Life At School

Originally published September 2007.

It’s is back-to-school time.  Time for a schedule change for your teens.  This issue contains some honest insight about life at school for our teens.  These thoughts come from  my 15 years as a substitute teacher at my school, from teens I talk to at school as well as my church youth group and from Scott Greene, a 33-year old youth pastor who actually enrolled himself at a high school for a two-week experiment.  You can read about his experiment at www.twoweeksback.com.

  • There are a lot of numbers for students to remember.  Especially the first few weeks of the new school year.  All students will get a locker number and then a locker combination for that locker.  They will also get a PE locker with a number as well as another locker combination for that locker.  Each class is assigned a room number which has to be found and traversed to in a span of 3 minutes to 7 minutes.  In the classroom there will be seating assignments, often done by numbers.  In math class they will be assigned a calculator with a number on it signifying that during this class time you are responsible for that calculator.  For other classes, they will be assigned a book with a number which will be associated with their name (textbooks often stay in the classroom now).  For lunch there is their lunch account number, which to help matters often is the same as their student ID number.  During those first weeks of the school year they will be filling out enough forms with their student number that they will wonder if they even have a name that matters to any adult at the school.  If a student drives, there is the parking pass number. This doesn’t count all the numbers they deal with in their math classes or with their homework assignments such as “read pages ## to ## by tomorrow” or “do ## through ## by Wednesday.”
  • Most school systems have IDs for every student, some which have to be worn at all times while in the building.  Of course, there are numbers on it.  Most have  a picture on it which most certainly is horrific but is visible every day of the school year.  Some students see the ID like prison numbers and some students see the ID as a reminder that they have a place to belong.  But overall, I can’t think of one adult who likes to wear his/her employee ID so why would a student?
  • Most schools now lock all outside doors.  It is supposed to keep out the bad guys and keep the school as a safe learning environment but when you are locked inside, it feels like prison.  I’ve been to prison  so I know the difference but teens don’t.  If you happen to go to a school that has trailers (which are not allowed under the No Child Left Behind Act but that alone can’t do away with them), you often find yourself locked out of school when you have a class in a trailer.  You have to pound on the door and look beggingly through the door window until someone can open the door for you to let you in to your own school.
  • Students don’t own their own time while they are in school.  They are cattle herding through crowded hallways moving from class to class all while on a specific time limit.  If they want to go to the bathroom, they can’t without permission.  If they are hungry and want to eat lunch early, they can’t.  They have to eat at the same time every day.  And they only have an average of 25 minutes to enjoy that fanciful feast, that is if they were first in the long lunch lines.  As adults we get to own our own time and don’t even realize it.  Teens don’t.
  • Speaking of not owning their own time, some can’t even own their own lunch choices.  In the craze of providing healthier lunch fare, school cafeterias are installing programs like MealpayPlus and ParentOnline.net which allow parents to prepay for lunches (a common practice for years) and have the ability to go online and track the food purchases.  The parent also gets to prohibit the purchasing of some items.  If the parent deems it, the student is stuck with the healthy entree–whatever that may be for the day.
  • A post from Scott Green at TwoWeeksBack.com:  “The hallways are crowded. Architects should have to do this same experience I am going through. Seriously.  Can’t there be at least one straight line between two points? Maybe my algebra class can work up some graphs and send to school architects. Maybe it’s a conspiracy theory they have with the President’s Council on Fitness and the PE instructors to keep us students in shape.”
  • From TwoWeeksBack.com this was a comment left by a student on the survey for teachers:  “We don’t only have your class! We have a total of eight classes to worry about, a social life to juggle, and doing what our parents tell us to do every night, so I’m sorry if we don’t absorb everything you are trying to teach us.”  This student didn’t add in the stuff youth pastors want them to remember.  Remember that when you challenge your group next.
  • Another post from Scott Greene at TwoWeeksBack.com: “I’m getting some insight already to why kids miss church and some other activities and cite the reason as homework. As I look back on my day…I’m not sure when else I could have done it except at 8 p.m. and looking at my weekend I’m not sure when (other than Sunday afternoon when I normally take a nap) I’m going to be able to get my weekend homework done.”
