Catching the Sunlight: My Experience in Public School | Teen Ink

Catching the Sunlight: My Experience in Public School

January 3, 2009
By Jaden Gragg GOLD, Shawnee, Kansas
Jaden Gragg GOLD, Shawnee, Kansas
17 articles 0 photos 0 comments

If growing up in an extremely low-income household headed by a single mother of five children with no help whatsoever was difficult and being a teenage is universally a hard-time, then coming-of-age under these circumstances was nearly impossible. Not only had I been very hurt and disappointed by two abusive men by the time I turned 13, I possessed a desire to know everything about the world at a tender age. With the world of books and the internet at my feet, I read about the horrors of factory farming, gang-rapes in Africa, the long and tiresome list of wars humanity has fought, the numerous crisis of the environment, the Holocaust (extensively), the plight of poverty I had become slightly familiar with, the abuses of corporate America on the rest of the world, child soldiers, sweat shops, animal fur farms, you name it, I read about it in silence and anger. People told me to lighten up, but I couldn't. Some unknown element in me needed to know. I cried as I read pamphlets about how animals bred for slaughter are treated, and sat alone in absolute disgust as my happy peers smiled and chatted in the middle-school cafeteria, the epitome of my existence, and swallowed what they called food but what I recognized as pieces of dead animals slathered in grease, growth-hormones, salt, and god-knows-what-else. So I went vegan, and started a small animal-rights group at my school. I brought and distributed PETA videos. I didn't even think about asking because I had always viewed school as a safe, clean place where one could go and share what was on your mind. Usually it was lighter, childhood stuff, but in this case, it was animal abuse. I felt like, as a fourteen year old, I was affecting real change, because people took my dvds and watched them in shock. I shell-shocked their ignorance. Students and teachers alike approached me in tears, swearing off their cruel and selfish gluttony, and we talked about it at group meetings, people's reactions and outrages to such abuse.

I felt on top of the world and like a real revolutionary, until one day, I was called to the principals office, where I smiled and put my hands over my lap, making sure to allow full-viewing of the “Meat is Murder” button pinned neatly on my sweater. I allowed a second to pass for his congratulations, because I thought surely I would be receiving some. Out of thousands of students, there was only one who came across every few years demonstrating such superb qualities as an interest in global issues or ability to organize a group, those were the words I thought were about to come down on my head like a crown. Would I get a leadership award, or a recommendation for college perhaps?
No. Surprised, I am coldly ushered to a wooden chair, the door is clicked shut behind me, the curtains drawn like there is an ugly secret, and I am told to kindly stop “disturbing the peace” the school worked so hard to maintain. Oh.
What he meant was I had awoken my peers from the zombie-like trance they were in and the one from which I had luckily escaped, and now that we were all coming together, buzzing and chatting, and otherwise becoming educated about clear-cutting in Brazil, the nerve of companies to expect us to swallow pharm-meat, and the cruelty of battery egg-cages, all in this little group of ours. He knew educated students running around by the dozens were dangerous, and at the middle of this environmental whirlwind, was me.
Well, as you can imagine, I thought it was pretty fantastic and terribly exciting, but they thought I was some big muddy out-of-the-river boot scuffing up their perfect linoleum floor, and they wouldn't have it. After being told I am not to distribute any pre-approved information to my classmates, I am slapped on the wrist with three days out-of-school suspension and nodded me curtly to the door, leaving me to walk through the hall distraught because I had rarely been in trouble before, and have never, ever, had been yelled at for learning. Get this: because I showed an interest in learning new information and passing it to my classmates, I am banned from school, which is the very place the supposed learning occurs in the first place.

School then slowly turned from unpleasant to awful, from awful to painful and lonely, and from lonely to hell by any definition. To this gradual descension into the fiery furnace of hell I accredit to several things: the acute lonesomeness I felt as a needle jabbing me in the flesh whenever I saw old friends sashaying through the hallways on the arms of cheerful camaraderie, not to be associated with the silly glum-girl who thought about far-away things like how the meat in the safe silver packaging used to be attached to a real, life animal just like you and me, and how she doesn't even consider knowing about real-life things like getting boys to notice you, or this week's spelling quiz. It seemed like family and financial problems spawned ahead of me like a long and daunting climb over a mountain who had seen the lives of many a climber more experienced than me, one that I have not yet managed with time, though with time it has come closer. All of this is not to mention the torture of the actual schooling I experienced five days a week, eight hours a day: slow. Slow, slow, impossibly slow, verging on dogmatic, state-controlled material that had been thrown-up and chocked back down again and again and again by many faceless students seated in this very same chair, and in millions identical to it across the country. My grades dropped, though they had been pristine in all my earlier years, I endured the daily embarrassment of being late to school, and was the silent recipient to countless detentions, referrals, suspensions, and serious talks. I feared the label of “bad” student more than I could ever fear the Black Plague, and yet I felt that teachers started viewing me as such, though of course I was just an overly-sensitive, intelligent, and hurting little girl with too many responsibilities and the ability (gift or curse?) to recognize that school wasn't teaching me anything except to sit up straight and still for those long and tiresome eight hours a day, very unnatural for young children and teenagers alike.

