Friday, November 21, 2014

on not being a "popular kid" in high school

I guess I achieved a certain measure of notoriety by the time I was a senior in high school, the kind that comes from whispers about "the little genius" in AP Lang (whispers I never heard directly), "the child prodigy," "the published author," "the girl with the Wikipedia page." This was cute, flattering, and constantly surprising.

But notoriety is different from popularity.

Someone might have heard of me, sure, but that was different from the kind of all-consuming desire to be with me, to be me, that shadowed the popular kids.

In tenth grade I was a shy fourteen-year-old, the kind of person who sat back in my chair and watched events I didn't fully understand. But I quickly realized who was "popular." They were carefree, rich, and beautiful. They had cars which they talked nonchalantly about crashing, and cabins at Steven's Pass or Whistler. I wasn't old enough to drive. I'd never been skiing. The popular kids all seemed to be athletes, too--beautiful lithe cheerleaders, dance team girls, tall volleyball or soccer players, and a whole lot of football and track and cross country. I didn't have a team or a club that felt particularly like home; it would be another year before RHS Speech and Debate formed for real.

Because of that lack of a cohesive group, the struggle that epitomized high school stress for me was the task of finding who to sit with at lunch. In the hallway leading from the classrooms to the cafeteria, illuminated by sunlight flooding in through floor-to-ceiling windows, were wooden benches. They lined the walls, gleaming rosily. They were always packed with people. The cafeteria itself was a zoo. Both the benches and the cafeteria tables seemed reserved for that separate class of the species: people who knew people. Oh, sure, I knew people, but I wasn't confident enough to feel like I could barge into their tightly-linked circles. My sister and her orchestra friends sat on one of those wooden benches in the hallway. We said hi, tersely, once. I didn't expect to be able to rely on her for an entry into high school social life in any way other than being introduced sometimes as "Adri's little sister."

My main point is this: much as I hate to admit it, and probably tried to forget it, I know what it's like to look around furtively for an empty table, somewhere in a corner you can sit with a laptop and some food to pretend like you're eating alone by choice. (Hint: I'm not.) I know what it's like to make a last-ditch effort to bond with two of your older sister's friends just so you have some friendly people to sit with (holla, first day of junior year). I know what it's like to sit in the emptiest of empty bathrooms with your plastic sandwich container and a sandwich you suddenly don't feel like eating that much anymore because you don't want anyone you know to see you eating by yourself. I know what it's like to feel unwanted because it takes your big sister's intervention to get you a homecoming group (sophomore year!) And oh, the most painful--I know what it's like to hear one of the boys in that homecoming group tell your sister afterwards, "Adora kind of dances like a spaz."

It does get better--so much better. In a sort of exquisite karmic retribution, the boy of the spaz comment asked me to homecoming in junior year. And at lunch I started having philosophical conversations with a classmate from my AP Psych class, debates on cynicism and idealism, and alternating dirty jokes and heart-to-hearts with my best friends. I looked around a cafeteria of hundreds of people and realized that I could find a friend at almost any table I wanted. It was the kind of thing I'd only dreamed of as that shy fourteen-year-old of sophomore year.

There's a New York Magazine article entitled Why You Never Truly Leave High School, a (grim for some) piece on the disproportionate influence of your late adolescence in shaping the rest of your life. "Our self-image from those years...is especially adhesive," the article states. Maybe that's why I revert a lot to that shy fourteen-year-old I once was, feeling like I'm just tagging along with the big sister who didn't want the nerd kid sister around to cramp her style. Just tagging along with the boy who never really liked me that way. Just tagging along with the popular kids who find something entertaining or philanthropic or astute about being kind to the petite girl with half-framed glasses and big vocabulary, whose worksheet answers were always available for copying in the madcap minute before the bell.

When I think of my true self, sans all the impurities that come with time and the experiences that mean little more than X's on a checklist, I think of a fourteen-year-old girl who's never been kissed, still lights up with the joy of the unexpected when someone calls her beautiful, acts like everyone's kid sister, tells two boys she likes them with inelegant apology-and-pathos-filled letters, loves hard and runs fast. I think of a seventeen-year-old girl who will always feel grateful for the invite to the party and the seat at the table, and tries to pay those forward too. Sometimes it's those moments of struggle we try to forget that enable us to rescue the reincarnations of our past selves, as their eyes scan crowded cafeterias, looking as delicate and vulnerable as we once were--

in some ways, as we will all always be.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

where are you going, where have you been?

I'm seventeen, which means that I'm overdue for the Next Big Thing. 

That's the way the voice in the back of my head talks. It's the voice that feeds on every "So what are you doing now?" "Are you planning on writing another book?" "What are the issues you care about?" "When's your next speaking engagement?" -- in short, every question that could possibly be asked by some well-meaning person who's watched my TED Talk and recognizes that I'm not a twelve-year-old girl anymore.

In wishing me happy birthday on my Facebook wall, one of my roommates welcomed me to my "last year of being a child prodigy." I never really thought of myself as a prodigy, mainly because prodigies are people like Mozart. Prodigies don't sway enthusiastically to the song "Stay High" at parties or get B's on history papers (sorry, Mom and Dad). They most definitely don't write angsty blog posts about their past and future while listening to Marina and the Diamonds in order to procrastinate on writing speeches they need to deliver in less than a week.

