“School is what you make of it” and Other Lies My Parents Told Me
by Christina Berchini
It was not until I became a middle school English teacher that I realized the extent of my parents’ lies.
As it turned out, I was well into adulthood before I learned how my parents spun and churned lies virtually every Sunday morning. Lying, in and of itself, is bad enough, isn’t it? Lying on a Sunday morning, it seems to me, is just sinful. What would God think of such a thing? When others attended church, received communion, prayed, and sought penance for the myriad sins they committed during the week, my parents lied to my sister and me.
It began innocently enough. I would wake up in my lower bunk bed and immediately head to the kitchen to devour the most sugary cereal available. Mom would wake up soon thereafter, and my sister soon after her (my sister really loved her sleep – she was an odd child). After everyone had eaten, showered, and reached the point where decisions about how to spend our Sunday needed to be made, the lies began.
“Why don’t we go for a drive?” Dad would ask when he called us from his apartment across the city.
Mom, of course, invited the privacy and alone-time that accompanied her ex-husband’s plan. She stayed home to clean, nap, or do whatever she felt like doing. She was a willing co-conspirator in his lies as she sent my sister and me for our weekly drive with our Dad.
And this is how I spent many a Sunday morning, as a teenager in Brooklyn, New York. As a single parent, Sundays usually belonged to my father; if the weather permitted, we’d drive up and down Shore Road. Shore Road is one of the few city roads densely populated with trees; it sits on a hill that overlooks the Narrows waterway and Verrazano Bridge. If you tried hard enough, you might even think of the road as a bit idyllic, perhaps even undulating—a rare gem amongst an otherwise blighted urban geography. We—my father, sister, and I—would gawk at the elaborate homes that dotted this short stretch of road; we’d imagine ourselves inside of them, standing in a family room or bedroom or dining room with an expansive view of the channel and that towering bridge. We often wondered what the homeowners did to earn such a living and how they spent their free time.
Surely they did something right, to hold the secret key to such a coveted lifestyle.
Little did these majestic homes and the strangers who occupied them know of the unwitting role they played in Dad’s fabrications. It was on this street and before these homes that the lies began.
“This could be yours,” Dad said, time and time again, as he gestured toward the mini-castles and their view of the waterway. He’d set the car to cruise control. “If you continue to excel in school, this could be yours.” His tone, during these conversations, often took on a distant quality, as if he wondered, in these moments, how his own life might have turned out, had he made different decisions.
The lies did not stop there; this idea that academic success held some sort of access to the lifestyles we were drooling over on Shore Road was a mere setup with which to deliver the ultimate doozy: “School is what you make of it,” he’d continue. “Life is what you make of it.”
I believed Dad. Of course I believed my Dad. Not only did I believe him, but I took this belief system with me through life. I remembered my father’s words when I was confronted with difficult situations. Consequently, his words fueled my belief in meritocracy—the simple idea that one’s successes are based purely on merit, and that merit equaled “fair.”
Meritocracy dictates that everyone arrives to school with precisely the same opportunities for, and access to, success. It did not matter that I was forced to attend one of the most under-performing urban high schools in all of New York City simply because my address dictated that I was “zoned” for this school. It did not matter that I was not legally permitted to attend the high school of my choice, due to an accident of geography and local zoning laws. It did not matter that we were a working class family, devoid of any real access to costly enrichment activities, such as specialized summer camps for music and arts. No, instead, school was what I made of it. Life was what I made of it.
And so I never questioned this trope—these lies my parents told me. I was raised to believe them, and even surrounded by different versions of them in popular culture. For instance, Grammy-award winning hip-hop duo Outkast reminds their listeners that “The only liable limitation is yourself.” Paulo Coelho argues, in his international bestselling novel The Alchemist, that “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
Success and failure, then, are framed in self-reliance and come from within; success and failure are personal choices. Because I was taught to internalize any and all successes (and failures), it was a belief that guided my learning, and also my teaching of English Language Arts in a racially and culturally diverse—and sorely under-funded—middle school.
