My son, who is fourteen—a freshman—and previously homeschooled, hates high school.
Specifically he hates the restriction, the rules, the bells, the crowds.
On the flip side, he is fond of his teachers, participates in class, sets goals for himself and meets them.
For months he has been petitioning for his “release.”
Of course withdrawing a high schooler in the middle of the semester is to be regarded as a step backwards. We had discussed that, ad nauseum. His stress and misery persisted. As did his petitioning. So we wrote a homeschooling contract and ordered courses. Yesterday we went to the school to withdraw him.
So there we were, walking the halls. There were no kids, only teachers, because bad weather had led to an early dismissal. We had a little sign-off sheet that each teacher had to sign. And each teacher was so wonderful. You have to do what’s best for you, they all said. We will miss you so much. You are such a valuable part of the class. I can’t tell you how sorry I am to hear that you are leaving.
Maybe I should stay, he said to me as we walked the long hallway to his favorite teacher’s classroom.
We sat down and talked about it with his math teacher, whom he adores. She was wonderful, taking the time to help him weigh the pros and cons. (Of course, I had done this with him already, ad nauseum, but my words carry less weight now. I get that.) He decided to stay.
This morning, as the sun rose and the clock hurried, he was near despair. Oh my god they tricked me! he mumbled, half-asleep, knowing full well that no trickery was involved, but rather that his resolve for freedom had melted under the warm gaze of his teachers.
I’m pretty convinced—by yesterday’s turn of events, and by my own experiences and research—that what high schoolers crave is not so much their tribe of peers, and social acceptance, but the mentoring of adults other than their parents. These relationships are of immense importance. They affirm the strengths, and challenge the weaknesses, of a young adult, while at the same time providing a positive role model. Who cares about Chemistry or American History? I loved both those classes when I was in them, but whatever I’ve learned has long since been lost in the files of my neurons.
What I do remember are the teachers for those classes. How they believed in me, and how they challenged me. And how I wished for more affirmation from them. More challenges. More relationship. And I’m pretty sure that it’s his relationships to his teachers that convinced my son into staying in an otherwise undesirable environment.
Adolescence is tough. But I don’t think it has to be. Adolescents have particular needs—growing independence and responsibility, mentorship, a meaningful place in society—and one of the things that makes it tough is how we fail to meet those needs so thoroughly. We heap teens together, which I think is probably the worst idea of all, and contain them in prison-like buildings, with rules and detentions and suspicion. I’ve often thought that we treat adolescents this way because we want to contain and control their naturally-ocuuring fiery energy, which is, in my mind, delightfully rebellious, challenging to norms and traditions, and determined to express itself in emotionally charged and creative ways. We need their fire, really, but we don’t like it.
It is also the energy within which we first experience ourselves as adults. We begin to own our selves as unique and self-determined beings. What does it mean to first experience yourself as your own self within the context of a society that wants to contain you? That obligates you, even, to be contained? (Unless, that is, your parents are homeschooling renegades.) And what if we could do things differently? What would that look like?
We are fortunate. Within the walls of our high school are amazing teachers who connect with their students, who care deeply for them and challenge them to grow. I am truly grateful that they tricked my son into finishing out his year. But I don’t know what next year will look like, and I wish that my son didn’t have to choose between mentorship and freedom. The teachers at Mountain Heritage High School have got it going on. They are irreplaceable. But autonomy is one of the great thirsts of adolescence. And my son is thirsty.