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Back to School at 40

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“Always stay a student.”

— Frank Shamrock

The professor opened class with a simple statement.

“I assume everyone has the syllabus and all of the materials.”

Uh, I didn’t. I looked around the room and quickly ascertained that I was the only one. There was no sense in hiding.

I raised my hand to tell him. He wasn’t too annoyed. He simply said, “Open up Canvas and download it now, please.”

I said, “You got it,” but I thought, What the hell is ‘Canvas’?

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The Pierznik Monthly

The Pierznik Monthly Newsletter Volume 58 (August/September 2019)

The latest iteration of my newsletter includes thoughts on the first day of school – for both kids and adults – family vacations, the juxtaposition of grandparents and grandchildren, writing about hip-hop again, and of course, the latest books I encountered.

Categories
Life

My High School has Become an Embarrassment

I was very proud when I read that West Orange High School, located less than a mile from my home and where my child will most likely attend when she’s old enough, chose not to discipline students that, like so many others, protested gun violence by choosing to walk out of school on February 21st.

While I have disagreed with many of the moves and decisions superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky has made during his tenure, I believe he and other officials handled this one perfectly, as he explained his decision:

“It was a small group of students. The walk out took place during their lunch. The students remained on campus. The students expressed to their peers their desire to maintain a safe environment at their school. The staff was unaware in advance that it was taking place. The staff administrators monitored the demonstration for the safety of the students. Students will not be disciplined as is customary when a peaceful demonstration occurs at school.”

The school’s principal Hayden Moore, went one step further, tweeting his support:

Initially, I was simply happy with the way my town’s school officials handled the situation, but these feelings were cast in stark relief when compared to how those in charge at the high school I attended reacted under the same circumstances.


I only learned about it because the story went viral.

I don’t keep up with news from my hometown. My siblings fled the first chance they got and I followed suit. My parents moved shortly after all of us had graduated. And my closest friends have either passed away or moved to the other side of the country. There was no reason to return.

I have been back once in the past decade and that was only because I was attending an author event in a neighboring town so I thought I’d take a trip down memory lane.

Yet I continue to read about my alma mater because it has been in the news more in the past few years than it was for the first thirty-five years of my life — and none of it for a good reason.

Pennridge, the school district in which I spent my youth, the high school for which I served as student council vice president and varsity basketball co-captain, has completely lost its way and has, quite frankly, become an embarrassment.

The most recent news came when more than 200 students chose to participate in the National School Walkout and Pennridge School District administrators decided to give each and every one of them Saturday detention:

‘Just to be clear, no student will be disciplined because they expressed any particular viewpoint or opinion. Rather, the disciplinary consequence will be given for willfully breaking a school rule about leaving the building without permission,’ Superintendent Jacqueline Rattigan wrote in a message to parents and guardians…‘The administration does not deem it safe to allow students to leave the building and is not endorsing or permitting such conduct. Students who nonetheless elect to leave the building during the school day without permission will receive the consequences which would normally apply in such circumstances,’ Rattigan wrote…

(Quick aside: I graduated twenty years ago and leaving the building— even going to the parking lot to get something from your car during lunch — was an enormously big deal and was disciplined as harshly as any other rule back then. It’s nice to see that nothing has changed in two decades.)

The irony, of course, is that the school’s decision to enforce the rules regardless of extenuating circumstances amid a nationwide movement had the opposite of the desired effect, bringing even more positive attention to the students and negative attention to the administrators. While most districts, like West Orange, allowed the walkout to proceed and then crafted a productive dialogue around it, Pennridge’s draconian reaction led to national media coverage and caught the attention of the likes of Alyssa Milano, Patton Oswalt, and many others.

The school’s student handbook, another relic that refuses to die, stipulates that Saturday morning detentions take place from 8 to 10 a.m. and during that time students must remain in their seats and do school-related work. They are “prohibited from talking, eating, drinking, sleeping, or placing one’s head on the desk or against the wall.”

