By Gaby Rattner
No discussion about the school year just ending can begin without an inexpressibly heartfelt thank you to the teachers, staff and administration of our schools. Together they did the unthinkable and in so doing made us the envy of a nation struggling to help children learn during an awful time with innumerable prohibitions.
And nothing I am about to say in any way mitigates that thank you. But I believe the pandemic may also have provided a unique opportunity to reset how we think about our children’s’ education – its purpose, its goals and its hallmarks of achievement. I write this as both a parent of a GPS student, and an advocate for youngsters who do not have access to the enormous amount of outside resources it takes to succeed in school today.
In the past several months, during discussions about what it is like to be in high school in 2021, numerous people have said to me that “they just have to get through it.” Now, a common refrain in my family, heard from all generations, is that things are not the way they were in “your time,” regardless of the age of “you.” But at the risk of sounding old, I had FUN in school. I went to school, got good grades, hung out on weekends, explored new interests, and generally enjoyed myself. When it came time to go to college, I applied to four schools, got into two, went to one. All done.
Today, as the cartoon below illustrates, it is all about racking up achievements that colleges will like. This begins as early as elementary school with the choice of a language to study (will colleges be impressed?), a sport, extracurricular activities, and later a job and, if money is not a consideration, an internship. It continues until college. Indeed, many is the college freshman who has told me in all seriousness that college is significantly easier than was high school.
This year necessitated a pause on many of those stressors, and while our kids clearly did not have innumerable opportunities to have fun and faced great pressures of a different kind, they also became exempt from such mandatory things as SATS (now optional), and SAT subject tests (now eradicated), which may in some cases have relieved a great deal of anxiety.
Early childhood experts will tell you how impossible it is to overstate the importance of play. Our elementary schools made this a focus, both to bring the relief of mask breaks, and to give kids as much outside time as possible. But isn’t this true for all students? Must they constantly choose between what will speak well of them on a college application and what they might really like to do to safely “cut loose?”
Now, after a year of remote schooling, virtual college tours, altered sports and testing schedules, mightn’t we take some of the best of these adaptations and harness them to allow our students to both succeed AND have fun in the coming years? I believe that every teacher and every student who managed through this year did in fact succeed and should be recognized for having done so. And I hope that we parents and advocates can perhaps take a step back and demand less of our youngsters so that they can live more. Let’s take this opportunity, gained through the greatest struggles, to restore some of the fun to childhood at all its stages.
Gaby Rattner is Executive Director of Community Centers, Inc.