How the Public School System Crushes Souls

“It has been said that whoever asks about our childhood wants to know something about our soul. Society must take time to inquire.” – Isa Helfield 2001

Let me bare my soul for you.

When you read about the problems with American education, you usually read statistics about literacy and dropout rates. But those statistics don’t do the subject justice because the problem with American education is a human story. Every dropout is a human being, every illiterate teenager is an individual, every teen that commits suicide was somebody’s baby, and every kid that’s doing 20 to life is a real breathing person – full of potential.

People are too quick to criticize parents, teachers, administrators, and students. The failure of government education isn’t theirs alone. It’s every American’s fault because we continue to allow the unrestrained growth of government schooling. Haven’t we learned anything from our own experiences in government schools?

At the end of this post, I will list some books on this subject, followed by a list of links about this subject. But before that, I will share some thoughts and stories that expose the American K-12 meat grinder.

The Girl Who Sat in a Bathroom Stall for a Year

My wife is a beautiful, capable, intelligent, self-confident, ambitious, entrepreneurial woman. She had all these qualities as a child as well. During her senior year of high school, she spent her lunch hour hiding in a bathroom stall. She didn’t eat lunch for a year. Why? Because no one sat with her in the lunchroom and sitting alone in a bathroom stall ashamed and frightened was better than public humiliation. Don’t think that she is an isolated case, she isn’t. I just stumbled across this last week.

For a significant percentage of kids in our government school system, survival is the only goal. Based on my experience, I’d guess 10 to 20% of government school students suffer from severe psychological and emotional abuse. Smaller percentages suffer physical and sexual abuse.

My wife and I both describe our years in the government school system as a prison sentence. My wife kept a running countdown of days left in government school, like chicken scratches in a prison cell.

I asked her to write a blog post about her experiences with government education, but she won’t do it because thinking about it is too painful and depressing. She describes it with one simple word – horrible.

My wife and I were in the same grade and attended the same Jr. and Sr. High in Bloomington Minnesota from 1981 – 1987. We didn’t know each other when we were students. During our school years I had no idea she existed. She was ‘a nobody’.

I would have been ‘a nobody’ too, but I decided after 18 months inside that I wasn’t going to allow the public education caste system to brand me ‘a nobody’ and I became a highly visible renegade burnout. She knew about me. In her yearbook she wrote “biggest dirtball druggie in the whole school” next to my picture. She said the only time I communicated with her during those six years was when I bumped into her in the hall and growled at her like an animal.

Now before you jump to the conclusion that we were in a rotten school in a poor school district and had screwed up parents, let me set the record straight. During the 1980s, Minnesota had the #1 or #2 educational system in the US (they still do). Within Minnesota, Bloomington was one of the top two school districts in the state. The schools we attended (Olson Jr. High and Jefferson Sr. High) were the best schools in the district. So our example comes from the best of the best of the best government schools in the United States. We both came from Beaver Cleaver families, with adequate income, no divorce, abuse, or family violence.

My wife and I have talked about our negative experiences for eighteen years and neither of us believes we learned anything of value within the system. Everything worth knowing we learned outside of school.

I used to skip school and sit in the public library and read all day. I have an insatiable desire to learn but I couldn’t learn in school. The political, social, and sexual tension in school was too distracting.

I was born with this intense desire to learn and grow, but sometime in the second grade, school became an obstacle to learning. I felt thwarted at every turn by fellow students, teachers, and meaningless assignments. It’s hard to learn when you are constantly afraid of having your head flushed in the toilet.

The 10-Year Old College Prodigy

My father is an autodidact engineer. We had computers (TRS-80) and teletypes in our home since 1977. I taught myself to program Level II Basic at eight years old. By 10, I was hacking into commercial programs to improve them. By 11, I was enrolled and succeeding in college level programming classes at North Dakota State University.

Junior High Computer Class Failure

Two years later in Jr. High, I took an Apple II computer class. On the first day of class, I looked through the syllabus, found the last lesson, loaded the 5 1/4 inch floppy, and completed it. I beamed with pride and arrogance. The teacher looked at my program, turned bright red, yanked me out of my seat by my ear, and I fell to the floor humiliated. He pointed to the door and said, “get out of my classroom.” He forced me to sit in the hall the rest of the semester and failed me.

I didn’t complain to my parents or the administration, because they never listened before, so I had no reason to believe they would listen this time. That day ended my stint in education – I showed up – sometimes – but I never returned mentally. So even though I have a diploma, it’s fair to say my formal education ended in the 8th grade. I never bothered trying to please the system again and I checked out of programming and computers for 15 years. I contracted a 15 year case of the F*ck Its (A term my brother learned in AA for an attitude that leads people to fall off the wagon).

This single event didn’t push me over the edge. It was years of institutionalization and constant emotional, psychological, and physical harassment. From 2nd to 8th grade, I was harassed for having the wrong haircut, the wrong jeans, the wrong belt, the wrong look on my face, the wrong brothers, the wrong parents, and the wrong attitude. The harassment ended in 8th grade when I fought back violently. It worked, earning me a lasting respect. At the time, I believed it was my only viable option.

I spent most of my life believing I was defective

I believed I was defective until recently. I thought the reason I couldn’t function in school was due to some inherent incurable defect. But in my thirties, I discovered that I wasn’t defective, I was just different. Three years ago I read this article from Josh Shaine at MIT and it changed my life. His story was just like mine (except the expensive prep school part).

Government school doesn’t work well for kids that are different

I know there are oodles of success stories from government schools. I understand the system works great for some people. But what if you aren’t one of those people? What if your spirit won’t allow you to follow directions? What if your heart forces you to be different? Then what?

Why are you throwing your life away?

If you conform, the system rewards you. If you rebel, it destroys you and someone in authority will inevitably ask you this question…

Why are you throwing your life away?

Think about the implication of that question. Your body and soul in the back of a garbage truck on the way to the dump.

I’m not angry or bitter

You may think I sound bitter about all this. I’m not. I am grateful for my experience because I believe it’s my purpose in life to tell these stories. I am never going to stop talking about it. The emotional abuse of children in our government schools is shameful and the story must be told.

The Intergenerational Code of Silence

Few kids tell adults what really goes on within the school building. Did you? When you finally got out of school and went to college or work, most of you wanted to forget about the place.

A famous comedian said “you know who scares the sh!t outta’ me? Those f..king people that liked high school. What are they sadists – masochists – what the f… Did they go to the same freaking place I did?”

When we have children, we don’t want to tell them about our experiences, because if we told them the truth – the horror stories and the wasted time – we’re afraid they’ll use it as an excuse to fail. Besides, if you admitted the truth about your experiences, how could you justify putting them on the yellow bus every morning.

Is it just part of growing up?

When I talk to people about this, most don’t want to hear it. And the most frequent response is, “Everything you’re talking about is just a normal part of growing up.”

Emotional abuse and self-denial is not normal childhood development.

There is nothing normal about enduring years of emotional, psychological, and physical abuse in a government institution. I have met dozens of home-schooled kids and they don’t suffer from these problems. When I talk to them, they stand upright, look me in the eye, and speak confidently. Many of the government-schooled kids I meet won’t look me in the eye. They hang their heads and speak in muffled tones I can’t understand. Many of them act like abused puppies. The contrast is astonishing.

What’s normal about a homely awkward girl walking into the lunchroom and hearing three hundred kids chant her name, “Trina, Trina, Trina, Trina, Trina, Trina, Trina,” until she breaks down sobbing and runs from the lunchroom? I saw it and I am sad to say I participated in it.

Things are Different Today – Yep – It’s Worse

When my sons were born, I wanted to believe that things were different today, and I discovered that they’re worse. I met a local mother with teenagers several months ago while I was anguishing over what to do with my son’s education. I asked if her kids were in the local public school district (which has an outstanding reputation). She said, “We pulled ‘em out. It was horrible.” I prodded her for more information. She spent most of her nights with her kids trying to correct the damage done at school earlier in the day. She said there was a lack of basic decency and respect throughout the institution.

