Monday, April 23, 2007

Plans for Life

Bunny is preparing for her ACT exam to be held in the middle of this week. This weekend she was telling me how she would not normally be stressed out over it, but the school administrators and her peers are strung tighter than a lot of guitar strings over it, which is, in turn, very wearing and wearying for her.

I’m pretty sure that part of the reason the administrators are wired is because the ACT results at the high school have been dropping over the last few years, and, while the drop is not huge, it is a matter of concern in the big picture. It makes them look bad (and for good reason, I think), so they’ve been recommending $80 preparation sessions for students, even going so far as to send promotional flyers home to parents with lots of exclamation points and holding assemblies during school hours to try to convince the students to enroll in these sessions.

I remember a few years ago when a very bright cousin called me up and said her brilliant son was worried about not doing well on the SATs, and she asked me if I, since I used to tutor for ACT/SAT prep, would talk to him. He got on the phone, and I said, “Did you go to school for the last 11 years?” He snorted and said he had. I asked, “Did you pay attention?” He said that of course he had. I asked, “Were your grades good?” He said they were. “Did you take challenging courses,” I asked. He recited a list including mainly honors courses, calculus, and other highly regarded classes. I said, “You’ll do fine. Get a good night’s sleep, and eat a nice breakfast. Take extra pencils.” He laughed and handed the phone back to his mom. She chuckled as he repeated our conversation in the background. “Thank you” she said, “he was so worried that there was something more he was supposed to have done. I know he’ll do well, and he looks much calmer now.” He did extremely well and was offered quite a few scholarships.

I repeated the gist of this conversation to Bunny as we talked. She relaxed, too. I pointed out to her that the review classes are mainly for kids who have not done well in their challenging courses or who have not taken difficult classes. They won’t have the familiarity with upper level mathematics that she has, nor will they have challenged themselves with learning their mother tongue to the extent she has.

She laughed and told me about her English class, where, for the last 6 weeks, the teacher has been handing out vocabulary lists for the students to study and get tested on. She said, “Mom, every time we get one of these lists, I look down it, and I already know most of the words. You use them around us all the time, and if we ask what they mean, you either tell us or make us look them up ourselves. It’s kind of funny.” We grinned at each other and recited my humorous vocabulary mantra, “nexus, frangible, apoplexy,” and giggled some more because for the last few years, I’ve been prodding the kids to learn some unusual words by using those three in conversation and NOT telling them what they mean. Instead, I wink and tell them they’re going to find all three of those words on at least one standardized exam, and they should learn to use them in their writing, too.

Bunny then segued into what’s really bugging her – the career tests they’ve been given lately and her concerns that there must be something wrong with her because she doesn’t know what she wants to do with the rest of her life yet. I told her I’d be very surprised if many people really knew what they wanted to do with their lives at age 17, that my experience told me that teenagers usually have, at best, an idealized view of what they’d like to do, but that most of them have no clue and feel very panicky about being told they should know, unequivocally, what they want to major in and then do until they leave this mortal coil. She and I talked about how many people don’t work in the field they majored in, not directly, and not for their entire lives, that they change jobs over the course of a lifetime.

And, we talked again about how the first two years of a college education are usually general studies years anyway, where you get to take a lot of different courses and find out what hits your hot button, what you’re good at, what you find that you truly enjoy doing. She looked a little skeptical, so I told her about my own experience.

I had entered college with the pigheaded teen notion that only a degree in Chemistry would do for me. It was not a positive time in the history of women in America for women to major in the sciences, particularly not the “hard” sciences. Women were more often found in Biology or Horticulture, but seldom in Physics or Chemistry. There were times I was the only female in a given Chemistry class. I took a roster of various classes, did well in them, but found myself becoming disenchanted with Chemistry while becoming more engrossed in my business classes and finding real joy in studying German. I stayed pigheaded for a number of years, feeling that I would somehow be letting myself down if I didn’t doggedly pursue that Chemistry degree and ignoring what my innate talents told me was a better course of study for me. That pigheadedness was one of the reasons it took me so long to get the degrees that I finally did get at age 40-ish.