But for the sake of discussion, let's say that this is my last year of being a prodigy. That means 18 will be my first year of being...what? Will the candle on my eighteenth birthday cake be, like a swaying flame in one of those mysterious ceremonies for sororities or secret societies I never joined, a first initiation into blissful, anonymous, normality?

That question, or some version of it, reliably wraps my mind in knots tighter and cleverer than anything my fingers could tie. It's done that ever since I turned 13 or 14, when I first became conscious of the fact that luck and opportunity had pushed my starting block ahead on the track of the archetypal rat race. At that age I was turning down some opportunities to speak in front of lots of people for various reasons: the impact wouldn't be great enough or the travel time would be too much.

I knew I had friends who would kill for those same chances.

Those are the moments when you think I'd look down at my metaphorical starting block and just be glad for where it was, but all I wondered was this: could I keep pushing it ahead? At what point my friends would catch up and start lapping me? And would anyone forgive me if I turned around and ran in the other direction, to join them? Because I wanted to go to prom. I wanted to have summer romances. I wanted to stay up too late talking to friends on weekday evenings.

But didn't I also want the inspiration of the people I met at conferences? The chance to be an influencer? The opportunities?

Por que no los dos?

The voice in the back of my head believes in a Wonder Woman, of the type that illustrates Barnard College president Debora Spar's book of the same name. A woman (or girl, I haven't decided which I am yet) who can be productive and popular, who can study in the library and finish writing her speeches and stories on time and run infinite miles per week, make oodles of close friends who she calls up for 2 AM heart-to-hearts and snuggle parties watching her favorite tear-jerkers (Philadelphia, A Single Man, and Casablanca, fyi). She is able to sing. She faithfully attends those free Zumba group classes at the gym. She delivers well-prepared speeches at every conference she attends, speeches that earn her standing ovations, and writes books that earn her all the money, power, and glory of the Lana Del Rey song. She is perfect. And she is not me.

The problem with the rat race is that it treats life like one of those clear white lines on a track, and if there's anything that isn't linear, it's life. Screw the rat race. Screw running in one direction. And you know what, screw the fact that I'm using "screw" here because using the more profane alternative in a public blog would compromise my "image" (to quote the sole line I remember from Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," "The horror! The horror!")

The other night, my friend Julian asked me what makes me wake up in the morning and I realized I didn't have a good answer. This morning I woke up around noon (in my defense, I went to bed pretty late) and stayed there until almost 1pm trying to figure out the answer, finally fixing on the thought that I really, really needed a glass of water. "I wake up in the morning because I realize I need water" is so low on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs that the distance between me and self-actualization seems mildly insurmountable at 1pm.

The truth is, I don't know sometimes why I wake up in the morning. I don't know if my verbose anger at the rat race is just my sturm-und-drang-heavy defense of an imperfect life.

Maybe the whole rat race metaphor is the wrong one, at least one that's been keeping me looking at my feet for too long. I like to think instead that we're ships on a vast and endless sea with no land in sight. That's terrifying to some, but it gives me the thought that the sooner we stop searching for the land we'll never reach, the sooner we can turn our gaze away and upwards, to lose ourselves in the twinkling constellations where we will someday find our place.

So you're saying achieving temporal perfection is less important than finding grander meaning?

Yeah.

Nice try. Now get your f***ing speech done, kid.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

having fun by myself

It occurred to me a few months ago that other people watch movies and TV shows by themselves.

I know, I know, this is the sort of epiphany that isn't supposed to be an epiphany, in that class of Realizations Adora Has Way Too Late (like "Three left turns make a right? WHAAAAAT?" as my classmate patiently taught me me how to make my robot turn in my comp sci and engineering class, or learning how to tie my shoes when I was...uhhh...older than 10, or finally doing precalc over the summer before my senior year).

But this realization has deeper roots than sucky spatial reasoning or laziness in the shoe-tying department or math avoidance. Consciously thinking, "Huh, other people watch stuff for entertainment by themselves" made me reflect on why I don't.

One of my neighbors, around my age, has a TV in his own room...and in almost every other room of his house. My family owns a grand total of one TV, so out of necessity turning on the TV at all has been a family affair since I was a kid. It started with watching episodes of Friends with my parents, laughing at all the jokes before I was old enough to understand what most of them meant. Then we watched 60 Minutes and America's Funniest Home Videos, switching between ABC and CBS in time to see some dude getting whacked in the balls on one channel and some dude getting subpoenaed before Congress on the other (obviously, AFV and 60 Minutes aren't that different).

When I was a tad bit older Saturday Night Live became the latest family tradition, and when I got a little older yet we started piling into the living room on Thursday nights to watch the Big Bang Theory, religiously, at 8pm. Back in the DVD days of Netflix, we had to come to a consensus on which movies to order; grudgingly, my family once agreed to watch the thinly-veiled political commentary movie Miral, if only because I put up with my sister's 1990s chick flicks and Mom's French romantic dramas. (I allied with my dad on Humphrey Bogart/Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn movies and weird comedies). When we started Netflix Instant Play, the member of the family who skipped ahead and watched a later episode of Arrested Development without the rest of the clan (cough ADRIANNA cough) would get scolded.

