Why I Continue to think of Schools as Prisons

When I was a child I had problems with mainstream schooling. I was bright, intelligent, and received a ‘gifted’ classification. Yet, at the same time, I had areas in which I struggled. Looking back with hindsight and a better knowledge of myself I now know what some of the underlying causes of the struggles were. These struggles were not detected by the so-called experts who performed psycho-educational assessments on me in primary school. They gave my parents and myself advice that, quite literally, almost killed me. Over thirty years later I regularly encounter posts and accounts of children who are struggling with mainstream schools because they do not fit in. In reality, I do not see that much has changed. Schools are about conformity. For those who do not fit in to mainstream conformity school is a mental and physical prison.

Physically schools are designed to keep students in. Many schools are big block buildings with few windows, and the windows are often too small for adequate natural light and ventilation–they look like prisons. With increased paranoia about security getting in and out of school buildings has become a daunting endeavour. Children are expected to fully conform to all the rules and edicts of schools even when they are harmful. Parents who let their children walk to school on their own are accused of being neglectful based solely on the age of the child and not the child’s ability. In my case, I was travelling on Toronto transit on my own at five years old. I had all of the subway stops memorized. Children are expected to sit still and be attentive for long periods of time without adequate physical activity. Their days are, by necessity of the structure of the system, structured and students have little to no agency in their own education.

The stratification of schools into grades pushes students together into peer groups that are not necessarily healthy for them. In Ontario as someone born in January I did not start school until I was closer to five years old than four years old. Being able to read and do basic arithmetic before starting junior kindergarten compounded this difference from other students. From grade one through the first two-thirds of grade four I had accommodations in the classroom. These were implemented by the teachers based on what I needed in the classroom. I had skipped grade two having been in a combined grade one-two class. The friends I made in grade one were in the grade two year. Most of my core friends at that school were girls.

While my core friends were girls I tried to fit in as one of the boys. A difficult task. It wasn’t necessarily my natural inclination. When I switched schools in grade four I lost all of the supports that were present in the previous school. I did not fit in with the other children, especially as my inclination was to try to make friends with girls. The teacher I had for the final part of grade four made no accommodations for me whatsoever. I was being forced to redo work I had already completed at the previous school, and in some cases in the previous grade. Her statement on my report card was that I didn’t know what was expected of me in the classroom. Essentially, I was not conforming therefore I was to be punished. I was not encouraged to learn. By the end of December in my grade five year I was having suicidal ideation and quit school. Staying would likely have resulted in a suicide attempt.

At the time the school and school board was not supportive of anyone who chose home schooling. Children were expected to be in school and do what they were told. After home schooling the rest of that year I started going to Alpha Alternative School which was a more open model of education, but the damage had been done. I was in a ‘regular’ school for much of grade eight, but did not complete the year. I refused to go to high school resulting in another set of conniptions from the school board. Throughout my teens I tried a variety of high schools, mostly alternative ones. The one traditional high school I went to did not work at all for me. When I tried to seek help from the vice principal assigned to me (based on surname) for guidance I was dismissed and told that I just had a chip on my shoulder.

I did not fit the mould for a variety of reasons. One, I had suppressed being trans for my own safety. Any sort of difference was punished by peers, teachers, and school administration. Second, my learning style and sensory needs were not recognised at all by the so-called experts. I now know that I am on the Autism Spectrum and it explains a lot. Had I had the required support things may have gone differently for me. When I pay attention to the stories of young people today I find that things have really not changed all that much.

School boards have alternative schools that are focused on getting students back into mainstream schools rather than helping them learn and get through high school in a supportive way. Independent lesson plans while looking good on paper are difficult for teachers to implement in large classes. Students are forced into schools that are not good for them. If a child or teen has parents with the resources and ability home schooling is a possible option. It is not, however, an option that all parents are able to take. Income plays a significant role in what supports are available to students of all ages.

We need to do better as a society. Focusing on standardised tests leaves students behind who don’t think in the way that the test writers expect them to. Forcing children to conform is often harmful and causes lasting harm to the person. As one parent, Amanda JettĂ© Knox, pointed out, if a job is unhealthy and toxic one can leave the job and there are other options. In the school system, however, one cannot easily change schools. Even if one does change schools the system remains the same with the same sort of culture. In most places alternative schools are few and far between. Many alternative high schools will only take students who are over sixteen or in grade eleven or twelve.

For many of us we gain our education in spite of the formal elementary and high school system, not because of it. The harm done to so many by school sits with us for the rest of our lives. We may overcome it but we never can leave it fully behind us. I weep for young people for whom school is a hell that seems never ending. For those who are not able to embrace learning because they do not learn in ways that conform to the expectations of a system geared toward the “average.” For students who do not fit in to the social standards the situation is compounded. They receive flack from peers, teachers, and administration. The problem is theirs and they are expected to suck it up and conform, even if they are not able to.

We must do better as a society. We can do better. All it takes is political will and a willingness to provide adequate resources to school boards, parents, and, most importantly, to students.

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