Op-ed: Why I Asked to Repeat Ninth Grade
When a school decides to do what is easiest for itself, instead of what's best for students, young people (like me) suffer.
When I was a freshman at Oakland High School, I stopped going to school after winter break. I was going through a lot mentally, in regard to my home life and my sexuality. My family had just been evicted from the house we were living in, so my little brother and I were staying with my mom in a shelter. I was also struggling with my sexuality at the time and, as I come from a strong religious background, denial about being a lesbian was giving me very bad anxiety. It became so unbearable that I couldn’t take going to school. With everything going on, I couldn’t handle the stress of maintaining good grades and being around people everyday.
On multiple occasions, I ended up in psychiatric hospitals as a result of attempting to harm myself. Once I finally managed to go back to school that March, the teachers and staff at Oakland High School made no attempt to get me caught up on the work I had missed. They told me I had missed too many classes to catch up. School became a place where I could not maintain mental stability. I didn't believe I had the potential to grow up and be anything, and it was obvious that my teachers and my school felt the same way — even if they cared enough to know who I was. I felt there was no point in going to school if my teachers weren't going to help me. I didn’t go back to Oakland High School that year.
The following fall, when I enrolled in a new school district, I saw that Oakland Unified School District had passed me on to the 10nth grade. By passing me, even though they knew I had not completed the classes I needed to for ninth grade, they labeled me as someone who was not worth the time to properly educate.
I knew I wasn't prepared to move on to the next grade because I didn't learn the things I needed to in order to follow along in my classes. Even back then, my goal was to attend Spelman College in Atlanta. I saw (and continue to see) college as my ticket out of a horrible situation — a way to change my current life and my future. I knew that getting into Spelman wouldn't be possible with my grades from the previous year, so I decided to repeat the ninth grade. If I had not made that decision for myself and had instead continued on the path my school pushed me down, I probably would have dropped out or tried to test out of high school early by now.
A lot has changed in the past couple of years. I’m in school. I’m a youth trainer with Gay-Straight Alliance Network, a national youth leadership organization. I’ve traveled across the country and met other youth with stories like mine.
And I’ve learned how lucky I am to have made my way back to school and be on track to graduate. Too many students — particularly LGBTQ youth, youth of color, immigrants, and those with disabilities — are being pushed out of school by unsupportive environments and policies that don’t address their needs or experiences. Schools feel more and more like prisons too. In some cases campuses have more cops policing students than counselors supporting them, and school discipline policies emphasize suspending and expelling students rather than dealing with the root problems.
Everything in school seems designed to push students like me out. That’s why, this week, I’m joining GSA Network in participating in the Dignity in Schools Campaign’s National Week of Action on School Pushout, happening this week. For the week, the Network is mobilizing GSAs across the country to share their stories and demand that schools invest in students through counselors, restorative approaches to school discipline, and safe learning environments.
My school treated me like I was disposable, and I nearly missed out on an education and a life because of it. LGBTQ youth will not have the opportunity to succeed until schools stop punishing and start supporting their students.
TAIYANA MURRAY is a 17-year-old Gay-Straight Alliance Network youth leader from Oakland, Calif., who attends Livermore Valley Charter Prep High School.