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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/17/11

Competing with the System Itself

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Message Chloe Lizotte

A Proposal to End the Endless Cycle of High School Life



            Good afternoon, everyone. I know you might have come here today expecting me to rattle off a never-ending list of critiques at you. You might be anticipating an awkward few minutes complete with uncomfortable fidgeting, and maybe even secondhand embarrassment for me. Let me assure you right away that my argument is not about all of you -- this is about the system. The system is the one to blame, and also the one we should work together to fix. This is something that the student body and I cannot accomplish without your help, so I'd appreciate your attention as I explain the issues at hand.

            Let me put you in the right frame of mind before I begin. For a few minutes, pretend you're no longer an adult. Pretend you're a contemporary high school student. Pretend you're still passing through those crucial years of self-consciousness and self-involvement, and pretend that you are facing the endless cycle of high school life. Maybe you run track, maybe you DJ a radio show, maybe you're the captain of the varsity curling team. No matter who you are, you still face the same cycle of monotony that is high school's trademark. From roughly 6 AM until 11 PM, you face every single stress factor imaginable. It's your job to balance a social life with your extracurriculars, and don't ever forget to spend countless hours working on homework. That seven-letter word spelled c-o-l-l-e-g-e becomes the one word you never want anyone to say ever again. And, sadly, you find yourself excited if you get seven hours of sleep. This is daily life.

            Now, it might be easy to dismiss this cycle by labeling it "life." And, yes, these are stereotypical examples. It's unrealistic to believe that we can live without ever facing any stress. However, I definitely believe that it is possible for us to improve the system. Let the high school students battle only four million different types of stress, instead of four million and one.

            In high school, there is an emphasis on competition that I believe is toxic. I don't mean competition with other students over grades, I mean competition with the system itself. The student is forced into difficult classes in the name of "impressing" admissions officers, slaving through hours and hours of extra work that is not necessarily enjoyable. You rarely encounter a seventeen-year-old who would say, "I'm so pumped to work on my trigonometry homework!" Besides, that one rare student was probably accepted to M.I.T. at age thirteen. This demand for "challenging," "impressive" classes makes high school seem like an irrepressible vise. To what extent do the students' interests come through in their schedule? And who can actually judge what subjects are most valuable to the learning process? I understand the need for a well-rounded education, but there comes a point where students should be able to craft their education to suit their own interests. Phrases like "impressive to admissions officers" should be the last thing on students' minds.

And what are all these "impressive" classes worth if they lack personal meaning? What is anything worth without personal meaning? I can be applauded for learning the correct way to find the limit of a quadratic function, but it doesn't mean that I've learned anything I would personally think is useful. I'm not about to run home and start graphing for fun, and I definitely don't see this knowledge becoming useful later on in my life. If any of you on the board are into math, I'd like to apologize right now -- it's probably quite apparent I am not one of you. If you want to run home and prove some trig identities, that's great, but maybe you hate interpreting poetry, or learning to master an instrument. If you were in high school right now, you wouldn't understand why those subjects mattered because they simply would not be meaningful to you.

            This, o school committee, is one thing the public education system desperately needs. The freedom for students to choose. Instead of feeling boxed into rigid academic paths, students should have free space on their schedule to devote to exploring their own interests. A larger independent project program could solve this problem. An opportunity for students to do something entrepreneurial and personally significant would offset the meaningless demands of other academic subjects. This would need to extend beyond senior project and be offered to underclassmen. An open-ended project would foster individuality, creativity, and enthusiasm. Students should not be concerned about what school demands from them, they should be concerned about what they can demand from their school.

            I know what some of you may be thinking right now. I have just suggested that you add an entire project to the normal course load of high school students.   Doesn't this create even more stress? The answer is: Yes. With the current system in place, of course this would add more weight to the normal five tons of nightly paperwork. Yet, there is still a necessity for us to have a project we can look forward to working on. A project under our own control. A project that is not a key element of the cycle of burnout.

            The cycle of burnout is at the root of the high school student's struggle. Constant work. Constant lack of sleep. Constant lack of control. In most of my required classes, the demands seem to be much more important than the content. Honors students are simply rewarded for their efforts through more work to complete. Our normal course loads demand so much time from us that I often wonder if the faculty understands that we have, you know, lives to live. We have other things going on in our lives besides school. It's not an excuse of a slacker, it's just a fact. School is a constant struggle between the desire to succeed and the continual stress. An existential crisis is a common symptom -- after three hundred papers and four thousand problem sets, what does this all mean? We are not in school to learn, we are in school to be evaluated.

            As I've said, this is our life. This is the reality. But, with your cooperation and input, we can change this. We can lessen some of the stress. Understanding our flawed system is the first step towards changing it. Like anything else, the system will never be perfect, but it can definitely be improved. We want to accomplish this through collaboration. Only you can help us make official changes to the way things are. And, because of this, there will need to be some give and take. We are mature enough to deserve some respect, and calling our concerns "trivial" would be nothing short of insulting. The attempted repression of the CCHS Sleep-In, for example, was insulting. You must understand our complaints are valid, and in return, we will accept that wild system overhauls are not entirely realistic. But let us begin to improve the system together.



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Chloe Lizotte is a member of the Concord-Carlisle High School class of 2012 in Concord, Massachusetts.
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