Halfway through eleventh grade, I decided I was done with high school. It was not a choice I made impulsively. I hated it right from the very first week of ninth grade, then spent my two and half years of high school transferring from one extremely religious school to another, failing classes, and constantly getting in trouble for breaking the super-strict rules. The last year and a half before I dropped out was the worst: I began to go in and out of psychiatric units and could hardly motivate myself to attend my classes. I felt horribly depressed and completely isolated from everyone around me.
I can’t remember exactly what happened the day I decided to leave—it really wasn’t notable, events-wise. It was more the result of several systemic issues at my high school which had built up until I finally snapped. There was the fact that my school had a mostly religious curriculum, with very few non-religious subjects taught. Some of these subjects—Tanach (study of the Pentateuch and Prophets), Halachah (Jewish law), Chassidus (Jewish mysticism)—I enjoyed, but others—Messiah class, and bridal class, where we studied family purity—I couldn’t stand. I wanted to go to college, something my high school strongly discouraged, because attending college wasn’t the custom of my sect, especially for women. I felt as though I wasn’t being prepared to thrive outside of our very small and insular community. And then there were all the extremely strict rules we were expected to follow in and out of school. We had to follow the laws of tznuis, which entailed covering elbows, knees, and collarbones among many other very particular rules. This meant following a very strict uniform in school, and being careful to dress similarly out of school, lest someone call the principal and tell her she saw you in a skirt that was too short.
But the problems at my school were more than just the curriculum and the rules. Halfway through tenth grade, I began to spend a lot of time in the hospital for suicide attempts, PTSD, and depression. Though the administration at my school did care about me and my wellbeing, they weren’t equipped to help me with the various traumas I was dealing with. There was no school therapist, and the principal was afraid that I would scare the other students, who were kept very sheltered. She asked me not to discuss “my personal problems” with other girls, and even told some of my closest friends to stay away from me—something I only found out about long after. I could handle the terrible classes and the terrible rules and even the awful things happening in my body and brain, as long as I had my friends. But suddenly even they began to distance themselves from me, without any explanation, and high school became the most miserable place in the world.
My old friend group ignored me, and I had no interest in any of my classes. All of the anxiety and frustrations built up until one day I got in a minor fight with a girl I used to be really close with. I can hardly remember what we fought about, it just felt like everything collided all at once and I decided I’d had enough. I started to cry-yell at the astounded group of girls near me and packed all my books into a crate. Someone cautiously asked if I was OK. I shouted, “NO! I’m not OK! I hate this place! I hate this school! I never want to see any of you again!” I pushed open the door with my crate and ran out into the street. I stood with my big crate of books and felt completely terrified, exhilarated, and giddy, and also completely and totally relieved. I never wanted to step foot into my school again. I went home, gathered all my uniforms together and stuffed them to the back of my closet. I announced to my parents that I was never going back.
I don’t think about my leaving high school as “dropping out.” The term “dropping out” seems to suggest giving up or failing. I like to think of the way I left high school as a transition: trading a bad situation for a better one, instead of a complete rejection of all learning institutions or systems. I see it as a recognition of what I needed and which institutions would work for me in the right times. When I left my school, I was absolutely positive that high school wasn’t the right place for me. I was 16 years old and surrounded by a lot of people who kept reminding me that I was young and that there was no way I could possibly know what I wanted. But they were wrong, because I did know! I wanted to write, I wanted to read the books my school wouldn’t let me read, I wanted to learn, and most importantly, I wanted to feel healthy and productive again. I knew my high school wasn’t going to help me fulfill those goals. So I left.
I’m not advocating for everyone to transition out/drop out of high school. There are plenty of beneficial aspects to high school, and education is a privilege that shouldn’t be considered lightly. However, I do think that if school detrimental to your learning and actively causing serious issues with your health and safety, dropping out/transitioning out won’t ruin your life. There are a lot of myths surrounding formal education, and high school is one of those things people will tell you to “just stick out” because it will eventually “be worth it.” But sometimes it’s more worth it to evaluate your life, think about what you want out of it, and trust yourself instead of choosing to be miserable and unsafe.
As you can probably imagine, my parents weren’t too happy about my decision to leave high school. They tried to persuade me to attend a new, less religious school, and I did for a few months. But the new school wasn’t any better. I still wasn’t healthy enough to be functioning and thriving inside a classroom. I was easily triggered, and couldn’t snap myself out of it to pay attention in class. When my teachers admonished me for this, I always felt caught, and incapable in the worst way. Because I had transferred in the middle of the year, it was really hard for me to adjust to both the classes and the environment. This new, less religious school had science, a subject my old school didn’t offer, and so I had to take ninth grade biology as an eleventh grader. All the ninth graders in the class had been learning science their whole lives, and I just couldn’t keep up because it was all so new to me. We didn’t have to write essays at my old school, and even though I was good at writing I had no idea how to format a paper. Instead of helping me out, my English teacher just assumed that I wasn’t properly applying myself. It was incredibly frustrating to go to school every day and feel stupid and incompetent. I knew I was smart, I knew I could learn, but it was impossible to do well when I felt constantly behind, humiliated, and unhealthy.