Reliving my schooling. Rebooting my life.
I’ve never been much for taking on physical challenges, especially when there was risk involved. Skydiving, mountain climbing, and other extreme sports have zero appeal to me.
That’s why it was such a big deal for me to challenge myself in high school to participate in the annual ropes course experience with my Peer Counseling group. The after-school club (which centered more on counseling each other than peers outside the group) was based on mutual sharing and trust, so each spring all members spent a day doing team-building exercises at a local ropes course.
The on-the-ground exercises — like the classic “Human Knot,” where a tangled mess of people has to unwind itself without letting go of each other’s hands — were sometimes frustrating, but not a big deal. It was the high elements, which involved climbing high into the California Redwoods attached to harnesses and cables, that sent my blood pressure soaring.
There was one particular exercise that my best friend, Katie, and I dreaded every year: The Xylophone. We completed the exercise in partners. One partner began climbing the steel pegs on a 50-foot tree, while the other watched from the ground, coaching and encouraging her. The first partner climbed onto a high wooden platform and waited as the second partner ascended and joined her on the platform. That was the “easy” part. The hard part was walking together across a rope ladder suspended horizontally and attached to a tree another 50 feet away. The rest of the Peer Counseling members spotted us from the ground and cheered us on.
Katie and I, each wearing brightly colored helmets and harnesses, would stand together on the platform, staring out at the daunting task before us. I had a mild fear of heights, and Katie was always more ready to take that first step than I was. Standing shoulder to shoulder, we’d grab each other’s hands, look each other in the eye, and say, “Ready?”
Then we counted out loud together: “One, two, three, STEP.” Simultaneously, we each stepped forward and placed a foot onto the rope “rung” in front of us. Then we used each other’s support to find our balance again. The rungs got farther apart as we advanced, until we had to all but leap together to reach the last one. With each step, my breath and heartbeat quickened, and my muscles tensed.
When we finally reached the last rung of the suspended rope ladder, Katie and I stood together, still holding hands, surveying the tops of the Redwoods and breathing in our victory. “I love you,” we’d say to each other, side-hugging as best we could without falling. Then we’d drop hands and leap into the air, waiting for the yank of our harnesses as they caught us. Our teammates lowered us to the ground and rained hugs and high fives upon us.
Braving The Xylophone was a transformative experience for me, a high-achieving student used to working by herself and avoiding mistakes at all costs. Repeating the exercise every year for four years, I learned persistence, trust, and interdependence. I learned that even when I was terrified to act, I could do it if I wanted to achieve the goal badly enough. I learned that when I fell, I could pull myself up again with the help of someone I trusted, even if it seemed impossible at first.
Each time I conquered The Xylophone, I surprised myself by mustering courage in the face of an obstacle. I practiced relying on someone for my own success, and letting her rely on me. Up high in those California Redwoods, I learned more than I did in any classroom.
“Human education” brings to mind something I witnessed in the third grade classroom at El Verano Elementary. When I was a student at El Verano (the first time around), the school was predominantly white, with a few Mexican children in each class. Now the demographics have flipped, and there are a handful of white kids in classrooms that are mostly Latino. The majority of students were born in the states and speak English as well as they speak Spanish, but there are a few English Language Learners as well. When teachers who don’t speak Spanish are charged with teaching children who don’t speak English, it presents a big communication challenge.
Ms. Alessio was teaching third grade back when I was a kid, and she’s still going strong today. When I sat in on her class for Reschool Yourself, a boy named Juan had recently enrolled, having just moved from Mexico. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he and Ms. Alessio relied heavily on the bilingual students to translate for him. While he did math like a whiz, every other subject was all but impossible given the language barrier. Juan stared into space a lot, because so much of the class activity was happening in English.
One fall morning started out like any other, with announcements over the PA system. It was an early dismissal day, and Juan’s classmates translated this for him. A few minutes after announcements had ended, Juan suddenly burst into tears and sat at his desk crying quietly. Ms. Alessio looked startled. Before she could say anything, the students seated near Juan were out of their desks and clustering around him, speaking in soothing voices. “Qué pasa?” they asked him. “What’s wrong?”
