Monday, June 14, 2010

Pressure Cooker

I still have nightmares about papers due but not yet started.

It’s the same nightmare, actually, just repeated over and over. It’s always Mr. Hillenbrand’s history class, back when I was a senior at Northern Highlands Regional High School in New Jersey. I walk into class for the first time, but it’s the END of the marking period, and for some reason I haven’t read the book, nor attended class, or even started the 40-page paper which the trim, ever-cool Mr. Hillenbrand is collecting from the other students at that very moment.

I wake in a cold sweat, absolutely panic stricken. And I graduated from that high school 31 years ago.

Why does Mr. Hillenbrand still have the power to terrorize me? I certainly had more challenging classes in college. Why don’t I dream of Murray Dry, the Darth Vadar of the Poli Sci department from my undergrad days, or the legendary, brilliant, never-cracked-a-smile Robert Langbaum from grad school?

I’ll tell you why: high school is freakin’ scary. And as scary as it was in 1979, it’s way worse now.

I’m talking about pressure. Whether you’re an academic kid hoping to get into college, or a hands-on guy in vocational ed hoping to find a job in this economy, it’s all fraught. And high school sports? Forget it. We’re in the thick of the post-season, varsity playoff schedule right now, and it’s wild. I watched a slip of a girl do battle on the tennis court the other day before some 100 shrieking fans: it was a tie-breaker to decide which team would advance to the state finals. I watched boys pound the earth in frustration as their lacrosse team failed repeatedly to score and their dreams of advancing to the semi-finals disappeared … and at least one pent-up parent who clearly had a little too much invested in the result, wept.

Maybe that’s where the real pressure is coming from: us. Grownups. Parents who should be helping kids navigate the world and put things in perspective, but are in fact piling on and raising the stakes. When did taking the SAT and applying to college become a life-or-death decision? When did surviving the sports schedule turn into the March to Bataan, where parents feel compelled to attend every single pre-season, post-season and regular season game, regardless of the distance from the school? And behave like screaming paparazzi in the stands?

I “talk the talk” to my kids, but they’re wrecks and somewhere along the way I’m sure I’ve ^%#*’d up. Live in the moment. Don’t let credentials define you. Call the lines fair and just do your best. I’ve said it all; but what do they really hear?

At my son’s high school graduation this weekend I watched and listened as young men and women I’ve known since they were in diapers stepped up to the podium and delivered wise, witty speeches. They were the top five in their class, and goodness knows what it took for them to get there. Their valedictorian said it best, describing the untold, unseen hours of toil leading up to “moments” like this: a graduation. Or a musical performance. A race. A soccer match. It made me think of the hours, weeks, and years I spend alone working, before one day a delivery truck pulls up and drops off a box containing one of my books. It’s an exhilarating moment, but most of life is just doing the work, messing up, cleaning up, and starting over.

How amazing that those kids already get that. At least, that’s what they said the other night. The last speaker talked about enjoying the journey, and I truly hope all his fellow graduates heard him … it was getting a little rowdy at the end. Beach balls started flying; mortarboards were flung.

Enjoy the journey. I hope they can.

1 comment:

  1. I actually believe I felt more pressure in high school than my son does now, but that might be the difference between NYC and Maine. The bigger problem now would be more distractions online and how much harder it is to get into a “good” college. No matter what, as your nightmare shows, the hormones and the pressure makes for 4 challenging years. I actually just went back to high school for my 25th reunion. It was cathartic.