Tag Archives: high school

To The South Fayette Boy With The Ipad

17 Apr

Dear South Fayette Teen,

I know your mother wishes your name to be kept out of public reports as much as possible, so I’m not going to mention it here. But you know who you are, and you know what you did.

And I commend you, I laud you, I am so incredibly fucking proud of you for doing it. I hope you never forget who you really are, and I hope you never forget what you did. Above all, I hope you never forget, no matter what ignorant un-law enforcement or principals in need of schooling themselves may you tell you, that was you did was right.

You were being bullied. There is no question about that. You were being sexually harassed, physically harassed. You were being taunted. Tortured, really. The slow drip excruciation of day after day where you are made a target, for no other reason than that you happened to have the audacity to exist. Day after day of wondering what knew form of personal and social flagellation you’ll receive as the hands of idiots. I understand the pain of having that knife dug into your consciousness, millimeter after millimeter. It is not a pain that should ever happen.

It is a pain that happened to me, too. I too was bullied, from preschool all the way through sophomore year of high school. I went to an all-girls school, so my form of social punishment came more through the form of clique ostracism and snide comments made in muttered cackles before my face or ruthless emails passed around behind my back. Except for the time someone decided to print one particular chain out and stuff it in my locker. That was fun.

And how did I deal with my bullying? How did I deal with being told that I was ugly and unwantable and expendable for a quick laugh? I stayed silent. I filled journals with my feelings, cried unseen in bathroom stalls. Eventually, the girls who had tried to assert that I was lesser than they realized they needed me. As middle and high school wore on, it became clear that I was undeniably, ultimately goddamn smart. And those other girls, they didn’t always complete their homework. So they needed me, to help them figure out the answers. I became outwardly called upon as tutor in the early morning pre-class hallway conferences. I garnered a group of what you could roughly call friends. I found power in being the smart one. The bullying died down as the need for me grew. I graduated high school as the valedictorian, regarded as beloved at best and with apathy at worst. The outer titters were no more.

Of course, that did nothing to calm the inner ones. I had been saved by lucky fate, not by my own hand. I carried with me the inner sense of unworthiness I had been taught for years by bullies and general life circumstances. I still believed that I was ugly, that I was unwantable, that I was less than other people.

It’s taken a whole fucking lot to change that. And I’m still not done fighting.

But you – you actually stood up for yourself. You did what I had not. You saw the injustice you were being treated with and recognized that it was wrong. You did not just accept it as some natural lot for yourself in life. You did not take the lies that others would have fed you. And for that, for that small act of self-worth, you are my fucking hero.

So recorded what was going on in class. You recorded the reality of what was going on day in and day out. Your recorded the lack of any real response, any real repercussion for the ones who were actually committing disorderly conduct. Slamming things around in class? Trying to harass another student in the middle of a lecture? Sounds like textbook disorderliness to me.

This wiretapping charge is bullshit. The only reason it’s being thrown at you is because you happened to make somebody’s life difficult by making them accountable for their own ineptness as a head of school. High school students record things during class all the fucking time. Take, for example, the college students over at Aquinas who pranked their professor, recorded it all, and put it up on the internet, from where it’s gone viral. You don’t see them getting a wiretapping charge. Why? A student recorded part of a class – not just audio but even video – and they did it all without the professor’s knowledge. But hey, he thought the whole thing was funny. So, no wiretapping charge. But record something that reveals the failure of a school administrator to deal with a real fucking problem at his school? Wiretapping! Wiretapping!

This world does not deal kindly with the truly brave. And you, oh teenage boy who had the audacity to stand up and say that something was wrong, were truly brave to do so. Whistleblowing is always a risk. But you did it. You recorded the truth. You did what you needed to do in order to throw undeniable concrete evidence at the face of those who might have otherwise told you that it was “all in your head.”

