AP Tests ended a couple of weeks ago, and with them the inevitable entropy of released expectations. All year, my students have performed with laser-like focus on their academic goals while also shouldering the burdens of normal teenage hormones, finding the perfect prom dress, handling the expectations of their parents, and facing many of the other curveballs life can throw any of our ways. But with the passing of those hurdles, focus shifts, we loosen our metaphorical ties, and reorient our gaze to the next markers in the near future: the end of the year, summer plans, the college application process.
It’s at this point where I try my little part to shed a little candlelight into their darkness. They’re very, nervous, you see. Now that they’ve done all this work, the looming process of realizing their goal—college admission—is a daunting, haunting, path, not the reward they should see for all their hard work, but rather a mysterious process of cutthroat competition.
And their fears are not unfounded. From a very young age, they have any number of adults attempt to impress upon them the benefits of success and the dire consequences of failure: I jest often that falling short of perfection will not leave them homeless, living under and overpass, but the joke is founded in the penumbra of their anxiety, so much so that when I told my class this year that “there are unhappy people with degress and happy people without them” that I provoked a temporary full-blown existential crisis in at least one of my students.
So, I try to be open and let them ask as many questions as they can, give them the best advice I can. Some advice is practical—ask for recommendations before summer vacation; some is more spiritual—if the checking the computer causes you dread, perhaps you should step away from the computer. And they have lots of question, from the mundane to the mystical.
In the course of last week, there were two particularly articulated student frustrations that stuck most at me, two questions of which I could not dispose so easily, not because I couldn’t give an easy answer, but that they gave me a small window into the struggles of my students.
First, on the day we discuss college recommendations, students realized that their counselors often must write recommendations for them, and at that time they also realize that their counselors likely don’t know them from Adam’s housecat. It’s not really their fault. Each counselor at our school has hundreds of students on their caseload, and often their counselors may switch on them two or three times over the course of their high school career. Even the cliché’, “maybe you should swing by with some breakfast for them” doesn’t always help: after all, a guidance counselor can only eat so many chicken biscuits, am I right?
Following that question, two classes later on college admission essay day, we read sample best essays published by the New York Times. That my students belittle their own talent (“I could never write this good” “You mean well?”) and think they are not capable of such writing is one worry. Perhaps more worrisome for them, however, is that they fear they have nothing on which to build such a great essay, that their life bears no great tragedy they have had to overcome, no mythical ocean to cross, no great struggle to stand astride as defining to who they are as a person.
This fills them with dread. If they lack these elements of their profile, they are at a competitive disadvantage to a rival who does. What can they write about? How much they love pizza? Surely, they will be excluded from the college of their dreams, the door of success slammed in the face, down the slippery slope under that overpass.
This seems a hardship for them, but perhaps this is a good time for a lesson in empathy, to look beyond themselves, and recognize the good fortune that many of them have. For here is truly the root of this disparity. I’ve had lots of students whose counselors know them very well, who have such stories of resilience and fortitude on which to build a personal narrative. They may not have litterally grown up under and overpass, but many have struggled with stable housing, have borne the burden of being a quasi-parent to their younger siblings, have endured the specter of actual violence, have faced the daunting climb of becoming a first-generation American. They have relationships with their counselors because they have needed them. They have their narritives forged in the crucible of conditions that we would never want for ourselves, even if it gave us a strong essay topic to stand out in college admissions.
In his 2005 commencment address to Kenyon college—which was later convereted to an essay titled “This is Water”—Amercian author David Foster Wallace identifies this type of thinking as a default setting. We see ourselves in constant competition with others, and thereby see others as an impediment to our own success, which is pretty twisted when you’re thinking, “Man, I wish my parents had floated me across the Mediterranian on a raft so I could have a good college essay.” The obsession over grades and GPA’s certainly nurtures this default setting, but nothing may solidify it at such a young age as this grand passage into seeking white collar, first-world nirvana. And while I try to calm their nerves, a small part gnaws at me. By teaching in this system, am I complicitly perpetuating this rat-race mentality or am I doing my small part to diffuse it by answering these questions in the first place?
There is, however, a deeper question that lies beneath this. I teach in a school diverse in many ways, but there is certainly a sizeable portion of students for whom want and discomfort has rarely been a part of their existence. Their parents have worked tirelessly to give them every possible advantage. Sure, taking upper-level classes may have been a challenge for them, but as they look around at their peers, they recognize that this doesn’t make them any more special, more definite than anyone else. It would be easy to mock their privelege and relative ignorance about the world that it affords. But these students, too, are perhaps as needing of our empathy as any young person. They are entering that crucial stage in their life where their actions, their choices will define them as adults. As they pass beyond public school, into the university, it will become much easier for them to innoculate themselves against the varied struggles of other human beings, easier for them to disdain the shortcomings of “the others” as being lazy or ignorant. Instead of wishing they had a great third-world immigrant story, they may self-righteously jest to their similarly priveleged friends that the guy who works the campus convenience store should learn to speak English better.
I hope they wont. But those choices are out of my control. In a few more weeks, they will be out of my charge, and my ability to influence them will diminish greatly, ready for the next cohort to enter the gauntlet of junior year. So it goes. However, something about this week of exchanges will stay with me into the summer, into the planning for next year, into thinking about how I prepare to send teenagers to the four winds as they come into my classroom as fresh, driven young faces, hoping to make their mark on the world, just like all of those who have come before them.