She said the students intentionally elected an obese, awkward girl as homecoming queen as a joke. Funny huh?

Her kids said that racism was so rampant that life was intolerable. Racism is something I didn’t have to deal with. Sure racism was there, but there wasn’t any racial conflict. I’ve read racial conflict is a constant problem in many of today’s government schools.

About a year ago, while I was planning my writing projects, I contacted my 12th Grade English teacher. He was one of the few teachers that treated me like a free spirit instead of a caged animal. He was one of those teachers that fought the status-quo, and I respect him for it. I asked him what had changed about his students over the past 25 years. This is a paraphrased summary of what he said:

Critical thinking skills have been absent from my classes for years. Kids used to read the book “Catcher in the Rye” and then describe what Holden Caulfield meant to them. Today, they read it and expect me to teach them what it means. Not just most kids, all kids. I haven’t seen a critical thinker in my classroom in five years.

The top students learn the system. If they are free thinkers, they hide it, because they’re after top grades and independent thinking is too risky and unpredictable.

What’s different today is the nature of the mediocre and poor students. They don’t confront and challenge us like they used to. They seem brain dead and indifferent.

Our zero tolerance policies have created a larger gulf between the students and us. From the late sixties until the mid-nineties, the students and their culture were somewhat accessible. Today they completely shut us out.

The Poisonous Pedagogy

Yesterday my 4 year old son asked, “You never say no to a teacher, right dad?” I asked where he heard that. His Montessori pre-school teacher said it. This is an example of what Alice Miller calls the Poisonous Pedagogy. I didn’t answer my son’s question directly. But I believe we should teach our children to question authority and refuse to follow blindly. I plan to talk to the teacher and the administrator of the school. I realize the need for an orderly classroom, but she can maintain control without demanding blind obedience.

The Gifted and Talented

We have a new label in our schools called – Gifted and Talented. I believe everyone is gifted and talented, so I don’t care for the label, but… The gifted child learns advanced material earlier than the mean. And they have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. They tend to be highly emotional and in some ways, it is a social and learning disability. Patricia A. Schuler writes about the high risk facing this group of kids. She quotes the triggers as “lack of intimacy and rejection.” So these kids need intimacy and acceptance? Does anyone believe they’ll find these qualities in our government schools? I don’t.

What is the solution?

So let’s say you agree that government school may be the worst possible place for kids to learn. Then what is the solution?

Is it private religious schools?
No. Most of the above problems are present in the parochial schools – especially large ones. The biggest benefit the parochial school offers is the ability to easily remove abusive kids and teachers. But the smart covert tormenters will survive. The larger the institution, the harder it is to expose them.

Can we reform the existing system, minimizing these problems?
No. As long as you put hundreds or thousands of kids in a large government institution, the Lord of the Flies scenario is inevitable. Institutionalizing large numbers of children before they form a moral foundation will always lead to abuse.

Possible solutions:

  1. Home-schooling – Millions of people are home-schooling in the US and it grows every year. It isn’t just for religious fundamentalists anymore. 25% of home-schoolers are non-religious. This is the best solution if you can do it.
  2. Small neighborhood based co-ops – Small cooperatives of parents and professionals creating home based neighborhood-learning centers.
  3. Small entrepreneurial schools – This is what I have opted for with my 4-year-old. He will be attending a small private Montessori school, with three teachers serving 20 students in a single room.

How is the Post Related to Personal Freedom?

My personal development program directly attacks the fears I learned during my stint in government school.

  • Fear of criticism
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of success or fear of responsibility
  • Fear of rejection

My personal development program also attacks this belief which is clearly taught within our government schools.

  • My happiness and success are dependent on another person’s evaluation of me and my performance

This is an extremely damaging belief that I work hard to eradicate. As long as I continue to look outside myself for validation, I will be dependent and addicted.

A little controversy

A post over at (link no longer valid) cites the statistic that only 18 out of 100 American high school freshmen will earn a college degree within six years of graduating from high school. He goes on to cite statistics that show the relationship between education and income. I don’t dispute either of these statistics. He then makes the argument that the economic future of our nation depends on increasing the percentage of students that graduate from college. Based on our current system, he’s right.

But why do we need to keep this system? Our current government schooling system causes this problem. It’s designed so 20% rise to the top and the rest fall out to the factory floor. We have an antiquated system designed to supply labor to an industrial economy that doesn’t exist anymore.

As a society, shouldn’t we question how we discriminate between job applicants?

  • Are high school and college graduates more productive or is that assumption prejudicial?
  • Couldn’t prejudice be the root cause of the average income disparity between various educational levels? Similar to disparities between sexes and races?
  • If 82% of children will never graduate from college, why don’t we open more doors to them and see if they can make it? Wouldn’t that be in everyone’s best interest?
  • What could it hurt?
  • What are we afraid of?
  • Why punish and discriminate against people that don’t make it in formal schools?
  • What purpose does it serve?

“one of the best programmers I ever hired had only a High School degree; he’s produced a lot of great software, has his own news group, and through stock options is no doubt much richer than I’ll ever be.” – Peter Norvig in Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

Test taking is the most valuable skill you can posses in school
My brother-in-law is a doctor and a successful student. He says that test taking is the most important skill necessary to succeed in college. I know he’s right. But what does that say about college? Who’s going to pay anyone to take a test? What does a test measure? It measures your ability to memorize stuff. Who is paid to memorize stuff? Actors? Pilots? I don’t know. I’ve never been paid to memorize stuff.

The most valuable skill you can possess in life

The most valuable skill you can possess is the ability to acquire useful knowledge and apply it to solve real problems. Once you own this skill, you have all the education you’ll ever need.

More History and Background

An Irish commenter on Reddit asked if American government schools are as insane as they are portrayed in movies and TV.

No, the stuff you see on TV and most movies is mild. The only two movies I’ve seen that come close to modern American youth culture are Kids (Warning – This Movie is Extremely Disturbing) and Over the Edge. But the last twenty minutes of Over the Edge isn’t accurate – but everything before they burn down the school is an exact time capsule of American youth culture in the late seventies and early eighties.

How I became so passionate about this subject

Since my first son was born in 2002, I’ve gone through a 4-year period of growth, healing, and introspection. His birth changed me forever. His birth got me asking questions about how my life became what it became. One of the things I needed to know was where all these crazy insecurities and fears came from. I looked to my parents and I think some of it came from them, but not most of it. I wasn’t born with these crazy fears. I joined 12 step programs. I dug into self-help books. I immersed myself in the work of Jung. But I never found the root cause of the baggage until I found this book – The Underground History of American Education. After reading the book, I saw reality through a new lens. My life made sense again. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but about 70% of it directly applied to my educational experience.

I was also terrified after reading this book. People are going to think I’m nuts if I talk about it. What am I going to do about my kid’s education? Am I going to home school them? What am I going to do? I was flummoxed.

My wife and I had discussions over several nights and we decided that we would do anything legal to keep them out of government school.

But I still question the decision because I want my sons to be ‘normal.’ If I send them to some alternative school, will they hate me? If I homeschool them, how will they learn to pick up girls? Will my neighbors think I’m a freak? Constant questions enter my mind.

Recommended Reading…

Book List:

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling

Beyond the Classroom

Guerrilla Learning: How to Give Your Kids a Real Education With or Without School

The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education

Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves

The Unschooling Handbook : How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom

The Unprocessed Child: Living Without School

Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers

Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls


Students Dropping Out of High School Reaches Epidemic Levels

1.1 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2003

The Public School Nightmare

Underreporting Crime In Public Schools: A Shell Game?

I’ll share the results of our journey on this blog as it progresses. So subscribe to my RSS feed for easy updates. If you don’t have RSS, get my feed via email.

