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  • Writer's pictureR Scott Okamoto

School Sucks

I wrote this little rant this morning on Facebook:

I'm losing faith in education. While I always believe the liberal arts is the only hope for saving society,I don't see how it helps anyone in this capitalist system succeed. Teachers are poorly compensated for the amount of work they do. There is a teacher shortage. Those two facts are related. My kids' school has almost no qualified science teachers. They got a new chemistry teacher this year. She has already resigned after being in the classroom for less than a week. I'm sure there are schools doing well, especially in the wealthier communities, but the division of classes feels ever-widening. Possible silver lining might be that knowing things is not a qualification for being a politician or president.

The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s more than a division of classes. The whole system is broken. Even for the rich kids.

My kids go to a school that most middle class families would never consider attending. It’s telling that there are no Chinese American or Armenian American families at Blair. It’s predominantly black and latino, and has test scores that would make pro golfers jealous. I’ve written before about why we chose this school. Even five years ago, we felt having the kids live, learn, and grow in a diverse setting was more important than test scores and a homogenous, “safe,” environment.

How has it gone? OK. Sometimes great. Often tragically horrible. You know. Like most schools.

Until Ethan started phsyics this year, he has not had a science teacher that has known anything about either science or teaching. I’m not exaggerating. Last year, the chemistry teacher started a law suit against the school and split, leaving a long-term sub who did not know anything. This was not as bad as it sounds because the original teacher didn’t know anything either. She showed the movie, The Hunt for Red October for two and half days. I asked Ethan why. He said the teacher explained that the submarine was a nuclear submarine. The fact that learning about nuclear…things…is something one might expect to learn in physics is only slightly less significant than the fact that a high school teacher showed a movie in a chemistry class.

And yet, I’m not tempted to move my kids to a “good” school. At schools like those in the neighboring San Marino district, the students all attend the best money can buy. They have brand new buildings with state-of-the-art classrooms and perfectly groomed and manicured grounds and athletic facilities. I taught a PCC English night class on the San Marino High School campus, and there was a ton of technology in there. Audrey played softball games at the “practice” field and its grass was worthy of Dodger Stadium.

BUT. In order to keep up with the rigors of the academics, pretty much every college-bound student has to be enrolled in after-school tutoring. So much so, the teachers coordinate with the local tutoring centers with curriculum and assignments. Parents bought multi-million dollar homes in that district, so their kids could attend one of America’s best schools, but they still have to shell out tens of thousands of dollars on tutoring every year.

Palo Alto is home to two of the best high schools in America. In the past decade they have also been known as having one of the highest rates of suicide. There is so much pressure to do well and get into an “elite” college. At what cost? Also, we know that kids from those schools have a hard time getting into even the average U.C. schools because everyone has a 4.5 GPA and amazing SAT scores. Schools only take a limited number of students from a given high school, so some kids with all the right scores from all the right schools, have to attend out of state schools.

People have asked me and Geri if my kids are safe at Blair High School. We always say they are. The school has not had any violent incidents outside of a few minor fights. In the time we have been at Blair, South Pasadena High School, another of the top schools in America, has been locked down once and had two mass murder plots foiled by the FBI. I’m sure it’s great going to a school with top-notch test scores, the best teachers, and a state-of-the-art campus, but I don’t know that those wealthy kids are safer than mine.

I’ve told the story before. My brother went to a great law school. U.C. Hastings. He attended public schools all the way there. Arcadia High School and U.C. Irvine. He took a few years off to teach English in Japan. Learned Japanese. Studied for the LSAT while on the train to and from work. He had a classmate who attended elite private schools his whole life. Then Ivy League for college. When he found out the route my brother took, he was angry. He thought he had done everything right to get to U.C. Hastings, at tremendous cost. And yet, my brother had gotten to the same coveted spot at U.C. Hastings attending free public schools and a U.C. school where the total four-year education was less than a year at an Ivy League school. Obviously, both worked their asses off, but maybe that’s more important than where they worked their asses of.

I believe in education. I believe it is the answer to most problems in society. But our society is not based on education, philosophy, or morality. It is based on money and the acquisition of money. Period. And we have so many dear friends in South Pasadena, Palo Alto, and other great places. I am not saying those aren't great schools with boundless opportunities and advantages. I am happy for my friends who are doing a great job raising great kids. It's challenging for everyone, no matter the city or school.

I want my kids to learn and grow. I want them to be educated. But I am not going to let them lose themselves in the academics of youth. Ethan is constantly stressed out because of the International Baccalaureate curriculum and the often poor teaching. I am telling him to do his best and learn what he can, but not give a flying fuck about anything beyond that. He has the rest of his life that has many roads to travel. I’m not letting my kids damage their sense of worth or self in high school. Adult life will offer plenty of opportunities for that.

I will not buy into the lie that there is one path to success in life. My generation bought into the lie. Study hard, get into a great college, be successful. What we found was that studying hard and getting into college often resulted in crippling debt and unfulfilled hopes and dreams for life. It’s even worse now for this generation. So, many in my generation changed the game. I know a PhD chemist from Caltech who no longer works in that field. I know a Swathmore graduate who is a standup comedian. Some of Geri’s dental school classmates stopped working as dentists or never became dentists. Outside of the dentists (I assume), none of my friends regret doing well in school and attending elite schools. In fact, they would tell you learning how to succeed at such high levels was a transformative experience helping them do what they do now. And then there are people like Geri who wanted to be a dentist from age 6, became a dentist, and has been a dentist for the past 20 years.

Life is short and long. It’s short because if it’s well-lived, time flies. But it’s long if we are stressed and tired. Life is also not guaranteed. Anything can happen. You can get cancer. So, while most parents are stressing themselves and their kids out with homework with the singular goal of college, we are stressing ourselves and our kids out with learning and growing as decent human beings seeking balance. This includes doing their best in school. But it also includes finding a worldview, an identity, and hopefully, a sense of purpose. These things take time, and it takes longer for some. I’m going to do everything I can to ensure my kids get as much time as they need. Even while I’m kicking their asses, because…you know…kids.

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