My Family's Own 'Race to Nowhere'

Moments ago, I finished watching Race to Nowhere, a movie that was recently shown in Vallejo, the district where I teach. The movie struck a chord as I noted the many similarities shown in the movie and the struggles my three children faced in their educational journeys.

My oldest child graduated from high school a few years ago. Manda started off thoroughly loving school and learning. In 6th grade, she received a very prestigious award from her school. This award went to students who were deemed by their teachers to be stellar students and citizens. We were thrilled for her and of course, more than a little bit proud.

Two years later, we would be faced with a knock at the door at midnight by two uniformed police officers. Manda had told a friend that she was planning to kill herself. Looking back on that night, I remember feeling scared and very worried for her future. We got her into counseling and soon discovered that our beautiful daughter was a cutter. This habit was something that she would turn to anytime the pressure became to great.

School for her no longer brought joy. In my conversations with her, what stands out the most was that she felt nothing but pressure to be the perfect child and student. This is something I never wanted for her, but I know that the pressure I put on myself to achieve and do well both academically and professionally more than likely was felt by all three of my kids.

My son Tyler graduated from high school this past summer. Unlike his sister, I don't think that Tyler ever felt much joy being in school. To him, school has meant nothing but living by the rules and conformity. Tyler is by nature the type of kid that will naturally challenge you, regardless of your authority, perceived or not.

Tyler did school, but he never liked it. A trait that he shares with his older sister is creativity. Creativity is no longer valued in our school system. My two older kids never wanted to go the AP or IB route and were both made to feel by both teachers and their peers alike that perhaps there was something wrong with them. Tyler has talked about going to college, but it is not something he wants to do at this time.

For our youngest son, Clayton, this emphasis on performing well hit early in his school career, 3rd grade. As an 8-year-old, he was diagnosed with severe anxiety. (If that doesn't shock you, I don't know what will). Our journey through hell and back during this year of his schooling taught me a lot about the unrealistic expectations our schools put on our kids.

For him, it all began with math. His teacher told us at "Back to School" night that he had formerly taught GATE (Gifted & Talented), and that even though this class wasn't GATE, he was going to proceed to teach these kids as if it were GATE. For this teacher, GATE meant putting unrealistic demands on 8-year-olds. For Clayton, it meant doing everything in his power not to go to school, like running away from school, throwing temper tantrums in the mornings, and other behaviors not normal for an 8-year-old. For my husband and I, it meant too many meetings to count trying to deal with an unsympathetic teacher and administrator who instead of reflecting on their own practice as educators chose to blame the victim, my son. He was quickly labeled as being "oppositionally defiant."

Christmas that year was not one of joy. Clayton was clearly not welcome to attend our neighborhood school. This school had the highest API/AYP scores in the district. The principal told me more than once that Clayton had "embarrassed him" by his behavior in front of parents visiting the school. (Clayton spent a lot of time in the office). In my opinion, this school was more interested in maintaining their test scores than in helping my child through this difficult time.

This behavior was not normal for Clayton. Up until that year in school, he enjoyed being in school. He got a long well with his peers, the office staff enjoyed him, and the previous principal thoroughly enjoyed his sense of humor. This was a kid who had acted in two plays for our local youth theater. Severe anxiety was clearly not the norm.

Before school started up again, we made the decision to start investigating schools in the district where I teach. By February, Clayton was enrolled in a new school, something that is rather anxiety-inducing in itself. Unlike his previous school, the teachers, staff and administrators were willing to help Clayton deal with his anxiety, hold him accountable for his behavior and most important of all, help him feel safe and secure.

Unlike his previous school, their API/AYP scores weren't all that great, but for me as a parent, that didn't matter. I wanted my child back.

I'm happy to report that Clayton is now in 9th grade. He is well-liked by his peers, gets along well with most of his teachers, and is becoming a confident strong young man. He doesn't like math, but he does endure it. I tell him to do the best he can.

As a parent, I've come to realize that it really isn't about the test scores. My goal as their parent is to raise responsible, well-adjusted adults. My daughter, Manda, is still trying to figure out what she wants to do and has been exploring getting her cosmetology license. Tyler is doing well at his new job and is sharing an apartment with his two cousins. He is (in my unbiased opinion, of course) a very talented musician. As for Clayton, he is looking forward to competing in Las Vegas in November for a power-lifting contest as well as the start-up of wrestling season. His grades are okay.

And, I'm okay with that.

If you haven't watched the movie, please do. We need to start having honest conversations about what is truly valued in education. We need to stop putting this pressure on our students to perform at all costs, especially when it jeopardizes their health and well-being.