This is not the best time of the year for many of my students. The first report cards came out just over a week ago, and some students are still trying to figure out how to explain the unambiguous evidence to their parents. Right around the corner are college applications and the bizarre essays they often require. ("You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit Page 217.") The kids who applied for early decision are awaiting the verdict, due in the next couple of weeks. Then there's the looming question of the next step for students who don't have college in the cards.
Some of the tension is inescapable. Who hasn't been nervous about a report card or college decision? But much of the anxiety I see today is out of hand--generated, I think, by parents who expect their 17- or 18-year-old kids to have attained some rarefied state of perfection. At parent conferences, I find myself defending bright, talented students whose mothers and fathers act as if they have a defective product on their hands. "A grade of B," said one dad, "is just not acceptable." Others complain about their kids' "poor" SAT scores--of 1300, which happens to be in the 96th percentile.
We all want the best for our kids, and it's hard to resist investing them with our own unfulfilled ambitions. But there's something more going on today, I think. Over the three decades I've been teaching, I've seen increasing expectations, anxiety and downright disappointment from parents who are profoundly concerned about their kids' future success.
I can't help believing that this heightened tension reflects a broader change in our society. It's a fiercely competitive world out there--an Ivy League credential may just make a difference. And we've all gotten far too caught up in the process of pushing our children to make choices and aim for goals that may not, in the end, be in their best interests.
William Stixrud, a clinical neurologist in Silver Spring who specializes in learning and attention deficit disorders, recently confirmed that sense of unrealistic expectations for me. "I see a lot of parents who are chronically disappointed in their kids," Stixrud said. "When I ask them what would happen if they gave their kid the permission to be who he really is, many say they feel obligated to be disapproving or the kid will never make it in the world, be able to support himself or get married."
I see the fallout from this kind of thinking in school every day. In many ways, we're setting our kids up for failure--and ourselves up for disappointment. And as Stixrud rightly says, "The qualities needed to be a top student often are not the ones that bring success in the real world. . . . Many of those who make it big don't think like that. They pursue their own interests and set their own goals. They are risk takers."
A lot of Alexandria parents--and teachers, for that matter--don't seem to recognize that fact, though. "The only things kids get credit for in Alexandria are academics, SAT scores and admissions to prestigious colleges," one T.C. Williams mother told me. "At some Christmas parties the scene is nauseating. Fathers standing around in their Christmas vests trying to one-up each other on their kids' accomplishments."
The competition starts early: who walks first, who talks first, who can read first, who can fit into the rough and tumble of school, who excels at soccer--the sport with the greatest cachet among middle-class Alexandria families. We attach so much significance to these milestones that disappointment can only follow when a child never attains them, or does so way behind his or her peers.
The social fallout when a child is lagging can be devastating--for both the child and the parents. One mother, who has two boys, told me that people consistently ask her about the socially adept, high-achieving son, but often neglect to mention the other one, who has always had enormous difficulty in school. "I now bring him up in conversations myself. I'm not going to let them pretend he doesn't exist."
With all the emphasis on academics and sports, it's hard to know what to make of the kid who doesn't excel in those areas. When parents have "a child who doesn't fit that mold, who is more creative or just different, their anxiety goes way up," Peggy Treadwell, a Washington therapist, told me. Middle-class parents in particular, she said, "lose sight of who their child really is--of how to find and build on the child's particular gifts and strengths."
Teenagers are going through enormous physical and psychological changes. Stixrud points out that between the ages of 17 and 21 there is enormous maturation of the brain's frontal lobes, allowing young people to think more abstractly, plan better for the future and foresee the consequences of their actions. But it doesn't happen at the same age for every kid.
No one knows the folly of expecting all kids to fall in lock step as well as Northern Virginia Community College counselor Pat Lunt. She says that maturity and motivation have much to do with success. Some students who come in right after high school get all F's and drop out; when they decide to come back three or four years later, they get A's. "They're smart people who needed more time to get motivated to study. Some transfer to the University of Virginia or other colleges after two years; others go two years, get an associate's degree and get good jobs," Lunt says.
