Negativity & Change-Making in Education
By Emma Kushnirsky
So often we spend the time we set aside in our mind for “activism” on negativity. But lately I’ve realized the need for the positive and negative — these essay and video excerpts.
I have very high expectations for my education. They are never met. Whenever I talk to my friends about whether they like a teacher, or a class, or think an assignment was useful, they are more forgiving than me. They are frustrated with me. How could you not like Ms. _____? She’s the best!
My expectations come from a place of personal frustration. I have many, many ideas (and questions) for making school better.
Plus, most of my positive learning experiences did not happen in school. I feel stifled by school, and have for a long time. When I think of my school, I think of the color gray: exhaustion, the feeling of my brain wilting under the fluorescent lights. Seldom do I feel my most intellectually stimulated, or creative, or inspired in school. I don’t feel encouraged to explore things I’m curious about. I am not given the space to think in new ways.
I want education to be beautiful because I have felt how it can be. At the beach in my neighborhood, with my dog, everything feels connected. On a long walk, sentences for my writing dig their way out of my brain. Late night discussions with my friends, or my older brother, leave me feeling excited and open, ready for more. Articles I read online answer questions I never thought of. Books bring me into the past, or the theoretical, seeing through the eyes of someone I’ll never be, and again, leave me wanting more. School hardly ever makes me feel that way; there are really only isolated incidents: A class discussion about gender roles, a teacher talking passionately about UFT history and attempts to stifle Black educational agency, an art project that’s whatever we want it to be.
But I don’t want to spend this essay talking about all that’s wrong with school, for me and many other people. A blur of complaints will not accomplish what I’m trying to.
Recently, my high expectations came to a head in a fight with one of my close friends. When I went off on a tangent about everything I wanted to change at our school, I thought of it as my passion for change. She thought of it as complaining, and as negativity that put her in a bad mood. Part of her frustration was that I was more focused on problems than solutions. When she asked me, “So then, what could even be done about that?” I did not have an answer, especially not a concrete one. Another part of her frustration was my aggression, my implied scorn for something (school and good grades) that she had been putting nearly all of her energy into for years. I was telling her, essentially, that school was not worthwhile in any meaningful way, which was like telling her that her life was not meaningful.
The issues in education that I talk about are rarely untrue. They are usually problems that resonate with many students, at least at high schools like the NYC specialized high school that I attend. Yet, the difference between negativity and change-making is action and a focus on solutions. I may have been saying things that I truly believed, but another part of why I chose to say them, at least the way that I did, was as an excuse. My personally perceived lack of success in the system pushed me towards cynicism so that I could feel better about myself. My friend’s success pushed her towards believing in the system for everyone, and its worthwhileness, because it made her feel better.
Early in high school, and as recently as this past winter 2021, I would break down over the stresses of school, usually late at night. I would throw a fit. Panic. Rage against the system that made me feel this way. Again, I wasn’t wrong, but my attitude was–completely. My rage was an excuse for my inadequacy because I did believe I was inadequate. If I’d studied for my tests, gotten straight A’s, and gotten into an “elite” college, I would not have said many of those things. I was not ready to make real change because I thought I was the problem.
Let me make a few things clear. If the main feelings high school students have in class are “bored,” “tired,” “stressed,” that’s a huge problem. Stress should not even be an everyday emotion for most students. It creates an incredibly hostile environment for learning. If mental health problems are worsened by school, that’s a huge problem. We have a crisis on our hands.
These submissions have been in the works for a very long time. They are a product of my years-long dissatisfaction with my education, which has come to a head in the last couple of years as I’ve matured. Now, I am about to graduate high school. They are also a product of my passion, and the beginning of what I hope will be a very long journey in change-making, the U.S. education system, and writing. This is only beginning, and this short essay practically wrote itself, unlike the video I’m submitting along with it, which was an arduous process. I hope to write much more on similar topics and I’m sure not all of it will come easily, but I’m so incredibly happy to have a topic I can really dig into.
Emma Kushnirsky is a current college student in Iowa. She grew up mostly in the Bronx and the most uptown part of Manhattan. She's a writer and educator-in-training. Her work has previously been published in In Parentheses Magazine.