School Daze

When did high school become so intense?

adam platt

I write this column on the precipice of the Labor Day weekend. It is north of 90 degrees out and has been for a week. Perfect State Fair weather, right? In fact, my teenage son is at the fair as we speak, even though he’s supposed to be in school.

If you’re a Minneapolis Public Schools kid, this last practical week of summer is actually the first week of fall. That’s because the district now starts eight days earlier than most school districts in the state.

When my son began his sophomore year at Southwest High this week, the temperatures in the non-air-conditioned building were beyond stifling. After three days, the district decided it could not continue to support its hot schools with iced ceviche, chilled mineral water, and pool boys, so it closed the buildings with no a/c through Labor Day. (My fourth-grade daughter soldiered on in her air-conditioned school, wondering how she could be so unlucky.)

It’s one thing to pack a bunch of adaptable little kids into a hot building, but it’s another entirely to pack a bunch of nearly grown, inherently smelly, hormonal teenagers into such a space. I note this not to dissect the district’s choices regarding the heat wave, but as a metaphor for the intensity that is high school today.

As my son was sweating it out in class, several of his friends spent six hours shoveling horse manure out of State Fair barns, an annual hazing ritual imposed by an eccentric coach. All that for the pleasure of running around on a track at the crack of dawn for several months.

Southwest High is frequently ranked as Minnesota’s best, and I can’t argue with that. I see plenty of evidence of kids receiving amazing, prep-school-caliber educations. But high school today is an intense obstacle course as well, and I mean that emotionally, intellectually, and socially.

Kids feel legitimate pressure to pad their academic records with sports and other extracurriculars as a means of blinging up college applications. But these adjuncts are no drop-in gatherings. They are demanding commitments requiring hours of after-school and weekend time, plus substantial parent participation in endless driving and financial support.

In the classroom, it’s the predictable mix of teachers running the gamut from great to substantially less than great. The best ones still open up pathways into intellectual and personal development that changes kids’ lives. Others struggle to manage classes with heavy quotients of impoverished teens whose psychic pain frequently poisons the classroom environment.

Southwest High is a diverse school, a mix of PC white kids from the city’s more affluent zones and minorities from around the city. I wish I could say I see good things emerging from that diversity, but mostly I see it reinforcing stereotypes and causing some kids to wonder about their parents’ idealized values.

I hated high school. I went to a homogenous, privileged suburban high school of 4,000 and found it to be an impersonal bureaucratic battleship. Southwest would break me for sure. So I’m amazed at the resilience of its band of good teachers, invested administrators, and perseverant kids who slog through the horses--t every day to mine the nuggets of gold.

My kid will be better for it. I think.