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In elementary school I was always a good student. I did my homework, read advanced books, completed projects with delight, and, most importantly, got great grades. Come middle and high school, my relationship with school changed. I felt a need to be “different”, and express myself in a more notable way. I never acted out, or even did anything too socially unacceptable, but I felt a dissonance growing. I ruined my sacred “all-honors” schedule by dropping into a standard-level math class.
I skipped gym periodically.
I sometimes copied homework. I grew farther from the “good” student I used to be. I knew I was intelligent, even as my courses and grades began to tell me differently. I am incredibly glad that I allowed myself space to separate from those academic expectations. Now I am able to see that this time was the beginning my true self’s surfacing. Rather than fitting into the person who my parents or school wanted me to be, I was looking at the world in a unique and personalized way.
This disconnection is something I am now incredibly proud of. As a result of my unique perspective, it has been difficult to fully respect myself while a part of the impersonal modern education system.
This disconnection in my education became apparent during high school. One notable experience was with a graphic design teacher- let’s call her Mrs. W. Despite having many creative young minds in her classroom, Mrs. W spent her time chatting with the cheerleaders who held little or no interest in design.
One of my classmates went by the name of Kat. Cheerfully intelligent, consistently creative, and a gifted artist, Kat should have excelled. Unfortunately she was also unique. For Mrs. W, this last adjective was incompatible. Rather than opening herself to Kat’s unique perspective, Mrs. W ignored her, ultimately stunting her growth. Despite being entirely capable, Kat became disenfranchised. Mrs. W is only one of many teachers who do their best, but are too focused on grades, social normalcy, and intellectual comfort to appreciate innovative students.
Another dissatisfying educational experience I had was in the Boy Scouts of America. I joined Troop 70 in seventh grade. I enjoyed learning how to build fires, use a pocket knife, and cook while camping. But by high school, I had learned most everything there was to be learned. I was continuing my involvement solely to impress prospective colleges. Rather than listening to my heart, which told me to leave and never look back, I followed what was supported socially. My parents told me it was a good choice. And certainly my grandmother would have been heartbroken to hear that I had left my troop.
And so, every Wednesday my eyes rolled as I buttoned my uniform and tucked in my neckerchief. I was stuck in an uncomfortable situation- restrained by the socially accepted. I submitted to what is socially considered “good”, despite knowing it wasn’t right for me. This submission ultimately led to inefficiency, and even regret. Although I didn’t learn much in my later years as a Boy Scout, I did learn to trust my intuition over social expectations.
Despite all of this disconnection in my academic life, there was one learning opportunity that rang true to me. A few months ago I decided to work on an organic farm in rural New York. While there, I worked hard and felt fantastic. I became at home in my sweaty t shirts, boots caked in mud, and perpetually dirty fingernails. Much of our time was spent weeding, an activity conducive to conversation. During weeding-fuelled conversation with Hugh and Hanna, the couple who ran the farm, I felt my mind open.
They were so passionate about realness in food, relations, and politics. Not only did I quickly learn how to weed a bed of carrots, but I learned how to exist in an incredibly pure manner. Every day I was learning about food, sustainability, interpersonal connections, politics, and culture, all without even trying. What I came to realize is that I am a natural learner. I understand ideas because they resonate with me; not because I’m being graded. As Malcolm X put it, “(…) I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity- because you can hardly mention anything I’m not curious about.” (X, 234). Through working on this farm, I grew to respect my visceral pattern of learning without trying to. For years I had been told that my grades were a representation of how much I’d learned. And yet, I never received a grade for one of the most educational experiences of my life.
Leaving Hugh and Hanna’s farm, my eyes were opened. I realized that massive amounts of learning takes place every day, even in unconscious ways. My interest in learning, furthering my mind and self, became stronger than ever. I was being more observant, reading more, writing more, and even began listening to thought-provoking podcasts. In every way, I had become more intellectually stimulated. I soon realized why I wasn’t previously engaged in my own self-betterment; my very own parents! While managing countless soccer games, trumpet lessons, and theater rehearsals, my parents had forgotten one vital component; my unique mind.
My parents’ inability to respect my mind was a result of the cultural blandness prevalent in America. Today, the vast majority of American adults are utterly disinterested with learning. Rather than opening ourselves to the thrill of exposure, we Americans cut ourselves off from the endless ideas we aren’t comfortable with. This is especially apparent in our public schools. With exceptional emphasis on standardization, grading, and uniformity, endless creative minds are thwarted. Sure, having intellectually mediocre parents wasn’t the best thing for me as child. But far worse is knowing that my school, my culture, and my entire country is so comfortable with ignoring the fascinating unknown.
Education as we know it is highly imperfect. Through attempts to standardize our education system, we have lost the beautifully pure concept of creative thought. This educational failure has resonated into our daily lives, creating a culture of mental boredom. In such a world it is incredibly difficult for any unique minds to stand strong.
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