Teenage Dropouts Tell Their Stories

Extravert or introvert, bold or timid… Maryrose, Alex and Rock have one thing in common: they all quit school before getting their high school diploma. At 16 and 17, they threw in the towel on their education and decided to launch themselves onto a job market glutted with people with degrees and diplomas.

Every place has its laws on mandatory education. In Quebec, once you’ve blown out 16 candles on your birthday cake, the law says that you never have to show up for class as long as you live. Dropout rates for the 16 and up crowd vary wildly. On the extreme east end of the Island of Montreal, at the Pointe-de- l’Île School Board, over one out of three students quit.

Delphine Caubet    Files Dropout, Education, Bullying

How did it work out for Maryrose, Alex and Rock? We met with each one and found out…

“Maryrose, she’s a rose with thorns.” That’s how Yannick Gratton, a social worker with the youth outreach organization Diapason Jeunesse, (Youth Tuning Fork in literal English – more appropriately, In Tune With Youth) describes this young 16-year old. One September day she decided she’d had enough and dropped out of school.

When we met up with Maryrose, she was looking for a job. She had taken her own life into her own hands.

Dropoutism’s Multiple Causes

A lively young woman who describes herself as “different,” Maryrose was bullied at school. “I’m a video gamer,” she says. “Not like the other girls. And how can you do schoolwork when the people next to you are bugging you? Or when you’re being bullied?”

Intimidation wasn’t the only factor behind her choice. Quebec’s educational reform program meant that the courses she was in were being changed and upgraded. “After Secondary 1 (Grade 7), I couldn’t follow what was happening,” she admits. She quit before having finished her Secondary 3 studies, more than two years before high school graduation.

Rock’s experience hasn’t been the same. This well-spoken 17-year-old is candid:. “I fell into a deep depression for over a year,” he confesses. “Someone close to me died. But there were other factors, too. I wanted to upset my father.”

There is no one reason why students leave their schoolbooks behind and head out into the cruel, cruel world. Dropouts themselves cite multiple reasons. Statistics from across North America tell us that more and more boys, and fewer and fewer girls, are dropping out. Some students don’t leave voluntarily: when Rock wasn’t doing well in class, “I was called to the principal’s office,” he says. “She more or less threw me out.”

The Rat Race

Alex is a young man who enjoys working with his hands. At 17 he came back to school after the summer holidays and, two weeks later, dropped out: “I wasn’t motivated to study,” he says. He went off to find work.

Maryrose can count on her parents for support; Alex’s situation is a lot more delicate. “My dad is in prison and my mom’s hands are tied.” So he landed a few short-term jobs: first, a two-month spell at Michelin; then warehouse work; then temp work for an agency… “Soon, they weren’t calling.”

Alex has learned some hard lessons about the working world. Youth interveners note a pattern: young people quit school with dreams of fast money – they want to get a great job, drive a cool car… But it’s not that easy.

Rock didn’t need anyone to tell him this. He distributed 20 résumés and got only two calls in return. One of those calls gave him some hope of employment for three weeks – but ended in nothing.

Yannick Gratton notes that most jobs available to those without a high school diploma involve warehouse work or cleaning. He sees today’s youth as lively and intelligent: “But we live in a society of credentials and diplomas. You need the piece of paper to get work.”

Diapason Jeunesse and groups like it teach youth skills needed for the workplace: teamwork skills, conflict resolution techniques… In the real world of work, you can’t show up late, you can’t be lazy, and you can’t react to provocation, Gratton explains.

Their work/life skills training program is aimed at demystifying the real world. Teens learn how to open a bank account and balance a budget. They learn how to cook and clean. This gives them at least the basics for landing that most important first ever job.

Problem Solving Skills

Other Diapasson Jeunesse field workers teach youths how to manage their emotions and build self-confidence. “Surprisingly, that sort of stuff really helped me,” admits Rock with some humor. “I learned to never fear what the future holds.”

Maryrose has learned to open up to others, to trust. “Before, I was so withdrawn I didn’t say a word to anyone,” she explains. She’s noted the change in her self-assertiveness. When looking for employment, “I’m not afraid to go right up and speak to the manager. I don’t just leave my CV and my job application and head out the door. I ask to speak to who’s in charge. I’ll come back later if I have to.”

At 17, Rock already has a good handle on how to deal with personal problems. “Problems can feel like little monsters,” he says. “The less you pay attention to them, the more they’ll feed off of you… you have to take your blinders off and look reality squarely in the face. That’s 50% of the job, if not 75%.”

Rock went to see his school’s psychologist – “very nice, but not very useful” – and then turned to his girlfriend to help deal with his bouts with depression. “You have to grab onto whatever’s nearby,” Rock reflects, “unless it’s a noose.”

These teens may not have entirely developed a complete philosophy of life or found all the answers, but like teens everywhere they’re dealing with their issues as best they can with the tools available to them.

Finding One’s Path

Alex quit school to work. His grandfather owns a farm, and Alex knows agriculture. With the aid of another youth outreach organization, Perspectives Jeunesse (Youth Perspectives) he approached an urban gardening organization, Pousses Urbaines (Urban Crops) to apply for a gardening internship. He was accepted. Chalk one up for Alex!

As for Maryrose, her parents supported her financially even after she left school. “They saw I wasn’t showing up for class,” she says. After a tough stretch trying to go it alone, she decided to seek help: “Diapasson Jeunesse saved my life.” She has decided to one day return to school. Her goal is to enroll in a three-year college program to become a beautician. In the meantime, she looks for work with an eye to budgeting for her future. “I count every penny,” she says.

For victims of school bullying adult education is the best option, Maryrose believes. “You don’t have idiots sitting next to you. You can work at your own pace.” For popular students, she suggests “they can always find a tutor to help them with their homework. Their school will have resources available for them… Anyway, it’s perfectly normal to want to take a break. You build a good foundation, then you start again… I still have time to start over,” she laughs.

Rock’s point of view is a bit different: “For anyone being bullied at school, my advice is to stick with it. The clock will tick by, and soon enough school will be over for them. Bullies give up and go work at McDonald’s. You’ll finish college and buy your little house… and I’m not sure why I’m adding this bit, but school at 35, seriously? Even at 25 it’ll be tough to show up to class every day.”

Each of these teens has trod a different path. Each leads a very different life. Whether they’ve quit school to earn a living or for other more personal reasons, they each have the potential for a brilliant future.

Twenty Years After

Like many youths, Sébastien was once labeled a “dropout.” At 35, this young family man works at the Café Graffiti. Before landing here, he wore many hats…

Practical by nature, he left school at 16 to enter the real world. He discovered an interest in mixing as a DJ, a craft he practiced for 15 years. In his 20s he lived to the rhythm of the night, crisscrossing Quebec to work as a DJ under the stage name “Stress.” The word “dropout” may have negative connotations for some, but not for our Sébastien. He worked as a laborer and a baker, a pizza maker and an exterminator (not for the same company). He learned by doing.

For 10 long years, deejaying was his life. But he became a father. He grew too old for the nightclub scene. Sébastien decided to gradually withdraw from his lively evening trade.  In 2012 he made one last nightclub shimmy and shake, then stepped away from the mixing table for good.

In 2007 he became an entrepreneur, starting his own music dubbing company. For six years he earned a living at this, until competition from iTunes drove him out of business.

Sébastien has no regrets. Through it all he has kept a realistic outlook work and the job market, never letting his expectations exceed his abilities. As an exterminator, he sometimes found himself working 60 hours weeks! Today he helps run Café Graffiti, and one day hopes to once again become his own boss.

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