When you were a kid, did anyone ever tell you, “If you’re going to act like a child, I’ll treat you like one”? This is one of the oldest tricks in the book to get kids to behave. There is some truth to it though. The more responsibility you get, the more you grow into the role. If everyone treats you like a child, how do you grow up?
I didn’t really feel like an adult until I was 20 years old. I was in college and needed a job that made better money than washing dishes or cutting grass. At the time, I think the minimum wage in Colorado was five or six bucks an hour, but I needed something that paid more.
I found it in Alaska, where the minimum wage was higher ($7.50 an hour) and you worked crazy overtime. The salmon season just happened to run from late June to late August – a perfect fit for school. The work was decidedly unglamorous: I spent three summers pitching fish from a boat hold, then gutting and cleaning it inside a factory. Occasionally I would drive a forklift or shovel ice out of the icehouse. The longest week I ever worked was 100 hours, but I earned $1,000 for it – good money in those days (and not bad still). On break we would go out on the dock and watch the bald eagles fly by, see moose foraging for food, or watch the Northern Lights. Honestly, one of the best times of my life.
In fact, had I known about it sooner, I would have gone up there in high school. This is a tender age, to be sure, but you grow up fast with grizzled dock foremen yelling at you to pull your head out your rectal orifice, or short-tempered fishermen looking over your shoulder to make sure you weighed their catch right. That was their livelihood after all, and if you screwed up a tare weight or marked a tote wrong, they lost money.
It was a business, and a rough-and-tumble one. I loved it. I was being treated like an adult; held accountable if I made a mistake, rewarded if I did well. This is the essence of self-respect. It’s why people enjoy their work, however mundane it is. You are meeting your responsibilities. There is great satisfaction in that.
I bring this up because after working with at-risk kids in Denver high schools for six years, I felt this was a big piece missing from their lives: the dignity and satisfaction of a job well done. This is not something school can provide. I guess a student can work hard on a paper or a class project and get an A, but it’s not the same thing as surviving and thriving in the real world.
So how about this for a solution – let kids graduate high school after their sophomore year. If they are not college-bound, let them enter the job market at 16. Most of them are itching to do so anyway because they view school as a waste of time. And given how many schools fail to teach reading, writing, or math, it is a waste of their time. Why keep them in a failure factory for another two years? Let them graduate and move on. It will be better for them, their teachers, and the school districts.
For those who are college-bound, let them take concurrent enrollment classes as juniors and seniors so they have a couple years of college under their belt and won’t have to pay for four years at a university. And for those wanting to join the military, let them spend at least a year preparing for it by joining a Junior ROTC program so they can improve their ASVAB and physical fitness scores.
Why stay with K-12? Make it K-10 instead. Treat these kids like adults and they may start acting like one. Plus, they get two years of their life back to work and prosper. And who knows – they might even like Alaska.