Odelia Kaly

An Open Letter to the Department of Education


To the New York City Department of Education:

Once upon a time there was a young girl, quiet but thoughtful, unconfident but hardworking, studious but idealistic. She was apparently very bright and showed lots of promise, but she had a tendency to be stiflingly perfectionistic. She had to be the best at everything. If she didn’t win the first time, she always won in the end. By the end of middle school, she had done it: she had been class president for three years, the lead in the musical, and the indomitable pi recitation champion. She had been granted a full scholarship to a private high school and accepted at one of the nation’s top art schools for both visual arts and vocals. She didn’t know it yet, but she was quite unhappy. So when she entered high school at the aforementioned art school, she figured it best to operate as she always had. She took honors classes and was on the accelerated math track and joined the photography club and showed her work in the semi-annual art show. She had straight A’s and lots of friends and a thriving fashion blog. But summer came, that window of twinkling humid daytime joy and simmering dewy nighttime bliss, and a sadness befell her. She had reached a checkpoint in her as yet short life.It began to dawn on her that looking around at everyone else made her want to cry because it made her realize that everything inside herself was a product of something that had been given to her. None of it belonged to her, and all of it was false. She could do things extremely well, because she regarded everything as a skill. Everyone had always told her that if you try hard enough you can do anything, so she lived by the idiomatic expression “practice makes perfect.” She wanted to be perfect. She wanted everyone to love her. But the reality was that she had only a few semi-superficial friends and did not know how to interact with others meaningfully. She hadn’t really given anyone a reason to love her because she did not know who this “she” was. She knew nothing about this girl. The past fifteen years had been spent accomplishing tasks, but if every piece of paper documenting her supposed success were to be incinerated, she would be a nameless insubstantial nothing. So she spoke to no one that summer unless she had to. She deleted her Facebook account and refused to wear makeup and stopped shaving her legs. She wanted to change, and seeing as she was so good at everything she did, she thought she had succeeded in changing. She wanted to face the coming school year with a fresh mind, a fresh start. But freshness soon spoils, and she was no exception. She was no different from how she was before; the only disparity between the two time frames was that now she was aware that everything was an overwhelming, wave-like, all-encompassing lie. She became sour and deflated and rotten. She sat at the back of the vegetable drawer, rotting away. No time for friends or exercise or sleep; she had AP World History homework to do, and that trigonometry test to prepare for, and that essay to write in French, and that chapter in Dickens to read. She had never failed at schoolwork; it was her constant. It was a given that she would excel academically. But you can stick an x next to a constant and it becomes a variable, a function of the unknown. Some days she would not go to certain classes and stayed in the bathroom, waiting. Other days she left early because she could not stand being there one more minute. One time she lost control sobbing during art class, choking on her own long-stewing stagnating anxiety, and did not stop for thirty minutes. There was no rest for the weary, as they say.

The sultry summer came once again, the light at the end of the tunnel. She thought she would be fine. Everything will be okay!, they told her. The next school year loomed before her, stretching and shrinking with each uncertain inhalation and exhalation. One moment she could tackle it, all was fine, the next it consumed and crushed her like a wave, all was not fine. They forced her to go back, so she went. This time, she knew she was unhappy. She had no constants, only variables. All her graphs were asymptotes, so close to zero, and yet so far. She began to destroy herself from the outside in. She rallied her finest soldiers and they laid siege to her body and her mind. She lifted a final finger to the telephone and called for help, seeing that her army had turned against her. They laid her in a bed in blue paper scrubs with fluorescent lights and constant bustle and beeping. Then they put her in a stretcher and took her to the countryside where she slept next to a stranger and got the drawstrings taken out of her pants and could only call her mother at noon and nine. She cried a lot, and so did everyone else around her. But she made progress. They eventually took her home and she went back and forth on the subway everyday so she could talk to the doctors. She eventually graduated from her treatment and was forced to return to school, despite her whimpering pleas. It took seventy-two hours before they finally believed her. They now understood that when you drop someone into a pool of acid she will fight and cry and claw her way out because the acid is toxic, not her. A week passed, and she placed herself in a new, different school, one that was right for her. She was rinsed clean, the burn marks beginning to fade. She could fathom happiness again. But now people question her. They cast aspersions on her judgement. Why don’t you want to take all those AP tests? You have the time to study now that you’re at your new school. Shouldn’t you start preparing for the SAT? You should at least take a practice one this weekend. They had warned her about peer pressure, about how all her friends would force her to smoke weed and get drunk and drive under the influence and jump off bridges. They told her this was the biggest threat high school posed. They never warned her that her parents and siblings and teachers would look at her as though her feet were on backward as soon as she began to clap out the uneven and hesitant rhythm of her inner drum. But she has learned not to blame herself. Now she blames you, Department of Education.