You stood up for yourself. I am sorry that the adults that should have stood with you instead told you to step down. Though to your mother – from what I hear, you’re doing a damn good job of supporting your son through this. Please, keep reaffirming that he did the right thing. He’ll probably tell you that yeah, Mom, he knows. But it’s still something he’ll need to keep hearing anyway.

Oh teenage boy with the ipad, you used technology to fight injustice. You did not stick your nose where it didn’t belong. You weren’t meddling in someone else’s affairs. You had every right to do what you did. If the government seems to feel that it can run around willy nilly wiretapping every goddamn means of communication there is in the name of “fighting terrorism,” then I say that you, too, should be perfectly free to record in your own public space in the name of fighting the terrorism you were encountering. Because that’s what it was. A couple of idiots trying to make themselves look big by making someone else feel small with attack after attack on his person and his sanity.

So they used spitwads instead of IED’s. Words instead of bullets. I thought we’d all realized by now that the ridiculous rhyme about “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is absolute crap. If this country allows libel suits, then it damn well recognizes that words can hurt.

And this time, they were hurting something so much more important than a public image. They were hurting a person.

And did you stoop to their level? Did you hurl insults back? Throw a punch? Become one of them? No. You recorded them, made them accountable for their words. You very calmly brought their own actions, their own selves against them. You made them sit down and shut up and learn about responsibility and consequences for once.

Something, it appears, your principle doesn’t understand how to do.

Spitwads, scare tactics, daily verbal harassment – you “would not classify that as bullying,” Mr. Skrbin? Great. If I were near South Fayette, I’d be outside your office with a straw and a whole lot of spit to shoot at you tomorrow morning. I mean, you did say there wasn’t a problem with that, didn’t you?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Dear teenage boy who lives in South Fayette, you really are a hero. I am sorry that incompetent adults are trying to log you as otherwise. I hope they realize how they wrong they are. Because odds are, your story is going to inspire some other students elsewhere, too, to finally stand up and say that they are taking no more. That they are done with being bullied. That they are human being with real fucking worth and other people better damn well recognize it.

Because you, dear teenage boy with the ipad, are a human being with real fucking worth. Other people better damn well recognize that.

Don’t you ever stop recognizing that, either.

Sincerely,

A Friend

Frustration

20 Jan

A lot of America’s pre-college education seems to focus around making sure that kids know things. I think it should focus more on teaching kids that they don’t.

We teach kids the equations they’ll need for their plug-and-chug recognition homework. “Question type a takes equation process type b with steps c through g.” It focuses on making sure that kids can recall what chapter heading a certain phraseology fell under and and what process they were told in that chapter they should use to solve it. “Do you know what sort of thing it is that you needed to know in order to attack this problem?”

But we never teach kids how to handle not knowing what they need to do to attack a problem.

It’s a problem I first ran into in college. My math and physics problems, they were derivation and proof based. “Here are the theorems and axioms, have fun figuring out how to build your own damn process.”

Uh, no.

Especially since by “figure out your own damn process” my TA’s definitely meant “recreate the already universally-accepted specific series of variable translations we’ve written down in our solution set. No no, don’t do math, originate it.”

Now, there is a dichotomy in me. I am not a math or physics person. You start to say either of those words at me, and I’m going to run screaming into the nearest hipster humanities student-filled coffee shop. I’m writer. I’m also a biologist. Once Caltech finally prints my diploma, it’ll say I earned a B.S. in both.

But really, the workings of biology are something that make much more inherent sense to me. I spent months’ worth of free time hours over the course of my high school career lolling around on my bed, Google searching the shit out of my laptop and staring at the wall while playing around with concepts and generating designs in my head for ways to tweak biomolecules into HIV-attacking machines. There was – is – no set process to calculate the cure for AIDS. That meant I was free to run around with factoids in my own imagination, hurtling through a tunnel of question-answer-roadblock, question-answer-roadblock, as I tried to use what I knew and what I could learn to fill in the blanks of what I didn’t know while wrestling with this problem. Nobody was grading me on how I worked out the problem. No one was going to tell me I had to figure it all out by a certain time and then slap some red slashes and a hopefully two-digit number evaluation at the top. The project was entirely mine to work on. There wasn’t the pressure of expected performance to numb my thinking capacity with adequacy-anxiety. I had the time and mental freedom to think and rethink and unthink and think again without anyone telling me I wasn’t doing it well enough, fast enough, proper enough.

