Four Things I Learned at School

school bench with textbooks in classroom

For thirteen arduous years of our youth, my peers and I sauntered through the land of Academia. We navigated the corridors at right angles, attempting to prepare ourselves for the next chapter in our lives. About halfway through these journeys of compulsory education, I couldn’t help but recognize the poignant truth that schools, thought to be formidable institutions of learning, are often more like a maze than well-trodden avenues to adulthood. Alas, the maps we draw for ourselves during these trying times are often incomplete, with the compass faltering in its guiding hand.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining amidst the chaos: the opportunity to unearth our passions, forge lasting friendships, and hopefully, find our bearings in this vast, complex world. Schooling inadvertently imparts broader lessons that leave indelible marks on our very souls. Through the ups and downs of my primary schooling, I’m able to relate a tale of growth, wisdom, and self-discovery. Allow me to share three pearls of wisdom gleaned from my time within those hallowed walls, plus one final lesson it took me much longer to finally learn.

It takes a long time to fully grow and mature intellectually. 

The first truth I stumbled upon in my academic journey is that intellectual growth and maturity are not overnight phenomena, like you may see in family films. Rather, it’s a slow, deliberate process, as our young, pliable minds are bombarded with nuggets of knowledge, skills, and experiences. The hope is that with each class in every subsequent grade, our learning experiences will grow more vibrant and meaningful than the last. 

Unfortunately, that hope is misplaced. What typically happens is that with each passing year, you cover a lot of the same material, but with bigger words and perhaps in a bit more detail. Each academic season you’re expected to provide longer papers, more insightful responses, and regurgitate even more figures, facts, and theorems. After awhile, education becomes a chore, not the journey of self-improvement and search for wisdom that you’re told it should be. 

Meanwhile, as our bodies, minds, and souls are ever-evolving, we must continually strive for self-improvement, even if school doesn’t give us those opportunities in a straightforward manner. It’s unfortunate that many of us fail to embrace the wisdom of our yesteryears while eagerly anticipating the lessons that lie ahead; I like to think that doing so myself is what has brought me to these revelations about my mandatory K-through-12 career.

Sometimes it feels like you’re in an endless process of learning to take tests and play complicated games of shoots and ladders. This becomes all the more true when you graduate with your high school diploma and enter the realms of university. But, what you inevitably learn is that with practice and perseverance you can get better at anything. 

You don’t actually need school to expand your knowledge and fulfill your dreams; all school is there for is to give us all a baseline against which to measure ourselves, and that line falls a bit lower each year. Fortunately for us, the odyssey of intellectual growth and maturity doesn’t, and shouldn’t, end until we gasp for our very last breath.

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all education system.

As I ventured deeper into academics, I realized that the notion of a one-size-fits-all education is a mere illusion, a mirage shimmering in the distance. We’re all unique, with distinct talents, aspirations, and aptitudes. Thus, it’s folly to assume that a single system can cultivate the boundless potential of every young mind. I learned even as a pre-teen that the key to unlocking the treasure trove of human ingenuity lies in embracing diversity, nurturing individuality, and reimagining the very foundations upon which our educational edifice stands.

There’s only one major problem: whether or not we like it, most public education systems are focused on a one-size-fits-all approach to standardized testing, grading, and curriculum. Even in my own high school years nearly two decades ago, there was an unwavering focus on uniformity. What they often referred to as striving for “academic excellence” was nothing but rhetoric for forcing the best possible test scores out of the student population.

Like a stubborn lighthouse keeper, the machinations of one-size-fits-all educational programming casts a blinding spotlight upon the educational horizon. Along the way, I see such methods stifling human expression of our youths The age-old adage ‘variety is the spice of life’ should ring true in our classrooms, yet the zest of creativity and the sizzle of emerging innovation are all too often drowned by the monotonous drone of standardization.

