JIM DODSON: Life: More Than Admission Scores
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A couple of weeks ago, my daughter Maggie flew down from Maine for the long holiday weekend in North Carolina.
"Dad," she said in explaining her desire to come to the Sandhills, "I just need to get away from it all. My stomach has been hurting a lot lately."
"Why do you think that is?" I asked. I already knew the answer.
"Admission madness," she confirmed.
Mugs, as I call her, is a high school senior who just finished her field hockey career as a team captain. She has a dean's-list average, a dazzling personality, the beauty of her Southern grandmother, and a list of personal accomplishments, service projects, and extracurriculars as long as your arm.
She's been a mentor to several troubled kids, a volunteer for Special Olympics and lead actress in half a dozen major school productions. She just spent an entire summer living on her own in Florence, Italy, studying art history where the Renaissance was born. She aced all her courses there and fell in love with everything Italian -- except, luckily, the guys.
"I think you have something of mine," more than one streetcorner Lothario said to her.
"What's that?" this beautiful innocent abroad repeatedly fell for the line.
"My heart, Bella."
Oh -- and one more thing. She recently informed me she's probably going to be named "funniest" in her class, or as she put it with an embarrassed shrug, "class clown." I can't tell you how proud this made her papa feel, a guy who dedicated his own checkered high school days to making a Shakespearean fool of himself. She's evidently a chip off the old Red Skelton.
Here's the part of this scenario that doesn't quite add up, and it's not the least bit funny.
Like millions of equally sensational high-schoolers, my scholar-comedian daughter is convinced she won't be "good enough" to get into any of the better colleges on her list.
Maybe you have a son or daughter in the same boat.
If so, you know exactly what I'm getting at when I propose that immediately after we finish voting the current crop of boobs in Congress out of office week after next, we parents ought to pick up bullhorns and rolls of toilet paper and collectively march on the nation's colleges and universities, threatening to make real mischief unless the people who make such important life decisions step back and remember why a young person like my daughter or your son goes to college in the first place -- to learn how to learn about life, to explore new horizons and find where their true passions lie, to value knowledge over cold hard facts.
According to a recent issue of Time, a record number of high school students will be making application to the nation's institutions of higher learning in the next few weeks, which means the competition for acceptance at most schools will be greater than ever -- and so will the rejections.
It also means the stress and anxiety level on America's teenagers and their families is currently off the charts. According to a friend who counsels high-schoolers on the college admission game, many students these days are unable to make an important distinction.
"The emphasis on academic performance and class rank is so intense," she says, "many of these kids are unable to look upon acceptance or rejection from a particular college simply as a numerical assessment. They view it as a judgment of themselves as functioning people. A very worrying trend."
A Dangerous Toll
Not surprisingly, evidence is beginning to pile up that our national obsession with numerical "achievement" is exacting a dangerous toll on our children, not to mention the cherished values of a broadly educated citizen society.
Among other things, the nation's psychologists report that cases of stress-related illness and depression among pre-college teens have reached an all-time high, and there has been a spike in the past half-decade in rates of teen suicide and self-mutilation -- an act psychologists believe stems directly from a yearning for more control over one's life.
In other words, many fear that their success or failure in life lies in the hands of some faceless college bureaucrat sitting in an ivy-covered building, separating the over-achieving test-takers from the class clowns based on SAT scores and class rank.
Just last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics opened a new Web site (www.aap.org) aimed at helping overscheduled, overstressed teens cope with the very kind of mounting performance anxiety that brought my lovely daughter fleeing to Southern Pines. The Web site emphasizes the importance of teaching young folks the value of simply having fun.
"Dad," she said upon arriving in Raleigh last Friday afternoon, "I'd like to do nothing but just hang out, go to a movie, eat some real Southern food, and not think about college admission."
"Not a problem," I assured her. "But first, I have a little job to do, and a story to tell you about the sea."
A Kinder, Gentler Time
Ironically, my "job" that Friday night was to give the keynote speech to the faculty and invited guests celebrating the recent opening of a most impressive new School of Communications at my alma mater, East Carolina University. The school is a cutting-edge facility aimed at comprehensively preparing students for effective communication in a real world where there's no shortage of cold information flowing like an endless cable newscrawl through our lives, but often little in the way of genuine wisdom.
