Interviews November 2001

Back to School

Elinor Burkett, who at age fifty-five became a member of the class of 2000, reports on high school today through a journalist's eyes
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Another Planet

Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School Click the title
to buy this book]

by Elinor Burkett
HarperCollins
336 pages

In 1999, following the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the journalist Elinor Burkett became curious about what today's suburban American high schools are really like. She set out for the Midwest in search of a high school as typical and all-American as she could find, and settled on Prior Lake, a school on the outskirts of Minneapolis whose students—mostly from middle-class backgrounds—tend to score well on national and state education tests. After persuading Prior Lake's principal to allow her to spend a year there as a close observer, she and her husband left their New York City home and moved to Minnesota where she threw herself into life at Prior Lake.

Throughout the year, Burkett went to as many classes, sports practices, play and music rehearsals, faculty meetings, teacher discussions, student bull sessions, and informal gatherings and parties as she could. She became a confidante of students, teachers, and administrators alike, and was permitted to sit in on parent-teacher conferences. She became so well integrated into the scene that at the end of the year the seniors asked her to speak at their graduation and invited her to attend future reunions as an honorary member of their class.

Her year at high school convinced her that what passes for national dialogue these days about education and the state of our high schools bears little relation to how high schools actually work. Theories she had previously bought into about the unfairness of distinguishing among students based on academic ability, for example, were countered by her observation that in classes where students of all abilities are thrown together, the less able students simply rely on the smarter students to do all the work, and the more precocious students become bored and alienated. It also struck Burkett that today's rhetoric about using new curriculum requirements and testing programs to raise standards are beside the point when adults, both inside and outside of schools, prioritize the protection of teenagers' self-esteem over challenging them to achieve. Though Prior Lake was by all accounts considered to be a good school, she was dismayed by how little the students there read, how poorly they wrote, and how little they actually knew.

In Another Planet: A Year in the Life of a Suburban High School, published last month, Burkett recorded these and other observations from her time as a member of the Prior Lake community. Unlike many other books on the state of our schools, Another Planet reads more as a narrative, with a varied cast of characters (teachers, administrators, jocks, cheerleaders, goths, loners, and so on), than as a treatise. Her story opens with teachers—some veteran, others about to teach for the first time—sharing their thoughts about the year to come and setting up their classrooms for the first day of school. By the time the book concludes, with the class of 2000's graduation ceremony, the reader feels intimately familiar with many people's struggles and accomplishments over the course of the intervening year.

Burkett's hope is that her account of a year at Prior Lake will offer readers insight and impetus for reform that reach beyond the usual platitudes.

Craig Olson [Prior Lake's principal] took an enormous risk when he allowed me into his school, and the biggest part of that risk was that my readers would thumb through these pages and say, "Oh, that's just Prior Lake." Don't even be tempted. Well, go ahead and be tempted. But don't make it that easy on yourself or your schools. By every conceivable measure, from its test scores to its college admission rate, from the quality and dedication of its staff to its graduation rate, Prior Lake High School is a superior American high school.

And if that thought horrifies, you've gotten to the easy part.

Elinor Burkett is a New York journalist who has written six previous books, including The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless and The Gravest Show on Earth: America in the Age of AIDS. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. Before becoming a journalist she spent thirteen years as a professor of Latin American and women's history. This year she is teaching journalism as a Fulbright Professor at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek, Kyrgystan. She leaves today for Afghanistan to research a story on Afghan women.

She spoke with me recently by telephone from Kyrgystan.

—Sage Stossel



Elinor Burkett
Elinor Burkett

How, if at all, did your feelings about your own high school experience color your impressions of life at Prior Lake High School?

There's no way that they couldn't color my impressions. I was immediately drawn to the kids whom I would most likely have been drawn to when I was a kid. And yet what happened very quickly was that I got kicked in the teeth by my own presuppositions. For example, I had gone back assuming that the jocks would be stupid, which is what I believed when I was sixteen. And then I met this boy I wrote about, Tony Lorenz, who was everything I would have despised when I was in high school. And he turned out to be one of my favorite students because he was a wonderful writer—he was the best poet in the school. So these kids kept forcing me to go back and look at my own high school experience, and say, Boy, I missed some really nice kids. I mean, some of the kids that I would have been really good friends with in high school and would have admired I now saw as surly, whiny, and full of themselves. Maybe that's who I was, too. I don't know. But the Prior Lake kids did a good job keeping me honest, because they were so good at knocking down my prejudices.