Yes, she blames you. Your heart is made of money and your brain is a mismatched circuit board of lies. Your money and your lies are in turn force fed into our mouths through the public school system. It is within your institutions that we are taught how to distinguish between intelligence and stupidity, success and failure, worth and worthlessness. Tell me. Am I stupid? Am I unsuccessful? Am I worthless? You pause, you check your documents, you look back up at me, vocal chords frozen all the while, for you fear to tell me what you perceive to be the truth. You conjecture that perhaps I may be all of those things, because I left one of the most prestigious and renowned high schools in the city to attend an unknown alternative transfer school. You give my high school a “C” grade every year as our rating because our students don’t graduate fast enough for your liking. Gosh, we’re sorry that the majority of our student body is comprised of teens from marginalized groups and low-income families, or that they might have small children that they need to take care of, or jobs they need to work to stay off the streets, or perhaps that they don’t even have a home at all. But you don’t care. All you see is a spreadsheet packed with numbers and letters. You mark these struggling adolescents with a stamp of inadequacy. You tell them from day one that they are simply mediocre. Just meh. Passable. Nothing special. And then you turn around to people like me, from middle class families and sufficiently stable homes with lots of academic and moral support, and pat us on the head and give us gold stars because we’re able to do exactly what you tell us. The key difference is that our lives are generally more stable, and that’s a huge advantage. But as soon as someone like me starts to become destabilized, you begin to bruise me left and right with that big stamp of inadequacy. After a while that ink seeps underneath my skin and into my bloodstream until every time my heart beats all I hear in that rhythm is fail-ure. Fail-ure. Fail-ure. You have the power to determine these things because you label us with numbers and letters, and then we go home to our families and they reinforce the importance of these numbers and letters, but we don’t understand how everything that’s important in the world could be dependent on what we do in one building during one small segment of our lives. I am not poor, I have food, water, and shelter whenever I need it, I have the support and motivation to pursue an education, and all of these factors play an enormous role in my ability to succeed in school. But most people in this city are not like me, and you penalize them for the circumstances that they have no control over. There is a huge contradiction at play here. You cater to the people with lifestyles that, statistically, respond positively to your system of evaluation, allowing people with privileges to continue getting these privileges, even if it means that they will go on to perpetuate the standards and conditions that threaten to tear this country and this world to pieces. Yet you shame and shun the people with lifestyles that, statistically, respond negatively to your system, forcing people without privileges to continually be deprived of opportunities, even though these people, who are victims of the evils of our societies and have the perspective to enact true change, will most likely be bludgeoned into performing menial jobs or pursue capitalistically-beneficial careers out of necessity.

Let’s talk about education. The purpose of education is to teach and to learn; to impart knowledge from one person to the next. It is about learning for the bettering of oneself and society and the world. But that’s not what you would have said, is it? I didn’t think so. Education, as you practice it, is the perfect way to disguise mass inculcation, to reorganize people based on socioeconomic standing, to manufacture workers and business(wo)men and CEOs, and to perpetuate global injustice. What better target for all of these noble causes than the malleable wide-eyed youth? The best part is that all of this is compulsory. “Education” is strictly enforced by law, but also by society. If one has not been formally educated, or has not gone to the right school, or does not have the right job, they are rejected and pushed off into the corners to go get their food stamps and wonder where they went wrong.

Therein lies the core of your issues. Your intentions, to begin with, are all wrong. They are anachronistic, and sorely out of place. The natural progression of education should go as follows: learning, leading to improvement of self and world; personal and communal development promoting general Goodness and Truth-seeking; desiring to teach and enlighten the future generation(s). Instead, this is the path you have set up: education, leading to a stable job; focusing on self-sustainability and materialism; instilling the future generations with the ideas that egocentricity, adherence to conventions, and fleeting satisfaction lead to success and happiness. Life, DOE (may I call you Ed?), is not about money and possessions, it is not improved by selfishness, nor is there any evidence showing that your ideology has done our planet or society any honest good.