Trust the people, give them choices, and the school nightmare will vanish in a generation. – John Taylor Gatto

Read the 10 part series on the 10 things I wish I had never believed:

#1 Why People Believe Money is the Root of All Evil
#2 Why Getting a Good Job isn’t the Best Way to Earn Money
#3 The Secret Great Leaders Know About Emotions
#4 Success is 99% Failure
#5 10 Tips to Secure a Management Position without a College Degree
#6 Always Question Your Doctor – Three Stories Why
#7 How the Public School System Crushes Souls
#9 Give Me 3 Minutes and I’ll Make you a Better Decision Maker


288 thoughts on “How the Public School System Crushes Souls”

  1. Robin – us academia kids ARE smarter than homeschooled kids. There. I’ve said it. Not all of us, of course, but the top kids in school are smarter than the homeschooled prodigies you’re talking about.

    I’m sick of this comparison. I really am. How old are you people? I’m a high schooler writing for a paper, so I have an excuse for going on about things. Steve had a point when he posted this: his blog is quite interesting, and this was a very interesting (if not quite correct) paper to read. But the rest of you? Go out! Do something productive! If you’re so pro-education, start a PAC or something. Quit sitting around talking but doing nothing on blogs.

  2. High School was torture for me from the very first day. It took a superhuman effort but I was the good girl and managed to do enough to make my parents and school not bother me too much – my dad was still on my case though. I was supposed to be a top student but I only managed above average. Hated the school but it happened to be the most prestigious girls’ school in my country (a Roman Catholic ‘convent’) and it opens doors – even the secretaries at my last company had to have gone to one of these types of school. These days at the age of 35 I am floundering… I drive a cheap car, live with my parents, don’t make much money but everyone says how good I am at everything and how knowledgable I am. I need to change my thinking and my life like you have.

  3. (Sorry, the first post failed to go through properly)

    Rory, you admit that only the brightest government school pupils can match wits with home schooled kids (or prodigies, as you call them). That’s a major point in favor of home schooling, not a strike against it. Given a method that produces very little excellence versus a method that produces lots of excellence, which would you choose?

    Your claim that we are unproductive rings hollow. First, adults like me hold down jobs and pay crushing taxes to support the ever-growing government. If we weren’t productive, you wouldn’t have a tax-based education school to attend or defend. Second, our blog exchanges disseminate knowledge and help us to sharpen each other’s minds. When you consider that a man’s accomplishments in life depend on the quality of his thinking (every deed is born as an idea), you’ll recognize that talking and writing about today’s issues amounts to more than “nothing.”

    Allow me to demonstrate by helping you improve your mind. Here is a link to a fascinating book (you can read it online) called “The Underground History of American Education” by John Taylor Gatto:

    Read this, and then come back and explain to us why government schooling is better than free market schooling.

    Good luck on your paper!

  4. Robin –

    Your claim of little excellence to lots of excellence would need backup. Homeschooled kids brag about their excellence more than public-education kids do. However, far more kids have achieved success through the public system than through homeschooling: it’s a matter of sheer numbers, after all.

    The claim toward better homeschooling is one that is impossible to verify, except through personal experiences. Many kids, sadly, have parents incapable of teaching themselves: they become public-schooled. This drags down our record, I’ll admit. However, it’s the TYPE of kid being homeschooled that shows how useful that is: more-intelligent parents can homeschool their more-intelligent kids, who would probably learn just as well at a good school.

    Here’s the problem with homeschooling: lack of experience. My parents could not teach me history as wonderfully as my current teacher has been. They don’t know nearly as much about literature as I’ve already gleaned just this year. I could learn about music from them, computers… and I do. In effect, I’m just being smart enough to gain the best of both worlds.

    Homeschooling the nation would harm children just as much as public schools do now, if not more so. Some prefer an isolated environment; many more need constant social interaction to grow as a person. More importantly, homeschooling means relying on every parent to be smart enough to contain their child. This would lead to a more biased and less complete education, judging from the way certain parents I know act.

    My claim isn’t that you never do a thing. It’s that posting on a blog is a waste of time. The most intelligent people I know don’t write blogs, don’t use the internet much. What’s more, discussing something offline is faster, and lets you learn more. I’m sure you’re productive at work. On your own time, however, do something. If you start a discussion forum about homeschooling, and amass people who are willing to discuss things there, you’ve done something. If you post on a blog most people have stopped reading, you’re mostly wasting time beyond just thanking Steve for his time. (Thanks, by the way, about the luck-wishing on my paper. Writing about a thesis on something abstract like this is difficult, and coming to a conclusive finding is near imposssible.)

    I’ve read Gatto before. I find him fascinating, because he shows that “the best” schools aren’t, apparently. I find it unspeakably depressing that a teacher would grow so frustrated with his system as to become so hateful toward the so-called System. Yet, as I’ve said, I see no problem with any school that I’ve attended. Teachers are willing to discuss with me in-depth any question that I want to understand further. If the teacher is bad (and a few are, I’ll admit), I tend to learn the subject on my own – and nothing stops me. It results in my being far better taught than if I had been homeschooled.

    I don’t claim that every public school is perfect. I claim, however, that mine certainly is. The solution is reform. It’s possible, and I see the proof every day.

  5. Rory, here is the backup you asked for:

    I will quote the paragraph under the heading Academic Statistics:

    “The average homeschool 8th grade student performs four grade levels above the national average (Rudner study). One in four homeschool students (24.5%) are enrolled one or more grades above age level. Students who have been home schooled their entire lives have the highest scholastic achievement. In every subject and at every grade level of the ITBS and TAP batteries, homeschool students scored significantly higher than their counterparts in public and private schools.”

    Probably you will reply that statistics do not constitute proof, which is true. Yet this is more substantial than what you’ve offered so far: anecdotes drawn from your personal experiences and your observations of a tiny fraction of all home schoolers.

    You write:

    “…far more kids have achieved success through the public system than through homeschooling: it’s a matter of sheer numbers, after all.”

    I’d be interested to see some backup for that statement. I’d be even more interested to hear your definition of success. If it includes complex literacy, or even proficiency at reading, spelling and grammar, the government system is appallingly bad. This is old news, recognized as a major national fiasco as far back as 1955 with the publication of the book “Why Johnny Can’t Read”:

    You write:

    “Here’s the problem with homeschooling: lack of experience.”

    How much experience does it take to teach children to read? Not a great deal. It’s not an arcane skill that only professionals can master, as much as the “educrats” would like us to believe. Children in colonial and Early Republic America learned to read at home (with or without the help of a private tutor). Often the teaching materials in the home amounted to the Bible and a simple primer. Government schools were the exception, not the rule. None of our Founding Fathers were educated in government schools. Once a child learns to read, he can learn anything that books and web sites can teach him. His mind is free to grow at its own pace. Combine this with a child’s natural curiosity about the world and you can understand why even ordinary kids learn better in a non-regimented environment.

    If you’ve looked into the home schooling movement in any detail, you might have noticed that parents who are deficient in certain academic or practical areas cooperate with other home schooling families and/or hire specialists to assist them in these areas. The free market principle allows people to solve problems through cooperation, not force. It is the moral and practical opposite of the statist/socialist method of schooling.

    This logic applies equally to home gardening, home car repair, home carpentry, and the home based business in all its forms.

    You write:

    “Homeschooling the nation would harm children just as much as public schools do now, if not more so. Some prefer an isolated environment; many more need constant social interaction to grow as a person. More importantly, homeschooling means relying on every parent to be smart enough to contain their child. This would lead to a more biased and less complete education, judging from the way certain parents I know act.”

    Your claim that government schools give (or are even inclined to give) detailed personal attention to each child’s educational needs does not withstand scrutiny. As in all bureaucratic constructs, standardization is the norm in your favored system. If you doubt this, show me a government high school where pupils are permitted to come and go as they please (even to the bathroom, let alone to a place where they can learn better or faster).

    As for government providing an unbiased and complete education (please define “complete”), your own writings thus far reveal a strong bias towards government force as the solution to social problems and an incomplete understanding (at best) of how the free market works. By the way, that’s exactly how the government schools indoctrinated me also. It’s the party line.