Fifteen to twenty years after those fond memories of riding up and down Shore Road with my father and sister, a series of painful lessons have allowed me to reconsider the myth—the lies—that had guided my assumptions about life and, as a teacher, my assumptions about teaching and learning. For one thing, “school is what you make of it” did not seem to impact my seventh- and eighth-grade literacy students to the extent that it impacted me. It also assuaged my early (and terrifically misguided) beliefs about why some students did not care about school in general, and English Language Arts specifically.
If anything, the trope fueled my assumptions about teaching and learning; for as long as “school is what you make of it,” I was relinquished of any responsibility to examine my belief system.
And then I met Jason.
“You must call the Agency,” my school principal said to me during an emergency meeting.
My seventh-grade students and I were reading a novel together in our English Language Arts class, the period before my impromptu meeting with the Principal. The specific novel escapes me, now, but one student’s response to our class discussion, all these years later, remains clear as day.
“That happened to me once!” My student, Jason, excitedly responded to a scene in the novel. “My dad kicked me after I threw out my pizza, and then he made me eat it out of the garbage!”
Jason shared his story with the class a bit gleefully, almost as though he found it funny. I, on the other hand, became overwhelmed with a sense of dread. What did he mean by “once”? Did this interaction with his father happen yesterday? Last week? Five years ago?
A slight twelve-year-old boy, Jason had olive skin and deep dimples, mischievous brown eyes, and a personality that made up for whatever his short stature couldn’t accomplish. I enjoyed Jason immensely and noticed immediately that he was one of our school’s more popular students. He did not always do his homework, and he did not always pass his exams. In truth, he did not attend school regularly, but when he did, he contributed to our class discussions about novels and current events and other topics in interesting and powerful ways. I felt—we all felt—Jason’s absence when he was not in class.
He also loved basketball and was something of a celebrity in our small school community. It was almost comical; one might think that his below-average height would have dictated his basketball skills, but his talent on the court immediately put to rest any of his naysayers’ ramblings. He was always the first to be selected as a teammate for student basketball games. Jason was good at the sport, and he knew it: his facial expression exuded two-parts smug, one-part proud after he was selected for a team before all of the other kids, time and time again.
And yet, not all teachers took kindly to Jason. “He never does his homework, and I’m done with this,” his math teacher would say. “He’s been absent three days in a row. What am I supposed to do with that?” another would say. “His mother thinks he’s going to be a big basketball star. Please. This is pointless,” yet another teacher would lament.
Done with this.
What am I supposed to do with that?
This is pointless.
For these teachers, it seemed that Jason, given his failure to take advantage of the “opportunities” his teachers gave him, became a “thing,” a “situation,” to be dealt with rather than a little boy who was quite possibly dealing with adult situations. I became convinced that the teachers who did not seem to like him, or found him hopeless, were revealing more about themselves than they were his relationship to school. I wondered whether it was because of such teachers that Jason had a vexed relationship with school. Their sentiments mirrored my Dad’s teachings in unsettling ways: School is what you make of it.
What happens, though, when you are what school—and your teachers—make of you? When you become what school and your teachers make of you?
Jason’s family was poor, and his father was in and out of jail. When his father was home, it seemed the man had an abusive streak a mile wide. How does a teacher dismiss a child living in such circumstances, simply because he lacked the inclination to solve fractions on his own time? Jason also did not define the vocabulary words that I assigned on a weekly basis, but his refusal to write sentences with new vocabulary words did nothing to extinguish the bright smile he brought to our class discussions.
I knew Jason had many problems at home, and I knew that it was because of these difficulties that he missed school sometimes; that he did not eat sometimes; that he seemed quiet and distracted sometimes. And deep in thought. Almost too deep in thought for a boy his age. Jason, for all intents and purposes, was a child my school labeled “at-risk,” a label both useful and harmful, depending on how it was used.
