The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Never touch anything under a desk.’ Seniors pen funny, painful recollections about what they learned in school.

(Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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High school seniors around the country are wrapping up their K-12 education, and in at least one class, they are looking to assess what they learned, and facing their fears for the future. Jess Burnquist, a teacher and writer who resides in the greater metropolitan area of Phoenix, Arizona, asked her students to write about these issues, and in this post, she reports on the results. She currently teaches in San Tan Valley, AZ. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University and is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU.  She has also won a Sylvan Silver Apple Award for teaching.  Her work can be read at

By Jess Burnquist

Recently I stopped a professor-friend of mine in mid-sentence—she was noting how three of her Comp 101 students couldn’t use a comma to save their collective lives. She made me think of my student, Oscar. He’s bilingual. To him, punctuation can feel like a maze. Many of my students arrive to high school with learning gaps. It would be easy to play a blame game. However, I’ve learned that for every student who has a gap in his or her skills, there is a narrative of issues that rightfully distracted the student from his or her learning. I ask my friend to have patience with those who haven’t mastered aspects of their basic skills yet—to take into account the whole learner and to find time to understand that student’s story.

I’m not asking to be let off the hook for teaching to the best of my ability the skills that these students need. I’m just asking my friend and the public to consider the entire picture—to remember that seniors in high school about to cross the bridge to college and/or work are 18 year old young adults with dreams, fears and a developing set of experiences. They are still teachable. In my opinion, they can also teach us a thing or two.

Each year my seniors must complete a portfolio project in order to graduate. Known as the “Senior Scrapbook,” students are charged with completing various reflections on their lives as learners. How has school impacted them? What has high school taught them? What are their dreams and aspirations? What are their regrets and their fears? Their responses are usually deeply thoughtful. And, their responses offer the viewer insight into just how aware they are of the world around them even though popular culture would have us believe otherwise. They are also very, very funny.

How would you respond to the question, “What Have I Learned in High School?” A confession—I wasn’t a great high school student. I became a teacher in large part to try and reach students like the one I once was—gifted, plagued by doubt, dealing with my parents’ divorce, etc. In any case, I would be tempted to answer that question with a lot of sass. Some of my students did just that. Many of them delved deeper though—their responses were delightful and worthy of being shared:

*Glee and High School Musical aren’t real. No one ever bursts into song in the cafeteria. But we should.
 *Don’t judge others. You can learn so much from people if you just give them a chance.
 *You don’t need lots of friends—4 quarters are better than 100 pennies.
*Leadership comes with a price. Doing the right thing isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
 *Get involved.
 *Better to be smart than to be cool with bad grades and limited options.
 *Time is precious. Don’t procrastinate.
 *Never touch underneath a desk. Ever. People are disgusting.

It is easy to romanticize being young—to assume that the biggest regret a teenager has might involve a bad hairstyle or getting fired from a first job. This sampling of responses to the question, “What are your regrets?’ proves otherwise:

*Allowing others to determine my worth and letting my self-esteem get too low.
*Not trying out for things because I was so awkward.
*Not sticking up for a girl I know was getting picked on unfairly.
*Not answering questions in class.
*Not letting myself have fun—being so focused on the future that I forgot to just be in the moment. Like ever.
*Not going to prom. Now I’ll have to wonder about that for the rest of my life.
*I regret arguing with my brother. I almost lost him.
*Not viewing my teachers as people with mostly good intentions.
*I wish I had been true to myself. I’m pretty great.

When asked to discuss their immediate goals and future dreams, my students were forthright in their honesty. Their responses gave me pause—some of the students I worried most about in terms of having direction were surprisingly clear about next-steps. Others who created personas of being utterly carefree and age appropriately self-centered startled me in the intensity with which they wrote about helping others and creating meaningful lives. And some students just made me laugh when asked about their dreams:

*To be with Benedict Cumberbatch. In the biblical sense.
*To challenge the ideas of others.
*To design or engineer something amazing.
*I want to be able to afford family vacations on my salary.
*I dream of building a hospital and treating people with no financial means.
*I want to lose weight.
*To forgive my parents.

My students are excited to graduate, but they are also full of anxiety about their futures. The class of 2015 is graduating at the tail end of a recession. Many of my students lost their homes during high school. They witnessed their parents take on two or three jobs each. They were told repeatedly that money was not available for a yearbook or an activity fee. They experienced the tensions financial distress can cause relationships. Our country’s economic woes have left an imprint on its youth. Still—I was so impressed with how many of my students cited not being able to help others as a personal fear among other very relatable concerns:

*I fear failure. Full stop.
*Breaking from pressure. It feels like I’m holding on by a thread sometimes.
*Not making a difference in the world.
*I want my house to be made of cards so I won’t be surprised when it falls down.
*Ending up alone.
*Disconnecting from friends.
*I am so afraid that I won’t be able to provide for my family.
*Trusting the wrong people.
*Not being able to pay for my education.
*Becoming bitter and full of anger because I didn’t have the guts to follow my dreams.

I have had the amazing privilege of teaching 53 seniors this year. I taught vocabulary, aspects of plot, literary devices, and grammar. We read two novels, numerous short stories and poems. Students engaged in group and independent work and participated in Socratic seminar. They kept journals and took benchmark tests. I’m hopeful that with help they will be able to compensate for any gaps I was unable to fill this year.

Mostly, I want my professor-friend and the world to know how much I love them and how proud of them I am. They are deeply conscientious young adults with concrete knowledge, ambitions and dreams. Please base your assessments of them on more than their ability to place a comma correctly. Please know how much they reflect what is so often referred to these days as vanishing American ideals. And, please, consider their responses as unifying themes in our collective experience. Pin your hopes on these kids—they won’t let you down.