Model High School, My Expierence
On the first day of my junior year, I entered Lahser High School, picked up my schedule, attended an orientation assembly in the gym, and then I walked to my academic counselor and said, “I’m dropping out of school.” The last few years had taught me that school was a lost cause. I wasn’t quitting because I didn’t value education. I was quitting because I couldn’t survive its institutional control. I was on my third high school in as many years, and each experience backed up the suspicion that school was for other people. I did have a plan, however. I had a skill, and I saw it as my only chance for success.
I was sixteen years old, and in the preceding two years, I had written three novels and two creative non-fiction books.
My first creative non-fiction document, Why I Want To Own a Food Mart, was a 52,000-word memoir recounting the first half of my freshman year at the International Academy. I wrote it for recreation. I had shared it with fellow students cautiously, not because I feared what it said but because I was insecure about its quality. In a school of over-achievers, squeezing in an extra 50,000 words was hardly a chore. And the book spoke to something within them—so they passed it around, without my knowledge or consent, and before I knew it, I was a local celebrity among my classmates.
As Food Mart gained popularity, it gained negative attention from the administration. The greater the negative attention—being confiscated, threatening detention if students were caught with it, blaming me for drafts that were circulating—the more popular it became. It was a cyclical phenomenon, and it was beyond my control, though I did enjoy it. Innocently, I figured that the administration would—eventually—realize how harmless it was. And sooner or later, they would realize the accomplishment it was! I wasn’t the type of personality who thrived in an environment like the IA, but as far as I understood it, and had read somewhere, 96% of the population attempts to write a novel-length document, only 5% succeed. By finishing this document, I had placed myself at the very top of my class in terms of potential and intelligence and work ethic. I thought I had signed up for a school that was interested in its students accomplishing great things. I couldn’t understand why, at 14 years old, having written Food Mart in my spare time, no one seemed impressed.
Food Mart caused such a stir in the IA’s maiden year that, at the end of the school year, a “final confrontation” occurred where several teachers, including principal Bert Okma, spoke to my parents about several incidents I had had at the school, including an in-school suspension that I deserved. The predominate topic was my book and the many emotions people felt about it. Only one teacher chose to defend me. It was Bettina Gamero, a teacher I had feuded with all year, and the last person I expected to say to her colleagues, “Have any of you read the book? It’s pretty good.” Here was the sticky part, the key aspect driving the situation. Who had time to read a book from a student? No one. And so no one, outside of Bettina Gamero, had read it. It made sense. The International Baccalaureate degree did not require a student to write a memoir. The Bloomfield Hills School District had no requirement that a student write a memoir. It was an incredible accomplishment, yes, but it didn’t fit in the box, and it didn’t fit “the plan,” which was to drive me to an IB degree.
Facing expulsion, my father brokered a deal for me. He informed Bert Okma that I had been enrolled in the University of Detroit Jesuit High School so, he argued, I should be allowed to finish the ninth grade because I was leaving anyway.
Even though my IA days were behind me, anger burned inside my mind and my heart. At the time, I believed I had been railroaded. And I resented that they had “won.” It was a lot of self-pity, complicated by being a teenager. That said, it was real emotion, and it was manifesting itself in a rage that could have destroyed me. Instead, I channeled it. I focused it. I applied it that summer, turning out my first novel, Senor Mondero, a legal thriller about a young lawyer caught up in a massive government conspiracy. It was 100,000 words, and all 100,000 words were subpar. It was so bad that my own mother couldn’t finish it. As I was learning, not all writing was an instant success. Still, fiction was uniquely rewarding. I was addicted to it.
Later in 1997, I wrote The Girl in the Red Dress, a 36,000-word novella about a lost soul working in a supermarket who finds that only love will make his life worthwhile. After that, I wrote the sequel to Senor Mondero, The Death of a President, clocking in at 93,000 words. I discovered a passion for re-writing, especially for Red Dress. I had grown emotionally attached to it. Having been all-but-expelled from a school where most of my friends attended, and being put in the University of Detroit, where I had zero friends, the main character’s isolation rang true to me, and I was eager to examine that isolation through prose.
Like the IA, the University of Detroit didn’t need its students to write novels to graduate. And it was such a rare thing for a student to do. Things like the National Novel Writing Month did not yet exist, and AOL was still how people connected to the Internet. In 1997, writing a novel was an isolated, messy affair, and a writer often had no access to other writers who had accomplished the feat. None of my teachers were willing to say they had done it, if they had at all. So they took little interest. These educators came to work to do a very precise job, and instead they had been handed this frenetic mind that became hyper-focused on certain projects while totally neglecting others. The novels were great, but if I couldn’t fit in the box, couldn’t fit “the plan,” I was an impediment, another lost kid slowing everyone down.
