Why I went from being a top student to an expelled dropout

I was expelled from school in 9th grade, and I’m currently 19 years old with no plans on ‘finishing’ my education (as if education ever ends). I say this with pride, because too often, people dismiss academic-underachievers as “lazy,” and any attempt to explain our side is labelled an excuse. I feel a need to show why it’s rarely that simple for the kids who leave school. I used to be a top student, the kind that got praised by teachers, friends, and family alike. For me to leave that behind, it had to take something special. Through the following moments, I will share how I went from a parent’s dream child, to a delinquent with a reticent family.

My first moment was when I was dragged to kindergarten, or rather, how I was treated when I refused to go. The instant I entered, I knew in my heart that school wasn’t right for me. Unlike many adults who come to realize school’s faults through facts and logic, I felt it when I was five years old. Similar to a wild animal fighting its human captors, I fought my parents and school staff… and not surprisingly, I lost.

It’s not as if I hated school because my home was great and I never wanted to leave. My family is poor and abusive, but that very abuse was why I continued going to school. I was beaten and punished until I yielded. From being choked with a belt, smashed by a chair, kneeling in a corner for an hour, and not being allowed to eat, it was enough to keep me at the top of my class. By the time high school rolled around, I was one of two students from my elementary school to be chosen for the gifted student program. Everyone was proud, but was this worth it? Instead of finding an alternative education for their child, how many parents try to force their kids into school’s mold? Parents turn on their own flesh and blood, verbally/physically, because society says school is more important than individual needs. Maternal love is nothing compared to a good report card. Still, from kindergarten to 8th grade, I gave in to everyone’s needs but my own. After all, education was mandatory.

By 9th grade, I learned the difference between school and education. I saw facts being remembered exclusively for tests, then discarded a week later. I noticed many students making resolutions to do better in school, but by their faces and tone, I only heard false promises made out of shame. Students lied because schools told them their true feelings meant nothing compared to the sin of academic failure. What righteous ‘education’ system shames kids for the low grades they receive on subjects they never asked for? What kind of education is this? From my peers mocking struggling classmates because the latter were in remedial classes, to students labeling themselves as ‘stupid’ and ending up on anti-depressants, I’d had enough. Was I the only one who could differentiate between knowledge and intelligence? Could nobody else separate compliance from morality? The students gauged each other by grades, the teachers evaluated kids on obedience, and I started skipping classes because I felt alone in my beliefs.

Of course, we all know skipping class lands us in trouble, and I eventually ended up in my vice-principal’s office for truancy. The moment I walked in, he looked at me as if I was a criminal. When I told him where I went in my absence (sleeping in the library and sitting in the bathroom), he accused me of lying. I believe he thought that any student who didn’t do well in school was a sexual deviant who sells drugs. I knew this was how he perceived me, because the moment I told him I used to be a top student, his tone changed instantly. He spoke to me as if I was a confused puppy instead of an insolent degenerate. Somehow, this angered me more than if he had judged me ignorantly. I confronted him on his bias for ‘good’ students, I spoke ill of his beloved school system, I said everything. By the end, he claimed I was the “rudest boy” he had ever met, and I was expelled. Not once did I insult him personally, yet I was the rudest. I am both proud and saddened by this fact, because in all the years this vice-principal was employed, no other child has stood up to him. This man was never taught that demanding respect while making baseless assumptions about youth makes him a hypocrite.

After getting expelled, every insult against ‘bad’ students and dropouts rang in my ears louder than before. I was now one of the outcasts shunned by the world, not because I was a liar, a thief, or a killer… but because I didn’t graduate from school. This society hates anyone who doesn’t go along with the school system, to the point of being cult-like. It’s on TV, in our homes, on the streets, in the workforce. No formal schooling means you’re uneducated, and having low grades is the equivalent of being mentally retarded. Alternative methods of education — such as homeschooling, unschooling, and democratic schools — are still regarded as unconventional.

Humanity is the basis behind every action I made, and why I refuse to return to public school. My dissenters can spin emotions into ‘chemicals in the brain’ all they want, but I will never live that way. I’ll only believe a child’s depression is cured by pills when freedom and compassion fails her or him first. I will believe the majority of ADHD cases are real when all those misdiagnosed kids cannot pay attention to their personal passions. Until schools cease their invalidation of feelings, none of these meaningless lines will change me:

“Too cool for school?”

“Have fun flipping burgers.”

“Kids in Africa wish they were you.”

“You can’t learn anything without school.”

“This is what the real world is like.”

“Grow up and deal with it.”

“Go back to school.”

I will go back to school when the apathetic adults that run them go back to their childhoods and pick up the humanity they left behind.

Luke Dang, 19, was expelled from school when he was 14. He now spends his time writing about youth rights, teenage depression, and compulsory schooling. He works at EQI.org.

