I took a look out at my back yard a few weeks ago, and my heart constricted as if it were being squeezed, slowly, to death. This is what I saw:
Beautiful, old trees choked by English Ivy.
The possibilities of my property suffocating under the English Ivy.
The long, twisted fingers of English Ivy reaching up the sides of my house, my deck, my fences, longing to take over, to cover, to absorb.
For the past two years I’ve lived here, I’ve looked out at my back yard and said, “I’ve got to get rid of most of this ivy,” but the task was too daunting for a single lady like me. So I did nothing. And so the vine spread.
Recently, I saw the film, Race to Nowhere, and it moved me because as a high school student, I, too, was caught up in the Race to Nowhere. Not only was I running it, I basically won it. I made straight A’s in mostly AP classes, I played three Varsity sports, and while I had some fun with my friends, by my senior year, I did not like learning, and I didn’t enjoy ANY of my extra curricular activities. I remember longing for the end of each sports season, patiently waiting for the day when I did not have to go to three hours of sports practice and then also do four hours of homework. I remember one of my friends saying how much she liked learning, and I looked at her like she was crazy. She couldn’t believe that someone who “did school” as well as me disliked it so much. Predictably, when I got to college, I was totally burned out, and I had no interest in doing anything but as little as possible.
I believe part of what killed my desire to learn and my interest in atheletics was the attitude that permeated my school culture. Success was measured not by enjoyment or fulfillment or interest but by the grades you got, the colleges that accepted you, and the number of activities on your resume.
This is the attitude that Race to Nowhere examines and condemns; it is the attitude that turns learning into a chore and grades into the goal; it is the competitive attitude of well-roundedness that is falsely adopted by many students hoping to get into the ivies or other “good schools.”
“You’ll never get into Princeton/Harvard/Yale/Stanford/Insert-dream-school-here unless you have straight A’s in all AP classes and have a well fleshed out resume in sports, music, the arts, and service.”
Who first told me that? Did anyone? I can’t remember who said it, but I knew it.
Whose idea was it that everyone should strive for Harvard? Who compiled the list of “good schools”? Who decided that if you didn’t go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Dartmouth, UVA, Duke, or UNC you were clearly a failure?
Now, I am not condemning any of these schools at all. They are incredible institutions, and I attended one of them, and despite my best efforts, I did learn a considerable amount.
What I do not like, however, is the way that the college application process has turned from something you did to continue your education into something you did to prove your worth. When the destination instead of the education becomes the goal. When the status of a place rather than what the place can offer the student becomes the focus.
This attitude is as pervasive as ivy. It sneaks through the gestault of many high school (and now some junior high) campuses. Initially it sleeps, then it creeps, and by the time sophomore year comes around, it leaps into the mindset of students, strangling their interests in the name of grades. Constricting a definition of success into a one-size-should-fit-all mold.
Isn’t it time to do something about this attitude? We’ve let it smother learning long enough.
Yesterday, I looked out on my back yard at that pervasive and destructive ivy. It occurred to me that I couldn’t kill it all right away without doing damage to the things I was trying to save. I had to pull up each finger of ivy, one by one, and throw it away. Even so, despite the enormous task ahead of me, I donned my hat, my fleece, my boots and my work gloves, and I got to work pulling the vine. Though I worked for a solid hour in the freezing cold by myself and barely made a dent, I did make a dent.
I will have to work hours upon hours this winter in order to fully eradicate this ivy by myself. Truly, I may never be able to do it all. I’m tempted to enlist some of my friends to help. In the same way, if I work with dedication much of this winter and into spring and into the years ahead, and if I enlist some of my friends to help, then perhaps I can help to make a dent in the attitudes towards education that are fostered by a false understanding of success.