june 6, 2013
South’s college-oriented environment adversely affects the learning atmosphere, encourages senior to take a gap year
graphic by Alex Cohen
Centerfold Contributor Back in September 2009, when I was a freshman, much of Newton South was different. There weren’t picnic tables in the courtyard off the cafeteria, for one. The paper edition of Denebola still printed its catty, senior-slumping “View From the Top” columns, sometimes with newspaper articles attached. The corner outside the photo room still housed a constant, rotating assembly of weirdly beautiful, artistic humans who never seemed to have class, and the glossy pages of Leo weren’t even a ghost behind Mr. Weintraub’s glasses. Freshmen did not communicate exclusively via iMessage, relying instead on a complex system combining echolocation, carrier pigeons and an intricate vocal cord movement sequence known as “speech.” But not everything has changed over these past years. The Roar’s intimidatingly large graduation issue, the high pastry density in classroom parties before Christmas break and of course, the tense, unrelenting thrum of college talk — all of these things have remained reassuringly consistent. That last aspect has held remarkably steady in the years between 2009 and now. Over my four years of high school, the college process has gone from grand, far away and terrifying to grand, close by and terrifying, but for some reason, we’ve liked talking about it the whole time. My first experience with college
preparation came the first week of freshman year, when the newly-hired Mr. Stembridge — then still known by his last name — called us to the field house for an assembly. Of the three pieces of advice he gave, the last one stood out: “Talk to your guidance counselor,” Mr. Stembridge told us, “because in three years, when you need a guidance letter for college, you’ll want it to be good.” Indignant, frizzy-haired freshman me was outraged. Wasn’t there enough on our plates without thinking about a process that was years away? Shouldn’t building a good relationship with a school-based adult be encouraged independently of its value as an admissions boost? And, more importantly, why hadn’t Mr. Stembridge told us to use high school to figure out what makes us happy? He suggested that we take advantage of South’s extracurricular activities, but because he followed that tip with application advice, we had no choice but to view even our afternoons as boxes to be checked off on the Common App of the Distant Future. Mr. Stembridge wasn’t the only one extolling résume-building over happinessseeking. Over the next four years, teachers and guidance counselors and even peers
told me a lot about grades and honors classes and SATs and APs and getting into college, but very, very little about enjoying things. Of course, I exaggerate. Mr. Stembridge’s welcome speech wasn’t all collegefocused, and I’ve known plenty of teachers and classmates who care far too much to be merely playing an admissions game. But even so, high school has felt more like a march to the next thing than like an experience in and of itself. In theory, that’s okay. A few years of blood, sweat and tears in exchange for an acceptance letter from Happiness University sounds like a decent deal. But in practice, this system is ridiculous. It turns learning into a chore, into something to be slogged through for four years, which isn’t necessarily a transformation that undoes itself after graduation (this is an example of the Overjustification Effect, a concept that I had to memorize for the AP Psychology exam and toward which I have no affection or interest). It overvalues measurable aspects of learning and undervalues the intangible components that make intellectual engagement fun and rewarding. We have the latter at South, but it’s impossible to produce enough sleep and brain-space for them to be appreciated under the onslaught of the former.
High school has felt more like a march to the next thing than like an experience in and of itself.
These problems aren’t our school’s fault. Less measurable ways of deciding who gets into college are by nature... well, hard to measure, so they’re discouraged from the top down. Whoever its supporters, the current system makes it hard to like learning for learning’s sake and makes it even harder to find what parts of school make us happy. I say this as someone who’s done pretty well with things as they are; I got good grades and got into a school I like by memorizing the causes of schizophrenia, putting the right limits on definite integrals and identifying Shakespeare’s syntactical inversions. These are fine skills to have, but, although I succeed at developing them, I don’t get pleasure from practicing them. My school-related smiles come from making connections between subjects or constructing sentences that say exactly what I want them to or effectively rebutting someone’s argument in class. All of which is why I’m not going to college next year. Instead, I’m training and teaching at a St. Louis-based circus studio and sleeping eight hours a night and reading whatever books I want. I’m remembering why I like learning and thinking and moving. Maybe I’m even having a little fun. No matter what, I’m not going to school. That way, when I get to college, I’ll be able to learn properly, with my whole brain, unencumbered by the shadows of guidance letters or admissions wishes or anything but the quest of joy.