An Open Letter to the High School System

One of my students has just finished her first two weeks in high school.

I am disgusted.

Not with my student, of course. She is brilliant. Vibrant and vulnerable, yet stronger than she seems. She’s dealing with it. She has a strong support group. She has people who listen to her.

I am disgusted with you, high school.

Not with everyone who works for you, of course. There are fighters in there, people who believe in those kids and a better future, people who see the value in them. I’ve never even been to high school so I don’t know who to point a finger at, but I know something is wrong. Really wrong.

You have just been entrusted with the lives of a whole class of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old kids, young people just tentatively reaching for the first step of adulthood. Kids who in four years will be facing enormous decisions about what they’re going to do with their lives. In your halls, they will go from adolescents to adults. On your playgrounds, they will learn the ever-increasing complexity of social interaction. In your classrooms, they will be taught what you think is necessary for them to know as functioning adult members of society. They will now begin to be bombarded by all the ugly, evil things that they were sheltered from as children.

But you’re not terribly worried about that.

You’re too busy with initiation. A pointless tradition, designed to belittle the already-vulnerable grade eights, to place the matric kids into a false sense of importance. In other words, to reinforce exactly the negative social structure that teens find themselves drawn into. The peer pressure that’s responsible for more social problems than I really want to list here. Including substance abuse and teenage pregnancy.

You like numbers, right? Pass rates and who knows what else. Here’s some numbers for you.

According to these two studies in the UK and USA, as many as 26% of young people have suicidal thoughts. In 2013/14, more than 1800 teenagers were admitted to hospital in the United Kingdom alone for eating disorders. 50% of mentally ill adults’ symptoms first manifested around the age of fourteen. The numbers are on the rise, relentless and exponentially (by 70% in the past 25 years).  In England alone, 160 people under twenty years old commit suicide successfully every year. And here’s the most terrifying number of all: suicide is the third highest killer of young people.

Our kids are sick. Our kids are dying.

They’re dying right in front of us. In those high schools.

Shouldn’t it follow that their first week in high school should include extensive counselling? Well, no. You’re too busy putting Vaseline and peanut butter in their hair.

I don’t know if you realise what you have there. I don’t know if, beyond all the pointless patriotisim and flaunting of your “school spirit”, beyond the colours and the cheerleading and the songs, you realise the biggest truth I know about young people: they are created in the image of God. Thousands and thousands of created, holy, eternal spirits are walking those halls, terribly vulnerable, poised on the brink of the abyss that is adulthood. I don’t know if you get that they’re not supposed to be there for you. You’re supposed to be there for them.

“We have to pretend to be invisible tomorrow,” my student confided in me as I tightened her horse’s girth. (Did you know that about my student? She’s just another kid in green in your class, but she controls a half-ton animal and gets it to fly for her. Isn’t that incredible?).


“Yeah.” Her smile was almost apologetic, but I could see the dread in the set of her shoulders.

Won’t she have enough opportunity to feel invisible, high school? Won’t she be made to feel inadequate and unimportant enough times in the coming years? Isn’t it going to be hard enough to face the onslaught of approaching adulthood?

You’re telling them they’re invisible. But these kids are the light of the world.

This is not okay, high school.

And that’s all I really have to say to you.



One thought on “An Open Letter to the High School System

  1. Standing and cheering here, Firn. Too bad you can’t take out a front page add in the local paper. Schools have a lot to answer for. You’re so right…don’t kids have enough to cope with when they start high school, without being asked to do things that won’t benefit them, socially, morally, emotionally and spiritually? Parents need to rise up in righteous anger. Praising the Father for you Firn.

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