What We Learn in High School–A Student Perspective



In my senior capstone, I have students bring in precious objects that symbolize their childhood, and we spend the afternoon sharing stories.

Every year, I assign a final senior essay that is an inquiry about what the graduating students learned in high school.  It’s an important reflection on their last four years of their lives, those years that are far too often a precarious bridge from childhood to adulthood.  As I page through the reflections filled with their lessons, joys, and sometimes regrets, it is always evident that the real learning isn’t from the academic content of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Instead, it’s from lunch table conversations, a whisper from a teacher, an F in math.  It’s from being late to first period, sending silly snapchats in science, finding your best friend two seats in front of you in English, and from making (or missing) the honor roll or basketball team.


A hilarious page from a student’s graphic short story about how he went from getting in trouble in my class to totally kicking butt in it.

All the essays leave some sort of impression.  I often get funny looks at the coffee shop as I sit in the corner and laugh aloud at funny lines, or sigh at the all too familiar feelings of social isolation and academic pressure.  And every so often, I stumble upon an essay that scuffs its wet shoes on my welcome mat, makes itself a cup of tea, and lingers a while on my couch.  This essay did just that.  In fact, I even had to get a little more metaphorical honey for the tea.  It represented the lessons and emotions of high school in such a genuine and raw way.  I immediately talked to Jada–the beautiful author of this peice–to see if I could publish it on this blog.  So here is what is learned in high school, the ugly and the beautiful, from her perspective (published with her permission).

I hope it makes itself at home for you that way it did for me.

by Jada

Telling your mother you want to kill yourself because of her is as earth shattering as the moment you took your first breath from the womb. I will soon find later that I allowed lies to slip through my teeth from anger. Pristine lungs that once filled with fresh air are nothing more than charred up lumps of coal from all the cigarettes I’ve smoked on the way home at 10:30 because I am trying to drown my sorrows in drugs that I don’t even understand.

“That’s just high school,” she says when I tell her I might commit tonight.

“Drama happens.”

I think they say a lot that high school will be the best years of your life.  Maybe that I will have all the time, energy and money to do what I want rent free, or that the stress will be significantly less than I am ever going to experience in my life as a conscious young adult. The complexity of life will always wrap me in a blanket of uncomfort through depression naps and over thinking when I space out in class. My mother’s expectations for me are higher than my own self worth, and the only thing I felt I have learned through it is that I cannot satisfy everyone’s needs over mine.  I cannot take care of everyone if I don’t take care of myself first.

I have never viewed high school as some sort of earth shaking experience of triumph and conquering and knowing all and learning all and that somehow in 4 years out of the 18 that we’ve lived we’re suppose to be wise and grown and responsible. When you’re a kid, you think of high school as an experience of freedom. Hanging out late, lying on rooftops to look at the stars that we can’t see and riding down long winding roads as you stick our heads out the window and scream at the top of lungs in hope that the wind will carry our fears out with it in that moment. High school is more like shaky knees that clink like broken bells, throats filled with lumps hard to swallow and hallways filled with empty vessels of people once inspired to reach their dreams. Now they’re just filled with sand and dust and lost hopes from the crushing realization of who we are to the world and the collapsing economy that holds us down with chains.

It’s hard not to look at high school as this dystopia that has crushed the dreams of mine and hundreds of others. But through it all, there are few moments of serenity and lessons learned that we all will carry with us for maybe even the rest of our lives.


An In Lak’ech Ala K’in butterfly (the Mayan translation is “I am another you, you are another me”) Jada created with the help of fellow Fulbright teacher Lavie Ravel.  On it is the feelings and emotions we all feel as human beings. 

I remember sophomore year when there is still love and forgiveness in my heart as we sit in English class and read Hamlet together.

“Where we are/ There are daggers in men’s smiles,” the teacher reads, her thin fingers following the creases of her lips upwards into an eerie glasgow smile that reached from one side of her face to the other.

This quote has stuck with me for years–each minute, each hour, each day, each week, each year, I think of this, and nothing other than the social climate of school reminds me of it. It’s taught me that life and people are complex and through the graveyard of eggshell smiles everyone can give you, some are filled with daggers forged by a thousand words and some of us will fall victim to it.

I’ve never had a milestone. In all the experience and things I’ve conquered, I’ve never had an inspirational moment of appreciation for my doings, because my doings were what was expected for the neurotypical despite my illnesses.

Out of all my trials and tribulations through high school, I think I’ve learned a lot. There’s never been a pinpoint moment where I thought that this was it. This is the thing that I will have ultimately learned in high school and will forever remember and learn from it. Despite every moment of heartbreak, anger, anxiety, sadness, revelation and self love, I have learned that it is written in the stars that it is bound to get better.  

Me and my mother are Kundalinist. We practice a spiritual form of sikh that follows and practices a lot of doctrines through their alternative of yoga. My teacher Shahkta has been a constant inspiration to me, and I will forever remember the two things she told me. One is that those who live their life in doubt, and anger and vengeance for the world, and use their energy to hurt others, in the next life and for every life will be a cockroach.

And that the stars are aligned just for us. And that even through the hardships, it is written out that things will get better. It is bound to.


This year’s OPRF graduation with my student Emily.  I love that the ceremony is called “commencement,” which actually means “beginning,” a fresh new start.  




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