Grow up already, school was over eons ago.
January 3, 2010 1:58 AM   Subscribe

What can I do to let go of the fact that no matter what I do, there's no way I can ever make up for a crappy schooling experience? (long ramble follows)

My primary school years were rubbish - being an ethnic minority, I faced a lot of overt and subtle racism (the teachers were bigger perpetrators), was often lonely, and was very unchallenged intellectually. High school wasn't much better - the racism was more subtle but I also fell into a deep depression only to have the higher-ups dismissed my mental health issues as "all in your head" or attention-seeking. I was also often mocked for my supposed lack of visual art ability (one time they told me that an entry I made for a competition was so bad they tossed it), and was told that I was "foolish" for option to go into Humanities instead of Pure Sciences. I came from a culture where grades were paramount and personal welfare or interests were not a consideration - I spent 11 years essentially being grade cattle.

Many times during my schooling experience I begged to go to school overseas, whether as an exchange student or as a boarding student - I was quite inspired by Enid Blyton stories but was also scared off by stories some of my boarding friends had told me. My parents were and still are overprotective, and wouldn't let me travel alone - I had to give up some opportunities to go overseas for school stuff, and when I looked up student exchange, they only allowed me to apply for the one program that was scholarship-based and therefore didn't require them paying a dime. It was to a country I wasn't interested in, but I applied anyway; I didn't get in.

After a year off I was coerced into university - I was already sick of formal education and would rather travel or do something unusual, but my parents were insistent on a degree. Before going into this university I had looked into the United World Colleges, which sounded like a dream come true - however, the Singapore branch told me that I was too old at 18, and I didn't particularly want to go through any sort of formalised exam like the IB anyway. So uni it was.

My first attempt at university was OK; I made friends, and the environment was very permissive, but it was also a very superficial place that wasn't run very well and had terrible academics (it had a national reputation for being all hype).

I took off after a year and a half and indulged my inner exchange student by going on a half year round-the-world community service & performance tour, staying in host families and presenting a multicultural performance in a different city every week. (Convincing the parents to let me go was a struggle!) It was one of the best times of my life, one of those moments where I felt that I was doing what my heart truly wanted. It had elements of what I wanted from UWC too - an international young crew, community and development focus, plenty of freedom.

In 2006, after my world tour, I started a well-known blog on alternative education, largely with resources and ideas for other young people with my schooling situation to break out and do their own thing. It's gotten me quite a bit of buzz, including messages from young people who thank me for being one of the view few sane voices in the education system. It was my way of trying to find justice for the crap I faced at school, and it did better than I expected, though now it's on hiatus for personal projects. It was heartening to be able to help other young people who faced what I did find their freedom, and a few years on I've noticed some changes in the country that are closer to what I wanted for my school days - less of a focus on grades, more opportunities for performance art, and so on.

I came back from the trip, worked for a bit, tried to get a job with the travelling org but didn't succeed, so acquiesced to my parents' insistence of a degree and packed up for Brisbane. I chose the location and the course - I knew I wanted to go overseas, and I didn't want to do something unconventional, so based on my interest I went for the creative industries. (I did initially want to go to an American university like Hampshire College or something equally unusual; however, it cost too much and the application system was doing my head in.)

It was OK; I had a couple of classes that were inspirational, though much of it was mediocre. I had different expectations of the university experience, about how people would be hungry to learn and we'd all be busy doing group projects and how student life was really active and etc - and it wasn't quite like that. Being an Interdisciplinary student, I didn't always have a constant class group, and I was often a weird in-between person - international student who blended in with the locals, too old for the "fresh out of school" crowd, much younger than the mature students. I was in a residential college too, where for a while I was one of the youngest undergrads; though I did make friends, it was hard to feel included when I didn't feel like drinking and didn't grow up in an Australian school.

I graduated from uni in March 09. I turn 25 later on this year. Whenever I read a school brochure or a cousin's yearbook, I get this twinge in my heart that goes "if only I could have done that". I wanted to be the school overachiever (well I was, but in a very different unorthodox way), I wanted to be in Band or a sport or Drama Class without having to be an absolute superstar and with full support, I wanted to have projects for assignments and not be laughed at because I preferred Literature to Biology. I wanted to be in a school where the medium of instruction was English, and where my curiosity and love of reading & the Internet was celebrated.

