High Anxiety

Katy Haddow
"I always feel stupid all the time, because of these IB classes, "says Katy Haddow, who has a 3.94 GPA. "I'm not taking enough, or I'm not doing well enough." (Molly Bingham)
By Liza Mundy
Sunday, October 23, 2005

"Drop your jaw, Nick!" Ms. Boley is saying, standing indomitable at the front of the chorus classroom. "Nick, drop your jaw!"

But Nick, a fresh-faced underclassman wearing jeans and a long gray polo shirt, isn't dropping his jaw. At least, he isn't dropping his jaw enough to suit Ms. Boley.

"If muuuusiiic be the food of loooove, sing on, sing on!" he sings, working his way through a complex vocal arrangement that students in Ms. Boley's upper-level concert choir class are expected to master. Even as Nick sings, his jaw remains clenched, so Ms. Boley takes hold of it, grasping his jaw and tugging it downward while Nick, gamely, keeps singing.

Before long, Ms. Boley is scanning the room for someone else to call on. And the person she spots is: Katy Haddow.

Katy has been dreading this possibility since she got to school this morning. A blond, sweet-faced junior, Katy very much likes concert choir, an advanced choral music class at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas. But she hates having to sing by herself in front of some 75 classmates, many of them strangers. It makes her so nervous, standing there singing while Ms. Boley assesses her diction, her breathing, her pitch and, often, her ability to sight-sing an unfamiliar song, cold, from looking at the score. So nervous does it make her that she's adopted a strategy to reduce the likelihood of this happening. Nestled halfway up the risers among the second sopranos, Katy has been sitting with her hands demurely in her lap, her eyes carefully directed floorward so as to avoid making eye contact whenever Ms. Boley sweeps the room with her gaze.

That strategy having failed, Katy obediently makes her way down the riser steps, along with several others similarly summoned. "If music be the food of love, sing on!" they sing, and while they are singing Ms. Boley goes up to one girl and pokes her abdomen so that the girl stands up straight and sings louder. And then Ms. Boley pokes another girl's abdomen, and this goes on until, mercifully, the song ends before Ms. Boley gets to Katy. Even so, the whole experience raises anew, in Katy's mind, the question of whether she should drop concert choir, which, just weeks into her junior year, is turning out to be her most anxiety-producing class. Even IB history, Katy is starting to think, might be less stressful. IB history! Less stressful!

Which is saying a lot. IB history, if Katy decides to switch, is going to have two hours of homework a night, plus a major exam at the end of the year. That final exam will, of course, be in addition to the other tests Katy will take this year -- the SOLs and the SATs -- and in addition to the considerable workload of her other classes, English, Spanish, algebra II and chemistry. Plus, Katy is

already signed up for IB anthropology, which has an even heavier workload and its own end-of-year exam. At Stonewall Jackson, a large, high-performing public high school, the IB, or International

Baccalaureate, classes are similar to AP, or Advanced Placement, courses. They are the most advanced, most competitive classes, the classes that may seem to separate the students who are college-bound from the students who are not. One of the many things worrying Katy is which category she will fall into. The college-bound? Or the not?

"I feel like if I don't take IB classes, I'll never be anything in life," Katy says. "That's what our teachers are telling us. Our IB coordinator, she will come into our class and tell you to sign up for all the IB classes that you can, girls, or you're not going to make it in college or be anything."

In her free-floating anxiety, her belief that every single course decision is going to have a crucial and permanent impact on her future, Katy Haddow is, it turns out, a typical 16-year-old girl. This summer, Katy took part in the Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll of area high school students and their worldview. She is representative of one of the poll's more striking findings, which is that in the final two years of high school, D.C. area girls report far higher levels of stress than boys do. When asked how often they experienced stress in their lives, roughly one-third of ninth- and 10th-grade boys and girls answered that they felt stress "frequently." When they moved into 11th and 12th grades, however, the percentage of boys who felt stress "frequently" remained stable, while the number of stressed-out girls shot up to 56 percent, with the overwhelming majority of these citing school as the main source of stress. Overall, D.C. area teenage girls reported higher levels of stress than teenage girls did nationally, which probably has to do with the fact that this is an urban area with so many high-achieving families -- whose expectations, it would seem, affect girls even more powerfully than boys.

"A lot of things are hitting home now; we're in the homestretch of high school," Katy reflects. At the year's outset, she has already changed her schedule twice, dropping IB English in favor of regular English because, although she spent the past two years taking pre-IB English, something in her just snapped when, at the beginning of the summer, she confronted the prospect of reading four heavyweight novels and writing papers on them during the meager 10-week vacation. She also decided to switch from oceanography to chemistry because oceanography looked like a lot of group projects, and she was afraid that the other kids would leave the projects to her. Now she is pondering the crucial question of regular history versus IB history. Her aim is to strike a balance in which she takes enough IB courses to get into a good college, but not so many that she spontaneously combusts.

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