Learn Fast or Die Hard: A Culture Against Dropouts Part Two

About 18 months ago, I wrote a post on Medium that ended up making the front page of Hacker News. In the post, I detail my life before and after dropping out of McGill engineering. It’s probably the most honest thing I’ve ever written, and I’m touched and humbled that the HN community received it so well.

As the months passed since that post, I started to feel I had more to say. I’ve read about dozens of young tragedies, each of which sent me back to writing this very piece. But I could never finish or find the right words. This time I will. Even though I see how much this is a privileged people problem, I still feel it’s worth saying what I need to say.

In the autumn months before my 13th birthday, I had only one real concern: learn my Torah portion for my Bat Mitzvah. Lessons with our synagogue’s cantor dragged on slowly, my mother listening a few feet away as I half-heartedly read a language I’d soon forget. As the date grew closer, they both implored me to try harder. Jewish children are often expected to chant their Torah portions, but I couldn’t seem to pick it up, or I didn’t care enough. Against tradition, I decided to read my portion on the big day — the moment I supposedly became a woman.

That didn’t bother me. As my atheist roots began to take hold, I didn’t fret about how easy it was to let Judaism go. I found momentary peace on the edge of a cliff, not knowing that the next seven years in school would send me slipping down the slope to sanity’s end.

If I knew then what I know now, I wonder if I could have avoided the fall. But I didn’t. At 13, I couldn’t have known the kinds of things I’d endure over the coming years, or about the privilege I’d waste while enduring them. Another spoiled brat with a promising future and an excuse for everything, ruined by the hand I was dealt and how poorly I played it.

It’s hard to put some of this out on the internet. In part because I know how my struggles stack up in a world two steps from ruin, and in part because it is and probably should remain private. I hope the context here is worth it.

Growing up, I battled an abusive relationship at home that isolated me from my family. Over time, I quit everything that made me who I was. Quitting was always my own choice — made at first for my own good, by and by assuring my own demise. I became a hollow shell by age 15, and the only thing I could hold onto was more sadness. Buried in regret, I’d tell myself I was worthless as willingly as I’d set myself up to fail. I’d cry on my childhood bed for hours at a time, lost in the depths of my despair, riding the waves of my pain like it was sport, gazing through blurry eyes at a locked door, a quiet env3, a beaten up Sony Vaio — wondering if someone would bother to save me. I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything the way I loved being sad. So even though it fed the darkness in me, because it fed the darkness in me, I continued to set impossible standards for myself. At its simplest, I was just like anyone. An imperfect person trying to be perfect and constantly failing.

These are fights I fought while stumbling through middle school, high school, and university, juggling the responsibilities of a twenty-first century student. Albeit far from unscathed, I survived school. Not everyone does.

One of the exceptional pieces I read in the last 18 months is titled The Silicon Valley Suicides, which quotes a former Palto Alto High junior, Carolyn Walworth:

You can’t help but slip into the system of competitive insanity … We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick … Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?

When I set foot in Central Bucks East High, the insanity Carolyn describes felt obvious to me. As an East student, I barely slept, I hated my life, and our halls ran rampant with cheating, procrastination, and deteriorating health. I was sick, and I wasn’t the only one.

It begs the question — are the faculty and parents none the wiser? Or do they not care about the student body’s well-being? One or the other must be true because nothing ever changes. The insanity continues. And the damage is extensive. Despite the sickness, the depression, misdemeanors, and sometimes even drug addictions — our academic culture’s stop-for-nobody, work-kids-to-death mentality retains its grip on any trying student, especially the highest achievers.

Take your average student: one not necessarily coping with a host of personal, mental and/or physical health issues. Even he or she can become debilitated by overwhelming stress and fear — the types breeding in classrooms where achievement is favored over learning.

The moment we start motivating by fear instead of by passion is the moment we begin to fail our students.

For me, that moment came when I started to believe that every mark I’d earn would dictate my future. I feared that anything less than perfect could tank my college app. value, and I’d end up at an average school, after which I’d get an average job and live a painfully average life.

School was not at all what I hoped it could be — a place to explore what I might want to pursue in life, to discover what I truly care about and what I genuinely find interesting. School was a job, a means to an end, a way to demonstrate to people that I could perform up to the task. In enough time, school felt a lot like Judaism — a part of my life I wanted to leave behind. But I couldn’t say no to school. I let stress and fear dictate every waking minute of my life for years, and it ruined me more than my home life ever could.

When we motivate by fear, we close students’ minds to learning. They show up not to learn, but because they must. Any natural curiosity becomes clouded by a fear of failure, or a fear of punishment. Stress and anxiety make students resent the material, the work, their teachers, themselves. Patterns of self-loathing and procrastination emerge. Students feel incapable and unworthy, they underperform as a result, and the cycle continues. To manage the disappointment, students start to believe that they can’t fail if they don’t bother trying at all — a destructive mindset for your formative years.

Objectives shift — the organic, experimental approach to learning (you know, the kind that makes people actually want to show up and try) is drowned out by an overly intensive curriculum, designed for one type of learner but force-fed to many. The student’s new and only goal becomes her GPA. Any learning at that point is just an accidental byproduct.

A lot of students and graduates share this outlook. Yet, again, nothing changes. Schools stay the same, and students keep matriculating. Why does the insanity continue?

To start, our societal standards for employability do not change. If you don’t go to school, how do you prove your competence, how do you compete for jobs that require degrees, how do you make it in a world where everyone has decided that this is the way we live? So many students would ditch school if our culture didn’t conform to the crazy, outdated belief that there’s one superior way to become capable servants of a craft. We insist on school. We drive kids out of their youthful freedom and into academic drudgery — a 24/7 routine that makes even the dullest 9-to-5 look like a dream job. We demand educated candidates for jobs, even though millions of graduates know deep down that a degree is merely a certificate of obedience.