Well, the handbook doesn’t say anything about staging a sit-in, so when it came time for the first group of the 225 to serve their Saturday detention, they once again refused to be silenced:

On Saturday, the first group of students involved in the walkout were scheduled to serve detention. Rather than sitting in their assigned seats, however, the 46 teens decided to use their detention to stage another protest, taping the names of Parkland victims to their shirts and sitting silently in a circle with arms linked, a small pile of flowers between them. Hoping their protest might find a national audience, the students tagged all their social media posts with the phrase #Pennridge225.

It’s the real life 2018 version of The Breakfast Club, but with a national reach. #Pennridge225 immediately joined #NeverAgain as the hashtags used by those attempting to prevent more gun violence in schools and a Twitter account named Never Again Penn was created.

The remaining students still scheduled to serve detention also plan to protest. For their part, school district officials said the students will not get in any more trouble for protesting during detention, one of the very few smart choices that group has made in recent years.

It’s gotten so bad that for a time the school district’s Wikipedia page included this (uncited) tidbit: “Many believe that the school board is overrun with NRA-backed human-rights violators or conservative elderly non-educators who care more about guns than the lives of the students.”

How did we get here?


Pennridge School District, founded in 1952, spans 95 square miles, ranging from the main town sections of Perkasie, where the high school is located, and Sellersville to suburban communities out to rural farm lands. Driving from one side to the other can take nearly an hour. There are about 7,200 students enrolled in the entire district, 2,300 of them in the high school. It’s a good school, ranked in the top ten percent of the nearly 700 high schools in the state of Pennsylvania.

The school has always had its issues, mostly due to its location. A sprawling, rural district with large swaths of forests and dark, twisting roads, it has long been home to teens drinking in the woods and driving much too fast — with one often following the other — so that stories of car crashes and deaths were sadly not as unique as one would expect.

In the early 2000’s, it felt like I was always returning home to attend one funeral after another. In recent years, the area, like so many throughout the country, has been plagued by a rash of opioid use to go along with the drinking. A question at a town meeting focused on the drug epidemic in the area included the question, “Why are drugs so cheap to buy in Sellersville?” One of the results on UrbanDictionary sums it up even more bluntly:

Perkasie used to be a quaint, somewhat cute town but these days its [sic] filled with heroin shooting, coke snorting, [and] bar flies and it’ll stay that way until people realize there is more to the world than this town.

There’s more. In 2015, one student attempted to rape another inside the school, and the following year the botched robbery of a Pennridge grad ended in his death.

In light of the struggles the region is facing, the organized incompetence and poor leadership at the school district becomes even more glaring. In fact, things have gotten so bad that in August, 2016, a new Twitter account was created under the handle Pennridge Reform. That account’s bio includes the following: “Here to make Pennridge a better place, because the school board won’t.”


There are at least three lawsuits alleging that for more than a decade the school district has dismissed or ignored both sexual and racial harassment of students, including one in which the plaintiff was told to “suck it up” and that the assistant principal had “had enough” of her complaining:

By her count, she told school officials at least 50 times that she was being harassed and threatened by the boy she’d dumped.

But according to a federal lawsuit filed against the school district in August, officials accused [her] of lying about the abuse, called her ‘crazy’ and ‘a misguided kid,’ and said that she was being a ‘drama queen.’

Then there’s this anecdote concerning 14-year-old Modupe Williams, the only black girl in her grade who reported harassment (emphasis mine):

Students started taunting Williams for reporting the harassment to police, who arrested the alleged callers. According to the complaint, one later said to Williams, ‘How fucking drunk were your parents when they named you ‘Modupe,’ which is a Nigerian name. In a court document, the school said, ‘While this comment may have been insulting to [Williams], there are no racist or sexist connotations that can be gleaned from the comment.’

There was also the student that claimed another student raped her and after one of that alleged assailant’s friends began harassing her, Pennridge principal Gina DeBona arranged a meeting between the two only to call it “a big waste of time.” In response, her mother wrote an email to school officials in which she expressed that her “heart is broken.” She also claims she asked the assistant principal for the name of the Title IX coordinator at Pennridge but “he didn’t know who the person was or what exactly their duties were.”

