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It’s not your Mamma's high school anymore

Updated: May 17, 2023

You don’t get a “retake” in real life. You can’t just press rewind and start over. In my case, I can’t simply wish that I had gone to school in America my entire life and start over. But I can at least experience what it’s like to be a student from the perspective of a parent and an educator and encourage my children to ENJOY EVERY SINGLE MINUTE OF IT.

Shock and awe is the best way to describe my first encounter with the American education system. It all began on a September morning in 1988. I was 16 years old and only two weeks into my new life in the US when I was dropped off at my high school counselor’s office (I didn’t know who she was), handed my course schedule, and ushered into the hallway to fend for myself.

When the morning bell rang and high school students stampeded past me, all I could do was stand by a wall, tears streaming down my face, wondering where to go and what to do. After what seemed to be an eternity, a nice girl must’ve felt sorry for me, glanced at my course schedule, and offered to take me to my first class (I wonder if she was marked ‘tardy’). By lunchtime, I was so overwhelmed that I ran to the counselor’s office and tried to explain to her that I wanted to go home. When she didn’t understand what I was saying, I ran outside and stood by the front door sobbing, ready to hop on the first plane back home.

Fast forward 34 years.

Last night, as my husband and I attended my daughter’s 8th grade parent orientation night at her future high school, I listened in awe as the principal, counselors, and high school staff explained the myriad of opportunities and support available to the class of 2027.

Although I make a living teaching high school, it’s a different feeling when you’re sitting on the other side of the auditorium listening as a parent, not as an educator. All I wanted to do was to enroll in every class, join every club, go on every field trip, and take every exam. Yes, I am that nerd who wishes she could be a high school student again. Not because I love to learn (I do) but because I appreciate a system that gives students a well-rounded education to become informed global citizens.

Even though it’s only January and my daughter won’t be starting high school for another seven months, she has already met with her high school counselor, received class recommendations from her middle school teachers, and signed up for all her classes.

In late spring, she will attend a high school orientation where she will be paired with a student mentor to support her during her freshmen year. In August, incoming students will get the opportunity to go on a canoeing field trip to meet their classmates and build a relationship with their teachers and school administrators.

Even more impressive than the process leading up to freshmen year, is the long list of course offerings that provide students with the experience and knowledge to begin thinking about their career goals. High school is no longer just about earning good grades; it’s also about preparing students to enter the real world with specific goals and real-world opportunities to succeed in college or trade school. The list of career training classes is endless — not to mention all the clubs and mentoring opportunities available for students to choose from.

A lot has changed since I went to high school. True, my experience was unusual, given that I was an immigrant and a non-native English speaker. But, the education landscape has evolved (luckily) quite a bit in the last decade. Long gone is the top-down teaching method where students listen to a teacher drone on for an entire class period while they take notes. Now students are offered interactive classes that encourage them to become critical thinkers and global leaders.

While I sat there like a kid in a candy store wishing that I was the one going to high school, I realize that I am looking at all of this as a mature adult — not a wide-eyed 14-year-old teenager, who is more concerned about what the classrooms look like and whether I met her math teachers.

After last night, I want my daughter (and eventually my son) to understand that it’s up to them to take advantage of every single minute of their high school experience because there are no retakes in real life.

Today’s high school is where the future is built; where ideas are nurtured; where careers are formed; where tomorrow’s leaders are born. Whereas in the past we were told that “College is what we make of it,” it’s time we realize that the opposite is true. College builds on the high school experience — it does not define it. If we miss out on our high school experience, the college years will be a struggle — not an opportunity for higher learning.

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