by Todd Fulginiti
Stressed out high school students. That was a foreign concept to me until my daughters got old enough to show me that, as people their age say, “thatʼs even a thing”. Well, it is a thing. And it seems to have gotten worse since my days at J.P. McCaskey High School in Lancaster, PA in the mid 1980ʼs. When I look back at my schooling and compare it to what my daughters are going through, the differences are stark.
I was a so-called smart kid. I took challenging classes. I paid attention in class. I did the homework sometimes. I participated in a few extra curricular activities like band, street hockey, and having a girlfriend. I had plenty of time to hang out and relax, explore what interested me, think about life, or solve problems I was having. I had time to just be. If I saw the opening monologue of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, it was a Friday night. I didnʼt stay up that late on a school night, except for the roughly bi-annual, term-paper-writing all-nighter (I was a champion procrastinator).
It wasnʼt until college that I began to experience a level of stress that can make lasting physical and mental changes to a person. As I look back over my 25 years since college, I see now that it took me many years to unlearn some of the unhealthy stress mode protocols I stumbled into on my way to a Bachelors Degree in Music Education.
Young people nowadays have to work harder than I did. Over the past decade, schools have greatly raised academic expectations for students. Along with this comes a load of homework and studying that would have blown my mid-80ʼs mind. Extra curricular activities are numerous, very structured, and often very time-intensive. High achieving students are basically expected to take several Advanced Placement courses at once; participate and show leadership in several clubs, teams or Honor Societies; be involved in activities outside of school; and live the healthy, well-balanced life of a teenager, which doctors say requires about 10 hours of sleep per night and plenty of time for real- life social interactions (apologies to Snapchat and Instagram).
Taken separately, each of these things sounds great and beneficial to kids. Lumped all together into a life? Not so much. There just isnʼt enough time. Something has to give. The problem for many kids is that they canʼt decide which part of their superhuman schedule is expendable. The activities they love? The heavy classwork that, they are told, determines their college acceptance and fate in life? The energy and exuberance of a well-cared-for, youthful body and mind? Many, like my daughters, decide that the best course of action is to continue their “super-humanity” studies. By default, what they end up sacrificing is the previously mentioned, well-balanced life of a teenager (sleep and social requirements included). Jimmy Fallonʼs opening monologue on the Tonight Show is over by the time they go to sleep. All nighters are done frequently to read a novel, write a paper, or complete a project. Eight hours of sleep becomes a goal instead of an absolute bare minimum. Meals get sandwiched between activities that run until after 9pm several nights per week. Life becomes focused too much on surviving the schedule rather than fulfilling a life.
Maybe a kid gets through this and figures out how to balance everything. Maybe they invent their own ineffective but long lasting stress mode protocols like I did in college. Worse yet, maybe they “snap”. Get depressed. Become angry. Lose their joy. See the world through a darker lens. Iʼve seen these things happen more and more frequently throughout my two-decade career as a teacher. And I work in an elementary school. A “snap” can start early. The pressures on kids sure do.
My point is that we all just need to calm down. All of us. Guidance counselors who encourage kids to take a full college load in high school. Activity leaders who try to produce superstars of stage and field when most kids just want a good experience. Parents who believe that kids need to be in structured activities from dawn to dusk. Kids who think they have to be awesome at every single thing, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in Superhumanity.
Sometimes the things we drive our students and kids to do take up more time and cause more stress than they are worth. An extra AP course that a college may not honor for credit anyway. A community or school club done without interest to pad an already engaging resume of high school activities.
I think we, as a society, need to look at the lives our school kids and teenagers lead. What are we preparing them for? A life defined only by salary? Are we teaching them to race anxiously through lifeʼs eternal “to-do list”? Or can we help them grow up in a way that proves that a happy and balanced life really is “a thing?”
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