Recently, after the district filed a motion to have the Title IX case dismissed, a federal judge ruled that the:

allegations are sufficient to show DeBona had a ‘custom or practice’ of failing to investigate and/or address complaints of sexual harassment.

This isn’t an accident. This isn’t an oversight. This is a pattern of repeated behavior. Other instances that have occurred just in the last few years include:

That softball coach? He was hired despite warnings about “an issue with him texting.” That math teacher? He initially wasn’t fired even after pleading guilty to the charges. My school has become a disgrace and an embarrassment.

This is no way to run a prison, let alone a school. The district continues to fail its students in the most important ways, ignoring their plights and neglecting to keep them safe, resulting in events that will affect their lives for years to come.

It’s clear that if you want to get the full attention of the Pennridge School District administration, you need to do something unconscionable— like leaving the building during school hours.


Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at MediumHis work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business InsiderThe CauldronMedium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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Career Knowledge Learning Life

Dropping Out of Grad School [The First Time] Is the Best Decision I’ve Ever Made

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I’m fortunate to be in the midst of a relatively successful career. And my college major has nothing to do with it.

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Knowledge

Most College Majors Are Overrated

“Having a soft major is nowhere near the career death sentence that so many make it out to be. The world is changing, and the U.S. economy with it. Our economy is shifting to a service-and information-based economy, and soft majors are already becoming more and more valuable.”

— Tucker Max

For my final two years as an undergrad, I worked in the admissions office and as student workers, one of our biggest tasks was to serve as tour guides. Any time I gave a tour and was asked for one piece of advice to give to incoming freshmen, I always said the same thing: wait as long as possible to choose a major.


Somewhere around sophomore or junior year of high school, my parents, teachers, and others would say something like, “You need to start thinking about what you want to do with your life.” For most sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, this is both daunting and a little ridiculous.

Time has a vastly different meaning at that age. Teenagers think only in the short term. The age of 30 seems light years away so how can they choose what to do until the age of 65 (or later)?

Moreover, almost no one in their late teens actually knows what they want to do. How could they? They’re still figuring out who they are. Plus, what are the odds that what someone likes in high school is what they will like as a career? I know 35-year-olds that don’t know what they want to do when they grow up.

Personally, I chose to be a communications major because I wanted to be an anchor on SportsCenter. Really, though, that was just a means to an end — I didn’t necessarily want to be on television, I just wanted attention and for people to notice me. The main reason I chose it, though, was because I had no clue what to choose. I had struggled in math and science, so they were out, and being a writer was not even a thought, so mass comm it was.

I should have waited, but most people — particularly those from the previous generation and/or the ones that never went to college — were under the impression that being undeclared would set a student back. They believed if you knew what you wanted from the jump, you’d have an advantage. While this makes sense — it certainly does not hurt and in a few cases it actually can help — it’s also not necessary. The large majority of schools require all underclassmen to take many of the same core and prerequisite courses regardless of major, so that Intro to Global History or English Lit 101 will be populated with a cross-section of freshmen with all different majors.

I knew from my first few communications classes that it wasn’t for me. I just couldn’t engage. I didn’t enjoy the classes and the more I learned about the industry, the less interested in it I became. But I had chosen a major and started down the path, so I was worried I was stuck.


“What’s your major?”

“Sanskrit.”

“Sanskrit. You’re majoring in a 5,000-year-old dead language?”

“Yeah.”

— PCU

Rather than one single subject, college is about learning. It’s about learning how to learn. It’s about discovering how to discern between information that is important and frivolous. It’s about being well-rounded. It’s about being exposed to different people from different cultures with different ideas. It’s about learning time management and making your cash flow last and eliminating distractions. Being able to tell people that you can’t hang out right now because you have to study or go to bed so you can wake up early is a discipline that needs to be learned for many people. There’s always someone inviting you to play video games or take a walk or get a beer, and being able to buckle down when you need to is as important as any other skill a student develops. It sounds easy, but only about 56% of students graduate from college. And that’s within six years, not the standard four.