The only show I ever watched by myself, without my mom or my dad or my sister or friends around, was NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. But that was never really for fun fun the same way the Big Bang Theory or Friends was for fun fun. It was fun, it just wasn't fun ^2. You know.

It was chatting with people on Facebook that tipped me off to the fact that I was weird. They'd tell me "I'm watching X show right now" (while chatting, which is pretty blasphemous--seriously, who talks while watching TV?!?! That's like farting while praying or something, right?) and I'd realize Wow, people have fun by themselves.

People have fun by themselves.

Why should that be so surprising?

My first love was reading, and reading books is the poster girl of solitary fun. Sure, you can read to someone else, but it's basically an individual thing. Except there's that scene from A Single Man (one of my favorite movies, by the way) where the two are reading, and it's gorgeous and AHHH 
But let's put that aside for now.

I've decided that I want to make having fun by myself more of a priority, because, extroverted as I am, being around people can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating. I don't need to call up a friend every time I want to watch a movie, and I can give myself permission to watch the last episode of Bob's Burgers without my sister (sorry, Adrianna).

After all, if I divide my life into this false binary of alone + working vs. with people + having fun, I'm never going to know what my laugh sounds like in an empty room, with my covers pulled up to my chin as I watch some Monty Python movie for the 3rd time.

And I think the lone laugh might just be beautiful. 

Monday, May 05, 2014

This House

Yes, it’s stupid, but I wanted this to be the house
To go to for Thanksgiving when I’m 30,
After all, this is the house where I slept with boys for the first time,
In those platonic fumbling moments during “co-ed” sleepovers,
And told horror stories on a creaky bed at 3 AM.
This is the house where I told my first crush that I liked him,
In the unjudging darkness of my pink-walled room,
The eyes of wooden dolls looking down benevolently
At my hopeful, hopeless six-year-old self.

This, the house whose nooks and crannies I knew
Like the curves of the handle of my suitcase,
Where I could fling the door open after getting home on a red-eye flight
And pad across the hall in a millisecond flat to jump on my twin bed.
The floor in the entranceway is a black-and-white chessboard,
And it occurs to me when I walk on it with sockless feet
That there’s no other place where cold marble is so welcoming.
I’ve come back so many times, that I can ride the curve of the freeway winding into this city
in my dreams, and I do.

This is the house whose green walls were Base when we played tag,
We played out in this backyard with mud and hands and knees,
Used sticks and bandanas for Capture the Flag games where
No one knew the rules. We took prisoners without asking
And when we won, we yelped from one wooden deck
Across to the other, then went inside for watermelon slices bigger than our heads
laughing at the sticky juice,
as if the raindrops that go missing from Seattle in the summertime,
dripping down our cheeks onto these granite kitchen floors like a baptism.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sorting as a prevalent plot device in YA lit

This weekend I went to see Divergent, the movie adaptation of Veronica Roth's bestselling and Hunger Games-esque dystopia novels for young adults, largely because of the buzz in my school's feminist club about the main character who (gasp!) stands up for herself, has a girl best friend with whom she does not compete over boys, and manages to save the male lead/love interest practically as many times as he saves her.

Conflict in Divergent arises because the character is, as the title might imply, different; she fails to fit into a single "faction," a group determined by your strengths--selflessness, honesty, intelligence, kindness, or bravery. The story itself isn't an unusual one for YA lit: main character faces romantic subplot plus conflict with a corrupt government that threatens her life. And there's another thing: the prevalence of sorting. Think about popular YA novels/series of our time--Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, the Giver, Percy Jackson and the Olympians--and then think about how sorting plays a role. Hogwarts houses in HP. Districts in HG. Assigned roles (Birthmother, Giver, etc.) in The Giver. Houses based on parentage in Olympians.

After watching Divergent I wondered why. Why do we rely so much on sorting in YA lit? Is it because in real life, characterization of teenagers and kids happens more by the groups we express allegiance to than the values we ourselves espouse? Because people don't think that our morality has emerged beyond Kohlberg's conventional level of moral development, and thus we need our group loyalties to keep us in line?

Or is it something else entirely, a shrewd way for writers to tap into the innate desire of so many youngsters, who are struggling with finding their own groups, to simply belong? In other words, a rather terrifying question: do all these dystopian (or simply fantasy, in the case of Harry Potter or Olympians) sorting mechanisms speak to something we actually desire?

Monday, March 17, 2014

keeping up with the joneses, when the joneses are high schoolers

When I came back from South by Southwest EDU, I felt excited. Vitalized. Energized. Motivated. All the good words that end in -ed. But I also came back pressured. 

It wasn't the kind of pressure that anyone put on me explicitly. It was the kind of pressure that comes from talking shop with some of the smartest people in the teenage jet set, the kind of people who start awesome non-profits, build their own apps, launch political action committees, and compare speaking engagements the way some of my classmates compare who went to which parties. Instead of "Were you at Dana's? Joe's? Sarah's?" these peeps ask "Were you at CGI? Davos? TED?" 

