Demands Make for a Roller Coaster Year
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
One in an occasional series looking at learning in the middle and high school years
Amanda Goehring's junior year in high school was, others of her age group would insist, pretty typical. It began with a horrible band camp. Then she broke up with her boyfriend of two years and had to deal with a backpack-bursting schedule, including an Advanced Placement physics course she did not understand, Japanese National Honor Society, Japan Bowl team, Astronomy Club, Girl Scouts, volunteering at the public library and hosting a foreign exchange student.
"I remember being really depressed most of the year," said Goehring, who has since graduated. "I didn't eat and I slept excessively when I wasn't working."
To which high school juniors across America would reply, "That's nothing!"
No single grade in the K-12 system produces more reports of anxiety and stress than 11th grade. Parents await it with despair, teachers with resignation and students with an odd mix of excitement and distress.
There are more than 3.6 million high school juniors in the United States, about two-thirds of whom plan to go to college. It is that daunting life change, less than two years away, that becomes the focus of their obsession. College preparatory courses, college applications, college-motivated extracurricular activities and college entrance tests such as the SAT or the ACT are the favorite topics of anguished 11th-grade conversations.
"It seems like each bad grade on a test will change your grade, GPA, what college you go to and your entire life," said Lauren Hunt, a junior at McLean High School.
For Brandy Duncan, a freshman at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, the stress manifested itself during her junior year college counseling session with the coordinator at the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School near Birmingham. "I remember sitting in her tiny little office with my mom glaring, feeling completely moronic and unprepared. The coordinator was asking me what schools I was considering, and did they offer the majors I was interested in. I was supposed to know this?"
That sense of confusion is shared by nearly all 11th-graders, even those not going to college, educators say. That's because the students are caught in the hormonal grip of adolescence, contending with physiological and emotional changes that make it a particularly perilous year.
"They are not good at processing risks," said Denise Clark Pope, a lecturer at Stanford University's education school and the author of "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students."
"Their brains do not process what could happen if they do x, y and z until after they have done x, y and z," she said. "They will say, 'I won't use a condom just this one time.' What is the risk? It doesn't hit them until later."
Cepand Alizadeh, a freshman at the College of William and Mary, said he remembers some high school classmates struggling to make the right decisions. "When you're a high school junior, you're an upperclassman and are now invited to more parties and are more exposed to drinking and even drugs," he said. "Most of my friends were able to avoid the temptation to binge drink and use drugs, but unfortunately, some became carried away."
There is also the matter of emerging ambition, juniors' growing sense of their talents and what they want out of life. Neville Shaw, a junior at Cardozo Senior High School in the District, wants to attend New York University and become a filmmaker. Such students like to test their abilities, so Shaw's average week includes three Advanced Placement courses, baseball practice, drum lessons, audiovisual work for Metropolitan Baptist Church, youth ministry, mime performances, Bible study, church choir and a Saturday program for college-bound students at Howard University.
"This may seem like a lot of extracurricular stuff, but it's mostly in the church," Shaw said. "At school I'm referred to as 'church boy,' and it doesn't bother me one bit."
If there is any religion universally shared by juniors, it is the worship of time and the need to get the most out of every second. During his junior year at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Alizadeh said, he was on a national champion crew that often practiced on the Potomac River at 5 a.m. He managed to stay on the honor roll, but there were close calls, such as the day he fell asleep in math class.
He was awakened by the sound of his teacher calling his name. He decided to wing it and blurted out, "Secant is 1/tan(x)."
The teacher gave him an understanding look and said, "No, Cepand, secant is 1/cosine(x), but you're close."
Amanda Fiscina, a senior at Plainedge High School in North Massapequa, N.Y., said, "I remember nights that I fell asleep over my physics book and purposely set my alarm for 3 a.m. so I would be able to get in more studying in the morning."
Anita Kinney, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, said she and her friends "all seem to agree that we did more work in 11th grade than all three of the other years combined."
Many students looking back on their junior year said the demands on their time forced them to be smarter about the way they studied. Brian Sutorius, a student at Pomona College in California, said his 11th-grade Advanced Placement U.S. history course at Shaker Heights High School in suburban Cleveland "was the first class I had where I actually had to study. School until then was at a level for me where I could leisurely take notes, do the homework, pay attention in class most of the time and receive an A."
For Alexandra Bachorik, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, 11th grade began with "crying after my first day because I couldn't imagine completing all of the AP World History reading and notes I had been assigned. I worked painstakingly slow, took copious notes and quickly discovered the flaws in that method. AP World revealed to me how I think, work and study and really gave me some study habits that were tremendously valuable."
Lauren Reliford, who attended St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School in Alexandria and is now at Boston College, said the junior-year push toward college was "a lot like finding out that there is no Santa Claus when you are younger, because all of a sudden you aren't as naive and blind anymore because your world becomes so much bigger than what you have been accustomed to."
Goehring, who graduated from Thomas Jefferson last year and attends the College of William and Mary, said she survived the depression and difficult courses her junior year by deciding to "accept the things I couldn't change instead of internalizing them."
Facing stress, she said, she learned to follow a Taoist maxim: "Be like a stone in the river. The water flows all around you, but you are serene and unmovable." It is a philosophy that might come in handy, because she will be majoring in physics and East Asian studies.