Unfortunately, all of these elements of hurt, confusion, frustration, and isolation blended together slowly to make one very ugly element: self-hated. Though I had the unrelenting love of my mother, I figured that if people didn't like me, there was something wrong with me. I didn't even consider that my peers might have thought I was a bit intimidating: mature, confident, and out-spoken while they all spoke in the same-tone and traveled in packs, each with identical footprints and possibly, identical DNA.

Day in and day out of being forced from my warm, worn-in bed into the unfamiliar, sterilized building with reading material approved by a nameless committee, teachers who seemed to care about grade-point averages, book reports, and state-tests scores above my individuality, future, or heck, even my name. And not to mention my peers, outnumbering one thousand, I could feel casting judging and hateful glances at me when I unpacked a lunch of brown-rice and tofu, decorated my notebook with Arabic words and strange drawings, or experimented with different styles.
“Like, what does she think she is, an individual, or something?” I heard them demanding with their eyes. Days, weeks, months of this pushed me to action: in the privacy in the bathroom one morning, I took a razor and dragged it carefully across the fawn-white skin of my right fore-arm. It burst to life with a bright red hello, the very thing I needed. I know it was perverse, that any normal and healthy person won't smile at the sight of dripping blood onto their clothes, even by accident, but as I trace my skin that morning, again and again, it felt less freakish. I did it until I had over thirty slits, lined perfectly like the gills of a fish, seeping hot liquid. Like the fish my grandfather used to clean out on the riverbed, but instead of gasping for air, I felt clean and cool breaths passing through my lungs. I was shocked at what I had done, and ashamed too, as I bandaged my swollen wounds up carefully, and terrified of someone finding out, but somewhere deep inside me, a greedy voice demanded more. With a cleared out head now, and a purpose, I was able to go to school

The cutting became a sick-ritual for when I felt especially depressed, a few long and drawn-out cuts splashed on the wrists made a display of my anger and self-pity. It was a visual for all the feverish thoughts buzzing through my adolescent brain all day.
Then it became a sick-habit. I started doing it every morning—yes, running the sink red for ten minutes right before brushing my teeth. My arms, and later my stomach, breasts, ankles, neck and legs, became sore maps of the inside of my mind I could trace through the absolute boredom and disbelief that was school. Whatever I felt inside my mind I learned to inflict on my fourteen year old body.
Then it became sick-pleasure, an activity one waits for and savors, like a run through the park or a bubble bath. “If I fold this laundry, I can go make a few quick cuts, but if I fold these two baskets here, I can allow myself double.”