By right I should be thankful; I've certainly done a LOT in the past 5 years, much on my own effort and initiative, that most people in my situation wouldn't have. I'm growing as a creative artist, I've travelled the world, I had an exchange-student-like experience. I managed to make up for the crappy parts of school by getting involved in all sorts of other activities - I was quite involved with web & media as a teen, and in Brisbane I'm very active with community arts. But a deep part of me still wants to go back and beg my parents to let me go to school in Australia at age 13, to retry for the United World Colleges, to find a university much like the Dead Poet's Society, to find her dream school and make her childhood & teenage years a lot more livable instead of suicide-inducing.

How do I let that go? How do I bring myself to accept that I can't change the past, that there isn't anything I can do now at 25 that would enable me to relieve the educational experience without being way too weird? To just move on? I want to be able to see an ad for a school in the papers or read a younger friend's blog and not be jealous. My school sucked, but there's nothing I can do about that.

I do see a therapist, though I haven't for a little while and only just restarted for a more pressing issue. My friends are sympathetic (some of them have gone through the same system I did so they understand my frustration) but I don't know if any of us knows what to do. I'm privileged than most others in that I was able to escape. But I still feel more terrible than I should.

Is it just time? Is there anything I can actively do to heal?
posted by divabat to Human Relations (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Time will help, definitely. But what I'd advise is simply to pile up on experiences that make up for what you think you missed. And here I'm stressing the "think." You are idealizing situations that might not have been anything like what you imagine(d.)

I was starting the equivalent of pre-med when war broke out in my hometown of Sarajevo. A few months into it, the school was forced to temporarily close, and years later - years of seeing far too much blood and guts, I chose not to pursue this course of studies. I ended up, unexpectedly, in America and was so grateful to be alive that I had absolutely no way of making a choice as to how to proceed in the future. I eventually got a degree which has no relevance to what I do now.

As I like to learn and study and do courses and engage in education, I feel that I "lost" a lot of my real, age-appropriate opportunities. No one to blame of course, except crazed nationalists . . . but they don't return my calls, so redress there seems unlikely.

Forget about your parentsand blame. It's obvious they care about you, even if their plans weren't right for you. You're only 25. What's stopping you from getting an advanced degree somewhere cool? You're young enough (I know loads of MA students much older than you.) It's not too late, and having that experience now is a lot better than looking back and realizing how young you were at 25 and how possible it was. Don't let application systems do your head in; just do it!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:13 AM on January 3, 2010 [6 favorites]


Best answer: I do sympathise, it's such a disconnect between reality and the reality we are sold. I didn't have to deal with racism, but I experienced severe bullying, ostracism, depression in school, in a small country town. I postponed finishing uni for about 25 years (not because of that) and again too, while some of the classes (distance education) were fun, there was absolutely zero interest in people bouncing ideas off each other, or going the extra mile just for the sake of the learning.

But it's not just school, it's parenting, it's family life, it's your dream job, it's theoretical employment rights vs actual, it's your (or my) country's image vs what really happens on the streets, it's everything, it's an epidemic. What can you do?

In this particular circumstance, education, you could be the change you want to see in the world. That's one option, and one I'm not particularly interested in fulfilling. I'm not cut out to be a teacher, I have no belief that I can inspire the mediocrely-motivated to seek out more.

The other option is to change the way you look at it. It's past. It's gone. You won't have to and cannot relive it. Aching over it does you no good. This is time when you can plan new futures for yourself, or learn the guitar, or even, take up scrapbooking as a more productive activity. It is what it is. It contributed to making you who you are. It's not important anymore. The most it will probably ever be to you is a conversation starter where other people (like us) can wail over lost opportunities and inequities, and to be honest, I admit to doing that for a good 10 years after school ended (at least), but the conversation got boring.

Many people regret circumstances beyond their control but the tragedy really comes when you hold onto that resentment. It's not doing you any favours. Whenever you think of these circumstances that made you unhappy or dissatisfied, either think of ways you will enrich your life now because of the drive that gave you, and / or choose to let it go. A hearty "meh..." seems to work for me.

