(note: All of the names in here have been changed.)
This is normally how I respond whenever someone asks about my school experience growing up. When I say very small, I mean that the middle school only had about 30 students. I graduated the 8th grade in a class of 10, most of whom had been my classmates since pre-school. While I was there, I didn’t really consider how different it was from traditional public schools because it was all I’d ever known. It wasn’t until going to pubic high school, that I realized just how unique–and possibly detrimental–such a small school was.
Over the weekend, I met up with my best friend, Patrick, who was my classmate from 4th grade through high school. We talked about how our former classmates were doing and where we’d all ended up. Like the two of us, there was another set of best friends that remains just as close as it’d been before graduation. Patrick and I agreed that one benefit of the small environment was the strong bonds it helped us create. We also acknowledged that the small class sizes and one-on-one teacher attention were definitely academically advantageous. Our classmates mostly succeeded after graduation.
Mostly. As we went down the (short) list of our classmates, Patrick and I remembered Ivan. While everyone else had gone to college, Ivan’s circumstances were drastically different. 9 out of 10 of the classmates, including Ivan, went to the same public high school. There were undeniable struggles during the transition, but everyone seemed to do well. Ivan, however, did not graduate. A month before senior year ended, he was arrested for violating over a dozen girls’ privacy. We were all surprised but not shocked. Ivan had a history of unhealthy interactions with girls, and actually with just his peers in general. After the incident, many hated Ivan because what he did was unforgivable. Patrick brought up a valid point, though, when we talked about it. “I know we both hate Ivan,” he said, “but we still do have to realize that he was bullied as a kid. That’s no excuse, of course, but it did happen.”
Ivan never fit in. At such a small school with so few options for friends, being in the out-group was sometimes a one-person club, which compounded the isolation. Nobody in our class was ever violent or directly malicious towards him (past ~elementary school,) but he did not have any friends. He went to that school for 11 years and left without any true relationships. His behavior was often inappropriate, sometimes to the point of actually causing alarm. But for 11 years he was trapped in a vicious cycle of acting “off,” not having friends as consequence, and then acting even more “off.” As Patrick and I digested the situation, we recalled other classes at our old school. Teachers and parents always praised ours for being one of the nicest, but obviously there was still a problem with exclusion. Each of the other classes had one student like Ivan that never fit in, but they were even more vicious. One class supposedly had an I Hate Emily Club in the 5th grade. Emily is in college now, but from what I’ve heard, her social life never really recovered.
Even the teachers made it apparent that students like Emily and Ivan didn’t seem to belong. Teachers called Ivan out regularly for being disruptive, but occasionally did it in a way that was downright humiliating. Because this was the kind of school where we called teacher by first names, they were greatly influential. In the case of Ivan’s treatment, some of them failed to serve as role models. Patrick and I wondered if maybe teachers there just weren’t equipped to handle a student like him. The school was pretty homogeneous, so it’s possible that the teachers lacked the experience with diversity that public school would have afforded them. Perhaps Ivan would have fared differently at public school. Teachers there may have been more familiar with a student like him. He also would have had more opportunities to meet friends instead of facing constant rejection. When asked why he did what he did to the girls, Ivan cited rejection. He told the school officer that he’d been rejected so much in his life that he thought what he did was the only way around it. Am I in no way excusing his heinous actions, but it is an explanation.
In short, I appreciate my school for its academics and for teaching me to be an independent thinker. However, the homogeneity, diminished teacher-student boundaries, and small size may not have been worth it. I can’t help but hold my old school responsible for creating a monster.