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.