I remember the day I dropped out of Algebra II. It wasn’t an easy A for me as most other classes were. I didn’t drop the class because I somehow got the message that girls are bad in math. In fact, the boys in my class fared no better than the girls. The teacher had no idea how to convey to either gender his own passion for facts and figures—for answers that fit neatly into categories of right and wrong.
Had it not been for Brenda, a girl in the class who loved numbers and later became an accountant, few students would have passed. She read the textbook and wrestled each night until she wrapped her head around those problems. She worked ahead and came to class each day ready to explain to anyone who needed help what she had figured out on her own.
On the day I decided to quit, I made a mistake. But not the sort of mistake you might think. I asked the teacher for help. He came to my desk and leaned close over my work, peering through his horn-rimmed glasses at my neat rows of figures.
I wrinkled my nose and backed away. Despite the fact that some boys in the class had recently put a bottle of mouthwash into his desk, he either hadn’t taken the hint or he had some condition that caused his mouth to reek of rot. For years afterward, whenever I watched a horror film about the undead rising from their graves, I thought of this teacher as the characters in the films put their hands over their noses and retreated from putrid walking corpses.
But I didn’t even drop the class because of a bad teacher. Even though I was getting an A, I simply decided that I wouldn’t endure a year of uninteresting formulas delivered in a storm of bad breath when there were so many classes that interested me more.
I hurried to the guidance office because the deadline for schedule changes loomed. When I asked to change my schedule, the counselor said not a word to encourage me to stick with Algebra II. But I didn’t drop algebra because of the counselor either. I simply had little interest in math, and I loved the humanities. So I signed up for a class in short stories, precisely because there were no right and wrong answers.
I loved the way the characters in the stories lured me into a world that seemed real, no matter how fantastic. And I loved the way the authors left me to wrestle with ambiguity and decide for myself whether I shared their view of the world. By my senior year, I filled my schedule with English classes, including an independent study in Shakespeare, where I read all the plays my teacher assigned in the first few weeks of the semester and procrastinated until two weeks before graduation to write the papers. The stress of those last two weeks of school taught me to manage my time—an invaluable lesson for a college-bound student who was only the second, after my older sister, to go to college in an extended family where I was one of 57 grandchildren.
I can’t help thinking of my own experience every time I encounter a student who hates a required subject and leaves class every day feeling like a failure. Only twice in my life have I had to call on what I learned in Algebra I—for the ACT test, required by most West Virginia colleges at the time, and for a pre-screening test required of all applicants by the school system where I work.
I will admit that I had some aptitude for math and that my highest score on the ACT—a score that that was above the 90th percentile—was not in the English I loved but in math. But not once in my entire life has dropping out of Algebra II narrowed my career options. And I know math teachers who might say much the same thing about English.
All of us need a basic understanding of the required subjects, and all of us should have exposure to a second language and to the arts. (I’ve missed out more by never having an art class and never learning to read music than for having missed out on a second algebra class.) Whenever I reflect on my education, I’m glad that I learned how to participate in government, how to stand in front of a group and give a speech, how to balance a checkbook and do a budget.
In fact, every time I read about young people drowning in debt, I’m happy for that consumer math unit every year of middle school. And I definitely believe that our students should get a well-rounded education that teaches them how to read carefully, think critically, and participate in our democracy. Few high school students know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, and they should get an education that prepares them for any option they might choose after high school.
We need to encourage our students to think, to stretch, to reach for their dreams. Somehow we need to let our young people know that everyone should see himself or herself as capable of college but that there are many other career options that are equally honorable. We also need to let them know that if the very idea of college is abhorrent right now, the door doesn’t close when one turns eighteen, and for that reason, they need a high school education that prepares them in the event that they change their minds.
As a child of parents who regretted their lack of an education, it would have been hard for me to accept if my child hadn’t gone to college. And I realize that may smack a little of snobbery when I truly believe that there are many great professions that don’t require an undergraduate degree. In fact, we in education, with our obsession over Newsweek’s Challenge Index, do sometimes deserve to be labeled as academic snobs.
But far worse than that, we are failing those children who have no interest in academics after high school. We fail them when we cut programs where they could learn a skill. We fail them when we send the unintended message that only college is worthwhile. We fail them when we neglect to honor the tremendous talent it takes to be a mechanic, an electrician, a chef, a hair stylist, an artist, a musician.
Yes, some degree of skill is needed in reading, writing, math, and the spoken word. Literature saved my life. Algebra did not. Science also saved my life…but only because my doctors knew more than I did—enough science to rid my body of disease.
I’m very glad for the talents of others in areas that fail to interest me enough to learn them. But does every student need to take advanced English or math or science or history?
I know it’s a form of heresy for a teacher to say such a thing these days, but since my life has never once been negatively affected for dropping Algebra II, I wonder why we make every student who hates a subject feel inadequate. Like most things in life, we need to find some balance. Even a valedictorian who has taken every available advanced class can be prepared for college and still be miserable in life. Just like money, education can’t buy happiness.
Tell me your story. What have you dropped out of, and how has it affected you?