School Held Me Back

I don’t mean I was held back a grade. Quite the contrary, I was a good student. I never skipped and was rarely tardy. I didn’t make trouble and my teachers loved me. I handed in my assignments complete and on time. I participated in class and generally knew what was going on rather than zoning out.

In point of fact, I mostly made As in my classes. I was a National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist. I scored in the 99th percentile on the ASVAB (the recruiter lamented that I was a girl; apparently I would have been great in field artillery). I received scholarships for both my ACT and SAT scores.

When I say school held me back, I mean I learned a lot less being in school than I would have learned out of school.

The “Good Student”

I was liked by my teachers and labeled a “good student” because I was compliant and did assignments. I was one of those kids the teachers and administrators could point to proudly as proof that schooling works.

Learning is defined as “knowledge acquired by systematic study” and “modification of behavior through practice, training, or experience.” In other words, once you “learn” something, it leaves a permanent change. Like riding a bike … you don’t forget how.

Sure, I learned some things in school. I loved Shakespeare and I remember what I learned. I can still recite a huge chunk of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. But there were two reasons I aced it, and neither had to do with what I was taught in school. First, I already loved to read and discuss literature. Second, I grew up hearing Elizabethan English several times a week (well, King James English, anyway, out of the Bible). Other than a few new words and some salacious innuendos that went over my head, I had no problem with Shakespeare, because of my prior learning, not because of what school taught me.

And then there were things I didn’t “learn.” Through a strange series of events I won’t bore you with, I graduated high school with algebra and calculus as my only maths. I actually received an A in calculus due to a brilliant teacher who could explain the concepts well enough for me to grasp them long enough to regurgitate onto my test papers (with no geometry or trigonometry, I was pretty lost), and also my own excellent test-taking abilities. All I remember about calculus is that it involves functions, which Coach Smith drew as amusing “function machines” on the board.

But though I received an A, I didn’t care about calculus and I didn’t understand what I was doing in calculus. The thing I remember most clearly about the entire class is my birthday, when my friend Greg wrote on the edge of his paper where I could see, “Hey, I’ll make you a birthday cake!” and when I nodded, he then drew a puff of air around the words “POOF! you’re a birthday cake.”

That was one day I nearly broke my “good kid” record and got in trouble for laughing in class.

Why Complain?

I got good grades. I wasn’t bullied. I didn’t get into trouble. I received recognition and scholarships for my efforts. I didn’t even particularly hate school (though if I had realized there were options that would have released me, I would have taken them in a heartbeat). So why complain?

Well, the vast number of hours I put in sitting and being bored in school and “learning” things (*cough*periodictableofelements*cough*) I have long since forgotten, compared with the greater amount of true learning I acquired on my own in the far fewer hours I had at my discretion, sure makes it look to me like school held me back pretty severely.

I could have had thousands more hours to spend on things I wanted to learn – things that I would have retained because I loved learning them – things that would have served me in my chosen path more than a pointless, empty A in calculus – rather than eking out my hours and minutes doing busy work, getting good-girl grades, and being bored.

Granted I grew up in small towns with small schools that didn’t offer a lot of options or accelerated classes – but a majority of kids are in small-town or inner-city or just plain average schools … and there’s nothing to do but stick it out.

“Good” and “Bad” Students

I learned a little history in school, and I learned a lot of history when on my own I decided to read Asimov’s Chronology of the World and History of the Kings and Queens of England and a ton of history and historical fiction. Most “good students” would do as well or better in their academic pursuits without the school’s schedule. As they are ahead of the school’s curve, they are held back by the pace that must accommodate those whose brilliance lies in other areas of accomplishment than scholarship.

Less valued by schools, those other areas of accomplishment are quite frankly usually of more practical use than most book learning. (Much as I, personally, adore book learning, I agree with Sir Ken Robinson that the only career it fits one for is that of college professor.) Other kids would spend more time learning to work on engines, or playing with Legos and moving on to building robots, or inventing new computers that will take the world by storm, or any of a million other possibilities.

So basically, all students, “good” and “bad,” those who perform best and worst in school, those who are content or merely placid enough to play the school’s game by the school’s rules and those who are not … all students are generally bored out of their skulls and wishing they were elsewhere most of the time.

I know, I know … that’s a “yeah, duh” observation. But follow it through to the logical conclusion. All students are not merely bored … all students are learning more outside of school than inside and are wasting their time not learning all the wonderful things they could be learning if only they had those hours to themselves.

Their learning just isn’t necessarily in the things the schools are teaching.

There are always plenty of stories from parents who chose homeschooling because they or their children were bullied in school, or who did not “click” with the school system, or who were flat-out failures in one or more subjects.

None of those are true of me, but school wasn’t a better fit for me as a “good student” than it was for anyone else.


My name is Carma, and I am a public school graduate. And I choose to homeschool my children.

~ Carma

PS: I would like to say, emphatically, that teachers aren’t the problem I am addressing. I had many wonderful and engaging teachers who more or less saved me from ripping my own heart out with a sharpened pencil to alleviate my boredom. Most teachers are trying their very best, and frequently their best is very good. But the institutional school system in the U.S. shapes what they are able to do and the institutional system has a far greater cumulative effect than any handful of good teachers.

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