In NY Times article the Youngest Technocrati, UChicago economist Gary Becker was quoted saying, "This surge in youthful innovation and entrepreneurship looks unprecedented."

As our resumes get longer, younger, the insecurities pile up too. Impostor syndrome, which Wikipedia describes as "a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments...those with the syndrome remain convinced that they...do not deserve the success they have achieved. [They believe that others think] they are more intelligent and competent than they [really are]," runs rampant. I've heard inventors and TED speakers and university valedictorians under 20 years old all say some variation of, "I don't think I'm that smart."

It's gotten so bad that at this point, hearing someone disparage their own intelligence has practically become a sign of its existence.

Combine a room full of smart teenagers with too many accomplishments to list, all thinking that everyone else is smarter and more accomplished, with the modern world, and you have a recipe for the kind of gut-wrenching, anxiety-breeding busyness profiled so prolifically in everything from books (Overwhelmed) to NY Times opinion pieces ("The Busy Trap"). In "The Busy Trap," author Tim Kreider writes, "Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day."

And existential crises are, like impostor syndrome, common among the "smart" and accomplished. On the Davidson Institute's website, J. Webb writes, "It is such existential issues that lead many of our gifted individuals to bury themselves so intensively in "causes" (whether these causes are academics, political or social causes, or cults)." 

Burying oneself in a cause? 

Sounds like a lot of people I know, perhaps including yours truly.

On the flight home from Austin, I pulled out my iPad and started a frenetic brainstorming session listing all the possible organizations to get involved with, internships to apply to, influencers to contact, topics to write about, websites to write for, causes to advocate. I tried to dream up issues to have an opinion on and vulnerable groups that people hadn't stood up for already, because I didn't want to be late to any party. 

Yes, this was how shallow I was on that evening flight out of Texas, and in retrospect, I hate it.

I got home that night and looked critically at my calendar. I decided, quickly, that there was too much emptiness. This, even though I regularly stayed up until 1 AM on school nights finishing homework and answering emails. This, even though I had to schedule in time with friends ("Hang out with J," "Froyo with H," certain days' appointments would read) and often had to struggle to find a convenient place to schedule a phone call. But it seemed like everyone else was busier yet. How could I complain when my friends were getting 2 hours of sleep and on red-eye planes to Europe and winning robotics tournaments and pulling straight A's and getting jobs, and I was...napping?

It was guilt for not being busy enough. Tim Krieder in the NYTimes went on to say, "Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work." It was immensely relatable. When he went on to write about a friend who'd taken a sabbatical of sorts from the whirlwind of NYC, he said that she'd changed for the better. "What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do."

"Force" might be overstating it. None of my friends at school or at conferences ever looked me in the eye and told me that I had to churn out some new accomplishments. In fact, our indulgent late-night conversations indicated the opposite: in our drowsy musings out loud, we idealistically assured each other that we would still be friends with each other, regardless of what we chose to do (or not). 

And yet there's still that ever-present sound in the background like a heartbeat that reminds us to get busier. In the Washington Post article, "Why Being Too Busy Makes Us Feel So Good," Brigid Schulte writes, "People compete over being busy; it’s about showing status. “If you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life,” Burnett says. Keeping up with the Joneses used to be about money, cars and homes. Now, she explains, “if you’re not as busy as the Joneses, you’d better get cracking.”" 

I need my boredom. I need my sleep. I need my 30 minutes on Thursday nights with my family to watch the Big Bang Theory, because let's face it, the fate of #Shamy is way more important than anything I'm working on.

Most of all, I need a society that's okay with me having a Google Calendar that stretches on and on with unfilled white pages, the way the sky stretches on and on above me when I'm trying to trace shapes in the clouds. I need pausing to find beauty. And sometimes it takes beauty--like a thought provoking late-night conversation with a friend, or a spontaneous adventure ditching class to run in the woods, or a highly relatable NYTimes article--to make us pause.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Merit"

The full text of the talk I delivered at Yale and Columbia:

