Having your child drop out of school is a parent’s worst nightmare. Avery, Leslie Gavel’s eldest daughter, did just that. She was smart, from an engaged, middle-class family, in French immersion, involved in sports. And yet by the time she entered high school she was completely alienated by the Calgary public school system that had already deemed her a failure. Gavel, a former social worker and a journalist, wanted to know why.
The first half of Dropout scrutinizes Avery’s early years and gives the reader background on her subsequent struggles. This is the hardest part of the book to read, and while it makes sense that it comes first, given the book is organized chronologically, Gavel’s warts-and-all honesty and myopic vision sometimes make her a less than sympathetic narrator. After Gavel’s mother dies, for instance, she describes getting into fights with her daughter. “When Avery turned three, everything became a struggle,” she writes. Among the examples: “She shrieked at me when I didn’t push her properly on the swing.”
Gavel connects this with her own anger about her mother’s death, but this narrative vulnerability, depicting her ongoing (and very middle-class) obsession with what to other parents may seem run-of-the-mill errant behaviour, also makes it hard to relate to her.
This is one of three factors Gavel identifies behind Avery’s failure: her sometimes-fraught relationship with her daughter, Avery’s own idiosyncrasies and the school system itself. The latter two factors are the more compelling and intermingled. Avery—who generously allowed her mother to put into print myriad personal details—stands for the kid who was just a little bit different and consequently had the entire system fail her.
Anyone with a child in the school system can appreciate how this could happen. Obedience is deemed more important than passion. And as Gavel notes, repeatedly, school—even in wealthy Calgary neighbourhoods—can function as a negative feedback cycle when a child starts to struggle. Those who need a little bit more, be it even just one teacher who is willing to connect, are instead met with negativity and judgment. This means the student disengages further. Streaming children in high school into academic and applied courses means that those who misstep in junior high end up unable to complete university prerequisites. Different provinces do this differently, but Gavel stops short of outlining how the system broadly needs to be overhauled. Nonetheless, her account is damning and very sad—a child struggling, a parent unable to act and a wholly indifferent education system.
—Jay Smith is an Edmonton writer and long-time AV reviewer.