High school graduation is important, but so is growing into responsible, caring, and compassionate adults—and you won’t find that on the SATs.
“I’ll never be like you,” my daughter tells me. She’s 16 now, angry because I grounded her for skipping school, and I try not to let her barbs find my fleshy, soft spots. She doesn’t have to tell me why I’m her cautionary tale—with three failed marriages and seven kids, I’m no one’s hero.
My teens know the score: They understand that good grades and strong test scores will get them into college and help them achieve their goals. We talk about the financial realities of student loans and how to minimize debt after graduation, and why academic scholarships are so important. I encourage them to do well in school, but none of them have grown into straight A students and they probably won’t attend elite colleges. Frankly, I hope they don’t.
Some of my teenagers’ friends have parents who feel very differently. They spend most of their time studying, and they are grounded when they score below a B on a test. Their lives revolve around grades and college prospects, and they compete with each other over top honors at school. They are still children but their lives are already small and planned out, with little room for experimentation and creativity. It doesn’t matter what they think or know, just what their grades show at the end of each semester.
I was never that kid, no matter how much my mother wanted me to be. I read everything I could get my hands on, but I rarely turned in my homework. I got into college because I submitted my application to the English department alongside a portfolio of my writing; I got into law school because I aced the entrance exam. My life has taught me that it’s always possible to get what you want, but taking your own path is usually 1,000 times more difficult than shutting up and doing what you’re told. Even so, it’s the only path I can imagine taking.
I want more for my kids than good grades. I encourage them to stand up and walk out of class to protest the murder of another black man by the police. I take them out of school to protest the election of a fascist dictator to the presidency. I ask them what they love and what brings them joy, and I urge them to follow those dreams no matter how impractical they might be. I also challenge them to find ways to give back as much as they get, and to make giving a part of their daily lives.
I know I’m supposed to pretend that high school is the be-all and end-all of my kids’ lives, but I refuse to sell them on a lie. I’m certainly not going to encourage them to rack up more debt just to go to a fancier college when I know it really doesn’t matter. High school graduation is important, but so is growing into responsible, caring, and compassionate adults—and you won’t find that on the SATs.
I would like to say that I became a good person by graduating college and working my way into a high-paid position at a top company, but that would be a lie. All I learned from my bootstrapping was to care about myself and my family with a narrow and determined focus. I got mine, certainly, but I didn’t bother myself with what was left over for others. It took losing everything I had for me to find my place as a member of a community.
My failure came in the midst of my last divorce. I lost my marriage, my home, my career, and even my health. There was nothing left to overachieve or accomplish, and I found myself without the coping skills I had carefully developed through a lifetime of trauma. The only thing I still had was me, but I was a broken, shell-shocked version of myself. It was only then that I realized I had always been my own worst enemy.
The old adage says that when you hit rock bottom there’s nowhere else to go but up. What it doesn’t tell you is how humbling it is to find yourself naked and stripped of all pretense. People I barely knew reached out to me, sharing their own dark, raw spaces, and it was only then that I realized every one of us is struggling in ways I never could’ve imagined if I hadn’t been open about my own.
It would be easy for me to fixate on my mistakes and to blame myself for where I am today. In my darkest moments, I do exactly that; hating myself, and raging at a younger version of myself for not dealing with my shit sooner and for succumbing to the easier path of chaos and dysfunction. But, through time, those moments have become fewer and further between. Six years of therapy has taught me to be gentler with myself. I have learned to accept my part in my shit, but also to release the part that was never mine to begin with.
Psychologists call that resilience. I call it survival.
Before I failed so monumentally, I never asked myself what I wanted from life. I married men who wanted me, no matter how I felt about them. I achieved because I had been programmed to achieve, but I forgot about the little girl who wrote poetry and sang show tunes and dreamed of being a singer on Broadway. I did what I was supposed to do, in my own meandering way, but I forgot that it’s only possible to love your life if you love yourself. It was failure that led me to my writing, real self-examination and healing, and finally peace with myself.
I’m sure there are kids out there who are high achievers simply because they love learning. But those kids are few and far between, and they aren’t my teenagers. My teens go to school, reluctantly, because they know they have to. They learn on their own time with science videos and YouTube, and they do as little homework as they can to get by. Their lives stretch before them vast and unknown, and the uncertainty frightens and intrigues them at the same time. They try and fail, and pick themselves and dust themselves off, and my heart threatens to burst with pride as I watch them grow into strong, resilient survivors.
I don’t know what my kids will do with their lives, and I really don’t care. I wish them the best, and I hope they find happiness and joy, but I also hope they never stop trying and failing, struggling and clawing their way through life, experiencing every ounce of living they can along the way.
I don’t need grades or test scores to tell me my kids are valuable and worthwhile, and I hope they never do either.