International Baccalaureate: A Mother’s Final Notes From The Trenches

Sizzling drums. Drizzling tears. An unlikely alchemy.

Last week on a stage in Paris, while standing in a pocket of shadow off to the side of a big screen, I fingertipped away a couple of tears as I watched footage of my eldest son Parker, drumming. His jazz riff was hot, nothing but pure pyrotechnical spontaneous combustion. You’d have thought that was what was making my eyes burn.

drumming

The Paris audience, which erupted in applause for this filmed drummer they did not know, was made up of high school students, faculty and parents at the international school from which Parker graduated a few years ago. He graduated from there, in fact, only months after that drumming footage was taken. Invited to speak to this audience for a morning, I had brought as accompaniment that firstborn son of mine on film.  Our youngest, Luc, who looks a lot like his big brother, I brought in the flesh. Luc sat front and center, about where his brother had sat during graduation practice, June of 2007.

Luc, thumbs up

Luc, thumbs up

Dalton, our middle son, I couldn’t bring to Paris. Although he wanted to come, a single day away from full I.B. coursework this semester could be lethal, and having lost study time doing Benvolio in this school’s “Romeo and Juliet,” he was already begging for an extension on a deadline for another major I.B. project, the extended essay.  On that stage, I of course thought of Dalton and the pressure he’s under, pressure many of those students in front of me in Paris were under, too.  They are strivers, most of them, in a demanding curriculum, and some were candidates for the full I.B.

Dalton, extended essay

Dalton, extended essay

Extended ecstacy

extended ecstasy

There they sat, gorgeously alive, faces packed with promise. Concentrated, quizzical, study-weary, but leaning into my presentation as they are leaning into their future: ship mastheads tilting toward their oceanic tomorrows.

basketball champions

basketball champions

I was moved just looking at these kids. And some images I projected of Parker as co-captain of both basketball and volleyball teams made my nose sting and my throat tighten.  Because this was Parker’s school, his very stage. And I was speaking to these students in what was Parker’s life stage – late adolescence – that crescendo swell when everything is coming together, plumbing deep and blooming wide all at once, building for. . .

For what?

volleyball buddies

volleyball buddies

For most of those students in front of me, as had been the case for Parker, this high school stage –– both the literal one on which I stood as well as the metaphorical one in which they stood –– was a launching pad for the world stage. That’s how Parker treated it.  Life was ahead, huge and welcoming, his oyster, his clam bake, his personal “oceanic tomorrow.”

“So what are you all preparing for?” I asked my young, beautifully breathing audience. “Who’s preparing for this week’s exam? Midterms? Who’s preparing for SAT’s? ACT’s? That Extended Essay? Theory of Knowledge paper?”

Hands were shooting up everywhere.

“And college applications? Anyone here deep into those?”

More limp hands. A low groan from row 14.

“And what are all these numbers –– your test scores, I.B. or A.P. results, GPA –– telling the world about you? Telling you about yourself? Your aptitude? Your potential? Your worth? Your guaranteed happiness?”

Then in about row six, a girl with dark blonde hair and the huge eyes of a famished hawk, shifted, pulling her sweatshirt hood tighter around the nape of her neck. A flash of connection, and I wondered:  Is she happy?

drumming at trocadéro

drumming at Trocadéro

And for one breath, I choked as I tried to swallow that thought alongside the joy that exploded from that drumming boy, Parker. Then the rush of recollection: sitting in that school’s top administrator’s office in 2006, a couple of coaches next to me (at my request), the jazz band conductor standing in a corner.

“Listen,” I remember saying, “we have to pull Parker out of the full I.B., understand? Put him in a couple of I.B. courses, maybe, and maybe some A.P. I’ll go along with that. But what I’m saying is, his GPA is suffering, so I’m pulling him. And one more thing: no more drums. No more ball.”

for the school's cabaret

for the school’s cabaret

The athletic director hung his head and shook it, side to side. The headmaster let out a long sigh. The conductor lifted his brows. “Really? Just . . . pull him?”

“You do that, Mrs. Bradford,” the assistant basketball coach mumbled a bit, “and you’ll take away his oxygen.”

“Mrs. Bradford, I really do think he needs music,” the man in the corner spoke up. “It’s in him. He’ll be sick without it. Besides, he’ll drive his teachers nuts drumming on his desk.”

“Right. Right.” (I was impatient with their softness while I was trying to be ambitious for my son. After all, someone had to be.) “Honestly,” I continued, “they aren’t necessary, music and ball. They’re treats, rewards for hitting the grades.

The men were quiet.

“I know, I know,” I went on, “I’ll be unpopular with you folks, and okay, Parker’s good at these things. Really good. But don’t worry. I’ll be the one to break the news to him, not you. I’ll be the bad guy.”

seniors

seniors

To this day, and especially while viewing for the first time since 2007 that sizzling drumming footage, the memory of that conversation turns my insides into the hot slosh of the Ganges Delta.  Its tide climbs my torso like a whole year of “oceanic tomorrows.”  And I so want to weep.