I feel like my answer is so wishy-washy as to be almost useless, but one of the great lessons in my life which is quite recent (late) is to know that sometimes I feel what I feel and it's no great matter. If I'm exercising, and my body is in pain, well, I feel what I feel. It's not going to kill me. Not exercising though quite possibly could.

I don't minimise what you are feeling - in fact, I spent some years fantasising about horrible events happening to the bullies (way pre-Columbine etc), but these fantasies chewed up useful time I could have been fantasising about hot guys, or career options. It's time to let it go. Next time you resent that particular past, take a deep breath, acknowledge that you didn't have the best of times, and move onto the next thought.
posted by b33j at 2:19 AM on January 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


1. No-one's life makes perfect sense. But the desires we have are for a reason. How to reconcile these two points? Our problem is that we confuse our ideas of how to be fulfilled with the path that reality puts before us (which takes time and effort to understand).

2. Achievement is a lot less relevant to fulfiment than truth and freedom in relationships. Be open and aware of what you find attractive/envious in others, but don't let yorself be blocked there - go deepernd live at a relational level so you can change your aspirations into collaboration/sharing of life. Which seems to be what you miss from your "ideal student experience" anyhow.
posted by KMH at 2:25 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


You seem to have gotten à lot of what you wanted even if you didnt get it how you wanted it. Look to the now, to the results and to the future. You are in the driving seat now and frankly, your life sounds fantastic. Enjoy it, you are making it against all odds!
posted by Iteki at 3:03 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Best answer: I disliked high school and university for boring social-incompetence reasons. A few years ago I still found this upsetting quite regularly; I went with a friend to the town where she'd been to university, for example, and walked around it with her while she pointed at things, and I ended up bursting into tears and being grumpy and resentful for days because she'd obviously loved it so much. I was 25, five years out of undergrad (and the same age as you), and felt like I really should be over it; but clearly I wasn't.

Nowadays I am over it, and occasionally I'm glad it was the case; it might be confirmation bias, of course, but people who had successfully cheerful high school and university years often seem less nice, less able to enjoy things that they do now, or for ever resentful of the fact that these years are over.

The things that have changed to stop me being troubled by this problem are:

1. I'm now doing pretty much what I want to do; it's hard to resent past failures and miseries when they're part of the experiences that led to being happy and getting to do what I want to. But it sounds like you're already doing pretty much what you want to, so maybe that's not enough.

2. I've now done a lot of the things that I used to feel I'd missed out on: pyjama-party sleepovers, exploring drains, 3am costumed trips to 24-hour supermarkets, fizzy wine in graveyards. The obvious equivalent for you would be to go and do more study - as someone says above, you're a pretty normal age for an MA, for example - but postgrad study for the sake of it is usually a bad idea.

Could you, instead, pick the bits of high school and university that you didn't get to do, and... not exactly do them, but enact them? You're an occasional performance artist, right? Could you (and your friends who had similar experiences) use this as a basis for something that is like high school, but better? This is pretty much what I did. For me it involved an enormous obsession with High School Musical (see a two thousand word essay about this, and about HSM as enacted idealised adolescence, for more details). For you, obviously the things you missed out on are different. Maybe you and your friends could form a School Club where you take it in turns to set a new assignment each month, and meet up for an afternoon to argue about T.S. Eliot or have a debate or draw pictures of proteas (or, you know, something more fun, since you're not bound to faithfully re-enact the constant protea-drawing of every Australian school art lesson ever). Print certificates and award them to each other (they'll be no more useless in real life than any genuinely school-won certificate). Cast a School Club play and do it as a readthrough (where you all have scripts, and there's no audience). Approach the whole thing genuinely but not seriously, realising that it's ridiculous and being whole-hearted about it at the same time.
posted by severalbees at 3:29 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: What's stopping you from getting an advanced degree somewhere cool? You're young enough (I know loads of MA students much older than you.)

