I do not have a high school diploma. I did not walk across the stage and shake hands with the principal and various random school board members.
When the rest of my class was participating in commencement ceremonies, I was finishing my third semester of college. Huh? What?! But high school drop outs are dummy losers who have no ambition or motivation to do anything! Right?? To hear it told in the media, yep, pretty much. I was listening to “This American Life” this weekend, where the episode discussed various aspects of education, schooling, and how people learn. One gentleman looked at people who had dropped out of high school and how the majority of them struggle throughout life. I took his statements much more personally than I should have. I realize many people who drop out do so because of situations and circumstances vastly different from my own, where dropping out is the culmination of much bigger issues not only with the educational system, but with society as a whole. Systemic poverty, violence, parents overworked and under-paid, unable to provide the home support neccessary for kids to overcome over-crowded classrooms and underfunded schools. The education system is broken in many parts of this country; that is not up for debate. But this isn’t an education reform article.
This is an article about examining our preconceived ideas surrounding certain things; more specifically, the assumptions surrounding high school drop-outs. I never went back to high school after Christmas break my junior year, and I started junior college in January. I was not 18 nor did I have my GED, and yet they allowed me to go to college. I was required to get my GED within a year of enrolling, if I remember correctly, but it wasn’t a prerequisite to sign up for classes. I had been begging my parents to let me leave high school for months, pleading with guidance counselors and the principal to no avail. I didn’t fit the mold they needed me to; I wasn’t failing any classes, I wasn’t a habitual truant (though I cut class A LOT; I still don’t know what it would have taken to be labeled “habitual”), and I wasn’t pregnant. Had I been any of those things, I would have had options. I would have been eligible for independent study programs that would have let me finish high school without actually having to go. Since I was a good student with no chronic discipline problems or a fetus feeding on my nutrients, my only option, should I want out, was to drop out.
Why was I so unhappy at school? Who knows, honestly. I had plenty of friends, I was well liked by my teachers and staff (my mom would joke that the school nurse would end up being a bridesmaid at my wedding I spent so much time with her. Hey, it was the easiest way to get out of class without it being actual “cutting”. It became even easier once my boyfriend was out of school and I could have the nurse call my “dad” to give me permission to go home sick. Shady. And awesome), but I was bored out of my mind. My mom says every time she went to Back to School night, she heard the exact same story from all of my teachers – “we love Kym, she is a delight to have in class, she participates and does well on tests, but she’s not getting better grades because she never does her homework.” I was kind of an asshole about homework. I would point out to my teachers that if I was getting As on the tests, I was clearly learning the material, so what was homework other than nonsense busywork for both me and them? If I was learning the material, I didn’t see what the problem was. It’s a good thing I am charming (and modest, natch), because even with all my bullshit, my teachers really did like me. I am an unabashed suck-up; a shameless ass kisser that refused to do assignments.
I wasn’t always a lazy student. In second grade they moved me to a school for “gifted” kids. The gifted program included three classrooms, one for second and third graders, one for fourth and fifth, and one for fifth and sixth grades. The rest of the school was on regular curriculum. We got computer lab, drama class, foreign languages, and other extras that the rest of the school did not. Please imagine the animosity that created on the shared playground for a moment. It was, in a nod to my Northern California upbringing, hella lame. HELLA lame. They hated us. Aside from that, though, I was making myself sick trying to be the best little student I could be. I ended up with juvenile ulcers from the stress I inflicted on myself. Somewhere along the line I realized that I could get good grades without putting in nearly as much effort. Once I was in middle school, I took advantage of overburdened teachers and got away with doing less and less. I am the type of person that tests very well, thankfully, which allowed me to get away with the “not doing my homework” schtick all the way through college.
While I am lacking a high school diploma, I am a college graduate. I have a good job that pays me above the median household income for my area. I feel moderately accomplished for my age. Have I done everything I had ever hoped and dreamed? Of course not. But I have traveled the world, from China to Antarctica; I have spent time touring the country with a band; I bought a house on my own, before I got married (which, yes, has gone to shit, but still). I bristle every single time drop outs come up in discussion because I know what stereotypes I am in for. I know that I am lucky to have dropped out because I chose to, not because I had to. But I want to attempt to change the attitude surrounding that slip of paper. I think that when drop outs are perceived to be and treated as “losers” or “less than,” they internalize that and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have an overwhelming amount of self-esteem, and even I have let the naysayers get me down on occasion. Instead of looking at drop outs as finished, we should show them examples of people who haven’t finished high school and gone on to make an awesome life for themselves. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of education; I mean to do exactly the opposite. Instead of dropping out of high school being the end, people need to know that it is most definitely not. That just because circumstances didn’t allow them to finish, that doesn’t mean higher education is closed to them.
I have spoken with a few young people recently that didn’t realize college was an option for them because they hadn’t finished high school. I can only imagine how many there are out there who feel hopeless because of that status. It is my hope that I can help people navigate that shitty road society has decided they are on and get them headed down one of their own design.