School is a scam. Now we said it.
I caught my first whiff of corruption in the third grade, when a teacher who had no business being so close to my face, leaned aggressively over my desk and barked, “Why aren’t you doing your accelerated reader?”
I guess I’d fallen short of credits. I simply didn’t read the books I was told to, because there were too many that I genuinely wanted to read.
Mrs. Hill took my defiance to the administration, and ran a semester-long campaign to convince them I was autistic and should be placed in special education.
I’m not autistic, but I have a sneaking suspicion that academia always wanted to turn me into something I wasn’t. I’ve never done anything I didn’t want to do, or traded in the learning habits I knew to be valuable for myself for what authority figures said were the rules of education.
Mrs. Hill probably never predicted I’d have signed a book deal with a Big Five publisher fresh out of college, but her relationship to me as a teacher was never about fostering my talents.
Teachers who form relationships with students, who listen to their concerns and sow the seeds of self-worth are the unsung heroes of the school system. And yet public education in service to a government ruled by corporate interests leaves teachers under impossible constraints that keep them from bringing too much individual lesson planning to the classroom. They, too, are pieces in a machine, with their paths routed.
I hated school so much I started working on books with the hopes of getting published at the age of 10. I worked to avoid the trap of monotonous adult routine that I saw rushing toward me from ten years away. I wanted to have a work environment free from toxicity, because it would exist in my bedroom, where I’d dream up worlds of escape for other kids who didn’t belong.
At every corner my efforts felt stalled by naysayers from the school of artistic denigration. “What’s your backup plan?” my parents asked. In early job interviews when I announced I’d like to be an author, I heard, “Don’t we all?”, and “What else?”, which made me question just where the divide existed between American conditioning and the truth of the world.
We might all want to be writers, but we don’t all possess the talent and self-discipline necessary to do so. School writes off art as a hobby rather than a career, as to erase us completely as valuable contributors to society, all while shoving bad books in our faces. As if fostering empathy and exploring the human experience is something that is happening above our heads.
It’s no wonder the school system doesn’t fill in gaps left by toxic home environments, and in many cases, exacerbates them.
Schools are not safe spaces. Kids are not given room, assistance, or grace to be heard from when they’re socially at-risk due to racial background, sexuality, or gender identity. Rarely in school exists practical curriculum that teaches the biases, insecurities, social norms, and peer pressure that create grounds for bullying to thrive. The bullying so often exists in a vacuum separate from adults because the system would rather pretend it isn’t there.
Expensive privatized education should not be necessary for kids to feel their individual needs met. We should not have to go broke just to set ourselves free from corporate grooming practices or the capitalist puppetry that has created an entire generation of overworked, underpaid American adults.
Tests spread a strict standard across one classroom, ignoring that each student’s retention abilities are influenced by their backgrounds and passions. Emphasis is placed on regimented collectivism, on how we must all answer one question in one way. An American student body is prepared on the legitimizing of lesson plans that ignore the racist class system that they fall into. Some questions require factual answers, and others lend themselves to nuanced reasoning. Treating kids from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds as if they should all reason with a single question in the same way is an act of erasure, and a trap for failure.
College was a given in my household — never an option. Schooling was inextricably tied to being educated, despite it never giving me a prep course for the creative endeavors I was to decide between as I moved into higher education. Writing? Theatre? Film? Graphic design?
I chose one rather arbitrarily and ended up at a PWI, suffering the worst four years of my life, because again, I was met with a classroom and curriculum built by white people to continue white tradition. But at that point, thousands of tuition dollars were involved, and my pockets were pilfered for a degree that would leave me in perhaps a lifetime of debt. The return? A piece of paper that said I was prestigious and capable, by the measuring stick of White America.
The academic tradition thrives on the conning of children, and it starts its manipulation early. Kids can never know what lessons will lead to productive progress in the adult world, or that adults don’t know what’s appropriate to be teaching in the first place.
Following graduation I worked briefly at a tutoring center that favored the strict model of teaching. I saw kids walk in utterly defeated, from toxic home lives or eight hours of schooling, just to sit at a table, and be schooled more, in their free time. I put on music and let them dance while I checked their work. Told them jokes and let them laugh, so they’d know that learning was not antithetical to laughing, and that actually, when learning is productive, it should be fun. I asked them about themselves, their friends, and imparted lessons that weren’t in the textbooks, because textbooks weren’t human, and we were. But I was largely antagonized by colleagues and bosses. “Fun” was the antithesis of “learning”, and if I was to stay there, I’d have to get with the program.
So I left, to search for anywhere I could scramble up the front steps of adulthood and keep my integrity. To be senselessly beat over the head by new financial surprises I didn’t know I’d have to ponder. Rent, bills, car note, and insurance stacked against institutional barriers to employment complicated by my race, income level, and sexuality. No tools to work through any of it, despite a BA from Nowhere University.
To be paid to be creative is a revolutionary blessing, even if navigating an industry built to keep Black men out can so often feel like a losing battle. Every bit of support I find among my colleagues, I find an equal amount of traditionalists who can’t fathom a young Black man has actually read and worked hard enough to deserve to be here.
And still I write. I write to break free from this prison of capitalist thought, passed down and passed off as appropriate, or fair, by the tradition we’re all trapped in.
It’s a waste of time to make tweaks in a system established and preserved by the needs of capitalist production. A broken education system is the weapon of a greedy upper class that targets children, especially Black and brown children, and sabotages them before they even have the minds to decide for themselves what a classroom represents.
Cycling us forever through a system that strips us of personal agency and self-worth is crucial to this system’s power. Now we need to address that school is a scam, where resources are stacked up to ensure the poor get last dibs on quality education and support. Then we may begin to find ways to take the whole thing apart and rebuild it, with the recognition that being human, and fostering individuality, are crucial to creating a functional curriculum and productive future.