Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere
Remember that classic scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel are working in a candy factory? They’re supposed to be wrapping candies as they come towards them on a conveyor belt and have been specifically told they’ll be fired if any go unwrapped. At first, they’re calm. The pace is perfect and they’re wrapping like champs. Soon, the belt gets faster and faster and the two eventually realize that they can’t wrap them fast enough. They start grabbing them off of the belt and piling them in front of them so that nobody knows they’re not wrapping fast enough. Eventually they get frantic and stuff them in their mouths, hats, and blouses; their supervisor returns, sees no unwrapped candies on the conveyor, and thinks they’re doing fine. Meanwhile, Ethel and Lucy can’t even breathe because their mouths are full of chocolate…
As a student, this is the kind of environment — where expectations are too high and the pressure so great that people will do anything to meet them — within which I, and countless other students in my generation, have received our education.
As a college student, I have spent the last four years of my life being more lost than I ever imagined I could be. This spring, I am supposed to be graduating from Hampshire College. Instead, I’m taking a semester off, working 40 hours a week for barely more than minimum wage, and doing an internship where I frequently get more out of my work than I do from my homework. Hopefully, I’ll graduate a year from now, but given my track record it‘s possible it might not happen.
Judging by my resume and academic history, I should be the opposite of the student I have become. When I was in high school, I had a 3.8 GPA and was the editor of the school newspaper and literary magazine, was an active member in the Gay-Straight Alliance and Environmental Club, was stage manager for six or seven theater performances a year, figure skated eight or ten hours a week, had a weekend job, and volunteered at a soup kitchen.
These days, however, I don‘t even flinch anymore when I fail a class. A lot of the time I don’t do my homework, and I frequently sleep straight through anything that happens before noon. I’m not in any student groups, I no longer figure skate, and I don’t really volunteer much anymore. It’s not that I’m not interested — I love what I’m studying, and I really do love Hampshire. The problem is that until very recently, I was never given the opportunity to let learning be something that was completely my own.
I recently saw the movie Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, a documentary about what the current educational climate has done to its students. The movie was made by a concerned mother who had watched her children suffer from school-related stress and had seen homework and tutoring take over their family time. What sparked her decision to do something about it, though, was that a student at her daughter’s school committed suicide. A thirteen year old middle school student. She killed herself out of desperation; she was depressed, stressed out, and anxious and couldn’t find any other way to change her situation.
The documentary tells the stories of many students who felt similarly. They suffer from eating disorders, depression, and crippling anxiety. They have given up things they loved in order to cope with the amount of stress they feel. They have, quite literally, won the race to nowhere. I felt sad and frustrated for the students as I watched the movie, and I remember feeling outraged that such a thing could happen to anyone. But then, somewhere towards the end of the movie, I realized that Race to Nowhere could have been made about my life. I too have struggled with depression, self harm, food issues, and anxiety. I have had a stress-related headache nearly every day for as long as I can remember. I have had panic attacks over everything from meeting new people to writing a history paper. I fight a daily battle with my imperfect body which insists upon having curves that no amount of starvation or deprivation will do anything about. I was horribly depressed in high school. And now, still, even though I’m a much happier and healthier person, I can’t seem to be able to get through college.
I am the product of a generation of parents, teachers, and policy makers who have pushed students so hard that we’ve never been able to develop a sense of self. We’ve been told that in order to succeed later on in life, we have to be good — no, excellent! — at every single thing that we do. We’re young when people tell us such things, and we really take it to heart as a result. We learn to formulate our own ideas of ourselves based on other peoples measures of us. And as we get older, it only gets worse. The stakes get higher, the pressure increases, the work gets harder, and we have increasingly more responsibilities. School and extracurricular activities (the ones that supposedly help us become more well-rounded people) take up all of our time — we never get the chance to really develop our own interests because we’re too busy doing things that someone else wants us to.
And where does that leave us afterwards? It leaves us sticking our metaphorical chocolates down our metaphorical blouses. Or, in other words, lost and incredibly frantic.
It is obvious that the test-driven, high expectations environment that we so frequently provide our students not only doesn’t really work but is incredibly unhealthy. Besides, does it really matter if your sixth grader gets an A in math every single trimester? When she’s forty, or thirty, or even twenty, it probably won’t matter at all whether or not she aced a test on fractions. So let’s lighten up. Why don’t we ease the pressure a bit and lets kids be kids; let them learn by playing and by exploring the world. Let them choose what’s important to them rather than prescribing it. Let us find our own paths. We will certainly be happier for it.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
There will be a screening of Race to Nowhere on Thursday, April 14th at 6:30pm at the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton at the Williston Theater. Tickets are available online through the movie’s website. The screening is sponsored by The Williston Northampton School’s Parents’ Association and a portion of the proceeds from the screening will fund programs at The Williston Northampton School. The film will be followed by a panel discussion led by faculty members. See the movie and become part of the conversation!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A native to Maine, Robin is a student at Hampshire College in Amherst. She is studying education and is slated to graduate in the spring of ’12. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her senior project at Hampshire College, Robin will be researching and writing about the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. She plans to look to schools and communities within Western MA and Maine as models of the type of symbiotic school-community relationship that she believes to be critical to the success of rural education.