Emily Skelding: In Defense of Dropping Out

In our circle, our son’s situation is not uncommon. Most of his friends have a relationship with a therapist. Many of his peers self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Social media, video games, and Netflix are enough to stimulate or numb others. Being overwhelmed and miserable seems normal.

I wonder: Do American children have a chance at surviving school unmaimed? Maybe the data shows that we are just one desperate family in a sea of desperate American families.

IMG_3104At the end of his sophomore year, our son quit high school. I blame myself.

I wish I could blame someone else. Perhaps it was the honors and AP schedule we pushed him into? Was it that his grandfather praised him for his grades, yet told him to aim for more A’s and fewer B’s? Was it that he heard disapproval when teachers gave him do-better pep talks? Everyone seemed to be saying: School is supposed to be easy for you. You should be winning more. How do you win at school?

When Sumner describes his academic record he says, “I was getting B’s and C’s.” In reality, he had mainly A’s, but those B’s and one C determined how he saw himself. He felt like a loser unless he proved himself brilliant.

At the end of the third quarter of tenth grade, his desperation peaked. He had not started his 10-page research paper. He was buried in nightly reading and reviewing for the AP exam. There were tests that week in every subject, a children’s book to be written and illustrated in French, and a literary analysis due on a book he hadn’t cracked.

IMG_3106For months his sleep was disturbed. Afternoon naps were followed by his groggy, grouchy presence at dinner. He retreated to bed early, but did not sleep. Before 4 a.m., he woke to do school work. These insomniac hours were spent distracting and rewarding himself with diversions on the internet and peanut M&Ms. Anything to quell the paralyzing anxiety, and get work done. His homework, academic reading, rote practice, problem sets, papers, and projects, were not meaningful. They were hoops he had to jump through to move on to the next scripted stage of life: College, then grad school, and career.

I wondered: What happened to my curious kid with a wry sense of humor? Hadn’t we protected his childhood and avoided the oft-maligned pitfalls of pushing children into an over-scheduled life?

In the midst of exam week, I offered, “No transcript is this important. You don’t have to do this.”

He rolled his eyes, “Dropping out? Don’t be ridiculous. I can’t do that.”

Before sixteen, Sumner was the easiest of our four children. He slept through the night at six weeks, spoke in sentences at two, and giggled easily. My husband Philip and I are overachievers. We liked being parents to this little rock star. Philip is a doctor; I was a teacher and administrator.

Elementary school was a breeze. Sumner attended a K-12 selective, public, arts school.

He and his quirky friends passed around their favorite fantasy novels until each book was well-worn. Teachers often lamented how they wanted to make more efforts to challenge him. He read in class and left projects to the last minute, ignoring the scope and rubric. His received straight A’s and scored high on tests.

His teens began quite normally. The year he smelled and needed to be told to shower was followed by few years of he and his friends losing themselves in the mastery of a new video game. He was cast in school plays. His sleepover birthday parties were full of squealing boys, wrestling, Nerf gun battles, and cheap pizza.

What was happening inside the middle school classroom rarely inspired or troubled him.

Occasionally, he missed homework or turned in a major assessment late. Philip and I let him struggle a bit; we believe in natural consequences. But every quarter he was crestfallen that he no longer got straight A’s. This did not change his behavior. We offered to help him out. He wanted our help.

We began reviewing teachers’ online grade books, which provided us up-to-date evidence of completion. Believing in an ounce of prevention, we reviewed his daily planner with him nightly, intending to gently remind him what needed to be done.

Our refrain was, “We don’t care about the grade, just work hard.” He promised to try harder. When that didn’t materialize, sometimes I yelled. My husband lectured. Other times we took away screen time in an effort to incentivize total completion of all work.

Despite his feelings of incompetence and our squabbles with schoolwork, Sumner impressed us. When our friends asked about him, we bragged about his lead in the school musical, the stories and poems he was writing, his mastery of Algebra, and the bike rides he took with his best friend all over New Orleans. Our pride in his accomplishments was drowned out by our constant monitoring of his to-do list. Vigilance hung between parents and son like a headache that doesn’t ever go away.

For high school, we resolved to be consultants, not managers. His peer group was academically competitive. Their identity was wrapped up in being the best without seeming to toil. Sumner achieved that in honors math and science courses; his academic rival was at the top of the class in AP Human Geography and honors English. Both were a part of a small creative writing program, heavy on reading, writing, and critical feedback. He liked the influx of new students and more autonomy.

stacks-of-booksThe summer after his freshman year, Sumner was required to read a book a week and complete several papers and writing projects before the first day of school. On vacation, there was not a moment to feel the expanse of time and possibility. He found it hard to enjoy a break as he was plagued by the feeling that he ought to be chugging through his reading list. Scripted calendars did not make him feel less overwhelmed.

