A Young School Abolitionist
12 years ago this month I dropped out of high school. I didn’t know about school abolition then - I was in 11th grade and attended a quirky arts-focused charter high school. I’d been bullied since 3rd grade and decided to go to this school to escape - even though my 8th grade teachers told me it was a lesser school, lacking AP classes like my district. I didn’t care about AP classes, I wanted friends.
I attended Arts Academy in the Woods for 3 years. Even though I never received my high school diploma, I went to college and eventually was hired by AAW to lead recruitment. For most of my late teens and early 20s I was locked in a weird trauma bond with this struggling school. Nowhere is that tension more obvious than the essay I wrote in 2010, right before dropping out.
When I began to identify as a school abolitionist in 2018 - after reading Deschooling Society and attending a talk by Dr. David Stovall - I went back to reread this essay. It was a healing moment for me to realize that my 17 year old self was already a school abolitionist - albeit one without the language or tools to do more than exit the system, my arms thrown up in frustration.
I wrote in my journal at the time - and it appeared in the first draft of this essay as well - that being a high schooler felt “like being a cheetah trapped on a hamster wheel.” I have yet to come up with a better description of any of the high school activists I work with today.
Healing my relationship with my past self has been a major part of my journey in school abolition and youth organizing. Rewriting the negative narrative I had internalized of myself as a stubborn outcast, recognizing the systemic oppressions acting on myself and my peers, allowed me to access the brilliant analytical perspective of my child self. I share this when I train adult allies: we can only support youth leadership to the extent that we’ve forgiven our own inner child for our limitations and faults.
In honor and celebration of 17 year old school-abolishing julia, here’s that 2010 essay, without notes or interruption, because we should let teenagers speak for themselves - even once they’ve supposedly grown up.
I can’t talk about Arts Academy convincingly anymore. I can hardly bring myself together to think about Arts Academy anymore. It’s no longer one, cohesive idea to me. It’s a bunch of tiny ideas, strung together with barely a shred of evidence to suggest they spring from the same source.
Arts Academy was host to my most hopeless defeats, my moments of inspiration, my victories over others and over myself. There were experiences that made me doubt the worth of the human race and times that validated my place in the world despite all evidence to the contrary. There are no words to express the range of feelings towards Arts Academy that I must now make sense of.
I said when I first applied that by coming to Arts Academy I wished to break out of a box of unfairness and pretension. My essay described the world I lived in as “A place where creative thinking and individuality are not encouraged. It is a place where people are shunned for being different and for doing what they want.” In the beginning, this illusion of escape was enough for me.
Now I discover that by breaking out of my dreaded box I have encountered a cardboard sky. As is my nature, I will beat my head against it till one of us gives out. It may not be wise to ignore all consequences, but it seems expedient to broaden horizons when necessary. There’s a lesson to be learned from potted plants and goldfish: they only grow as large as the container you put them in.
I would like to tell you, who probably supported me faithfully and helped me to grow and learn, that I could not have done any better, and that I have no regrets. But, “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” (Arthur Miller “The Ride Down Mount Morgan”) Sometimes I say too much, or do too much, and I make myself look silly. Sometimes I’m moved to humiliation by the things I say and do. Other times, regretting those things feels completely ridiculous and I resolve to simply do better next time.
It brings me great sadness, however, to wish I had done more. I would like to have said those things I choked back. I wish I had broken more rules. And I wish I’d taken my peers more seriously. If I’d known my high school career would become a meteor that would rocket towards the earth at a frightening speed, I would have focused on enjoying and learning from my classes. I would have taken myself less seriously.
My first year of Arts Academy was bliss. A constant high, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Escaping from a place that made me feel lesser, which constantly demeaned and scared me, seemed like the epitome of freedom. I was full of anger, of hurt that I channeled into fiercely judging other people. It was here that I learned to trust and accept the people in a room with me. It was here that I realized we have more to connect us than can ever begin to divide us.
Sophomore year was nothing but dramatic. I threw myself into the school; I worked harder for it than I have ever worked for anything in my life. I thought we were going in a good direction. I sat back and enjoyed the ride. Suddenly I had the ability to work with a species I’d feared for most of my life. As I began to realize the limitlessness of the human condition, I was forced to think and rethink more thoughts than I’d ever considered myself capable of before. I thank Arts Academy daily for that opportunity, even as I curse it for teaching me to fight so hard.
