As I sit here thinking about my own experience, forty-plus years ago, deciding high school was not the place for me, I wonder whether anyone anyplace other than where I was could have done what I did as successfully at that time. And I think how much easier it would be now.
I grew up in Manhattan and in late 1967, when I left school for the first time at age 14, Manhattan was, for me, a 12 mile long, 1.5 mile wide educational experience. A brief subway or bus ride could deliver me to any one of dozens of museums of art, natural history, craft or occupation. Or I would emerge from underground into what seemed like a different city where the people spoke Chinese, Italian, Spanish or Ukrainian and the foods in the restaurants were the best kind of spoon-fed learning.
Eugene McCarthy was emboldening and enlisting young people to become the driving force behind his idealistic campaign for the Presidency and against the Vietnam War. I had already worked on some political campaigns and, when the cold January winds blew, the NYC campaign headquarters at Columbus Circle became my second home; second even though I spent more time there than at my family’s apartment where I went only to sleep and shower.
New York City was made for the learner and I suspect it was only because I was here that I could realize, in retrospect, that going to classes at my two high schools, one considered at that time one of the two or three best in the nation, actually interfered with my learning.
I’m not sure, but I suspect that had I been living in Oklahoma, Iowa, Arizona or suburban Connecticut my experience would have been radically different.
It would also be radically different today because thanks to the Internet and all the wonderful tools that have become available because of it, a fifteen-year-old in Kansas, Kankakee or Kalamazoo could explore even more of the world from their bedroom than I could from the heart of the world when I was fifteen. It is truly an amazing thing that today anyone, almost anywhere, can learn almost anything her or she might want to know about, almost immediately and mostly for free. They would not even have to pay the subway fare I had to fork over.
There is, of course, a qualitative and experiential difference between looking at a picture of a pierogi and popping one in one’s mouth, or walking the streets on foot instead of through Google Earth, but one learns what one can the way one has available.
I am not arguing that the average, or even the exceptional, young teen has the ability to learn anything on their own or that they would even realize what they might be able to learn. I had guides, mentors, interlocutors and others who would steer me, challenge me, and teach me. I relied on those around me, but today those people can be anywhere in the world.
School does not work for everyone, but neither does leaving it. We each have our individual paths. Still, if one is not learning in school and is willing to take the risk and make the effort, the opportunity to get a broader, deeper and more interesting education is richer now than it has even been.
And that is a magnificent thing.
This post originated as an essay for The Teenagers Guide for Opting Out, Not Dropping Out, of School