WHY SCHOOL IS A BFD
PSYCHOLOGY AND SYSTEMS
I wanted to follow up on the previous JOY, episode 62 with Kris Galmarini where we discuss HSP or highly sensitive people. I briefly brought up school as an experience that I think we grossly underestimate in terms of its impact on our daily life. I wanted to expand on my thoughts a little more, so what follows is a very wide focus look at school. I hope it expands your perspective a bit.
One of the most influential gems of psychoanalytic knowledge that was passed on to me was from my mentor, psychoanalyst Bill Glover. It was late August 2005 and I was in training for my psychotherapy license working as a counselor at California College of the Arts. Hurricane Katrina had just devastated the American south and counseling services was putting together a comprehensive plan for students displaced by Katrina soon to be arriving at CCA to finish their art degrees. There had been a serious vandalism event on campus the week before and a number of students were returning to campus after the summer in total crisis. As a team, we had our hands full providing counseling sessions and referrals to students along with meeting with campus leadership regarding the fragile state of mental health across college campuses. My caseload was full and my supervision hour would consist of discussing potential crises and how to respond. At one point Bill looked at me while I was in mid sentence and said, “Are you tired?” “Um, yeah, no shit I’m tired,” I said. “Well, that’s August for ya,” Bill said.
He then went on to tell me that the end of summer and early fall is a super intense time for everyone. Like everyone alive. “It’s when the shit really hits the fan,” he said. And with good reason. Bill went on to explain that we are creatures of habit, and most of us spent years upon years attuned to a school calendar. First as children, then teens, all the way through to college students and postgraduate education. He himself had gone to school for many years and then raised a child, making a routine of the academic calendar once again. Whether we are aware of it or not, many of us experience a sharp increase of anxiety around the ebbs and flows of the school calendar. Whether it is as a kid dreading the first day of school, as a parent - September can’t come soon enough, and again at the end of the year. All in all, school actually makes us very, very anxious, we just don’t acknowledge it very often.
And it’s pretty normal that it would make us anxious. School actually asks a lot of us and that’s before we even consider academics.
From a systems perspective, school is an institutionalized system, and a system is just a really large group of other groups and other groups, times infinity. I’ve spoken a bit about groups on JOY before, and essentially, groups are so complex and psychologically rich, that when seasoned clinicians are looking for a challenge, they study and facilitate groups. And groups have their benefits for sure. There are certain tasks that are safer and more efficient in groups. Creating groups is how we have survived as a species. Hunting was easier and safer in small groups. We could share food and resources. Groups are good. Until they are not.
For all the good, bad and seemingly chaotic, group behavior is actually quite predictable. Psychoanalytic scholars like Bion and Hinshelwood outlined the expected trajectory of groups, named different kinds of groups, and their writing and observations have become pillars of methodology when it comes to providing treatment in group settings. Yet, on top of all these structural considerations, groups have a whole lot going on under the surface. Think the iceberg that sank the titanic. A crap load of emotional gunk swimming deep below. Sometimes appearing slowly above water and other times breaking the surface with a loud and violent crash only to re enter the depths of our unconscious. Groups are always a wild ride.
So yeah, groups from a psychological perspective are pretty damn cool. But groups from a participant perspective can be a total and complete shit show. While a group can sometimes lighten the workload and bouey our spirits, groups can also engage in conflict, create outcasts, and be at the mercy of a single or few unruly members. And school is no different. Let’s take a wide focus on school for a minute.
Outside of a place to learn, what really is a school? Well for one, in this country, it has become childcare but that is a whole separate issue to be tackled in and of itself. Stripped of their academic value, schools are large spaces where children outnumber adults, (if we are going by national average) 24 to 1. Schools vary in size of student body from a small group of 20 or 50 to the tens of thousands. Schools have a clear hierarchy of leadership. Principal/Dean, Department head, assistant principal, teacher/professor and other staff. Under the best circumstances, adults in leadership positions at schools provide the goal of education alongside clear and consistent rules with understandable and clear consequences for breaking them. The rules of this system are so ingrained in us that when we become part of other groups, be it work, upper level education, or part of any other institutionalized group, we often behave like we did when we were in school. I know it is hard to believe, but it really does happen. I was certainly at the mercy of this phenomenon during my psychotherapy training in my scorn of authority and desire to be a rule breaker. Which I’ll say at 30 is a strange realization to consider, but there were all those feelings coming to the surface.