It’s 9:01 PM, and I’m looking at a photo.
               It’s a photo of a bunch of smiling teenagers. They’re standing in a rather official-looking building with wood-paneled walls and a clock on the wall. They are exuberant. Close. Joyful—and, perhaps, joyfully smug. I have known some of them since middle school, others since sophomore or junior year. They are my classmates. My friends. They are my high school’s National Merit scholars, preparing to receive official district commendations.
               This group of students will get the best that life can hand them. They are getting into Ivy League schools. Prestigious science research summer programs. Becoming finalists in competitions. Winning tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships. They stand on the precipice of taking control of their lives, and they are owning it.
               Let’s backtrack a little. How did they get here?
               When they were six years old, or twelve years old—in elementary or middle school—they went to school with perhaps a little more nervousness than usual. On that day, these students took a test that placed them at the top percentile of their class and made them eligible for the district’s exalted gifted program. When they entered high school, they entered with a knowledge base in all the core subjects that was practically a grade higher than their general-ed counterparts. They slid easily into Honors and AP classes like they were born for them. They took 6, 7 AP classes a year and made straight A’s. On a day in October they went to school with perhaps a little more nervousness than usual to take another test, this one national. It’s called the PSAT. And they did well.
               Their story is the story of a large and privileged class of teenagers around the nation. It’s the story of students who knew what hoops they had to jump through and jumped with a beautiful choreography that would make gymnastics Olympians proud. I used to believe that they earned those high scores, perfect grades, and joyful smiles because they were the hardest-working. That “merit” meant merit. Today, I wonder, even as much as I love these people, as much as I know that they are some of the smartest people I know, if we overestimate what testing can tell us about any given person’s qualifications—for the best schools, the best jobs, the best lives. I wonder if we have fallen too deeply in love with the idea of quantifying merit. Most importantly, I wonder what we can do to change education for the better through true partnerships between students and educators, and an entrepreneurial mindset that brings fresh ideas to the education reform discussion.
My hope is that you will walk away today with the idea that “merit” needs to be expanded beyond mere “smartness,” into the many areas of excellence that represent the diversity of a given population and the diversity of needs in an economy.
I began by talking about my friends who are National Merit scholars, and how they got there with a test. They’re not the only ones who take a lot of tests; ours is an age of relentless testing. By the time I graduate from high school I will have taken not only standardized state tests in various subjects but also 10 AP tests, 3 SATs, and 2 SAT subject tests. Others have done significantly more. In many districts, students take “adaptive assessments” to help “drive data-driven practices”—a mumbo-jumbo of words that the average student, not to mention community members or parents, doesn’t fully understand.
Testing sorts learners into a false binary of successes and failures, as if any test can truly be an accurate snapshot of someone as complex and colorful and beautiful as an individual who walks into your classroom. Because of testing culture, we have shifted focus from that which can be learned to that which can be trotted out and “performed” on a test. Unfortunately, this makes students automatically associate test-taking with learning. Overtime, many students come to rely on the “test tomorrow” as their sole motivation for learning, because our intrinsic motivation and natural desire to learn has been so eroded. Contrary to popular belief, events with high stakes (like testing) are not the best ways to motivate people—as the bestselling business writer Dan Pink has famously pointed out in many a speech (and his most recent book), we do better work when we are driving with our own passion, instead of going for a reward (or avoiding a loss, as it were). Pink gives the example of employees at companies like Google and FedEx who have used their company-allotted “free time” to come up with products significantly more innovative, or even profitable, than what they did normally. He calls this “non-commissioned work,” and says that it’s better than commissioned work. People are more productive when they enjoy their work, and the same is true for students. I think I speak for the majority of students when I say that bubbling in a Scantron is not my idea of fun.
At some point, the tests become dehumanizing—dehumanizing because they strip away that most basic of human characteristics, the one that drives babies to chew everything in sight and little kids to ask “Why” about everything, curiosity. When it comes to curiosity, I hit rock bottom in mid-October, the night before a hundred-point AP Biology test. Watching me glower tearfully at a page filled with facts and figures about photosynthesis, my dad said genially, “Do you know about the isotopes involved?” That was when I snapped.
“If it’s not on the test, I DON’T CARE!” I snarled.
I was never the girl in class who raised her hand and asked “Um…is this going to be on the test?” I was never that person who stayed up until 4 AM and had dates on Friday nights with my sexy…pile of flashcards. But one test had me completely unwound—and my parents (thankfully) never even pressured me to achieve all A’s.
Sometimes I wish they had. When I was filling out college apps every fiber of me wished that for four years I had had my very own Tiger parents. Parents who had shuttled me to SAT prep classes instead of just giving me the $5 in cash I needed to buy a used book from a friend. Parents who had told me that I needed to do math classes over the summer and enrichment classes online instead of parents who accepted that I was simply going to do Algebra II while some of my friends did AP Calc. Parents who had said “no more absences from school” instead of letting me jet around the world, to 15 countries and 27 states, speaking at conferences where I learned more in some weeks than I ever had in school. Or wait…did I really want those alternate-universe parents?
I’m glad that I had the parents I had. That I had parents who were brave enough to reject, or perhaps clueless enough not to know, what it takes in these days of high-stakes testing and cutthroat competition, to get into the most prestigious colleges. I’m glad that I had parents who never ordered me to stop reading the ridiculously gigantic piles of books I checked out from the library (most recently, I went on a spree and got 17 all at once) so that I could study for upcoming tests.