The work I did entirely on my own self-motivation and un-judged learning capacity ended up getting me into a lab the summer after my frosh year of college to work on a project that was in fact trying to build a new sort of biomolecule, a grandaddy triton of antibodies, essentially, to overcome the whole HIV-has-ridiculously-sparse-spikes, oh-shit-normal-antibodies-can’t-get-good-avidity-to-that. ‘Course, that’s when I found out that while for me the mindwork of research is tantalizing, I despise petri dishes and aliquots of clear liquid with a passion so fiery it burnt my enthusiasm for the underlying problem to a dead crisp. And so ended my lab career.

But anyhoo, I tell all of that to contrast it to those terrible math and physics problems I had to grapple with on my frosh and sophomore college homework. The problem there was that there was a particular blueprint for building the process. I couldn’t just fiddle around dreamily with the nuts and bolts, wandering around in factland away from the glowering stare of a deadline. Because those math and physics homeworks were due tomorrow. And I needed to know how their axiomatic parts fit together by, like, yesterday. Probably by last week, actually.

But, despite going to one of the top universities in the nation, I was at a school full of smart researching professors and smart ready-to-learn students where the smart researching professors didn’t know how to communicate with their smart students through the language of lecturer for shit. I had the axioms chucked at me in a lump and never had time spent or given to think about their implications. Sure, there was this phrase, and it said this thing, but goodness knows I was never given a chance to properly think about what the fuck did the phrase actually mean. And when it came to those homework proofs and derivations, there was no set protocol or process for doing them. This wasn’t “how do you do this computational procedure?” This wasn’t “how do you fit these parts to this process?” This was “what tricks of second-order cleverness do you need to play hide and seek with these notation symbols and thus pop out in Neverland?”

How. the fuck.

And, because I’d gone through high school being a good student who’d always made sure she knew what process a question was asking her to proceed with, I naturally looked at these procedureless questions due in a matter of hours and began to cry.

No, actually. My hours of struggling through physics and math sets are more saturated with tears and skin-grating frustration than anything else. I didn’t know how to go about figuring out the problem, and I was time-limited enough that I felt too pressured to spend time playing around with its components to see if maybe something I did would work. I expected myself to know what I was supposed to do, now. And I didn’t.

I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what I needed to know, and I had very little confidence that I’d be able to figure out what I needed to know before the set was due in any manner that wouldn’t result in my brain feeling like a nuclear bomb had gone off in it a despairingly short time in, and so I froze. I hated myself. I felt so. fucking. inadequate. All because I’d not been taught how to figure out a solution – because there was a known, set solution already – from scratch. Because with all the good lectures did me, I was approaching my homework sets with an effective knowledge base of zero.

Sure, there were lots of issues going on with my math and physics education for those two years, and those problems weren’t all because of my lack of mathematical capacity or the style of my pre-college education. (Take, for example, the unmedicated clinical depression I had at the time.) But the fact that I wasn’t emotionally or conceptually prepared to handle not knowing at least what it was that I should have known to figure out a problem – that was still a factor.

So, three years later, having gotten my head out the mire enough to figure out how to at least somewhat productively stumble around in the muck of it all, I do say that freshman-me might have benefited quite a bit if my pre-undergrad education had focused a mite less on “let’s check if you know what to know” and more on helping us learn how to bear up against when we wouldn’t know. I’d have appreciated learning how to the statement, “Okay, kids. You don’t know anything.”

“Now, deal with it.”