My addictive and increasingly ugly self-mutilation was tearing through my self-esteem, my time, my schoolwork (though that's a joke), my thoughts, the dynamics of my family-life, and not to mention my body. My own body was starting to resemble the pieces of meat I abhorred so much. This disturbing behavior was discovered by a few classmates (it drove away what acquaintances I had left,) by a few teachers (it probably just confirmed their suspicions,) and most horrible, my mom. It broke her heart. She was already overly-stressed, and she read my bloody mind-maps as a suicide attempt, which you really must understand they were most definitely not, and she dropped everything to devote time and attention to Jaden and her sick crisis. This was something I rarely experienced, the feeling of being completely doted on. My mom loved me undoubtedly with every morsel of her being, but was also working full-time to support us, was dealing with my abusive father living with us at the time, putting up with all sorts of ludicrous legal threats from her other abusive ex-husband, single-handedly and brilliantly raising me and my siblings, including an infant, and going through the tiresome trials of everyday life: paying the bills, if only barely and late, spending the monthly food-stamps wisely (thank god for those, by the way,) and devoting what precious seconds remained with us.
If I had not been too completely blind-sighted at the time to think of helping my poor mom out instead of drowning myself in my own misery, (not just drowning, drowning myself), I would have been able to see a small light, a votive candle perhaps, in the black tunnel in which I was flailing so miserably in. Oh, yes. When my mom viewed (by accident) in complete revulsion, fear, and sadness the complex system of angry cuts lining up and down my body, she dropped everything and devoted herself to making me get better. Her first born, her precious girl.
Let me repeat this: my mother, whom I totally loved, completely emulated, and absolutely adored dropped absolutely everything to pay close and uncompromised attention to me, something I had not fully experienced since the age of when when I was the only child. She stayed up late at night watching me, perched on the edge of my bed, allowed me to stay home from school, and treated me like the suffering princess I thought I was. She even, in our very poor life, squeezed in room for driving downtown for special “dates,” meaning going window-shopping and eating at my favorite Indian buffets if I expressly promised no cutting, which was no problem because downtown my problems seemed far away, or floating above my head like clouds. But it was also a few days afterwards when those dirty clouds broke and sprayed rain over my head, and I would fall again in the disappointing rut of habit. I continued going to school, where the word was out. Teachers, I noticed, started seeing me after school and touching my shoulder, and I would shrink away, ashamed at being the object of morbid curiosity or concern.

It seemed I had transformed: I was simply no longer the same strong, opinionated, and driven young women I had started the seventh grade as. What I was now was the same girl, but the whipped, drawn-out, whimpering, sick version. I was a knock-off toy version of myself. Within a year of middle school, I had melted into a self-hating (something I had never experienced,) pessimistic, pale, soft-spoken, and weak-willed ghost of the girl I was before I faced the pressure of conformity. I shrunk in my own shadow, and it was pathetic.

At the worst time, the height of my drawn-out cutting career, more uncertainty bloomed and flourished in my life, a nice and completely unwelcomed bouquet. My alcoholic and emotionally-absent father moved out of my life again, but leaving his fingerprints all over the house and his empty beer bottles stacked in the garage. His collection, whatever you call it, what I will inherent, so proud, in the event of his death. A generally positive occurrence, my mom finally kicking my loser dad to the curb, also brought hardships anew. Any child-support he actually paid went to the state because by then he owed them thousands of dollars, so my mom had to work more, and harder. As a consequence, I had to stay home every night with my four younger siblings, hiding my covert, blood-letting life carefully while I meandered through the house, cooking dinner and getting them ready for bed, and completely for myself the more-or-less completely mindless tasks that school required.
Had I not discovered journaling, the art of letting the symbolic blood rain all over the page, white as my skin, I would not have had much desire to ever stop, since cutting and writing provide the same service in radically different terms. The one service of cutting and one of the dozens services of writing is the unique clarity of mind, how your mind resembles a peaceful clearing after you have done some work in either of these areas. So slowly, I substituted writing on paper with cutting on skin, and slowly, it started to work. I wrote strictly with red ink on white paper. I described desperately the feeling of wanting to cut myself and the difficulty of resisting, and lying in my locked bedroom I put myself in so I would not go and fetch the habit. In replacement, I closed my eyes and imaged the warm rivers I could smell even, running in delicate torrents like Japanese ink from my knees to the floor. I even painted pictures of my sickness, and this was the most satisfying, because I could fling paint with the same wild propensity with a paintbrush in my clutched palm as with a knife.
The truth is, I was doing all of crazy substitutions because I was starting to scare myself—the person who I was, the leader and activist who had gotten the whole school talking just a year ago, had become one raw scar feeding on constant need. That was not what I had signed up for so many months ago in my sunny bathroom when I was having a bad time and experimentally dragged sharp metal across my skin. My mom drove me to counseling once a week, generously, but honestly, it didn't help me much. Sitting in that tiny, false office felt too much like school, and school was what I hated.
Rather, it my love of writing that finally relented, after a year, in weaning me from hurling things inwards at my already-bruised self, to expressing everything on paper. That didn't mean acting nice or indifferent at the injustices numerous in my life and countless in the world like school and counseling wanted me to do, it just meant that making a twisted and uncontrollable game out of the pain I felt in the world wasn't going to help anyone, or anything.

