Kids, school is not real life…

Middle School and High School – just the mention of either institution is enough to bring on post-traumatic feelings for so many people.  The inescapable nature of the building itself, the fear of choosing the wrong outfit/hair/music or even the wrong lunch table is overwhelming and omnipresent.  Of course there are pressures and problems for students that make school stress even worse.

Now that I teach Middle School students, I see the pain, frustration, and confusion in their lives first hand.  Many of the students I have taught also bring enormous pain and damage from lives of poverty, abuse, and loneliness.  Since I teach remedial reading, these same teens are also facing years of failing scores on their SOL tests (Yes that’s the actual acronym for Virginia’s end of year high stakes tests).  When they reach my classroom, they bring that whole history of personal frustration and school failure that has grown in them to a full blooming sense of inevitable failure. Every time they’ve tried, they’ve failed, according to the state – for years. How can a teacher convince them otherwise? I struggle with it every day.

When these Middle School students run into mean girls, bullies, or teachers who are cruel and controlling it adds to their feeling that they can’t control their lives and they lose hope that they’ll ever be able to make their own decisions. They are convinced by the lessons of their own history that they’ll always be at the mercy of someone else, unable to escape, succeed or get what they want.

This is what I tell them when they feel that life will always be like it is at school: School is an artificial world and is different than what their “real lives” outside of school will be like. At school, they have very little choice. They can’t choose to avoid people who are in their classes or the teachers who make them feel inferior. I tell them that in my life, “You know what I do when I meet someone I don’t like? I do my best to NEVER see them. I stop going to that store, change jobs, or I could even move to a new city if it got bad enough.”  I can choose whom I sit next to, whom I work with on many projects and whom I spend my free time with on the weekends.  Some of them get quite literally wide eyed at this declaration. They don’t really think about the choices they’ll have and are usually stunned that an adult, a teacher even, would tell them that school isn’t fair and it’s not the same as real life.

I wish someone had told me these things when I was in eighth grade.  I attended Middle School a few miles from the Middle School where I teach now. I was miserable. I played french horn in the band and had some friends, but I was depressed. I hadn’t experienced any of the traumatic events that some of my students have, but I was frustrated and sad every day. The advice I received at home was to tough it out and make the best of it, as my mom was in the midst of a major depression herself and my dad worked twelve hour days and traveled frequently.

It was lonely. I had moved to the area in third grade and never felt like I found my place. I always felt that everyone else knew what they were doing – not me.

Would I have believed it if someone had told me that what I was going through was not “real life?”  I’ll never know. I do know that it has helped my students to know that they are stuck in an artificial world where they have little control, that it won’t last forever, and that it simply must be endured. All adults have lived through it and for nearly all of us – it sucked. They are not alone. I understand and I remember.

Of course, books help. For me, it was Agatha Christie books.  The order, predictability and the sure success of figuring out the murder in mystery books was always satisfying and gave me a feeling of some control. I read them all. I read them through the horrible home perms, the braces, the friends who didn’t invite me, my mom not getting out of bed for days with a headache, through everything. They reassured me that problems could be solved.

Books help my students, too. Any encounter with a character who struggles with school and it’s artificial world and then endures – helps. It gives them hope and it also gives them the gift of another human in the world who says what no other adult has said to them, “I have been there and I understand.” That gift of understanding and recognition is precious and soul saving.  Reading saves. Young adult fiction saves.

I would love to hear you thoughts. Please leave a comment.


10 thoughts on “Kids, school is not real life…

  1. I wish one of my teachers in Middle School had cared enough to say that to me, but like you I am not sure I would have believed them! I bet you made a difference today!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Kate. It’s amazing how starved my students are for conversation and for honesty. It’s what they deserve. They always know when they’re being told the ‘company line.’ I really do believe that honest writing about what teenagers struggle with can save their sanity and honestly maybe their lives.


