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Posted at 01:03 PM ET, 06/14/2012

Acceptable asterisk — beyond the study drugs addiction


But to cheer you up, here’s a picture of beach week! (Marvin Joseph - THE WASHINGTON POST)
Say no to drugs.

Some drugs, that is. Bath salts are right out. Don't you dare touch heroin. Cocaine is for addled starlets and old-time doctors curing toothaches.

It's not so much that pot is terrible as that it is a gateway to bad hairstyles and ponchos. Ecstasy leads to the delusion that clubbing is fun.

Save the morphine for O'Neill heroines, the absinthe for Baudelaire and the variety pack of almost everything you can think of for Hunter S. Thompson.

Say no to some drugs. It's a bad path, kids. It’ll stand in your way.

But if anyone offers you Adderall — Well, do you have any big tests coming up?

People keep talking about the epidemic of study drugs, performance-enhancing substances originally intended to help with ADHD, spreading like anecdotal wildfire through prestigious high schools. But this isn't a drug epidemic.

Study drugs like Adderall and Concerta are the symptom of a serious malaise, not the malaise itself.

The precise concatenations of chemicals that you can swallow to keep your feet from tapping and your mind from wandering, that make you sit up straight and take notice and follow every move of the Smart board with three-dimensional, four-dimensional, five-dimensional precision — they aren't, themselves, the problem.

We have hit the limit of the possible.

Consider our physical appearance. In medieval times — I wasn't there, but I have it on good authority — if you just had a functional set of teeth and no particularly unsightly humps, you were considered a catch. The artists before the Renaissance claimed they had not discovered perspective. Really, they were just being kind. Now, the population on average is decently healthy, and our basic threshold of attractiveness has soared. If we were suddenly plunked back in time, we'd be to them what Chris Hemsworth is to us. But as a consequence, natural good looks cease to guarantee you a slot in the top 20 percent. Hit a certain level of lucre and suddenly you can afford to have that nose fixed.

“He's getting his nose fixed?” our medieval counterparts would ask, stunned. “But it works fine.”

And something similar is happening to elite, high-pressured students. You hit the limit of natural gifts. For them to accomplish what they are expected to accomplish, we demand more than nature wants to give. We demand like Tiger Mothers. We demand magic.

It used to be that the best was enough.

“See you in 30 hours,” your parents' parents said. “Try to stay out of traffic, and finish your homework.”

Now, parents say, “See you in thirty-nine seconds precisely or we won't make it to ballet and from ballet to SAT tutoring and from SAT tutoring to the Special Madrigals Choir for the Exceptional and did you tell those people in Guatemala you were going to come build them a school whether a school was actually high on their list of things to have or not? Okay good great wonderful.”

From those to whom much has been given, much is expected. Back-crushingly much. Mind-crushingly much. You cannot simply give your children more than your parents gave you. You must demand more from them as well. Have you seen high school textbooks these days? You come staggering up the steps looking like you’re about to ring the bells of Notre Dame.

You could feel the pressure. You'd walk down the hallway and hear the familiar sound of competitive complaining. “I stayed up until 1 last night studying.” “Oh, that's tough. I stayed up until 3 studying and writing a sonata and also I had play rehearsal and I built an extra-credit bust of Charlemagne.” “I just went to bed!” “No!” “Yes! Without studying. I guessed on, like, every question. But somehow I got a 97!”

Good isn't enough. Great is passable. You can't get a B+ or you'll be excoriated at home and in the hallway everyone will awkwardly mumble things like, "Grades aren't everything" while not making eye contact.

The caveat is that I enjoyed it at the time. There was a sort of hard-won comradeship, the kind you generally find in places where people are forced to work, sweat, and slave together for survival. Like trenches. Or chain gangs. It was the battle-hardened camaraderie of small knots of people constantly on the verge of nervous breakdowns.

When you ran into one another on the street in later years, you shuddered momentarily and strode on through a thick fog of memories, shaking your head at the recollection of the fallen. 

This is high pressure high school.

The American dream has long been to do better than your parents did. But for the huddled elites in various corners of the country, what on earth can you do when your parents did pretty darn well? Every year, Harvard announces its Lowest Acceptance Rate Ever. You can't just flick people into Yale at the touch of a calfskin glove anymore. Now you have to send them to an intellectual stockyard of a high school, pump them full of as much knowledge and as many advantages and extracurricular achievements as humanly possible, and hope the final cut is prime enough to make it to the same dinner table you did.

It's been argued that college admissions are the world's most high-pressure crapshoot. There are 37,000-odd valedictorians every year, plus student council presidents, concert violinists and prodigies in sports that only 15 people play. And then there’s people overcoming all varieties of disease, poverty or startling encounters with bears at an early age. The only reassuring thought about such a thing is that it has to be a bit random, or no one would have a chance. You try. But there are fewer and fewer guarantees. You may well not do as well as your parents did, even if you work twice as hard as they. Yet somehow the Prestigious Admissions Envelope remains the litmus test of success.

The randomized meritocracy has been hell on the Shoo-In-stitutions. For the folks who used to have these things handed to them on a platter, who came from the schools that were supposed to open doors instantly into the Finest Places, the sun has dimmed. Sure, you gain certain advantages. But there are no guarantees.

Competitive high schools are an effort to enforce some logic on what is, past a certain level, an increasingly random process. If you just — work harder, test better, somehow manage to get a film into Cannes while excelling at field hockey — then, maybe... Someone cures cancer, then everyone has to do it. Karen takes six APs, and six APs becomes the new standard. Is there something higher than APs? We want that!

There have always been parents with high expectations. But the things you are required to achieve in high school are much much more impressive than they used to be. Walking on water doesn’t cut it. You have to sprint.

High school at present is proof that people will gladly do the impossible as long as no one tells them that it is impossible.

And something has to give.

What? Look no further than the Adderall epidemic, recently documented in the New York Times. These are good students, under the kind of pressure that cracks a moral spine just as easily as a regular one. If there is a more direct way of saying, “What we are being asked to do is impossible,” than “I have to use drugs to excel at this,” I have yet to hear it.

It used to be that you secretly took drugs at school to rebel against your parents. Now you take them to live up to your parents’ standards.

These are not bad kids. These are kids who want to do well. But they aren’t being asked to do well. They’re being asked to do miracles.

By  |  01:03 PM ET, 06/14/2012

 
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