Sunday, May 31, 2009
A Bit of a Re-Evaluation
Today during meeting we were fortunate to have the company of five students from a Quaker school in North Carolina. Three weeks ago we received a similar visit from a different Quaker school in the same general area. I wrote then at some length about the feelings of ambivalence I had upon the arrival of the first group of Quaker high schoolers. Now, having spoken with these students at length, I seem to have come to a somewhat different conclusion.
What I noticed about these teenagers, all female, is how well-adjusted they seemed. Each of them were intelligent and mature for their years but they were also comfortable being average adolescent girls, too. They weren't jaded, deliberately apathetic, or maddeningly superficial in the way many their age can be. In the public school where I attended, feelings of self-worth and self-esteem were rarely the case with any student, particularly anyone who dared to be creative, different, or smart. And I began to wonder if this in and of itself was worth the $15,000 per year tuition price tag that their parents dutifully footed for all four years of high school. I began to wonder if emotional, spiritual, and social health could only be accomplished in an alternate setting like this one.
There was a time where I felt like going through the emotional wringer like I had gone through in my awful adolescent years was some badge of accomplishment. It was meant to be painful, everyone suffered equally, and once over, one had the satisfaction of having acquired the scars, complexes, and neuroses that all humans held for the rest of their lives. Now, this attitude seems supremely silly. It doesn't just seem silly, it seems wrought of sour grapes and residual bitterness. I really wanted to fit in as to we all, regardless of age. I really wanted to be accepted as I was, without feeling misunderstood and drawing back within myself as a defensive measure.
And though I was too self-absorbed at the time to realize it, I wasn't alone in those same negative feelings.
What troubles me still is that if my logic proves solid, good health can be bought. These kids are remarkably similar in makeup. Almost all of them are white. Almost all of them are children of highly educated parents, many of which are academics. An argument could be made that these kids are not really getting a good idea of what life is like for most people and that they have no clue how the other half lives. But it's not as if they don't know anything else---several talked about negative experiences in public school and how these horror stories had convinced their parents to shell out the cash for Quaker school tuition.
By contrast, my mother was a firm believer in John Dewey and his egalitarian view of public education. As she rose through the ranks towards upper level administration in the public school district where I and my two younger sisters were enrolled, she resolutely kept us there even when we hated it and begged to be sent elsewhere. If it were up to Mom, there would be no private schools whatsoever. In her opinion, private schools were deeply elitist, siphoning off the achievers and leaving behind the at-risk or behavior problems, complicating matters for students, teachers, and administrators alike. Private schools, in her mind, were scarcely worth the prohibitive cost to parents and provided students an unrealistic bubble in which they were never confronted with the concerns of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds or races.
Still, I wonder if the fact that I was around a very diverse group of students did me more harm than good. It's not like we ever blended well or much at all. The black kids sat at the same table at lunch. Geeks like me isolated ourselves from the popular crowd, who wanted no part of serious pursuits and instead were engaged in social games that I always felt were foolish and asinine. An argument could be made that throwing the masses together in one school poisons everyone but hurts most the high achiever, the budding intellectual, the artist, and the precocious. I just don't know anymore. I fight with myself and my own opinions, which sometimes believe that true equality is possible and sometimes believe that true equality is the domain of only those capable of understanding how to create it for themselves.
A few things persist to bother me. I continue to find it perplexing that the faith tradition most represented among the student body of an average Quaker schools is often Judaism. In a student body of roughly 150, I was told today by the young women that perhaps six of their classmates were, in fact, actual Quakers. Yet, each of these young ladies expressed an appreciation for Quaker virtues and though most of them were predominately secular in identification, they did believe that Quakerism had real practical application in their own lives. And if this is the lasting example left on a group of young people who are by in large skeptical of religion, I believe it to be a success.