Through my learner-centered experience, I learned that I possess the power to make anything possible and that power is choice.
Education Reimagined Fellow
How do young people go through the conventional school system for 12 (or more) years, graduate, and still become a victim of that very system—lost and confused about their next steps? Isn’t that the promise of a high school diploma—to be prepared for those next steps and any uncertainty that comes our way in the future? If so, what’s blocking that promise from being fulfilled?
These questions have long been front and center for me as I see peers (and sometimes myself) struggling to navigate their post-education futures. Reflecting on my own education journey—which concluded early 2018—as a graduate of High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul, Minnesota, I realized most of what I learned was through life experiences, not in school. Luckily, HSRA, an amazing learner-centered environment, provided the space for me to explore and learn through exactly that; real world experiences. Unfortunately, I found HSRA towards the end of my school journey and was only able to attend for the last 18 months of my academic career. But, in those 18 months, I learned more about myself than I ever had through my prior school journey.
My education journey has been a mixed bag of ideal learner-centered experiences and less than ideal conventional ones. As I take you through my roller coaster education journey, I invite you to see how the power of learner-led choice might be the most important element of any young person’s educational success.
From Hopeful to Hopeless
I spent 1st-6th grade at JJ Hill Montessori—a learning environment that was perfect for my visual learning style. I also had the privilege of developing deep relationships with my peers and teachers because each class stayed together for three years (rather than the usual one year) before changing teachers.
Unfortunately, my transition from this environment to middle school was a bit shocking—going from learning algebra through hands-on experiences to memorizing equations straight from the textbook. But, thanks to my love for learning, I was determined to excel.
At first, I was doing well in middle school—enrolled in accelerated classes, earning my place on the honor roll, and making a lot of friends. But, when I began pondering deeper questions like, “Who am I?”, “What is my purpose?”, “What are my skills?”, and “Who do I want to become?” my mind went blank every time. I started realizing all of my effort in school was meaningless if I couldn’t answer these questions.
I’d become an expert at listening and following directions, sitting quietly at my desk, raising my hand to speak or use the bathroom, and overall, letting people dictate my every move. I was using competitiveness to feed my insecurity and becoming well-acquainted with depression after losing any ability to artistically express myself. Which one of those skills was supporting my future?
As my mental health deteriorated, my grades began to drop. And, by the end of 8th grade, I was performing at my all-time worst. The summer following 8th grade graduation, I’d fallen into a complete funk. I spent most of my days in my bedroom, curtains drawn, and constantly beating myself up over the fact that I hadn’t developed any skills that would be meaningful to my future. I was desperately trying to figure out who I was as a human being. Lump on top of this the comparison game of social media—following artists who were excelling at their craft and knowing I hadn’t been able to work on mine.
This purposeless feeling felt endless. I was resentful and jealous. I lacked the money and support to pursue my artistic interests, so I lacked hope. Unexpectedly, as summer came to a close, the idea of starting high school gave me a new spark—”a fresh start,” I thought to myself.
Sinking Even Deeper
Ninth grade came, and I was super excited. I convinced myself that maybe middle school was just a bad period for me. But, the feeling faded as quickly as it had come. Meaningless, worthless, and emptiness were the words that represented my identity. The feelings I developed over the summer hadn’t left. Even when I received good grades, I still felt like a failure. The only thing that motivated me to perform well academically were sports—I needed to stay eligible.
Physical activity has always been a foundation for keeping myself sane, but soon, even that wasn’t enough to motivate me in school. Every day, “giving all I had” became a smaller and smaller contribution until I had nothing left in me. And, after multiple calls home regarding absences, arguments with my mom, and child protection threats, I finally put it all to an end. I dropped out. I was 16 years old and living my worst life. I decided I might as well start living accordingly.
My mom said I couldn’t live at home if I didn’t go to school, so I got a day job. I’d lie and say I was going to school while going to work instead. And, when I wasn’t at work, I was usually high. I actually smoked most of my “sweet sixteen” away trying to cope with my depression. The school therapists I used to see had suggested I get on antidepressants, but I was against pharmaceutical drugs and began self-medicating instead. It’s kind of crazy looking back and imagining my 16-year-old self doing business with middle-aged drug dealers. But, this was my life.