I still do not understand this year. I do not know what went wrong. Somehow, over the summer, I gained an independence that I was unwilling to give up. Despite what I considered a new-found maturity, the classroom environment was unbearable. I attempted to condense, to listen quietly, but all I wanted to do was explode. My grades fell, my extracurriculars strayed from their devotion to the school, my motivation was gone, and all respect left for my teachers faded.
As I let go and took a step back, the fault lines of my heaven began to stand out starkly against the perfect picture I’d painted for myself. Pretty soon I lost all faith, I dreaded going back. My curiosity no longer felt welcome, it just felt like impertinence. I couldn’t play along filling out worksheets and one-sentence-summaries, hoping one day I’d be allowed to discover the world the way I wanted to. Trapped, I looked for ways to escape. I rolled the dice and found a way to take my GED and begin my life.
I would not say that Arts Academy failed me, as I’ve heard many other seniors say as they left the building. I would not say that it lived up to my expectations, either. The fact that I am a new person, a revised version of myself, is proof enough that AAW was worth it. I measure my time at Arts Academy in growth. Rebounds, accidents, band-aids, tears; none of that counts. It’s the ground I’ve won that I’m looking back on, despite the moments that ran me into the smelly bathroom for a good cry.
There’s no way to go back on my experience, my disappointment. I have advice as to how to avoid it in the future – with the humblest of apologies for my impertinence. I’m aware that, as a student, I cannot know the difficulties of governing a school. Still, as a shrewd observer, it seems to me that in a place like Arts Academy we must respect the student before ourselves, in order to trust them. This means giving them liberties that don’t necessarily guarantee our own comfort. If Arts Academy is to become a community, a true family, it cannot be a game of “control the teenager.” It must be a two-way effort to work together toward the betterment of all.
Learning in an environment like this cannot be about testing and homework lunches and literary coaches. It has to be about stretching the limitations of the mind, in order to understand something otherwise foreign. It’s uncomfortable, it’s difficult, it’s time consuming and it’s unusual. But that’s exactly what new students expect from us. Arts Academy loses its magic when this sense of cultural and educational authenticity begins to fade.
When I was released from Warren Woods Middle School to come to school at Arts Academy in the Woods, I did a mental inventory. I said to myself “Are you done? Did they break you?” I felt healed, but I could sense the scars waiting to rise up every time my pride was threatened.
It’s shocking to me, but I still don’t feel broken. I plan to continue growing as well. I plan to live a stressful and sometimes frustrating lifestyle. I plan to continue thriving through chaos. I cannot say whether my inability to keep my grades up, or my disrespect for authority, or my complete loss of faith in my academics, will come back to haunt me, but I hope not. “Sometimes, life leaves you without directions, without guidebooks or signs. When this happens you just have to pick a direction and run like hell.” (Maureen Johnson “13 Little Blue Envelopes”)
Preparation for my future is even more eccentric and exciting than the past few years have been, and it’s thrilling to be sandwiched between times of such possibility. It’s also terrifying, maddening and exhausting. Also, I wouldn’t have it any other way. That is the life I have made for myself, and that is the life you have helped me to build.
If you know me well, you’ll recognize adult-me in this essay repeatedly. The desire to break more rules, the idealism tinged with nuance, the disrespect for authority, the commitment to trust teenagers. I learned everything I know from this 17 year old high school dropout.
At this time in my life, I still believed schools could be the solution to their own problem. My goal after dropping out was to found a school - one that would be better than AAW and actually deliver on its ideals. My best friend and I filled a notebook with sketches and plans. Then I did some research and discovered that most of the structural solutions we envisioned would be illegal under Michigan law. When I joined Americorps, I saw how good educators were stifled and distorted until they became glorified prison guards - I saw this possibility in myself, and decided I’d never work in a school again.
The youth-run organization we co-founded could be described as “uncomfortable, difficult, time consuming and unusual” but it’s definitely not “a game of control the teenager”. In fact, I train teachers and adult organizers to support youth activists and “work together toward the betterment of all.” I think 17 year old me would be really impressed with how many rules I’ve broken, and I’m so grateful for the risk she took by renouncing her “good student” status and charting a new path to bring me here.