I've been seeing that sort of commitment myself since September, when a friend who teaches English at NVCC asked me to teach a composition course on Friday nights. My students cover a 25-year age range and are far more serious about academics than many of my college-bound high school students. If they are going to miss a class, they e-mail me in advance; they almost never fail to do assignments. Matt Ash, a student in my class, says that ever since he graduated from high school five years ago, he has "realized that no matter how much I know about computers, I couldn't advance very high in my job unless I had a degree. Paying for it myself has also helped. School is my choice this time, and if I flunk a course, I have no one to blame but myself."
Of course, we teachers are as guilty as parents of propagating limited notions of success. There is an unstated assumption among many teachers that the highest-performing kids are the best kids--not just academically but morally, too. (Recent surveys, meanwhile, suggest that cheating is rampant among high achievers, and several of my best students in the past have told me they were amazed at how their high grades allowed them to deceive parents and teachers.) Academic achievers play our game; they make us feel successful. We are all too ready to relegate kids who are struggling to third-class citizenship.
Some parents put the blame squarely in the teachers' laps. "When are schools going to realize that you cannot make a student out of every child? Since the beginning of time there have been students and non-students," says Anne West, who has had three children in Alexandria public schools. "A lot of children have been made to feel worthless by school. They have to sit for 12 years and constantly be judged by teachers and found inadequate. We don't expect every kid to be a good football player; why should we expect all of them to be good students?" West went on to ask a question that troubles me, because I don't have a good answer: "When are the schools going to find different avenues of success for children who are not and never will be academically inclined?"
As a teacher, I struggle every day with how to motivate kids with wildly varying abilities and interests. I've given up my old fear tactics. ("Your transcripts will follow you all your life," and "You won't get a good job if you can't write well.") They are enormous lies. I've had too many students who I didn't think wrote well but who are now very successful, and make three and four times my salary. I now tell my classes that not everyone can write well, but everyone can improve. I sometimes even reassure kids that if they totally mess up high school they can always go to NVCC: High performance there will help blot out a poor high school record. I'm not lowering my standards; I'm trying to set achievable goals.
Of course, it's easier to say that to my students than to my own children. When my son, Neil, decided not to go to college after graduating from T.C. last year--not even to take one course at NVCC--I wasn't too happy, to say the least. What will become of him, I wondered. Where did I go wrong? Neil's decision certainly didn't fit in with the ideals I promote at school, encouraging all my students to do better, and pushing my best students to go to U-Va., William and Mary, or one of the Ivy League schools. Here was my own son deciding to do something different.
But, as he has been throughout his life, Neil has proved to be my best teacher. For now, I realize, he's made the best decision. Except for the social life, Neil loathed school--the structure, the homework, the sitting still in the classroom. My angst over his refusal to take even one course at NVCC was more my problem than his. He may not be making a fortune, but he's happy in his job, and I'm confident he'll make decisions that are right for him in the future.
Some parents seem able to reach these conclusions about their kids with less anxiety than I did. Victoria Herbert, whose daughter Christy Brautigan was in my class in 1994, fully supported her daughter's decision not to go to college. "My mom made decisions in her life that were not the norm, the easy way to go," Christy now says. "She never told me what I had to do, but to do what I wanted. If I were going to go to college, I would've wanted to go for acting and that alone. But I didn't want to invest that much time in a field where it's so hard to get work." Christy says that although some of her classmates thought she was crazy, others envied her because "they were never given the option of not going [to college] by their parents." Brautigan, who always loved cooking, went for a brief time to a trade school in Falls Church and then got a job at the Carlyle Grand Cafe in Arlington. She's moved from one success to the next and is now a sous chef at one of Washington's best restaurants, Cafe Atlantico. A voracious reader who also writes poetry and sees as many plays as she can, Christy firmly believes that "it would have been a waste of time to have gone to college . . . . If I did, there is no way I would have this job." To see her looking so happy--and engaged--in her current position, it's clear that she's absolutely right.
Far be it from me to underestimate the importance of college, of working to the utmost at school. But in my heart I know that my course--all of high school for that matter--may be but a blip on the radar screen of my students' lives. I also know that no matter how much worry they cause, most of them, however imperfect in the eyes of their parents and teachers, will eventually find their way. We do our kids no favors when we transfer to them our own anxieties about surviving in today's competitive world.
Patrick Welsh teaches English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria.