Senior spring at the Taft School was a complete joke. I mean, it was a complete joke everywhere, but at Taft, by embracing a complete joke, they… squared it. The seniors barely ever went to class and instead spent most of their campus time playing spike ball or can jam, playing loud music and breaking every rule they possibly could up to the point of dying. To avoid revealing the sham, the school created an itinerary of “senior events” that spanned from about mid-February up until the exact hour they were unceremoniously kicked off campus and prevented from returning for five years (true story). The effect was that the entire senior spring became like a tour of senior celebrities, who had tendered their fame over the course of the years they had been on campus and cashed it in a tour-de-force of 18 year-old buffoonery. It was perfect… both fully fitting and fully inappropriate at the same time.
In defense of the school, the college process essentially declaws the high school experience as soon as the receive their acceptance letters. For the throng of students who apply early, it’s all pretty much settled (but the crying) by Christmas. All that remains is to not blow it by completely failing their classes. But the teachers are aware of this altered reality, and thus lower their standards based on the reality that they probably won’t get much juice. The students then accommodate this alteration by lowering their effort further, and the race to the bottom is on. I once had a girl who had previously been accepted into UPenn submit an essay five weeks late, after walking off for spring break without a whisper. When I went to fail her, the administration(ahem, college admissions department) rejected the grade and made me change it(!!). What a world.
Each year the effort to seems to die a little sooner for these seniors, with deadlines continually moving up in the fall (October 15th deadlines? Oct 1st??), acceptances and commitments for sports going younger and younger. I once taught a student who was a commit to Dartmouth for hockey since his freshman year. Shockingly… shockingly he struggled with effort. Nice enough kid, very genuine, but getting up in the morning was hard for him. I mean, why button your own pants for a living when the happy ending has already been written. I mean… his existential crisis spanned the Cenozoic. He had been faced with emptiness practically from the womb, or rather, the day he pickedup a hockey stick. When he finally hobbled to graduation it was a psychic relief, like unplugging the life support on a vegetable; college was his resurrection, though I’m never sure he shook the coat of depression. He continued to wag the tail of defeat, for once it meets you with it’s stink, it’s hard to shake.
As a general observation, the whole purpose of schooling has been insided-out, dismembered, castrated. Indulge me on a short history of education: at first, American education was tactical. In a largely agrarian society, knowing numbers and obtaining literacy was instrumental in calculating crop totals and recording gains and losses. As urbanization resulting from the industrial revolution shifted society towards a more commercial-based arrangement, education became the tool to pursue dreams. “Follow your passion” was the motto beneath the rock of arithmetic and geography and Catcher in the Rye. It was a beacon, a promise: work hard and you can be what you like, pursue your passions. The ability to dream unhindered by religious repression or totalitarian regime is always what has made America unique, and education has always been the canoe to paddle through that happy stream. But what happens when the beacon’s light is just a painting? What happens when the panorama of future promise becomes two-dimensional, commercialized and canned for numerical consumption? When colleges become brand name cereals and not towers of awe-inspiring aspiration? When high school becomes a factory producing predetermined products on an increasingly dessicated assembly line of mass production? Welcome to 21st century private school education.
So what to do with these wayward wanderers? They have to be provided a challenge with a purpose, which actually isn’t hard at all. How about a writing contest in which your peers judge the products and determine winners to be read on stage in front of the school. How about service projects for the community, the most active participants given medals and scholarships for college studies. How about athletic, field day competitions? Debates? Contests of skill with heavy incentives? What a resume builder that could be.
And no, recognizing winners for their ability to achieve is not wrong! Go back to hell, Harrison Bergeron! Competition is what built this country, made it powerful, creative, profound. Winners and yes, losers. Participation trophies make everyone feel all hunky dory and all, but they also hollow out the purpose of life for the entire crowd. There are winners and losers in all things, loss is part of life– we all ultimately lose in the end, after all. And shielding our youth from this reality isn’t laudable at all, it cripples them, it cripples them for life.
The senior spring tour is the last long slide of this protectionism currently eroding American society. And it’s an assault to the senses because on some level, we, their parents, know we’re responsible. Existential rot caused by sparing them the pain of real life, the discomfort of loss, of failure, of reality. On the outside they are whole and healthy and glowing with life, but on the inside they are void of dimension and hollow. It’s worth noting I speak generically, and plenty of parents have done their diligence in NOT interfering with the healthy process of pain suffering. Not all have played the helicopter. But on a societal level, I think it’s clear to see this wave.
The solution is simple, if not a little difficult to swallow: pain, pure delicious invigorating pain. Watch the one you loved and raised and diapered, suffer tears and terrors. Shielding them ironically does them no favors. And you may not see it until that fateful senior spring when, all of sudden, life’s reality comes face to face with the world of childhood safety, arriving with an abrupt irreversibility. The results may startle polite society, but they shouldn’t. When eyes are suddenly exposed to the sunshine of the everpresent duality of love and loss, and they’re booted out of Eden with a fiery sword, tilling that salty field begins just like this.