Well, my parents were brave, or clueless; but I’m not. Most school days provide me with the hardest fights of my life—veritable duels between my innate desire to learn out of curiosity, to read all the books I’ve checked out from the library, versus my desire to learn for someone else’s ranking, to prepare for tests coming up. The pressure of passing one test or another is frequently burning in the back of my mind like a slowly rising fever. If thinking about the “test tomorrow” were a disease on WebMD it would list as one of its hallmark symptoms tunnel vision—because testing creates a narrow focus that excludes everything that won’t help you. It takes focus and time away from discussion, from finishing books on a personal reading list, from independent learning.
And yet. And yet. Why are we nationally moving to yet more testing? Not only does it allow for politicians to point to greater “accountability,” it also benefits a large and powerful industry. PBS first pointed out the growth of the educational-industrial complex with its post-No Child Left Behind story on Frontline. It discussed the hundreds of millions of dollars being allotted by the federal government for standardized testing, and said, “Among the likely benefactors of the extra funds were the four companies that dominate the testing market -- three test publishers and one scoring firm. Those four companies are Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing, and NCS Pearson. According to an October 2001 report, Harcourt, CTB McGraw-Hill, and Riverside Publishing write 96 percent of the exams administered at the state level. NCS Pearson, meanwhile, is the leading scorer of standardized tests…testing is a burgeoning industry…while test sales in 1955 were $7 million (adjusted to 1998 dollars), that figure was $263 million in 1997, an increase of more than 3,000 percent.” Today, those numbers are even higher.
There’s something wrong with that. There’s something wrong with the fact that corporations have quietly woven themselves into the fabric of what, to many people, makes the tapestry of the modern education system: tests. In the review of Diane Ravitch’s book, [The Nation author] wrote, “The mission of public schools should not be to make money, she insists. Required to educate all citizens, public schools embody hard-won principles of equity and inclusion that are now endangered. The free market always favors those with more money and information, generating inequality. Ravitch says that purported free-market solutions have worked as distractions from the truly pressing problems of poverty and segregation by race and class, which impede learning and therefore should be the actual target of education and social reform.”
               That we are distracted from the truly pressing problems of poverty and segregation by race and class is unsurprising considering our current interpretation of “merit.” Instead of truly rewarding hard work, more often than not we accidentally perpetuate long-held inequalities—along socioeconomic, geographic, and racial lines. Hunter College High School is an elite public secondary school in New York City that uses a test every year to select its entering class, those students who make the top percentile of test-takers. Some years back, the faculty chose Hudson, a student headed to Columbia University, to give the valedictorian address. After the standard expressions of gratitude and nostalgia, he said something shocking: “More than happiness, relief, fear, or sadness, I feel guilty. I feel guilty because I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do any of you. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven-year-olds, or four-year-olds. We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as ‘gifted,’ while kids who naturally needed those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system. And now, we stand on the precipice of our lives, in control of our lives, based purely and simply on luck and circumstance. If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside, and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that. We are talking about eleven-year-olds…we are deciding children’s fates before they even had a chance. We are playing God, and we are losing. Kids are losing the opportunity to go to college or obtain a career, because no one taught them long division or colors. Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children, who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity, are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we’re smarter than them.”
We have the audacity to say we’re smarter than them.
I was surprised to learn that the word meritocracy first entered the popular lexicon because of a British member of Parliament, Michael Young, who wrote a book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, in 1958. It described a new British social system, the “meritocracy,” that would create the new elite by testing all children and then segregating them—putting them in the best schools with the greatest resources. It sounds familiar because we do it. We do it at schools in New York, we do it with entrance exams for gifted and talented programs in middle schools in my home district. In reading about Michael Young’s vision I was reminded of the Quest program, which is what my home district’s gifted program is called. Students stress out in elementary and middle school about getting into Quest. Once they’re in, they’re part of an extraordinarily insular community that remains a defining factor in their friendships even once the program ends. “Questies” tend to stick together, their friend groups solidified by having essentially spent eight years together taking the majority of their classes with the exact same people. It creates an unfortunate dichotomy in the minds of a few, where “gen ed” kids are “stupid” and only Questies are smart.
To go back to Michael Young’s book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, here’s the kicker: Michael Young didn’t set out to create an ideal. His book was supposed to be a dystopia. A dystopia.
He said in 2001 that “the book was a satire meant to be a warning.”
Clearly, we didn’t get that memo. Our society runs on the hubris of believing that we know the ins and outs of the science of quantifying “merit”—we test students with district-wide assessments, state tests and national tests and tests from private companies or non-profits like the CollegeBoard. APs, SATs, ACTs. If someone does well on the PSAT in eleventh grade they may become a National Merit scholar. But that is a misnomer because multiple-choice tests are desperately imperfect ways to determine merit. Here’s why: there are too many ways to game the system, and too many people who have everything to win if they do.
