Easy Chair — From the April 2015 issue

Abolish High School

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I didn’t go to high school. This I think of as one of my proudest accomplishments and one of my greatest escapes, because everyone who grows up in the United States goes to high school. It’s such an inevitable experience that people often mishear me and think I dropped out.

I was a withdrawn, bookish kid all through elementary school, but the difficulty of being a misfit intensified when I started seventh grade. As I left campus at the end of my first day, people shouted insults that ensured I knew my clothes didn’t cut it. Then there was P.E., where I had to don a horrendous turquoise-striped polyester garment that looked like a baby’s onesie and follow orders to run or jump or play ball — which is hard to do when you’re deeply withdrawn — after which I had to get naked, in all my late-bloomer puniness, and take showers in front of strangers. In science class we were graded on crafting notebooks with many colors of pen; in home economics, which was only for girls — boys had shop — we learned to make a new kind of cake by combining pudding mix with cake mix; even in English class I can remember reading only one book: Dickens’s flattest novel, Hard Times. At least the old history teacher in the plaid mohair sweaters let me doze in the front row, so long as I knew the answers when asked.

In junior high, everything became a little more dangerous. Most of my peers seemed to be learning the elaborate dance between the sexes, sometimes literally, at school dances I never dreamed of attending, or in the form of the routines through which girls with pompoms ritually celebrated boys whose own role in that rite consisted of slamming into one another on the field.

I skipped my last year of traditional junior high school, detouring for ninth and tenth grade into a newly created alternative junior high. (The existing alternative high school only took eleventh and twelfth graders.) The district used this new school as a dumping ground for its most insubordinate kids, so I shared two adjoining classrooms with hard-partying teenage girls who dated adult drug dealers, boys who reeked of pot smoke, and other misfits like me. The wild kids impressed me because, unlike the timorous high achievers I’d often been grouped with at the mainstream school, they seemed fearless and free, skeptical about the systems around them.

There were only a few dozen students, and the adults treated us like colleagues. There was friendship and mild scorn but little cruelty, nothing that pitted us against one another or humiliated us, no violence, no clearly inculcated hierarchy. I didn’t gain much conventional knowledge, but I read voraciously and had good conversations. You can learn a lot that way. Besides, I hadn’t been gaining much in regular school either.

I was ravenous to learn. I’d waited for years for a proper chance at it, and the high school in my town didn’t seem like a place where I was going to get it. I passed the G.E.D. test at fifteen, started community college the following fall, and transferred after two semesters to a four-year college, where I began, at last, to get an education commensurate with my appetite.

What was it, I sometimes wonder, that I was supposed to have learned in the years of high school that I avoided? High school is often considered a definitive American experience, in two senses: an experience that nearly everyone shares, and one that can define who you are, for better or worse, for the rest of your life. I’m grateful I escaped the particular definition that high school would have imposed on me, and I wish everyone else who suffered could have escaped it, too.

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