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High School Portraits

In order to transform education for the future, it is helpful to consider our past. 

I believe there is power in sharing what high school was like for people.

As a result, I interview people and share excerpts of their answers to the following questions:

1. What was your high school experience like academically?

2. What did you think of your experience then and what do you think of it now?

3. How would you redesign your academic experience?

Alongside a photo from high school, here's what they've shared. 


When I was in high school, the one and only goal that was ever expressed to me was getting good grades. And it became pretty clear to me that getting A's placated every one around me. So my only thought was "do whatever the fuck I can to get an A so my teachers and my parents will get off my back and then I can do whatever I want." And that's exactly what I did.   

I just naturally have the kind of brain that did well with the kind of teaching that was happening in the 70s and 80s. I remember from kindergarten on, I got categorized as one of the smart kids and my sister did not. Now that we're adults, it's clear as day that she's just as intelligent as I am, if not more. But the way they taught back then worked with my brain and not hers. I just figured out how to memorize things so that I could do it for a test and get all the answers right, and how to write a paper in a way that the teacher wanted it to be written. So even though I would get a good grade, none of this had to do with learning anything or being interested in anything or being engaged in anything. 

It dawned on me about halfway through my college education that there might be interesting things that I could learn about and there might be classes that I could take that I would actually enjoy. And honestly it changed my way of going about things. And I started taking more literature classes and art classes and dance classes and things that really interested me. And my grades, it's not like they plummeted, but they went down in direct proportion to my interest and engagement in my education.  

The most important thing that I hope for is being able to nurture all kids and understand all the different ways that kids' brains work, and do away completely with any kind of classification of anybody being better than anybody else. That's my hope for the future. 

High School in New Jersey


Academically, my high school experience was fairly cookie cutter. I was a student athlete, so I was focused on getting all assignments done early so I could spend most of my evenings and weekends with my sports commitments.

My grades were regularly good. Calculus in my senior year was enjoyable only because of an old crotchety teacher—who made everything funny and easily digestible. I disliked any history classes, it was just boring memorizing wars and dates without bothering to understand any concepts or issues that led up to those wars and dates.  I eagerly took American History in summer school between my Sophomore and Junior year, taught by a Football coach, so that I could enjoy the Natural History and Marine Biology electives offered by a super cool teacher, with field trips to Anacapa Island and various Native American reservations to boot. My English classes were just labor—regurgitating the same format essays, and thesis papers my Sophomore and Junior years.  I can’t read another Mark Twain, Graham Greene or James Joyce novel ever again.  

I loved Spanish classes for 3 years—we learned a ton of conversational Spanish through movies, telenovelas, and songs.  And my Anatomy class was memorable due to pig dissection. I learned how to journal, and the power behind it in my Senior year English class, and wondered why I didn’t learn this my Freshmen year instead of playing Balderdash in class.

I was going through the motions at times: read/memorize/regurgitate/get graded/move on for some classes, but not all. The ones I cared about, and the ones where I had interesting teachers with interesting stories and personalities, I made much more of an effort and felt I received more value from them.

Thousand Oaks High School; Thousand Oaks CA



"I was in the top 10% of my class, I had a 3.5 and I was in the Honors track, and they were supposed to be the most rigorous classes. But it was not very rigorous at all. As long as I did my homework, I was gonna do just fine. And most of my homework I did at school. 

My favorite class in high school was chemistry. I took three years of chemistry because I enjoyed the teacher. He was a former professor and a former chemist; he was challenging and he didn't treat you like a child. And so there was a cohort of us who went through all three chemistry classes together because we just enjoyed it.

The worst classes were social studies and English language arts. Because there was a lot of "read this, answer these questions, memorize these things." There was no conversation around questions like:

Why did these things happen in history? 

What was the impact of these events? 

How are these events important today? 

What's the underlying meaning of this piece of literature? 

How could this be relevant? 

Why did the author think this way?

I don't remember reading anything relevant. I did not read books for close to a decade after high school because I disliked reading so much in high school. To this day, if Silas Marner is in front of me, I will vomit."

Graves County High School; Mayfield, Kentucky  



"My story is that I got A's in everything that was non-academic, like theater, band, art, and PE; and everything that was academically related I got Bs and Cs, and I really didn't care if it was a B or a C. The only A that I got on an academic subject was in humanities because we would look at art and write about it.

For school in general, the things that really interested me were not in the classes. Classes were just biding time. It was the social aspect that was important: my friends, the community, the things that I did after school. Anything that was experiential, I was onboard and learning a ton and I felt like my skills were really represented, and anything that was listening to lecture content, I was completely tuned out. 

And so that led me to do a lot of cheating on tests because I was so disinterested in the classroom. And I never got caught. And that shows you what a shitty system it was. I mean I cheated on almost every test, if only just glancing over at the smart kid's paper.  

(To transform the experience) I would make a focus that was much more experiential. And I would make bigger blocks of time so that you have more opportunity to create a container of safety. The biggest thing is that at the center of all this is interrelating and empathy work. Because I believe that skills of working together through difference and valuing difference, is the way we're going to create real change and understanding." 

South Eugene High School; Eugene, Oregon


"I think once I got into high school, I always had a hard time with the authority. I really didn't like my teachers most of the time, and I felt there was a bigger world out there and I wanted to be a part of it. And all the rules, the bureaucracy of having to follow those rules, was confining and I hated it.

School was just stupid and it felt stupid. It was just read-this and write a paper about it. I didn't feel like I was actually interacting with the world. I wanted to be out doing things. I wanted a more social experience, actually learning skills. I just wanted more than being in a classroom. So, the last day of school my first year I just remember sitting on the outside of the high school. I just decided that I was never going back, that I hated it there.

What I actually ended up doing was I built hiking trails in the wilderness. That was my first job. So I think having some kind of schooling that was active like that, having some alternative would have been helpful for me."

South Eugene High School; Eugene, Oregon

1-year of high school in the 1990s

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