Care and Feeding

My Son’s Classmates Are Entitled Jerks

Should he switch schools?

Photo collage of a teenage boy sitting alone with his backpack in an empty classroom.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My son is a freshman at our default public high school. I have heard nothing but good things about the school. It is one of the highest rated in the district and the state. Its campus is state-of-the-art. It offers more classes, clubs, and extracurricular activities than I could imagine.

But my son hates it there. He loves his teachers, but he hates his peers. And I mean he hates them. Nearly every day after school, he unloads to his mother or me. Before you chalk that up to teenage social anxiety, let me say this: My son is a good kid. Not just a good kid, a great kid. He has good grades. And that’s with little to no pressure from us. He isn’t tied to his phone. He’s also smart and engaged with the world.

He is very social. He is engaged in a few extracurriculars outside of school, and he gets along with the kids there just fine. He also has a large, robust friend group outside of school and a few very close friends.

I can guess why he hates his peers at school. Our neighbors are all very rich and are the kind of entitled jerks that pass their crap values on to their kids. I have met a few of their kids who go to the high school, and I appear to be right. These kids are all like their parents—they think they can do whatever they want and can walk all over people. We are by no means rich, but we are comfortable, and we have raised our son to have a work ethic. He behaves very differently than these other kids.

There are a lot of drugs at school, not to mention sex (think in the school bathroom). (I’m not anti-sex, but I am anti-sex-in-school-probably-with-no-protection.) I am 100 percent sure my son doesn’t partake in either.

We don’t demographically fit in. While we are rather well off, all our neighbors are considerably richer than us. The area is also very white and Christian. I am white, but my wife (and children) are not. We are also Jewish.

I have talked to the administration about my concerns about the drugs and sex, but they did not seem all that worried. I have seen hints that suggest that the school has done very little to combat these problems.

I have concerns about moving my son, since the current school is very good academically, and the only private school in the area is Catholic (we’re Jewish, remember). There are several charter schools in the area, but none has anywhere near the rating of his current school or the volume of opportunities his current school has. Also, even though most charter schools attract families from all around the district, I am worried my son will be stuck there with the same kind of kids he hates now.

My son wants to leave the current school. My wife thinks our son should shadow a student for a day or two at the charter schools we like before we make a decision (the schools allow this), but she’s leaning toward moving him. I also think he should shadow, but deep down, part of me wants him to stay put. I want the best for my son but feel very conflicted and unsure about what to do. An outside opinion would be great.

—Conflicted Dad

Dear Dad,

Your son should definitely shadow at the charter schools that interest him; I can’t see any downside to exploring all the options and using firsthand experience to make this relatively big decision. I hear your worries about pulling him out of a school that’s been designated “the best,” but that means a lot less than whether it’s the best school for him. How many of those indicators of the school’s quality—the extracurriculars and clubs, the facilities—apply to his personal experience of the place? Although he’s succeeding academically and appreciates his teachers’ instruction, it doesn’t really matter what other opportunities the school offers if your son doesn’t feel comfortable enough around his peers to take any of them. If, by shadowing, he discovers a school with an average academic program but an environment where he’ll feel happy and secure, I’d confidently take that over a school with a professional-grade chemistry lab where he also wants to crawl out of his skin every day.

But I also think your son could benefit from exploring his reaction to his classmates and school culture a little more, especially if his report from the shadow days is that the charter schools also enroll “the same kind of kids he hates now.” I think you could, too. High schools can certainly be toxic places where poor behavior and unkindness reign, especially when teenagers have access to wealth and feel emboldened by weak limits. You didn’t mention if your son has ever felt specifically targeted because of his identity, but even if he hasn’t, I’m sure it’s often deeply uncomfortable to feel like an outlier as one of the few Jewish students of color in this environment, outright bias or no.

At the same time, great kids—curious, engaged, smart kids with friends—can still have social anxiety, and I wonder if that might be more at play than you think. The transition into high school can be intimidating and disconcerting for many freshmen. The emotional and social differences between 14-year-old ninth graders like your son and the 17- and 18-year-old upperclassmen now in his midst are vast. Lots of freshmen, especially those more of the rule-following, straight-edged disposition, feel rather mortified and out of their depth when they’re confronted with the risky, adult-seeming choices of their peers. Anxiety doesn’t always manifest as you’d expect, and his stated disdain for his classmates may be how his is expressing itself. And, not for nothing, Letter Writer, but your own feelings of contempt and alienation from this community are glowing from your letter like hot coals, and I’m guessing that even if you’re trying to hide your feelings, he is aware of them. I might take a reflective look at those daily vent sessions you engage in with your son. I’m sure they feel like a necessary outlet and source of support for him, but is it possible that you’re putting your thumb on the scale a bit and encouraging his antipathy toward his classmates? And is it possible that these conversations serve another function: to build connection over your shared resentment?