His contribution on this particular day, to this particular discussion—My dad kicked me after I threw out my pizza and then he made me eat it out of the garbage!—left me without options and is the most hopeless sort of feeling for a teacher. I did not quite know what to do with Jason’s information—indeed, teachers are legally obligated to report what seem like instances of child abuse, and yet I had no idea when Jason experienced this episode at the hands of his father or whether it had been addressed. I might have asked Jason, but teachers can also get into deep trouble for prying into such personal matters. In every sense of the word, I was embroiled in a Catch-22, and my hands were tied.
“Better to be safe than sorry,” the facilitators would often say at our required, school-wide “At-Risk” professional development workshops.
My principal—our school’s no-nonsense, looming, behemoth of an administrator—made it clear that he expected immediate compliance. I understood his concern, and called “The Agency” in the moments following our meeting. I described the classroom discussion to the kind, high-pitched woman on the other end of the line, a woman who served as Jason’s case-worker.
“We are very familiar with Jason and his family, Miss Berchini,” the case-worker said. “His mom is pretty strapped. We are going to have to visit the home to investigate and make sure everything is okay.”
I thanked the social worker, and we hung up soon thereafter. I was both soothed and made anxious by what was to come next. In what ways would my phone call to “The Agency” help Jason’s home life? On the other hand, what if I were wrong? What if the incident he described was something long-gone, previously dealt with, and no longer an immediate threat to his physical well-being? In what ways was I, his teacher, about to disrupt his home life and my relationship with him? In what ways, with a single phone call, would I impact his relationship with school?
I’m done with this.
He’s been absent three days in a row.
This is pointless.
Recollections of my colleagues’ sentiments about Jason swirled around me like a straight-line wind, a derecho that descended without warning.
School is what you make of it, my father’s words also echoed menacingly. I blocked him out. I blocked all of them out.
Not always, I responded to the twenty-year-old lie.
I saw Jason in class the very next day—the day after his contribution to the novel discussion. He was withdrawn and did not much contribute to class. He also did not look at me or anyone else. He spent a lot of the period studying his hands and fingernails. I knew it was time for a chat with his mother.
“He knows it was you, Miss Berchini, and he’s not happy,” Jason’s mother said to me on the phone the following afternoon. I detected a hint of agitation in her voice. “It happened a long time ago, and his dad was arrested for it.”
“Mrs. Perez, please understand,” I tried to explain. “I didn’t know what to do with Jason’s story. I didn’t know when this happened, and I couldn’t take any chances.”
“I know,” Mrs. Perez said softly. “And I explained that to him. But if he seems different in class, this is why.”
Jason did seem different, in the weeks following my phone call to “The Agency.” The spark he usually brought to class was extinguished. Indeed, he was only twelve-years-old. I would not, could not fully expect him to understand the action I had to take, nor my desire, as his teacher and someone who cared about him, to proceed in ways that prioritized his safety. There were plenty of adults—and teachers—in his life who failed him. I suspect that, even if only for a little while, I simply became another.
This event marked one of the last times I would see Jason; he moved out of the school district the following year. As with most students who transfer out, I never saw him again. He would be in his mid-twenties now. On some level, I suspect that school, for him, was what he made of it. That his life eventually became what he made of it.
In thinking back, I would not, could not change my response to what Jason shared in class that day. Students’ well-being and safety sometimes rely on their teachers taking risks and making mistakes. I could, though, change my response to what I was taught to believe, in my earliest years, about schooling, success, failure, and opportunity, in order to become a better teacher. Jason taught me that yes, for some, school is what you make of it. But for many, many others, you are what school makes of you; you are what life makes of you.
Christina Berchini is a university professor, author, and researcher at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. In order to escape that life, she writes a lot of fiction, which sometimes feels a little too non-fictiony if she thinks about it hard enough. She is also the creator of www.heycollegekid.com where she gives advice and tough love to college students. Whether or not they listen to her is another story altogether. Her creative work has been featured in Five 2 One Magazine, SUCCESS.com, the Huffington Post, and other outlets. Her Education Week Teacher article, Why Are All the Teachers White?, has been selected by SheKnows/BlogHer media as a 2016 Voices of the Year recipient.