My neighborhood is buzzing over a scandal at the local high school. A school district investigation has revealed that a star basketball player was enrolled in a pretend Spanish class—and given a “C”—as a way to help him remain eligible to earn a college scholarship. The athletic director has been fired and the principal is being asked uncomfortable questions by the local newspaper.
The newspaper’s editorial page is outraged, of course. The teen basketball star’s enablers “do him no favors by helping [him] blow off a high-school education.”
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The part of the story that doesn’t generate as much media play, however, is that this is just one of many games of pretend that go on in high school.
I returned an essay assignment to a student once and began elaborating on some of the feedback I’d written on the margins of the paper. After a few moments, I saw her eyes drift around the room. I paused and said to her, “Are you interested in this feedback, or did you really just want to know your grade?” She smiled shyly and admitted, “I kinda just want to know my grade.”
Until I asked her the question, she was pretending.
I had a student submit a writing assignment that seemed suspiciously unlike anything he’d written before. While all of his other papers were written in Times New Roman (the default font for Microsoft Word on PCs), this one was in Cambria (the default font for Mac). I suspected that he had asked a student from a previous year to email him the assignment, and he never thought to change the font. When I called him on it, he admitted it and asked if he could re-write the assignment. When he resubmitted a new version, the website the school uses to track plagiarism located a 99 percent match with another paper in its database.
He was pretending.
Students who wanted to join the school newspaper would submit applications to me in which they would describe all the important work they hoped to accomplish as a staff member. Often, students would fail to deliver once they had won the coveted position, and would do so in such predictable ways that I actually assigned names to their particular methodology: the “backslide” was when students would join the staff and then immediately act as if they had never pledged to achieve any ambitious goals; the “fadeaway” described the phenomenon of students simply performing their editing or writing jobs in a manner that was just mediocre enough that I would eventually shift the responsibility to someone else.
They were pretending. And you know what? I never blamed them one bit.
School never asks students what they want, it only tells them what they have to do. For kids to act in a way that allows them to carve out some measure of autonomy in an environment that offers them very little, that seems only natural. To ask teenagers to be pillars of integrity in an institution that trumpets academic achievement as its only goal and fails the integrity test itself—see the story above, which surprised exactly no one—is an unrealistic goal. It’s another game of pretend.
* * *
At PSCS, we just wrapped up Intensives Week, when students enroll in one class that lasts all day, every day, Monday through Friday. One student named Juliana was in the Yearbook intensive, where she got to create illustrations, edit photos on the computer, write copy, collaborate in a group to determine the overall look and feel of the yearbook, and teach and learn with peers as they tried out a new software application together.
She offered an appreciation at the all-school meeting that ends our day. She said, “I want to express my appreciation for a school that allows me to spend my days doing the kind of work that I hope to do for the rest of my life.”
No arbitrary required classes. No arbitrary grading systems. No pretending.
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