An Unexpected Helping Hand
My friend knew about my situation and messaged me one day suggesting I check out his school—HSRA. The way he described, it was nothing like the high school I went to, so I didn’t believe him. But, I thought the worst thing I could do was see for myself and be right.
When I went to tour the school, I was really nervous. I went from being one of the only black women in my accelerated classes and surrounded by a nearly all white teaching staff to walking through a school that was 99% black (learners and educators alike). It’s funny, you would think that setting would make me more comfortable, but foreign is foreign.
I remember when I was in elementary school, there was one black teacher’s aide who I would always wave at with a big bursting smile. Even at that age, I subconsciously knew seeing a black authoritative figure was important for me. But, it had been 10 years since that moment in my life, and I had lost all my confidence and comfort within my blackness—an identity that is as simple as it sounds.
At my conventional schools, I had formed a negative association with my culture’s lingo, skin and hair, music, art, and food. After enrolling at HSRA, they showed me how it was nearly impossible to be a good student within the conventional system without rejecting my blackness, and that’s why it was uncomfortable to be in the space of a predominantly black environment.
I had fallen victim to negatively stereotyping my own identity—ghetto, loud, uneducated, thief, thug, poor, bad, ugly, reckless. These are only some of the labels I would receive if I didn’t carry myself as the conventional system’s ideal image of what a “successful” student looked like.
I used the labels myself. The first thing I would think when I heard someone speak in slang was “ghetto.” I was corrupted. But, my experience at HSRA changed that for me and so much more.
Needless to say, I failed in proving my friend wrong.
Reinventing My Entire Sense of Self
After finally telling my mom everything about dropping out, my job, and officially enrolling at HSRA, she was just happy I was going back to school. Her mind was free. The same word I couldn’t get out of my head when my friend describe HSRA before I enrolled. He said HSRA provided freedom. It was exactly what I needed and exactly what I got.
After enrolling, I was assigned an advisor who, on my first day, asked me about myself and told me we were going to pick out my classes together. I assumed she meant we would be picking electives together because that’s all I’d ever had a say over. But, starting with a blank slate, I was literally filling in my entire schedule based on my desires. There were multiple types of core academic classes, so I was very overwhelmed thinking if I made the wrong decision, I’d be stuck with it all year. Once again, my advisor surprised me and said that if I didn’t like the class, I could always come talk to her about changing it. I was honestly weirded out. I was looking for a catch because high school simply couldn’t be this freeing. This wasn’t school. And, I was right—it wasn’t school. It was learning.
My learning at HSRA didn’t start or stop in the building. My entire life was honored as a learning experience. This philosophy piqued my engagement and opened my mind to see that I’m constantly learning, no matter where I am.
One of my early experiences came from volunteering once a week at my old elementary school. I’d spend an hour helping kindergartners with whatever they were working on and receive academic credit in the process. Once I fulfilled my community engagement requirements, I kept going back because it was something that I loved doing.
Of course, this story wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t tap into my artistic identity. I enrolled in a photography class, where I took on a project that involved shooting a sold-out Ballet vs. Boxing event. It gave me an amazing idea of what it would be like to be a professional photographer (one of my interests at the time).
Photo taken by Jasmine McBride at the 2018 Ballet vs. Boxing event in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Out of all the valuable things HSRA provided me, the one I found most important was choice. When young people feel lost after graduation, their lack of direction is most strongly correlated with their inability to choose. How do we choose what’s next when everything is an option and we’ve never had that kind of freedom before?
Having the freedom to choose at HSRA allowed me to develop this skill in a safe and supported environment, so that once I graduated, I could see limitless options and not feel paralyzed.
HSRA helped me see that the years I spent in a rut were because of my lacking self-belief and a misconstrued definition of success that I would never identify with. I was fortunate to find a learning environment with the option to explore because I learned about myself through every one of those explorations.
You only know what’s possible when what’s possible is placed in front of you. Through my learner-centered experience, I learned that I possess the power to make anything possible and that power is choice.
Through choice, I now choose to be capable, to take chances, to be myself, and do what’s in my best interest; and that, I’ll choose forever.