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What I Learned About the State of Education While Visiting My Old High School

I wrote a big ol' feature about what I found there—it's in this month's Pacific Standard—but it's not just the political lessons that stuck with me.

I spent two weeks at my old high school to write about how teenagers are different now. I ended up writing about how we are failing them.

A few summers ago I got the idea of doing some sort of story on How We Teen Now. I was going to visit my old educational institutions, meet the kids who went there, ask them about Lauren Duca and turn their answers into an essay about how, probably, they’re all sexting each other.

So I emailed my old high school and told them my idea—well, my lack of one—and asked if I could spend two weeks there attending classes, meeting administrators, hanging out with my old teachers, and getting to know the kids. Rather surprisingly, they said, sure, come on down.

Once I got there, it took about 15 minutes to realize the kids weren’t the story. I wrote a big ol’ feature about what I did find there—it’s in this month’s Pacific Standard—but it’s not just the political lessons that stuck with me. It’s the weird little moments, the classes and conversations and observations that didn’t fit into any larger narrative.

So here are some of them:

1. Our National Conversation Is Not Set Up for This

Ms. Simmons is arranging 30 black plastic chairs in a circle. When she is finished, she sits in one and waits for the kids to arrive.

They trickle in, alone or in pairs, some wearing earbuds, some sharing. A heavyset kid in a black hoodie comes through the door, sees the circle of chairs, says, "I knew this day would come!" then theatrically turns and walks out. Another, who I have trouble describing without resorting to popular-looking, says, "Velcome to ze party" in a comic German accent.

The school got rid of bells years ago, so Ms. Simmons signals the beginning of class by making a shhhhhh sound, like the air going out of a tire. The last of the earbuds come out and the kids lean back and look around, confused by the seating arrangement, the desks shoved against the wall.

This is Language Arts block 1. Today is a "Socratic seminar" to discuss Elie Wiesel’s Night. "I know I sound like your mom right now," Ms. Simmons says, "but if you're hot, take your raincoat off."

It’s homecoming week, every day a different costume. I think it's Gore-Tex day today for the freshmen, but maybe it's just Seattle and this is how we dress now. One kid is wearing full fishing waders. Some of the kids look 25, others seven.

A girl with braces, a headscarf, and a huge black raincoat slumps in her chair, stares at her feet, puts up her hood. "It's just one of those days, Ms. Simmons," she says.

"I think we've got our facilitator," Ms. Simmons says. She told me earlier the trick to these things is to identify the threats to class harmony and bring them over to her side early. Instead of causing chaos, make them responsible for preventing it.

She tells Stella (as with the feature itself, all names used here are pseudonyms), the girl in the hoodie, that it's her job to get input from her classmates, to keep the conversation going and interesting. Then Ms. Simmons takes a seat in the corner and gives the silence in the room to Stella.

"Question one," Stella says, reading from the board at the front. "Do we blame Eli for not helping his father as the SS officer beats him?" No one answers. The only sound is North Face rustling.

"Guys," Stella says with the perfect Nurse Ratched mix of care and authority. "We've been together for a while. You can say whatever you want."

"I think Elie's father was a burden," says a kid who looks exactly like Rick Astley, tiny in a giant red raincoat.

"Expand on that," Stella says.

And he does. Stella, it turns out, is a great moderator. She departs from the questions from the board almost immediately, gets the kids to talk about their personal reactions to the book, the memories and opinions it drew out of them. She doesn't let anyone dominate the conversation. She calls on quiet students, the ones who don't speak English, pushes them to contribute, moves on if they decline.

"So what is it that makes us human?" is where she ends up after about 25 minutes. "I'm going to need an answer from this section, between Jack and Arthur."

Ms. Simmons does a bit of pruning—she has to separate two boys sitting next to each when they collapse into giggles at Stella's instruction to "probe deeper"—but mostly she lets the kids regulate themselves. "Shhhh," goes Stella at one point, like Ms. Simmons, "I'm sorry the chatter interrupted you. Please continue."

From how smart she is, her sheer alpha-ness, I assume that Stella is one of the advanced placement (AP) kids. I ask Ms. Simmons to tell me more about her.

"Most days," Ms. Simmons says, "she just sits there with her head down."

We talk a lot about education in this country, but seldom about schools like Nathan Hale High School. It does not embody the problems that politicians warn us about, nor the virtues that philanthropists seek to expand. It is not desperately poor or gleaming rich. It is not a thriving exemplar or a failing dinosaur. It is, like the vast majority of schools in the country, somewhere in the middle. It does well on some days and poorly on others, excels on this measure and fails on that. It is neither hailed as a role model nor held up a cautionary tale.

One afternoon I'm waiting in the office to interview an administrator. A mother comes in and says she wants to pull her kid out of Nathan Hale because he has to take two city buses every morning; it takes two hours each way. A detective from the Seattle Police Department comes to arrest a student. He writes her name on a piece of paper and slides it across the counter to the receptionist. A secretary calls the district to report that the sub never showed up for 10 grade history. The kids are sitting in an empty classroom.

