The Post-9/11 High School, Observed
SSW Alum Jerry Sander Reflects on High Schools, In Fiction and In Everyday Experience
Permission Slips (The Way It Works Press, 2005) is SSW alumna Jerry Sander’s edgy novel about students and adults navigating their way through the social, cultural, and bureaucratic minefield that is high school. “I chose the title for a number of reasons, but chiefly because ‘permission slip’ is a metaphor for control – it’s the illusion that adults have control, yet it starts slipping away when the students are adolescents,” said Sander. The novel offers a mosaic of viewpoints from students, teachers, and administrators, but eventually centers on the perceptions of a 9th-grade girl. The characters, he said, are composites of people and narratives observed over his years as a school guidance counselor and therapist.
What inspired him to write his novel? “There’s only so much you can take without having to express it back in some way,” Sander said. “I was going along, listening carefully to many adolescent conversations,” collecting impressions that later found their way into the book. Sander, who earned his MSW in 1986, has counseled adolescents and teenagers in a variety of settings, from urban to suburban to rural upstate New York. The majority of his social work career has been spent as a school counselor and therapist. He currently works at a high school in the mid-Hudson Valley region, and also has a private practice.
What’s Changed, and What Hasn’t
As an observer of adolescent and teen behavior over the years, Sander was asked by the SSW Newsletter what, if anything, is different about today’s middle- and high-school students compared to those of a decade ago. “I think the culture has become harsher and meaner, and it’s reflected in the way students act – there’s just more meanness in general, as well as more anxiety and low-grade depression,” Sander said. “I also think that we in the guidance-mental health field tremendously underestimated the impact of 9/11. The students’ sense of safety was destroyed. In the years since, my personal observation is that the students are a bit more jittery, tense, and unkind.”
Although he has worked within diverse student populations and school settings, Sander found certain aspects of high school remain the same: pressure to be accepted by peers, and the gravitation of students into familiar social sub-groups – the athletes, the kids in the school band, etc. He also recognized that, as a school counselor, some professional challenges were common to all the schools where he worked, including conflict mediation, and helping students resist boredom and substance abuse. For this and many other reasons, Sander made sure there was “a hopeful trajectory” in his book.
Looking at his own professional trajectory – from counseling at the Leake and Watts Services center in Yonkers (a foster home for children) to his current position at a high school in Minisink Valley, NY (where he has worked for more than 10 years), Sander was asked to reflect on the training he received as a student at NYU. “I felt that I was extremely well-equipped, clinically. My internships weren’t easy – to get through them, you had to be well-prepared,” he said. What would he have done differently? “I would have learned Spanish,” he said. “You really should know Spanish if you are going to work in the city.”
Sander, the father of four children, added that he is working on his second novel, as yet untitled, “to take on the world of adults.” (A review of Sanders’ first novel was published by the e-zine Chronogram, and can be read here.