Monday, June 18, 2018

In her own words: Why high school felt like a prison to me

Editor's note: In her final year at East Lake High School in Pinellas County, Jessica Klein ran into some rules and attitudes that she found constraining. The following is a letter that she wrote to East Lake's principal, Carmela Haley (the letter has been edited for length):

Ms Haley:

First off, I would like to mention the wonderful teachers who work here. Without them, I would be nowhere on my path to success. Teachers like Ms. Hill, Mr. Kay, Mr. Maisner, and Ms. Barbieri deserve to be recognized and, with this letter, I hope they will be.

Unfortunately, a few things bothered me. As a senior, I found it very difficult to access information on how to apply to colleges, where I should apply, and help in general about this topic. It seemed as though none of the guidance counselors understood the process. Every time I went to the office, I was met with looks of annoyance and confusion.

It seems to me that if I'm not getting suspended or going to become a Division 1 football player, I don't matter. I've worked extremely hard throughout high school taking 8 AP's, being SGA board secretary, and maintaining a GPA above a 4.0 all four years. My hard work finally led to my acceptance at the University of Florida. I've realized that staying out of trouble and not being able to play a sport makes me insignificant.

As a student, I also felt as though I had very few rights within the school. School has never been a "jail" to me, but this year I felt like I was in a prison. What were once fun activities are now referred to as unsafe and uneducational, such as decades day during homecoming week. How are we expected to learn and grow and be inspired when we're not allowed to be creative or enjoy ourselves at East Lake? We are unable to express ourselves without threat from the administration.

One such example is this year's yearbook. Being told to redo pages for no other reason than "because I said so" was both rude and unacceptable. We, as editors of the yearbook, did our research in making sure everything we put on the pages was appropriate and well done. We spoke to you as our principal before publication for the sole reason of informing you of some changes we were making due to the clear unsuccess of last year's book. After an initial answer of "no" through your secretary without any reason, we scheduled another meeting.

The two spreads we showed you were on gay acceptance and mental disorders. I spent hours preparing for this meeting by reviewing the Student Code of Conduct for Pinellas County. In this booklet, I found the definition of the freedom of publication and the by-laws under which we would not be allowed to publish. We were not in violation of any of them. During the meeting, I mentioned these by-laws and asked why we were being denied the right to publish. You answered, "Because I said so." In reference to the gay acceptance spread, we were told interviews with two outwardly gay students would be too personal.

I, along with the other editors, worked extremely hard for almost a year trying to come up with the new social section. I thought the topics we developed displayed creativity and journalistic ability. I felt like a prisoner — with no rights and no authority figure who would help us. We seemed to be four helpless students fighting an impossible cause.

But through this, I did learn. I learned that when people think they have power, they eat up every bit of it. I told myself for some time after the yearbook ordeal that I would never be able to make a change in the world (my dream being to study and research the cause and cure of depression). I asked myself if I couldn't win a fight for this and if I couldn't make a change at my school, how could I possibly succeed in life? After much thought, I realized I couldn't let a corrupt education system hold me back from making a difference.

So, I'd like to thank you, Ms. Haley, for helping me learn this difficult truth. When I am successful one day and people ask me how I got to where I am, I will tell them how at East Lake High I learned to overcome obstacles. Obstacles such as the failure to be recognized, how not being a Division 1 athlete did me wrong, how school was a prison, and how every student was on suicide watch — covered in bubble wrap and locked in a padded room. I'll say I overcame the loss of rights, and I was still able to be independent and open to learn.

Yours sincerely,

Jessica Klein

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