In 8th grade, at one of my first youth group meetings, the beloved advisor Sue gave some sage advice to the high school girls going through finals. “There will always be someone smarter than you. There will always be someone faster than you, prettier than you, someone more talented than you, with better grades. The one thing you can do is to be a good person. That’s something no one can take away.”
The much-needed advice really stuck with me as I entered Winston Churchill High School. Still, I made some bad decisions, driven by the perpetual fear of mediocrity and not getting into a “good” college. I cheated in chemistry twice (and got caught, twice). To seem more “well-rounded,” I stayed in band for ten years—even though I dreaded picking up the clarinet each time. For me, high school was often more about succeeding than it was about learning, critically analyzing, or becoming self-aware.
The Dar Taliba of Sidi Bouzid
A performance-driven culture is something that Churchill, and Sidi Bouzid’s high school, Farabi, share. Churchill students are expected to get great grades, take AP classes, do extracurriculars, and get high test scores. At Farabi, 100% of that pressure and value is placed on a singular average of test scores, out of 20, at the end of every semester.
I have specifically been working with the students of the Dar Taliba (girls’ dormitory), who are from nearby rural villages without local high schools. The pressure the girls face to achieve high tests scores is clear as day. Upon entering the Dar Taliba, their exact scores next to their names and grades are hung up on charts. The girls who did well are at the top, highlighted in green, the ones who scored in the middle, in yellow, and the ones who brought the lowest scores are at the bottom, in red.
Everyone knows (and discusses) who got what score. The president of the Dar Taliba organized an event at night where the girls discussed how to improve their studying techniques and discipline. The ones with high scores were presented with gifts, certificates, and a free ticket for a day trip to a nearby tourist destination, Oukaimeden.
The Competition’s Rigged
In my personal case, the stress I felt at Churchill was tempered by a constant slew of encouragement from my two college-educated, involved, and employed parents. I had access to tutoring and guidance counselors. I had outlets like my youth group to explore the routine tribulations of adolescence. Not having to deal with racism and classism, especially at Churchill, also gave me a leg up.
Indeed, in high school, I never was challenged to think about how this racism, classism, or my own privilege played crucial roles in my ability to succeed within the very competition I bemoaned. I was so focused on just succeeding that I remember being stressed out about not having any hardships to write a compelling personal statement for college applications. While school should be a time to think critically about the world around us, and our own roles in it, the performance-driven culture in the U.S. and Morocco seems to just magnify the socioeconomic disparities that already exist.
I see this being true in Sidi Bouzid, where the pressure of school makes dropping out an appealing and feasible option for many students at Farabi, and especially the girls in the Dar Taliba. Staying in the Dar Taliba to study means being away from family and lacking any alone time and free time during the school week. Most of these kids don’t have any of the things that helped me get through high school. Their parents aren’t there to encourage or help with homework during the week. With a regulated schedule there is seldom time, much less money, for review sessions. Lastly, there is no room at all to explore and face shared challenges together.
Whereas school was the end-all-be-all for me, for these girls, it is as presented as something that’s just “not for everybody.” If the students fail a class, they have to repeat the entire grade. Students can only repeat the grade up to three times; after that, the school system kicks them out altogether. From what I’ve seen in my narrow experience, the pressure to bring good grades can be a dangerous last straw that convinces a girl that school is just not for her.
In an environment where your potential as a student and learner is completely wrapped up in your average out of 20 points, it is easy to decide to stay home. Out of the 50 girls I registered for Project Soar, 100% of their mothers dropped out before high school (if they were ever in school to begin with). Today, only 15% of first grade students in Morocco are likely to graduate from high school. In a local context, then, not finishing high school—specifically for girls and in poorer areas—can seem even more expected than finishing it.
Why I’m a Project Soar Advocate
My counterpart and I have so far implemented ten Project Soar empowerment workshops with about 50 girls. In the first Module of these workshops, the girls had the opportunity to discuss and explore “value”-related topics like resilience, self-confidence, potential, and uniqueness. We say affirmations of “I am strong, I am smart, I am capable, I am worthy” at the beginning of each workshop. At the end, we lead sessions to meditate and journal.
These are habits that I, as a 26-year-old, still would benefit from but struggle to get into. With all the pressure that these girls face to get good grades, it makes so much sense for them to have a space to develop the character and self-esteem they need to stay in the game. Of course, youth groups and workshops like Project Soar aren’t for everyone. Not every girl learns the same or has the same needs. But having that option available, for those that want it, makes for a more inclusive learning environment.
Unfortunately, after seeing that overall test scores were not up to expectations, the President of the Dar Taliba had been trying to stop us from continuing Project Soar, choosing to blame it for the girls’ low grades. After much discussion and weeks of waiting, we finally came to a compromise, where we’ll try and squeeze abbreviated Project Soar workshops into the girls’ schedules if they have breaks between classes before 6 pm. This way, the girls can ostensibly use the time after 6 pm to focus exclusively on the memorizing and studying necessary for success.
Project Soar and School Dropout
Over the school vacation, a few of the Dar Taliba girls had decided to drop out of school after getting discouraged by their grades. My counterparts and I have gone to three houses so far in an attempt to convince the girls to come back to school. Two out of three girls have agreed to return, and the third one is still thinking about it.
Regardless of whether or not these girls end up finishing school, talking with the girls and their families is only making me a stronger advocate for programs like Project Soar in the short-term, and diminishing or abolishing the importance of grades in the long term.
The two girls that have participated in Project Soar are the ones returning to school. When talking with them, I was able to reference the concepts we talked about from Module 1 on Value. Living in the Dar Taliba and hearing people gossip about grades constantly is tiring—but you are strong, capable and resilient. You may have gotten a low score this semester—but you are smart and have a value that is not defined by grades. It may be easier to stay home with your family now—but with education you have the potential to do anything you want in the future.
Of course, Project Soar by itself is not a solution for high school dropout among girls. School dropout, even within one village, is a multi-dimensional issue; every student that leaves school did so because of factors unique to them. For example, I heard that many fathers in my village do not let their daughters study—however, in the three homes I went to, the girls’ families were nothing but supportive. The mothers who never finished high school themselves are the ones that truly appreciate the options an education can offer.
Peace Corps Morocco and Moroccan School Attendance
There are plenty of people who want the best for Farabi’s students, but there are few people telling them that grades do not define their worth or potential to contribute to society. After all, graduating to the next grade level, and getting accepted into college, are exclusively based on test scores. In order for the social pressure on high marks to go away, the entire Moroccan education system would need to be completely restructured.
While this is a policy issue that warrants systemic change, the personal relationships I develop here can help on a short-term, individual level. Yet it is always a challenge to gauge where my own responsibility starts and ends. There are three more girls that I haven’t yet visited, and many more that dropped out last year. When I think about how I haven’t yet talked to them, or how we’re so behind on our Project Soar classes compared to other groups, I feel like a failure and lose my motivation altogether.
That feeling is a familiar one, the same feeling that kept me from avoiding math, or anything else I wasn’t immediately good at, back in high school. Ten years after graduating, I’m still trying to internalize the humbling notion that learning is more important than succeeding. I hope that in the future, both the U.S. and Morocco get to develop education systems that are founded on that same notion.
For now, even though it’s often hard to take my own advice, I will try and pass that message onto students and friends in any way I can. In a time when everyone’s trying to be their “#best self” and live their “#best life,” it’s relevant to remember Sue’s advice. Yes, there will always be someone better; but if all types of students could actually learn, our society as a whole would be better in many different ways.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!