Ye gods, I hate academic writing. I like doing things, I love research and learning, but I think an advanced degree would kill me simply because of the thesis/dissertation requirement. I did a summer research thing (meant for people who want to explore postgrad education) and the biggest thing I learnt is that I am definitely not postgrad material.
posted by divabat at 3:38 AM on January 3, 2010


Response by poster: Could you, instead, pick the bits of high school and university that you didn't get to do, and... not exactly do them, but enact them? You're an occasional performance artist, right? Could you (and your friends who had similar experiences) use this as a basis for something that is like high school, but better? This is pretty much what I did. For me it involved an enormous obsession with High School Musical (see a two thousand word essay about this, and about HSM as enacted idealised adolescence, for more details). For you, obviously the things you missed out on are different. Maybe you and your friends could form a School Club where you take it in turns to set a new assignment each month, and meet up for an afternoon to argue about T.S. Eliot or have a debate or draw pictures of proteas (or, you know, something more fun, since you're not bound to faithfully re-enact the constant protea-drawing of every Australian school art lesson ever). Print certificates and award them to each other (they'll be no more useless in real life than any genuinely school-won certificate). Cast a School Club play and do it as a readthrough (where you all have scripts, and there's no audience). Approach the whole thing genuinely but not seriously, realising that it's ridiculous and being whole-hearted about it at the same time.

HOLY CRAP. Why have I not thought of this? This is AWESOME. Wow. Hmm, I'm inspired now.

Thank you, hearing from people who've been there helps a LOT.
posted by divabat at 3:42 AM on January 3, 2010


As Dee Xtrovert says, you can't know about 'might have beens'. My example is a far less extreme than hers. While I was at university I met someone who had done exactly what I had wanted to do (and been persuaded out of by my parents) and gone to UWC - and she had hated it. She felt it had been probably the worst decision of her life.

And as everyone else has said, adolescence is shit. It's bullshit propoganda that tells you otherwise.
posted by Coobeastie at 5:00 AM on January 3, 2010


Do you write, such as stories or plays? Remember, there is no plot without conflict. I started viewing my life experiences as opportunities to get fresh material. I was a theater major in college, then I got pregnant and had to leave school. Bonus: could not afford to return to college, so I took a state-offered secretarial course instead. Many years as a single mom, working crappy clerical jobs, a marriage and divorce, several attempts to go back to school while working full time and raising kids, and another failed marriage with a real jackass. Now things are better, I'm married to a wonderful stable guy, nice home, and not required to do the 9 to 5 stuff, as I freelance. I was resentful about certain things with my parents too, my high school years were not perfect (I was a bookworm in the band, so definitely not one of the cool kids or a cheerleader, etc.).

I have enough writing fodder to keep me going for years! Also, you can vilify all those people in writing (as long as they are not identifiable), if you so choose. But perhaps a school of your own as suggested above, a great environment that you can create, might be a more positive step. Not just for you, but for a lot of people.

Sometimes I have regrets, yes, or am slightly jealous when I see someone young going into a great theater program, as I didn't get to do very much acting. But then I remember that my main focus was lighting and directing, both of which I could go back into at any time. However, I've decided to focus on my writing, gardening plans, and making soap. It doesn't matter what I do as long as I am doing something, something positive. I can never go back and be young again, or a famous actress, or any of the other things that could have been if only this or that had happened. Life is like a pinball machine, you get bounced around but if you touch this or that lever, you can go somewhere unexpected and make lots of bells and lights go off. Sorry for the bad Forest Gump analogy.

Lastly, you can choose your thoughts. Retrain your mind. Every time you start dwelling on past experiences, get up and drink some cold water, pinch yourself, pick up a book, go for a brief walk - anything to break the cycle. Or write it down and turn it into a wicked cool play and star in it.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:13 AM on January 3, 2010


Best answer: This is late, weird, and possibly unhelpful, and other comments are really good - apologies in advance...

I had similar issues (no racism, though), and I didn't put it down until late 20s-early 30s. I think that while time is certainly a factor in letting things go it's a really good thing that you're trying to deal with this consciously. No do-overs, you know, and if something's nagging at you and some intentional processing will help you drop it sooner, by god do it.

