NEXUS: Future Thinking

Samantha Gaiera, Arcata High School Senior

Twice a year in grade school I would wake up in the wilderness to the smell of a camping breakfast, surrounded by my classmates. Parents and teachers worked hard to create experiences in nature for my class to help foster community and create a connection to nature. Another great opportunity was the annual class play. Every year, students were able to choose their characters and, with teacher guidance, work together to create a performance for the greater school community. The fact that so much time and effort could be put in to make such meaningful things happen is a reflection of the privilege I experienced while attending that school. It saddens me that more kids don’t have these opportunities. But what saddens me the most is that experiencing nature, creativity, and collaboration as part of education is considered a privilege at all. When I graduated from Union Street Charter School and moved into the standard public education system, opportunities to build a sense of community and collaborate with my classmates mostly disappeared. In a world with growing environmental, political, and social problems that need repairing, an individual’s ability to collaborate with others is extremely important. I find it strange that the most important skills needed for my future in repairing environmental and social issues are missing from most school structures. When public education lacks adaptability, social and emotional learning, and a connection to the natural world, everyone suffers; from the individual to the global community.

The standard school system needlessly kills childrens’ passion for learning and creativity from a young age. We’ve been told that we need to go to school to prepare ourselves for jobs and to have a good future. While we do need to get jobs and be functioning members of society, school is not teaching us how to do that in the most productive way. We’re being robbed of time that should be spent freely exploring our interests or learning about how to function as emotionally intelligent people. So much potential in young people is being wasted on an antiquated system. Our public school model was originally designed to condition children to adhere to a schedule as preparation for factory jobs. As JD Rockefeller said, “I don’t want a nation of thinkers, I want a nation of workers.” Rockefeller invested billions in education. Society has progressed to a point where we require a broader spectrum of learning because we’re no longer in the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, our schools do not reflect this. We still teach creative young minds how to memorize and regurgitate facts. Researchers from Yale University found in a nationwide study that nearly 75% of U.S. students’ have negative feelings towards school. If I had been instilled with agency in the classroom from a young age and learned how to translate my interests into positive social change, who knows what I could have accomplished by now? Imagine what every student could accomplish.

Education that’s applicable to the real world from a young age is the most critical piece in preparing the next generation for fighting issues like climate change. It’s been put on Gen Z’s shoulders to clean up messes that older generations have failed to prevent. I’ve had countless adults apologize to me for the broken world that their generation has left behind for mine to remedy. The stress that comes with the knowledge that my generation must repair the world, paired with the absence of tools and education to tackle these issues, is nearly insufferable. Many of the peers I talk with about climate and social issues have taken on a “YOLO we’re all gonna die it’s too late to do anything” attitude. And honestly, I don’t blame them. Caring is hard when there’s so much to care about and so little you can do.

Luckily there are places we can start. Teach the Future ( is an organization whose mission is to bring learning about climate change and environmental issues to every subject in school and give students the tools they need to confront the future. It’s movements like these that give me hope for a bright future. I want to encourage my fellow students to take a stand for what they believe in. Patience, persistence, and adaptability are going to be our keys to making change. Do what you can and think outside of the box; there’s a lot of work that needs to be put in to heal our society. And adults, if you haven’t already, please start sharing insights you have with the teens in your life that might help us in any way. Whether that be lessons you’ve learned in your life, forms of self-care, or practices that have worked best to bring you success. We need all the help we can get. Young people are growing up with more societal, environmental, and technological problems than ever and now we are faced with COVID-19; we need encouragement and support. So go tell a teen in your life they’re doing great and buy them a cookie.

The education system is only a piece of a fundamentally flawed system that is the basis of American society. I want to work to change as much of it as I can, but right now school is all I have experience with. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn. I’m 17, I’m still developing my voice, and I’m only one person so I can’t expect to change the whole system. But I’m tired of doing nothing meaningful for the world while I see so much that is wrong. Education is the escort for our future direction. It’s the root of our country’s intellectual and collaborative abilities. You have to start somewhere. It’s time to give youth the tools in education that will prepare us to feel connected to the natural world with the emotional intelligence to work with others for a healthy community and planet.

Comic by Joel Mielke