Monday, March 12, 2018

School's Out Forever

"The trouble with normal is it always gets worse."

— Bruce Cockburn

It's been a while since I've posted in this space, and for good reason: my kids graduated from high school last June, which means that our lives are no longer enmeshed in an education system whose flaws were the catalyst for many of my posts over the years. And although my daughters are by no means launched—one is in first-year university and the other is taking a gap year—I've been trying to pull back on the hands-on "parenting," as much for my sanity as for theirs. I've also been preoccupied with other things for the last year and half, things like working (or thinking about working) and sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. At the moment, I'm toying with starting a new, non-parenting blog (because, who says blogging is dead?), but before wrapping this one up, I wanted to offer some final thoughts on the end—and the ends—of high school.


The whole pre-and post-prom season was horrific, and I say that as a relatively uninvolved observer. It was worse than horrific for my daughters, both of whom participated reluctantly and afterwards wished that they'd taken me up on my offer to take them to Paris for prom week. From my perspective as a parent who skipped her own prom—called "the formal" back then, before the Americanization of every lower-key Canadian event—it was confirmation of my suspicion that everything or almost everything associated with education is getting worse, not better.

Worse, for instance, is the hype surrounding prom, and its sheer conventionality—how the girls stress (far more than I remember my girlfriends stressing about the "formal," and far more than the boys) about the outfit and the hair and the makeup and the promposals or lack thereof (although boys sometimes receive or fret about not receiving promprosals too—progress!). And how both boys and girls stress about the pre-prom parties and the pre-pre-prom parties, and how drunk they can or cannot get before prom, and how they're going to survive without being drunk, and which after-prom party they're going to attend and how they can ditch the date they wish they hadn't agreed to go with, without hurting his or her feelings. Worse also is how parents get conscripted into the madness by means of pre-prom events held by parents for the prom-goers and their parents. (What? When did this become a thing? Why?)

What bothered me most about the whole prom phenomenon is how conventional North American high schools (still!) are when it comes to thinking about ways to mark transitions such as the end of secondary school. Compare "prom" to the Norwegian tradition of russefeiring, a term that means "russ celebration," russ being the Norwegian word for the graduating class. Rather than staging nostalgic performances of 'fifties debutant balls, complete with strictly defined and still mostly enforced gender roles, Norwegian kids decorate buses and hold events and parties in and around them every night and weekend for nearly a month. While I can imagine that for introverted or non-partying types, this travelling carnival might induce its own anxieties, at least it is inclusive* and not predicated on tired, constricting gender norms. In fact, russefeiring allows and even encourages graduates to test and flout of all manner of societal norms, which seems like a healthier way to mark the transition to adulthood than a backward-looking dance that reinforces social conformity.

Nonetheless, in the end, the backward-looking dance that was my daughters' prom lasted only one night; my girls survived and were happy to have put it behind them. Mostly they were happy that it signalled that the four-year-long horror show of high school was also behind them.


Almost behind them. Because there was one final event that was also worse than I remember it being: graduation. Grad day managed, in the space of a few boring hours, to crystallize everything that is wrong with high school. Like high school in general, grad serves as a sorting mechanism for students, clearly marking out the winners and losers by means of the awards and honours bestowed, or very conspicuously not bestowed. The interesting thing is that although there were a few purely academic honours, a majority of the awards rewarded either sports excellence or "character" or both. Kids were singled out for having displayed "spirit," and though the term was never defined, it became clear from the comments of the teachers and administrators that "spirit" or "character" more or less equalled conformity to the school culture of competition, hard work (i.e., the ability to withstand the ridiculous pressures of contemporary high school), and—somewhat contradictorily—"teamwork."

In fact, the whole ceremony created a fog of cognitive dissonance that thickened and peaked during the valedictorian's speech. The teacher who introduced the valedictorian remarked that the first thing he noticed about her when she entered his classroom in Grade 9 was her competitiveness, which he clearly saw as her greatest virtue. In her speech, though, the valedictorian told an animal fable about cooperation and teamwork, which she analogized to her time in high school. The message, while sweet, was a little surprising given the context in which it was being delivered: a ceremony honouring a graduating class that had just finished tearing its collective hair out in a frenzied attempt to make the grades needed to ensure admittance to competitive universities. But what also struck me about the speech—and in this it mirrored the earlier speeches of the teachers and officials—was how apolitical it was (this in a year during which Donald Trump became president of the United States) and how unmoored from the reality of most kids' experience of high school. I don't know what I was expecting, and I'm not at all blaming the valedictorian: the truth is, she showed herself to be an exemplary product of the current secondary education system, equipped with precisely the kind of mindset regarding hard work, perseverance, and "teamwork" that for her, because she comes from the right school and the right socio-economic class, will yield the results regularly claimed for it. The problem for me was that in her speech, and in the doling out of award after similar award, the school's hidden curriculum—of conformity, hoop-jumping, and ranking—seemed to be clanging quite jarringly against the surface curriculum—of "critical thinking," hard work, and personal achievement. By the time it was over, I felt as if my head was going to explode.

The ceremony had a similar effect on my daughters. At one point, one of them whispered that to save time, they should have given one humongous spirit award to one prototypical kid, since the awards all seemed to reward the same traits. I do think, though, that my daughters were less surprised than I was by the banality and hypocrisy of grad. After all, they had been forced to sit through myriad similar speeches and ceremonies during their four years at the school. Afterwards, during the snapping of photos with friends and parents, they seemed dazed and detached, as if the reality of what had just happened had not yet sunk in. It was only in the car on the way home that they both finally expressed a sense of release and freedom. High school was over.

*Options that are less heavy on the partying are typically available to religious kids, or kids who don't drink, etc.