What has been my most positive educational experience, formal or informal, and why? I think that I can honestly say that my most positive educational experience has been the transition from a public school, with a population of about 2000 students ranging from the ages of 12 through 20, to a private school, with a population of 202 students ranging from the ages of 4 through 19. I can’t give Hampshire College one specific reason why this change has been positive for me, but I can show my perception of some of the contrasts in lifestyle between the two schools and also the vast differences in attitude and general philosophy. I am quite glad that I have been able to experience both worlds and can sympathize with the problems and joys of those placed in each situation. It has been rather unique for me. But what are the differences that have made me feel this way? How have these two schools been so incredibly different to me?

Life in public school was never dull. There was always classes and homework, plus the few kids that would find enjoyment pushing around others. They were always in a group and never caught alone, vunurable. If one was alone, he might suddenly become your friend – the friend who was always short of cash, but would be willing to play with you IF nobody could see him befriending you. I had a “friend” like that. His name is Phil. He is what one might call the “fair-weather friend” – ready to play when HE wants to play, but not when you want to play, and NEVER to play with others around. He bullied me when he came to Roselle Park in the 2nd grade. He was lonely and had a bunch of lonely kids around him, always ready to pick a fight or just to annoy the hell out of some unsuspecting kid that happened to have a quick temper. You can’t go wrong with a friend like that. Yes, there was never a dull moment in public school.

In the Vail-Deane School, I don’t see bullying like that at all. There are no “clicks”, in the terminology that I am familiar with, but small groups of three and four that have a common purpose. The only exception that I can think of is the ninth grade. This is a group of eighteen kids (one of the largest classes that we have) that seem the flow together as a group, seeing movies together, calling each other up on the phone, and doing other things that I can’t imagine the “typical Vail-Deane class” doing. Of course, the “typical Vail-Deane class”, in my mind, consists of the twelveth grade and the past three graduating grades that have come before us. My class consists of thirteen people who have nothing much in common, and seem to do nothing much together except BE a class. We seem to get things done with no particular leader of the situation but with a common purpose, whether that be a fund-raiser or an original interpretation of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas for a Christmas play. With that exception of the ninth grade (and that could very well be wrong), this school has no clicks and no bullies. Some people do get picked on, but there are no bullies or gangs that roam around looking for prey; there simply are not enough kids in this school for that type of situation to occur!

Another difference between the two schools, is the level of maturity. As I waited to take the Stanford Achievement Tests back at Roselle Park High School last year, I noticed some of the people that I was once friends with joking around with each other. They were whistling, howling and hooting at a girl in a tight red mini-skirt, embarrassing her, and me, for that matter, for being near them. They yelled obscenities at her and told her how much she loved them. What struck me as funny, is that these three people were some of my best friends in the 8th grade. That either tells something about me, that I picked them as friends, about them, that they had become that way, or about my mom, who had gotten me to take a test in the eighth grade for a free scholarship to Vail-Deane, thereby preventing my becoming like that! In Vail-Deane, once again, none of that really happens. If I liked someone, instead of drooling or hooting (take your pick), I would have to confront her or say nothing at all. Any games like that would be spotted immediately and then she would know like a flash, because of the small school size.

On a more serious note, there is an amazing difference in the amount that one can learn in a small school as opposed to a larger school. In Vail-Deane, everybody “gets their say”. There is no hiding behind books here; in a Spanish class of four people, there is no way that anyone can hide! Your opinion is valued, although you must be able to back it up and take a lot of teasing and not be overly “touchy” if you want your opinion heard out and taken seriously. In the public schools, the only way that your opinion could be listened to is when you wrote a paper, or if you really befriended the teacher. Here, everyone is IMPORTANT and NO ONE is left out. That is something that I absolutely love about this school and that I did not realize was true until I wrote it down just now. I just wish that some of the students in this school would stop taking it for granted that school could be quite this good. I suppose, coming from a lower income than many in Vail-Deane, I am better able to appreciate the little differences between the schools. It could also be the fact that many of them only went to public school for a few years or not at all and remember little of it. Or maybe I think that way because that is just the way I am.