    You write:

    “My claim isn’t that you never do a thing. It’s that posting on a blog is a waste of time. The most intelligent people I know don’t write blogs, don’t use the internet much. What’s more, discussing something offline is faster, and lets you learn more.”

    Rory, if you’re smart enough to write papers on abstract topics, then you’re smart enough to avoid the ad hominem fallacy. I take no offense at your implication that my intelligence is lacking, but this personal attack was ill-advised and poorly camouflaged. If you want to avoid wasting time in discussions, don’t repeat this error.

    It’s evident that you are either unfamiliar with blogs that maintain a high intellectual standard, or that you undervalue what you’ve read there. Go to the Vox Popoli blog (spelled exactly as written here, not the Latin “Vox Populi”) and read the posts by Vox Day, Carlous and Larry, to name three of the brightest stars. Tell me these men are not highly intelligent, and I’ll demand that you prove it. : )

    It’s not necessarily true that offline (i.e., verbal) discussions promote better and faster learning. Perhaps God created you in such a way that you really do learn better by this means. As for me, I learn much more effectively by reading and carefully considering the written word. Whether that word appears on a screen or a book page is immaterial. One thing is sure: written words don’t interrupt you when you need time to complete a thought, or deny you extensive time to consult reference sources. And in contrast with the spoken word, it’s a lot less easy to misinterpret or forget ideas that you can repeatedly review with your eyes. That’s why literate cultures are superior to illiterate cultures.

    You write:

    “The solution is reform. It’s possible, and I see the proof every day.”

    Why settle for reform? Revolution, that is, overturning a fundamentally defective institution, is the better option.

  6. Robin,

    I like some of your arguments and have agreed with you at times but it seems to me that you simply aren’t very good at listening to others opinions. Not once have you acknowledged anyone else’s ideas. It is amazing that you have all of the answers. I think that you simply enjoy typing tirades about the inhumanity of striving to educate our citizens. Where did you obtain that attribute from, Mom, Dad, or public school? Everyone has to deal with people who are difficult in life. I’d bet that you would still be disgruntled no matter what system was in place. People need to take responsibility for their own actions and education and stop blaming their 7th grade math teacher for their current status in life. Robin, if you would open yourself up and allow yourself to truly think and ponder such issues you would be much more effective in your passionate quest for change.

  7. It breaks my heart to read these stories. For our affluent society to be so negligent of its young students is appalling. I was one of the fortunate ones, I guess. I went to school in the 70s and 80s in the Plano (TX) public school system. I don’t remember ever having a teacher who I didn’t like, and there were some who I was especially fond of (sorry for ending my sentence with a preposition). In fact, I’d say my time in school was fine. I just wish I had used it more productively! My problem was my parents divorced when I was in middle school and I immediately stopped caring/trying. Started getting C-F grades aftwards. Don’t know why, to this day, but my son is exhibiting the same behavior (his mom and I divorced 7-8 years ago); but I notice he has to deal with a lot more aberrant behaviors from fellow students. He HATES going to school. I think it’s doing great harm to him, so I want to get him into a homeschool environment or some alternative where he can learn at his pace… What resources would anybody recommend? I’m still in North Texas, near Dallas. Thank you!

  8. Robin: most of your arguments hit the same wall as my arguments: there’s nothing either of us can do to convince the other. I read the blog you mentioned though, and I must admit it’s not a “stupid” blog by any means. However, I still think there are better expenditures of time than blog posting.

    The point of my anecdotes isn’t to state that public schools are a better choice. They’re to prove my real point: public-schooling is by no means a worse choice than homeschooling. At my school, roughly half of the students are taking accelerated courses, which is probably above the norm. All other schools have to do is raise the bar a bit, and the need to homeschool isn’t a burning one at all.

    As for educational needs to homeschool: saying that you don’t need education to teach is proof that you never went to a good public school. With the exception of programming and music (both of which I might be able to learn from my father, albeit in a much more secluded environment), neither parent of mine could teach me what I learn in school. I dare you to find a homeschooled student my age that can write as well as me: it’s an arrogant bet, but one I’m confident you will not win.

    -Why settle for reform? Revolution, that is, overturning a fundamentally defective institution, is the better option.

    The French and the Russians would disagree there, my friend. Americans might side with you – but then, they invented the public education system. 😉


    While you agree with my case (I think), writing ad hominem attaks of your own don’t really help.

  9. This was such a great read. The government school system is all out of whack. I went to school in Fairfax Virginia, one of the richest counties in the world. The county having tons of money didn’t help my schooling experience one bit. The school system is horrible, it’s like they want you to fail. Money doesn’t matter at all in todays school system. I think the govt should change the way its run. I thought what makes this country great is competition, well the American school systems strays as far as it can away from competition, the only exception is high school athletics. The way schools are run are sickening! All the teachers get paid the same rate, so why should they strive for improvement in their teaching. The teachers have a union that sickens me, their union makes it virtually impossible for a teacher to be fired…? The kids are not learning anything, I know I learned nothing inside school. I believe the school system should be more competitive in all aspects and not just focus on being competitive in athletics. All aspects should be competitive. This is how the school system should be. 1) Kids shouldn’t be forced to go to a certain school. 2) Each kid should be given a certain amount from the govt for his schooling. Once he has chosen what school he or she wants to go to, that money that the govt set aside for his schooling will go to the school he choose to go to. 3) This is a great system because the schools will then compete for students because the more students a school gets the more money the school gets. 4) These teachers want students to come to their school because the more students they get to there school the more they get paid.

    That is a really good system. Why strive for greatness when your not getting rewarded in any sort of way?

  10. this system that I am talking about is implemented in many foreign country and this system is thriving. It centers around the teacher, and them wanting to improve their teaching skills. It’s like a bunch of little business competing to get students. They are bettering themselves in hopes to impress students into wanting to go to their school. Everything in the school system is set in stone, its frankly depressing if you ask me. And as for the sports I think this should be independent from the school atmosphere. I believe athletics should be broken into districts. The kids that live in a certain district participates in a draft. The kids are then broken into teams in that certain district.

  11. Excellent essay. Charles Murray published a short series of articles in the Opinionjournal this past week that addresses some of the issues you raise.

  12. I am a student an I compleately agree with what you say. The thing I don’t get is why the teachers still teach if most of them hate there jobs.

  13. Is your dad also named steve & was he on ssbn 625g in the early 70’s? If he is the same guy I served with I’d like to contact him

  14. I teach at a online project based school and would like to exchange emails. Your story is interesting and could be motivating for other students.

  15. I have no idea how commentback works so I have to let you know manually that I mentioned this entry in my latest post. I’m still reading to try to figure out how I can do this linkback, commentback, or whateverback the way everyone else does.

  16. Edmund,

    Are you using wordpress? If you are, read about Trackbacks. The seem to work automatically for me when I link to wordpress blogs. If I link to a Typepad blog I need to enter the Trackback URL. Just do a google search about trackbacks and you’ll learn a lot.

  17. From my experience non religious private school can be worse than public ones. Even though I am by no means a popular person I do not feel that my soul is being crushed though my intellect is. At all 4 schools I have attended above the elementary school level while some teachers have not had great personalities and some hated me for doing things to well. I have yet to meet a teacher who does not take some joy/pride from teaching. All this said I do agree with your overall message that every one has their own potential for invention. I think that Douglas Adams says it best “the one thing that everyone designing afool proof device forgets is how ingenious fools can be”

  18. Wow i can relate to alot of those things.

    I go to a private school and i can say my high school experience as of now (I’m in 10th grade) is just as bad if not worse than that. Recently one of my friends (a girl) who is a really great friend of mine decided to play a little joke on a kid that torments and harasses me on a daily basis, she used to go out with this kid. She simply said in an internet message “Pat is cooler than you” and the kid flipped out and started acting like she was the most despicable person to ever walk this earth, he didn’t say anything to her he told one of his friends that she was trying to start a fight with him and she was making him feel bad about himself and tormenting him and every thing.
    So the girl that he told started flipping out on my friend saying she was crazy and a horrible person. My friend told this girl all the horrible things this kid does to me, says to me and about me. and how it was just a little joke and nothing was meant by it, and how this kid shouldnt get so mad if he is such a bully himself.
    and the girl replied “Are you stupid or somthing, whats wrong with making fun of people and being made fun of? its a normal part of high school”

    Yeah that is just one day in my life. And actually it was a pretty good day in comparison to a normal day. The reason i used this is because it just happened yesterday.

