I started my education in Catholic school, where I was lucky to get a start with phonics, foreign languages and the spelling bee. Nail polish wasn’t allowed but critical thought was encouraged, with a heavy grade-school emphasis on compassion and generosity toward others. Not all students sent to a Catholic school are Catholic, and each one I attended featured a curriculum that studied different religions and stressed the common ground of shared values. The only negative learning experience I can remember is a school librarian not wanting me to check out science books she thought were too advanced for one so young.
Living in California in seventh grade, I was pulled out of Catholic school and sent to public school for the first time. First came the culture shock — being clad in plaid day in and day out doesn’t give you much guidance on how to dress, never mind that 1988 wasn’t exactly a banner year for fashion anyway.
Once I slowly got the hang of those vile acid-washed jeans with zippers on the ankles (and bows, in case anyone is trying to forget), I got the hang of staking out my place in this new world. And I did the best thing possible: made friends who were supposedly bad for me. Yes, we did things like flip through issues of Cosmo at the drug store, pass notes in class and talk a lot about boys, and sneak in to watch Pretty Woman, which was the only thing bordering on not legal (though I don’t see an MPAA-ratings police at theaters). I learned how to do makeup, went through the awkward junior high dances where friends matchmake (“my friend thinks you’re cute…”), and had my first big crush on a boy from one of those dances (the song: Def Leppard’s “Love Bites”).
And though the education itself was fine — as was the teacher who thankfully told me that even though I was 8th-grade-awkward I’d be better looking my freshman year of college (trust me, I held onto that) — the greatest education came from meeting people who were so different. My dear friend Heather’s life was a complete mess: her mom was in prison for drugs and prostitution, her stepfather had raped her, she lost her virginity when she was 10 years old. Yet as hopeless as her world was around her, she was always keen on being there when others needed a shoulder, ready with a smile and a joke, and being a veritable encyclopedia on Guns ‘N’ Roses. I learned more from Heather about resilience and kindness than I did about Axl Rose.
The best learning experiences we have in school aren’t always the ones adults would have picked for us.
It’s also an extreme reminder that school serves as a necessary refuge for many, many kids whose parents range from mediocre to functionally nonexistent. You may decry these families, both single- and two-parent, or futilely try to convince less-than-stellar parents that they’re not the model families they may make themselves out to be, but the fact remains that kids need a place to escape and grow into adults.
Sure, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the social aspects of high school. Getting into mischief with my best friend Andrea and soaking up MTV after school back in the day when the channel used to play music videos. My first real kiss with my first boyfriend on the 30-yard line of the football field. Best friend portraits with Andrea at Sears after we tried to dress up like the “around the way girls” from LL Cool J’s song. That winter formal photo where both the outfits and the fact that your boyfriend looks like he’s sticking his hand in your dress (he wasn’t, for the record) are still hilarious. Polaroids from 2 a.m. the night of senior prom.
But the real lessons in a public school education came from learning that took place beyond the books. In fact, the teacher who influenced me the most was not a conservative.
The assignment in my creative writing class one day was to present an op-ed-style piece to the class to argue on a chosen topic. Mine angered some students in the class so much I thought I was going to have pencils fired at me like javelins. After the class, the teacher took me aside and congratulated me for writing as I did and reading it aloud before the class in spite of some of the reactions. He impressed upon me that people won’t always agree with you, and even he didn’t agree with me, but that should never stop you from passionately making your case. I didn’t know at that point I was going to become a writer — though lots of people predicted so in my yearbook — but that teacher’s advice throughout the year proved to be my rock for many years to come. He disagreed with what I said, but encouraged me to keep saying it. He taught me how to say it even better. What greater lesson can a teacher impart?
And being around so many cultures, faiths and views from day to day delivered a valuable lesson on not just deciding what you believe but defending those beliefs. As a Catholic, I had more evangelical students tell me I was going to hell because of my religion than I heard nonbelievers mocking those who had faith in God. I thus learned to politely stand my ground. When the Gulf War broke out, those of us who put flags on our backpacks and made buttons supporting Bush, Kuwait and our troops faced off daily with the antiwar campus contingent eager for the Vietnam-style protest of their parents. Upon hearing the evangelical church hosting our graduation baccalaureate service didn’t want our Mormon student body president speaking, many of us chose to boycott.
When presented with new ideas from a broad variety of sources, I thought about them and chose for myself which ones I did and didn’t accept. That’s how adults are formed. That’s how I was formed.
The level of education is a constant concern about public schools, leading to the charter-school boom and school-voucher controversy. All public schools are not equal. I was lucky that my school had high educational standards including offering many Advanced Placement and honors classes. After crunching for a few years I chose to relax a bit my senior year, complementing AP European History with fashion design and art classes. Not to mention, our football team went 13-0 my senior year, so education wasn’t the only valued virtue.
I’m not sure, though, that today’s concerns about societal influences and pop culture are all that different from the ’90s. What twerking is to modern-day parental outrage the 2 Live Crew was back then; if anything, today there might be more of a PC police around Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” (which is still great to dance to) or Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Do Me!” being played for teens at a high school dance. There was the same debate over whether contraception and/or abstinence should be taught in the mandatory health class. Bill Clinton had just been elected, so the country wasn’t exactly a hotbed of conservative power. And there were plenty of gay students in my graduating class, some counted as dear friends, nobody singled out as a person to be treated differently (and gay friends just meant dinner parties instead of keggers).
I’d hate to think where I’d be today if my worldview had been shaped through any cloistered learning experience. Neither indoctrination or an attempt to fight such influences through counter-indoctrination inspires free thinking and being able to make values judgments on more than just being told “no.” In a school environment with peers from all walks of life, with teachers of all ideological stripes, you’re tested on more than just SATs. You see others learn priceless lessons from mistakes or even make then yourself. You get ready for the world.