It happened rather suddenly, on a day like any other.
With the collar of my blue Costco-brand fleece jacket popped, pristine white velcro Skechers securely fastened, freshly laundered Stanford tube socks pulled up within flirting distance of my kneecaps (they have since been burned), I was ready to go through the typical third-grade motions.
Multiplication tables, cursive lessons, geography, a few heated matches of tetherball, Deep Dish Pepperoni Pizza Lunchables, American history, a few juicy slices of gossip behind the tube-slide — the usual.
What I did not expect upon my entrance to class that fateful September morning, what no one could have ever prepared me for, was the large, angry, red “C” emblazoned in thick ballpoint ink on my returned homework from the previous week.
What was this, some sort of joke? Surely a sick, misguided, preposterously early April Fools’ prank. Or otherwise an unfortunate indication of Mr. Metropolis’ descent into clinical insanity, in which case I had no business being angry; he needed help, the poor man.
It turned out to be none of the above: I had received my first letter grade, and a bad one at that.
Gone, apparently, were the days of “Good Job!” stamps, of golden stars and thumbs-up stickers. Of simplicity. Ushered in, utterly unwelcome and completely against my will, was the beginning of a trajectory. A trajectory I had known about at the time and one that my upbringing and personal sense of determination had ensured I’d follow, but not one that I had expected to begin so early.
The trajectory toward college.
Which for me, incidentally, started with the college-bound millennial’s worst nightmare; the spectre that jolts them awake at night in a cold sweat; the kryptonite to all aspirations of large-ish colonial suburban homes, of kids at private school, of expensive watches and of vacations to Aruba.
A bad grade.
The C, and the subsequent mission to avoid its reappearance, was a statement on something important. What nearly every level of formal education in this country has become, far divorced from anything even remotely concerned with knowledge or enlightenment, is competition — and brutal competition at that.
Everything about it seems destructive. Information is taught to students not with the intention of expanding their minds, peaking their curiosity or creativity or broadening their intellect, at least not really. Information is funneled into the classroom in such a way as to prepare students for tests. And when tests become the judge, jury and executioner of collegiate success, and acing them becomes the sole concern of a seven-hour school day, educators naturally oblige by “teaching to the test.” Any inspiration or transcendence become incidental. Or accidental. Or both.
More sobering still is the effect this has wrought on the physical college application itself — that exercise in calculated self-promotion that holds an almost exclusive monopoly on academic and extracurricular choices in the latter part of the K-12 passageway.
College acceptance has become an algorithm: a combination of club memberships, community service ventures, athletic involvement, AP classes, piano lessons, summer internships, essays and, of course, test scores.
These criteria are peddled as a holistic admissions approach, one that considers the applicant as a whole person beyond cut-and-dried scores and numbers. But what may have at least initially been a well-intended attempt to broaden the scope of admission consideration beyond academic achievement alone has created a new, equally rigid set of requirements. While never formally declared necessary or essential to admission to top universities, it remains painfully, obviously clear how the system works.
So that’s what we — the humble, eager-to-please, college-bound American millennials — do. We fight it out in the classroom for As; we claw our way through SAT prep courses toward a 2,000-plus; we play sports and run for treasurer of a few clubs; we go to our piano recitals, ride our horses and spend two weeks in July nursing injured starfish. And then we wait and hope it was all enough.
And this whole process feels toxic to me. The opportunity to be educated is such an enormous privilege. Hugely worthwhile. But the enterprise has been co-opted, turned into a blood sport and spit back out for all of us to enjoy. Well, maybe not us, because most of us managed to join enough clubs, get enough As, write enough decent essays to wind up at college — and a college like UC Berkeley no less!
But I wonder how worthwhile the education system is when its existence functions, ultimately, as a means to an end: accomplishing x, y and z, going through the motions, to guarantee entrance to a competitive university. College, too, functions in the same vein. What was once an enterprise of literacy, a place to cultivate knowledge and, most importantly, acquire an arsenal of interesting things to say at catered dinner parties is now as much a tool for career advancement as K-12 education.
So where does that leave us? As jobs and university enrollment become increasingly coveted, the competitiveness will only grow, as will the pressure on younger and younger students to start preparing for the long trek toward college.
In a typical reflective fashion, (this being my last column of the semester and all) I’ve been nothing but negative and pessimistic. And to be honest, I don’t see this trend curtailing any time soon.
So what I will say is this: As rough and unpleasant as the long road toward your dream school may seem and as robbed as you may feel by the process, this course has its compensations.
If you follow the egregious, normative, disgracefully one-dimensional formula for success, chances are, you will in fact be successful, which is splendid.
Also, the C I received that fateful third-grade afternoon was, incidentally, on a writing assignment. So if you keep your head down, work hard and end up making it to the college of your dreams, (hey Northwestern, remember me?) you can get a job writing for your school newspaper, call out Mr. Metropolis in said paper for giving you that C, make all sorts of unfounded and unsupported assertions about the road that got you there and maybe, just maybe, (inadvertently even) make some sort of difference.
But probably not.
Until next time,