Princeton Learning Cooperative, a decade-old alternative to traditional schooling, works with teenagers to create personalized educations based on their interests and goals. The school, which operates out of Princeton’s All Saints Church, offers a panel discussion, “Youth Perspectives on Better Options for Education,” on Wednesday, January 6, over Zoom, featuring current students and alumni as well as time for Q&A. Registration is free via EventBrite.

PLC also maintains a blog on its website. Recently, PLC staff member Katy Burke reflected on the difficulties with traditionally accepted definitions of “success.”

Katy Burke of Princeton Learning Cooperative.

Around this time of year 23 years ago, I was a senior in high school, fretting about applying to college. The whole process was intimidating, but what plagued me the most was that I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I didn’t know that because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I didn’t know that because I had no idea what really interested me or what I was good at.

Frightened and pressured with a ticking clock that I had personally wound, I figured that I had to find all of these answers immediately. I hadn’t the time to go soul-searching. It was too late for that; I was a senior. So, I came up with a master plan. I would go where all the answers are located: the public library. This was 1997, just before Google got started. I could Ask Jeeves, of course, but that felt awkward and unreliable. The library was still where I went when I had something important to find out. I didn’t realize that the answers I sought couldn’t be found in a book.

I took out a volume of careers larger than the Yellow Pages circa 1990, and began flipping back and forth, passing or dog-earing careers Tinder-style. I ruled out careers superficially: too little money, too much math, too much school, too few people. The process brought me further and further from the truth until I settled on “hotel manager,” the most laughable prospect for anyone who knows me in the slightest. Maybe I thought I’d be good at it because I was being promoted from cashier to front-end manager at the local grocery store. Maybe I thought I’d like it because I like staying in hotels (the little soaps, a maid, hot breakfast)…why not run one? Clearly, I did not know myself.

Ultimately, I didn’t choose hotel management, but I did go down a long safe path that wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for another ten years or so that I finally stepped off the conveyor belt, started really looking and found contentment.

This isn’t about me though. I tell this story to bring attention to all the young people who are on the conveyor belt still. They are the kids you’d least suspect are lost. In theory, I should’ve known what I wanted. I was a mature kid in lots of ways. I was an honors student with a steady job that I had stayed with for two years. But that was the problem. I was always punching in on someone else’s timesheet. I was so busy doing all the things that I was supposed to do that I had no idea what I wanted to do.

This happens all the time. I mean, all the time. I saw it every day for thirteen years when I taught public high school. I’ve seen it since with friends’ kids and students I’ve helped with college essays. Kids who want to do the right thing often find themselves spending endless hours — weeknights, weekends — doing schoolwork, working a job, committing to sports, etc., without ever really choosing any of it. They might not know how to choose anymore.

It’s not so much that the structure of school doesn’t work. It’s that it works too well. We hope by going through the conventional school system that there is assurance of a successful career someday. But how do you assure something like that without sacrifice? For students who follow the protocol to a “T”, it’s pretty likely that they’ll end up in a career, some career that will pay their bills, and maybe offer healthcare and a retirement plan. But they may be miserable or indifferent, they may have talents to offer the world that go unrealized, unrealized even to themselves. They got on a conveyor belt that delivered them to a particular destined location. And that’s that.

A year ago, I started to fear for my own children that they were on this conveyor belt too. They’re both in public school because for the most part, they rather enjoy it. However, my older daughter, now fourteen, was getting more and more bogged down with work. Work that kept her (and me!) up late into the night. She never had time for hobbies anymore. My younger daughter didn’t have the same workload, but she stopped being interested in play when she came home. She just wanted to binge watch YouTube shows, mostly of other kids having fun.

Then Covid happened, and I have to say that the end of school as they knew it could not have been better for them. What a blessing in disguise. They had mostly asynchronous work that they finished before noon. They would get up early and start their work before I did. They loved having control of their time. The rest of the day was theirs. For the first month or so, there was a lot more binge-watching. It was unnerving as a parent. Eventually, however, with a bit of nudging from me, but not much, they got off their devices and gravitated toward particular interests.

Jill, like many people during the lockdowns, started baking more. But when I say more, I mean, the girl bakes every day, sometimes two or three times a day…still, months later. She creates her own recipes, watches countless baking tutorials and puts up little promotional baking videos on Instagram. I buy flour every other grocery trip. That’s not normal.

Ella has two real passions: digital art and making money. She received an I-pen as an eighth grade graduation gift and we already had to replace the tip twice because it wore down to the metal. She started an online store with products displaying her designs with which she earned twenty-seven dollars last month. She talks about running her own business constantly and is biting at the bit to get a job to fund her business even though she’s just fourteen.

Now that school resembles more what it did pre-pandemic with synchronous classes from 8 to 3, my girls are still just as devoted to their passions as they were months ago. New habits have formed. But it’s not only habitual; it’s a new way of seeing the day, almost like a curtain was drawn behind which they cannot unsee. They’re thinking more about what they could do with their time rather than what they should do. They’ve seeded passions that have grown for a season, and simply will not be uprooted. I couldn’t be more relieved.

As a society we worry about the kids who seem to be flailing, those who don’t pull in good grades, those who don’t have academic interests, those who don’t finish what they start. We spend so much energy worrying about kids who are “off the rails” that we fail to see that the kids “on the rails” may be just as lost or more so. They don’t know where they’re going or why. They’re simply moving. I believe the answer is for them to stop, step off, and look around for awhile.