A few years ago at Erie Community College, of the students who took the English placement test, about 85 percent chose to write their essay on the topic: “What two pieces of advice would you give to a student who was considering dropping out of high school?”
Residency didn’t distinguish the responses necessarily; whether they lived in the suburbs or in the City of Buffalo, the writers recommended that potential dropouts strive to keep a positive mindset, stay focused, have a plan, attend school every day, do their homework, stay after school for extra help (“it doesn’t mean you’re dumb”), take advantage of extracurricular activities, look forward to senior year with proms, class days and especially the day they’ll walk across the stage to accept the diploma that will make their parents proud.
On the flip side, they issued warnings about the consequences of dropping out and living unfulfilled lives – flipping burgers for minimum wage, still living with their parents at 23, and giving up the opportunity to afford nice cars and houses.
As one writer put it, “It’s not easy to get through four years of school surrounded by excited adolescents, smelly puberty and buzzing social media … but high school is such a little spot on our timeline.” So for these seniors, their advice to underclassmen was to give it more time, try a little harder, and “never give up!”
At the same time I was reading these essays, I was also reading newspaper articles on the struggles of the Buffalo Public Schools. As one News reporter noted, “The Buffalo Public Schools’ motto is: a world-class education for every child. But the reality is that for many students, schools like Bennett, Burgard, East, International Prep, Lafayette and Riverside are the last stop on the dropout train.”
Overall, the advice of students from city schools to those ready to give up and leave high school followed similar themes as their suburban counterparts. Yet the thoughts of these writers became of particular interest to me.
At the outset, some identified with educational struggles: “I was going to quit once, too.” “I couldn’t let others distract me or bring me down because they didn’t want anything good in life for me or for themselves.” There was passion in their advice: “Never use the negative aspects of your life as an excuse not to get things done. Become more than the worst parts of yourself and your life. Just pick yourself up and do your best. Because if you don’t, your life is going to suck and you’re going to hate every last minute of it.”
Some students refused to accept the predictable excuses: “Life is made up of mistakes, but some mistakes can’t be fixed, so they better appreciate a free education and make something of it.” A few suggested the possibilities of attending college through the Say Yes program. “How can you lose?”
Their slant on the reality of their lives made me take notice: “Some students do not have the gift of ‘nagging’ parents and choose not even to put forth an effort because their parents don’t care, so why should they?” The writers noted that teachers care deeply about the success of their students. But one writer fairly shouted: “If there is not a single person in this world whom you think cares about your future – then be that person.”
The students also covered practical aspects of completing high school. One student wrote: “It’s hard to find out what you want to do in life, what you’re good at, what skills you have. Throughout high school you have opportunities to experience jobs, skills and interests that would be hard to learn ‘on the streets.’ ”
“On the streets.” One man addressed the topic in a way that I admired then and have never forgotten: “I came across a younger troubled teen in my neighborhood. He was telling me that he was going to quit high school to join the family ‘business,’ which, believe me, is not legal and has a very short life expectancy. I pleaded with him to give me a few minutes of his time, my intentions obviously to help him change his mind. I had a strategy.
“I took him around our neighborhood (Buffalo’s West Side). I took him on certain street corners where I had a few ‘old timers’ talk to him. He found out that to live a life of drugs, dealing, using or any affiliation with it, people don’t make it to be 50 years old, some not even 20 years, as hard and real as it is.
“I took him to the welfare office (I am not opposed to social services) to show him what he would have to go through to get an apartment, food stamps and a tiny amount of cash to live on. We headed to the library where I looked up the past year’s slayings of males under 21 years old, all gang- or drug-related. Also, one last place we went was an abandoned house – no water, heat or electricity – to show him where people end up who chose that path. One more stop was the cemetery, so I could lay flowers on the grave of a friend who was taken from us too early.
“The next day he agreed to meet me once again, so I could show him a better life, a life that he would have to work hard at but, comparing the outcomes, a way better life. We went to a few of my friends’ houses in our neighborhood, who went to high school and also college, three different houses, three of my friends who, like me, do not want to see any more young kids, ‘our future generation,’ lose their lives to prisons, institutions or death. A man especially who wants to raise a family needs to be there for his wife and kids. It may be much more difficult, but when you are 55 years old or older and look back, you can smile and be proud of what you as a man accomplished. Your children will never be ashamed to say, ‘That’s my dad.’ ”
The essays called out the choices young people can make, the paths they can go down. In the words of one writer to young men or women considering dropping out of high school: “Right now you may be able to think of one or two reasons to quit, but later on, you’ll be able to think of a thousand reasons you should have stayed.”
Connie Tsujimoto is an adjunct English instructor at Erie Community College.