When I was a teenager, I thought school was pretty stupid. I mean, I understood the general idea – school was supposed to provide me with an education, which meant that I would be able to know things and do things in the future based on the classes I was taking day-to-day. But I couldn’t imagine a world where I would need to know any of this stuff.

My daily schedule usually involved doodling while my Math teacher droned on about algebra, or I passed notes in Biology when I was supposed to be learning about mitosis, and I would end the day staring at the clock during English while the teacher lectured us on the significance of color in Lord of the Flies (apparently green was evil and pink was good, and when the pink started fading from the conch that was supposed to remind us of the pink platform from earlier, and that meant something very specific about the allegorical shift in society’s blah blah blah blah blah…).

I wanted to be successful. I wanted good grades. But I really could not muster the energy to care for more than a few minutes at a time. Whenever I was assigned an essay, I would sit in front of my computer and stare at the screen. Sometimes my mom would sit with me, exasperated, helping me craft my essays one line at a time while I would groan and writhe, begging for the whole thing to end.

My whole idea of success was doing just enough to get a B- so that my parents would leave me alone. The notion of working hard enough to get an A was never in the realm of consideration.

That was the point of high school for me: to accomplish just enough of the complex, inscrutable tasks posed by old people to avoid being yelled at by my parents.

But looking back on it, I should have been the sort of student who loved school. I mean, not to brag or anything, but I was a really smart kid. If I care about it, I would learn the crap out of it. I memorized the entire text of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, because I was in the drama club. It was important to me, so I learned the whole thing. I can still recite most of it. I had a nearly infinite attention span for science fiction novels or any stories having to do with dragons. I would spend hours drawing and painting, because my dad was good at art and I wanted to be more like my dad.

But I didn’t really have a good reason to do the things I did during the school day. When I complained, my teachers would tell me, “Bear with me. We just have to get through this.”

School was something to be endured. A trip to the dentist. A traffic jam.

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Coming Online as a Learner

In between my Junior and Senior years of high school, I went to this summer program that changed my perspective on learning. It was an arts program that a teacher of mine nudged me to apply to. I applied and auditioned, and I got in. July rolled around and I moved in to a college dorm for five weeks. Every morning I took a three-hour class with college professors in theater, and every afternoon I had a two-hour class in sculpture or creative writing. In the evenings we all watched old black and white movies, and at night we stayed up late in the dorms eating pizza and talking.

It was the first time I had a fellow student talk to me about school stuff during our free time. He was a kid named David Benson who handed me a poem called “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and he asked if I would read it. I asked him why, and he said because he wanted to know what I thought of it. I thought he was a bit odd, but I gave it a shot.

The poem was long, and I didn’t really understand it. When we met up later, we talked about it for an hour, rereading parts of it and trying to figure it out. He was really into it, and I found myself getting really into it, too.

I had a few more moments like that over that summer, staying up late to finish a sculpture, rehearsing scenes with my theater partner, reading excerpts of Zen and the Art of Archery, sometimes staying up until well after midnight.

It wasn’t like school at all – we were all learning and sharing things with each other about writers and filmmakers and philosophers. None of this was the sort of thing we ever did in classrooms. It was like we were characters in Dead Poets Society.

The whole summer program culminated in a performance of scenes I had worked on in theater class and an exhibit of visual arts, and other students shared films they shot and poems they composed and music they learned. On the last day, we were given a homework assignment to share what we had learned with someone out in the world. No grades were involved – we were just supposed to do the homework because that’s what artists do.

At the end of the summer I came back home and fell into a deep funk, because I missed all of my artsy friends. My family and I went on vacation to the beach and I moped all over the beach house. Regular high school was starting back up, and I would have to take stupid classes with stupid teachers.

What really surprised me, though, was how much my stupid school had changed while I was away. All of a sudden there were teachers who knew all about these interesting subjects like journalism and mythology. The teenagers I went to school with were talented painters and actors, and they actually had interesting things to say sometimes. All of a sudden, Science and Latin had become interesting subjects, even though it had been agonizing just a few months ago.

I saw that my drama teacher used the same vocabulary as my painting teacher – things like “composition” and “form” and “negative space.” That connection was huge because I was able to loosen up my painting style and really start to understand what the Expressionists were doing and why Cubism was amazing.

And I could see that the ideas in sculpture like “perspective” and “flow” were actually the same idea in my writing. That really blew my mind, and I started getting better at my essay writing.

I got straight A’s my entire senior year – which pulled my GPA up enough to land me at exactly the 50th percentile of my class. I found a high quality college that understood that I was a bit of a late bloomer, but eager to learn. I loved college and I went on to graduate school, and I have been enthusiastic about school and learning ever since.

The Art of Avoiding Becoming One of My Students’ Stupid Teachers

Now that I’m a high school teacher, I think about my early loathing of high school. I think about it all the time. It’s not really that I didn’t have teachers around me who cared – after all, I went to that summer arts program at the urging of one of my high school teachers. And it’s not that we weren’t reading interesting books or talking about interesting ideas. But there was something that just didn’t quite click for me.

I didn’t get what education was about, and none of the things my high school teachers or parents were doing made any difference in me getting it.

I think that I needed to be in a space that I chose to be in. It wasn’t this mandatory task that I had to complete – it was an opportunity that I opted into. And I was surrounded by people who had also opted into it. There was a critical mass of people who loved learning, so it became cool to talk about learning.

I try to keep that experience I had at this summer arts program in mind now when I’m teaching Humanities to ninth graders. Sometimes I teach Lord of the Flies (which I freakin’ love now) but I never tell them what the book is about. They have to piece that together. And I try to talk a lot less than I want to. I’ve learned that answering questions with questions makes my students really frustrated at first, and then they go and figure out the answer on their own or with their peers, and they actually appreciate it.

And that can be hard when I’m teaching. Sometimes I lay a really good trail of crumbs for them to follow, and they just miss a certain metaphor in the text or a particular allusion that ties into the overarching theme, but it’s really important that I not tell them “the answer.” It robs them of the dignity of being a learner if there’s a single answer that they’re just trying to guess.

When a student has genuine choice and real opportunities for discovery, she stops being a passive patient getting a root canal, and she becomes the dentist. She gets to turn her car around to get out of the traffic jam and drive down a side road of her own choosing.

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Dan O’Connor

Dan O’Connor

I graduated from the College of Wooster in 2002, and went on to get a Masters in the Teaching of English from Columbia University, Teachers College. I teach Humanities here at Hawken. One of the big reasons I went into teaching high school is that I had a crummy time as a high school student myself, so I want to redesign a learning environment that is enjoyable and enriching at the same time. School works best, I think, when students choose to learn, so I like to give my students meaningful choices in the classroom that they can make every day.

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