The vice-principal of University of Detroit Jesuit High School told my father that it was time for me to move on.
Halfway through my sophomore year, I transferred to Lahser High School, a place that, for me, felt like the only school that would have me. I kept to myself, making a few friends or reconnecting with olds ones here or there. An English teacher read a paper I wrote, pulled me aside, and said, “This is incredible. You’re incredibly talented.” I told her that I wrote books, whole novels, and I had a least 1.5 million words under my belt (rewrites included). She wanted me to join her creative writing class. I declined when I discovered that “creative writing” was just assignments. I felt a sense of resentment from this teacher, but I knew—from my problems at the IA and U of D—that she would never understand the intensity of my relationship with writing. I was writing at a blistering pace—sometimes 10,000 words a day. I couldn’t satisfy my own imagination, and my perfectionism was crushing.
It was for the best. Soon I would begin Minestrone for the Teenage Psycho, a play on the mega-successful Chicken Soup books, and my memoir of the 10th grade. It was another 73,000 words, and another all-consuming effort.
These experiences were why I had to do something as dramatic as dropout of school. I felt like I was drowning. No one understood me. And even if they did, they didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t need someone to teach me how to write. Simply reading books and practicing writing was enough. So why endure two more years of explaining myself, and my passion, to administrator after administrator after administrator after administrator? No, I couldn’t do it any longer. I didn’t fit in the world, I knew that, but I didn’t have to swallow it with a smile. I could choose to leave, and I could choose a different kind of happiness, one that made sense to me.
My counselor did not accept my request. He began a major intervention, which I had not anticipated. Before I knew it, my parents were called. My mother came to the school. He called the vice-principal, who came to speak with me, and who requested I check-in with her to keep her up-to-date. In-between all of this, my counselor asked me probing questions about why I was unhappy. He asked me questions about my writing. It was a whirlwind, and I felt winded handling all this attention. About three hours in, my counselor made a suggestion that would change my life.
Model High School.
To me, Model had always sounded faulty, like a place born from the misspent idea of a Hippie who hung on too hard to the 60s, but somehow, this person still had enough pull to force the “normal” schools to remind students of Model’s existence in short, squeezed-in announcements at the beginning or end of every quarter. It was never enough information to understand the school, so I had never considered it. This counselor insisted that I visit it—not tomorrow, or next week, or after I’d committed to staying in school and my grades were good, no, go now, get in your car, forget about your classes, go now.
Model High School was located in a small school at 1661 Hunters Ridge Dr. Its main office was a giant rectangle. On either side were two cubicles, and on the far wall were file cabinets. In the middle was a round table that went 3/4ths the length of the room. Surrounding it were students working openly on projects while teachers worked at their desks.
I introduced myself to the secretary, the greatly missed Linda Hutchinson. She said that Principal Cindy MacLeod (formerly Boughner) was waiting for me. I waited for instructions to Cindy’s office. No instructions were needed. Cindy was sitting in a cubical on the opposite side of Linda. In fact, she had one of the smaller cubicles in the room! This did not fit the quasi-corporate hierarchy in my previous schools. (The longer you’re there, the better the desk, the better the parking space, the bigger the office, etc. etc). If this was a surprise to me, imagine what I felt when I saw Cindy answer the phone for a temporarily occupied Linda.
A principal answered a call to the general line of the school!
Cindy rolled to me, using her feet to leverage the wheels on her chair. She introduced me to the philosophy of Model, and she attempted to hypothesize how I might utilize the school. She had no exact specifications for what I would do there, or what I would accomplish. She had no exact specifications for how she would track this progress. Yet, the lack of specifics, the lack of institutional control, didn’t concern her. She said, “I will need to read your book, if you will let me.” I gave her Red Dress, as I was always in the midst of another rewrite, but I refused to be romanced by the offer. I felt it was an empty gesture. Later, she would tell me, “I will start it, I will!” or “I got busy, but I’m going to start it again.” Still, I had said I wanted to quit school because I couldn’t write what I wanted, and here I was in a place that said I could write books and receive credit for it. I felt like I had to give it a chance.
I was won over when Cindy did read the book. And I accepted her encouragement and support, but I stayed cynical. Given my past experiences, I knew that my writing—sooner or later—would break the rule that could not be broken. Who knew what the rule was, but when it was broken, everyone would know it. And once everyone knew it, this warm, fuzzy Model-school would turn into a giant, automated monster that would spit me out without a second thought. It never happened. Some weeks, I wrote a lot. Other weeks, I didn’t write much. Not that it fazed Cindy. She never seemed suspicious that I was abusing this freedom.
