All the wrong rules

By Pearl Benjamin | Oct 31, 2019

America needs to sit down and have a serious talk with its education system. For too long, kids have been attending schools that have more rules than classes and more punishment than privileges. America’s education system is teaching our kids to conform, shut up, and accept oppression – and I’m just about done with it.

When we enter grade school, we enter the factory. We’re told to keep our eyes locked on the teacher and only go to the bathroom when permission is granted. We’re forced to walk in straight lines and forbidden from talking in the halls or even at lunch. We’re given instructions on how to put the puzzle together and how to stack the blocks. We’re told to color within the lines and connect the dots.

In middle school, we’re labeled as “hormonal.” It’s a favorite method for discounting girls’ emotions and boys’ control over their sexual impulses. We’re delinquents, always up to no good, and not to be trusted. Our phones are treated like weapons and communication with friends like subversive plotting. Girls are sent home when their T-shirts are cut too low and boys are reprimanded when they laugh too loud. Oh, right, and we still can’t go to the bathroom without permission.

In high school, we’re granted the slightest amount of freedom on the grounds that we simply can’t be controlled. Now we can talk in the hallways and eat our lunches in the library. They don’t hold rulers to our crotches anymore. But now we are kept in line with relentless competition. What are we doing when we’re glued to our phones? We’re checking our grades. The only point of this part of life is to prepare us for a future we’re all hopelessly obsessed with. High schoolers who try to pause, take a breath and live in the moment can’t win either. They’re slackers. Partiers. Lazy and lacking passion. We’re only considered successful when we’re teetering on the edge of mental breakdown.

American schools are focused on the wrong kind of development. Right now, we need students who are flexible, impassioned, and ready to save the world, but our education system is molding us into clinically unhappy workers with little sense of creativity or adventure. But along with that, we’re being taught to accept unfair treatment from adults and peers.

In high school, sexual harassment and rape are commonplace, yet they’re rarely addressed properly by administrators. At nearby Cape Elizabeth High School, student Aela Mansmann was sick of her school’s failure to address rape allegations, so she posted sticky notes in the bathroom that read “there’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is.” Did the school start a conversation with students to learn more? Did they invite students to the table to adjust their policies? Nope. They suspended Mansmann and charged her with bullying. This is just one example of school administrators completely overlooking the serious issue at hand and punishing students for speaking out. Sexual assault is a real problem that high schoolers across the country face every day, yet Cape Elizabeth decided to brush both aside in order to punish a student who had the audacity to complain.

And if we think our mostly white teen peers in Maine are treated unfairly, it’s far worse for students of color. A friend of mine who attends Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles is constantly being reprimanded. Not about his behavior. Not about his school work. About his hair. Many schools like Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles have strict rules about hair, but only about black hair. They call for afros to be kept within a certain length, and some outlaw dreadlocks altogether. When my dreadlocked friend was sent to the office because of his hair, a staff member told him that people with locks “stink.” Schools throughout the country punish black students for the way they wear their hair, enforcing racial discrimination rather than fighting it. Schools shouldn’t preach about civil rights and social justice in history class and then enforce the same kinds of rules that existed during the era of segregation. They should be focusing on combating the very real dangers and threats that black students face every day due to the daily and pervasive impacts of systematic racism.

Our education system just doesn’t get it. While they’re focused on what graphics are allowed on t-shirts, we’re begging them to provide treatment for substance abuse. While they’re harassing students about empty lunch accounts, we’re asking them to take a stand against child poverty. While they’re seizing cell phones, we’re begging them to provide quality mental health services for students. You can’t provide the best possible education for students if you refuse to listen to their concerns. Parents, please stand up for your kids before they’re beaten down by forced conformity. Take their complaints seriously and question whether you would accept similar rules in your own workplace. Teachers, please keep in mind the very real and dangerous issues teenagers face on a daily basis before punishing them. We are done being treated like second-class citizens. Our rights and freedoms are no less important than yours and shouldn’t be wiped away when we enter a school building.


Pearl Benjamin is a student at the Watershed School.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Valli Genevieve Geiger | Oct 31, 2019 16:53

Ms. Benjamin, thank you for such a thoughtful essay on school culture and on the constant and pervasive racism that students of color face. We have a long journey ahead of us to create the kind of world we give lip service to. I am in awe of your generation's willingness to speak truth to power. The times call for nothing less.

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