It?s Not Always Your Kid – Sometimes the School IS the Problem

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This will be a very long post – the longest I?ve ever written – but if you have kids in high school, or will soon, this is something you need to be aware of. Now that my daughter is finished with high school – and we have the postscript on ?her story? – I feel compelled to report this episode in her life in the hope that it will provide some direction to other families dealing with troubles at school, particularly high school. I?m here to tell you categorically that the problems your child is having at school aren?t always your kid?s fault. Yes, sometimes the school IS the problem.

A lot of kids struggle especially with high school, both academically and socially. And while it?s easier to believe that your child must change to fit the environment – mainly because we can?t change the school – what they?re facing virtually every day is often completely beyond their ability to cope. We need to be sensitive to that and as parents, to do what needs to be done.

It?s Not Always Your Kid - Sometimes the School IS the Problem
It?s Not Always Your Kid – Sometimes the School IS the Problem
What complicated my daughter?s situation is that her school crisis took place in the type of high school that most of America dreams to have their kids attend.

But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Creating ?The Perfect High School?

My daughter entered high school attending what many in these parts believe to be the ?best high school in the state?. My son – who?s two years older – had an opportunity to attend the same school, but declined. It was the best decision he ever made in his then young life.

We were living in a district with an already outstanding high school. But after my son?s freshman year, and one year before my daughter started high school, the county decided they needed to open a new high school.

And not just any high school.

I call it Mattel High (certainly not it?s real name, and no disrespect meant toward the highly successful Mattel Corporation). You?ll get the idea why I do as you read on.

It wasn?t an ordinary high school. At $80 million (and built at a time when the county was laying off teachers due to budget cuts), no expense was spared in building this cathedral of American high schools. State-of-the-art everything, and more elbow room than you?ll see in the most plush office complexes. My daughter?s freshman art room was the size of a standard elementary school cafeteria. Excess was evident everywhere you looked.

The ?cafeteria? looked more like the food court at a large mall, with individual stands offering hot, cold, Mexican, Italian – you name it, nothing but the best for these kids.

And these kids deserve nothing but the best because they are the best.

That?s hardly an exaggeration.

The Perfect High School for The Perfect Students

When they announced the redrawn school zones about a year before the new high school opened, I couldn?t help but notice something that was more than a little bit curious. Having been in the mortgage business earlier, and knowing a good deal about individual neighborhoods, it was blatantly obvious that the map had been drawn in such a way as to include most of the estate-type neighborhoods in the new Mattel High School zone.

The commoners were largely off-loaded to the two neighboring older schools, including the one my son attended. Oh sure, there were a few true middle class subdivisions attending Mattel; there has to be some semblance of balance – after all, it?s a public high school.

But as proof that attendance at Mattel High is closely guarded, when the county was looking for schools for it?s voluntary busing program – busing kids from lower income minority neighborhoods to the upscale high schools – Mattel High officials declared that there was no room for additional students – even though the school is substantially larger than the two older high schools in the district (though with equivalent enrollment). The lower income kids were bused instead to the two older smaller schools. There was no room for struggling minority kids at Mattel.

And the county?s reaction? They went along with it. Apparently money does talk.

And speaking of money?

The median household income in the Mattel district is almost certainly the highest in the state, and by a wide margin. The kids attending the school represent some of the most well-to-do families in the state. While teachers drive to school in ten year old subcompacts, 16-year old students show up in late model BMWs and shiny new muscle trucks.

And the students themselves? Here?s where we come to why I call it Mattel High School. There are about 600 ?Ken?s?, 800 ?Barbie?s?, and maybe 500 regular kids at this high school. The Mattel Corporation is the manufacturer of the popular Barbie and Ken doll series, and the preponderance of the human versions at this high school is why I assigned the name to the school.

I realize that many will find this offensive, but the reality is that well-to-do parents tend to sire an above average number of good looking kids. Part of it is genetics, and part of it is availability and opportunity to have the best of everything. They can afford the best clothes, athletic trainers and beauticians, and I?d be willing to bet that at least a few have already undergone cosmetic surgery. When a poor or middle class kid has a physical flaw he?s often taught to make the best of it. When a rich kid has a physical flaw, it gets fixed. But I digress.

While you may think that this is the perfect high school to send your kids to – with the best of everything and the ?best? kids to grow up with – there?s a lot of illusion in the mix.

Robert Ringer has referred to such high schools collectively as Brigadoon High – publicly funded high schools that essentially function as private schools for the benefit of an elite local population. The name is a reference to the play Brigadoon, which was a magical place completely detached from the real world. And so it is with Mattel High School.

Or so it seems.

The dark side of The Perfect High School

As idyllic as this school seems to the casual observer, there?s a lot going on beneath the surface. There always is at high schools like this one.

