Where Is the Joy in K-12 Education?

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Photo Sarah Whiting

At the bottom of my inbox sits an email from April 1, 2022. It’s my acceptance letter from my dream school, Boston University. After months of tears and frustration, I finally got into the university of my dreams, only to not go there.

I went to predominantly white schools up until third grade. After that year, I transferred to a majority Black arts- integrative school in a different district. These schools were only 10 minutes apart, yet they were completely different; I could feel the extreme education disparities that exist in Minnesota.

My old schools had more money and resources, but there were more people who looked like and understood me at my new school. For the first time in my life, I found myself excited to go to school.

My new school merged into the district that my old schools were part of two years later. Suddenly, there were new rules and regulations that each student had to follow. We could no longer practice our dance routines for class or work on our artwork in the hallways. There weren’t any more Friday dance parties or honor roll breakfasts. I watched my friends become miserable and lose interest in school. What was the point if we were going to be locked up in our classrooms all day?

The culture at my high school expected me to work and work until I got into the most prestigious university. Even students with free periods were expected to sit in a windowless room and work on assignments for the entire time. Because of this, I spent a great portion of my time comparing myself to other students and placed my worth into admissions officers’ hands. I believed that I was only worth something if I had perfect grades and amazing extracurriculars, and it was hard for me to have fun without feeling like I was supposed to be working. If I didn’t get into a “good” school, I felt like my life was going to waste.

When I started applying for college, I wanted to become a foreign correspondent to help tell the stories of the minority communities I come from. I got into my dream school, but I didn’t have the money to attend and refused to drown myself in student loans. Now I regret ever applying to Boston University.

There are a lot of things I wish had happened to me during my K-12 years. I wish I had someone to tell me that I am allowed to be happy at school. So many rules and expectations were set upon me that I ended up thinking I was only going to succeed if I were miserable.

As we push students to be the best of the best in high school in hopes of “getting out” of their situation, we show them there is no need for joy in education.

I want that to change. Students are our future, and they deserve to grow up in joyful spaces. There should be time in the school day for students to have 10 to 15 minutes of free time outside of recess and class — yoga in the morning, arts and crafts in the afternoon, and time to just talk to your class about your day. Even having a little time during the school day for students to be creative allows them to bloom.

Now that I attend the University of Minnesota, I’m starting to find the joy I experienced in my earlier education. I finally have the community and resources to turn my dreams into reality. I’m surrounded by the people I grew up with and rekindling lost friendships. Although the U is a PWI (predominantly white institution), I still have a loving and supportive community, something I didn’t experience much of in K-12. This is the first time in a while that I have felt a warm feeling in my chest while going to class.

I haven’t completely re-found the joy in education I once had, but I don’t think I would have found it 1,400 miles away at Boston University either. Instead of worrying about getting straight A’s, I’ve started to appreciate the small things. I feel proud of myself when I understand a new concept, or when I feel good about how a class went. For me, achievement means moving at my own pace for my own happiness, regardless of what the end results may look like to others.

Faaya Adem (she/her) is an Oromo student journalist attending the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. She is passionate about uplifting diverse and marginalized communities through storytelling. Outside of her work, she enjoys crocheting and spending time with her family.