Secondly, the execution of your system is also outrageously unsound. Imagine this scenario. Half the police department is stalking the hallways, barking at you to go to the cafeteria when you’re merely doing some homework in front of your locker. You are being herded through the day by various shouts and bells and angry teachers. You are in constant fear of having done something wrong, whether or not it was to your knowledge that you had committed any crime, nor that it was even a crime at all. You have to go to five different offices to see five different disgruntled faculty members if you need or want to leave school early, all of whom will turn you away if you don’t have a hall pass. You know each morning when you wake up that the coming day will be just as exhausting, draining, and unfulfilling as the one prior and the one following. You have to navigate an incessant barrage of evaluations and judgements. You spend eight and a half hours in school, commuting for two hours round-trip, have at least three hours of homework to do once you get home on top of basic functions such as eating and bathing. Worst of all, you are expected to do everything, literally everything, seamlessly and without fault, because otherwise you will be penalized for your lack of perfection. Now tell me, Ed, does this sound like an environment and/or a lifestyle that fosters learning? I’d be hard pressed to find anyone that could give me an enthusiastic “yes.” I could much more quickly find you ten students that would do anything to escape from having to subject themselves to the daily horrors they must endure to get an official-looking document and four years’ worth of hormonal, angry memories.

The graduation rate dropped by 0.5% from 2012 to 2013. The Common Core Curriculum, your government-funded disguise for the devil’s work, was fully instated in the 2012-2013 school year. We all felt the blow, students and teachers alike. When His Highness the Chancellor found out that the statewide graduation rate went from 65.5% to 64.7%, he “welcomed the news, noting that the higher standards were a challenge for the city’s students and teachers. ‘We continue to raise the bar and our students continue to rise to the challenge,’ Walcott [the chancellor] said.” Is that what we’re doing? If by rising to the challenge you mean straining our necks until we break our backs, then I suppose you’re right. Mr. Walcott, not everyone can meet your byzantine expectations when they have their basic survival and dignity to maintain. The harder you make it to get a high school diploma, the more you segregate this city, and inevitably the global community. If people predisposed with the ability to graduate find it impossible to do so without sacrificing their well-being and sanity,—and most of the time they do it anyway because they have been taught that that’s the only option—then what does that say about the students that don’t have the ability to graduate in the first place? A chasm grows and swells, that’s what happens. Society begins to divide between those that are allowed to acquire an education and those that are not. Public school may be free, but the educated world is a rich man’s world. 31% of children aged seventeen and younger in New York City live below the poverty line. This is the exact age group that comprises the high school student body, and a third of them are impoverished. A similar figure represents the percentage of students that drop out of high school. The facts are glaringly obvious, yet you continue to ignore them.

At the start of junior year, I was convinced that I couldn’t escape from the tyranny and bureaucracy. My only option was simple enough. All I could do was just not go to school. I would take four trains in the morning instead of one to delay my arrival time. The earlier I got to school, the more time I would have to spend there until the final bell rang. As long as I was outside of the building they couldn’t do anything to me. I got off the subway near the MoMA and, after a few minutes of silently hoping to gain early access inside, decided not to wait another two hours until the museum opened, so I went on my way. I meandered towards Central Park, slowing down with each step that brought me closer to my prison cell. I climbed up onto a grassy hill and sat on a rock in my red windbreaker that was much too warm for the hot morning sun. My mother texted me and asked me if I’d arrived at school yet; I was supposed to let her know when I got there. I responded with a simple “no” and received a phone call from her within a few minutes. I told her that I was sitting in Central Park during first period sobbing with my hood covering my eyes, and I asked her if that was normal. She told me that no it wasn’t. She asked me to please go to second period. I shook my head and kept crying, begging. Don’t make me go. Please don’t make me do it. Please, mommy, please. She implored me to go, I didn’t have to do anything, all I had to do was be physically present. I reluctantly agreed, but only because I knew she had a class to teach in four minutes and I didn’t want to keep her on the phone. I went to class. And four days later I laid in blue paper scrubs on a white bed in a bright hallway watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on a portable DVD player to pass the time. I stayed there for an additional four days, waiting for a space to open up at a treatment facility upstate. The beginning of the school year is the busiest time for mental hospitals.

Do you see the awful cycle you have created? We don’t want to go to school in the first place because it is a hellacious experience and even impossible for some. We fail our classes or drop out. The next year you make it more difficult. Each year you make it worse. By what fantastic logic would that lead to higher attendance rates and exam grades?

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but the high school experience has become simultaneously stigmatized and deified as a rite of passage for all adolescents. We must have this experience, because in the Real World, money doesn’t grow on trees, and people are greedy and mean, so really, high school isn’t all that bad, just you wait until you have to work a nine-to-five. You are right in some ways, Ed. Yes, many people are greedy and mean and selfish. No, money does not grow on trees. But how does that justify anything? Where did these greedy, mean, selfish people learn that their actions are acceptable? Where did they hear that everyone else is out for their job, their spouse, their soul? Maybe it was when they were in high school? During the most formative years of their life? Hm.