It took the third graders a little while to find out that Juan didn’t know how the bus schedule worked during early dismissal days, and he was worried about getting home. “It’s OK,” a girl named Tere told him in Spanish, stroking his hair. “I’m on your bus, and I’ll help you.” Juan nodded and wiped away his tears.
I was stunned as I watched this scene unfold. I couldn’t imagine it happening when I was a kid. A boy who suddenly started crying in class would have been met with quizzical sidelong looks, and maybe even uncomfortable giggles. But Ms. Alessio’s third graders acted on the spot with compassion. They saw their classmate having a hard time and did what they could to help him. It seemed like second nature to them: Several had younger siblings whom they helped care for, and some may have had parents for whom they had to translate.
Human education is about putting compassion first. It’s about noticing the people around you and putting aside your own agenda so you can meet them where they are. That morning in class, everything stopped for one student who was struggling. Ms. Alessio could have plowed ahead with the lessons for the day, and the other students could have ignored Juan, but they chose to put their humanity first. I didn’t retain anthying we did in class later that day, but I won’t ever forget the lesson in human education.
This week I’m organizing and participating in “Blog for IDEC 2012 Week,” which highlights the four defining values of the upcoming International Democratic Education Conference in Puerto Rico next March. Today’s theme is “Real education is relevant.”
I know a teacher who has believed in relevant education since the beginning of his career 37 years ago. His name is Dave Neubacher, and he teaches at El Verano Elementary School in Sonoma, where I spent kindergarten through fifth grade (the first and second time around). While I didn’t have the privilege of being Mr. Neubacher’s student as a child, I participated in his class for Reschool Yourself and loved seeing him in action. Here’s what I wrote about him on the blog:
First thing every morning, he sits in front of the class in his casual jeans shorts and tennis shoes and asks the kids what current events they’ve heard about. Some are local, like a skateboarder arrested for interfering with the Vintage Festival parade, and others are global. Every year, Mr. Neubacher shares his love of environmentalism with his class, doing the recycling for the school and writing letters to government officials about global warming. In 2005, the class won an all-expenses paid trip to the Disney Resort for their advocacy, community cleanup, and relief efforts. It’s amazing to hear the kids talk about the polar ice caps melting and the oceans rising; they’re much more aware of world issues than I was at that age.
The class has also done projects like adopting a polar bear and releasing butterflies in the school garden. The students develop a deep understanding of environmental stewardship and personal responsibility. They also learn to take care of their own classroom, taking turns with tasks that keep it clean.
For Mr. Neubacher and teachers like him, there’s no false division between the worlds inside and outside of the classroom. They know that kids (and adults alike) are learning all the time, not just when they’re seated in desks within those four classroom walls. Mr. Neubacher instills values and skills in his students that they can apply well beyond their fifth-grade year; they will carry them for the rest of their lives. That is relevant education.
This is the final chapter of a story about Reschool Yourself that I submitted to a GoodReads.com status update narrative contest. Chapter 6 described what it was like to live in the college dorms again and attend classes taught by my former professors.
The holidays came and went, a break in between the fall and spring phases. January came, and with it, a cross-country move. People say, “Why would a San Francisco girl move to Jackson, Mississippi?” I wondered the same thing at first.
Although I’d had long hair for five years, one morning last week I looked in the mirror and decided that it really had to go. That’s the way it is with me and my hair. It kind of sits there for months and years at a time, and then suddenly, just like that, I can’t stand it anymore.
This time I was fed up with having long hair in the hot and humid Mississippi summer. I loved the way my hair looked when someone else styled it, but that someone was rarely me. I simply don’t have the patience to blow dry my thick hair for 20 minutes and then curl it. Instead, I pulled it into a loose ponytail and called it a day. Every day.
I was just as unadventurous when getting my hair cut every six months or so, only when it became absolutely necessary. I’d ask my stylist for the same long layers as usual and would think, “When I’m old and gray, I’ll regret not doing much with my hair when I was young.”
Given that I wasn’t doing anything useful with my hair, I had moments where I considered cutting it and donating it to Locks of Love, a nonprofit that makes hairpieces for low-income young people suffering from hair loss. Several of my friends had donated over the past couple of years, which I thought was awesome.