So what can we do when the shepherds keep herding the masses? When the status quo is often described as grueling and overpriced, but rising generations continue to tolerate it?

I don’t know. When shootings aren’t enough to move us out of tradition and into gun control, what could the preachings of your average neighborhood dropout possibly do for education reform? I’m just one voice in a sea of crusaders against traditional education. There have been hundreds of other pieces published with the same ideas, the same sentiments. I don’t want to regurgitate their words only to be heard briefly and then forgotten. I just want some change. I want more of you to refuse to settle for the hand you’ve been dealt. I want us all to wonder what we can accomplish, or could have accomplished, without school.

Because.. traditional school not only fails at its one job, it can literally kill. And for some of the lives it doesn’t take, it still finds a way to destroy them.

There are way, way, way too many students who have taken their own lives in 2016. I met one of those students last fall at ManhattanJS, where she and I spoke about my Medium post I mentioned earlier. When we met for the first and last time, I had no idea that she was wrestling her own demons, or that they’d win just a few short months later. I wish I had.

We can’t know now how different her life might have been without school. I can only imagine. All I know is that dropping out saved my life. It might’ve saved hers, too, and the lives of every other student we’ve lost in our merciless academic landscape.

Right now, I have a spectacular job that lets me regulate my own schedule. I manage my depression and anxiety well enough that I experience no debilitating symptoms on an average day. I’ve been wildly more productive, inspired and educated at Venmo than in all of my years at school combined. I work on projects at a comfortable pace and using the approach I feel is best. Deadlines are estimated and decided by those doing the work, not those assigning the work. Freedom is the prerequisite for education. As they say: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Kids need to make the choice to learn and to grow; they can’t be bullied into learning through rigorous, test-heavy, required curricula.

My most valuable educational experience from middle school, high school and university was participating in National History Day for several years, an annual contest that’s optional for most students and offers its participants a lot of freedom to learn and create. Students choose a topic that fits the year’s theme (i.e. Triumph and Tragedy, Conflict and Compromise) and then have months to research their topics, conceptualize their projects and bring their final submissions to life. I’ll never forget what I learned from my non-traditional experiences with NHD, so I must not hate learning about the past. But I despised AP US History and AP European History, courses that tested hundreds of detailed facts and events I can’t remember (and never really wanted to remember).

By early ninth grade, the anxiety from school alone became so severe that I developed stomach ulcers and chronic gastritis. I could barely make it to class in the morning without being incapacitated by dreadful, wish-I-were-dead stomach aches and needing to go home. I was prescribed Nexium at age 15, a medication my parents started taking in their fifties.

Around early tenth grade, I started getting sick very frequently. The common cold and bronchitis, mainly. I was some kind of ill year round, and that was when my OCD really started to take hold. I was too naive to realize that I was constantly sick not because I wasn’t being careful enough, but because I was barely sleeping and suffocating from stress. In school, there really is no rest for the weary, so I controlled the situation the only way I thought I could: avoiding germs. It began then as a mild phobia, years later becoming much more extreme: hand-washing 40 times per day, disinfecting whatever left my room or house, showering before I could even sit on my bed and avoiding the world outside of my bubble altogether. But I was wrong, then, about how to control the chronic sickness. I needed to choose sleep. I needed to free myself from the stress.

Instead, I turned up the heat. I took as many AP courses as my schedule could handle. I had no time for extracurriculars because my GPA was my full time job. I wasted my youth on a number I don’t even respect anymore. The tragic truth is that if I hadn’t been in school, if high school wasn’t as dreadful as it is, if high school was anything like my job, I could have taken care of myself.

I could have put myself first, and not my grades. I could’ve discovered what I actually wanted to do, which I eventually accomplished after dropping out — and with no thanks to the years of back-breaking work I put into public school. When I think about what I gave up for a shot at a degree from a decent university, I am overcome with sorrow.

I want those years back. I want to know who I could’ve been, what I would’ve done, if I had chosen myself instead of my report card. I never will.

Maybe if school had been different, I wouldn’t have needed to leave. Maybe the ones we’ve lost would still be around. They might have even been happy.

A parent in The Silicon Valley Suicides suggested: “There are ways to teach students so they learn but are not tortured.” Take notes from Venmo and NHD. We don’t need to drown our students in studies that never interested them to start; we don’t need to pit students against each other to decide what they’re worth, to decide if they deserve the chance to enroll at your university or work at your company. When people care about what they do, or what they want to do, they find a way to demonstrate that. Provide students with the time, space, tools and mentorship to build portfolios of inspired work and discoveries. And don’t make students sacrifice their physical and mental health to keep up with their course loads. It does more harm than good, and it’s time for our nation’s educators to address the havoc they wreak.

As long as school stays the same, as long as the insanity continues, I will evangelize dropping out. There’s more to life, and you only have one. Demand more for yourself. If you’re not trying to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer, there’s not a whole lot that school can give you that you can’t get on your own, without the price of your sanity or your parents’ life earnings.

Choose more. Parents, I ask you to please let your kids forge the way. Believe in them. When it comes down to it, being a voluntary dropout speaks worlds more about a person’s character than a degree ever could. The world teaches us that we can’t survive off the beaten path, but I have, and you can too. I’m not special. T.S. Eliot said it best. Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

Maybe when enough people refuse to pay six figs for a broken product, the system will finally change, and lives will be spared. Don’t be afraid to save your own.