Two things were really helpful for me. The weird one is this: In a daydream-ish way, when I had some blank mindspace, I'd do 'if I woke up tomorrow at the age of 5/12/whatever knowing what I know know/with my current mind, what would I do?' And I'd start from there and prod around and sometimes have one of these thought experiments running in the background for maybe a few weeks. I'd play it out at different ages. I'd think about social things, family issues, educational things, what I'd wear... I was surprised to find that in some cases I'd make a special effort to take classes with some of the teachers I had (even though I would already have had them once) - it hammered home the positive. Sometimes I'd run it that I'd homeschool and take AP and CLEP tests and go to uni early, or travel. Sometimes I'd run it that I'd go to boarding school. Sometimes I'd fill things up with what classes I'd take outside school (I'd find a place to learn hula! or haka! I'd learn 5 languages! I'd spin and weave and make my own clothes!).

This looks escapist and like I was obsessing, but what I got out of it was a) seeing what I really prioritise by watching what rose to the surface in the daydream, b) a sense of agency - I somehow compensated for my complete powerlessness in my real past by some intense internal role-playing, sort of... And I think that helped me. c) for me, instead of this being an unhelpful obsession that just kept me agitated and focussing on old hurts, at some point I would feel something click, and bit by bit these old knotted bits of psychological tension were released. Once I'd resolved in my mind how it could have worked, I could put it down. d) eventually there was a convergence between 'how would you have done it?' and 'what are you doing now?' - and I realised that I was becoming what I wanted to have been. And from then on it was over and I wasn't walking backwards anymore.

The second helpful thing was raising a kid. I read somewhere once that 'so much of parenting is reparenting', and it's true. You try to let your kid be your kid and not have it all be about you, but I got a lot out of being able to fix things that I thought were broken, or from not being powerless in the face of injustice/stupidity/bureaucracy, etc. (There was a tough time when she was a minority at school and suffered racist bullying and I was powerless, which sucked, and she suffered, and all resources I turned to said 'sorry! can't help!' and I'm still not sure what I should have done differently or if that was the best we could do at the time, but other than that it's been good!) I think this one applies to you because of your blog and getting feedback from people you've directly helped. You've got agency and you are actively helping people not suffer what you suffered. You're letting people know they're not alone in what they're going through. This is so cool.

Beyind that, might I suggest (as someone else has done in another thread recently) Martin Seligman's book/s? I've only read The Optimistic Child, but I think the original is Learned Optimism (sorry for the US Amazon links, who knew there was no amazon.au?). They aren't what I expected - I had thought they were hokey positive thinking type books (like repeating 'I'm awesome! And people like me! I can do anything!!!'), but it's actually about thought patterns, about how we narrate our lives and how that affects us, and how to change the way we tell ourselves stories if we have a destructive pattern. I was bowled over by it.

sorry for the long babble.
posted by magdalenstreetladies at 5:28 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


I like the idea of turning it into a performance art project.

But I also want to underline how normal those feelings are. It's not about the realities (what your parents did or didn't do, say) -- it's about being 25 and realizing that while you still have many years of life in front of you, you have passed some of the formative stages of your life and you will never have a chance to do them over. I've heard people call it a "quarter life crisis," but I don't know if that is precisely the same thing.

Having said that, though, much more useful than looking back and feeling resentful is looking forward. Or rather, think about looking back when you are 35 -- how can you live the next ten years such that you don't look back with the same resentments you are feeling now? Looking back and reflecting isn't unique to your current age; you'll be doing it for the rest of your life.

Because some people never let go of those resentments. I have a close relative, now in her 60s, who has lived a great life. Great family, lots of accomplishments, opportunities to do neat things and go neat places. But if you talk with her, all she can tell you about is how angry she is about the time her father did such and such, or how last year so and so didn't do what they promised. Her amazing life is transformed, in her head, into a litany of complaints and resentments. That's no way to live, and it's all in how you think about it -- it has nothing to do with how good or bad your life is, in objective terms.
posted by Forktine at 6:24 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: (oh durr. I just realised I made a huge typo. I was one of the OLDEST undergrads in my residential college - I was 21, most others were 18-19, and my age was poked at a lot. Lovingly, but still. People over 25 and postgrads were in a separate building & avoided most of it, but I was again another weird in-betweener. Very odd dynamic.)
posted by divabat at 8:16 AM on January 3, 2010


to find a university much like the Dead Poet's Society

I wanted this, too. I'm your age, and I just had a conversation with an old friend over the weekend largely centering around my disappointment about this and a few other things. And I think to myself, "Why can't I just get over this?" But as you know, it's something that we'll probably have to work through for a while. Those scars don't heal overnight.