I’m not trying to invalidate your son’s feelings and experience—or yours—but I do think there’s probably more nuance to the student body than what he currently acknowledges. (In a high-achieving, lavishly resourced school with abundant extracurriculars, there’s got to be at least a handful of kids taking advantage of these great activities instead of running around Doing It in the bathroom, no?) He may well end up feeling like one of the area’s charter schools is the perfect fit, but whatever he decides, I think digging into both of your responses to this environment a bit more wouldn’t go amiss. A counselor would be well-equipped to both affirm the challenges he’s experienced and help him reframe. We can all stand the occasional reminder that the only thing anyone can control is their own reaction, you know? I hope that, whatever you decide, your son finds a way to flourish and feel at home and peaceful at school.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

My son is in fifth grade and is a pretty easygoing kid and never gets into trouble. Last school year, he started complaining that there were too many “blacktop” recesses. This is when the kids have to stay on the paved area and are not allowed to play on the grass because it’s too wet or muddy. Since the grassy field area is worn down, there are several large bald spots that become muddy puddles that take days to dry out in the spring and fall, or they become frozen ice patches in the winter. During “blacktop” recess, the kids are not allowed to run or play with balls because there isn’t enough room. I sent an email to the principal at the end of the last school year outlining my concerns and asking if there was any way I could get involved in some sort of playground revitalization project to fix the grass. I was basically brushed off.

I decided to join school council this year to see if there was some way I could spearhead this type of initiative. Again, the principal brushed off this idea, saying that they had already tried various ways to fix it, it was too expensive, etc. I told my son that it didn’t look like the council would be fixing the field, and I thought that would be that. A week ago, I remarked at dinner that the council chair sent out an email saying that the council wanted to vote on funding a new school sign (an LED number with solar panels). The idea that they would rather spend money on a new sign over fixing the field pushed my son over the edge. He said he was going to start a petition at school. I figured it wouldn’t go very far, but he’s managed to get almost a quarter of the school population to sign it in two days, including some teachers. According to him, this sign-instead-of-grass idea has really riled the kids up. Some kids are talking about having a “stand in the grass” protest.

What should I do in this situation? See if he can present his petition to school council? Email it to the principal? See how it plays out?

—Petitioning for Change

Dear Petitioning,

I love this story!

I hate the idea of children being forbidden to run around during “blacktop recess,” and I can envision simple solutions to this ridiculous problem—including allowing the children to get muddy like I did as a child—but I adore what your son has done. I don’t know him, but I’m already proud of him.

In this case, my suggestion would be to assume the position of adviser and administrative assistant. You don’t want to co-opt your son’s protest or take charge in any way, so think of yourself in a supporting role.

If your son doesn’t understand the bureaucracy of school budgets, the parent-teacher organization, and school administration, be sure to explain some basics to him without being too specific about possible courses of action. Provide him the information needed to make a decision, but allow the decision to be his own. This is about a lot more than a muddy field. This is an opportunity for your son and his classmates to find their voice and discover the power of protest, coalition, and political activism.

Even if that stupid sign is erected and the field remains muddy, this will be a victory for your son and his compadres. The lessons learned will far outweigh the benefits of a grassy field.

Also be sure to provide anything he needs in terms of materials and services—poster board, photo copies, access to email addresses, car pools, etc. Don’t allow the economic barriers of childhood prevent your son from moving forward.

It’s wonderful that this has turned from a frustrating and stupid problem to a glorious opportunity for children to learn, grow, and shine. While it would be nice if the school administration viewed the daily exercise and play of children as more important than a school sign, it’s almost better that it’s happened this way. Your son has been granted the gift of opportunity, and he has thus far seized it brilliantly.

Offer support, stand back, and watch him grow.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I have a problem that has been going on for years, but I have never known what to do about it. My 12-year-old younger sister has a classmate, “Jed,” who is consistently uncouth to all other students, but particularly her.

Jed constantly insults everyone—he told my sister, for example, that nobody likes her, and that they all secretly talk about her behind her back. Perhaps that sounds like garden-variety middle school horseshit, but it’s really the incessant nature of it that gets to my sister (and, by extension, me). It happens every day. She insists it isn’t bullying, and that there isn’t any point in pursuing disciplinary action against him, and that she needs to learn to be less sensitive. But she comes home most days visibly despondent, and all she ever talks about at the dinner table is him and the hurtful things he said to her. I am concerned by the frequency and severity of this litany of meanness.

What concerns me more is that her social problems are not limited to Jed. She has always been fairly reserved, preferring a small group of close friends to larger social situations. But this year, she doesn’t have any classes with her two best (and only) friends. The two of them, however, are in all the same classes, so she feels left out.

