It was an anti-drunk driving billboard and I drove past it regularly while taking my kids to and from lessons. “Don’t become a statistic!” it proclaimed. Seeing the message always tugged at my brain because the writer either didn’t understand (or chose to ignore) how statistics actually work. In the analysis of “people killed or hurt by drunk driving” we’re all already part of those statistics. Most of us are in the “not directly injured by drunk driving” column. What we don’t want is to move into the other column. We don’t want to be on the painful side of the statistic.
Last week my son and I signed papers for him to drop out of his senior year of high school and do a GED instead. For many reasons this makes sense for him. The most obvious being the straight up math of spending 4-6 hours per day each weekday for eight months to earn the diploma, vs spending 1-2 hours per day for a month or so to pass the GED. Both the diploma and the GED allow him to move forward in his life. This choice gets him to the “moving forward” part much more quickly. Yet there is loss in this choice. There are gifts and lessons in classes with teachers which he has to give up. He no longer has a school librarian to connect with. He is no longer connected to a system of teachers and administrators whose jobs are about helping him grow. Also “moving forward” is murky for us while pandemic makes getting a job or going to college high-risk activities.
My son has moved columns in school statistics. He’s now tallied up with those who drop out rather than those who graduate. I feel like his decision to do so was a direct result of the pandemic disruptions yanking him out of the classrooms last spring. That experience and this summer of quarantining changed him and drove his current choice. (Which, again, is the right one for him. I fully support it.) As a society we’re still collecting pandemic statistics, but I expect that the drop out rate for the 2020-2021 school year will be much higher than years prior. Some of those drop outs will be like my son who took a conscious claiming-power step in his life. Other drop outs will be kids who got so lost in the cracks that their best avenue for survival was to abandon schooling. Every drop out story is one of choice or survival, often both.
Dropping out of high school or college is most often framed as a failure either of the individual or of the system, yet the realities are always more nuanced that a binary success/failure. I’ve now assisted three of my children drop out of four different schooling situations. Every time the choice was a mix of both failure and success. Every time we tried to be value neutral while doing failure analysis, to say “why didn’t this schooling experience turn out how we expected/hoped?” The answers teach us about what systems work for my kids as individuals, what doesn’t, and what insights they can carry into the next experiment in moving forward. Each time we have emotional work to do in order to not internalize failure into identity. (The specter of parental failure looms large in my mind on some days.) The fact that they opted out of situations that had become bad for them doesn’t impact their value nor is it a predictor of what will happen next.
Failure is a data point. Analysis of collected data points is statistics. Statistics can tell us useful things about systems and large groups of people, but is useless in describing an individual choice. Yet accumulations of choices are what statistics are made of. And sometimes it takes years before the impact of individual choices is able to be analyzed statistically. The line between pandemic onset and my son dropping out is short and direct. Yet there are elementary age kids and middle school kids whose paths have been nudged toward the dropping out path. There are probably other kids who have been nudged away from that path. We are only just beginning to see the changes that pandemic has wrought. For my family, next week will be about establishing patterns around GED study and long-term everyone at home. In some ways it is simply reverting to the patterns we adopted over the summer, in other ways it is different.