25 responses

  1. Pingback: Why I Went From Being A Top Student To An Expelled Dropout • Social Justice Solutions

  2. Luke-
    Thanks so much for writing this. I was always a Straight A, GATE, and Honors student, until dropping out of a Continuation School during my third year of high school and taking the CA High School Proficiency Exam instead of wasting another second of my life trying to do what was expected by finishing high school. Now that I am an adult, I realize I’ve always been a completionist. I do it now in video games and I did it when I was in school. Learn the objective, obtain 100% of the objective, get the reward. I always felt internal pressure to get 100% on everything in school because that was the point of school! This led to me being labelled as the teachers pet, the perfectionist, and the “good student.” In 9th grade, I was sexually assaulted by a school employee and things rapidly went down hill from there. All the usual suspects… Missing school, missing assignments, grades dropping, changing schools, getting in with the “wrong crowd” (or, in this case, the “non-conformists”)… When I ended up in continuation school in an attempt to finish High School a year early by working at my own pace, I was constantly called into the principal’s office and lectured on my choices and how I was ruining my future and was only in that school because I had fallen behind. When I pointed out to him that I was actually ahead of my class and just wanted to be out of there, I got lots of great lectures on “not taking the easy way out” and life not having shortcuts. Not once did anyone ask me what had happened. No one wondered why I had this sudden change. No one cared that I was smart or funny or hurting so terribly inside. And never mind that I was finishing a quarter of school a week working at my own pace. All they cared about was getting their money from the state by having me enrolled and not truant. To this day, I am outraged that “the system” failed me so badly, but even more outraged that I was put into the system to begin with. When I got to the part of your post that described what people would say to you after you dropped out, I could hear them in my own mind. The voices of the former teachers, the 4-H leaders, the people at my mom’s church, and the parents of my friends and friends of my parents… All of the disappointment at what I had done to my future. All of the blame. None of the questions about whether what happened was right. None of the responsibility for what the system does to those of us who can’t or won’t conform. I wholeheartedly know where you are coming from and wanted to thank you for putting into words what I’ve been thinking for the past 10 years.

  3. This was indeed a very heart felt piece; one that many need to hear – so thank you for that. My immediate reaction is that I am so very sorry, Luke, that there was never a connection with a caring adult in your years in the public education system. Becase I can’t believe there was not a single adult in any of those schools who was compassionate and caring. My story is also, in many ways similar, and although I did connect with a very caring and supportive administrator, I dropped out in the first few weeks of the 10th grade. It only took 4 months working in a coat factory (an environment, I might add, that was much harsher than any school classroom I was ever in!) at age 15 to realize this was not the life I had imagined for myself. My path then led me to a Community Action Center and a social worker who had a dream of an alternative high school.

    We all must choose our own path when we come to a crossroad, whatever our age, and then be willing to deal with whatever consequences come as a result. It is unfortunate that others can be so harshly critical when ours is ‘the road less taken’.

    I am in complete agreement that our education system is in so many ways, broken. At the same time, I think it is even more damaging to make broad generalizations and fling our own harsh criticisms without suggesting solutions based on our experiences. Not only because it is harmful and disparaging of those who are working to make it better – I know some of them, and I suspect you all do, too. There are many teachers, counselors and yes, even some administrators, who care very deeply about kids, and who can’t thrive or bring about change in an environment where they are being beaten down, either.

    When it came time for my partner and I to make decisions about our children’s formal education, we looked at schools, researched and talked a great deal, and in the end decided that we fundementally believed in the concept of public education. We paid close attention and stayed involved thru the years of our childrens in school, despite the many extra meetings and time committments, believing that we could better make change from inside the system. Were our kids happy and fulfilled all of the time at school? Absolutely not – if we are happy and fulfilled all of the time, we would never have the opportunity to learn from our own or others mistakes. But they did get that formal education and as a bonus made some lifelong friends, learned about respecting both peers and adults where it was earned, and most importantly grew into critical thinkers who can problem solve and often come up with solutions. I certainly do not give any one school or teacher all of the credit for this – they were merely one component of the complex environment helping my kids figure out who they were going to become as adults.

    I don’t suggest that any one path is better or worse – just the one we chose. And, I do fundamentally believe that (forgive the cliche) if we are not part of the solution, we are likely part of the problem. It really will take all of us to talk, research and figure out what we need to do next, together. (Disclaimer -I am not nor have I ever been part of the public education system. :)

    • I know your comment is made generally and you aren’t targeting me, but I would like to leave this message in case anyone doubted my stance. I have another article on this site praising a principal by the name of Jim Sporleder, and I’m inspired by two teachers, John Taylor Gatto and Brett Veinotte. I recommend their work to anyone who’s interested in this topic. I just didn’t mention how some teachers weren’t bad in my article because I figured I would be Captain Obvious.