It happened less and less until the act of hurting myself was reserved for an especially bad day. Writing became an integral part of my existence. I wrote through dreams, through friendships (because, yeah, after I stopped wielding around so many sharp objects, people started to see me again,) and mainly through the intellectual suppression I experience at school. School as an institution was a waste of a lot of things, as I saw it: it was a sure waste of money, and a waste of bricks, space, and time. Time that could be spend looking at frogs in a creek, at the animal shelter petting dogs, at the library reading about any vast topic of my choosing, or sitting cross-legged completely comfortable in my existence, sipping coffee, spinning a top, musing about the clouds, thinking about what color of skirt to buy, any possible sort of thing was possible after I freed myself from the impossibly heavy chain of expectation I had been brought up forced to carry called SCHOOL. Yes, school was the ultimate waste of time. I went to the library on my own free-time and read about homeschooling. Growing inspired by accounts of children growing up in a world free of silly rules, snickering, worrying about the right clothes, and most of all, getting to explore a world with new eyes, free of a set curriculum of who people who I hadn't even met and who hadn't met me, decided what was important for me to learn. I was envious. Homeschooling urged the child genius in you to play with the world, not sit in a plastic chair full of bright lights and stare at maps, memorizing countries and capitals like I had done for so many years when I could have been swimming, cooking, or even sleeping later. Also I reasoned, if school had driven me to the very edge of my sanity, what would it be like to be unleashed like an unrelenting spirit upon the whole very wide and wonderful world?

All of these thoughts were swirling inside of me, making me anxious, yearning, and excited. Of course, knowing about the existing world outside of the uncomfortable classrooms made it even harder yet to sit still and behave, so finally, I gave up. Winter was approaching, and the cold made me miserable. All I could think about was spring and homeschooling. Literally. All other matters took the backseat in my mind. When a teacher walked around and wordlessly places a worksheet by my hand, I absentmindedly started writing plans for homeschooling. I filled up whole papers, then the backs, then the margins, and then I got the idea of turning them in. I wrote about a great many things that I wouldn't mind if the teacher read, but mostly I just let my mind roam free thinking about actually maybe being free in a few months, about not returning to school.

So once and for all, halfway through my eigth-grade year, I left for good. I had stuck through all those long days, endured the stupidity, the boredom, and the repetition, obeyed for the most part the minute-schedule of the entire day, and above all, I had not spoken out, just like they wanted me too. I had sat through classes not always angry, just wondering: how do they expect us to feel like learning in a building with absolutely no windows?
Why can't we take even a five minute break?
What's the weather like today, I haven't seen outside for 5 hours, can I just have one quick peek at the sun, so I can be assured the real, alive, happy world is still waiting for me when I escape this prison? Why can't I have a water bottle in class, is that even legal, or safe, or considerate?
Why, while at fourteen I am technically able to birth live children, do I still have to raise my hand at an appropriate time, politely ask if 'I may use the restroom,' fill out a tidy pass with time, date, and name, walk quickly and quietly to the bathroom, keep my visit under five minutes, all just to go pee?
Can you name five things you learned in high school?
Why can't we have a recess, a nap, or a snack-time? Did you know the brain works twice as well with food and water?
Why do we have to take so many goddamn tests?
Who can I ask these questions to, anyway?

The obvious answer I guess was, nobody, so I started keeping a furious account of my horrible school experience as my last days of public school were dwindling down. I wrote angrily but intelligently no doubt, my complains about the system I was being strangled in. I wrote about the silliness of the rules, about the gay slurs I heard in the hallway that stabbed me in the heart, and at the nerve the school had to even dare try to control my thoughts that I recorded to passionately on my blank worksheets, because by now in my spectacularly failing school career, I could care less if I saw another worksheet as long as I lived, because I felt like faceless worker bee filling out an endless line of long white worksheets in perfect handwriting (name, date, hour), but receiving no honey in return, you see?
And so I did fill them out, I filled them out with everything that was on my mind, all recorded in the neat blanks of these mindless worksheets photo-copied by the thousands every year, year after year. I take the time to record my own thoughts, to show emotion in such a sterile, moon-rock, fluorescent world, hoping someone would actually show interested, even in vague, at me or my writing or my thoughts. It was a desperate lash really, to interact. I wrote my thoughts down on a stack of papers in school because I'm frustrated, and what did I get? I got in trouble. I got a sad face. I got a thumbs-down.

