How I Made Leaving School Work. Maybe You Can, Too

05/21/2011
Looking south from Top of the Rock, New York City

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As I sit here thinking about my own experience, forty-plus years ago, deciding high school was not the place for me, I wonder whether anyone anyplace other than where I was could have done what I did as successfully at that time. And I think how much easier it would be now.

Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City 2009 on Pe...

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I grew up in Manhattan and in late 1967, when I left school for the first time at age 14, Manhattan was, for me, a 12 mile long, 1.5 mile wide educational experience. A brief subway or bus ride could deliver me to any one of dozens of museums of art, natural history, craft or occupation. Or I would emerge from underground into what seemed like a different city where the people spoke Chinese, Italian, Spanish or Ukrainian and the foods in the restaurants were the best kind of spoon-fed learning.

McCarthy button 1968

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Eugene McCarthy was emboldening and enlisting young people to become the driving force behind his idealistic campaign for the Presidency and against the Vietnam War. I had already worked on some political campaigns and, when the cold January winds blew, the NYC campaign headquarters at Columbus Circle became my second home; second even though I spent more time there than at my family’s apartment where I went only to sleep and shower.

Bronx High School of Science, Bronx, NYC, USA

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New York City was made for the learner and I suspect it was only because I was here that I could realize, in retrospect, that going to classes at my two high schools, one considered at that time one of the two or three best in the nation, actually interfered with my learning.

I’m not sure, but I suspect that had I been living in Oklahoma, Iowa, Arizona or suburban Connecticut my experience would have been radically different.

It would also be radically different today because thanks to the Internet and all the wonderful tools that have become available because of it, a fifteen-year-old in Kansas, Kankakee or Kalamazoo could explore even more of the world from their bedroom than I could from the heart of the world when I was fifteen. It is truly an amazing thing that today anyone, almost anywhere, can learn almost anything her or she might want to know about, almost immediately and mostly for free. They would not even have to pay the subway fare I had to fork over.

There is, of course, a qualitative and experiential difference between looking at a picture of a pierogi and popping one in one’s mouth, or walking the streets on foot instead of through Google Earth, but one learns what one can the way one has available.

I am not arguing that the average, or even the exceptional, young teen has the ability to learn anything on their own or that they would even realize what they might be able to learn. I had guides, mentors, interlocutors and others who would steer me, challenge me, and teach me. I relied on those around me, but today those people can be anywhere in the world.

School does not work for everyone, but neither does leaving it. We each have our individual paths. Still, if one is not learning in school and is willing to take the risk and make the effort, the opportunity to get a broader, deeper and more interesting education is richer now than it has even been.

And that is a magnificent thing.

This post originated as an essay for The Teenagers Guide for Opting Out, Not Dropping Out, of School

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Dirty books!

05/14/2011
Books

I’ve been going through all the books in my school’s library and I’m amazed at what I’ve found.

Our school opened in 1956 and I’ve found books that were there when the first students arrived. I’m not talking about ageless fiction; I’m talking about books on fast-changing technical topics like cameras, automobiles, telecommunications and undersea exploration.

Computers were not such a big deal in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, so I’m not really surprised that prior to this year our collection seems to have only three books on computers, all of them featuring pictures of giant room-sized mainframes and massive desktop units.

Our one book about the latest developments in medicine was published in 1975. I guess research has stood still since then.

But my most startling discovery has been the dirty books. I’m don’t mean a little risqué, I’m talking about true filth. In a middle school library!

The woman I’m replacing, our librarian since 1956, told stories about her strict parochial school education and was happy to display her precise parochial school handwriting. I’m stunned that she’d allow dirty books in the library.

I’m not talking about a volume here and there, I’ve discovered boxes of dirty books, shelves of them, some wordy and some filled with pictures. It’s a disgrace.

After all, we all know what dirty books lead to… dirty thoughts.

Also dirty hands, dirty clothes and dirty faces.

Who knew a library was such a hazard?

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Opening Minds for More than One Day

05/01/2011
There are days and there are days.

There are days I like: Thanksgiving; Labor Day; the first day of spring.

This is a day I’d rather not see again; Bloging Against Disablism Day, the sixth in what I fear will be a rather long run.

For the uninitiated, disablism is how most of the world treats people who have disabilities, like parking in a space reserved for handicapped people “just for a minute” while you run into the store. If that isn’t clear, a detailed description is available.

I’ve come across an example of disablism in my school.

Using underarm crutches.

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Yesterday there were two students in our library all day. They weren’t there to do research; they were there because they have injuries that require them to use crutches. Apparently our school does not allow students using crutches to go above the ground floor, but all our classrooms are on

the two higher floors. We have an elevator but students can’t use it.

While all of their classmates are getting instruction, they sit in the library. The teachers are supposed to send down work for them to do but they usually don’t. Even if they do, it is a textbook and a worksheet, not exactly inspired teaching.

While all their classmates are chatting, socializing and learning together, these two boys (last year it was girls) sit and talk to each other. Sometimes they get so desperate for conversation they talk to me!

These boys don’t really think of themselves as disabled but they are, at least for the next six to eight weeks. That is not the problem.

The problem, what makes this an example of disablism, is that despite kids repeatedly breaking ankles, legs and other things necessitating crutches, my school has not come up with a better plan for dealing with these mobility issues and the students who have them.

It is truly an issue of “out of sight, out of mind.”

People who have disabilities don’t hide like they used to, don’t make it as easy to keep them out of mind as it once was. They’re on the streets, in the stores and at work more and more all the time. That visibility is helping to create mindfullness.

I hope this blog post contributes to this growing awareness. With any luck I won’t have to write a post like this next year.

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