Is it possible to choose the “wrong” major? Probably. Becoming an expert in cat memes may not be the best use of time and student loans, but it’s also not the death knell that many would have you believe. You can have a soft major and succeed or have a hard major and fail. It’s all about the person. Furthermore, things change. Once upon a time, law school, along with medical school, was seen as the pinnacle of education. No longer.

It may take some time. You may have to start as a temp or go back for more schooling or find your unique angle or simply hustle more than others — or all of the above, like I did — but there are still opportunities out there to be had. At a certain point, it becomes more about experience. Even within the same field, different organizations have different processes and systems, so in many cases, you’ll have to learn from scratch anyway.

Also, if you’re serious about not only your career but your life, you should learn far more after college than when you’re on campus. After all, you’re only there for four years and you’re out of college for forty to fifty years. Hopefully you don’t stop reading once you graduate. In order to learn a business — any business — thoroughly, a person must learn all aspects of it. This is one of the reasons why Andrew Carnegie advocated for his employees to begin at the bottom:

It is well that young men should begin at the beginning and occupy the most subordinate positions. Many of the leading business men of Pittsburgh had a serious responsibility thrust upon them at the very threshold of their career. They were introduced to the broom, and spent the first hours of their business lives sweeping out the office. I notice we have janitors and janitresses now in offices, and our young men unfortunately miss that salutary branch of a business education.

I’m a manager and I’ve combed through résumés and made hiring decisions. The applicant’s major was not one of the top three items on my list and, even when I did get to it, it was usually as a means to learn more about the person and what made them tick.

I see you majored in finance. What made you choose that?

The responses tell me about the person, how they thought and perceived things, and how they would fit within the group, something that is far more insightful than words on a CV.

I once knew a twenty-five-year-old college graduate with little experience that had a two-page résumé. The second page was one line that listed just his hobbies, one of which was watching professional wrestling. That’s the kind of applicant that is your competition.

Do you think it matters what his major was?


“I wouldn’t trade my liberal arts education for the world.”

— Tim Ferriss

Still, despite all that, I would not suggest my path to anyone. I switched from communications to history because I loved the subject and thought I wanted to teach it in college — for someone that worked manual labor in the summer, a college campus was utopia. After I made the change, I was all in, even becoming president of the Historical Society (sexy, right?).

But I was both naïve and lazy. I didn’t apply for any jobs or even have an idea where I would work. When someone would ask, I’d just say, “I’ll figure it out,” which was code for, “I don’t have a clue.”

And I didn’t.

It took ten years, a GRE test, a quickly aborted pursuit of a master’s in history, a GMAT test, an MBA, a bit of soul searching, a lot of support, and a ton of hard work before I finally landed in a spot that was truly right for me.

Was I lucky? Probably. But I also worked my ass off. I remember turning down outside happy hours on beautiful days so that I go sit through a Human Resources summer class. My final semester capstone course wreaked havoc on both my health and my relationship. But, like most things in life, I came out the other side stronger and wiser.

I do not suggest becoming a history major unless you’re going to teach the subject or work directly in the field. I had to scratch and claw my way to get to where I am now. Had I known I wanted to work in finance (or, you know, write) for a living, I would not have pursued it. But it’s really where I believed my path lay at the time.

And, honestly, I’m not sure how much farther I would be if I had picked a different major. At a certain point in your career, things begin to level off, especially if you value spending time with your family or keeping your sanity over being a workaholic. I’ve worked for a massive, multinational corporations and I would struggle to tell you where ten of my co-workers went to school, let alone what their majors were. If you have the ability to learn new skills, adapt on the fly, and think critically, you can succeed in a variety of fields.

Even if you pick the “wrong” major.


Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at MediumHis work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business InsiderThe CauldronMedium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.