Wide Awake: Senior Year
What happened to the best year of high school?

In my senior year of high school, my English teacher suggested I attend Temple University for its journalism program. She showed me the school’s brochure. I thought it looked great, so I applied and got in. My “college search” took about a week.

This month my oldest daughter, Klein, finishes her junior year of high school. She has already completed an SAT prep course, taken the test twice, opened an account on two websites that provide personalized, in-depth college analyses and gone on college visits. It occurred to me while talking to her a few nights ago that while senior year should be one of the best years of your life, it probably won’t be for her or her friends. It’s on track to be one of the most stressful, laden with high expectations, disappointments and, hopefully, some joy.

During my senior year of high school, I worked part-time at a Rustler Steakhouse in Philadelphia. I started bussing tables and worked my way up to prepping and stocking the salad bar. I used my paycheck to pay for gas or buy a new outfit to wear on a date on the weekend. The feeling of independence was exhilarating.  I was editor of my school’s newspaper, so I spent a lot of time with my friends on the staff coming up with rebellious story ideas that might make the nuns nervous. (I went to an all-girls Catholic school, and I especially enjoyed challenging the nuns.)

The year was all about me – and my friends. We were seniors. This was a year to enjoy, have fun and celebrate our great accomplishments. Somehow that has changed, and now senior year is about hitting a GPA and getting into the one college that will determine if your life will be fantastic or miserable.

I’ve been trying to tell Klein – that’s not how it goes. The college you attend doesn’t determine your future.

I asked her if she ever heard Joe or I talk about our high school GPA or SAT scores.

“No, but I bet you’re going to tell me now.”

(Remember, she is a teenager.)

“No, I’m not, because I don’t remember,” I said. “I’m 46 years old. Would you say I have a successful life?”

Fortunately, she thought I did.

“That has to do with choices I made in college and after, not the college I went to or my GPA. Pretty much nothing you are going to do this year or next will determine how great your life will be.”

During our talk, I was shocked – and saddened – to hear how much pressure Klein was feeling. If you had asked Joe and I, we would have assured you Klein wasn’t stressed about grades or college. And we would have been certain we were in touch with our kids’ feelings.

We would have been wrong on both counts.

While we would like to think we’ve set reasonable expectations about school, Klein has gotten a different message. She learned a new equation: GPA = college = happiness and success. I’m not sure where the message came from – school, friends, the media, Joe and me, or all of us combined – but it sunk in. And so her senior year won’t have that carefree, I’ve-got-the-whole-world-in-my-hands kind of feeling.

I’m hoping there is still time to change that, because I would like Klein and her friends – who work so hard and have so much to offer – to be happy simply with who they are and where they are going. They’ve done enough to get somewhere great, be someone fabulous. They have the power to make their futures awesome, and they have the right to enjoy that – to make senior year one big celebration.

I’d like to host the first party.

June 2011
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