Giving Up in School

Johanna Tatlow
9 min readAug 11, 2020

The time I just quit, and what it taught me about mental burdens and education

Photo by niklas_hamann on Unsplash

I have wanted to learn Arabic for at least half of my life. During my first year in grad school, I had the chance. My schedule was open enough for me to take Arabic 101. I signed up. I bought the books. I went to the first three or four weeks. I quit. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t. Studying myself and what led me to that decision, I have realized just how much life experiences affect our educational capacity.

It was my first semester of grad school. I was signed up to take core classes: Statistics, Intro to Financial Analysis, Theories and Policies of Development, Ways of Knowing, and Global Public Health. Oh, and Arabic.

I had taken a language class at the grad level before — Hebrew. I’d struggled a bit, but come out with a solid B. And Hebrew and Arabic are related, so I figured I had a slight leg up. Not to mention I had grown up speaking Turkish, and Turkish borrows tons of words from Arabic.

I wanted to work in the Middle East after finishing my international development degree. The Syrian conflict and ISIL’s aggression in Iraq were both creating humanitarian disasters in my home region of Southeastern Turkey. I had every intention of learning everything I needed to for working there after I graduated.

So why did I quit Arabic?

At the time, I blamed the teacher, the curriculum, the class structure — everything but myself. The teacher was young, idealistic, and unreceptive to feedback. He’d chosen a curriculum that my dad, a long time student of languages, categorically labeled “the worst”. The class met five times a week for 45 minutes, on the opposite side of campus from the rest of my classes. Getting there on time was a challenge, and it fractured my otherwise nicely blocked grad school schedule to bits.

The class had been designed for undergrads. I was the only grad student taking it. The teacher graded every piece of homework, requiring daily online exercises as well as written in class submissions. So much busywork and none of it fit my learning style.

Every other class met once or twice a week. I scheduled my homework in 3-hour blocks and studied in coffee shops and grad school lounges. Arabic homework, fifteen minutes daily of repeating phrases into a microphone to have an online algorithm tell me if I had gotten the pronunciation right, copying out letters repeatedly like I had in first grade — it drove me bonkers.

All good reasons to quit, right? Well, no. Working in the Arabic speaking world had been a lifetime goal. I should have stuck to it.

In another year, I might have kept going. The fact is, I had too much going on at a personal level. The teacher couldn’t have known or accommodated for any of that.

The Mental Load

As I mentioned, I had grown up in Southeastern Turkey and was studying Arabic because there was an ongoing crisis on the border of my homeland. That whole fall semester, things back home just kept getting worse.

As tensions ratcheted up by degrees, the city I had grown up in became unsafe for visitors. And then, in November, the government led a siege campaign against the historic walled downtown. The church congregation I grew up with could no longer access their church building or figure out if it was still standing.

The news hammered on my mental health. My family and friends were feeling the impacts, and I couldn’t tune it out. I spent my school days looking straight at the problems that were devastating my home, or worse problems elsewhere.

My Public Health teacher showed us a video of the riots caused by misinformation about Ebola. Both the violence from authorities and mobs and the devastation of the disease were depicted in graphic detail. Theories and Policies of Development included a video with a burned-out corpse following riots related to food pricing. Neither of the professors gave any trigger warnings or exemptions for mental health conditions before showing the video. Walking out was not an acceptable option.

Had they considered that some of us had grown up in civil conflict zones? That these “educational” segments might cause PTSD flashbacks? That some of the members of our class came from countries where these were current rather than historic issues? Apparently not.

For me, the films were intensely triggering. I couldn’t focus properly on the next few classes. I felt on edge, on guard against what I might have to see next in class. Having just moved halfway across the country to go to grad school, I didn’t have a great support system in place. I made an appointment with campus mental health services but had to wait my turn for an appointment.

Of all the classes I was taking, Arabic was the only optional one. The rest were required for my degree. Trying to work with a flood of stress hammering at my brain, I knew I couldn’t keep up. I got mad at the Arabic teacher for making it even harder than it needed to be. And I quit.

The load off my schedule and mind felt freeing. It was too late in the semester to pick up another class, so I just kept going with the minimum. I made all A’s in the rest of the work — a model student. The next semester, I didn’t even try to take anything beyond the required core.

There were concentrations and minors I had looked at when I had enrolled. I didn’t attempt any of them. Looking back, I am tempted to kick myself over it. But then I stop myself.

The Others in the Boat

One of my good friends in grad school was a woman from Syria. We talked about what it felt like to be in school while your home city burned. She understood. She spent her evenings trying to figure out if her brothers and her father were still alive.