Drugs are a major problem. Seriously. While we often associate drug infestations with poor urban high schools, thinking wealth to be an antidote, the opposite is closer to the truth. Kids with time on their hands, a lot of money in their pockets and a deep, abiding sense of invincibility, are much more likely to use drugs simply because they can.

My wife ran into a school police officer at a middle-class high school, who told her that drugs are actually less of a problem at his school than at Mattel H.S., and for that very reason. The kids at his school couldn?t afford them.

Competition is another issue, though I doubt that the locals get it. Competition is always higher in wealthy areas. Perhaps it?s because parents expect more of their kids. They want A?s and a lot of extra-curricular activities so that junior can get into the best colleges. There?s also sharp competition to have the best of everything, and among girls, to be the best looking. To some degree that?s true at all high schools, but it?s more intense at the upscale ones.

The problem is that competitive kids can make poor friends. They?re too busy competing to bond in a genuine way – how can you become friends with people who you view as competitors? It very much fosters an ?alone in a crowd? condition that can spread throughout an entire school if enough people are participating in it.

In the two and a half years that my daughter attended Mattel High, I also got a strong sense that both the teachers and the administration were indifferent. You?d expect more of a ?kid glove? approach at an elite high school, but that?s not what we saw. The principal wasn?t available, guidance counselors were no help to the kids and not at all cooperative with parents, and even the teachers seemed to be more than a tad distant.

I?ve theorized that the cold attitude of the school staff had three possible causes:

  1. Most of the students have a sense of entitlement and few restrictions from their parents, and that has to wear on people, like teachers, who live lives with limits.
  2. There has to be at least some resentment by a teacher who can barely afford to fix her ten year old car, trying to teach a kid who has a $50,000 BMW in the parking lot.
  3. Teachers are probably taken to the woodshed when they attempt to discipline the child of an elite citizen.

I can make these observations with confidence for the simple fact that my kids attended two different high schools, and though they were only a mile apart, the personalities of each school couldn?t be more extreme.

My daughter?s experience at Mattel High School

In elementary and middle school, my daughter was an above average student, socially adept and an active participant in extra-curricular activities, including sports. I?d even go so far as to say that she was sometimes the teacher?s pet. Even though we had every reason to believe that she had the potential to thrive at Mattel High, ?the little voice inside? was screaming don?t let her go there!

Over the objections of my wife and myself, my daughter opted to go to Mattel. She had the option to be ?grandfathered? to the old high school since our son was already attending there. But as is often the case with kids, she chose to follow her friends to the new school.

Freshman year was?OK?but warning signs were appearing. Part of what makes it difficult is that freshman year is always a transition time, and it?s not always possible to separate normal growing pains from serious problems. But real problems were beginning to build.

From the start, she admitted that she didn?t like the school, but couldn?t put her finger on why. That condition only intensified the longer she was there. I didn?t share my own misgivings, not wanting to make a bad situation worse.

She was beginning to have problems with her friends, some of whom she?d known all her life. Some were getting into drugs – the fact that she wouldn?t created an instant barrier. Kids who do drugs and alcohol soon have no use for kids who don?t. We were proud of her for abstaining, but it was also painfully clear that she was becoming increasingly isolated – even though she was doing the right thing.

Physical competition was another factor. I probably don?t need to tell you that my daughter wasn?t one of the Barbie?s at this high school. Yet I?m not even sure it would have made a difference if she was. Even if you are one, there?s always one – and usually several – who are better looking, leading to feelings of inferiority. Worse, some of her friends – who weren?t Barbie dolls either – decided that they needed to try to be.

I don?t want to get too graphic here, but when high school girls decide they need to compete based on looks, they start dressing and acting like the girls on late night television and on the web sites we tell them they shouldn?t go to. It?s even more acute here in the Sun Belt/Bible Belt where the summers are long, the weather ranges between warm and hot, and the kids are rebelling against the moral teachings of their earlier lives. But I think you can draw a mental picture.

In this kind of environment, you either become a leader, one of the compliant followers, or you fall off the social map. While that was developing slowly during her freshman year, it became her constant reality during her sophomore year. Worse, she was gaining weight (food became her only solace), her grades were plummeting, and she was becoming depressed – even morose.

An outsider may have suspected that she was using drugs. But it was the exact opposite. Her problems were caused at least in part by the fact that she wasn?t doing drugs. In a place where fantasy is the order of the day, doing the right thing has a way of becoming a problem.

My daughter?s experience is hardly unique. In fact, I decided that I needed to write about her story last week when I ran into a friend who has son at Mattel High. He reported similar problems. His son is about to enter his senior year, but has no friends after three years at the school. As well, he described the whole attitude of the school, including the staff, as aloof. I couldn?t agree more. Elite environments tend to breed exactly that mindset.

Sometimes it?s not your imagination; what you think is happening really is.

