Summer Vacation for Teenagers Gets Phased Out

California teens wonder where the race to nowhere ends and summer begins.

California high schools have let out for a couple of months but for many teens it’s just more of the same in skimpier clothing.

Afternoons at AT&T Park waving a goofy foam finger or baking on the sands of Zuma Beach are rare additions to hectic schedules calculated to give them a leg up. Sure, a short family cruise might be squeezed into June – but on deck they must tackle that required summer reading list and plug into something more constructive than Facebook or else rock the boat.

“It’s all about the competition,” shares Cam, a sophomore at Saint Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco, a private Jesuit school known throughout the state for its academic and athletic excellence. “You deserve the downtime but you feel bad if you are on the beach and somebody else is going to summer school or doing community service.”

The sophomore’s large inner circle of  friends say they concur with her view, girls who can barely remember carefree summer days of lemon-aid stands and sleep-away camps.

Instead, after a few days of freedom, they are anticipating more responsibility with temporary jobs, Spanish immersion, community service, sports recruitment camps or doing summer school online and in the classroom. Junior year means buckling down and exploring colleges.

Among those enrolled in summer schools are gifted artists repeating mandatory math and science courses – classes baby boomers took as electives but are now college musts. If a 4.0 GPA was once the standard for admittance to a good college that can lead to a good job, the new average is 4.5 plus volunteer gigs and other evidence of a well-rounded education.

“I feel a skill as particular as studying chemistry is just useless when I know I won’t be using it as a writer,” says Paige, an honors English sophomore and prize-winning poet. “I’m forced to jump through hoops and race hard but for what? You graduate and still can’t get a job. Students are protesting at Harvard and Yale and other Ivy League schools because they can’t find work.”

At Saint Ignatius, where the lunch hour will be cut in half next year to give students the “gift” of more time to be productive, several gifted athletes quit basketball and other team sports this year, despite great disappointment from their fathers who coached them since kindergarten.

The timing occurred in the months following three teen suicides  in San Francisco (two at SI, one at another private school). The tragedies have had a devastating impact on students and the community. And some of the kids cited an awakening of sorts as one reason they literally took themselves out of the race equation, quitting highly competitive and stressful activities and embracing the joy of dance, golf, theater and guitar lessons.

While the jury is out on whether pressure to be a winner in all fields is linked to teen suicide, students have balked about feeling powerless, overwhelmed and depressed over unreasonable expectations.

“You can’t just be excellent at something anymore,” insists Paige. “Adults with with the power to influence the outcome of our futures are asking if we are excellent enough.”

Teens complain that the kind of curriculum and unyielding schedules they must juggle are just too much and end up sacrificing  their childhoods. It’s a valid question for those too old for camp and running through sprinklers and too young to cope with emotional exhaustion.

This sacrifice of childhood facilitated by over-achieving parents and status hungry schools is was prompted the Race to Nowhere film and social action campaign which is making huge inroads. Advocates of an education revolution are urging for an ease to the kill and drill approach to learning and networking for an end to constant testing, more sleep, shorter school days and better homework guidelines among other steps to alleviating stress.

Evidence shows the performance pressure is entirely out of whack with the  cognitive and physical development of young adults while failing to address the reality of what awaits their generation.

Progressive thinkers like Sir Ken Robinson argue the current academic climate – which penalizes failure – is educating the creativity out of kids and failing the 21st century’s needs for creative problem solvers.

“We’re running national education systems where mistakes are the worse thing you can make, yet if you aren’t prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original,” stated Robinson in his widely hailed presentation Do Schools Kill Creativity at a TED Conference. “Picasso said all kids are born artists and the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I think math is important, but so is dance.”

Other critics blogging about the race argue a system predicated on academic ability and testing positions students on a college tract starting in kindergarten, and it doesn’t let up in the summer. All activities in and out of school are designed with an eye on the prize, college and a well paying job. Is it working?

More people than ever worldwide are going to college and graduating and suddenly degrees are actually worthless. As Robinson notes, more kids are heading home after college to play video games or wait tables in the neighborhood. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, some 17 million young Americans with college degrees are employed in menial jobs requiring less than the skill set associated with a bachelor’s degree.

“The system is designed to make us want to go to college, like college is for everyone and everyone has to be super smart,” observes Cam. “The truth is it is all about memorizing and it doesn’t build on anything. Our education in the U.S. is 10-feet wide and one-inch deep, while in Europe it is said to be the opposite.”

Cam’s friend Paige adds: “If the race is all about college, then I’m going to be damn sure to go to a school that is fun and creative with cool people so that I can thrive. Still, if I could come up with something brilliant to do other than going to college, I would.”

Adopting a new conception of how we educate our students to use their creativity wisely could create a healthy shift in seeing our children for who they are, asserts Robinson.

“We might not see the future,” he figures, “But they will.”

Images: Brandeis; Jacrews7;

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.