  19. I didn’t bother reading all of the comments above, but I wanted to share my experience.

    I went to a private, parochial school for the first few years. I was always the quieter child, the one that would prefer to sit and imagine things rather than run and jump and play. When I learned to read, much more quickly than everyone else, that became what I did for fun. Immediately, even in kindergarten, I became ostracized because I was different.

    The small school culture – 30 kids, the same kids, with you from K-8 – meant that there was never a chance to break out of the box that the other kids had placed me in. I was always looked at as the girl who read. There became jokes about me; I had only one or two friends that, looking back at them, weren’t even really my friends.

    This finally culminated in the fourth grade when I was diagnosed with long-term, serious depression. I blame the school I went to and the intense bullying I experienced. Maybe because of that or maybe because my parents thought it was time for a change as well I was tested for gifted abilities by the psychologist that diagnosed me. I tested positive – and I moved to public schools in to a program called PI+, which is for students who have higher potential, different learning styles, and are in general smarter than the rest of the populace.

    Public schools did more for me than private schools ever did. I think that I was very, very lucky to get out when I did and to move in to the program that I did. Even now, I’ve become friends with some of the people from the first school and they say that I’m unrecognizable. Given the chance to grow, I did much more than just grow: I blossomed. I gained friends, social experience, and happiness.

    I never really got over my depression – I was rediagnosed in 8th grade, but I don’t blame public school for that; I think it was just because my previous depression had gone untreated after it appeared that I was ‘all better.’ This depression, I think, was less serious but I was more prone to act upon my feelings.

    Things happened. I still blame private school for something that happened four years later. But now that I’m in the tenth grade, I can look back at it with a little more wisdom.

    Okay, now I have no idea where I’m going with this. I apologize. But I just wanted to make the point that public schools in some cases do quite well. But that’s just elementary school; now I’m in high school and it’s different. But the bullying I experienced in early elementary school really helped me now; if it ever happens now (which it doesn’t, very often) I know how to shrug it off. I’ve gained the confidence and the skills to deal with it.

    And I credit public schools for that.

  20. The most interesting thing I found in this post was your observation that we tend not to tell our kids what school was really like for us. As if we are pretending or hoping or dreaming that it’ll somehow be magically better for them. Even though I’m homeschooling, I still find myself shielding my son from the “reality” of school.

    I was one of those kids you described who actually kind of liked high school, after I made it through that wretched first year and figured out how to define myself (math nerd) and find my peer group (other brainiacs) and also how to, as you said, stifle my independent thinking and take tests well.

    It’s always made me wonder why people don’t QUESTION the fact that kids typically hate school. Doesn’t anyone find anything wrong with that??

    Good luck with the Montessori school! 😀

  21. I find observations children should be allowed to choose which school they want to go to, and that teacher should be paid based on how many students they get into their school to be rather naive. When the heck did we get to the point where the entire world revolved around kids? An astoundingly self centered generation is moving through life constantly having smoke blown up their self esteem.

    As for homeschool? How are we measuring this above average achievement? The term ‘teach to the test’ springs to mind. Its a bit of a stretch to think that the average parent has any real clue as to how to teach. Do they know what kind of learner their child is? No? How can then then adequately present subject matter.

  22. I attended a Catholic grade school. I attended a Catholic high school for a year. Everyone was put into college prep classes. (All Catholic high schools are college prep). Everyone took eight classes a semester. I spent several hours a day doing homework. There were three girls in my foreign language class who were repeating the first year of their foreign language class. Maybe not everyone could learn, but everyone was given the chance.

    There were two girls who spent a lot of time talking about the public high schools they were going to transfer to. They seemed so happy and excited about going to a “real” high school. All of the fiction that I read at the time presented public schools in a positive light. Also, public schools were presented in a positive light in many TV shows.

    I decided to transfer to a public high school. It was in a middle class suburb. I had a different “academic” advisor every year. All of them were incompetent. The “school” emphasized pep rallies, the prom and football games… the “school” was entertainment for the masses.

    All of the teachers that I had at the Catholic schools were smart. Many of the teachers at the public school were stupid.

    I had one teacher at the public school who would yell a lot. Once he spent the entire class yelling. By the end of the class, his face had turned purple.

    During my senior year I basically did nothing. No one cared. No one did anything to help me.

    School is just a babysitting service.

  23. I grew up in a family of teachers (both parents, brother, aunts, uncles, neighbors – all teachers) and school was easy for me. When I married and had children, I moved from a close-knit rural community to an urban neighborhood, where the schools were known for violence and poor test results. Not being able to afford private school, I did some research and decided to give homeschooling a try.

    Now 10 years later, my 17 year old daughter has graduated from our homeschool, and my 12 year old is busy with a wide range of activities. Both have friends of all ages, from diverse backgrounds and from nearby areas, as well as from across the country.

    Both have always had the option of going to school, if they chose. There were times when they seriously considered it, but when decision time arrived, they always opted to continue homeschooling. I recently asked my 17 year old if she regretted never going to school. She said, “There were times when I felt that I was missing something, but the more people I meet, the more I realize, I didn’t miss anything. I think if I had gone to school, I would have been a very mean person.”

    Several things that really stand out for me when I look at our homeschooling experience is the kindness and tolerance in the group with which we spent most of our time. There were about 30 families, with kids ranging in age from infants to 20 years of age. When we had events, the kids would play games together, seldom separating into small groups. Most times, kids from age 4 or 5 up to age 20 would play “capture the flag” or some other large group game, and the older ones would help the younger ones. The girls and the boys were friends.

    There were seldom arguments of any type. I really don’t believe that homeschooling was the main reason for all of this tranquility, but I haven’t figure out what the reason was/is peace and laughter seemed to prevail.

    We scheduled a “teens night” each month, and the teens (and often their parents) would meet at a local mall’s foodcourt for dinner (reasonable cost – diverse food choices.) Teens sat in one area and parents gathered in another. After dinner, we would choose movies that we wanted to see at the local $1.50 theater. Following the movie, we would go to the nearby Bakers Square restaurant for pie and coffee. 20-25 teens in one area and parents in another area. These evenings will always be one of my fondest memories. Our group of teens consisted of “goths,” intellectuals, and “preppies,” Jews, Catholics and agnostics, and the teens ranged in age from 11 – 19. They all sat together, laughed together, played cards together, watched movies together, discussed, argued, and got along with each other. Sometimes one of the teens would bring a public-schooled friend or relative along. Every time the public-schooled teen could be seen gaping and heard to say, “This is so weird. In school, you would never be friends with each other.”

    This same group participates in a co-op that meets on Tuesdays in the fall, winter and spring. Enrichment classes are offered, some taught by motivated parents, some by enthusiastic teens and some by outside instructors. About 40 classes are offered each term ranging from knitting to algebra, chain maille to world history. The most exciting day is when the choices for the next term are posted. Each student gets to vote for their top 6 class choices, from 70 -80 classes that could be offered. Votes are tallied and the 40 top vote getters are offered in the next term. Most complain that they can only vote for 6 and that they will only be allowed to take 4. This co-op has been a huge success. There are many sad faces on the last day of each term. If it was up to many of the students, we would meet every day, all year long.

    All this is not to say that this always happens with homeschoolers, or that homeschooling is the best choice for everyone. It’s to let you know that things can be different. There are options and choices, and every one should find what works best for their child(ren) and for their family situation.

  24. Though I know that this will probably be lost in the sea of responses you get, I’d like to point out a few flaws in your argument.

