I’m taking a child development course here in Denmark, and let me tell ya, I am LOVING it. My instructor is great, the material is interesting, my classmates are nice. It’s rare that I find a classroom so inviting. Over the course of my school career, I’ve had a weird fluctuating relationship with my own education. And something I often find myself explaining is this: I hate school, but I love to learn. Now, both of those statements aren’t necessarily always true. There have been plenty of times when I loved school. And there have been plenty of occasions where I had no interest in learning. (Golf is boring, okay, I don’t understand how it works and I really don’t care).
I loved school when I was a kid. Of course I did, I was smart and I did well and I was a suck up and all the teachers loved me. What wasn’t there to love? I remember feeling weird because my favorite part of the day wasn’t recess or P.E. or art class or music class. It was reading or social studies, and before algebra and chemistry crushed my soul, I even loved math and science. I didn’t mind doing homework; sometimes I even enjoyed it. I loved to learn new things and I loved getting grades back that told me I was smart. My family encouraged this, of course. And up until middle school, I was a happy little nerd.
But then sixth grade punched me in the face, and suddenly school wasn’t as easy anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I still made straight A’s and most of my teachers still loved me, but suddenly I had to try a lot harder, and my sixth grade math/science teacher was a mean old lady who never smiled and always scared the crap out of me. I found myself in a place I hadn’t before: I didn’t love school anymore, not as a whole. I had an amazing language arts teacher who introduced me to poetry and I met my best friend in that class and we spent all of our time writing angsty preteen poems. I loved going to the library, but I hated doing my homework. I read my social studies textbook cover to cover, but I only skimmed through my science textbook to fill in the homework each morning before the bell rang. This pattern continued throughout middle school.
High school brought a whole new set of problems. Honors/AP classes, dance, dance team, a million other clubs, volunteering, part-time jobs, driver’s ed, making friends, sleeping. There wasn’t enough time for everything; but I had to do everything. I had to have a license so I could get from school to dance, to work. I had to have a job to get my license. I had to be in clubs and I had to volunteer for college applications. Good grades weren’t good enough, I had to make the best grades or I wouldn’t get into a good college and I had to go to a good college. I found that high school was a million times harder than middle school and it extended far beyond the classroom.
But I also found some amazing teachers that pushed me and supported me and invested in me. I had dance team coaches who taught me how to lead and how to have fun while doing it, and I had a french teacher who constantly cheered me on, and I had a math teacher who explained things in a way that made sense to me and almost made me stop hating the subject (almost), and I had a theater teacher who treated every single person he encountered with kindness and respect and who told shy, quiet Allison to hit the road, and I had an english teacher that made me laugh but also made me work for my grade, harder than any teacher had before, and I had a librarian who believed in me more than I believed in myself, and I had a creative writing teacher who gave me a space where I could bare my soul and know that it would never come back to bite and that it was okay to not be okay all the time.
Despite this, I still suffered. I did everything, and I suffered for it. My grades did not suffer, my grades could not suffer. I learned to function on very little sleep and a whole lot of stress and anxiety. And I guess you can say that it worked out. I made almost entirely straight As (trust me, I cried when I got that first B) and I had great ACT and SAT scores. I got into a good college. I might even argue and say I exceeded expectations and got into a great college. But I graduated with a very different attitude than I had when I started school: mainly, I hated it. Like, it was a struggle to make myself go to class every day (an endeavor that I actually failed regularly my senior year) hated it. Like, I was not looking forward to four more years of school regardless of where it was hated it. Like, I don’t know how I didn’t have a major mental breakdown in the hallway once a week hated it. Senioritis is one thing, but I was miserable at school and even the classes and teachers I loved didn’t make it any better.
I approached college as a new start. Maybe I was just burnt out and a new environment would help. It turns out a new environment didn’t really help. While I was excited about all the new classes I was taking, I was quickly bogged down with the workload and homesickness and social anxiety. And so the cycle continued. I loved reading literature and learning history, but I hated sitting in philosophy discussing hypothetical situations and I hated butchering french pronunciations in class every day. I loved doing the readings, but I hated taking tests and writing essays.
Which brings me back to this class I’m taking now. We were discussing standardized testing (which I detest) and our teacher told us how Denmark didn’t score as well as they thought they would when compared to other countries. She made the comment that many Danish people were upset about this and in their defense, they said something along the lines of “we might not have the best test scores but our children are happy.” And I was floored. Because I was always taught to put my education first and my happiness second. I followed this philosophy to a fault until very recently, when I discovered that doing so was seriously detrimental to my mental health. But even still, it’s like it’s ingrained in my brain: education first, then happiness. If I do anything that goes against that I feel immensely guilty and lose most of the satisfaction anyway.
I have always suffered in order to excel in an educational setting. I’m sure I’ll keep doing so, to be honest. I am a firm believer that college is not for everyone. Because if I didn’t love to learn, if I wasn’t passionate about studying, if I wasn’t so fiercely dedicated to a future grounded in higher education, it would not be worth it. I would have quit a long time ago. America’s education system is flawed in many ways, and pushing children to choose that broken system over everything else, no matter what, is what I think is one of its biggest flaws.
I was lucky to find beacons of light, people who nurtured my love of learning and who taught me more than what their curriculum told them to teach. But I was unlucky enough to get caught in a system that prizes measured success over personal growth and forces you to chose between things like getting a good grade and getting enough sleep. And it made me supremely unhappy. So, the question is: when does it stop? When you get into a good school? When you graduate? When you go to grad school? When you get a good job that pays well? Or maybe the question is this: does any of that matter if you’re miserable the whole time?
Hell if I know.