Last week, I wrote about the process of finding—then becoming disillusioned with and leaving—what I initially considered my dream job, only to find a true dream job shortly thereafter (namely, my Sudbury career). Today I want to explore a key implication of this process, perhaps its dark underbelly: the emotional baggage that persists to this day.
That’s not to say it hasn’t gotten better: about a year ago I wrote about how the missionary zeal that overtook me when I discovered Sudbury schooling has been tempered by time and experience, how I’m considerably more diplomatic, pragmatic, and secure. But this bee in my bonnet is still there, and occasionally overshadows friendships now just as it did when I lost my best work-friend from my first teaching job.
So why is it that, even as a (self-professed) secure pragmatist, this stuff still gets under my skin? Why does my teaching past haunt me so, and why do observations of what happens in conventional schools still tend to drive me into a not-so-calm state of frustration, depression, resentment and/or anger?
The armchair-psychologist answer would probably start with the unresolved pain of the disillusionment that blind-sided me as an idealistic, young teacher. A more melodramatic diagnosis might even go so far as to hint at the possibility of quasi-PTSD symptoms caused by extended exposure to that environment. At the same time, a more reasonable voice would urge me to remember the positive memories and wonderful people from those years. Of course it’s more complicated and nuanced than blog posts permit, and there are good people fighting the good fight on various fronts.
My conventional teaching career transpired in the early to mid-90s, well before the standardized madness induced by No Child Left Behind and the increasing culture of fear surrounding child-raising (well-documented by Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids). The past dozen or so years, things have gotten so bad that I can no longer tell an actual article on schooling from an Onion spoof. Indeed, conventional education has become, more often than not, a parody of itself. And here I stand, yelling about the emperor’s new clothes and feeling like Cassandra, the mythical figure doomed with the twin powers of prophecy and not being believed.
Of course, it’s not simply a professional sense of mission that drives this alternately beaming and glowering passion of mine. Seeing for myself the dire contrast between the culture and the results of conventional and Sudbury schooling, I can’t help but wonder how profoundly different my life might now be if I’d been given the freedom and responsibility to direct my own learning, to have a full, equal voice in running my school. How much earlier might I have discovered my love of writing? How much more fully might I have explored my lifelong passion for music? Would I have resolved various personal issues at a much younger age, and would I have retained the self-confidence and intuition that I’ve been struggling to regain since adolescence?
Lest I give the impression of narcissism, there are scores of young people whose experience continually refuels my drive to promote more human education. In what I think merits the label “miraculous,” I’ve seen so many students come to places like Alpine Valley School and, with considerable time and effort, recover the spark of life that their previous, conventional schools had dampened. Knowing I’ve made such transformations possible for these young people has been an intensely powerful motivator. Meanwhile, closer to home, observing my niece’s and nephews’ experiences in schools like the ones I attended regularly fills me with a despairing frustration that there’s little I can do to give them more options.
As a strongly analytical and deeply feeling person, I guess it’s no surprise that developments in education would seize me so frequently and with such compelling power. As much as I strive to cultivate equanimity, empathy and perspective, I’ve seen and experienced too much to expect that I’ll ever encounter educational issues and debates in a detached, composed manner. I’m not even sure that’s possible for anyone who takes a good look at what’s going on.
On the contrary, I sense there’s a primal drive in all of us that struggles to regard the imposition of limitations and suffering on children (and their families) with anything like calm acceptance. We might resist or deny it, but that won’t make it go away.