You win if you’re rich. You start off by going to a private school, or a public school in a better neighborhood. That school is richer because of better revenues from property taxes, so it can afford to hire more qualified teachers. Later on, you can get everything money can buy—brand spanking new books, SAT prep classes, tutors, and, if you need to, taking the test over and over and over again. A poor student might ask their counselor—a counselor who might be working with upwards of 500 students—for a fee waiver just once, out of embarrassment, lack of time, or inability to provide sometimes exhaustive evidence of a family’s financial situation (depending on the strictness of the counselor). Someone with comparatively infinite resources can pay as many times as they need until the 2200 or 2300 or 2400 is theirs. I know people who have taken it 4 times. 5 times. And in all honesty, I took it 3 times, because although a perfect score on critical reading was great, my lackluster 540/800 on math (“Well, at least it’s not an F percentage!” I said weakly to my parents afterwards) was not. So I took online precalculus over the summer. It was the cheapest course I could find but I still paid up a monthly fee that I know many students with parents struggling to find work or barely making ends meet could never afford. I scored a hundred points higher the next time I took the test. Richer kids even have better incentives to score higher—“Get a 2350 and we’ll get you a car,” said one of my friend’s parents.
You win if you’re a teacher, principal, or superintendent with no scruples, who can earn accolades for “raising test scores” by…well…raising test scores, albeit in unethical ways. I’m talking about the type of thing that happened in Georgia, a scandal so widespread that a school district superintendent ended up going to jail. In Georgia, teachers gathered en masse to change students’ answers on tests, huddled over piles and piles of bubble-in sheets with pencils and erasers at the ready. The superintendent was lauded for “improving urban schools,” a bright illusion created by cheating. The true scandal to me, though, is less that so many educators cheated, and more that tests were our sole measure of whether those schools were okay. A school can produce the most shiny and gleaming of A’s and B’s and be rotten at its core—stressed-out students who don’t care about learning for learning’s sake but only regurgitate, teachers and staff so stressed by the drive to produce high scores that they focus, narrowly, on tests only, a lack of a cohesive community that celebrates the kinds of merit that don’t get tested (in the arts, sciences, or entrepreneurship).
What’s more, these tests don’t really mean you’re smart or not. They test how well you can memorize material determined important by “standards” that are extraordinarily arbitrary. It used to be that being a meritorious scholar meant that you could rattle off key works of art of the Western world, knew Latin and Greek like the back of your hand and maybe French, Spanish, or German. Today being a meritorious scholar means high scores on Critical Reading, Writing, and Mathematics. But is the heart-wrenching decision between whether a passage’s tone is more “bellicose” or “indignant” really a reflection of if someone is smart? My gain of 100 points on the math section wasn’t because I grew smarter, it was because I had a lot of help. The 800 on reading that felt so easy to me was because my parents bought me a lot of books and I grew up hearing bigger words. How can you account for all that, make up for the lost time in one person’s life or the inequality of advantages in another, in trying to decide how smart someone is? To me, this is why we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can determine merit with a test score.
To emphasize the pervasive falsehood that we know what it means to be meritorious because of how someone does on a test that supposedly measures smartness is to drive a destructive attitude into our universities and our lives that “makes intelligence its highest virtue,” to quote the author Christopher Hayes. He goes on to say, quote, “Intelligence is a vitally necessary characteristic for those with powerful positions. But it isn’t just a celebration of smartness that characterizes the culture of meritocracy. It’s something more pernicious: a conviction that smartness is rankable and that the hierarchy of intelligence, like the hierarchy of wealth, never plateaus…While smartness is necessary, it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued. Indeed, extreme intelligence without these qualities can be extremely destructive. But empathy does not impress the same way smartness does. Smartness dazzles and mesmerizes.” End quote. 
Many people will say that school is supposed to be preparation for society, and society hands working adults the business equivalents of Scantrons and SATs—competition and ranking systems at companies like JP Morgan, automatically firing the workers at the bottom 10%. Life, many say, is a rat race. Personally, I think that we build what we want our society to be in our schools. And I want a school that doesn’t hand me a rat race, because I want a society that values me as more than a class rank, a score, a percentile.
So—I’ve talked a lot about the problem. Now the question is, how do we fix it?
We need three things: one, the student perspective in education reform; two, greater independence for students in their learning; and three, more variety offered in high school when it comes to courses and tracks available so that every student can realize they have merit somewhere, regardless of how well they did on their SAT.
First, embracing the student perspective in education reform. The kinds of criticisms of testing culture, or limited ways of measuring “merit,” that we need aren’t going to come from politicians who like the “accountability” and seemingly easy answers that testing offers. The criticisms aren’t going to come from parents who don’t take part in the education reform discussion, including parents of kids most marginalized by high-stakes testing. It’s going to come, most authentically and most urgently, from students like me. That’s why I am a huge advocate of class-, school-, and district-level solicitation of student voice. When I spoke recently to an audience of 500 principals and superintendents at a Michigan school improvement conference, I had the opportunity afterwards to be on a panel that featured students from a local school. It was the first chance they’d ever had to get on a stage and speak honestly about their high school experience. It’s a chance that more students need to get. The #StuVoice movement, started by a University of Maryland student named Zak Malamed, is trying to bring a national stage to all students—the #StuVoice weekly Twitter discussion, every Monday, has become so large that #StuVoice has been a trending topic on Twitter. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even joined one night, leading to one student tweeting, “the Secretary of Education is on this? That’s so dope” and Secretary Duncan responding, “Yes, it is pretty dope.”
Second, independence in learning. At Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington, MA, a handful of teens in a room conducting something called “The Independent Project” are changing education. It all started in 2010 with a student named Sam Levin. He’d already led a student-run garden initiative (inspiring him to later launch a non-profit called Project Sprout), but he wanted to use the independence and dedication he’d learned in the garden on entirely new terrain: within the halls of his high school. The Independent Project, an innovative school-within-a-school program, was built around the ideas that students could be independent learners within a collaborative group of their peers. Instead of focusing on spoon-feeding a set curriculum to students, as is the case with regular high school subjects, the Independent Project divided the student’s time: half the day for a major independent endeavor (writing a novel, recording an album, learning to play piano), and half the day for inquiry-based learning in the natural and social sciences. In addition, the entire group would take on a collective project with social significance. The students addressed questions ranging from “Is there science behind old wives’ tales?” to “Why do we cry?” to “how do mice react to aromatherapy?” They read more books in eight weeks than most AP language arts classes read in a school year, and what’s more, they loved it.