      Anyway, I won’t pretend I’m not biased against sending kids to compulsory schools, so that’s all I’ll say before I end up offending anyone. I tend to start flame wars and I don’t think the kind Jane Stevens who approves my articles would not appreciate my naughty side here.

    • Hi Pam w-E. It sounds like you found a better educational environment for your children than many others have experienced.
      I will make criticisms of the entire public school system in America based on a variety of experiences ranging from being a very active parent in a system which, based on test scores, figuratively flushed 75,000 children’s education down the toilet over a ten year period. Oh yeah, there were plenty of us trying to create postive change from within. I guess you get a certain perspective while dealing with the IN charge people deliberately destroying the best academic school by attacking its teachers. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find someone qualiifed to teach Calculus to high school students–and willing to do so in a blighted inner city environment? A Russian immigrant with poor English language skills does not last long in such a place where the children have had better and are demanding it be returned.
      I have also taught the “end-products” of the public education system in several parts of the country. Every year I encountered a greater number of recent high school graduates with an appalling lack of critical thinking skills–and a FEAR of speaking their minds in a classroom because that was NOT allowed in their prior educational experiences. I also discovered a serious lack of compassion among administrators and teachers alike for students with any form of learning disability. Gifted students were often designated as trouble makers no matter what their personality type–they’re not all high achieving go getters.
      My ‘experiences’ extend to the private sector where I’ve taught children in levels ranging from gifted pre-schoolers to middle-schoolers.
      As for what would improve the public education system I’ve not only done my research but I’ve learned what works effectively again and again in a classroom –IF your goal is to engage the minds and imaginations of young people to encourage them to become lifelong learners with independent thinking skills.
      None of this is unknown. It is not waiting to be discovered.
      Some fundamentals:
      —Reduce all classroom size to no more than 14 students.
      —No teacher should have to teach more than 4 classes a day.
      —Increase one to one student-teacher engagements via meetings and conferences. Children respond to people who CARE about them. Caring does not mean forcing them to be like yourself or your notions of who you think they should be. It means gviing them the freedom to discover their own potential and the tools to manifest it. And then respect it even if it’s not quite your cup of tea.
      —Eliminate all standardized testing. It’s a worthless waste of time and energy that serves only the industry that produces its products.
      — Encourage active two way communication within a classroom setting based on mutual respect, tolerance and appreciation of diverse personalities. An important component this is making the distinction between saying things like “You’re stupid for saying that” and “That was a stupid thing to say. Why did you say it?” The point being to get peolple to address their thoughts without making persoanl attackts that create hostiility. Everyone does not have to ‘like’ each other but they do need to ‘respect’ each other.
      –People need to think for themselves, know why they think what they do and be able to communicate such in a reasonable manner to others who may disagree and think diferently. .
      –Eliminate all mandatory curriculums which do not take into account the reality of the students.
      –Discard the textbook industry which exists only for profit and indoctrination of certain social-political agendas.
      –Engage the imagination in a manner that encourages thinking skills that keep lookiing for the best solution to any problem. In other words, when one solution doesn’t work then move on to the next and the next until you create one that does solve the problem.
      –Eliminate all grades. Yes, all of them. Either some one learns the material in order to apply, understand and share it or they do not. Learning is its own reward. It cannot be measured by A, C or F. If a child is not learning, then the why must be deteremined and addressed. A society should not throw away the children who are not learning.
      –Provide quality phsyical education every day of the school year. A healthy body helps make a healthy brain/mind.
      -INCREASE rather than eliminate and destroy ARTS courses. Children who learn to play musical instruments also learn MATH skills much more effectively and successfully. Music, visual arts, performing ARTS are NOT fluff. They are disciplines themselves and are examples of opportunites for application of a wide range of intellectual skiils.
      -Promote and provide literacy programs for every member of a community.

      The world is becoming more complex and people need thinking skills in order to adapt and thrive–not just survive and endure.

      Yes, I know these things work based on direct experience with a diverse range of ages, cultural groups and economic classes. You know you’re doing things right when a former student comes up to you in a crowded public place and says, “You probably don’t remember me because I was so quiet, but because of that one course with you I now teach History and English to high school students. I learned how to work hard and have fun doing it. I’m lucky enough to have found a private school where I can do that with my students. It’s not easy. They’ve been shortchangd for a long time. But I’m getting results.”

      There’s my “grade.”


