said...

Ahhhhgh.....My 14 year old is totally in that, everything-is-the-end-of-the-world stage.

I wonder how those girls feel 25 years later after walking out on a friend?

hebba said...

Later on, at the country club part of the reunion, one of the girls apologized to her...27 years later.
And interestingly enough, also called it "The worst experience of my entire life...knowing I was doing the WRONG thing and doing it anyway".
So there's that.

Cathy said...

One of the greatest things here on the other side is the freedom to make mistakes. The knowledge that life gives second chances. (Third, fourth, and fifth chances, as well)