A few months later, I was in a car accident that nearly killed me and injured two friends, caused by my own irresponsible driving. I missed the second-half of my junior year in recovery.
This was when Bill Boyle—an English teacher at Model—rejoined my life. “Rejoined” because Bill Boyle had been my English teacher at East Hills Middle School. We were part of an experimental effort called “Connections,” where sixth through eighth graders took classes together, and the primary education was provided by the same core of teachers for all three years. In addition to Bill Boyle, I was educated by Lydia St Aubin and Sandy Fox.
Bill had an educational approach that was Model-esque. He asked his classes to enter into contracts with him, promising to do a certain amount of reading and writing. In exchange, he allowed students to decide what reading and writing was performed. A packet documenting the work was due at the conclusion of every quarter. Included in this packet were the final drafts, which required signatures from three proofreaders, and in a rather interesting quirk, Bill wanted our previous drafts, from first draft right until completion.
In the 11th grade, I was not wise enough to see how I had gone wild with Bill’s disciplined yet creative approach. The man spent three years teaching me to deal with rough drafts, teaching me to approach others and ask them to check my writing, teaching me to always set a goal a little bit further than the previous one, and most of all, he taught me about the brutality and beauty of writing. Even if three people signed off on a finished draft, the document was never really finished, as he found grammar flaws, structural flaws, plot holes. Even books published by the bigs in New York let slip the occasional grammar error, so us kids had to get used to this idea of a gray area between right and wrong, correct and incorrect. To Bill, writing was essentially “living.” It grew and evolved and remained linked to the writer.
Bill had taught me how to write a book, whether he realized it or not. Now he would be visiting me twice per week, in my home, where he would read the product of his methods. When I graduated from East Hills Middle School, there was no way I could prove to Bill what he had taught me. I could not tell him that, in less than a year, I would have Food Mart completed. I hadn’t even thought of it yet.
As soon as I could sit for long periods, I knocked off two more documents. Chains, Whips, Chips, Dips, and A Little Bit of the 11th Grade, my annotated memoir about 11th grade, annotated because I lacked the psychological strength to confront the consequences of my car accident. Nonetheless, it was another 42,000 words. I was unhappy with it, though. I wrote it out of inertia from the first two memoirs, but having almost died by my own stupidity, I was disgusted with myself. I swore soon after that I would never write another memoir. Also, I wrote a little gem, another romance story in the vein of Red Dress, Perfection Attained. It followed the protagonist’s recovery from a traumatic hip injury and proved to be my true memoir through fiction. It finished at 31,000 words, but I was obsessed with this one. I wrote it day and night, and I’d written and deleted 250,000 words before it felt completed.
Bill read them both. He dismissed Chains, Whips, but he kept talking about Perfection Attained. I was not surprised. The difference in quality between them was enormous. What I respected about Bill was that he respected Chains, Whips anyway. He didn’t grade me down because I wrote a bad book. (All writers write bad books). He saw effort. He saw passion. And he didn’t want to control it. All he wanted to see was a framework, a blueprint, and nothing else. Bill wanted to give me the tools to push myself forward. To be able to do it when he wasn’t in a room with me, when he couldn’t use the power of a negative grade to motivate me; during the times that happen, decades later, when the loneliness of adult life, the pressures, the missed opportunities, sneak up on a person in short, profound crises—how do you keep going when no promotion, no pay-raise, no carrot, nothing can alleviate the growing hole in you? Where do you find meaning then? What part of you is it located in?
At the beginning of my senior year, I returned to school. I signed up for Model. Cindy and I reacquainted. It was difficult. We’d spent more time apart than together, and because I was at home the second-half of 11th grade, she had not read the last two documents I wrote. I felt she was tougher on me. She wanted more focus. Perhaps that was always the plan. To let me roam free, then ask for my adherence to an idea or a subject. She told me I could write what I wanted, but it needed a theme that I could document. Her challenge was timely. Until that point, I had written only male protagonists, but over the summer, a voice—subtle, quiet, yet powerful—had been talking to me. It was not in the way a schizophrenic would experience a voice. I spent a lot of time writing, a lot of time within myself, and my internal world was rich, and inspiration worked this way for me.
The voice whispered to me: Sykosa. Sykosa. Sykosa.
It was a girl. And she said things that were so nonsensical to me that I couldn’t translate them into writing. She was not angry with me for this, nor was she impatient. She kept speaking to me, like I was her friend. She didn’t get mad if I didn’t answer, and she didn’t get mad if I didn’t understand.