Were there some students whom you would have liked to talk with more to get their perspectives, but who were not very receptive to you?

The kids who were most socially confident—the kids who ruled the school—were extremely accessible because they had tremendous social confidence. They weren't shy, and they weren't worried about what people would think about them. So they were no problem to crack. For the kids who were outsiders, the fact that I would go to them and say, "So, I hated high school, too. Is it as bad as when I was in high school?"—I think they were thrilled.

The hardest group to crack were the loners, because they're not a group, and they never hang out at school. They were so heads down, scurrying through the halls, that it was not the right environment to interview them. So I had to find them—quite literally—outside of school. I started almost systematically looking for them at work. Most of these kids had part-time jobs at stores in the mall or at the QuikMart Gas Station. So I started hanging out wherever they worked and talking to them there.

I think most of the kids were really excited that some adult had moved all the way from New York to do nothing but spend the year listening to them and hanging on their every word. So I don't think there were any kids who majorly locked me out. What was most extraordinary to me was how open the kids were and how much they wanted to talk. I'm old enough to be some of these kids' grandmother, so I didn't think they would be quite this open with me. But in fact they seemed flattered by the chance to speak for their generation.

Very early on in the year it became almost a competition. Kids would come up to me in the hall and say, "There is such-and-such an activity this weekend, is that the kind of thing you want to go to?" And whatever it was, I always said yes. I just made myself so ubiquitous—I have never worked so hard in my life.

They were very quick to begin to invite me to parties. It was cute—the second party I was invited to, the boy who invited me said, "I have been authorized to invite you to this bonfire, but everyone wants to make sure that you're going to feel comfortable, because there's going to be drugs." And I was like, "Well, I've probably been around a lot more drugs than you have! The question is whether you're comfortable having me there." So there was a lot of testing to make sure that I wasn't going to tell on them. But once that was through, they let me in.

Did you try to learn something about teen culture before you started?

I was really lucky. I had an assistant, Ivan (who has since died, and to whom the book is dedicated), who was my best friend. Ivan had worked his whole life in the music industry. He managed bands for a long time, along with the first punk club in New York, and he was the director of the Grammys. He was a person with AIDS. When he began to get really sick, he quit his job and moved to Minneapolis with me. He knew more about youth culture than anybody I've ever met. He devoured it his whole life.

The first day of school, as Ivan and I walked through the parking lot, he went through all the bumper stickers on the cars and said, "Now, this sticker means this, and if you have this sticker, this is who you are and where you fit in." I really needed that kind of guide, because it very quickly allowed me to figure out who was in which group. Or we'd be walking down the hall and Ivan would say, "Now, that kid is wearing FUBU. And this means that he's got money because FUBU is not cheap," and so on. So I had a very good guide who did youth pop culture 101 for me.

Do you think that your presence (in classrooms, at parties, at faculty meetings, etc.) affected the behavior of the people you were observing?

It has to. Any reporter who says that his or her presence doesn't affect anything is lying. The closest thing to a guard against that was how long I was there. It seemed to me that if I was ubiquitous enough for a long enough time, people couldn't keep acting special on my behalf. I think it probably made the most difference early on, when the kids were misbehaving more than usual around me, which was their way of showing off. But by the end I was so much a piece of the wallpaper that if I didn't go to an event, people would say, "Oh, where were you last night?" I just became a normal part of the scene.

Having talked with and observed high school students, teachers, and administrators at length, it would seem that you would be uniquely qualified to offer suggestions about ways in which suburban high schools might be improved. What thoughts do you have on reforms that could realistically be made?

I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, actually. The reality is that our kids don't know anything. I was particularly struck by this after September 11. By then I was already here in Kyrgystan where I'm teaching college students. And here they start college a year earlier than students start college in America. I walked into class a week or two after September 11, and my students asked me questions like, "Do American students understand that what's happening in the Islamic world is just like the Enlightenment in Europe?" Or they would talk about the Crusades. They were asking questions that were so smart—that showed so much understanding of history, of geography, of geopolitics that I could have wept when I thought about the kids at Prior Lake, who don't even know where Jamaica is. So I think the biggest message that I am trying to carry to everybody is, This generation of kids is as nice and smart as any other generation in U.S. history. Kids don't get "worse" from one generation to the next. But we are so overly concerned with things like self-esteem training and other stuff which the kids are the first to make fun of and tell you is total and utter nonsense, that we have forgotten that we are disempowering them by not teaching them the things that they really need to know.

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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