During the Reschool Yourself elementary school phase, I watched two kids get their hair cut for Locks of Love during an assembly, which brought tears to my eyes. One of the kids, Alex, was a 10-year-old boy who had been growing his hair long, at the risk of getting teased, so he could donate. The other donor was a younger girl, no more than seven years old, who was inspired by Alex and volunteered on the spot to cut her hair, too. The Locks of Love website says that more than 80 percent of donors are children. That blows me away.
So when I decided that my hair needed to go, it was a no-brainer for me to donate it. Here I was, cursing my hair daily for being tough to manage, and a kid with alopecia (an auto-immune disorder that shuts down hair follicles) or cancer could be making much better use of it.
I let my decision sit for a few days to make sure I meant it, and then I scheduled an appointment with my stylist, Ashley, at Smoak Salon. I arrived with a Ziploc bag for my hair and printed instructions to cut rubber-banded ponytails at least 10 inches long. The receptionist said, “You’re the one who’s cutting your hair off today! Are you nervous?” I said no, not at all; I was just excited. Ashley and her sister Suzanne, who owns the salon, were excited, too. I showed Ashley three pictures I’d printed of textured bob haircuts, and she said, “Oh, that’ll look great on you!”
On went the smock. Ashley measured my hair with a comb that doubled as a ruler and tied off seven ponytails around my head with rubber bands. “You ready?” she asked. “Yep,” I said. Snip. Ashley smiled and held up the first ponytail. I grinned back at her.
This year marked a major new chapter in my life: I got married and will soon be buying a house. I’m an official grown-up now. There’s nothing like a new haircut to commemorate this kind of change.
Ashley carefully evened out and layered the cut. “What do you think?” she asked, handing me a mirror so I could see the back of my head. “I love it,” I said. It was chin-length, shorter than I’d expected, but it was bouncy and summery and light.
Now, by running my fingers through my short hair or pulling it into a palm-tree half ponytail for exercising, I remind myself every day not to do the same old things I used to do. Just because I acted a certain way last week doesn’t mean that I can’t change this week — or at least try. I just have to look in the mirror to see evidence that I’m different already, new and improved.
I hoped to repeat the process of letting go of the past when I went back to college. I had loved my college, a Jesuit liberal arts school called Santa Clara University, but there were elements that had tainted my experience. I had felt uneasy with the culture of achievement and awards, and the expense of tuition that left me with some significant debt. If I’d known what I know now, I might have opted out of college to work abroad, or start a business right away. But I was expected to go.
Thanks to one of my old professors, I got permission to stay in my sophomore dorm for three nights in December. I hadn’t been back since graduation. I didn’t have to stay with a student, sleeping on the floor, like I’d expected. Instead, I got a one-bedroom “scholar-in-residence” apartment that made me feel very important.
Going up the stairs of the dorm, I ran into a student named Mimi. She helped me climb two flights with my heavy suitcase and introduced me to her friends. The students thought my project, and the fact that I had a suite, was cool. We stood out in the hall talking for an hour. Around 11 pm, I joined Mimi and another girl at The Bronco, the campus pub. We ate late-night quesadillas and fries. I could feel the freshman 15 collecting on my body.
I spent the next couple of days in the classes of my old professors. Dr. Plante, who was as short and smiley as I remembered him, introduced me and the project. Others let me be a regular student. In class, I immediately felt at home in a way that I hadn’t in elementary or middle school. What was the difference?
The difference was the culture. The professors, who loved their material, expected that we would love it, too, because we had chosen to be there. They talked to students as colleagues, and the best ones assumed that they had as much to learn from the students as they did to teach. There was no restrictive lesson plan, so professors could encourage questions and see where the discussion led. Most of the students were engaged.
I loved it. I raised my hand and made comments along with the other students; I took notes. I wished that I could have stayed longer. After a long discussion with my old Psychology advisor, Dr. Burger, I seriously began to consider grad school. I never, ever had before. I had so many questions that research might not have answered yet. How does school affect people’s identity development? What experiences happened on the schoolyard or in the classroom that still affect people today? The questions kept on coming.
