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The body cost of excellent sheep

When I was in second grade, I would go to my teacher a few times a week with the bad news that I had bumped my head. I started to feel guilty about lying after a while, so I would sometimes drop my pencil on the ground, crouch under the table and audibly hit my head on the way up. Hall pass in hand, I gleefully made my way down the familiar trek to the nurse’s office. I would lie on the sticky vinyl mat and stare up at the fluorescent lights, eyes lulled to the hum of long fingernails on chunky keys, clutching a Ziploc baggie with the frozen paper towel that seemed to regenerate itself weekly in perfect rendition to the last. In a world where the only certainty was lack of control, at seven I found comfort in that airless room the size of a closet. It was my only option for rest and solitude, a chance to stop the engine I was taught to rev with precision every day in that blindingly-waxed institution. 

I think I always felt a sordid air leaking from the niceties of the daily announcements. Since elementary school, a mistrust in authority rose to a latent contempt, not limited to school but certainly fertilized by it. The carceral norms mold us to a distinct cadence of being that scarcely resembles the human form. Looking back to all those years I sat behind a desk, still and buzzing, I see how it gradually eroded me from within. I’m still here, but less. When I moaned about going to school in the morning it wasn’t for the sake of defiance but because it so often felt like getting hit in the head by the end of a rake just to turn around and step right back on the other end.  

When they shelled out my high school diploma like catnip over my nose, they didn’t know that graduating in the top five percent of my class meant decreasing my average night sleep 70 percent and that my pristine grades were won not out of sheer admiration for the State of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills but as a coping mechanism for PTSD. More equations solved, more words on a page, less room for thinking. I was meant to slowly decay under the fluorescent lights of that violently cold AP testing room. I wonder at what point I reached a numbness capable of bringing my mannequin shell self back into my body to face the collapse, to surrender to the inertia that brimmed in the space between my inner lived reality and the constructed theater I was required to not only faithfully participate but excel in. If I could go back and shed the expectations hidden in the “gifted” label slapped on my record in fourth grade, sacrificing the privileges it afforded me in exchange for a sliver more of my personhood left intact, I would. 

The ridiculous lengths that young people and their parents go for admission to top schools is well-documented. In his 2014 book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite,” William Deresiewicz gets at the core issue that surfaces once these students are admitted. Academic perfection is no longer enough, today we face a more elusive mandate: young people must brand themselves as genius humanitarians who wake erect every morning to save the world one startup at a time. Rather than take the rare opportunity to question our belief systems and learn from other cultures, to self-reflect and move through the world from a more intentional place, we jack off to our own gleaming innovation. We sweat through the rat race we are supposedly bent on changing. Of course, it can feel like there’s no choice but to funnel into these capitalist torture chambers—we are told at every direction that this is the only way to get out alive. But at some point we must glimpse beyond our fear, look around the conveyor belt, and ask if this is the product we wish to become. 

The education system isn’t broken, it works how it was designed. Thanks to Frederick Taylor and his glowing innovation of managing workers like cattle, schools followed suit in the name of efficiency. The consequences of education being inextricably tied to the economy have been talked about in so many ways that writing about it feels pointless. So rather than write “about” it, here is my attempt to write in it. At some point, rather than continue prodding and analyzing and tromping forth with solutions, our bodies halt our minds, begging for recognition of the impounding cost. We owe it to ourselves to breathe and sit with it. With a newfound sense of embodied inner sovereignty, we can decide how it feels best to move forward. This time in our own skin, returning to what has always been, what our bodies have always known. 

It was senior year of high school and the promised rewards gilded before me. The praise I received, those too-taut smiles bouncing back at me, felt the same as artificial frosting in my gut. The sweetness stung. Lined up with the rest of the identical graduates in the stadium where they herded sheep for the rodeo just hours before, I sunk into the saccharine cheer. Propped in starchy caps for this mass operation of supposed recognition, I couldn’t help but wonder who this was all for, what its culmination meant. I wanted to ask, Do you even know why I did this, or how? Why do you care about the numbers I accrued at your institution? What does it mean to you? I wanted the announcer of my accolades to know that they were the inevitable byproducts of a strategic spiritual thinning on the exasperating K-12 assembly line. 

I wanted someone to blame for all those times I was told to sit down and be quiet and stick to the prompt and never think about what you want but always be pining for the approval of vague, powerful entities. First they saddle us up to be “middle school ready,” then they make sure we perform at “high school level,” then the harrowing “college prep,” then off to the Career Center, where we are at last sufficiently trained for a life of endless professional development. The strings of “college readiness” are transparent yet cleverly disguised. The College Board gets their bounty by convincing us that only their tools can sharpen the brightest minds. Universities have their turn with us and make good on the promise of spitting out qualified workers. And out we come, crammed to the brim with shiny prizes, our spirits numb or dying. 

By the end of my twelve-year tenure, I had been thoroughly conditioned to be less human. In college, the same blueprint has merely transformed. It was never really the specifics—my teachers have mostly been thoughtful and caring, and for all its thorny delights, I wouldn’t trade my public school experience. The larger mechanism and culture that fuels it has been so ingrained as to seep into even the best intentions. So persistent was the ultimate order: succeed relentlessly and say nothing. Leave the place how you found it. Less an order than a survival guide. Surviving what, we were never told, just fear-mongered by the threat of looking and being bad. Training us for the holy paradox: let us produce you to feel as small as possible and then demand the biggest out of you. Only once it has been approved, of course. 

The milk-mustached Disney stars plastered on cafeteria walls and the salaries of each year’s highest earning professions will never leave my psyche. How is it that Got Milk is burned in my brain yet I never learned what a clitoris was or how to think for myself? 

“Our public schools, which should encourage students to see beyond the claims of the moment, have instead caved into the immediate demands of the larger culture and economy,” Diana Senechal writes in “Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.” 

I felt the car door close on my limb of curiosity before it had a chance to puncture the standardized-tested material. You can pass a class and still not understand 30 percent of the content. With access to the labyrinthine social web of any given school and a smartphone, you can also get perfect grades and understand even less.  

If I didn’t write tangled clauses I would only be able to return pre-approved glistening sentences churned from some new, nifty algorithm. I took the SSRIs until I noticed I couldn’t access the pit of my poetry, until I realized I’d rather be a less functional laborer and feel than have my neurons chemically aligned so I can be a Girl Who Codes as I suckle my third Soylent of the day. I would rather my body healthy and my spirit buoyant than be recognized by someone called a “Dean” for making it on their “List.” I would rather sit in a room with as many thirteen to twenty-two-year-olds and figure out how we’re all going to look each other in the eye and let ourselves breathe and stop when we’re tired and say what is real without the Saran wrap just like we grew up being told not to. 

Miranda Gershoni is a Trinity senior

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