My university experience took place sans the racism and ageism you unfortunately had to endure, but otherwise had some similar aspects. My father was very overprotective, and denied me some of the opportunities I otherwise would've had in high school and college; then, of my own volition, I didn't feel like drinking much until my last year in college. Those two things alone—plus my yearning for the university experience to be something it simply could never be, at least not where I went to school—led to some expectations on my part that definitely were not fulfilled.

The summer program I took part in at my university before college technically started was everything I wanted, Dead Poets' Society–wise, 'cause it was full of nondrinking overachievers with parents overprotective enough, in a certain sense, to want them to get every possible advantage. Many of us got along marvelously, and for three weeks, I was pretty happy with my university experience. Then everyone else moved in for the regular semester, and I was very quickly disappointed to find out what the university experience was really all about, at least where I was: ubiquitous, indiscriminate sex (and sexual posturing); racial Balkanization masquerading as "diversity"; freshman pilgrimages to go be exploited at the frats; and for those who were there to study, a pedantic obsession with one's chosen major, rather than a true interest in thinking originally and creatively about ethical, social, and philosophical problems.

I wanted it to be like Dead Poets' Society—or maybe even more like the movie Real Genius, with a bunch of omnivorously intelligent students thinking up fun, creative ways of approaching both the subject matter and their free time. I think universities may have been like that 20 years ago, when the two of us were both about 5 years old; I've heard enough stories from people who were undergraduates then to indicate that was the case. But for the most part, I don't know that they're ever going back to that. Our experiences were disappointing for a reason: They herald the wholesale commodification of the university experience.

There are many, many reasons for this. Part of it is that while it's still the case that some tiny percentage of all high-school students even go to college, at least in the U.S., a bachelor's degree is fast becomes the baseline standard for getting any work after high school in a "career" field, as opposed to fast food or retail. Students who otherwise would've done what you in fact did—travel the world, seek out their own experiences, come back saner, better-rounded people—are instead pushed into the meat tube of the university experience. Too many come out raw and ground-up. A lot of our agency—and the basic baseline assumption of intelligence we ought to be able to assume of someone willing to take their own initiative—has been taken away.

There are exceptions to this pattern, of course. I find myself wishing that I'd attended U. Chicago, CalTech, or MIT, where an independent, creative spirit seems to be alive and well. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong...) But there's nothing I can do about that now. I just have to move on and bring openness and creativity and exuberance into my life some other way. The nice thing about being an adult is, there's no specific timetable for that anymore, and no grades or bureaucratic bullshit to knock your dreams. The only thing stopping me—and you—from finding a cathartic, creative way out of the morass of our past is the barrier of will and energy.
posted by limeonaire at 9:12 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wanted it to be like Dead Poets' Society—or maybe even more like the movie Real Genius, with a bunch of omnivorously intelligent students thinking up fun, creative ways of approaching both the subject matter and their free time. I think universities may have been like that 20 years ago

I went to college almost twenty years ago oh my god I'm getting old, at a small, ultra-intellectual place known for its rigor and independence. And you know what? Student life was mostly focused on getting laid, getting trashed, and getting a high paying job after graduation, just like college students today. Anyone who tells you about how great it was in the past is blowing smoke up your ass. Some demographic and cultural shifts aside (no one had heard of an "internship" when I was in school, for example, and we were expected to take on less debt), I can assure you that the student experience has not shifted night and day, at least in the upper tier of US education.

The Dead Poet's Society (aside from being an awful movie) is a false picture of teaching and school, then, now, or in the future. And maybe this is a big part of whether or not one is full of disappointment and resentment -- are your expectations realistic? Even if the creative writing instructor is magic and dances around reciting poetry, the chemistry class is going to be pretty standard, or vice versa. And either way, you are still going to be spending the vast majority of your college life outside of class, doing regular student things with regular students, who are there for their own set of (boring, regular) motivations.
posted by Forktine at 10:12 AM on January 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


I would encourage you to go to graduate school at a good program at a good school.