    First of all, 2 cases doesn’t make something a common problem. Never has, never will. The same isn’t true here, either. Though I do agree that there are kids that get screwed over in the system that is school, there are far more kids that benefit severely

    second, the solutions you offer are hardly solutions at all. Not every parent can home school. it’s impossible, and suggesting otherwise would be doing a disservice to single parents, and those who work full time.

    As for the neighbor hood coop, you once again have the lack of time, and you have the lack of skill and available parents. Not every parent I know can teach advanced math, and just watching some of my substitute teachers stumble through biology notes *my teacher is sick quite often* makes me shiver at the thought of something like that happening every day.

    Though, the biggest offense I take from the article is the fact that you give Gifted kids (which is a perfectly acceptable name, despite what your personal values are. Not everyone can be gifted, or else it really isn’t a gift, now is it?) the label of a disability. I may sound snobbish, but I honestly doubt anyone really wants to be labeled with a disability, especially those who excel in learning and comprehension.

    Gifted and Talented children learn faster than other children, and as such need a faster paced course, lest they get bored and occupy their time with other things. That’s it. We have few other needs then that, and each of those needs are based on the individual, just like any other person. I know as I was born and raised as a gifted and talented child, and i turned out no worse than most of my friends, besides the fact that I’m usually horribly bored at school, and feel like my time could be spent doing much better, more useful things, thus hating school like no one else I know. Do some more research before showing disdain at something, as it’s not wise to insult people, especially those who form a piece of your argument, however small.

  25. I know how you feel about the schools. I went throught the same thing when I was in school that your wife did. And now we are going through the same thing with my kids. We pulled my 7 year old out becase of things the teachers told me other teachers and kids were doing to him and now were fighting the school for ansers. My son is staying with his father now and is not planing to give him back as easy as he got him. Now I have to fight for him back. When I get him back i’m planing to home school him to. You’r right about alot of things you said keep up the good work. People need to hear what its realy like for kids and ther familys. Some people dont care what they do to hurt you’r kids and brake up your family like mine.
    But I Do.

  26. Excellent! I enjoyed reading this and just wanted to wish you luck on your continuing education as a parent.

    We started off with ps, left when it was not able to meet our bright son’s needs, have gone through various phases of homeschooling and now, 8 years later, we are a happily unschooling family.

    Happy learning to you and yours!


  27. I had an extremely successful public school career with almost no trauma attached to it, but I still homeschool my own children for several reasons. For one, I believe ‘school’ is a very contrived, artificial atmosphere that has little in common with REAL LIFE. I know that althought I was an excellent student, I didn’t have some of the skills needed for living life outside of school. Also, for years I’ve had a problem with schools treating kids like they’re all the same; they are INDIVIDUALS with different strengths and interests! If a Fortune 500 CEO position is what they want, what they’re good at, where their passion lies, then GO FOR IT!–I’ll cheer them all the way to the top. But what about the kid who’s a genius at fixing things and would be ecstatic to tinker with old cars? It is SO wrong to make that child feel that ‘mechanic-ing’ is only a job for losers, that he/she is a nobody without at least a four year degree. Also, schools don’t teach kids HOW TO LEARN. They teach how to memorize and regurgitate pre-selected information , but they do a poor job of teaching kids to question and then find answers on their own. In today’s world, we need to know HOW to learn, how to be self-taught, how to take the initiative in our own quest for knowledge. I used to be an elementary school teacher, and I enjoyed most of the kids. The thing I despised was that it seemed to really be about politics and money, not children. Although I had awesome teachers as colleagues, we were pretty much all in the same boat…our hands were basically tied. Teachers are expected to conform to standards set by the government. And when they try to change the status quo, it usually doesn’t go over too well; I know this from personal experience. The government education institution is huge, and going against it as an individual is kind of like standing in the path of a tidal wave. I believe that’s why so many families are choosing alternatives. Here are some words from another mom who chose one of those alternatives. She was confronted about her chidren being different and not “fitting in”. Her response? “I’m not raising my children to fit in with the world; I’m raising them to change it.” I think that’s a worthy endeavor, and I don’t see that attitude being supported in public schools.

  28. As a former public and private school elementary teacher, I am currently HOMESCHOOLING my five children, ages 5-10! What I learned as a teacher was that I did NOT want to send my kids to public or private school ! I saw mean-spirited cliques in Kindergarten, and even in a private religious school where all the kids wore the same uniform, they would pick on the one who brought an “uncool” lunch box (the standard for uncool changed weekly, mind you) or who wore clips in her hair that didn’t match! They’d find any difference and just pick, tease, and single out, and that was in 1st and 2nd grades! Even as the teacher, I was the one disciplined for encouraging out of the box problem solving, or open ended test questions, or encouraging the kids to ask “Why?” more often. LOVE LOVE LOVE homeschooling – I am able to let my kids flourish without fear, ask without condemnation, read what they enjoy and learn from without limiting them to books only “their grade level”, and we all learn together! Fantastic freedom and DEFINITELY what education should be for all kids!!!

  29. After reading about your public school horrors I no longer feel as alone in the universe as my years of mental and physical torture within the confines of my JH-HS have led me to believe that I was. I spent 6 long years in the same school (2 Jr. High 4 High School). I was short, fat and “four-eyed”. On top of all of this I have crooked teeth, which have never seen a dentist’s office until just this last year. (I too, graduated in, 1987.) And he reason I never saw a dentist before last year is that with all of my other faults I never wanted to go to a dentist and get braces to correct my crooked teeth, because I didn’t want to be referred to as “train-track mouth”.

    And I held on to that fear until the pain in my mouth from an infected tooth led me to a dentist. I was also one of the “Carries” of the world and made the short list for homecoming queen and I could imagine the cow and all of the other stuff that happened to her. So as soon as I heard the announcement over the intercom I asked to be dismissed from class, so I could go to the office and have my name removed from the list. My teacher didn’t want me to leave class, however she gave in when I told her I was going any way and asked if I should tell the principal to suspend me for leaving without permission. She told me to go on if I felt the need to go. She didn’t understand why I didn’t want such a great “honor”.

    When I got to the office I got the same reaction from the principal and his secretary. They acted insulted that I would be so bold as to have my name removed from the homecoming queen list. It is, however a decision I have never ever looked back on with any kind of regret.

    I had friends, but I was also kind of a free spirit. I wrote poetry, hung out at the local malls, and watched as many horror movies as I possibly could.
    However, even my friends got bullied sometimes. And my step-father always told me that I hung out with girls who were fatter than I was, because I wanted to feel skinny.

    So as you can tell, my home life wasn’t much better than my school life. My mother (who is rather unstable) left my father, who she was never married to, and moved me into the home of my step-father. He was the ultimate bully, and his son (who was a year ahead of me and attended the same school) followed suit. My step-brother was both bigger and stronger than me. And after being dragged away from my friends and school life that was three counties away I just never adjusted to things in my new school very well at all. Not only was I bullied by my step-brother in school but at home too.

    My mother was of no help, because she was rather abusive towards me herself. And my step-father was certainly not of any help. He was just as mentally tortuous as the kids at school. He would tell me things like, “Don’t eat my f****** silverware I can’t afford to buy any more.” This happened when, due to my overbite, I raked the fork across my teeth. Or he would stare at me while I was eating. I mean he would just sit and stare at me like I was doing something wrong by dinging at the table with him. To this day I still hate to dine around other people and tend to dine alone.

    After my step-brother moved to his mother’s house I got little relief, because all of his friends decided to continue picking on me, however they found out that most of them were not as big and strong as my step-brother. I physically harmed several of them.

    I sent one flying across the choir room from the risers, because he took a motor with a twisted piece of metal attached to it and wound my hair up in it and pulled a huge wad of my hair and part of my scalp out. I calmly turned around and told him if he did it again I would hurt him. Naturally doubting that the short, fat chick could do him any harm he did it again. He was on the riser above where I was seated, so when I stood up and took hold of him with both hands by the front of his shirt I had enough leverage to pick him up and throw him from the risers. After that day he began to walk down the other side of the hall if he saw me walking his direction.