Ah, but you think that I am still neglecting Reality, that omnipotent truth of yours. I will concede that you are, again, correct to an extent. It is a known fact that the economy and the workforce are brutal and ruthless and difficult to navigate. As the unemployment rate has doubled in the past five years, reaching almost 9% in New York City, the suicide rate has also jumped. Approximately 18 out of 100,000 middle-aged New Yorkers committed suicide in 2010, in comparison to around 14 per 100,000 at the turn of the century. These are the members of the current workforce, and they’re miserable. It’s all very tragic, and I don’t mean that lightly—it really is. You seem to know all the answers, Ed. So tell me why this is happening. The statistics show that more and more of the working people are committing suicide presumably because of the terrible turn for the worst that our world has taken. Yet let us pause. The economy is not an autonomous being, and the bank is not an invincible monster. These are human creations. We live in a human world, and our problems are human problems. It is now startlingly clear how powerful the effects are of living this way, of trapping ourselves in a bubble of self-inflicted struggle and passing it on to our youth.

Elizabeth Wurtzel brought this issue to the public eye when she published Prozac Nation in 1994. Her title hit the nail on the head. It’s what we are. Over 24 million prescriptions were filled for Prozac in 2010 in this country alone. It’s the third most prescribed antidepressant, a runner-up to Zoloft and Celexa. Argue all you want that we’re overmedicated, that we can’t just take what the doctors give us and not do our research. Do that and you’re evading the real matter in question. It’s not that we shouldn’t be taking these medications, it’s that we shouldn’t have to be taking them. We are taught—and eventually teach ourselves—of the unreal horrors of the “world,” the problems we have placed before ourselves and given the titles of ‘human nature’ and ‘evolution’ and ‘history’ and so on. We are given a bottomless handbook of rules that are unnatural and oppressive, and told to follow them or else. We are a Prozac Nation because of you. You are the starting point. It is with you that we learn how to socialize, how to think, how to grow, how to create, and how to be. But you are harmful and poisonous. In turn, you churn out harmed and poisoned victims, some of whom go on to become harmful and poisonous people, and they have children, and those creatures grow up in a cyclically harmful and harmed, poisoned and poisonous world.

Seeing as the Common Core website’s tagline is “consider the source,” I think it’s time you heard something besides the sound of your own dishonest voice. Perhaps you could listen to me, a casualty of your corruption.

Teach our children knowledge, not information. Encourage them to digest, not to consume. These terms are demarcated by thin lines easily lost by the impatient eye. Be patient.

Teach our children without bias when applicable, and make them aware of a bias when it is unavoidable. Unfounded prejudice and bigotry plague our country to an unacceptable degree.

Don’t kill our children’s curiosity. Humans are naturally inclined to question, observe, and absorb, but if they are not given enough time to develop and nurture their spirit of inquiry independently, the desire is devoured by times tables and restless naptimes. Allow them to teach themselves, learn from one another, and fulfill their inherent thirst for knowledge without stifling it through force. Teach our children what is important, relevant, interesting, and inspiring, not what is going to be on the test. The Test is a lie and should be abolished.

Stop evaluating and judging our children at every minor checkpoint. Constant assessment begun at an early age garners a deep-rooted fear of failure. Failure itself is a falsehood that is measured subjectively and enforced negatively, when it is simply a neutral personal analysis that has been attributed antipathetic connotations. Often these “failures” are determined by external forces such as a numerical bracket or the opinion of an individual. They are not treated as opportunities to learn, they are shamed into exile and stuffed into the dusty bottoms of backpacks.

Stop overburdening our children with busywork and assignments that reinforce unassimilable facts and notions. Humans, especially developing ones, need to rest and rejuvenate. Social exploration is an integral part of the human experience, and should not be discouraged or denied. Depriving growing beings of sleep is cruel. Unrealistic expectations in the form of copious amounts of homework to be done after a long, tiring day of school create an unhealthy relationship with work itself, as well as academia in general, leading young people to sometimes reject both and pursue more hedonistic activities as a counterbalance. Regular physical activity is imperative to one’s health and should be promoted in positive ways instead of pigeon-holed into a selection of unappealing activities such as jumping jacks and weightlifting.

Stop teaching our children that their success in high school is indicative of their success in life. The two are by no means synonymous; they are not even correlative. By state-regulated standards, I will be a failure in life because I chose to go to an alternative high school and probably will choose to not attend a top-tier selective college. In reality, I will have an amazing life because I live by my own standards and have passions and talents that are unable to be quelled by your bureaucratic puzzle-piece doctrines.

You teach us to seek information instead of knowledge, success instead of fulfillment, stability instead of happiness. Reevaluate your own life before you wake up tomorrow and ruin another child’s.

Learn how to teach.

Odelia Kaly