By this time, toward the end of my fall reschooling, my brain was nearly at capacity and buzzing with ideas. To complete my experience, I felt compelled to do what I called a “memory walk.” For 5 hours on a Saturday, I walked to all the places that held meaning for me around campus. Somehow, it was important to me to visit the space, to remember events that had happened there, observe my emotions, and let them go. I visited my freshman dorm, the music building where I’d had lessons, the student lounges, and the library where I’d studied for many hours. When I was done releasing a flood of memories, I felt at peace with the spaces at my college. I also felt physically and emotionally weary.
As I had in elementary, middle, and high school, I felt grateful to have attended my college as I wrapped up my experience there.
After college graduation, school had left me with a bad taste in my mouth and the disappointed feeling of, “That’s IT?” The bad parts had stood out in my memory. But combing through my old experiences in their original settings reminded me of the good parts, too. I realized that even if my struggles in school had limited me, the opportunities and close relationships had helped me evolve.
In making peace with school, I thought about the expression “A weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” and I finally knew how that felt. Now that I had cleared out the clutter of my educational past, as I’d hoped to do, I felt ready to move forward and design my own future.
My wonderful friend Heather Shellen invited me to guest post for her food blog, I Love Tongs, about the school lunches that I ate while reschooling on each campus. Here’s Heather’s very kind introduction, and an excerpt of the post. Read the complete post here.
A couple of years ago, my dear friend Melia made the amazing and brave decision to go back to school. As in start over from kindergarten. I’m sure your initial reaction is “Well that sounds easy!” but you and I both know that you would be out of the game at 3rd-grade Geometry and you are absolutely not smarter than a 5th grader. But her ambition and dedication to this project are not the only reasons I love Melia. This is a woman who never turns down a costume party or an SF Mission taco crawl. She can also school anyone in a game of early 90s trivia. I asked her to share some of her experiences with school lunch here, and she graciously obliged.
With all the national attention that healthy school lunches are getting these days, you might wonder how the lunches at your own schools have changed since you were a student. I wondered the same thing, and a couple of years ago I happened to have a chance to find out.
I committed the fall of 2008 to a “do-over” of my schooling, like Billy Madison but for real. I got permission to spend a week in each of my old school classrooms in the San Francisco Bay Area: kindergarten, first grade, and so on, all the way through college. The project was called Reschool Yourself, and its goal was for me to make peace with 17 years of school that I had found did not prepare me for life. (You can read more about the project here.)
Along the way, I dedicated myself to “method lunching,” eating cafeteria food with my fellow students. If there were options that had been on the menu when I was enrolled the first time around, I ordered those and assessed how they stacked up. Here are some highlights from my school lunch adventures.
When I was a kid, the only day that I’d buy lunch instead of brown bagging it was Friday, because it was Pizza Day. Miraculously, 23 years later, Friday was still Pizza Day, so I planned to buy “hot lunch” from the school cafeteria on that day of the week.
Imagine my disappointment when I saw hot dogs instead. “We barbecue the first and last weeks of school,” said the lunch lady. “It’s a special occasion.”
At least they were chicken dogs. Here’s what I wrote about my lunch that day (read the full post):
The principal, who was graciously helping serve lunch that day, gave me an extra helping of peppered macaroni salad, a slice of watermelon, and a chocolate chip cookie. At the end of the counter there were bowls of fresh fruit, mini bags of carrots, and boxes of raisins, all for the taking; I was happy to see a broader, healthier selection than we’d had in the 80s…
I (was) surprised that the food tasted so good, the buttery cookie in particular. The hot dog wasn’t half bad, especially with relish and ketchup, and the pepper in the macaroni salad gave it an original flavor. The flailing arms of the (kindergarteners) had slid my watermelon wedge onto the table, and I left it untouched, following one of the cardinal rules in education: No matter how hungry you are, never eat anything that has touched kids’ fingers or their tabletops.
The best part of the meal was the chocolate milk, that thick, rich chocolatey goodness packed into a tiny carton. Turns out that the secret to the thickness is….corn starch. Yum. I drank half, enjoying it thoroughly, and pitched the rest.
I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, and in Rubin I have found a kindred spirit. I resonated with her writing from the very opening of her book:
I’d always vaguely expected to outgrow my limitations.