That act landed me in the principals office. Seriously. I couldn't believe it either. I was placed in the 'dangerous' category again, being penned and prodded and most of all treated like I possessed a highly explosive personality and was capable if not expected to do something dangerous, to act on my title, even though I was a sweet-faced fourteen year old student holding a vocabulary worksheet filled with scribbles and explosions of words off the page, asking harmless questions without raising her hand.
After my stint with suspension last year for animal rights, I was here again many scars, tears, and written pages later, and in trouble yet again for the apparently serious crime of thinking. Thinking in school, it's a big no-no. And so I once again I am admitted into the Big Guy's office and handed a detention. At the end of our meeting, which has been impersonal and almost mute, he looked up and said kind of gruffly, “Hey, I think I remember you.”
The words “crazy,” “vegan,” and “girl” are suspended silently between us.
I smiled and said “Yep, that's me.”

I carried my detention slip colored pink with fake-shame like a thin tongue, lightly with two fingers because I didn't want the shame to spread, I walked out of the office with my stack of papers in my arms, clutched like a baby or a brief-case worth of money, which ever you think is worth more, and with my head held above everyone else's because that's how I wanted them to remember me. Different and proud. Because after I walked out of that door, I was a free girl. Free to think and say and write as I pleased because, I think they forgot, this is America, and I was going to express my right to freedom of speech. I wadded the pink shame slip up and threw it away in front of the school and turn around the face the world with new eyes.

Stepping away from my public schooling in the following weeks, I started realizing more things. Despite its title of school and role in a child's education about everything deemed important in this society (which is no mistake), school is a tightly-controlled institution where children are viewed as rough and highly-imperfect rocks that enter school at a young and impressionable age to get tumbled, shined up, turned from a resource into a product. Us children are quizzed, drilled, lined up, showed off, quizzed, paraded, tested, and processed until we are perfect, round, and shiny model-citizens, taught to line up neatly and not question. They even have military recruiters come often to schools, in case kids want to get tumbled more. To get more perfect, more shiny. It's a clever system, this institution, because it turns out millions of gleaming gems of citizens, ready to be shipped off and function well in society. However, school does not do the job is claims to do. Children are born-geniuses. Children are curious of everything in the world. Nothing is boring or stupid or insignificant. Taking a bath is just as much an adventure as making cookies, talking about math, pressing leaves, pretending, reading a book, or running through a rainstorm.

The world is new, welcoming, and full of things to learn. Learning never stops, and there is simply no end to the steady stream of new surprises and opportunities at every turn if you only have the opportunity. Here's a deal: you get to be a perfect machine-made beauty of a gem, and I will get to be my unprocessed self. I believe school does not feed or quench a child's natural genius, artist, or inventor, it in fact crushes it. School pushes students into picking one thing. You are sports, you are drama, you are art, you are none of the above. Tumbling, tumbling, tumble. Neat little rocks, colorful little piles. I would rather be a surprise crystal that one finds while digging in the dirt with a spoon on a Sunday afternoon, wearing overalls and letting your hair down. I am not going to be pushed into one category, in anything academic. I am a student of the world, so those four minuscule categories mean nothing to me. I am a global running girl finally free to wander a little bit and get my feet dirty.

And, yes, I am probably the least-shiny, roughest little gem in the box when compared to my newly-buffed and perfect peers. But I could not be prouder to be the misshapen and rough jewel, the girl who always spoke up, even when she got in trouble and was completely alone, because it has helped form who I am. I choose to be homeschooled (that is to say, 'untumbled') because I am living the way that I experience the most out of life, free from people telling me what I should say, read, wear, think, and act.

I am not perfect, as I have not had the experience of being churned through a machine getting ride of flaws, and I would not give them up to be what school has deemed perfect.
I am proud of who I am and what I have gone through, I am proud of the tiny scars on my body from so long ago because they represent the hardest part of my life, and surviving it.
And now I am exploring the world to learn how to improve it, and in all of these ways, I positively gleam. I shine in that natural, catch-in-the-sun-light way. I'll just remember those times, when I went hours without moving a muscle or looking at the trees, with a sigh, and I'll be thankful that I had the courage to jump out of the tumbling machine for good.

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This article has 2 comments.

villain123 said...
on Aug. 25 2012 at 3:24 pm
villain123, Bridgewater, New Jersey
0 articles 0 photos 41 comments

Favorite Quote:
"I'm okay with war as long as nobody gets hurt."

I'm glad I took the time to read this.

Lilliterra said...
on Jun. 2 2011 at 1:44 am
Even though I am not a vegetarian or vegan, I love this article! you are an amazing writer. Even though I have never been to traditional public school, I feel your pain. Your writing is so vivid!