Fires in the Mind

What sticks with you from school?

As the school year ends in this “accountability” era, we’re pressed even more to test and summarize and analyze what students know and can do. But it’s also the season of high school reunions—and I’m always struck by what people remember most, 5 and 10 and 20 years out, about their learning in those adolescent years.

A friend passed along this email from her brother (class of 1992), who went with a few of his high school drama club friends to take a last look at their old auditorium, slated for demolition in a major renovation. “The evening proved to be much more emotional than I had expected,” he writes:

It didn’t hit me in the lobby, or even when I walked into the auditorium with the orange seats. But it started to hit me when I walked up the stairs on far stage right, the same stairs that G. walked up after he fell off the stage at the end of “You Can’t Take It With You.” It hit me when I walked backstage and saw that it looked almost identical … the toolroom in which something may or may not have happened between M. and A., the chaotic placement of wood in those shelves, the makeup room. … It hit me as I sat on the edge of the stage, with my feet dangling over, looking out to the orange seats and thinking about the crew meetings in which the honchos would be sitting on the stage and the crew would be sitting in the first couple rows of seats.

Later, I would walk around the mostly-unchanged high school, struck by how emotionless it was for me. (The only thing that moved me was how the student artwork in that first floor hallway was unchanged from when we were there.) But of course most of the high school was just a place where we took classes. That theatre was . . . not to be too cheesy, but that theatre was where I became the man I am today. That was where we channeled our passion, our energy and learned how to cope, how to negotiate, how to motivate, how to make something happen. That theatre was home, in some ways as much as [our family home] was for me.

Reading this, I thought about what kids like this are actually rehearsing in all those hours of absorbing “non-academic” activities—whether in the arts, sports, or other areas. What they learned, Ted Sizer used to say, constituted the “residue” of a high school education: what remains long after we have forgotten everything we studied for the tests.

How much higher could the stakes rise, than to show that kids know “how to cope, how to negotiate, how to motivate, how to make something happen”?

What did you learn in your high school years that made you who you are today? Please share your answer in the comment box below! I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comment we receive.