I completed all-but-dissertation in a very good humanities graduate program. What you feel you missed, you may very well find in graduate school. My graduate education is something I think about every single day --- it was so intense, so inspiring, so demanding, that it is as if it changed my intellectual DNA. I pity smart people who have not had the experience of studying in a really good program. The caliber of people you meet, the level of insight and intelligence they bring to bear on intellectual problems, will "haunt" you in a good way for the rest of your life.

Put aside your worries about writing a thesis. Part of the inspiring education you seek is, unavoidably, that you be stretched and challenged by the experience. Don't hold off on getting what you want because you think you're not up to the task of writing a thesis. You are.

I had some of the same insecurities as you concerning my past education, and in some ways, you and I are very similar in that, despite what I perceived as a lackluster educational setting I pursued a lot of unusual opportunities and had some amazing experiences that ameliorated what was lacking in my undergraduate education. (Which, in retrospect, was really a very good education ... my perceptions of it as lackluster dropped away as I met people who went to "world-class" schools and seemed to have had fairly mediocre educations).
posted by jayder at 11:00 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Best answer: What strikes me about your post is that what you're looking for is a community of learning and action, and you have idealized school as a way to find this. While school certainly is one sort of place to find a community of learning and action, it's not the only place -- and no matter how great the school is, school has to end. Even if you were able to find your perfect school experience, it would not last the rest of your life.

So I think what you really need to do is to figure out how to shape the community of learning and action you want in your real, adult, life as a participant in the adult economy, instead of as a student.

Ironically, the way you might start to shape the community you want is by going back to school. School, especially graduate school, is really designed to be instrumental to what you want to do out of school in the adult work world - so the fact that you "don't like academic writing" shouldn't stop you from going to graduate school. You'd be going to grad school to get skills and credentials for what you want to do next - unless you wanted to be a professors, the fact that you don't like writing is irrelevant.

For my part, I also idealized a certain alternative university when I was a kid, and I didn't end up going because I kind of chickened out and thought it was too expensive. The university I did end up going to was by and large uninspiring, although I was able to do a really long, transformative study abroad program. As luck would have it, I ended up meeting a bunch of people who went to my Dream University, and through lots of conversations with them I realized that although it would have been an amazing experience, I'm happy with the path I've chosen. (And then there was law school which beat all idealism about school out of my with a big stick, but that's another story!)
posted by yarly at 11:25 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Start a salon. Get together with some intellectual friends who enjoy exploring ideas, and agree to meet up monthly (or whatever) and explore -- books, paintings, music, history, whatever! If you live nearby a university or college of any sort, you will find it relatively easy to convince student string ensembles to come play Bach for you for a little pizza and remuneration, or even to get professors in to speak about their pet topic. And of course you can take it in turns to lead a discussion or debate on the topic of the day, no outsiders required!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:07 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Have you thought about working for or volunteering with the UWC? You might also find some opportunities to get involved with the UWC Short Programmes, or get involved with some of Kurt Hahn's other legacies - Outward Bound or Round Square. (I graduated from UWC-USA in 1992).
posted by candyland at 2:52 PM on January 3, 2010


Wow. Yeah, everything limeonaire said. That was fantastic!

Plus also, I visited St. John's in Annapolis when I was in my penultimate year of high school, expecting my ideal (they had/have a reputation for head-in-the-clouds intellectualism and everything I think we're talking about regarding idealised schools). Even as a visiting student you have to prepare to sit in on their tutorials, where you're forbidden to speak. And it was hellish. The students were apathetic and unprepared, I knew the answers to questions in second year Greek (and I have no Greek, only Latin), a Plato tutorial was two hours of silence punctuated by a sad tutor prompting them every ten minutes or so (in vain), and the topic in the ladies was who was shagging who and who was bi (25 years ago, so adjust for inflation).

A few years later I met (online) someone who got chucked out of St. John's for (among other things) starting a fistfight as a result of a heated discussion on (some philosopher). If one person had shown that much interest in anything academic while I visited, I'd've applied. It really doesn't have to be all-singing all-dancing, but sheesh...
posted by magdalenstreetladies at 3:37 PM on January 3, 2010


Best answer: I agree with many of the wise things others have already said, and have one more thought to add.

