Free schools and dumb people is one of the favorite sayings of a friend of mine. This phrase has been front and center in my mind recently because I’ve interacted with several young people between the ages of 18-22 who have dropped out of school. That they are unprepared for their futures is an understatement.
In working as a job counselor part-time for several weeks, I’ve met:
- Young people who’ve never worked.
- Young people who are under-employed and looking for better work (which they interpret fairly narrowly to mean better pay).
These students are trying to take control of their lives by going back to school to get their G.E.D. or enroll in a high school diploma program.
Some of them are pleasant and keep their appointments, follow-up on suggestions, and read their email messages. Others are salty or surly or too smart to play by “the rules” but not savvy enough (yet) to create their own rule book. One has been court-involved and so is dealing with the reality that this can impede his getting a job. Some have dropped out of high school and alternative programs more than once! Many no longer live with their parents or are trying to earn their way back home by going back to school..
They are children of color and white; U.S. born and immigrant; low-income and solidly middle class.
What they have in common is a lack of preparedness for being adults, a paucity of energy and self-determination, a deficit of vision, and a passivity and complacency that is down-right depressing. Each of them has tugged on my heartstrings and gotten to me.
I long to have superhero-powers to turn back the clock to the pivotal moments in their lives where they veered off course. I want to meet the adults and institutions who’ve failed these young people, all of whom were clearly born with enough intelligence and talent to succeed. What they lack is a clear purpose or direction. Their interests are infuriatingly narrow. Their goals are incredibly small. Getting them to set goals, make an outline for how getting the degree and a job fits into their future plans is nigh impossible.
Most of these young adults have not:
- worked for pay (ever)
- Participated in extracurricular activities at school or in a community-based program (including organized sports or club
- Attended church.
They have been failed. I am especially hurt by the young adults who were born and raised in the U.S.A. and who haven’t taken full advantage of the tremendous blessing our free educational system offers to say nothing of our free libraries. It’s one thing to come from a country where there is no compulsory education or jobs. It’s quite another to have these things and not embrace them.
Working with these American-born young people, I veer from anger (what!) to disappointment (really?) to curiosity (why) to pity (poor kid) to anger again. It is an anger that propels me to action,
- to find and create volunteer opportunities to help them build work experiences;
- to create resumes from thin air (did you baby-sit?),
- to pull references out of them (surely one of your teachers can vouch for you),
- to take them out of their comfort zones to see what else is going on,
- to dig for their interests and talents.
They don’t make it easy. It is hard work to cut through the layers of fear masked as indifference. It is frustrating to see the shrugs of shoulders and listen to yet another response of “I dunno.”
It is striking how they:
- Have not learned how to learn or mine for information.
- Don’t act but rather react.
- Confine themselves to the neighborhoods they grew up in (like they live on a compound to which they are restricted).
- Have never really completed anything that they’ve started.
- Are dressed in the latest fashions and have cell phones and side-kicks (despite no income).
- Limit their internet use for recreation and not for things like finding out what a cover letter is.
They are no longer children but certainly not adults. I work hard for them but not harder than they work for themselves. I speak truth to them – both their harsh realities and the possibilities that are available to them if they can imagine a bigger life and create a plan and go for it.
I encourage them: this is where you are but this is not where you have to remain!
I started out this post with the phrase, “free school and dumb people.” I will end it with another phrase that contains free, “free your mind and your ass will follow.” (a politer version is “free your mind and the rest will follow” but I don’t feel particularly polite right about now.