Photo by Meghan Reed
How do you feel when you hear the word 'school'?
How do you feel when you hear the word 'prison'?
Are any thoughts or feelings similar? Different? Above is a cardboard sculpture I finished in 2018 during my last year of teaching, titled Prison/School. It's a 1/25 scale cardboard sculpture of a classroom next to a prison dorm. Please take a minute or so to think about what our education and judicial systems mean to you. How have these institutions affected you personally? Have they affected you at all?
Detail of the classroom in Prison/School. Photo by Meghan Reed
You may not have been to prison, but you have definitely been to school. Every child is required to attend. School is a place that is suppose to inspire and educate our youth for a better future. School is suppose to be a safe place that invites and accepts people of all kinds. Every child's school experience is extremely different, although we can all relate to at least a few common themes and experiences:
☝︎I would label myself a "weirdo" in high school
cliques: popular, nerd, gangster, loner, freak, jock, thug, wild child, overachiever, etc.
labels: A bit different than cliques, labels can be more specific and only highlight one aspect of a person. Here are a few: hot girl/guy, sporty, gay, weirdo, poor, rich, being identified only as your race or ethnicity, being identified only as a person with a disability, artsy fartsy, fat, skinny, band geek, cheerleader, etc.
educational experience: gifted, special needs, overachiever, lack of support from home, creative type, class clown
Back-to-School shopping: If you had money and loved school, this was your jam! If your family didn't have money and/or you hated school, this was probably no bueno.
food: ew. I know some people liked that rectangular pizza, but school lunch is complete trash. When I was helping with breakfast duty as a teacher, I counted how much sugar was in one child's school-given tray. It was somewhere in the realm of 65-70 grams of sugar!!!
speaking or reading in front of the class: love it or hate it?
Snow days: fuck yeah!
Summer break: Thank you sweet baby Jesus.
By the way, I am speaking on behalf of public schools. I'm not even going to tackle private schools in this conversation.
Now let's think about schools as an institution. Here's the definition according to merriam-webster.com:
1a: an established organization or corporation (such as a bank or university) especially of a public character
b: a facility or establishment in which people (such as the sick or needy) live and receive care typically in a confined setting and often without individual consent
c: a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture
And here are some examples of common American institutions:
criminal justice system
Now, think about the structure of our education system. Below are a few major components:
Transportation: Pack your sweet children into a large metal box with no seat belts. In the school districts I worked for, they paid bus drivers more than any other uncertified position because 1) Imagine driving a large vehicle filled with screaming children while trying to keep a schedule! Not easy. 2) It was hard to keep bus drivers for lack of hours and difficulty of the job.
Schedule: Every single minute of the day is structured. Arrive at school, wait for the bell, go to class, lunch, recess, special classes, and then get on the bus to go home. You get 3-5 minutes between classes (teachers are unhealthy pros at holding their pee because of this ridiculous schedule). Oh, and you only get 20-25 minutes for lunch.
------- SOAPBOX MOMENT -------
GET THIS: Public schools typically give only 20-25 minutes for lunch time. This INCLUDES walking to lunch (watch a kindergarten class walk in a line- it's not as simple as it sounds), waiting in line, gathering all your utensils and condiments, finding a seat, eating, trying to socialize (because there's almost no time for this at school), cleaning up, and walking back to class. This is not adequate time for a student of any age to eat. I've heard so many students say they wouldn't eat lunch because by the time they got through the line, there wasn't enough time to eat. So fucked. AND what are teachers doing at this time? If you're lucky enough to get out of lunch duty, you're scarfing down your lunch while making copies or prepping for your next class. If you have lunch duty, you're responsible for making sure the students get what they need, or trying to stop them from vaping in the bathroom.
