Today I read this:
I wonder about the students who slipped through. I wonder about the ones who failed out.
I feel like they are the ones we should be talking to.
They are the ones who understand the impact of schooling. Enough of the smartest kids in the class always getting to answer the questions. I want to hear from the kids for whom school didn’t work. I want to hear from the alumni who feel cheated by the system. I want our schools to be judged by how well we respected the humanity of the student who graduated with the lowest GPA and how we celebrated and engaged his or her capacity within society.
Here is my story. I still remember the day the School Certificate results were posted in the mail. Our mail was often late and I had been fielding phone calls from friends all morning who were 'suicidal' because they got a B1 that had somehow damaged their otherwise pristine list of A1s and A2s. Being the person I was I would counsel them through it - suggesting conspiracy theories and talking them through the bell-curve that they seemed to not understand.
I had always had this sinking feeling that I might be dumb. And this day it was about to become official. Walking down the path toward the letter-box I fantasized that I would see a row of A1s - but really (I told myself) I was more likely to see a row of B1s (the passing grade) and that was fine.
I opened the letter-box door.
They were here.
"Are they here yet"
"Nope" I said cheerfully and retreated to my room.
How the hell is a 15 year old girl supposed to break this to their parents? What is she supposed to say when the phone rings and her best friend is on the other end asking her how she went? How can someone, so young, who is now officially a failure hold their head up high and get through the next day?
I do not remember anything else about that day. I do remember that things changed. 6th form is a serious blur. I remember Geography Camp. I remember an 'awards ceremony' on the bus on the way home where my teacher awarded me 'most promising geographer' ... as a cruel joke... and having to walk down the aisle of the bus to receive the fake award while the whole bus laughed at me. I remember watching some amazing bands at the Empire bar. I remember being punched in the face in the Octagon. But I barely remember school.
By the end of 6th form I decided that I had had enough of Dunedin and went up to Christchurch to attend Hagley Community College where I was treated to a course of film and media studies and drama. This was cool but I had lost faith in education by then. So I dropped out.
What a school drop-out might look like
My new life was looking at the job boards at The Employment Service until I eventually got a job. It was fitting seat-belts into Japanese car imports, where I would work alongside guys who would have seriously demeaning conversations about what they did to their partners in the weekends, and I just worked in silence. After my 12-week trial period was over I was called into the bosses office where he told me that they would not be renewing my contract as I did not fit in with the team.
So back to The Employment Service I went where I spotted the life changing notice - working as a volunteer for the Family Planning Association as a peer educator. There were a team of us. All deviants. We had teen prostitutes, a virgin, gay guys, gay girls, drug addicts, musicians, actors, anorexics, and me. We loved our job. We collaboratively wrote and delivered education programmes to 4th formers around Christchurch schools using the medium of Drama. The muso/drama guy introduced me to his drama friends and got me a regular gig where we worked at nights at the then Performing Arts Centre. For the first time since those school cert results I felt like I was a success.
After two years the "Community Task Force" funding dried up for the FPA gig and the Performing Arts Theatre was demolished for the Tram Track. And that was the end of that. I had learned that I loved teaching and performing and that was what I wanted to do.
So I was now 20 years old which meant that my tertiary study pathway was no longer closed. I headed back to Dunedin and applied for Teachers College (and didn't get in because of my School Cert marks). In the meantime I did a Commerce degree (it was the easiest one for me to get in to) and then applied for Teachers College. I didn't get in because Management was not considered to be a relevant qualification. So I did an Arts degree in Gender Studies and applied for Teachers College. I didn't get in to the one year diploma course, but did get into the 3 year course (hooray).
I am who I am because of who you all are, and I thank you all for that. Perhaps I would not be the teacher I am now had I not had to go through this series of experiences to get here. What I do believe I am qualified to say, however, is that our educational assessment system is fundamentally flawed. We only celebrate those who meet a very narrow criteria. In primary school we are getting to a point where we will only 'value' numeracy and literacy. We try to 'fix' people with numeracy and literacy. Once kids demonstrate certain skills they are deemed 'standard'. If they can't do this we deem them as 'failures' and we will teach them more numeracy and literacy until they get it. Where there are standards - there will always be those who don't reach them.
Being told you are 'that person' from age 6 will not help you - but it will sit with you forever. It wasn't the act of labeling me as a 'failure' that led me to where I am now. It was that my passion was ignited by people who believed in me and that we had an authentic meaningful task to achieve.