I pointed out to Bunny that my wish for her was not that she would know what she wanted to learn before she went to college, but that she would be lucky enough to take a class that would be interesting, motivating, challenging, and fulfilling, and that I really didn’t care what it is, what matters to me is that SHE finds it worthy of pursuing further. She nodded and mentioned again how much pressure the teachers and staff at the high school are putting on the kids to decide now what they’re going to major in in college.

I told her to ignore them, that the best preparation for doing well in college in any major is to do exactly what she’s been doing so far – taking challenging courses, doing her best, and making sure to try to learn something valuable in each one. She still looked worried, so I asked her how she felt about the upcoming ACTs.

Bunny said she felt pretty well prepared for the English segments, but she was a little worried about the math portion. So, I gave her a tip – she has already learned all the math she’s going to before the test, what she needs to do in order to feel more confident is remind herself of the math she hasn’t been using lately, and that’s easy enough to do – just flip backwards through her current text and the ones we have around the house, and write important formulas on one side of a flash card, the definition on the other side, and mentally review how to do each one of them. Remembering the vast number of formulas, particularly for geometry, can be a real sticky point during the math segment.

Her mouth fell open, and she said, “Oh, my God. I never thought of using flash cards, even though you taught me to do them for French, and they work PERFECTLY all the time. I’m going to do that!” She hugged me, and I smiled at her, happy to have relieved some of her stress.

Later, she was working on some homework for English and picked out a bunch of words from Poe’s “The Raven” that she wasn’t sure of. She asked me about them, and I answered, although one had me stymied at first. I asked her to spell it out for me, and I made a guess – sublunary – sub – beneath or lesser, lun – moon, ary – characterized by being…, so I said that all out loud and guessed that it might mean something beneath the moon. She looked it up, and that’s the first definition. She smiled at me again and said, “Good work piecing that out, Mom, thanks.” And, I know she wasn’t thanking me for knowing the word, she was thanking me for reminding her that she knows how to do that, too.

I don’t have the answers for what other people, not even my children, should be doing with their lives. I don’t even know what I should be doing with mine, truth be told. I do have some tools I can share with them to help them find their own stars and learn how to trust themselves along the way, and I hope I can get those across to them.

Guess I’d better go do my own “homework” now, too.


Jennifer said...

Great post. Even though I was that calm about my own final high school exams, it gives me hope I may manage it for my children too (mind you it's a long way away for me - the older one is only 5!)

Nice blog.

Anonymous said...

Wow! You handled that great. I hope when the time comes for my kids to take 'the test' I can remember what you said (and what I did).

I had a bunch of overachieving (or maybe I was underachieving) friends in HS who took a prep class at 6 a.m. or something. I didn't have a car or a ride, so I just rode the bus and took my regular classes. Took the ACT and SAT once. Scored pretty much in line w/all my other friends who took the same classes (and the prep clas, and the test more than once to gain a couple extra points).

On to the 'pick a major' discussion. So, my underachieving self applies to one college (hometown...UNLV). I get a full ride Electrical Engineering Scholarship (yay me). 3 semesters in, I realize that I am mentally re-writing most of my engineering texts and wanting to go to a bunch more classes than the engineering program allowed (that is, I wanted to learn something other than, programming, engineering, and math). I blew off the scholarship, changed my major to English got a French minor (which I don't use, but still enjoyed getting), and graduated w/a BA English Lit. I'm now a technical writer who works part time, from my house and can devote the rest of my time to being a mom and a wife. My life is truly it took a lot of guts to trash that scholarship. Fortunately I had supportive parents. Anyway, the short version is please add one more voice to those telling Bunny she doesn't have to decide 'right now'...she'll figure it out when she figures it out.

Amber in Albuquerque