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Freedom of Expression – Just Not at School

One of the problems with being a teen and a student is that your freedom is so limited, if you have any at all.  So many writers, musicians and filmmakers talk about the journals they kept as teens and how they kept them for ages before sharing them with the world.  Traditional publishing was inaccessible to teenagers and few had a way to find an audience for their message or their art outside of the restrictive world of their school.

I remember distinctly the Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al. Supreme Court case in 1988.  The basics of the decision were that school newspapers were not forums for student expression and therefore, students did not have the right to free speech.  Their “speech” could be censored legally by school officials. I was on my high school newspaper staff in 1988 and I was outraged. Like most 17 year olds, moral outrage was one of my best skills.  I attended a student journalist conference in Washington DC that summer and got together with students from many different states and we all wallowed in our collective outrage. Seventeen is the precipice of freedom. I was headed to college the next fall and I was ready to make my own decisions. Saying what you think and exposing injustices was exactly what a student run school newspaper was for and now the nine old people in the Supreme Court had told us officially that we had no right to say what we thought.  Outrage on top of outrage was the result.  Outrage and gnashing of teeth, but no action. It was frustrating and left us all feeling helpless and impotent.  We just had to wait a year or two until we magically became adults and could say what we wanted.

As a teacher, I see all the restrictions that are placed on schools in attempting to “guide” students. Another list of “don’ts” for the young people!  The message is, “We want you to become productive citizens who are able to think critically, as long as you do it through an approved format within these restrictive formats on only these topics. Oh, and if you could do it in a horrifyingly boring five paragraph essay, that would be great.” I don’t know where these rules originate.  How is it we’re surprised that teens don’t feel confident enough to express themselves creatively, forcefully or thoughtfully?

All this is thankfully counterbalanced by brilliant, thoughtful and daring teens who are expressing themselves through the freedom that exists outside of school through the magic of the internet.  Their ability to craft a message to their peers and the world is noteworthy because it reaches a broad audience outside of school.  My favorite example of such a person is Nathan Zelalem.  I’ve followed Nathan for almost four years now through his youtube channel ‘The Third Pew.’  He’s my second favorite member of the Zelalem family. His sister Salem is my Young Adult reading guide and great friend. She is the greatest.  Nathan’s videos are funny, thoughtful and well crafted. They are also messages that would get made within a school.  No teacher, club sponsor or principal that I know of would facilitate or encourage the freedom that Nathan’s parents have given him. While it’s disappointing to think that school is so restrictive, it’s also thrilling to think that there are teens like Nathan out there saying what they want to say the way they want to say without the restrictions of a classroom.

Here’s one of my favorite of Nathan’s videos:

There are teens out there speaking the truth, kicking butt and making the world better.  We need to keep looking for them and encouraging them to speak out. With the standardization of testing and testing and testing permeating all parts of students’ lives, those who have the guts and the work ethic to speak out need our support and encouragement if they’re going to survive and having the courage to say what they think without restrictions from adults. Team truth!

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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.

Christine