I’m face-to-face in the dark with my 5-year-old, a kindergartner. We’re tucked into his flannel dinosaur sheets, his soft fingers cup my cheeks as he presses his nose into mine.
“Mommy, school is hard; everything is hard for me.” Lines of concern fill his small brow.
“I know it feels that way right now, but it will get easier.” It’s a promise I’ve no business making, but it’s what the situation requires, so I lie.
I close my eyes and imagine we’re in Finland. I visualize him in a class where he gathers sticks and swings from monkey bars in an environment designed for curious, energetic 5-year-olds like him. Formal reading instruction will not begin until he’s 7, so there’s still time for playing. I open my eyes to find his round cheeks outlined in the dim glow of his owl night light. We’re indulging in extra cuddles after a discouraging day of attempts to find high-frequency words on a wall, write sentences and use transitional words before he has learned all of his letters.
We are both unsure of his place in the American classroom of 2018.
A few years ago I left the education profession with a fair amount of disillusionment, but not before teaching dozens of students like my son: young learners still mastering basic skills such as holding chunky pencils in stubby fingers and anchoring letters to lines on a page so they don’t float away.
Typical average students.
Merriam-Webster defines average as about midway between two extremes. Not out of the ordinary: common.
In my small community in California burrowed in the largest tech hub in our nation, average is an extinct construct. Revolutionary, innovative and extraordinary are staples of the local vernacular. Where I live, and where I’m raising my children, one must be exceptional. It’s in the air we breathe, evidenced by the shiny Teslas that line our streets and the devoted STEM classrooms replete with personal MacBooks and 3-D printers. Mixed in with the abundant resources and privilege is a message: Be exceptional or die trying.
And kids do die trying. In the last decade, high schools in our county experienced a spike in suicide rates, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to launch an epidemiological study. Fences were installed between the hallways of a nearby high school and the railroad tracks, because so many over-stressed adolescents were stepping in front of trains. Suicide is complex and often related to underlying mental health issues, which can be exacerbated by intense feelings of stress. A 2013 article, “The Problem With Rich Kids,” by Yale psychologist Suniya Luthar, noted that privileged children experience serious levels of depression and anxiety at twice the national rates, noting the pressure for “high-octane achievement” as a probable factor.
Tweens and teenagers of today marinate in doctored and curated images of perfection on social media feeds. They exist in a Utopian society, or so it seems. The pressure to be flawless is inherent.
Parents wade through research, TED Talks, and literature about raising healthy, resilient children in high-achieving districts. We talk the talk. We gather around nonfat lattes with cinnamon foam and scoff at the pressures our kids face, vowing to avoid setting unrealistic expectations, promising to support them, regardless of scores on their standardized tests. But when it’s time to walk the walk, do we?
When I started teaching 15 years ago, kindergartners skipped into classrooms and dipped large brushes into paint, creating rainbows and fields of flowers on easels. They counted seeds in lemons and weighed watermelons grown in nearby gardens to work out math equations. They strung just-learned letters into “words” using phonetic spelling. They began to read, write, count and add, but if they didn’t come preloaded with these skills — if they were average — they still belonged.
These days, the average child in our schools is on precarious footing.
Thought leaders in education tout the benefit of a growth mind-set and making mistakes. Embrace imperfection. Schools host screenings of documentaries about managing angst and anxiety, at the same time cranking up the intensity in our kids’ classrooms, sending parents and students a mixed message. Which is it: balance and self-care; or rise to the rigor? Kindergarten is the new first grade, and middle school is engineered as a fast track to the Ivy Leagues. New curriculum sifts the exceptional from the average, often allowing the latter to struggle — all for the sake of high test scores, college acceptance rates and district accolades.
I want to tell the small child curled up next to me that his journey through education won’t be fraught with high-pressure expectations, making him feel less than. But the truth is, the changing landscape of education causes me as much trepidation as it does him. The new Common Core Standards have been criticized by educators across the country as developmentally inappropriate for K-3 students, requiring our youngest learners to perform tasks before their bodies and brains are ready.
Expectations only intensify as kids leave elementary school. According to an APA survey of middle school students, 34 percent rated grades, school and homework as their biggest stressors. Many schools have shortened or eliminated recess to allow for more core academic instruction. Administrators in my district are proposing to remove grade level math in our junior high schools. Grade level. Average students will be tracked into one-size-fits-all, accelerated math classes, where they’ll power through a year-and-a-half’s worth of curriculum in 10 months. One factor driving their decision is the cutthroat college application process. Applicants are evaluated by the number of AP classes they take during high school, putting pressure on kids to track into advanced classes as early as fifth or sixth grade.
Education has become a high-stakes Rube Goldberg machine, propelling our kids from one academic pressure to the next with no end in sight. What has existed until now as an implied tenet, is becoming a tangible reality: Be exceptional, or be a failure; there is no middle ground.
Nose to nose in the dark with my son, his deep eyes look to mine for reassurance I can’t offer. In our demanding, airbrushed society, the bar moves ever upward. If extraordinary is our new normal, what is to become of the average child?
“Mommy, do we grow when we sleep?” To my relief, he’s moved on to questions I’m better equipped to answer.
“Every night, little by little.” I wrap my arms around him, becoming, if only for a moment, a protective shield in the disquiet.
“Am I growing?” He lengthens his slender frame and stretches his toes toward the foot of the bed.
“Yes, but take your time,” I whisper into the darkness, my lone battle cry.
Jacque Gorelick is a freelance writer in California. Find her on Twitter @jacgorelick.