------- END SOAPBOX RANT -------
Lack of freedom: Relating to my lunch rant, students have very little freedom. You may be thinking, "Uh, I don't want my kids to have freedom. They're precious inexperienced youth who need constant supervision." There are ways to give children freedom and keep them safe. Let them go to the bathroom when they need to go! Geez Louise. I understand little kids play in the bathroom and high school students make out and vape, but let them pee, goddammit. What's the worst that could happen if we gave them unstructured time- time to do what they WANT to do. Play. Hang out with friends. Talk to your teacher about non-school stuff. Try one day in a class you've never had. Go to a special education class to see different ways of learning. Help the secretary in the office. Collaborate. Share ideas. Give students the responsibility of cleaning, serving, and maintaining the school in which they spend most of their time. Make a YouTube video just for fun. No matter the age, when we are made responsible for something, we are invested. What would happen if we gave students more responsibility in exchange for freedom?...
Funding: Ugh. I don't have enough energy or knowledge to explain this one. To sum it up, put money in the fucking schools. It's the most important thing to our future. Yes, teachers (and any "essential workers") should be paid a livable wage. Buildings should also be maintained. Think about the school you went to. Was it old? Falling apart? Moldy? Now think about a bank, a Starbucks, a gas station, an office building... why are we not investing in the space where students build their future? Give teachers more than $200/year to buy school supplies. I could go on, but I don't have any more energy to try and convince the non-believers. wtf, man?
Hierarchy: superintendent, principals, resource officer, counselor, teachers, teacher aides or paras, secretary (now dubbed 'office manager' - a tiny upgrade in respect! Office Managers are the ones who straight up run the school. #bless), bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians (parents fall in here somewhere...)
☝︎Sometimes me as a teacher...
Let's talk about prison!
Detail of prison dorm in Prison/School. Photo by Meghan Reed
All right, now that I've finished my spiel about school let's talk about prison! I am by no means a reputable source of information about our prison or judicial system, but I will respectfully attempt to compare it to our education system. Before I declared my major as Art Education, I was a Criminology major for 2 years. What I really wanted to do was work in rehabilitative prisons and jails - to help inmates find life after prison and teach them skills and tools to re-enter society. I got to tour and volunteer in a variety of correctional facilities, and even got to interview 5 inmates on death row (that's another story). Seeing how these institutions function was interesting, but when I realized a criminology major was basically pre-law I was out. After a few years teaching, I realized I was simply reaching inmates before they got into prison. Not sure if I helped anyone, but I tried.
I'm guessing most people reading this have not been in a prison or jail, but just picture how your favorite TV shows generalize the experience. No lie, Orange is the New Black does a decent job offering nuggets of realistic insight. What I really want you to do is think about the physical space and daily schedule.
NOW, go back and scan through the themes and systems of our schools.
cliques ---> gangs
labels---> may be related to race, class, prison hierarchy, charges, and more: According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 38.3% of inmates are black. The US Census reports 13.4% of the population is black. There's a lot to unpack in these stats, but the main takeaway is that black males make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population. Another BIG topic for another day...
educational experience ---> criminal record, reputation, money, and connections can define experience
Back-to-School shopping ---> commissary: Again, commissary is something I know very little about but can have a huge impact on life in prison. Having money and not having money = the ultimate American commerce factor.
food --> same! (see gif below)
Snow days: Okay, probably irrelevant.
Summer break ---> last day: But will you be back?... Recidivism refers to when a person is arrested or incarcerated repeatedly after being released. Here's the 2019 recidivism rate for US prisons, according to prisonlegalnews.org:
Two reports on long-term recidivism among prisoners released from state and federal prisons showed very high arrest rates. The rate for state prisoners was 83% over a nine-year study period, while it was 39.8% for nonviolent and about 64% for violent federal prisoners over an eight-year period.
Transportation ---> same
Schedule/Lack of freedom ---> same: But way less fun and active. Imagine being trapped in a cell or single building long term with little to no activity. Just really think about that. Maybe you're thinking, "Hello, these are criminals! This is a punishment! No fun for you!" I get it. Violent offenders, rapists, child molestors, and severely disturbed people most definitely need a different environment. But MOST people in prison are serving a sentence - they will be back out in the real world. Most inmates come from a socio-economic background that did not make it easy for them to succeed in the first place. So how do we expect them to acclimate? It's well-known that many inmates learn new criminal behaviors and make criminal connections while incarcerated. What would happen if we gave interested inmates ample opportunity to get an education, learn a skill, volunteer, and even work to save money upon their release? (Yeah, programs are available. Most of them are shit or poorly promoted.)
Funding: Hoooolllllyyyyyy shiiiiiiiiiit. This one will blow your mind. I was pretty much clueless about money in federal prisons, but just scroll through this Bureau of Prisons document to get a bit of an idea. Check out this article by the Prison Policy Initiative to get a better understanding of the costs of imprisonment. There's even an article on Investopedia about investing in public prisons. Huh?!?! Finally, this article from The Sentencing Project provides a good overview of the situation. My brief takeaways: (1) only 4% of the 2019 budget for the Federal Prison System went to 'food supplies' and (2) a private prison's goal is not to simply house or reform inmates, but to profit from them. That means private prisons are actually lobbying to create more inmates to increase profits. It's dark.
Hierarchy: Owner, warden, administrative staff, guards/security, service and maintenance, volunteers, health staff, treatment and educational program staff, lawyers, and a whole slew of inmate hierarchy
☝︎Just like school.
Okay, bitch. What's your point?!
These are just two examples of major American institutions with some pretty eerie similarities. My point is that these two (and many other) institutions simply do not work. Public schools do not meet the needs of students. Socio-economic status, mental health, and home life are just a few elements that greatly affect the way schools function. Unfortunately, many government administrators either do not understand these implications or refuse to acknowledge them. This is why I left education. This is why after 2 years of working numerous jobs, struggling to pay bills, and floundering through the pandemic I consciously avoid going back to teaching. I miss my students, I miss my co-workers, I miss making things with people every day - but I do not miss being trapped in a system that does not allow teachers, administrators, or students to evolve. Why the fuck are we still forcing children to sit in a chair all day long and memorize facts? Why do we shove 35 kids in a tiny room with little resources and expect one underpaid person to make sure all 35 kids "meet the testing standards"? This is where I shout at the top of my lungs,
"FUCK YOU! NO 'HAHA'!"
I left teaching because I realized there was not much room for growth. The system will not allow it. Even if I were to become a principal or superintendent - I would still be working under the constraints of that very old and outdated institution.
This is why FUHAHA is here.
We - as a society - have got to come together and disband these old rules created by straight white men. (Sorry, dudes. I know you're not all evil, but there needs to be more than one perspective.) These rules were designed to keep the masses dumb, scared, and trapped as slaves to a system that only serves the rich and privileged. It's part of the reason why minimum wage does not even afford someone the ability to pay bills in a shit-hole dump. These systems strip power and accessibility from non-whites and people living in poverty. Personally, I'm still trying to figure out how to make a change. My first step was getting out of education; I refuse to support an institution that oppresses the very people I'm trying to uplift. The next step? I believe the next step is to teach what needs to be taught. We need to allow children the freedom to move around a room. We need to encourage children to search for the answer, not just memorize it. We need to teach creative problem-solving, how to live a balanced and healthy life, how to do taxes and fill out health insurance paperwork. The world is changing rapidly; why is our education system virtually the same it's been since the dawn of its creation?...
Detail of classroom in Prison/School. Tiny watercolor painting by Austin Honhoiniwa.
Photo by Meghan Reed
Are you still reading?? Bravo. That's a lot of word vomit from one angry teacher's point of view. Now that I'm emotionally drained and super bummed, let's try and find a way to leave on a positive note...
Above is a drawing created by a 4th grade student. It shows me (Ms. McCall) in the circus. In the beginning, he just drew me on stilts while juggling. As the day progressed, he added more and more details - even my dog, BUDDIE, is standing on my head!
THANK YOU TEACHERS, PARAS, LUNCH SERVERS, BUS DRIVERS, PRINCIPALS, CUSTODIANS, OFFICE MANAGERS, AND ALL THE OTHER FOLKS WHO WORK IN THE EDUCATION FIELD!!! It's a tough job with almost no respect, but you've at least got one crazy lady rooting for you. If you have any ideas or resources for some major changes to our education system, I will gladly take them!
Much Love and Respect,
(Just a goofy photo of me at a Missouri Art Education Association Conference, 2016)