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During my senior year of high school, around college admissions time, the girl who sat in front of me in AP English turned around and made possibly the weirdest confession I’d ever heard. She said that sometimes she’d get so stressed out that she would drive to Target and hide under the clothes racks where she’d watch shoppers’ feet scuttling by and imagine she was a kid, two feet tall, and she’d smell the new clean clothes and run her hands through them. It was her way of feeling reborn.

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times published an article called “Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?” They reported that pressures from heavy workloads are resulting in poorer health, both physically and mentally, and stunting development among students of all ages, taking one high school in Fremont, CA as the primary example. This particular school, which has fallen increasingly under the influence of the ‘success’-based mindset of Silicon Valley, was found to have 54 percent of its students showing symptoms of clinical depression, 80 percent with anxiety.

The deterioration of student health may well be one result of the condemning nature of various little-l laws which govern our day-to-day actions. Inherent in the average high school experience and the college admissions process are innumerable laws, e.g. Thou Shalt Play At Least One Varsity Sport To Develop A Well-Rounded Character, and Thou Shalt Crush Thy SATs. Students feel pressured to take multiple AP classes, and the never-closed Word document entitled “College Resume” grows longer every week. When I was in high school, I went to my church’s youth group once, just to put it on the list. I volunteered as a poll worker on Election Day. After school, I’d go club hopping (A Night at the Roxbury), from art club to French club to cross country practice; I could only attend five percent of the meetings for each of my three different honors societies. I joined math club. I don’t even like math. Students may begin school at 7:30, and by the time they wrap up their many extracurriculars, they might not make it home till 6:30 or 7. They’ve already had a twelve-hour day and haven’t even started their homework.

Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control. On top of a seven-hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly homework, daily sports practices and band rehearsals, and weekend-consuming assignments and tournaments. Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life.

At this point, it might be easy to grab a pitchfork and rally against the parents, but easy there. Truly many parents set impossible standards for their kids, standards that crush. But most parents don’t even know what AP classes are unless they’ve had an older kid run the gauntlet already. My parents, amazing people, never put pressure on me to spread myself as thin as I did. Regardless of the parents’ role, the drive for success remains; it begins early, in the zip-locked halls at school, and never really slows.

Yet instead of empowering them to thrive, this drive for success is eroding children’s health and undermining their potential. Modern education is actually making them sick.

Here’s where I begin to diverge. Modern education isn’t making students sick; modern education is highlighting the sickness already inside students. It’s drawing it to the surface. Students suffering from “school induced” depression are competitive to the bone and self-justifying by nature (like all of us). Many commentaries about high school stress and the pressure of college admissions fail to view high schoolers as fully formed people. Even in The New York Times article referenced here, the title is about “children,” and while the article certainly does make mention of elementary schoolers, it is primarily about high schoolers who, in my opinion, are too often dwarfed by culture at large.

200_sHigh school students are young and may therefore be more susceptible to buying into the cultural illusion of a self-made man, but they are not just getting swept into the System. My own AP classes were filled with the most cutthroat group of headstrong individuals who were already well-versed in the ways of Duck Syndrome, the devastating and infamous image for a person who seems to be gliding above the water but furiously paddling beneath the surface. We can’t ignore the fact that students, while certainly victims of the system, are also participating in it, giving it life. Rather than hang out after school and get satisfactory Cs and Bs, many students take the initiative of signing up for AP classes and fifty different clubs.

Currently making its way around America’s top 40, “Stressed Out” by twenty one pilots expresses how we create laws for ourselves in attempt to give our existence meaning, aka the behind-the-wheel perspective on the drive for success:

I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard,
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words,
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new,
I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang,

I was told when I got older all my fears would shrink,
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think.

This song is compelling largely because it’s not blaming stress on parents or a school system; it’s not blaming anything but the singer’s own insecurity.

Yesterday The New York Times’ Frank Bruni added some thoughts to the conversation in an article entitled “Rethinking College Admissions.” He writes that colleges are “realizing that many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions.” Amen. He advocates for a number of great systematic changes for college admissions, which altogether should make the experience of high school much better. On his list of changes: placing less emphasis on AP classes, making SATs optional, and limiting the number of activities a student can have on his/her resume. Unfortunately, however, limiting a student’s activity doesn’t address the reason why the student felt the need to do so much in the first place.

Why have students been playing the game of high school zombieland and high-intensity college admissions? The answer is fear—both the fear of rejection and the fear of failure. These fears fuel the unquenchable drive for success that manifests in students, parents, and entire schools alike—fear drives the narrative that if a person does all the right things, he or she is entitled to and will receive everything he/she needs to be satisfied in this life. There’s a certain security in looking at a checklist, no matter how long, and thinking, “As long as I check these boxes, I get in.”

But unfortunately no matter how many changes are made to the college admissions system (hopefully many, really), students will continue to be rejected from colleges. They will be told: You cannot have what you want, you cannot be who you want. You cannot wear that college sweatshirt. No amount of new rules can edit out the possibility of rejection from college, the ultimate worst-case scenario for a competitive high school student.

Unarmed love is the only way to combat fear, the only rival for a rejection letter. More than three-day weekends and homework limits, students need to be told every day that they are loved regardless of their sweatshirts, because they are. They are loved more than their GPAs can merit, more than their bookshelves full of awards can express. Which is something they probably tried to tell me at youth group, that one time I went.