    As for me getting in trouble for what I had done to him I explained to the choir teacher what he had done and showed him the I had a large chunk of hair missing from my head and that my scalp was bleeding. I wasn’t sent to the office. Of course the guy denied it, so the teacher asked him to empty his pockets. When he did he pulled out a small motorized device with my hair wound up in it. The choir teacher actually to us to both take our seats. He told me later if had sent the guy to the office he would have had to send me too. And since I was defending myself from a violent act he didn’t feel I should be punished for it.

    After that another of my step-brother’s friends decided to start grabbing my behind. He was six foot tall and a rather nice looking guy. He was an honor student who was liked by the teachers and other students. So when I went to the office to complain about him grabbing me, I was ignored. The general feeling I got from my counselors (both male and female) and my principal was that this nice looking boy wasn’t going to grab a short, fat girl’s butt. So after getting no results from them I was at my locker one morning and he grabbed me again. Only this time I was quicker than he ever expected me to be, and I grabbed him by the hair of the head and held my locker shut on his neck cutting pretty bad.

    That time I got called to the office and my mother was called to the school. She was told that she would have to pay for the boy’s medical expenses, my mother’s true response to this can not be written out in this forum, however she left there with me in tow, and we never paid a dime of his expenses.

    And when I sprained my ankle in gym class (which is more real torture for fat kids than anyone will admit), I sat in pain and watched as my gym teacher picked up his red pen and looking right at me started to make marks in his grade book. Seeing this I got back up on the ankle I had sprained and made the injury worse when I fell on it a second time. When the doctor looked at my X-ray he told me that I should have broken my anle, because I had pulled every tendon and ligament in it, and it was going to take a very long time to heal. Longer than even a broken ankle.

    This man (my former gym teacher) actually has the cajones to run for public office every so often. All I can think about when I see his campaign signs is that day when he neglected to an injured kid on the gym floor, because she was fat and not worth his precious time.

    I didn’t get medical attention for my ankle until the next day, because my mother worked second shift and my step-father had gone to bed early that night. Mt bedroom was in the basement of the house, and the next day as terrified as I was of my mother’s wrath if I woke her up early, I had to crawl up the stairs and wake her up. She was rather angry to be woke up early, however once she got a look at my ankle she was more freaked out over it.

    Honestly, as I have admitted I hurt physically hurt some of the people that hurt me in school, however I don’t condone violence. And would not recommend that anyone hurt any other person. However, when I see the scenes from schools like Columbine and Paducah, Ky, I can understand how something like it could happen. I was not only made fun of by the school’s “riff-raff”. I was made fun of and ridiculed by the “good” church kids that went to church every Sunday, by the honor students, the so-called popular students, and by most of my teachers.

    My pleas for help to keep a boy from touching me in a way that was inappropriate were ignored by the school’s counselors and principal. Where could I turn for help? There was no one listening to me. So I took matters into my own hands.

    In addition to all of my other woes in school, I have a learning disability. If I am allowed to take my time and learn things there is nothing I can’t learn. Most of my teachers ignored kids like me, and only took the time to teach the “smarter” students. My second year Spanish teacher was one of the worst. And to this day I can run into him and hold an entire conversation in Spanish, which actually amazes him to no end. He told me that very few other students he taught over the years have retained as much of the language as I have. I may have learned and retained what I learned, however I would hate to break his heart and tell him that he never really taught me a damn thing. What I learned I taught myself.

    I had then and still have the ability to learn. School didn’t give me the ability to learn and truthfully it almost stripped me of it, because if all of the abuse I suffered at the hands of bullies and arrogant teachers who believed that they needed only teach the select few “gifted” students and leave the rest to try to keep up. Over the years I have learned many things. And with each learning experience I have hopefully grown to be a better person. If I had children I would not send them into such an uncaring environment.

    However, I admit, that between a bad home life and a horrible school life I just have never had the urge to have children pretty much for the same reason that I never saw a dentist before August of 2006. I fear.

  30. The fierce debate here brings up the same feelings and thoughs that people have when they watch my film “Schooled” — which is about a high school teacher who finds his way to a radically democratic school that he thinks is crazy because the kids have equal power as the adults in the school. You can check out the trailer at: “Schooled” is having it’s World Premiere at The Method Fest in LA on Tuesday, April 3rd, and anybody is welcome to come if they’ll be in town. Details about the screening are on the website.

    Oh, and my favorite part of Steve’s original text is “My wife and I both describe our years in the government school system as a prison sentence. My wife kept a running countdown of days left in government school, like chicken scratches in a prison cell.”

    That’s very telling and I think a perspective that A LOT of people can relate to.

    All the best,

  31. Thanks for going public about your experience in government schools. My experience was different from yours, but just as damaging.

    My family had lived in the same place for generations. My grandfather was on the school board, back in the 1920’s. My older siblings (7+ years) all went to the same elementary, junior high (which had been my dad’s high school), and high school. Everyone knew them and looked out for them.

    Grandpa died before I started school, then my dad died when I was in third grade. From kindergarten through third grade I attended the same school as my siblings, but then there was an earthquake, one of the buildings was damaged, and grades four through six (including me) were transferred to another school the next year.

    The population in the area was booming, new schools were being built left and right, and the next year I was sent to another school, closer to my home, in another school district. The next year, another school was being built (wasn’t even finished by the time we started–the classroom was heated with space heaters for the first few months), so I went to 6th grade in yet another school. 7th grade was the start of junior high, so, yes, I went to yet another school. I don’t know if you’ve been keeping count, but that’s five schools in five years, all while living in the same place.

    By that time I’d figured out that the powers that be didn’t care about my well-being. I’d gone from being a very bright “teacher’s pet,” several years ahead of my peers in reading, to being very distrustful and usually keeping my brains to myself.

    In third grade, my handwriting had been normal-sized and right-slanting. In fourth grade, it was very tiny and left-slanting. The teacher gave me a D in penmanship. As an adult, I read about handwriting analysis and learned that the size meant that I had very low self-esteem, and the left slant meant that I was introverted. The teacher was punishing me for this?

    When I started high school in the early 1970’s, some of the teachers were trying to be cool. My German teacher used to sit cross-legged on his desk while leading us through language drills. He also used to joke with students about their keggers the previous weekend. Then there was my creative writing teacher. She spent the entire week I was in the class talking about a dart-throwing championship she and her husband were involved in. Some of the other teachers used to suck up to upper-class students, which I thought was ridiculous, and didn’t exactly earn my respect.

    Kids didn’t mess with me much. I left them alone, and they usually did the same to me. A few of us, who lived in the same area and were shunted around to the same schools, stuck together through grade school, then went our separate ways later.

    I was very strait-laced–didn’t smoke, drink or do other drugs–just thought school was a major waste of time, didn’t really fit in with anyone, and didn’t spend much time there. Most of my fellow students didn’t know what to make of me, so they steered clear.

    I started skipping school (cutting class, skiving off–odd how there are so many names for it!) in ninth grade. I thought school was a waste of time, so started studying on my own. I received a National Merit Letter of Commendation from the PSAT I took in 10th grade, but by that time I thought anything connected with school was b—s–t, anyway. I quit school, got my GED, and got on with life.

    I eventually got a couple of B.A.’s, but have learned much more out of college than in it.

    Next Generation
    When I had a son, I hoped that everything would work out right for him, and that maybe the universe had just had it in for me. I taught him to read and do basic arithmetic before he started school. Kindergarten, which was basically just learning to get along with others in a school environment, went fine. The school officials knew he was advanced, so the next year he was put in first grade for half the day, then second grade for the second half-day. He was bored stiff, didn’t bother doing his homework because it was too easy, and was already starting to get into trouble for it when I pulled him out halfway through the school year.

