Un-Education


    I moved to a tiny town because its school system had a big reputation. 

    
In the belief that education was a sure pathway to success, I considered performing due diligence with regard to a school system as a vital parental role. Particularly with regard to middle school and high school, I believed my kids deserved the “best.” So in buying my new house, I was also buying into the school’s reputation, believing that its ranking and ratings made it better than others, that its priorities would align with mine and that my children would be well-served.




    I couldn’t have been more wrong.




    Over the years, I have watched my nephews, my kids and the children of my friends left behind by the cookie-cutter dictates of a school that values its false reputation more than the kids it’s supposed to serve.
 
    
While the school can promise that most of its grads will attend college and that some of its alum will even go on to Ivy League schools, what it doesn’t tell is much more telling.




    Left behind in the wake of its success stories are the “other” kids from whom no one hears. Because they simply don’t have a voice.




    There are kids being physically and verbally abused as they watch their perpetrators go unpunished. There are students ostracized from the lunchroom community seeking refuge in bathroom stalls and hidden classroom corners. Young girls forego skimpy fashion styles, not for modesty’s sake, but because long sleeves hide the trace evidence of their cutting. And a legion of boys hides in a haze of reefer smoke because they feel so desperately alone. There are recreational drugs and alcohol, but also a boatload of prescriptive medications, all with the intended goal of making kids fit in. Kids with their whole lives ahead of them are thinking about ending them. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, thoughts of suicide  –they’re becoming less and less the exception.

    
Every school has to wrestle with problems like drugs and alcohol, bullying and cheating, sexual identity and harassment.  There isn’t a single right answer, no magic remedy. However, there are so many wrong answers.




    Like resting on a reputation instead of building a better one. Or choosing expediency over effort. Or accepting the status quo simply because it’s easier than challenging a wrong reality.




    Because the reality is an achievement warped by hypocrisy. We toss out trophies like confetti, then set unrealistic standards where every student is expected to be good at every subject. Students who don’t take honors courses are made to feel stupid and AP classes, once reserved for those passionate about a particular subject, are now being overpopulated by sub-par students who can’t handle the workload. In this alternate universe, average students no longer exist, but even the overachievers are barely getting by.




    When the message is to excel at any cost, that cost is too steep.
 
    
And our students are paying an exorbitant price.




    Low self-esteem, mounting anxiety disorders, depression. Anger at a system by which they feel betrayed.

    
And worse.




    Even the kids who are making the grade are sometimes getting there through shadowy shortcuts or by outright cheating. 

    
But it’s not their fault; at least not entirely.




    When a system embraces conformity at the cost of individuality, kids see the highest common denominator as minimal expectation. Measuring themselves against such a distorted norm, they can either choose to jump on the ever-accelerating treadmill or step off and out.




    And those often-quirky kids pulling out of the race are some of the brightest, most passionate learners the school has. But rather than grabbing a hold of those who stand out, it berates them for their alternate view of the world. Because it measures success with such a narrow scope, it lets them fall and fail; it abandons them.

    
Our school is supposed to educate, not alienate; support its students, not shut them out. We should be sending a resounding message that when we allow even a single kid to slip through the cracks, all of our students are the worse for it. Instead, our school touts its rankings and ratings and numbers. It’s all about the numbers.




    There’s only one problem with such a misguided mission: our kids aren’t numbers.

Nancy Kerrigan


    To the chagrin of all my past professors and editors, I’m pretty adroit at avoiding controversy in my writing. Not a fan of the sensationalistic big headline stories, I’ll read them, but generally leave their coverage to those more itchy for a scoop than I. 

    
But the Kerrigan family story recently played out publicly in the courtroom and media has gotten my attention. Less for its front page drama splash than for the complex back story that was surely built upon decades of painful day-to-day mini-dramas. Because as many of us may see Mark Kerrigan’s sentence to two-and-a-half years in prison in connection to the death of his father as a story’s closure, I am certain those closest to the family understand that it is but another chapter in a life-long saga dictated by addiction. 

    
So much of this story’s coverage seems scripted for television. For Nancy’s sake, I hope no one chooses to further exploit what would most likely have remained a family’s personal tragedy, had in not been for the renown of one of its members. Perhaps the producers of such fare will take a pass –it does seem a bit too easy.




    Each of the actors in this particular drama played exactly the role one might expect; no plot twists, no shocking last-minute revelations.




    The sister, whose success outshone the other members of her family, stood up for her big brother. And in speaking for the victim, she said with likely accuracy that “my dad never would have wanted any of this.” 

    
The District Attorney spoke of accountability, but in the aftermath of victory, the Assistant DA acknowledged that “there are no winners here.” 

    
In handing down the maximum sentence, the judge pointed to “a middle-aged man” and his “repeated failure to address substance abuse and mental health issues.”




    Most telling, though, may have been the statement read by Mark’s aunt on behalf of his mother. Brenda Kerrigan said that she had “lost her husband and, for the last 16 months, have had only a shadow of my son.” My guess is that her son has been lost in the shadow of his addiction for much longer than that.

    
Anyone who’s been touched by alcoholism, even at its periphery, knows its cost is great. Certainly at its heart is always a single wasted life, lost potential, sacrificed relationships. But none of us is an island and the very connectedness that makes us human can also render us helplessly attached to those we love and the havoc they may wreck. The collateral damage of addiction spreads like shrapnel. None are left fully unaffected: parents, grandparents, spouses, aunts, uncles, children. And, yes little sisters. 

    
Families have a certain order to them and regardless of how old Nancy is or how well she’s managed in her life, in one facet of it, she remains Mark’s little sister. The seeds to her unconditional support for him were planted long ago. As difficult as it may be for her to continue to stand up for someone who continually lets her down, sometimes, it’s harder not to. Because hidden in the shadows of Mark’s addiction are stories that only a family can know, and which, to the chagrin of television producers, they most likely will remain unwilling to share.