Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Race to Nowhere

Last night, I sat in an old revival theater and watched the amazing documentary Race to Nowhere. From their press release:

Our high-pressure, high-stakes culture has invaded our schools and children’s lives, creating unhealthy, disengaged, unprepared and stressed-out youth. Educators, parents, and students are embracing Race to Nowhere, a new documentary film that exposes the insidious silent epidemic in our education system. The film tells the stories of young people pushed to the brink, burned-out educators, and deeply frustrated parents.

The place was packed (not least because parts of it were filmed at our elementary school - some of the people involved in the film are alums) and it was great to see so many people interested in hearing another point of view about our educational system.

I have two school-age boys and we've already seen some of the stress-related symptoms in both of them. They are both awesome students and play instruments. Right now, they are both playing rec soccer (we bowed out of the Division 1 team because I'm not completely insane), one has travel baseball and then there are the guitar lessons. We do not have one free weekday evening, and several days a week there is more than one activity. Right now, one son is up late trying to cram in the required saxophone practice before bed because he just got home from soccer. They are overscheduled. I know that. All of it will end on November 13th (not that I'm counting) and then we will revisit the things they REALLY want to do. When your kid pleads not to go to batting practice on Sunday because he really needs a day off, it is a wakeup call.

Which is why this film is so timely. I can't recommend it highly enough. Even if you totally subscribe to the type A, AP Classes, sports, music and volunteer-work way of life for your high school student, it is worth checking out. The list of upcoming showings is available here.

After I got home, I had an impromptu talk with my oldest son about what defines success. When I asked him that, his answer was "Stanford". I asked him why, and interestingly, he didn't have a ready answer except that it is the 'best' school. "What if the best school for you is a small, private college in Wisconsin?" I asked. "Or somewhere that you can study music?" Not that I'm knocking four-year colleges - on the contrary, but maybe not for the reason that everyone thinks. I honestly don't think it matters all that much where you go to get your basic degree.

What matters to me is that the school have a strong dorm community so that there is an easy and logical transition from my house to the big wide world. Living in the freshman dorms, you have a roof over your head, your bills are paid and you have access to food (boy do you - freshman 15 anyone?), but there is nobody looking over your shoulder telling you what to do. My boys need this transition because except for summer vacations, I don't want them living in my house once they turn 18.

I went to UC Santa Barbara. I can't lie, it was great. There was a lot of work, but we had a lot of fun and somehow I managed to graduate in five years after an amazing year spent abroad (that is another post altogether). Could I write without a college education? Sure. I don't need my college education to do what I do now. Guess how many creative writing classes I've taken in my life? My son guessed 'like a hundred'. The answer is one. Freshman year. The guy teaching it said I basically had no talent and I managed to scrape by with a B. I never took another one.

Yes, my college degree gave me options. Did it need to be from Stanford in order for me to be 'successful'? Obviously not. It took me a long time to find the one thing that I love to do and apparently don't completely stink at (yes, with my college degree I also recognize bad grammar when I see it). But there are other options. It's heartbreaking to see kids actually take their own lives because they feel that they have none.

On this date: In 1985, George Clooney made his debut on The Facts of Life.


Candace said...

I clicked 'leave a comment' and then, several minutes later, I realized that my comment was becoming more like a blog post! So: the short version is, I agree with you that there is too much expected of PEOPLE in general, not just teenagers. I think that sometimes we get so caught up in the 'go go go!' mentality of life that we forget to press pause and sit back for a few moments.

My full, rambling thoughts are here if you're interested: http://thepersonofletters.blogspot.com/2010/09/blog-response.html

Thanks so much for blogging about this- it really got me thinking, and for the first time in awhile I actually wanted to write up a blog post.

CJ Omololu said...

Candace - that was a great post and wonderful commentary from someone who is in the thick of it.