One day I’d stop twisting my hair, and wearing running shoes all the time, and eating exactly the same food every day. I’d remember my friends’ birthdays, I’d learn Photoshop, I wouldn’t let my daughter watch TV during breakfast. I’d read Shakespeare. I’d spend more time laughing and having fun, I’d be more polite, I’d visit museums more often, I wouldn’t be scared to drive.
Doesn’t that grab you immediately and make you say, “Yes, me too!”, substituting your own particulars for “twisting my hair” and “Shakespeare”?
Over a period of twelve months, Rubin set out to become happier in the key areas of her life, including marriage, work, money, and friendship. She sought out the wisdom of ancient philosophers, the latest scientific research, and the sound advice of her friends. In The Happiness Project, she recounts her experiences, the successes and failures and ways that she changed.
As I’ve exclaimed to Darren more than once, “She is me!” (OK, I know that “She is I” is grammatically correct, but come on.) I read him excerpts like this one, in which she takes the words right out of my mouth:
Why does it often seem more tiring to go to bed than to stay up? Inertia, I suppose. Plus there’s the prebed work of taking out my contact lenses, brushing my teeth, and washing my face.
She says it more eloquently than I do. I usually wail from the couch, “I hate getting ready for bed!”
Rubin has provided the most motivation yet for me to write the Reschool Yourself memoir. Reading something that I could have written, if only I’d had the right words, makes me feel deeply understood and relieved that I’m not alone. It gives me hope that I can change in the ways I want to, just like she did, equipped with the tools to make that happen. I want to give my own readers the same gift.
Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!
What have you read that makes you feel deeply understood?
If you do, leave a comment!
At some point, I will be writing a post called “Finish What You Start.” Long ago, I began posting chapters of the Reschool Yourself story, which I’d written for a GoodReads.com Twitter contest. I posted Chapters 1 through 4 but dropped the ball on posting 5 through 7. I’ll do that within the next couple of weeks. Better late than never!
While I’d loved the community of my high school, I couldn’t stand the culture of fear. Fear of the future, and of failure. Learning had become a chore by this time, a hoop to jump through to get to college. I’d felt stressed out, anxious, and even depressed.
Observing the same thing happening to current students, but even worse, made me cringe. It made me want to save them. In class, a teacher asked me to speak to the students about what I’d learned from Reschool Yourself.
I told them, “The biggest lesson has been that achievement has not made me happy.” One student said, “Could you talk to my mom?”
In spite of the pressure to achieve, my school has a close community that I began to appreciate even more when I came back as an adult. I saw that the teachers honestly care about their students, and about their subject areas. They teach at a college level, though I had no way of knowing that the first time around. Each student has a niche, whether it’s in drama, journalism, sports, or art. There aren’t really cliques; the friend groups overlap.
Probably my favorite part about going back to high school was having long talks with my old teachers, who were fascinated by the project. They told me about their own school days and talked about why they teach the way they do today. They said it was brave of me to examine my education critically.
Just like when I was a student, I loved some classes and couldn’t stand others. I loved Literature and Spanish but barely made it through the Chemistry lecture without falling asleep. The material was way beyond me now, and I knew that these students would forget most of it. If only they could devote that time to a passion.
On my last day of high school, I wrote a post called “Gratitude Upon Graduation” that expressed the appreciation I’d developed for my high school. Even though it was part of an imperfect education system, the school had something very right with it, and that was the people. I realized that I’d been blessed with creative teachers and inspirational classmates throughout my schooling, and I was grateful for that.
I knew I still wanted to change the system that set up achievement, not personal development, as the goal of school. But I had “neutralized the emotional charge” of high school. I didn’t feel regret anymore when I thought about it. Instead, I felt a deep appreciation for the good things about it, and an understanding that it brought me to where I am today.
At the age of 28, I went back to kindergarten. I needed to get my life back on track, and I wanted to start over from the very beginning.
Over several months, I repeated my education, from kindergarten to college. I spent the months that followed learning how to grow up. I'm still learning.
This site is a place for me to tell my story of education, and for you to tell yours: our experiences past and present, and our vision for how it could look in the future.
— Melia Dicker