  4. Hey Luke, WELL DONE! You saw right through the toxic BS from the beginning :))). I also hated it from the very first time I was forced to go. I remember clearly the first time my mum took me into my first class and other kids looking round. I hated and loathed school all the way through. It was the bane of my childhood and adolescent years.
    These places destroy kids (some say they are best days of their lives. Well good for them. It’s not same sorry for others), yet you do not get any compensation for the damage done. In fact when you leave you find out WHY those places are like that. It is because the goddamn system is like that. There are people living homeless on the streets and treated like dirt. People in horrible concrete hells with SWAT teams busting into their homes, and youths being imprisoned for having quantities of drugs (search The New Jim Crow at Youtube). Of course once convicted they lose all their citizen rights for life, AND the system profits from the prison industry. So to see through their so-called ‘education’ system which is intended to pump out zombies who do not question this evil crap, including warmongering, killing innocents, etc etc etc, is VERY INTELLIGENT!

    • Thanks for your comment, Juliano. Because you and so many others before you recognized the shortcomings of traditional schools, many schools exist that take a very different approach, that ask each child how she or he learns best and what gets in the way of that learning so that the child can succeed. And so it goes for organizations that deal with people across their lifespans, no matter what their circumstances. There are trauma-informed homeless shelters, trauma-informed emergency rooms, trauma-informed hospitals, trauma-informed courts, etc. Just not enough of them, yet, to make it the norm. But with your experience, insight and help, it will be.

  5. You are one awesome person! You had the courage to buck the system. Your story belongs in a new edition of The Teenage Liberation Handbook, which is about teenagers taking control of their own education (and ditching the schools). Kudos to you.

  6. You are definitely a better writer than most “educated” people I know. Please keep writing, you are an instrument for change.

  7. Hat off to you Luke – you are correct school does not validate who we are. I was a high school drop and I have always believed that kids that get a diploma are not necessary smarter, however they do what the system expects them to do – follow your heart. You have much more knowledge than so many and it’s not because of our failed school system. After attending college for two years my youngest threw the towel in because what she wanted to do had nothing to do with having a degree.

  8. This is a sad but brilliant piece. Many thanks to the writer, I am parent to a gifted 10 year old, and will remember this for a long time.

  9. Have reblogged this. I know exactly what this is all about. Change is long overdue for a system that does not work for most of the children in any way, shape or form. Thanks for posting this.
    Hey Luke, you sound All Together and brilliant to me.

  10. Great post Luke. You touch on issues that take me back 50 years to my early school experiences in working class Detroit. It’s sad to head so little has changed. Keep trusting your heart and your values Luke. They are your truest guide to a meaningful life.

  11. This is very moving…the American educational system is terribly broken in the way it approaches teaching and learning…your experience is a true testament to that…..young people in this nation are now viewed as one of the disposable populations relegated to that stupid “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude that leaves humanity and compassion totally out of the equation…I felt it everyday I spent in school and also in college even though my experience was not as extreme as yours…..I hope that you are one day able to return to a school system that is less apathetic and more caring and humane. … may I suggest critical pedagogy as a topic of interest…it’s a philosophy of education dedicated to helping student’s develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power..all clearly well under way in your mind..paulo freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed is considered its pioneering work…

  12. I have to say that I too felt school was dehumanizing and cold. The teachers, with rare exception, were not interested in me as an individual apart from my grades. Where was the love? How can children be taught without it when love is the natural emotional currency through which they learn good positive things?

    Coming from an abusive background must also have sensitized you even further to student and teachers’ inhumanity to each other. School feels toxic. In the book, The Sociopath Next Door, it states that since sociopaths are devoid of love and feelings of bonding, they seek gratification through power, and controlling people and events like pieces on a chess board. If that doesn’t describe the school environment, I don’t know what does.

    We had to pull one of my sons, who is super intelligent, out of 7th grade because he had a teacher who was a “screamer.” Imagine being a straight A student and having to listen to her berate your friends who are struggling with school. It was so painful for him, like a dog in an experiment who cannot escape the electric shocks (screaming) he eventually became depressed before he told us what was going on. We sent a formal notice to school saying he was going to be homeschooled for the rest of the year, and the school “sicced” (like telling a dog “sic ‘em) CPS on us. When the social workers arrived, they had no knowledge of the notification or the situation. It was pure retaliation from the school.

    Bless you for your efforts. I hope you continue to learn, heal and contribute as you seem to be doing. PS. The youngest of my 7 children have loved learning from the online lectures at Khan Academy. I will even sit and watch because they are so well done, and they even have coaching. This is the future of humane education.


    • You’re making history, kiddo. I’m as proud of you as I am my own 19 year old son.

      Please do yourself the favor of checking out Seth Godin and his work entitled, “What is School For? ”

      You’ll be glad that you did. I’ve been working on reforming this broken thing for 25 years. Be very proud.

      Big T.

  13. Reblogged this on Beyond Meds and commented:
    This is a kid following his heart and head believe it or not. I suspect he will be successful in life. Learning to trust ourselves is more than half the battle and our school system sure as heck does not teach us that.

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