What helped me was to realise what good things resulted from my background. In my case, I came from a rural school, and my family had relatively little money; then I went to a fancy-schmancy university where 90% of people I spent time with had grown up with way more privilege than I had known. That envy and resentment was kind of hard to deal with, especially because I saw most of them getting way less out of it than I felt I would have. But as I've spent more and more time seeing how these things play out in the real world, I've realised that my background has given me many valuable things that many of them don't have: more of a conception about how others live, more faith and independence in myself, less sense of entitlement, etc.

In your case, you could concentrate on what you did get as a result of growing up the way you did. One of those things is immediately obvious to me: you seem very motivated to get exactly what you want out of life. Probably the years of frustration are fueling that, and in the long run you'll look back at your choices and be glad that you have that motivation, and that it has kept you from living a life of bland and uninspired turns, no different from the mass of men. Who knows: maybe if you had had access to the school and opportunities of your dreams from an early age, you would have become blase and entitled about them. Or you would have realised that nothing is perfect, and become incredibly cynical about it all.

Bottom line is, you are the person you are today because of your experiences. Regretting them is like regretting who you are. Try to embrace them instead, because they made you into you.
posted by forza at 5:05 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm going to second yarly's observation about looking for community of learning and action in an idealized school environment... that may or may not exist. You go back to school to learn something you're fascinated by... you may or may not find community while you're there. Grad programs, depending on their location and culture, can be really lonely places as everyone retreats quickly to freak out about their own research or work. Sure, they can definitely be amazing places... but I think that depends more on your cohort and professors, and while you can research the last, there's no way to know about the former before you're in. So I'd say think carefully before you look into going back to school.

There are so many venues to kick start your own things, or seek out like-minded people, new jobs, what you need to do is some brainstorming. What are the things you're interested in? What haven't you done yet that you want to do? How can you hook up with people who have the same interests, or want to do those things too?

Answer some of those questions, and you'll be blooming where you plant yourself.
posted by canine epigram at 8:11 PM on January 4, 2010


This isn't going to be a very positive comment, so I apologize in advance. But I don't understand what you're upset about. My high school was also mediocre, and my college wasn't much better, and I would have loved to go to a better school, but I didn't. But even in my most idealistic state I'd never thought that this:
Whenever I read a school brochure or a cousin's yearbook, I get this twinge in my heart that goes "if only I could have done that". I wanted to be the school overachiever (well I was, but in a very different unorthodox way), I wanted to be in Band or a sport or Drama Class without having to be an absolute superstar and with full support, I wanted to have projects for assignments and not be laughed at because I preferred Literature to Biology. I wanted to be in a school where the medium of instruction was English, and where my curiosity and love of reading & the Internet was celebrated.
...actually existed. I'm not sure how you can be an overachiever, get full support, and not be 'an absolute superstar' (assuming you're thinking big fish small pond, like most high schools). Nor have I never heard of a high school where one's curiosity and love of reading and the internet are celebrated--not because those aren't fun things, but because they're just not all that unique. A lot of people (particularly on the internet) are curious and love to read.

I do understand that your high school and college experiences were probably much different than mine in any case (I grew up in a small farm town in Nebraska, in the United States, and studied Medieval & Renaissance Lit at a state school). And I've met a few kids who were, as you put it, 'grade cattle' that ended up very cynical about education in general. Nonetheless none of them dreamed of a Dead Poets' Society-like ideal school, or expected to be celebrated for their interests, and that's where I don't understand what you mean.
posted by timoni at 10:11 PM on January 5, 2010


I totally feel the same way. I tried many ways to improve my educational experience, but I ran out of time and money before I ever solved this problem. I do not think it is a problem that all people can solve. Most educational programs hype themselves up and there is no way to tell between the hyped ones and the ones that are really good. Even within a single educational program, whether or not the educational experience sucks varies from semester to semester. Don't beat yourself up about it. Luck is the largest factor. I know what you mean about the deep disappointment, but try to keep your eye on the fact that, compared to most humans now and throughout history, your opportunities and accomplishments are way way way greater than average. Live your life !!
posted by adrianc at 6:25 PM on May 25, 2010


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