Our school experience is so potent, when we re enter group settings as adults, we break off into smaller groups, gossip, scapegoat others, and even rail against authority. It’s Beverly Hills 90210 all over again. Except with more sensible economical cars. And for better or worse, we are adults this time around.
We ask the same of our children and of ourselves regarding school as we do work. Go 5 days a week, perform well, be friendly, and use the experience to get you to the next place you want to go. All without the incentive of getting paid. In fact, in most cases, whether through taxes or tuition, we pay to be in school.
Yet, we act like the impact of school is different from work. And actually it’s worse, there’s no HR department at school. Last time I checked, the building we spent 8 hours a day 5 days a week in, with thousands of other students and far fewer people in leadership roles, did not have a Human Resources department. That's kind of fucked, right? Footnote, I am a huge fan of the idea that schools of all levels should have an HR department and while Principals/Deans and overstretched specialists usually provide HR type services out of desperation, they shouldn’t. Let’s make school HR it’s own thing.
So here we are spending most of our formative years part of this school system at a time in our life no less where our bodies and minds are growing, we are railing against authority, seeking safety, acting out all the drama from our family system and doing it all over each other. Add in all that intensity from sometimes thousands of kids progressing through development bouncing all over the place and It’s a total recipe for disaster. That’s not to say school always is. We know school can be fun and beneficial, but if schools were advertised using a different set of words than we have become accustomed to, how psyched would you be to sign up for that experience?
I’d say, no thanks. That’s a lot of drama to withstand. But most of us go with the flow of what is to be expected when it comes to school because at the inception of school, we are powerless. Small children with little to no say or autonomy over our lives. Also, we do not possess the language to fully convey our feelings in specific ways. A simple, I do not want to go to school, or I hate school, does little to fully express what exactly lies at the heart of our distress. We continue to not only attend on the daily trying to make sense of all this unconscious emotional content, but also try to meet the very real expectation of social and academic excellence and this is a big deal. A really big deal.
I don’t share all of this as some sort of radical anti institutional education stance. Not at all. I believe in education, but I also believe in understanding schools from a group perspective separate from their goal of education. Personally, I love education, I love learning, but I hate school, and that’s okay. I think there are many of us out there who feel similarly. And for those of us who do, it’s helpful to consider just what a big ask school is for ourselves and those we love. A day of school is not nothing. The emotional and physical energy required to transverse such a landscape is enormous. School is an ask far bigger than solely education. Let's start treating it that way.
So how do we do that? Well if you are Gen X you might remember the idea of a mental health day. We had them in my family and I took them regularly. Whether it was staying home quietly curled up on the couch just being still, or pulling a Ferris Bueller and leaving school early on a sunny day to sit with my friend Tree in his backyard by the pool with his dogs and just listen to hours of music together. Even in graduate school, I was known to sneak away with my office mate for a long outdoor lunch in the park. And these respites saved me.
I am not suggesting truancy, but I am saying, there is a sane middle ground where we recognize the impact school can have on our psyche and learn to rest when needed. I consider this rest to be just another part of going to school. For me, it is required. And if done right, these random absences contribute to our academic success, not take away.
What I’m mostly curious about these days is to look at school differently. What if we really considered it not only for what it provides us, but also, what it asks of us? Instead of solely as a place we have to go, but as a place that gets to have us. Would that change how we show up for school, to school? I’m not sure, but with school holding such an enormous marker on our lives, I think it’s important to ask questions. A lot of them.Listen to this episode of JOY IS NOW here.