I'm not really making a point about education reform—or, I don't know, maybe I am—but it strikes me that, had I not attended Nathan Hale 19 years ago, there is no reason why a journalist would ever be here. Most of our national conversation about schools is focused on the extreme cases, schools with meth labs or mass shootings or spelling bee champions. We hear almost nothing, though, about the middle of the spectrum, schools whose problems will never make a front page, where the challenges are not extreme enough to warrant attention outside of the parents and teachers and students who have to live with them. We talk about the tails of the distribution, the bests and the worsts, but that's only a tiny portion of the education taking place in this country.

I get why we do it. We hear and we talk about those places because they make for the best stories. But they do not produce the best ideas, nor the best reforms.

2. Teaching Is Not a TED Talk

The biggest change to Nathan Hale in the 17 years since I left is that none of the classes look like classes anymore. Of the probably 40 periods I sit in on, only two of them are legit lectures, an adult at the front, speaking in dates and events, pointing at overheads, the kids taking notes.

But most aren't. In journalism class the kids are broken up into four-person tables like a political fundraiser and they critique last week's paper page by page. History and math are Michael Sandel lectures: "Trevor, why is the Bill of Rights important?" "Jessica, what is Trevor leaving out?" There's a class called "leadership" where the student body presidents and vice presidents and treasurers debrief on last week's Homecoming Dance (The DJ didn't play "Fancy." I repeat: The DJ didn't play "Fancy") and write down recommendations for next year's.

Doug Edelstein, my old language arts teacher, walks the kids through the scene in Things Fall Apart where Okonkwo considers beating his wife. "Do you think there's room in this society for non-traditional families?" he asks. "Or different gender identifies?" They shake their heads solemnly.

Well, the kids who are paying attention do. Like most classes, Mr. Edelstein's kids are in constant motion. They get up to throw away scrap paper, they grab a squirt of hand sanitizer from his desk, they randomly leave for five minutes and come back with Whole Wheat Pop Tarts from the vending machines. In my next class, Beginning Radio, there's a kid in the front corner who, during the boring parts, waves his hands in front of himself like he's conducting an orchestra.

And then there's what I come to call The Din: the wall of chatter, fidgeting, and inattention that rises up from the kids without warning.

Mr. Edelstein starts the class: "OK, everyone get out your book." Suddenly the whole class is talking, passing earbuds, unwrapping food. It sounds like a cocktail party in here. After a full two minutes, Mr. Edelstein shushes them. Some of them still don't have their books out.

It's the educational equivalent of entropy: The natural state of a group of children is talking to each other, rustling, distracted. This is the state they revert to at a seconds' notice. Everyone get out your books. Din. How was everyone's day yesterday? Din. Who has a question about the essay assignment? Din.

Every teacher deals with it differently. Ms. Arneson, the art teacher, holds up her hand in a fingerless glove and counts down to a fist. Ms. Volkman, United States History, stone-faced, goes, "my expectation is that this is a quiet classroom." Mr. Edelstein just looks at them, the same withering disappointment he used on me back in 6th grade and they're silent like he slapped them.

I have this epiphany over and over again, I keep being reminded of the profound complexity of managing a public school classroom. Teaching is not lecturing. Students have to be constantly monitored, reminded what they are supposed to be doing, manipulated and cajoled into absorbing information. "Tim, can you tell the class what we're doing?" "Sarah, can you summarize what I just said?"

Read our feature story on education reform: The Afterlife of Big Ideas.

It is craft and art simultaneously. Teachers constantly scan the classroom—"Jim, take your your headphones out;" "Kelly, I see you with your phone on your lap"—for current or future distractions, setting up barriers to disruptions before they happen.

Even more remarkably, they do all this while keeping a roster of students in their heads. At the beginning of the year, teachers get a list of the students that are in need of special attention. Trevor is younger than the others because he skipped a grade, Kim lives in a homeless shelter with her mom, Avery is dyslexic, Charlie has attention-deficit disorder. Somehow teachers have to pull each kid, their gifts and their impairments, along with all the others. They have to find a way to teach to the AP kids without losing the special-education kids, to slow down for students falling behind without abandoning the kids in front.

Ms. Volkman tells me she has a kid in her class with oppositional defiance disorder. "The class dynamic is completely different when he's here," she says. I sit in one day and, yes, it is chaos. There is a row of students on the left-hand side, two boys and three girls, that never stop talking, interrupting, outbursts, never a hand up, cell phones out, away, out, away.

After class, I ask her which one of the five was the kid with the disorder. "Oh, he's not on that row," she says. "He was here." She points to a desk, a kid in a hoodie who didn't say anything, not a word, the whole class.

