I just finished reading The Overachievers by Alexandra Robbins, where she chronicles the life of a few high school juniors and seniors in a top high school in the US (her former school) as they pile themselves up with activities and other things to keep themselves qualified for college. Like in Denise Clark Pope’s Doing School, these students are going through extraordinary stress and pressure to keep up with the rest. In both books, most of the students would rather concentrate on things they want to do, but they are constantly pressured (whether by parents, students, counselors, or themselves) to perform more than is necessary – or sane.
One of the students in The Overachievers is Frank (or AP Frank in the beginning), a half-Asian young man who is pressured by his Korean mother to go to Harvard to study medicine or law. He and his brother Richard are not allowed to have a social or otherwise non-academic life; instead, they have to study under their mother’s watchful eye, with only half an hour in between allowed for a quick dinner (something reheated) and television news (they are not allowed to watch anything else). His mother actually forced Frank to take all the AP subjects the school offered, and called up the school to ask why they didn’t have an AP for Physical Education. She pushed Frank into Harvard (even when he’d rather be elsewhere) and went through all the documentation, choosing his classes and dormitory for him. When Frank tries to stand up for himself, he is physically assaulted by his mother. This leads to a series of incidents where the social services are called in, his brother Richard is taken into foster care (and lives in what he describes as a “mansion” – the home of a schoolmate – which allows him greater freedom), and their parents are divorced (with Frank’s mother frantically calling Frank telling him to deny the abuse). Eventually Frank regains his strength and confidence, finds love, sheds the “AP” title, and goes into environmental science and public policy – something he’s more interested in than medicine. (Reading the updates, it seems that the relationship between him and his mum has improved, and the mother has relaxed considerably. yay!)
While Frank’s story is a bit extreme, it isn’t that unusual. Throughout Frank’s story, Robbins talks about the pressure Asian students face in school. Korean three-year-olds have to prove their proficiency in a musical instrument before being allowed into kindergarden. Your life and social status in Japan, even when you’re middle aged, is largely determined by how you scored in your exams when you were 15. There’s a whole breed of mothers – kyioku mama – who sit in their children’s classes and take notes for them when their kids are ill. Suicide rates amongst schoolkids are alarmingly high. And this is the system President Reagan wanted the US to emulate in the 1980s? No wonder American students are driving themselves insane!
And before you say “oh that’s a different country”…it happens in Malaysia too. We all know it. If you don’t take Science for your SPM, you’re stupid or wasting your intelligence. You have to get straight As at every level to get into a good institution. Medicine is the only university subject that matters. Even if you’re bright and knowledgeable, you have to take tuition classes to keep up. All the talks hosted by schools are “How To Answer XYZ Paper”. Let’s not even touch on this weird hysteria people have for overseas “top schools” – Harvard/Oxford/Cambridge, or nothing. (By the way, the whole ranking system? Complete bullocks. Many US colleges are opting out of it because they find it unfair and unrepresentative. Some of the “top” schools fudge their numbers to get high rankings. It’s a game.) No one ever cares about the suicides – they just take up a small column in Page 2 of the papers.
Why are we going through so much insanity? Apparently it’s because we have to “live up” to something – school standards, counselor standards, society standards. We allow ourselves/our children to be bullied, stressed, abused by the system, just so we could get in to something supposedly prestigious. Instead of schools and universities acknowledging students’ various talents and capabilities, they force the students to be someone they’re not, just to keep up an image.
Let’s stop this madness.
You’re the one that’s going to school. It’s your money that’s being spent. It’s your time that’s being used. You’re the one that has to go through all this trouble. Stand up for yourselves.
Don’t buy into the trap of going to a “good school” or nothing. Choose the school you like based on your own factors. Do you prefer big schools or small schools? Local, regional, international? Academic, practical, both? Casual, business-like, formal?
Choose your own subjects. What to experiment with science, or create art? Curious about international economics, or want to debate literature and philosophy? My boyfriend’s brother is a sports buff, and had he been in a Malaysian school, he would be considered a “meathead”, someone not smart enough, just because he wasn’t very academic. Now he’s doing Sports Science in university, which includes Chemistry and Biology – subjects that wouldn’t be open to him if he was in Malaysia. He’s doing OK, because it’s what he’s interested in and he’s putting his energy into it. Why don’t we let other Malaysians have this chance? Why bind them to school grades, and assume that all straight A people are scientists and all straight Fs are artisans?
Don’t let grades tell you what to do. Don’t let anyone else make your decisions for you. Do what you want to do. Make your own choices.