As I listen to the spiel from well-meaning and -educated principals and teachers in the high school auditorium, I glance over at my eighth grader. She’s sitting with a group of girlfriends, a big smile on her face. I’ve been through this type of presentation before because she has an older brother, but for her it’s all new.
Unlike many school districts, ours offers open enrollment, which means my daughter can look at schools other than her neighborhood school and, if she chooses, apply for a spot in one more in line with her interests and learning style.
Though our neighborhood school is wonderful, she and I visited a handful of schools. During the tours and talks, I couldn’t help feeling sentimental. It’s her next big chapter and I’m reminded of the extra emotions of sending her off to kindergarten, only more so.
It’s different this time around, however, and for my daughter there’s something besides pure anticipation. She can’t avoid tuning into the intensity as she hears friends talk about whether they will go to public or private schools, who’s taking advanced placement (AP) courses, and who’s considering the high school with the International Baccalaureate Program (IB).
Students today have so much more pressure on them to “succeed” and get into a college — in many places, even state schools now have highly-competitive admissions. I’ve never been the type of mother who pushes for advanced classes and straight A’s and I’m holding on tight to that mindset — I want my daughter to do her best but not become so overwhelmed that she doesn’t enjoy the experience of being a teenager. Let’s face it, life is riddled with enough challenge and hoop-jumping during and after college!
But…I worry. And my feelings of concern for my daughter and her whole generation were only deepened by reading a recent article in The Atlantic, “The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?”
Author Hanna Rosin — herself the parent of a teen — found that, while students of affluent schools face different challenges than those who attend poorer schools, they have equal or greater anxiety, depression, stress and delinquency. Tragically, all students today, whatever their economic backgrounds, experience social and academic pressure and are at-risk for behaviors that may increase the risk for suicide.
What’s compelling and so very sad is that many of the Palo Alto students who carried out a suicide seemed like well-adjusted, happy kids on the outside. The elite high schools of Palo Alto are not the only places where cluster suicides are happening, which is why I believe it’s essential to educate ourselves as parents, do our best to notice the warning signs of too much stress on our kids, and put safeguards in place to help our students during these critical high school years.
With all this in mind, after several school tours, I was curious to get inside my daughter’s head a little. She’d absorbed a lot of information; I wanted to hear her voice and her thoughts. So I asked if I could interview her, and she humored me as we sat at the kitchen counter eating dessert:
Me: “What has been your experience looking at these schools?”
Her: “Well, it has been an overwhelming process, and I think the choice of high school is hard because there are so many options: private school, public school. And then people talk about the ‘real high school experience’ and that’s definitely public school.”
Me: “What does the real high school experience mean for you?”
Her: “It means the football games, the formals you’re going to have like homecoming and prom and definitely the opportunity to meet new friends from other schools in your district.”
Me: “What’s the scariest part of going through this process to get ready for high school?”
Her: “Well, academically, I want a close relationship with my teachers, but a lot of public schools have a large number of students [in their classes] so it’s hard to get a one-on-one connection with a teacher. And socially, the size of the school matters and could be both good or bad — bad for the first semester because you’re still trying to find your way around and getting to know people, but good because if you unfortunately meet people you don’t like you can get away from them.”
Me: “What is the main deciding factor for you in choosing a school?”
Her: “There are several deciding factors. You have to look at what you want academically, socially and as an overall experience. Academically, I want a school that’s not overly challenging but where I can choose what I want to do and express and challenge myself. Socially, I want to meet new people but want to keep my close friends. And the overall experience would be the atmosphere, a welcoming one from upperclassmen because most freshmen are scared of the upperclassmen. I definitely don’t want to walk in feeling like I’m going to be judged by my overall appearance. I mean, high school is the time to find yourself, you can’t have a judging community. I feel like of the schools I’ve looked at there are those that are more focused on college prep, like getting ready for SATs and all that jazz, and then the other schools are more focused on creating yourself and finding who you want to be for the rest of your life. The creating and finding myself appeals to me more.”
Me: “Has this been a tiring process?”
Her: (Silence and weird face)
Me: “Oh, it just must be me…Tiring for me.”
I encourage my fellow parents of eighth graders to do a little interview like this. Your student may not have a choice of which high school to attend but they surely have a myriad of feelings about going. Though academically and socially demanding, these can be wonderful years if students feel supported.
I hope my daughter loves the school she picks. I hope she can manage the social landscape while doing well in her classes. But my greatest hope is that she thrives, is happy and does indeed “create and find” herself.
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