The summer between my grad school years, a coup broke out in Turkey while I was working on an internship in Kenya. I tried to track down where my dad was. He was fine. It just took a few harrowing hours to figure that out. My internship buddies were clueless about the devastation I was experiencing. Only one of them took the time to ask me if I was okay. I was sort of okay. Does it count as okay when you have to call your husband and tell him that visiting your home country is too dangerous this summer?

The next fall semester I took a few electives, including Humanitarian Crisis Simulation. I was proud of myself for getting through the weekend while National Guard troops pretending to be insurgent militia patrolled around with automatic weapons. I passed the “Can she negotiate her teammates out of getting killed?” test. Then, as if I hadn’t just experienced a taste of what had driven my dad over the edge when I was eight, I went back to classes on Monday.

The elections happened that November. I was working as a graduate assistant, teaching statistics. I had overcome my fear and distaste of math and was trying to help the first-year students do the same. But the day after elections, my little office cubicle didn’t host any conversations about statistics. Instead, the international students dropped by one or two at a time, ostensibly to pick up the consolation chocolate I had at my desk.

Really they came because my desk was a space that they could ask the question pressing so hard on their minds: “What happens to us now?” It wasn’t a question I could answer. I could only give them a safe space to ask it. As Trump took office in January, and then the Muslim ban went into effect, the questions became, “Can I do my internship abroad and still return to school?” “Can I invite my parents to graduation?” For too many, the answer was “No.”

My Latina friends noticed the increase in ICE roundups. They spent their non-class hours checking in on contacts and trying to find legal assistance for people who had been detained, some who lacked documentation, and others who had just been caught in the sweeps even though they were legally in the US.

The mental load that I struggled with, others struggled with too. We struggled together. We asked how we could simply keep going to classes. We knew that graduating from school with our degrees in International Development, Public Policy, and Human Rights was absolutely what we needed to do. And yet, it felt so theoretical compared to the very real problems our friends and family were dealing with.

There are times when I still regret that I quit Arabic and didn’t take a minor. But I have learned to be compassionate with myself too. I pushed through grad school, managing my own PTSD while my home country went through civil war. That was no small feat. And in the midst of it, I made friends with other amazing, resilient, determined students who were carrying even bigger mental loads than I had.

School, Fall 2020

As students return to classes this fall, I hope teachers at all levels keep the mental load of this year in mind. If you are a high school or college instructor, your Black students may have spent this summer literally fighting for their right to stay alive, attending protests that far too often incurred police crackdowns with tear gas and violence. You will also have White students who were out in the streets with them. They may have had their first encounters with brutality and still be reeling from it.

In every school, there will be students who have had family members who were hospitalized due to COVID-19. Older students lost jobs. Over a quarter of students had parents who were out of work for months, who might be staring at homelessness as a real possibility. If your students are lucky enough to have jobs, they might be supporting family members from their meager incomes.

The upcoming elections aren’t just politics for many of your students. They are America’s referendum on whether their lives are valued. The news will get to them.

I don’t want teachers to lower their learning expectations because of this. But I would ask that you offer some compassion and flexibility. Let your students know if the material covered in class might be triggering. Offer to drop whatever the lowest grade is on a quiz or assignment for the semester. Tell students that they can get one free-pass extension for a paper submission.

If your students are beyond third grade, re-arrange so that homework is due once a week, and not something that students have to keep up with every day. Make it something they can work on when they have the bandwidth, and take a break from when they don’t.

If your class size allows it, check regularly on your students' mental load. You might put forward a stress scale, and have your students put their number for the week on the bottom of that week’s homework. 1 — nothing but school to deal with, 5 — a rough week at work for me and my mom lost her job, 10 — my sister’s life is in danger and I can’t do anything about it but for some reason I am still having to write this stupid paper. What you do with those stress numbers is up to you, but you might find they explain erratic performance from your students.

If you are an academic advisor and your ambitious students start taking the easy way out, ask them what is going on. Don’t push them to do more than they think they can handle, but do connect them to resources to help in their personal life. Understand that getting through the minimum might be enough right now.

If you feel like quitting something right now, be honest with yourself about why. Don’t get mad at someone else if the issue is yours. But if your own mental load is too great, I am giving you permission to do quit.

Trim your life down to the essentials, and focus on those. It is important that you protect your own health now. Quitting is not permanent. You can always get back to something later.

Learn to take care of yourself, even if it means giving up on something you always wanted to do. You need your mental health to survive. Everything else is secondary.

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Johanna Tatlow

Freelance writer trying to make the world a better place