If I surveyed 100 parents of high school juniors and seniors today, and asked them to define a successful high school career, what would you think their answers would be?
A 7.0 GP!? (Yes, that exists, but we’ll get to that later.)
A transcript flooded with Advanced Placement (AP) classes! (Starting with at least three your freshman year because DUH, can’t start behind the rolling ball of success!)
Years full of doubling up on science and math classes! (Because mastering STEM concepts by age 17 is an absolute necessity if you EVER want to amount to anything in the future. Never-mind all those arts, music, drama, social science, and literature classes – they won’t pay bills. And vocational ed? Those classes are for the “C” students.)
500 volunteer hours! (Because forced service performed with zero empathy, and done only because you need someone to “sign off” that you actually did something, is exactly how we should be developing a generation of compassionate humans.)
15 varsity athletic letters, 10 honor societies, and four years of holding a leadership position in student government, civic clubs, and youth, travel sports, and those honor societies. (What do you mean you never had time to hold a part-time job?)
And I fear, those would be just a few of their answers.
I have four kids. One in college, one just winding up his senior year and headed to college this summer, and two more knocking on high school’s door, and you know what?
I AM DONE.
We are killing our teenagers.
All of us. And I don’t know how it started, how it’s kept going this long, and who or what will be the first to stand up and demand action, but someone has to.
The writing could not be clearer on the wall if it was a ten page AP Comp final written in MLA format and peer-reviewed.
Teenagers are suffering from depression and anxiety in record-setting numbers. Stumped researchers, social scientists, and psychologists have only begun to investigate the causes, many of which they have linked to smart phone and social media use, but is that really it? Could be, seeing as how they’re growing up under a selfie spotlight – with images of perfection constantly loading in their devices – perpetuating the great lie that everyone else has it more together and better than they do.
And if you think it’s just high schoolers that are suffering, you’re wrong. Turns out they’re carrying all that angst and self loathing baggage right along with them to college.
Major universities have reported seeing a record number of students in their mental health clinic and counseling centers over the past few years, some so flooded they’re don’t know how to manage the constant influx.
So let me ask again, are we done yet?
Are we done with bloated GPAs well over 4.0 that measure how well a student can memorize and regurgitate facts, and stack on “bonus points” for being in “those classes?” (How this is possible I still don’t understand, I mean, how can you have a SUPER A?)
Because even if you’re not done, if your kid’s high school isn’t done, if the guidance counselors (under just as much pressure I might add) aren’t done, if the College Board, college application consultants, and university admissions department aren’t done, then who is?
Our kids, that’s who. And at their tender age they’re too mentally ill-equipped to express that to parents and teachers, or even begin to admit they need help. So they end up drinking, or self-medicating with antidepressants or stimulants (Did you know it’s become the ‘thing’ now to have ADHD medicine prescribed to you?) And sadly, some end up doing the one thing they know will make it stop. They will stop it themselves.
We saw this recently when a young boy (only a sophomore) from Corona Del Mar High School in California committed suicide, and according to a now viral letter written by the high school principal of a neighboring school, a suicide note left alleging school pressures led to his death has given pause to the entire community, including school leaders and parents.
Even the very heartbroken principal Dr. Sean Boulton, who we are to assume has spent decades in education and around teens, asked in his letter, “How did we get here?” He also admits to a school system and its teachers simply following along with “college admissions that went into hyperdrive” and I can hardly blame him, or any of the other school districts in this whole country for doing the same thing.
And yet still we are left asking, how did we get here?”
We got here when we started equating success with home square footage and the model year of the import in your driveway.
We got here when we started shoving only hi-tech career paths in kids faces, neglecting the fact this country desperately needs a skilled workforce to build and maintain all these fancy buildings all the STEM geniuses will be working in.
We got here when we allowed ridiculous admissions standards tell us what they expected, not what we were ready and able to give.
We got here when we told our youth the only way they would ever achieve and succeed was with a 4-year degree.
And we got here when we opened every conversation with our high schoolers about futures, goals, and achievements with the words, “I just want you to succeed,” instead of the words, “I just want you to be happy.”
I am doing things much differently now in the wake of not only this tragedy, but overall since having gone through high school twice now with kids. I am full of regret for the words I once found myself speaking to a child. Words like, “You simply cannot have one single “C” on your report card EVER for four years, and a “B” will not cut in anymore either.” Did I say it out of insanity like some Tiger Mom? Nope. I said it from the suburbs of your average American neighborhood, and because I’d been told (and believed?) that a “C” was now the sign of FAILURE to most college admissions officers.
I look at my third son – an avid fisherman with a perpetual and infectious jolly personality, and who will be starting high school this fall, and all I can think and want to say to him is,
Just be happy. Find your happy place. And if it’s a non honors generic marine biology class where you can talk about fish all day, and one that will give you zero college credit (or achievement credence) on your transcript for college, TAKE IT. Take it and love it. Because I could not care less about what the opinions some stranger in the hallowed halls of a university think about your potential for future success.
I hope that we can all start to have those kinds of conversations with our teenagers, and that it can bring about real change among educators, teachers, and college officials before we have to write more sad and tragic letters asking, “How did we get here?”
Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. She is on Facebook at 4BoysMother and on twitter at @melissarunsaway.