    I homeschooled him until he started college at age 15. His first two years were at a local community college. He graduated from that with a 3.98 (of 4.0) GPA, earning his college’s award for French his first year, then their awards for engineering and physics the second year. His third and fourth years were at a major state university, from which he got a B.S. in engineering, summa cum laude (3.99 GPA). Since then, he’s gotten an M.S. (while doing NASA-sponsored research), worked for a couple of years, and is now back in school to get his Ph.D.

    I’d like to quickly address a couple of concerns about homeschooling that were raised in earlier comments.

    (1) Social issues. We didn’t join homeschooling social groups, because at the time all that I knew of in this area were church-sponsored, which was something we didn’t want to be involved with. Instead, we were very active volunteers in several community groups. These also had the advantage of providing interaction with people of all ages–the norm in “real life,” and something many young people I’ve known have had trouble with.

    (2) All-Comprehensive Knowledge (ACK). From the start, my son learned Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic, plus whatever else he wanted to study. There are a lot of Experts out there who have written things called Books, which we used extensively. Many Experts are also willing to share their knowledge with people willing to take the time to listen. Today, there are also many tutorials on the internet that we would have used had they been available then.

    As a student, the most important thing to learn is how to learn. We are hard-wired to know that when we’re born. Only an outside force can maim or destroy that in us.

    As a teacher and/or parent the most important thing to learn is when to back off and let kids fly on their own. There were times, in his early teens, when I backed off and let him learn on his own, even when I knew a subject well.

  32. I spent most of my tenth grade year openly antagonized by a bully who was twice my size (I wasn’t small, he was a huge kid). He did it right in front of teachers and no one cared. Luckily I transferred out of that school before things got too bad. I know too much about this topic.

  33. I agree with you 100%.

    While my school doesn’t really have the emotional abuse of fellow students, we find that elsewhere, namely from the “success our way or failure for life” propaganda spoon-fed to us daily. It’s almost brainwashing the way the public school system makes students get used to the daily grind of work ethic, taking more than half their day away. I do not recall ever being told by a teacher that “Anything’s possible”, because that kind of thinking could lead kids into thinking that there are more opportunities out there for success than through public education. And that’s bad for business.

    And I know it sounds like I’m being a nutcase, using words like “propaganda” and “brainwashing”, but I have personally observed these things happening to my fellow students, and it sickens me. So many of my friends believe that a GPA tells them everything about their future, and because almost none of them fit into the mold, it crushes them.

    To quote one of my teachers:
    “There’s a point in our lives where we all sit down and think to ourselves: I have to pass this class in order to survive”.

  34. Wow. All I can say is that is an excellent post that reaffirms some of my ideas. For the record I am a 15 year old student at a local private Jesuit High School. I have been privelaged and have been going to private schools all my life. Up until about this year I never understood why my parents put me in private school. Although I am intelligent and “gifted” as my montessori and grade school teachers said, I never understood why I wasn’t in a public school. After all, I always figured that private schools were just fancier than public schools with less kids and more rules (little did I know that private schools actually have less rules because they do not have zero-tolerance policies and stuff like that). Now though I realize why I go to private schools. My parents wanted to me to have a good education. From a young age I was taught reading, writing and arithmetic all before 1st grade. Up until 1st grade I went to montessori school which I absolutely loved. Most of the other students and I loved the montessori environment which basically tries to teach and inspire the students to want to learn. I really do not understand why most schools do not do this. One must learn how to learn before he can learn anything else. Also, my parents were incredibly involved in my education and often taught me things at home and helped my with things i was struggling with in school.

  35. I accidently his the submit button in my last comment too early. Here is the rest of what i was going to say.

    In 1st grade my parents sent to a more traditional but still private school with about 10-20 kids per class. It was also an excellent school I think. While it took me some time to adjust to the different styles of learning I did fine after the first couple weeks. I wanted to learn and my teachers praised me when I did good and corrected me when I did wrong by showing me how to do a problem right. I fluorished at that school until about 4th and 5th grade. During those years we got a new principal who tried to restructure the school. She made 4th and 5th grade part of middle school which was almost nonexistant at the small school. This was horrible because in those years I got more homework than I ever had, and they took away our recess!!! How can you take recess away from 9 and 10 year olds??! Anyways in 6th grade I went to another private school except it was a little farther from home. I loved this new school. The teachers were fun and interesting to listen to except for a couple of boring ones. The students were diverse and friendly and made me feel very welcome. I stayed at that school through middle school. My social studies teacher was my favorite. He taught me to think differently and question what I had been taught before. He got me involved in current events and we often discussed world events on a daily basis and the policies of world leaders. He is my favorite teacher by far ever. I maintained good grades at this school and go mostly As and a couple Bs.
    Next after 8th grade I went to highscool at a local private Jesuit College-preperatory (all male) high school. I really like the school except for the fact that it is a 40 minute drive from my house. I have learned a lot at this school and the teachers are incredibly passionate about what they do. Out of many teachers I have had so far I only have something negative to say about 2 or 3 of them if that. 1 is old and boring. 1 was mean and the other is a bad chemistry teacher(but i barely understand it). I currently am still in high school and I am in 10th grade. While I still have a lot to learn I am thinking about becoming a teacher when i grow up because i fear for the current and next generation of students and if i could help them in any way i would love to.
    As far as the situation with public schools I think there are a couple solutions to the problem.
    1. Privatize All schools. If all schools are private, the will strive to be the best schools so they will get the business. They will do their best to teach the kids better than the other schools so students will enroll at the school and thus the school makes money.
    2. Abandon the current system and completely reform it. Our education system was made in the 1800s and is designed to churn out students for factories. Since manufacturing is no longer the main employer of Americans it is necessary to teach students to think critically and adapt to any type of job situation. College should not be necessary. It should be like a cool bonus. High school should be all the preparation one needs for real life. Colleges should be mostly unneccesary except for students who want to learn even more than they have. College should be for those who wish to learn more about a specific subject and specialize in it.

    Well its late and I am tired and need sleep.
    I look forward to reading more of your blogs!

  36. “loaded the 5 1/4 inch floppy, and completed it. I beamed with pride and arrogance. The teacher looked at my program, turned bright red, yanked me out of my seat by my ear, and I fell to the floor humiliated. He pointed to the door and said, “get out of my classroom.” He forced me to sit in the hall the rest of the semester and failed me.”

    Teachers do much worse to good TEACHERS.

    Educators — from lower grades through university — are about the most evil and incompetent bunch of people I have ever met

  37. I’m currently at private school for one year after having attended public school for my entire life. I’m struck by the difference between the public school depicted here and the one which I attended. The public school I attended was markedly different from the “governmental school” portrayed in this article. Meanwhile, I feel very strongly that the private school I’m now attending is far far more soul crushing than was my public school, on both an educational and developmental level. Taking into account the nature of a good school being based on dynamism and compassion of students and teachers for the material and the community is the necessary component to choosing which school: public, private, parochial or home is correct for one’s child, and indeed asking the child to help make a decision in the matter as well. It is not the public schools overall, as Mr. Olson and moreover, many of the respondents to this article are contending, that crushes souls, but the culture that is develops within any school that encourages apathy, self-centeredness, arrogance, cruelty or laziness to occur, and predominate. My public school experience was outstanding. Others may not be. My private school experience has been frustrating in virtually every way. Others may be the opposite. Its not who funds a child’s education but what type of environment that the person lives in that is most important to their development. Therefore the right answer is not blindly privatize all school in a sort of frenzy of free-market education, that will only lead to comparisons of college matriculations and test scores. Happiness is far less tangible than dollars and SAT scores. The answer is for a child and their family to think seriously about the educational and social environment that is correct for them. In any matter where people are concerned, it is important to remind oneself that there are no universal rules that bind every child, and there are no universal pariahs, just correct decisions for each kid.

  38. So basically, because you were a failure in school as a teenager your blaming the whole public school system? You blame the public school system because you were a burned-out druggie and your wife had no friends? It’s not the schools responsibility to get you friends, I’m sorry.

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