  3. I barely even remember middle school and high school, but I remember the stupidest, most traumatic moments clearest of all. And the traumas I remember were when I got made fun of for nothing worth even mentioning. I bought a tuna sandwich from the cafeteria and added salt to it—got laughed at. At the time, it seemed like sure, I was doing something weird. Now? Feels like a real “screw you” kind of moment. The damn tuna didn’t have enough salt in it. An acquaintance of mine put a bandana on her backpack handle. I liked the way it looked, so I put a bandana on mine—got laughed at for “copying.” At the time, I was like, “sure, I see your point, I copied her.” Now? It was cute! It was a good idea and made the handle more comfortable! It kills me that no one ever pointed out to me that in the real world, adults don’t treat each other that way. No one goes so far out of their way to make you feel bad, because no one has time to worry about such inconsequential shit. If I could go back to my high school self I’d tell her to stop being so scared of embarrassment all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love it! And from someone who knew you in 3rd grade and played in the band although you were much better, you hid your sadness well. And maybe all that humor and sarcasm was how you did it. In fact maybe that’s how most of us get through. Can’t wait to share this blog with my teen clients. You are making a difference and that is something to be proud of.

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  5. Elaine, I completely understand and I hope that some teenagers who read this blog will find some solace in knowing that it does get better. Judy Blume certainly helped me know that there were other teenagers out there who didn’t know what they’re doing. What I never knew was that NOBODY knows what they’re doing. The only answer is to go forth with confidence and make yourself happy. What else can you do? Help people and learn some thing new every day.


  6. Dawn, what an enormous compliment. You were always such a great friend. Every time I drive my son to Hunt Valley Elementary School for soccer practice on Friday nights, I look at the pool and remember all the Memorial Day weekends that we sunburned ourselves to a crisp.

    I would love more teenage feedback. I am also brainstorming putting together a list of books that are medicinal and therapeutic for teenagers. I have found some particularly healing for the teenager in me. I want to find a way for teens who need them to request them and then send them out . I know that there are gay teens struggling with their identities and depressed teens who could read something, connect with a character and find enough hope to get through another day. It may be the only therapy they ever get.

    Maybe therapists would be a place to start? Suggesting titles to therapists/counselors to give to their clients? Let’s talk about this.


    • I have been thinking along these lines too, and in fact have been categorizing all the YA I read by themes, so I can zero in on topics when making recommendations. I’ll show you sometime.

      I know the counseling team at my son’s school would be thrilled to get specific suggestions of topical books, but his school is K-4 so that’s a little out of scope here. I do know an LCSW working at the HS level in the Fairfax system though…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I would love to hear about the way you organize books by themes. I know that there are so many teenagers who need to hear that there are other people feeling the way they feel. I also know that many will read these books and find that they are the only therapy they will get.

    I would love to hear what therapists think of the idea, too.


  8. This is all so true. When I moved hear from Ghana I had basically, no clothes. At the school I had gone too we always had to wear a uniform, and of course, being as young and dumb as I was, I allowed my mother too shop for me. On my first day of sixth grade, my mother sent me to school in dress shoes, khakis and the brightest, striped, green turtle neck on the face of the earth. In the sea off jocks wearing strange multi colored nike socks, Jordan’s and shorts, I looked extremely out of place. The looks and remarks were almost unbearable. When I came home, I sat on the couch glumly and did nothing. My mom, who yanked the truth about my sadness out of my, dropped my at the mall and gave me a fistful of cash saying “buy want you want. ” The next day I’m came too school in vans, cargo shorts and a graphic t’shirt. It might not have been what the “popular” people would have been wearing but I didn’t care. I went and I found my own group of weirdos who really didn’t care what I wore.


    • Drew, that is a great story! I am sure that you were shocked and that your mom had no idea what to do either. It must have been a shock. I know that nearly everyone has had a moment like this and a lot of us weren’t coming from another country! I showed up at a dress rehearsal for Area Band in 6th grade in full floor length navy skirt and lace blouse when everyone else was in shorts and tshirts. Thank God that a friend who rode with me wore the same so we could be embarrassed together. Figuring out any school is so tough and it’s never as easy as “Just don’t worry about what other people think.”


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