A happy ending

I?m glad to tell that this story had one. My daughter started her junior year at dear, old Mattel High, but just two months into the school year her situation was continuing to deteriorate.

It was time for Mom and Dad to step in, step up, and be Mom and Dad. That?s the real moral of this very long story.

We promised to spring her out of Mattel, if she committed to passing all of her courses during the first semester of her junior year. We told her to block out the social side of her life and just concentrate on her school work. She complied, but it meant she ate her lunch alone, or ditched out to the library. And it goes without saying that she had no social life outside of school.

But then we hit a snag.

Since my son had graduated from the old school, our daughter was no longer grandfathered, which is to say that the option for her to change schools was gone. The only way for her to transfer to the old school was for us to move into that district.

And that?s what we did. She started at the old school at the mid-way point of her junior year, just in time for the start of the spring semester. Were there risks? Of course. Starting at a new school can be devastating to a teenager. Starting in the middle of the school year can be far worse. But we knew two things:

  1. The girl we were seeing in our daughter was not the person we?d always known. We knew she could thrive in the right environment – she had that potential.
  2. She was crashing and burning at Mattel, so if we didn?t know what the future held at the old high school, we knew that Mattel was a disaster for her already.

Sometimes your only real option in a bad situation is to make an exit out of it. Even though our daughter ?only? had one and a half years to go to graduate, we didn?t want her to look back at her high school years as a sad and depressing experience. And the way her first two years at Mattel went, it wasn?t at all certain she?d even graduate.

So how did it go when she switched to the old high school? Extremely well, I?m happy to report. Yes, she was nervous and even questioned many times at the beginning if she?d done the right thing. But by the end of that first semester, her grades had improved dramatically, she made new friends, and her spirit bounced back to where it was earlier in life. Even better, her senior year was easily the best of her four years at high school. Mission accomplished!

All it took was a change in schools. And that?s the point. It?s not always your kid – sometimes the school IS the problem. Never think that because a school is reputed to be a ?good school? that it really is, or that it?s the right place for you child. And be ready to do what you can to fix the problem. Your child can?t do that if she?s overwhelmed. We may think that they?re resilient simply because they?re kids. But they?re often dealing with forces that they don?t even understand, let alone have the capability to fix.

The adult parallel: being in a bad job

Have you ever had a bad job. I have. My first job in the mortgage business, and my first job in accounting. Both companies were certified hell holes. No matter how long I stayed, no matter how well I performed, the job was never going to get better.

Have you ever been there?

All companies – all organizations – have ?personalities?. Some are incubators of positive outcomes. Others are totally toxic, and can even destroy your spirit if you stay too long and take it too seriously.

So it is with schools, and so it was at Mattel High. No efforts on our part to improve the situation through the administration or staff had any effect on the outcome – under the assumption that such subtle problems can even ever be addressed. Some organizations foster systems that are poorly understood and completely intractable. A kid can be overwhelmed by that.

Unlike an adult who can quit a bad job, a kid is stuck in a high school until they graduate – or don?t. They can collapse under the weight of being in a ?good school? and wondering why they?re so miserable. My daughter reacted by retreating into herself. Some of her friends reacted to the same stresses – which were equally unknown to them – by using drugs and/or dressing and acting suggestively.

Never allow yourself to be enchanted at claims or the appearance of a school being a good school, a top school, or any other enhanced labeling. Good schools have unique problems, and sometimes kids do better at just plain ordinary schools. Consider the possibility, especially if your kid is at a good school and struggling.

The very fact that it?s a “good school” may be the problem.

I know it sounds counterintuitive, but have your kids ever experienced this kind of school situation?

( Photo by JeepersMedia )

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4 Responses to It?s Not Always Your Kid – Sometimes the School IS the Problem

  1. I don’t have any kids, but I’ve seen these kinds of people in my area. Scary to see people so out of touch with reality. I guess trying to maintain a life of illusion will do that. I’m glad your daughter did better after switching schools; that will be a valuable life lesson for her too.

  2. Thanks Jo. I agree, it will be a valuable lesson to her. As the Chinese proverb goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. We see evidence of that in her already.

    Interesting that you mention “out of touch with reality”. I think that having money does that to people. It insulates them from reality, and that’s where you start to see the over-the-top behaviors. Making it worse is that I don’t think that the parents even see this in their kids.

  3. Agreed. Not all schools provide quality education to children. This year, I transferred my child to a public school because the school was very popular in the city in providing the children with many knowledge, skills and talent that they could learn. It’s a very competitive school.

  4. Hi Marie – Just be careful that it isn’t TOO competitive. Kids can get swallowed up in that. Even though you have good intentions, the situation can do in an unexpected direction.

    For what its worth the quality of education at the old high school my daughter transferred to was at least as good as it was at Mattel. It was all the other stuff, like the perfect image, that got in the way. A good education is the right course, as long as it isn’t being smothered by the sideshows.

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