Christin Roach still remembers the day at the end of her sophomore year at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County that she absolutely decided to go for the International Baccalaureate diploma. The memory was attached to something else she did that day that people do not usually associate with IB. It was the day she ordered her class ring.
I met Roach four years ago, when she was a senior at Mount Vernon, about to enroll in the journalism program at Boston University and eager to see what newspaper work was like, even if it meant following around a reporter old enough to be her grandfather. She e-mailed me last week about her post-college plans. That reminded me that I had never written about how she got herself through the most difficult part of high school.
_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a story about motivation, one of the most important factors in any school, but something we education reporters rarely write about. Roach's experience with IB proved to me that it is a subject full of surprises. Teenagers often get themselves moving for reasons that make little sense to us allegedly wise and experienced adults, but are powerful all the same.
The International Baccalaureate program is a series of college-level courses and examinations, plus a 4,000-word extended essay and a community service requirement, that provide what many educators say is the most challenging experience in American public high schools today. The Advanced Placement program, IB's much more popular counterpart, also subjects teenagers to college academic demands, but AP exams are shorter, three hours instead of IB's five hours. Many high schoolers say they find AP, as tough as it is, somewhat less daunting than IB.
At Mount Vernon High the IB program scared many kids. The most successful IB high schools in the country are often in affluent neighborhoods, such as George Mason High School in Falls Church, where only 8 percent of the students have family incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. At Mount Vernon, 36 percent of the students are in that category, and even students from middle-class families such as Roach were prone to feeling that they aren't as ready for this elite diploma as kids at the rich schools. Roach sensed that unease even in her sophomore year, two years before she would have to complete the series of steps to earn an IB diploma, and the possibility of college credit. All of her friends were saying they were going for the IB diploma -- which required them to pass six exams, write the 4,000-word paper and complete other tasks. But she could tell a few were wavering. They had seen the frantic looks on the faces of some IB seniors in the last week before their extended essays were due. They began to realize how hard it would be to do that research project as well as pass very difficult exams in subjects that had been weak spots for them.
Roach's fear factors were science and mathematics. It was hard for her to put so much work into subjects in which she had a limited interest, but there was no escaping the fact she would have to do so if she wanted an IB diploma.
Her parents, having done their research on what this entailed, stepped back somewhat from their usual insistence that their daughter go for the maximum dose of whatever academic regimen she was taking. The thought occurred to them, as it had to many parents and teachers, that such a schedule might fry her circuits and leave her bitter and exhausted. They were concerned about how she would handle those subjects that she did not plan to pursue in college and in life.
So they occasionally reminded her, just to lower the temperature a bit, that if she decided not to be a full diploma candidate, or did not score high enough on the IB exams to get the diploma, it would not be the end of the world. Her abilities would not be in question. She was going to get into a good college. Any significant number of IB courses would help get her there and ensure her success there, with an IB diploma or not.
When class ring selection time came for the Mount Vernon class of 2001, one of the options the ring company offered was the IB symbol for those who were sure they would get the diploma. Many of Roach's friends wanted the distinguished-looking emblem on their rings but were timid about ordering it without knowing if they would remain in the full IB or, as they put it, "go partial" and take just a few IB courses. Some of them were afraid that they would order their ring with the IB symbol and then fail to receive the diploma and be mocked forever, at least in their own minds, by this tangible reminder of their shortcomings.
Roach decided she would use this uncertainty to motivate herself. She ordered the gold class ring, with the IB emblem on one side and the National Honor Society emblem on the other. This, she said to herself, was a way to stay on track. She wore the ring almost every day of her junior and senior years, and whenever she felt like giving up, she studied the IB symbol to remind herself that she was fully committed. She even wrote one of her college application essays about that decision, and how it seemed small and trivial, but had large and far-reaching consequences.
She wrote her IB extended essay on the presidential impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. She dug into her chemistry and math courses. Sometimes the IB philosophy course, Theory of Knowledge, annoyed her when the teacher asked questions that seemed beside the point, like "how do you know you know?"
But as she approached the IB exams, and then college, she began to see the relevance of this kind of inquiry. In her philosophy and political science courses at Boston University, she would come to realize that there were no absolute answers to many important questions. Points of view differed and it was hard to fix on one aspect of a cause-and-effect relationship without any of the others.
But the sight of that IB symbol on her class ring, she thought, had a significant and demonstrable effect on her academic success in high school, and afterward. Next May, she told me, she will graduate from BU with not one, but two degrees, a bachelor of arts in political science and a bachelor of sciences in journalism. Next comes graduate school, where she hopes to study public policy at George Washington, Georgetown, William and Mary, or maybe even the University of London.
She hasn't worn her high school class ring in the past couple of months and is ordering a college ring, but she still remembers what that symbol of pride did for her. I suspect in all high school sophomores there is a bit of Christin Roach, looking for something that will nudge them forward and make it more difficult to take the easy route. Educators who find such powerful totems are wise to use them as best they can, and encourage young people to make promises to themselves that will be hard to keep.