Students came from across the academic spectrum: from straight-A students to special ed. They all piled into a spare room—the head coach’s office in the girls’ locker room—and started transforming it into a home base for learning. They painted the walls, and brought in shelves and books. It may have been within the walls of a school, but in many ways, it transcended the bubble our schools often create for us. As Matt Whalan, a student in the program, said, “How can you teach someone about the world when you’re isolating them from the world?” The Independent Project did the opposite. Today, the project has significant momentum, with almost 30,000 views of the YouTube documentary, press coverage in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and TIME, and a website with the project’s story, whitepaper, and a map showing other schools where the Independent Project has been implemented. That’s a major part of the Project’s larger goal: scalability. Now that Sam Levin’s a student at the University of Oxford (his senior compatriots from that pilot year got into some equally prestigious schools—Yale should ring a bell), the continuation of the program has been assured by faculty and underclassmen at his high school, but he (and many others) want the project to spread further than the highlands of the Berkshires. As Williams College psychology professor Susan Engel said about the project, “I feel it is the only way to radically change our high school education in this country, to make kids feel in charge of their own education, to make them be not just the recipients, but the authors of their own educational experience. This has enormous potential. All we need to do is make it contagious.”
The power of the Independent Project is best summarized by the Antoine Saint-Exupery quote at the beginning of a fifteen-minute documentary about the project: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” I want this to be what education does. I want this to be what education is. Not the four years that prepare me for tests, but the four years that make me fall in love with learning—or, rather, never fall out of love with it in the first place.
               The third thing we need is variety. I agree with Diane Ravitch, the former Secretary of Education who is now vehemently against the expansion of high-stakes testing, on the idea that public schools also have an obligation to produce a full, rounded and “liberal” education. That idea is clearly realized with pursuits like the Independent Project or schools like Bard College Early High School in New York, where one student, Sam, says, quote, “The day that the course catalogue comes out at my school is like Christmas morning. Almost as soon as the catalogues are put out, they disappear, and my friends and I run through the hall frantically circling all of the classes that we want to take. Instead of worrying about choosing between AP English and AP Government, we're excited to see that "Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky" and a political science course called "Equality" are being offered…My high school, Bard High School Early College (BHSEC), offers a nontraditional alternative to high school in New York City…During the last two years of high school I was able to choose from a plethora of onsite college courses taught by college professors, many of whom have doctorate degrees in their field of study…BHSEC also emphasizes discussion rather than lecture as its method of teaching, and expects that students will develop critical thinking tools by challenging one another's ideas…BHSEC's tight financial situation raises an important question to think about in American education: how can we offer successful, innovative public education programs in a climate where financial resources are so limited? Finding a solution to this problem will require a significant shift away from investing in students' test scores and toward funding programs like BHSEC that challenge students to critically think. As a BHSEC student, discussing notions of Lockean consent with a professor who had just published a book on religious toleration in Israel was exponentially more valuable to me than learning how to answer a question on an AP or Regents exam. Learning how to build an argument by examining contradicting viewpoints meant more to me than learning how to construct a standard five-paragraph essay…All of the students, teachers and parents in my school also embrace a love for learning beyond exam scores and report cards, (I have frequently had conversations about Kafka with friends over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at lunch)…”
Variety doesn’t necessarily just mean more, and better, academic courses. It also means that educational institutions house arts learning and trade learning, where students can be excellent at the sciences, dance, or become culinary geniuses. Des Moines, Iowa, has such a place, called Central Campus. It houses a magnet school for those who are academically-focused as well as career-focused options for those interested in everything from education to transportation. A recent cover story of TIME Magazine focused on a six-year high school that focused on getting students a tech-focused education, enabling them to then take guaranteed jobs and paid internships at IBM (a major sponsor of the school). The students were motivated by the connection to industry and the real-world context of their learning. The students were almost universally African-American and from low income brackets. However, the kind of career-focused education they were offered needs to be offered more often, and not just to minorities or kids from lower income brackets—there should be nothing stigmatizing or segregating about an education that focuses on real world components as much as it does on academics.
Student voice affecting decisions on how we change schools. Independence in learning. Variety in the courses and tracks offered to students. These may not seem like direct challenges to high-stakes tests—because they’re not. Instead, they challenge something far deeper, the underlying ideal that merit is a singular score; student voice, independence, and variety help to promote the idea that the strength of a society comes from the diversity of ways in which we define merit, and reward it. No economy of diverse individuals can flourish if we do not find merit in wider expressions of excellence beyond smartness in academics. As we learn to recognize and reward the value of a broader spectrum of human talents and skills, we in turn expand, advance and diversify our financial systems, the richness of our shared way of life, and the quality of our existence. It starts with us, and I believe we can do it.
Thank you.