The purple robes invited me to speak, I suppose, because I date back to the Pleistocene era of journalism at East Carolina, a kinder and gentler time when a dedicated one-man band named Ira Baker groomed a handful of us who had newspaper ink in our blood to toddle out the door eventually and find a life with some kind of deeper meaning.
Looking back, as I told the crowd at the Comm School event, I felt little or no pressure to perform to any standard except my own and had the luxury of finding my voice as a columnist for the school newspaper.
During the summer of Sen. Sam Ervin's Watergate hearings, among other things, I spent time at Chapel Hill trying to decide if I wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein or maybe the next Charlie Kuralt, poking around the countryside in search of amusing characters. In the process, I discovered that the writing life was for me after all.
The funny thing about this revelation, as I explained to the robes and my daughter (who mercifully got to skip part of the talk and slip off to see a student production of "Chicago") is that things nearly didn't happen this way -- proof that life can't be lived by test results and cold hard numbers alone.
After winning my high school's literary prize, I devised a clever plan to skip college altogether and set off for the streets of Paris, where I planned to snag a stringer's job with The International Herald-Tribune, find a cheap coldwater flat, take up with a dark-eyed beauty with furry underarms who smoked foul French cigarettes, and become the next Ernest Hemingway.
My two best friends, by contrast, driven by their parents' high expectations, studied around the clock and rarely did anything for fun except drink beer when we went out together on Friday nights. Their SAT scores were in the stratosphere. One got accepted early admission to Duke, the other to Chapel Hill.
'Teach Them to Yearn'
One day at lunch, my dad casually wondered why I hadn't yet heard from the half a dozen colleges we'd talked about my making application to. He had attended UNC-Chapel Hill, and I knew part of him hoped I would venture in that direction. He never pressured me in the least, however -- saying only that the decision was mine and I should simply follow my heart wherever I wanted to go. His belief was that life itself is one big liberal arts university where learning never stops. His favorite quote was by St. Exupery, author of "the Little Prince":
"If you want to build a ship, then don't drum up men to gather wood, give orders, and divide the work. Rather, teach them to yearn for the far and endless sea."
That day at lunch, as I presented my swell plan to skip college and become the next Papa Hemingway, I could almost smell the sea.
To his credit, my father listened patiently, then reminded me that the military draft had entered a more active phase. The Paris peace talks had just collapsed.
"Do your mom and me -- and most importantly yourself -- a big favor, will you?" he said.
He asked me to apply to four or five colleges ASAP. So I did. His alma mater placed me on a waiting list for winter admission. Four other schools let me in, though clearly weren't happy about my casual grasp of the deadline.
Oddly, I can't quite remember why my big Paris writing plan fell apart. Maybe I just suddenly saw all my pals going off to college and decided I needed to go along, too. A short time later, in any case, I accompanied friends down to a spring orientation at East Carolina and liked what a saw there -- a lot of pretty college girls. I picked up an application and filled it out. Rather casually, almost accidentally, I became a Pirate.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. And I never saw it coming.
Couldn't Happen Now
The crowd at the new Comm School seemed to enjoy this tale of a writer's unconventional beginnings, though one dean made a point of saying such a thing probably couldn't happen in today's highly competitive college environment.
"Everything is planned out years in advance," he complained. "Some of these kids have been preparing themselves since elementary school. ... By the way, what happened to your two friends who never did anything but study and drink?"
One earned a pair of advanced post-graduate degrees, I explained, then found and lost half a dozen important jobs, saw his marriage disintegrate, and finally realized he was an alcoholic. On the plus side, he recently began putting his life back in order.
My other friend, overwhelmed by the pressures to perform, got into the college drug scene, fried his brain, and has called a park bench in Greensboro home for almost 25 years.
A Good Team
The next day, the home team won the football game, and Maggie and I drove back to Southern Pines. I could feel her relief as the town came into view.
For the next two days, we just hung out, ate real Southern food, went to the movies, and had a fantastic time. The night before she flew home to Maine, we watched our favorite TV show together, "The Amazing Race."
"I think that would be so much fun," Mugs asked me at one point. "Don't you think we would make a good team?"
I had to agree. Two class clowns on the lam, the aging golf papa and the beautiful field hockey captain. We would probably have a blast and make some people laugh.
"That would sure be fun," she repeated wistfully, watching people make complete Shakespearean fools of themselves in a rice paddy somewhere across an endless sea. For a moment, she was a little kid again.
"Fun is important," I agreed, leaving the rest of my speech for another day.
Contact Jim Dodson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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