By Judy Shepps Battle
"Mom and Dad, I need your signatures to drop out of school. I haven't been going to classes so if you don't sign they will kick me out later anyway. Or they'll tell me to go to summer school and you know I won't go. So sign!"
Jimmy K., age 17
Any parent who has had a similar experience will remember their initial disbelief, anger and helplessness. Most will also recall shame and self blame and how difficult it was to tell anyone that their teen was a dropout.
I know. One of my children made the decision to quit school three weeks before graduation. A classic bright underachiever, he had delayed doing necessary course assignments until it was too late to turn them in. His adolescent solution was to simply leave the system.
I don't know if he thought school officials would extend the deadline if he threatened to quit or whether he just wanted to avoid the embarrassment of not attending graduation. Or if he truly believed that school was "irrelevant to his life" as he had been saying for a long while.
What I do know is that my reaction to his demand for my signature on the withdrawal forms was intense.
At first, I simply didn't want to sign. I thought if I just said no to his request he would change his mind, attend summer school, and graduate in August. He made it clear he was leaving school whether the papers were signed or not.
Then I lectured him about the statistical fact that most kids who drop out do not continue their education. That they had significantly lower lifetime earnings -nearly 50 percent less than their non dropout peers. He said he knew and that would not be his future.
Next, I got angry and accused him of not following through on commitments, being lazy, and other negatives that I am not proud of. He listened quietly and asked me again to sign the forms.
At that point, I realized his decision was not about me and that he was entitled to learn his life lessons just as I had learned mine. I signed on the dotted line even though I felt awful. He thanked me and left to file the papers.
Two weeks later, he took the General Education Development (GED) test, passed it with flying colors, and received a state diploma at the same time as his friends. He has since gone on to obtain a wonderful managerial job and gift me with two delightful grandchildren.
He is bright and witty, an excellent employee, a loyal husband and father, and a son that I am very proud of. He just did not fit into the standard academic lockstep. His learning style is creative and visual and he needs autonomy.
Actually, he is a lot like his father and mother.
The following are some insights that I wish others had shared with me during this difficult time. If you are dealing with a dropout situation, I hope that they are helpful.
You are Not Alone
Many parents feel ashamed and isolated when their child drops out of school. It would be good for these adults to know that they are not alone.
National statistics indicate that over the last decade between 347,000 and 544,000 students in grades 10 through 12 left school each year without successfully completing a high school program.
In simpler terms, five of every 100 teens enrolled in high school in October 1999 left school before graduation. That is one out of every 20 students.
This makes for a lot of parents from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds wondering why their child can't just stay in school and graduate like all the other kids they know.
I know it would have been helpful to me to be part of a support group for parents of dropouts or parents of adolescents who want to drop out. Perhaps it is time that such groups were started in schools and communities.
All is Not Written in Stone
Although many adolescents drop out of high school, most do not drop out of life.
Whether they enroll in a GED program, go directly to college without a diploma, start their own business, or become productive artists, many are quite successful in careers that do not depend upon a traditional academic path.
Still others will later resume a traditional academic path and become doctors, lawyers, and teachers just as we had wished for them during their rebel years.
A Youth is Still a Youth
Just because your teen has taken an adult like step to drop out of school, it does not mean that he has the maturity to plan a happy and productive life. It does not mean that she does not still need parental guidance, consistent rules, and unconditional love and support.
To the contrary, left without the structure of a six hour school day, your child may need personal and professional help with time management, goal setting, and creating a positive identity. Just as you may need help releasing any disappointment and anger that you feel over the loss of traditional graduation ceremonies.
Whose Expectations Are They Anyway?
Counseling gave me a chance to look closely at my own expectations with regard to high school and how they differed from my son's.
I wanted him to graduate with high honors, get a full scholarship to a prestigious college, and become a successful artist. Those were three things that I had never done because I was a bright underachiever.
My son's often articulated expectation for high school was that it would help him "invent" or find his unique self. He knew that process wasn't happening in a classroom setting. Even the alternative school program he attended was designed to help kids stay in school.
Intuitively, he knew his identity had to first be defined by what he was not. And the passage of the years has proved him right.
A Rare Opportunity
Sometimes a dropout is also testing the relationship waters. The question of "will you still love me if I quit school" may be unconsciously directed at parents, friends, and dating partners. It reflects a deeper question of "do you love me for what I do or for who I am?"
We as parents get the unique opportunity to love our kids unconditionally during the dropout process and after. And we get to watch as they find their own solutions in life.
One of the lessons I learned from my son's dropout experience is how to be a detached cheerleader. I root for him finding and growing into his identity. If he asks for help, I respond. If not, I simply cheer in prayer and meditation.
There are many lessons learned in the high school years. My son, in dropping out of the system, taught me some very valuable ones.
Copyright 2002 Judy Shepps Battle