  • With all this pressure, weekends are important to students.  So is summer vacation, which is sadly eroding for them.   Despite a still busy schedule, it is one of the few times that they feel they get some “me time.”
  • True to the Wild Frontier lifestyle, every student really does desire to be great at something.  School provides many opportunities (and the most availability for any teen) to do that whether it is with grades, extracurricular opportunities or sports.  Others fix this need by being great at disrupting. While disrupting often has many negative outcomes, it falls under the same desire that every other student has.
  • The school experience has turned into a game of Survivor where kids are strategizing against each other to beat the system.  That is the finding that Alexandra Robbins found in writing her book The Overachievers (highly recommended reading).  From an interview with Robbins:  “…One of the students I followed turned to cutting and burning himself.  More than one turned to drinking (And they sound very much like adults when they’d say, ‘I just need a drink to wind down after a stressful day.’)  Many said they were depressed, and three of my main characters talked about having suicidal thoughts.  I also think that the cheating rate among high school students has something to do with the pressure they’re under.  …Sadly, in some cases, (a defeat) is an A minus.  (About being widespread) A lot more than I thought.  It’s a trickle-down problem where the behavior of the top students impacts everyone else.  The sad thing is that there is no middleground anymore.  Either you are a high achiever, or you’re below average.  School is no longer about the love of learning.  It’s become a Machiavellian exercise where students and parents feel they have to do whatever is necessary to get an edge.  It’s a system that turns students into little more than their test scores.”  (U.S. News & World Report, August 7, 2006)
  • A quote from The Overachievers from Sam, a senior: “School beats other options, but the disturbing mentality that surrounds school is destructive to our conscience.  School takes over.  Everyone is searching for that summer feeling again; the ability to live without worry.  But everything not related to school right now seems so small and unimportant.  School does not let a kid live.  School has its bright moments, its entertainment, and its long-lasting value, but the overbearing competitiveness and work combine to create one of the most stressful environments I can imagine.”
  • In the midst of the academic pressures, drama is a large part of the school experience.  Who’s talking to who?  Who said what to who?  Who touched who?  In that 3 minute to 7 minute class change a lot of information is passed–not all of it true.  But whether it is true or not, the target of that information has to somehow learn geometric equations while pondering the drama from that class change break.  This drama happens day in and day out and there is never a time when a teen is safe from it.  Never.
  • There is real pressure placed on fashion.  Even if you are the type to wear t- shirts and sweats (which for some reason school dress codes have allowed such sloppy, unprofessional attire for sometime now).  The type of t-shirt and sweats you wear is important.  And for some crowds, you dare not wear the same thing that another girl has worn.  It is usually girls in this drama.  I have seen two girls wear the same new winter coat to school on the same day. They were actually purchased over the same weekend and worn to school that Monday.  Clearly both were excited to have such a cool purchase.  Until one girl beat down the other girl over it.
  • I’m afraid guys are not exempt from this drama.  They are now matching their sports jerseys to their tennis shoes.  And then there is that Hollister/Abercrombie fashion attire that is as complicated as some girl wardrobes.  There is the “Axe Effect” which is becoming a problem in boy locker rooms.  There are so many boys spraying themselves with Axe that it is causing noxious fumes.
  • Scott Greene again:  “I have a question for parents and people (like me) who work with students.  When you ask a student how their day went or how school is going, do you settle for the one word answer, ‘Fine’ or ‘Okay’ and then move on. I have news for all of us. Their days are completely filled with stuff. Good stuff, bad stuff, stuff they don’t understand, stuff they can’t explain, stuff they aren’t sure about, stuff that is pointless, stuff that can affect their future, stuff that makes them want to laugh, and stuff that almost makes them cry. It can’t be boiled down to one word, and shame on us for not asking better questions or for settling for weak answers.”

Ponder all this for a good moment and ask yourself this–what do I do to truly help my teens?  These are your public school students that make up your youth group.  This is who you are praying for, who you are planning for, who you are dreaming for.  Our hope is to help you do what you do better.