The 16- and 17-year-old students filed into my classroom, one weary soul after another. It was 1:30 PM, exactly 5 hours and 45 minutes after they had arrived for the day. I studied their expressions, their sunken shoulders, their sleep-deprived and nearly dead eyes, and I wondered to myself, “What are we doing to these kids?”
Our children, whether 5 or 15, go to school each day, are inundated with non-stop information, are asked to recite and demonstrate how much of it they’ve miraculously memorized, are forced to take standardized tests and exhibit standardized understanding of standardized curriculum measured with high-stakes, standardized data collection procedures before returning home to do more standardized tasks that will determine whether they meet enough standards to go to college, graduate, and/or enter the standardized workforce where they will live standardized lives and contribute to society’s idea of standard citizenship for the rest of their remaining days.
And if they don’t measure up? Well, it’s because kids these days. They just don’t understand the value of hard work. Not like our generation did, anyway, right? That or because the education system is broken. Who broke it or how it is broken is unclear. But we’ve got to fix it. We’ve got to fix them. Do whatever it takes to make it better.
Has anyone taken a second to think about what we’re doing to these children? To think about how we’re killing them slowly? Each day, a part of them dies. Their love of learning. Their curiosity. Their zest for life. It dies a quiet, sad death, presided over only by our definition of what it means to be a successful person and, in turn, country.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at yourself. If you still love learning, if you still harbor curiosity about things you’re not required to pursue, if you still take time to ponder a beautiful sunset or to engage in a philosophical conversation with friends, if you still have time to do these things, consider yourself lucky. The majority of us, I would guess, do not or cannot because of the pressures of adulthood.
We’ve got politicians and testing companies and citizen groups crying for reform, shouting for accountability, demanding that heads roll, that we do what it takes to be globally competitive, that we quantify and calculate and shove education and, ultimately, our children into neat, little, impressive boxes. So we do these things. We reform and calculate and shove and package. And for what?
What kind of life is this if we can’t enjoy living it?
No 16-year-old should be certain that if he does not score top notch on the SAT, his life will be ruined. And yet, I have these students. Students who are positive that if they don’t earn this grade or that score or these accolades, life is over.
Good God, what are we doing to our children?
The planet will continue to spin on its axis, I tell my overly stressed students in hushed tones, if you do not pass a test with flying colors. Sure, it’s important to do our best, and your best is what I expect of you, but our best is all we can do, I remind them. It is not worth killing oneself with worry or sleep-deprivation in the hopes that we earn that perfect score.
The problem is, however, that this is how our world works. If we want to fix what’s broken, it starts with our perceptions of reform. It starts with reevaluating what really matters in life. It starts with having high expectations for our children and ourselves but also with conceding that a life void of simple pleasures, of leisure, of moments of quiet and solitude, of a desire to know and understand and learn rather than an obligation to do so is no life at all.
Encourage your children to do their best, parents. Hold them accountable. But give them room to breathe. Listen to their passions and allow them to pursue them. Expect the most but love them when they deliver less. Explore together, not because they’ve been assigned to or because that’s what colleges and employers like to see, but because you want to. Together. Take a walk, sit by a fire, go on a family vacation, skip the test preparation course and instead head to the park, be content with average once in a while, and live. LIVE.
For my part, I will do what I can as a teacher and a public school advocate to succumb as little as possible to the pressures of so-called reform, even if it means eventually losing my job as a result. Because a job that requires me to increasingly standardize the anything-but-standard lives of the extraordinary students in my care is not a job I can feel good about doing in this life.
Besides. It would give me more time to read books and watch sunsets and interact with people no one has required me to read or watch or interact with, anyway. And that, my friends, is what life should be all about.