During my college years, I began to envision the potential that could unfold if our educational systems were instead to promote the diverse colors, textures, and strengths of their pupils. Individuality would flourish and students would sprout wings to soar to unprecedented heights. I’ve often dreamed of a new world of education, one in which traditional subjects intertwine with cutting-edge disciplines; meanwhile, ancient wisdom would meet the pulsating energy of modernity. Only through these bold new steps can we forge a bold and brilliant future for the generations to come.

But, it’s not enough for me to merely daydream of such wondrous possibilities. This is why with my words, I’ve chosen to act with the boldness of a pioneer, venturing forth into the uncharted territory of educational reform. We must ignite the fires of change, fueling the flames with the indomitable spirit of human progress, as we strive to construct an educational system that celebrates, rather than stifles, the dazzling array of human potential.

In the immortal words of Robert Frost, “we must take the road less traveled by…” Only by following this wisdom have I discovered some of the human ingenuity that lies dormant within each and every one of us. Our schools should bring us together in order to prepare us to go forth to meet our own destinies, not file us away into the have-been, will-be, and never-will.

School teaches you to be excessive in extra-curricular activities.

My junior-high and high-school years taught me the perils of overindulgence in extracurricular activities. The stories I could tell about my peers are cautionary tales about the quest for the well-roundedness necessary to gain acceptance to a storied institution of learning. While these extracurricular pursuits can enrich our lives, many passionate youths fail to recognize the crucial balance necessary for a fulfilling existence.

At first, I often found myself ensnared in a dizzying whirlwind of clubs and volunteer work, losing sight of the true essence of learning.  I didn’t play sports, and perhaps it’s for the better than I’m so athletically disinclined. After a time, I found I wasn’t really fitting in with any club that I joined, and sometimes was ostracized entirely, so eventually I just took solace in every school day’s dismissal, so I could return home to my video games and my words.

The digital realms I visited through my personal computer offered me an escape from the superfluous expectations that reverberated within the hallowed halls of Academia. With each press of a button, I traversed pixelated landscapes, vanquishing foes and solving mysteries that felt more tangible and rewarding than any club or committee ever could. Some of those landscapes weren’t too friendly, either, but I could at least walk away just as I did from those in what my peers would refer to as “real life.”

Meanwhile, in the sanctum of my literary haven, I found excitement in the tales of extraordinary characters whose adventures transcended the mundane pursuits of my peers. The whispered secrets of authors long gone echoed in my heart, teaching me that life was a delicate dance of choosing one’s passions wisely, and not simply accumulating accolades as if they were trinkets to be displayed upon a dusty shelf.

I began to understand the folly of those who clung to the notion that success was measured in the number of clubs or extracurriculars that one could juggle. By my high school graduation, many of my classmates were haggard and hollow-eyed, their once-bright dreams tarnished by the weight of their self-imposed burdens. Yes, their university careers were just getting underway, but it’s true when it’s said many youths leave the best parts of themselves behind at their high school graduations.

Eschewing the tangled web of extracurricular excess, I found within myself the courage to break free, to carve out a path of my own choosing. While it’s been a rough ride through the rapids of peer pressure and societal expectations, I continue to embrace the beauty of a life lived in harmony with one’s true passions. I resolved for extracurricular burnout to never obscure my own life path; I wouldn’t let the expectations of others burn me out, and although sometimes I let them come close, clearly I’m still here to write about them.

School doesn’t teach you what you need to survive.

The most important thing that school taught me is that the things I needed to learn for my own survival weren’t to be found there. It took well into my adulthood for me to discover that the true essence of learning lay not in the pursuit of well-roundedness, but rather in the nourishment of one’s soul, and the unwavering belief in one’s own unique journey. Bidding adieu to the storied halls of my childhood, I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and the friends I have made. Sadly, many of those friendships ended long ago; but, the lessons remain locked within the vaults of my being. 

Though the road of academic pursuits was often fraught with uncertainty, I now realize that school is not merely a means to an end, but provides valuable life experiences, many of which ultimately shape who we are and who we’ll become.In that realization lies the most profound lesson of all: learning to embrace life’s uncertainties and forge our own unique paths in this boundless, ever-changing world.

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.

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