"They're performing for him," she says. "I was a substitute teacher for four-and-a-half years. You learn to identify the alpha kid in the first 10 minutes." She goes desk to desk, outlining little triads of leaders and followers. "This one," she says, pointing to a desk recently occupied by a 6-foot-1 Parker Posey, "she controls these two next to her."

Another class has a helper at the back who has been assigned to a kid on the autism spectrum. He doesn't want other students to know, so the helper is introduced as another student teacher. "I go around and I help all the kids with their work," he tells me after class. "But I'm really here for Jeff."

I was in awe. In two weeks at Nathan Hale, I never saw a teacher forget a kid's name, show up late, appear visibly exhausted, roll their eyes. In all the chaos of their classrooms, they never acted like the children over whom they have been given responsibility. This is a tiny miracle and it happens every day and we are not sufficiently grateful for it.

3. The Kids Are All Right

One of the first things I notice is the jam-packed, fast-forwarded way time moves here. Each period is 50 minutes long with only five minutes' break in between. Teachers cram everything they can into the instruction time (I heard teachers say things like "Now, with the last 90 seconds of class..."). As soon as they dismiss the kids, a handful rush up front to ask about the homework or after-school help or just to say something they were too shy to raise their hand for in class. By the time teachers are done dealing with the stragglers, suddenly another 30 kids are in their seats and it's time to go shhhhh again.

Things have changed here, but not in the ways I expected. Yes, a counselor at the Teen Health Center tells me she's worried about how many of the kids are obese, how many come to her anxious and depressed over where they want to go to college and whether they will get in. The teachers worry about how many kids are smoking weed, how Saturday-morning field trips have been cut short because too many of them showed up high. Ms. Jamieson says that all her freshman boys have seen porn by now—"For these kids, oral sex and French kissing are on the same level."

But, meh, I know all that stuff already and you do too. Mostly, the teachers tell me how impressive the kids are, how sharp and engaged, how they all want to save the world when they grow up. How, despite the changes around them, today's teenagers are the same inspiring, infuriating, adorable, monstrous creatures they've always been. Smartphones, Snapchat—they haven't made them worse teenagers, just slightly faster ones.

I keep asking the kids about bullying. When I went here it was pervasive. Freshmen got "creeked"—shoved in the fast, frigid stream next to the portables—or "ponded"—thrown into the brackish, gravely puddle behind the tennis courts—as a rite of passage. I got creeked so many times I kept a change of clothes in my locker. But now, kids talk about it like an urban legend.

"A friend of mine says he knows someone who got thrown in the creek at the beginning of the year." Fred tells me in journalism class. Teacher Ted—that's what the kids call him—has assigned them an op-ed and has given them 35 minutes to write it. Two kids behind me are debating the protests in Hong Kong.

"Wait, but was he like creeked-creeked?" asks Pamela, looking up from her notebook.

"Are you asking me if he was creeked ironically?" Fred asks.

And that—unconfirmed, friend-of-a-friend—is as close as it gets. I spend a lunchtime with the Gay-Straight Alliance and Tom, one of three openly transgender kids at the school, says he uses the nurse's bathroom because he's afraid that kids will mess with him if he uses one or the other. When I ask if he's been singled out for any abuse, he says, "Kids at this school don't even know the difference between sex and gender," but that he's never been shoved into lockers, called names, tripped as he ran around the track—all the shit that happened to me here. One of the other transgender kids, a member of the cheerleading squad, gave a coming-out speech at an assembly and got a standing ovation.

I don't want to minimize this. I'm sure that bullying takes place here, that the kids, like everywhere, have a hierarchy and ways of enforcing it. But over and over, I hear that the inclusion policies, the smaller groups, the "Respect—Give It and Get It" posters lining the halls have made it, for lack of a better word, uncool for the kids to be shitty to each other.

"It's easy to look at technology as the biggest change between these kids and their parents," says Mr. Edelstein, "but a bigger effect on young people is the corruption in the world around them." Two wars, the financial crisis, rapidly eroding democracy. "I'm much more panicked about that lesson than any video game."

I find this weirdly comforting. The teachers here, people who spend every day in the presence of the next generation, are not existentially worried about its members. The adults here are not panicking about smartphones or short attention spans or sexting ("It's like blaming the Model A for a rise in birth rates because it provided the backseat," Mr. Edelstein says.). They do not worry about teenagers. They worry about the world we are leaving them.

Behind Mr. Edelstein is a bookshelf, all the books he makes his kids read: Colonialism in the Congo, Everyday Antiracism, For Indigenous Eyes Only. A folder, overflowing with handouts, is labeled "documents in African-American History."

As Mr. Edelstein starts the class, I pick up a stack of index cards from the top shelf. They're vocabulary words, flash cards one of the kids has made to help remember them. "Iconoclast" reads one. "A person who fits the system." "Gamut: An entire range or series."

"Debutante," reads the third. "Some French bullshit."

Read Michael Hobbes' feature story, "The Afterlife of Big Ideas in Education Reform," here. The feature also appears in the the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.