One of his assigned summer books was Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. This book questions the belief that disadvantaged children primarily need reading and math skills to succeed. He argues that personal skills, such as grit and curiosity, are more important determinants for success. While Sumner was not a disadvantaged kid, he really sunk his teeth into the notion of developing grit. He felt like he had been coasting, and wanted to push himself to the edge of his potential.

His sophomore year began with a last-minute sprint to complete his summer work.

He later wrote in a Facebook post, “I plunged into school…determined with a new fire to ace all of my classes. Two weeks in I realized that a class I’d been psyched about was all hard work and discussions I felt too stupid to comment in. The new fire in me didn’t get me straight A’s, but I got pretty close with a 3.8 in the first quarter. My parents were patting me on the back and celebrating, teachers were finally off my back, and I wanted to be happy that I’d done it, but I really wasn’t.” It was hard to see around the fact that Sumner found no purpose in the mountain of tasks he spent his life completing.

By the end of the fall, Sumner’s intermittent frustrations shifted into an immutable unhappiness. My husband Philip and I didn’t want to see it.

But as winter began, it was hard to ignore the fact that Sumner was certainly bummed out, even down. He had friends. His grades were good and he spent his afternoons on the school literary magazine. But if he didn’t continue to put in long hours he would not achieve at the highest levels—straight A’s, national recognition for his writing, and maybe one day a national merit finalist. He was an accomplished kid living with a sense of inadequacy.
we began to accept he was depressed.

In our circle, Our Son’s situation Is not uncommon. Most of his friends have a relationship with a therapist. Many of his peers self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Social media, video games, and Netflix are enough to stimulate or numb others. Being overwhelmed and miserable seems normal.

I wonder: Do American children have a chance at surviving school unmaimed? Maybe the data shows that we are just one desperate family in a sea of desperate American families.

Aren’t the frequency of fear, isolation, inadequacy, difficulty focusing, and being bored by life the experiences we’ve written into the fabric of what it means to be a teenager today? It certainly was for Sumner. Does being an American teen equal anxiety and depression?

Julie Lythcott-Haim’s book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free from the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success cites a 2013 survey of college counseling directors reports that 24.5% of college students take psychotropic drugs to cope with mental health issues. The same study found that college students say 83.3% felt overwhelmed by what they have to do, 60.5% felt very sad, 51.3% felt overwhelming anxiety, and 46.5% felt things were hopeless. So Sumner’s experience is normal. Did we have to accept that fate?

Kathryn Fazekas, a neighbor whose daughter is a year younger than Sumner, expressed her frustration to me, “High school is more competitive than it needs to be. It’s like [the students] are brainwashed into thinking they need to take certain classes and get certain scores to get into college. Only a few students are going to those elite colleges. Creative, open-minded kids see through all that. . .

. . . My daughter is taking meds. She needs them to compete. Maybe she wouldn’t need to take meds if she was doing something else.”

To relieve Sumner’s suffering, we sought the help of a therapist, the school support team, teachers, our friends, his friends, and our parents. When I read Vicki Abeles’ New York Times opinion piece “Is the Drive for Success Making Our Kids Sick,” her research resonated. She wrote, “Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control….  Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life.” As we sought to relieve his depression, all of the recommendations, by design, were ways to prop him up and keep him on the ladder to success. Ideas ranged from medication to more dedication and hard work, from an easier academic schedule to a more challenging and engaging one, from Bikram yoga to outside tutoring, and from deep breaths to looking for a new girlfriend.

hj(1)We helped him do most of those things, even several months of sweaty yoga. A more challenging schedule was overwhelming; an easier schedule failed to engage him. Outside tutoring seemed silly. He was capable of completing any individual assignment; it was the mass of assignments that left him stuck.

With the help of a therapist, Sumner learned to take deep breaths and “fake it until he made it” through anxiety-ridden days. He also learned that the locus of control for his emotions lay with him and his mood did not have to be determined by his situation. He gained some useful coping skills. We were considering medication when the idea of dropping out came up.

On that day in April when I suggested Sumner quit school, he googled “life without school” and found people writing about alternatives to traditional education. At breakfast the next day, he announced his sophomore year would be his last.

Through gritted teeth I said, “Well, maybe. We can talk about it.”

Philip and I were scared. Don’t high school dropouts become deadbeats or druggies? What would he do with his time if he wasn’t in school? Get a low-wage job? Get a GED? Take classes online? Continue to sleep at odd times? What if he never left his room?

