Walk With Me (#41): Careful, Your Elitism Is Showing

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do

Dear Asha,

One of my kids has always struggled with school. Not academically, but socially and structurally. While they are very bright and the model of a straight-A, high-achieving student, they hate it. We’ve tried private school, public school, charter school,and after 11.5 years have come to the conclusion that this kid just hates school. Attending school causes severe mental health issues, and there’s no benefit to continuing to make them attend. They’ve decided to take a high school equivalency exam this summer and just…be done.

The current plan is that this child will attend community college in the fall, but things change and maybe they’ll take a gap year instead. Who knows? MOST of their circle (and ours, as parents) recognizes that this is absolutely the best choice for this child in the situation, and has been joyfully supportive. A minority has not.

We — and they — have gotten some pushback from people who feel they are needlessly squandering their talent — if you have a 4.2 GPA, you SHOULD be taking AP courses and applying to elite colleges or else (..or else WHAT, I always wonder). These people mean well but are clearly missing the mark.

I don’t care too much when these comments are directed at me as a mother, because I’m over 40 and ran out of fucks a long time ago. However, my teen is in a vulnerable place right now and the judgment implicit in these comments made by people they’ve looked up to their whole life can be distressing. How do I clearly, politely, and in a way that maintains those relationships communicate that we’re joyfully supporting our child in their nontraditional path, and, basically, that these folks should zip it?

TN

Dear TN,

I’m going to try and keep at the forefront of my brain the part about being polite and maintaining relationships because I will confess I have no patience at this point for anyone who makes my kid feel bad about his carefully considered choices. Even if you are as polite-as-polite-can-be about it, if you are clear and boundaried about how these folks are allowed to talk to your kid, which you should be, they may very well take offense. If so, that’s not really your problem, to my mind.

Anyone capable of seeing beyond the end of their own nose at this point has got to see that our educational system is horribly broken. That was true even before we were confronted with a worldwide pandemic in which students and teachers bore the brunt of the weight of upheaval and isolation. It’s a machine built for specific kinds of learners, to turn out specific kinds of dutiful citizens and workers. It can be great for some kids. It suits my younger kid just fine. But if you are a kid that needs more or different, formal school as it exists can feel like a terrifying straightjacket. They can barely breathe.

My older kid, like yours, has always struggled in school. For him, it’s academic as well as social and structural. He is very smart, but he just doesn’t learn easily or quickly on-demand without one-on-one support. He is most motivated by connection, and not all teachers want to(or know how to) connect to him. In the absence of connection, he frequently can’t learn a damn thing.

Pandemic learning has been an absolute nightmare on top of that existing reality. The lack of learning supports and social interaction, the total loss of real connectivity, has tanked him in many respects. He will graduate in two months by the skin of his teeth, and all either of us can think is, “Thank god this is over!”

Before the pandemic happened we were both in the “college is the inevitable next step” camp, even given his challenges with school. We went to visit one college campus. We looked at websites and discussed options. Now? He’s taking a gap year to recover from the stress of pandemic schooling, get a job, save up some money, and then we’ll see.

I was a high-achieving student all the way through my school career — went straight to college, finished in four years, on full academic scholarship the last two years. I am grateful for the experience because I met some amazing people who are still in my life, established pathways of learning I’m still walking, and got “credit” for traveling to other countries. I was very, very lucky.

I was also incredibly, deeply miserable, and there wasn’t any real space for that within that high-achieving context. I tried to make some space for it, to work consciously and intentionally to manage my depression and anxiety while also fulfilling my commitments, but the message I got was essentially, “Get over yourself and go to class.”

I remember struggling to focus the spring of my freshman year and just… failing. There was some required class that I was taking and every time I would think about going to a lecture or opening a book assigned I would leave my body. I’d never not been able to power through before, and it was shocking. I was failing, and I felt like a failure.

The “drop date”, when I could have dropped the class so that it wouldn’t show up on my transcripts, approached. I called my mother to discuss it with her. I explained that I was failing. I explained that I could drop the class and make it up later. I probably did not go into the depths of my depression and anxiety because I barely had words to articulate the scope of it all. If memory serves, she said something along the lines of, “We don’t drop classes. Go to class. Do your work.” End of conversation.

I was ashamed of my “weakness”, ignored my instincts, and didn’t drop the class. I still didn’t go, because I couldn’t. I got a horrible, barely-passing grade. It felt like shit.

Now, to be fair to my mom, who I love, she was also a very, very good student historically, as well as a teacher for many years. She believes in the power of education, maybe second only to God. Also, she grew up poor, and school was the vehicle for her to get up and out, as it has been for many folks. From that perspective, if you have the chance to go to school, nothing else matters. Nothing is more important.

But it brings me way back around to what is likely going on for the folks in your kid’s life right now who just can’t wrap their heads around the choice to not go to college, or to a certain kind of college. It’s called classism, which we are loathe to acknowledge exists in this “land of opportunity”. College, and the more elite college the better, guarantees your place in the class hierarchy. It affords you status, privilege, theoretical access to greater resources. If you have the chance to claim a higher place on the ladder nothing else matters.

Except, unfortunately, the idea of higher education as a guarantee of greater access to resources or opportunity within the context of the United States is a mythology that has largely crumbled to ash as more and more students are saddled with crippling debt in an economy with no options. You and I were part of probably the last generation raised our whole lives to expect we would inevitably “do better” than our parents. And even we are, many of us, not managing it, through no fault of our own.

Our kids are looking around themselves — at school systems that haven’t been properly invested in for decades, climate change, systemic racism, a corrupt, corporate-controlled political system, and an economy that affords little to no upward mobility for working people — and are saying screw it. I’m going to forge my own path. And why shouldn’t they? What better option are we offering them?

And you know what else? Even in the midst of the middle-class, upwardly mobile mythology that permeated the culture since the Industrial Revolution began, folks have made their own way. They have created beautiful, meaningful, successful lives as builders, truck drivers, artists, farmers, cooks. Some people (gasp!) even choose those pathways after going to college, just because it makes them happy.

Just because we, as a society, do not dignify their work doesn’t mean it isn’t dignified, that it doesn’t have value. Maybe those folks who are insistent on questioning your child’s choices need a little lesson in class-consciousness? A gentle reminder that their elitism is showing?

Folks who are understandably upset by the attacks on intellectualism and higher education that have become de rigeur in the current political climate may be particularly protective of the idea of formal education as the best and/or only path to success and fulfillment. Though I sympathize with their dismay over our slow, cultural slide into idiocy, your kid choosing to go to an elite college, or any college at all, is not the answer to that cultural conundrum. Universal, free college for all that choose it, Medicare for All, federally subsidized child-care, and dramatic federal investment in the new, green economy might be. Go tell them to work on that.

Ultimately, many adults today were raised with assumptions that aren’t working for our kids — upward mobility is always possible, college is the best and only path to success, mental health doesn’t matter. Our kids do have the potential to “do better” than we did, but what “better” means is shifting. For them, by necessity, better means more whole, more conscious of their mental health, more connected to the Earth, more community-oriented. I can’t for the life of me see that as a bad thing.

Tell these folks who insist on remonstrating your kid to stop, listen, and look at the ways in which the world is changing. If that doesn’t shut them up, then reiterate the “stop” part and leave it at that. Feel free to say it all in front of your kid, so they witness you setting those boundaries on their behalf. It will help them learn to set boundaries with people themselves and remind them that they deserve to choose their own path unapologetically.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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