I really worry about her and wish I knew how to help. I am a junior at a different school, so it’s not like I can directly intervene. Our parents are convinced that she needs to be less sensitive, but I remember being in middle school more keenly than they do. Then again, I was busy having major depressive episodes in middle school, and never had trouble telling someone like Jed to back off, so I can’t be sure I’m seeing clearly either.

I would much appreciate an outside, adult, professional educator’s opinion on this situation, because I know I can’t assume that my perception is right. My sister just seems so unhappy. She has said explicitly that Jed and his cronies (who frequently engage in the same behavior) are impeding her learning and creating a bad learning environment for her.

What should I do, if anything? What can I do, if anything? How bad do you think this really is for her?

—Persistently Pestered

Dear Persistently Pestered,

Bless you for being such a caring big sister. There are two things making your sister miserable: Jed, and being separated from her friends.

Let’s tackle Jed first: He sounds like a bully to me. In cases of bullying, adults need to step in. Have you had a heartfelt conversation with your parents about this? If not, I think that’s worth a try. If you’ve already tried and failed, you can’t force your parents to contact the school, but you can encourage your sister to seek out the guidance counselor. If she confides what has been going on (for years!), they will recognize the harassment and step in to help. In fact, you could report the harassment to your own guidance counselor, who should then reach out to their colleagues at the middle school.

In terms of her loneliness, that is a different beast. She might be happier if she tried making some new friends, which is easier said than done, I know. She could join a club or even role-play being assertive enough to talk to her classmates. One of the most important things you can offer is a listening ear and a caring heart. Perhaps carve out some “sister time” each week where the two of you do something together—play a board game or watch a movie. Being lonely at school is rough, but being supported at home can make it more bearable. Sweet girl, know that you cannot solve these problems for your sister; you are there to love her unconditionally and support her as best you can.

Do you plan to share this column with your parents? Do they read Slate? I’d like to share this message with them: I know middle school is rough for many kids, and we want our children to learn to stand up for themselves, to solve their own problems. However, victims of bullying need help from adults. This boy is making your daughter miserable and interfering with her education. It’s time to step in.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

I tutor high school math and science one-on-one, for class help and test preparation, at a corporate tutoring center. I have no formal training in education, just a ridiculous amount of science education. I generally get assigned a lot of high-performing students because I can cover obscure material more confidently and thoroughly than other teachers. I’ve also worked over the years with a lot of students on the autism spectrum and/or with ADHD. I have ADHD myself, I’m medicated, and I have mentioned this to my boss.

I have a good track record with these students, but right now I have a student that reminds me so much of myself in high school. He frustrates everyone else around him. I’m the only math and science tutor who can ever get him to do substantial work on any given day. I relate to his experience so closely, and it’s been making me wonder: How else could I help him?

I tend to generally work in a fairly casual, conversational manner, while using a more Socratic approach when it comes to reinforcing information and helping students work through problems. I know some sessions will be good, some will be bad, and sometimes I can’t control how they go, and that forcing things doesn’t tend to work well. I make oblique references to my own diagnosis and accommodations I’ve had. I often purposefully fidget as I teach, and I have loaned my own fidget toys to my students. I’ve suggested breathing exercises. I try to have conversational breaks to discuss my students’ interests and not work straight through a typical two-hour session—that’s tough even on me. I could be more aggressive in finding very quiet spaces to work when necessary—they’re often taken by other students who need them, and to be entirely honest, I personally find silence suffocating and difficult to work in—but I do usually sit somewhere relatively quiet.

But perhaps I’m forcing my own adaptations onto these students. I know that I have my own unique neurological milieu, and different people need different things. Am I doing OK? What else can I be doing to help these kids out?

—ADHD Leading the ADHD

Dear ADHD,

Yes, you are doing OK. You are doing more than OK. You clearly have deep empathy for all the kids you work with, and you attempt to maximize their learning experiences with a great number of helpful accommodations. I love that you refer to your own diagnosis with the kids. That has the dual benefit of humanizing you and offering them some positive perspective: “Oh, this cool and smart person has ADHD and has managed to accomplish all this?!”

So, first, give yourself a pat on the back.

What else can you do to help these kids? Ask them. I can’t think of a single other thing you could do for them, but they might be able to.

Tell them more explicitly about your experiences and how you learned to manage your needs and improve your performance. Then have them speculate about ways to ameliorate the effects of their disabilities. Implement their suggestions, and debrief often. Was it helpful? If so, how can they advocate for that support in their classes? If not, what else might work?

Oh, I did think of one more thing you could do. A disability advocate, Matthew Cortland, recently tweeted that he hates the term “special needs,” because he considers his needs human. Tell your students that every need they have is a human need, and they deserve to have those needs met.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

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