I’d spent most of my teaching career preaching to at-risk students that they needed to get to and then through college. Wasn’t a high school diploma the ground floor of a productive life? And what would people think of us as parents? Indulgent and soft? Naive and optimistic? Or tuned-in and trailblazing?

teenagelibWe were conflicted. While Sumner immersed himself in learning about how to navigate life outside of school by reading Grace Llewellyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, my husband ignored his resolve and made an appointment for us to visit the guidance counselor to adapt Sumner’s junior schedule to meet his needs. I hoped that some new combination of outside-of-school activities could brighten Sumner’s days and keep him in school.

One night, Philip and I sat down and created a one-column document entitled “Qualities we want to impart to our children.” We listed things like risk taking, problem solving, hard working, kind, content, and hopeful. Then we asked ourselves: is Sumner learning these things by going to school? The answer came quickly: no.

After several months of tense deliberation, we decided to take the plunge and let Sumner quit school.

Folks came out of the woodwork to say, “I wish I had done the same with my teenager. She limped across the graduation stage,” or “we are, quietly, doing the same for similar reasons” or “I want to do this. My child is suffering.”

Our son is not enrolled in online classes or studying calculus under our tutelage. He is educating himself in a less conventional way, pursuing his interests.

IMG_1090He joined a homeschooling community where he hangs out with other teenagers several days a week. He plays Magic the Gathering several times a week. My father and I traveled with him to Cuba to witness the country’s changes and he’s been all over the country on college visits. He studied Spanish in Chile for ten weeks and worked at a camp in Oregon for 3 months two summers in a row. He earned money to buy components and then built a computer, he tells stories at open mic events, he bikes all over town, helps with his littlest sisters, and is now a vegan who cooks family dinner at least one night a week. He edits my writing. Local and national politics have captured his attention and he is better informed and more engaged about current events and politics than any adult I know. Instead of starting his senior year, he is taking a couple classes at a local college.

That’s his credibility list. Proof that we’re not asleep at a wheel. Like most teens he sleeps in late and we worry that he spends too much time squinting at the internet. We worried about that when he was in school too. He finds meaning in how he spends his time, contributing to our family and pursuing the things that truly strike a chord in him.

He does not have it all figured out and agonizes about his purpose and direction. Like most teenagers he has ups and down. But, now, his view of success is broader. He knows it is not checking boxes, jumping through hoops, and maximizing resume-building achievements. It’s learning to nurture himself by sorting out his dreams within a scaffold of health and independence.

Emily Skelding was a middle school English teacher for eleven years. She is now a New Orleans-based part time writer and full-on mother of four, ages 2, 5, 14, and 17. She blogs at http://skeldings.blogspot.com/ and tells stories at local story slams, like the Moth.  

7 Comments

on “Emily Skelding: In Defense of Dropping Out
7 Comments on “Emily Skelding: In Defense of Dropping Out
  1. We have a couple of boys who have done the same. Just out of couriosity, did your son go to Northwest Youthcorps in OR? All of our boys have gained valuable life experiences there. Also, we have one looking for a Spanish immersion program, what was the Chilean one like? Thank you

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I struggle daily with this issue with my son, and I just want to find a way for him to be happy. He’s at a school where he’s doing well, but to excel, his principal told me I should continue to consider medication!! Ugh I don’t want to force my kid on the system with medicine. To have the school tell me that sickens me

  3. Thanks for sharing this Emily. Very inspiring!
    We are just getting to frustrating homework times and it’s a drag. I keep wondering if it makes any sense. Love to see y’all sometime.

  4. I could have written this myself a decade ago. My middle (brilliant) son finally dropped out of school his senior year. In retrospect, I wish we had explored alternatives for him, other than other “physical” schools that were smaller. He got his GED that summer (aced the tests), but at 29, is still trying to decide whether to go to college.

    You and your husband did a great job in allowing Sumner to be who he needed to be. It is hard, in this environment of extreme competition at the middle and high school levels.

  5. I think school can be a toxic environment for some kids. My daughter quit the brick and mortar school for cyber school this year (9th grade). Just being able to get developmentally appropriate sleep was huge. (Why can’t school districts listen to the American Academy of Pediatrics?) Other plusses — working at your own pace, and being responsible for your own schedule. It is way, way, way, better — her stress level has come way down even though the classes she is taking are just as aggressive in terms of work and expectations. And she can still go to the brick and mortar school for the extracurricular activities that she loves. So, far, so good. But I had at one point taken the Teenage Liberation Handbook out of the library to peruse. Mental health and happiness are most important; you have to do what is best for your kids.

  6. Thank you for sharing a story that resonates with students and families across the country. I’m glad your son got what he needed by taking the time to pursue his life with curiosity and courage. Props to you for being brave parents supporting him finding his own way. One program available for talented students like Sumner is http://uncollege.org/, very much in support of young people using their talents to build skills and strengths through real world experience. The best way forward for your son and any student is the way that’s best for them. Wishing the best to Sumner and his parents!

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