Last week, fresh off the plane from our Italian excursion, HOBB and I drove up to SAR High School in Riverdale for that stress-fest known as Parent-Teacher Conferences.
Being an SAR event, much of the stress factor was absent, though we basically showed up without appointments, having screwed up the online registration process just before we left the country.
As it was the equivalent of three in the morning for us, jet-lag further shaped our perceptions and reactions. Also, given that exhaustion makes me punchy, I could not stop giggling. In retrospect, I worry that I must have appeared stoned to half of our son's teachers.
But the real factor in defusing the experience that typically unnerves parents is the nature of Little Babe, our youngest child, a high school junior.
Little Babe is a sweet, diligent, respectful, smart... and very relaxed student.
The teachers typically adore him. He participates in class. He has creative insights. He has quirky interest and abilities. He is kind-hearted. His worst offense is talking to friends.
And not completing his assignments.
Little Babe's performance on tests is also less-than-stellar, reflecting his underlying learning issues and ADD...and also his penchant for minimalistic studying.
For years, we have left parent-teacher conferences with broad smiles of pride and furrowed brows of concern.
The concern we feel has been further compounded by our son's unflappably stress-free attitude. Maybe it's our own fault because we don't pitch parental fits, but there is no way to get our son to care about getting better grades.
While we are far from Tiger Parents, we would frankly like to see him break a sweat over his schoolwork. But he is neither a slacker nor a scofflaw. He just invests his academic energies solely into what takes place inside the classroom.
Once he is out of the classroom, music subsumes his life. He sleeps in a room with several instruments and amps. He wakes up and plugs in his electric guitar or bass. He leaves the house wearing his headphones. He composes and orchestrates and records his music. He writes lyrics. He plays and sings and teaches himself new instruments. Without a single lesson, he now plays piano well enough that he is composing pieces for the keyboard. He stays late to jam with other students and teachers and participates in practically every musical after school club.
Little Babe is the third child in the family, the youngest sibling of two students who strove to achieve good grades. Middle Babe was especially tormented by her grades in her final two years of high school but her own diligence was nothing compared with the nervous breakdowns most of her friends were experiencing. Big Babe's high school classmates were similarly poisoned by the conviction that unless they got into Harvard-Yale-Princeton-Penn-Cornell-Brown (Columbia was considered a safety school), their lives were over.
Last year, when I was a graduate student at Columbia, I was a complete sleepless lunatic, chasing down deadlines, working on my assignments, wishing to distinguish myself through my schoolwork. Little Babe awoke and fell asleep to the sight of me working on my various projects at the dining room table. Though I am still incredulous at having gotten my MA at the age of 50, secretly, I am plotting to go for my doctorate.
At one point last year, on the night before a test, I interrupted Little Babe's private Red Hot Chili Peppers jam session to goad him into studying for more than half an hour. After he stared at me impassively, I blurted out, in sheer frustration, "Aren't I a good student role model for you?"
"Not at all," he coolly informed me. "You are completely obsessed. I'm not like that."
Indeed he is not.
And suddenly, I am completely okay with that.
The recent SAT cheating scandal -- centered in the Great Neck of my childhood -- has made me see Little Babe's chill attitude towards schoolwork and academic overachievement in a new and healthy light.
The network of privileged students who bought themselves high scores or earned dirty money achieving high scores for others brings into sharp focus the multiple problems of academic overachievement to begin with.
Obviously, it is false to claim that the kids arrested in the scandal were powerless to resist the urge to cheat, driven by overwhelming social or parental pressure to commit what amounts to hardcore criminal acts, but it is also foolish to pretend that there is not a harmful emphasis on academic super achievement and a short A-list of schools that many ambitious, high achieving parents consider acceptable for their own children.
Add the affluence factor that enables mediocre students to pay up to $3,500 for stellar SAT or ACT scores -- and perhaps a tacit message from parents that this kind of thing is not so bad, after all, what do standardized tests prove anyway? -- and buying your way into a top university becomes a consumer sport, akin to buying a pair of shoes on Zappos.com.
The hysterical quest for perfect grades, the Tiger Mother goal of getting your kid into Harvard or Yale only is so wrongheaded that I cannot believe it is still upheld by intelligent people. No question, the pedigree accompanies you for life, opening doors, making you a member of an elite but at what cost to one's sanity and humanity? Why do parents think that it is commendable to have kids who are grinds? And what is this kind of elitism all about, anyway?
Yes, I still want Little Babe to break more of a sweat over his schoolwork and do better on tests and score decently enough on his SATs or ACTs to get into a good college. But I now see his academic attitude as tinged with civil disobedience; it appears an act of quiet rebellion against the pervasive ethic of academic overachievement. Little Babe, like his older siblings, is a superstar, but most importantly, he is a teenage boy and a mensch.