Although I may seem to be “singing praises” about Vail-Deane, it is NOT the school for everyone. Scholarships are not floating around Vail-Deane, waiting to be caught. Only those that can’t afford the tuition and do well on their entrance test (to show whether the school is right for them) will get scholarships. Even if the parents have lots of money, that does not guarantee that their child will be able to continue in the school if the child does poorly and is not believed to be compatible with the school. In fact, just a few weeks ago, an eleventh-grader who had taken the school liberties for granted for the past year dropped out of the school and joined a cooking school to become a chef. He wasn’t right for the school and he knew it. If you want structure, this isn’t the school for you either. Even though we have switched from an eight-period day to a nine-period day of 38 minutes each, annoying most of the school for the first two months, that doesn’t mean that we are getting a tighter structure. It was put into effect to make scheduling easier (especially for those of us (i.e., myself) who hadn’t had a gym class for two years in a row because of a scheduling conflict with Spanish I and then Spanish II), to make room for more classes (less of each, though), and to make our lives, in general, a lot jollier with more study halls, and not to put a tighter reign on us. In fact, the Seniors even get their own room for their use, a tradition probably as old as the school, where we have put a microwave oven, a six-foot high refrigerator which someone got for twenty-two dollars at a garage sale, and two couches. In Roselle Park High School, all I can remember is that the Seniors (and only a few of them) got the second-floor bathroom and occasionally got the Boy’s and Girl’s Locker Rooms, and, although a tradition, it was not official!

Everybody at Vail-Deane is much closer to one another than even some of us realize. I can go over to the Kindergartners and “join in” a class. […] Almost everyone treats, or tries to treat, everyone else as their equal, at least in my perception of the school. Even competition, especially for grades, doesn’t run as high in this school as it does in many other private schools and public schools. Those that get good grades ARE made to feel proud, as they should be, but aren’t paraded in front of the whole school and given plaques and special awards left and right. Maybe, because of Vail-Deane’s higher standards (“a B grade here is like an A in public school”) there is little need for awards because everyone does relatively well and is made to feel special. Another reason that awards aren’t so incredibly prevelant for grades and grade point average may be the fact that each teacher in every class has a nice space for comments at the bottom of the “report sheet” (each class has a separate sheet breaking down amounts of homework done, class participation, etc.) and that most teachers write down what they think about the student, how they feel that particular student is doing, and what needs to be done for improvement in that class. From what I’ve seen, these comments hold much more weight than the grade alone does. In public school, all that I got was a computerized sheet with the grade and space for two, preprogrammed comments, numbered 0-9 stating everything that teacher has to say about that student. I realize that system is the only way to handle two-thousand or more students, but it really wasn’t what I needed.

The public school system that I went through for nine years is set up to GIVE information and to GET BACK from the students precisely what the teacher GAVE out in the first place. This is not learning. This school that I now go to doesn’t GIVE me anything but POINTS me in the direction to go and GUIDES me along the pathway to TRUE LEARNING which, to me, is the ability to teach myself what I want to learn and how I want to go about it. I have found that it is much more difficult to travel this way than it is to be pushed along in the Roselle Park Public Schools, but I feel that I am experiencing my learning much more fully than by just getting the scent of it and going on. I am not trying to “put down” public schooling or even the schools that I went to. I loved my classes and teachers at the time. Since coming to Vail-Deane, however, I have found a learning that I never even realized was possible before. When I tried to imagine myself a senior at Roselle Park High School, as I took the SAT’s there, I suddenly realized how good I had it and that the school I was in was more wonderful than I had thought. What was my most positive education experience? The most positive educational experience, for me, has been the Vail-Deane School of Mountainside, New Jersey. I only hope that I can continue my education in the Hampshire College of Amherst, Massachussetts and learn to open myself to The Universe.

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