Review: Another Planet

Nearly two decades ago I heard a teacher divide kids into the kids everyone knew were going to get good grades, the ones that were going to get bad grades, and "that Dan Lyke kid".

My Kindergarten through 7th grade I went to Hawthorne Valley School , a Waldorf school based on the philosophies of Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy . Whatever its flaws and successes, that school had a dramatically different social and learning philosophy than traditional public schools.

As I've looked back at public school in a fairly well off town in Connecticut, I've wondered if a more traditional early schooling experience would have reduced my experience of being "that Dan Lyke kid". After reading Elinor Burkett's Another Planet, I'm convinced I'd still have felt like an outsider wasting my time.

Following the school shootings in Littleton Colorado , Burkett set out to document a year in the life of an ordinary school. Not the troubled inner-city schools from which many of our horror stories come, but a white suburban high school, one that might actually be close to the median.

Although the school that she ended up covering was in Prior Lake, Minnesota , and the year was 1999-2000, not 1985-1986, it may as well have been the one in which I endured my teen years. There were all the same cliques, the same well meaning but harried principal, the same clueless assistant principal, the teachers had different specialties, but they were all there.

And in the process of experiencing a year in that life again, over the course of a few evenings, I had some of my assumptions shaken and some of my conclusions shattered.

One of the experiences that's stuck with me, that I had chalked up to the editing of memory and the arrogance of youth, was just how clueless the adults seemed. How easily manipulated some teachers were, how the administration seemed paranoid about non-issues and completely oblivous to the real hazards. Burkett casts no stones, but draws sympathetic pictures of how this comes about; how that artificial extension of childhood which puts adults in an artificially heierarchical situation creates compromises which make this sort of dichotomy inevitable.

So as she covers the pep rallies, the student council, the politics of the drama productions, and the total disconnect over the meanings of 4/20 (to the faculty the anniversary of the Littleton shootings , to the students a marijuana reference), I wasn't finding solutions, but I was finding answers to the reasons that high school, then and now, seems so far disconnected from real life.

If you know a teenager, and wonder why that teenager and parents and faculty all seem to be living in different worlds, this is a highly recommended look at why that's happening. No suggestions on how to fix it, but a step towards understanding the problem seems like a worthy one.

Another Planet, by Elinor Burkett, from Harper Collins Publishers , ISBN 0-06-621148-4

Saturday, January 19th, 2002