I told Cindy that I wanted to spend a semester improving my female characters. Cindy was guarded in her acceptance. To me, it felt like she wanted me to show her that I respected her, and not respect through traditional formalities—no sir or ma’am, or Mr or Ms—she wanted this project to show her if I respected her. I felt like my integrity was on the line. I had had so many bad experiences with teachers and administrators that, finally in a few trusting relationships at Model, I felt a responsibility to pull through.
I talked to my fellow female students, documenting their thoughts or feelings on any number of topics. I quizzed Linda Hutchinson on her pregnancies, making notes about each experience. I tried to get deeper into my own emotional world but progress was slow. Aside from good intentions, I wasn’t much closer to Sykosa. I didn’t understand her, and I wasn’t going to anytime soon. But I’m a writer, that’s what I do, I write, so I made a compromise. I would write a clone of her, named Saria. To help myself, I would put Saria in a science-fiction plot, which would help me fencepost the story. Using these crutches, what I finished was What a Terrible Thing to Waste, another 51,000 words to the pile.
Maybe the premise set expectations too high, as few were moved by Saria. The girls who read it were luke-warm. Cindy seemed iffy on if it was a true evolution of my female characters. The more I read the book, the more flawed it felt to me. It was a lot of writing, however. And the notes I had taken were lengthy, detailed, scrupulous—clear evidence of hard work. The last book I wrote in high school was during the second-half of my senior year, This I Promise You. Cindy vehemently disliked it. She never finished reading it, and I understood that she had given it her best effort. I did feel like I had let her down. She loved Red Dress, but my last two books never connected with her.
I left Cindy, like all students eventually leave their teachers. I wasn’t certain if, to her, I was a memorable student. But a change had occurred in the deepest parts of myself. I knew where I had gone wrong. The name of that girl, that voice, wasn’t Saria. It was Sykosa. And Sykosa didn’t live in a science-fiction world. She lived in this one. I had to get closer to that voice. My heart wanted to write this Sykosa, and to do it right this time. At eighteen, I had written more books than I needed to know I could do it again, whenever I wanted. What I didn’t know was how long it would take me to get close to Sykosa. I graduated in 2000, and by 2012, I had finished no more books than when I left Model High School, save for Sykosa in that year. It was the product of millions and millions of words, shed and written and shed and written, until I could hear this girl louder than I could hear my own thoughts.
When Cindy gave me the opportunity to study my female characters, she could not have known it would take twelve years for me to turn-in the book I promised to write her.
So much for “the plan,” huh?
This is the end of my story, but as I learned from so many great teachers in my time as a student in the Bloomfield Hills School District, especially from Bill Boyle, this is no way to end a story.
You need to close.
At Model, a young man was encouraged to do a school project that would not lead him to any traditional career, or anything that could be truly graded on a scale. In our current time, where we hear so many debates about sexism, about privilege, about sexual violence, about maybe a woman being president, it might seem like the world was always so receptive to such conversations, such aspirations, but I can assure you, and you know I can since you have read the stories I have shared, this was not how public education worked in 1999 in our little slice of the world. Even at a progressive environment like Model, the project’s ambiguous nature pushed the boundaries of what was considered academic.
In 1999, Model High School was teaching fifteen years ahead of itself. Model’s student-body was deciding what it wanted to learn, and in doing so, it was taking its most personal values and finding a way to study and explore those values, and to do so under the guidance of adults who knew such studies would never find any resolution during the school year. The work that is done at Model is work that is rarely finished at Model. It is finished in the future. It is the school that helps a student decide what her dream is, and then it gives her the tools to realize that dream. Model High School challenges young people to become more than encyclopedias of knowledge, more than a grade on a paper, or passive figures in their own lives. It encourages young people to envision a world unlike the one they have now, and to mold a life in pursuit of it.
Model High School must remain an independent entity within the Bloomfield Hills School District, and Bill Boyle must remain the administrator of the school, as he is both the practical and spiritual successor to Cindy MacLeod. If Bill Boyle, or any principal at Model, is denied the full job of being principal, having parts of his job “outsourced” to a different administrator, this is the end of Model. Once the freedom is gone, it will never be returned, and if it is returned, it will never again feel like freedom.
In this document, I have shared the highs and lows of my experiences as a student in the Bloomfield Hills School District. Not everyone will share my opinions, as people are different. We learn differently. We feel differently. We express differently. Different is good, not bad. It is in this spirit that I implore the district to continue its noble commitment to Model High School. When dealing with a school that deals with the future, it’s hard to boil things down to absolutes, to track them on a spreadsheet, to know—at the end of a school year—what was learned as if it were a quantifiable thing. Nonetheless, the district has correctly maintained a hub of innovation and enlightenment in Model High School.
This is not the time to abandon all those years of labor, nor is it the time to say goodbye to all those years of progress.
Save Model High School!