Then I shiver with gratitude, relieved that, as it turned out, I buckled on that hardliner moment, and in spite of a sagging grade here or there, Parker was allowed – encouraged – to keep playing, both drums and ball.  He played because his well-meaning but short-sighted mom was overruled by a dad, whose philosophy was simple: the immeasurable is of more value than the measurable. As floppy and slovenly as it might sound (dad said) there is value in just doing what you really love doing. There is value, he said, and there is even achievement in just being happy.

parker, age 9, his school stage

parker, age 9, his school stage

Dad was aligned with insightful administrators, people who were more interested in the holistic picture of Parker’s educational experience – his obvious talents, his nature, his joy – than in insisting on acquiring certain statistical currency.  They were, in the end, focused on complete development, while I was caught in the pinch of the lie that tells us that hitting quantifiable markers of achievement alone – scores, rankings, admissions – equals education, which (the lie continues) will equal durable happiness.

The last week of Parker's life; shot taken at site of accident

The last week of Parker’s life; shot taken at site of accident

Months after the drumming riff, a month after high school graduation, ten days into a college preparation workshop, Parker lost his life. That loss changed everything. Everything. Because I know in my cells how brief the time is we get to spend with our children, how illusory those  “oceanic tomorrows” are, I have strong opinions about anything –– even a first class education –– that robs families of time together. Furthermore, I resent any outside element that imposes poisonous amounts of pressure (upwards of 40 hours of work each week outside of the classroom?) on youth, creating a toxicity that inevitably seeps into and affects the quality of that limited time these young people have remaining with their families.

fam

And so, as much as I praise the I.B. for its

1) multiethnic, multilingual, multi-philosophical approach to learning,

2) its emphasis on self-governance and time management,

3) its focus on debate and verbal defense,

4) its development of rigorous questioning, including the questioning of authority, and

5) its global grading practices …

And even if I have my third child of four enrolled in an I.B. program, I can only be grateful that my eldest son’s last two years of life were not weighted with the I.B. and the kinds of anxiety, distress, sleeplessness and self-flagellation that I have seen it engender in many youth.  Besides getting solid education, Parker had enough bandwidth in his young life for the things along with academic learning that brought him joy: his music, his sports, his friends, his family, his religion, and his hometown, Paris.

volleyball near the Eiffel tower

volleyball near the Eiffel Tower

portrait

International Baccalaureate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 7; Extracurriculars

ib

“Your high school had what? ” Dalton asks me, “A band that. . . marched?!”

My teenaged boys, schooled only outside of the US, are finishing off their cannelloni for dinner. As is often the case, Dalton our IB student is venting about the pressures of his program and the gravitas of his educational trajectory.  So I am diffusing things by telling him what an advantage he and his brother have when entering college and a globally complex world and. . . Let’s fact it: I also want my hear my boys laugh. Mom’s high school experience, paleolithic as it was, should be hilarious enough to get us hooting.  At least I think so.

“Marched? But. . .why?” Luc asks, fork hovering midair, suspicion flattening then raising his brow.

“And with that band –– get this!” I paint the full picture, still hoping for humor, “There was a marching squad.”

“A squ–odd? Like police? Military?” Dalton drags the edge of a napkin around his gaping mouth. He then plants both hands on his forehead, and slumps. Stumped. Not a whole lot of laughter yet.

nashuatelegraph.com

nashuatelegraph.com

“Marching squad! Marching band! Flag twirlers! People who did serial back flips across the whole gymnasium! A mascot in a fuzzy dog costume. We had theme days, homecoming royalty, best dressed contests, most preferred couples. We had girl’s choice dances, modern dance club, clubs and clubs and more clubs.  A whole parade of what we called extra-curriculars.”

Our cannelloni is going cold and crusty.  “Extra-curriculars?” one of them stutters.

“Extras. Um . . . Non-academics. Did you know Dad was in sports practice every single day after school and sometimes before school, too? And he went on ‘away trips’ with those teams? I was on the debate and public speaking team.  I had a lot of music and theater. We had a full-blown theater department and an award-winning choir.  As a high school senior with lots of time on my hands, I was recruited to make life-sized caricatures of what we called the ‘varsity basketball team’ for something we called ‘pep assemblies.’ Assemblies were needed to boost ‘school spirit,’ a big deal in most American high schools. I also decorated the gym for dances, which we had, it seemed, every other month or so. High school was –” (why does this feel illicit as it leave my lips?)  “– fun.

“But that sounds like . . . And . . .you. . .” Dalton’s voice, usually resonant, grows thin, “You both got into college?

“Kind of a good college?” Luc asks, pushing his plate away and staring me up and down. Shame singes up and through me from my shoulders right to the last hair follicle on my head. My eyebrows are even smoking.

“Dad had. . .a 3.99 GPA, right?”

Ah, that legend, yes.  But a true one.

“Hold it,” Dalton blurts, things clicking maybe too quickly in his eyes.”This means that there might be kids out there applying to get into the colleges I’m applying to.” He speaks slowly, while his dimples go from peachy to raspberry,  “And these kids, they’ve had time to learn how to do backflips? And they’ve gotten to wear . . . dog costumes? They’ve had time to go. . . to a dance? To dances? They’ve had time. . . to dance?”

Pause.

And they all have 3.99 GPAs.

No amount of home-stuffed cannelloni is going to soften this blow.

ib profile

What my kids are grappling with is far bigger than a simple comparison of school systems; one kind that values bands, squads, mascots, dances, fun and pep, and another kind that doesn’t.  It’s also more than a comparison of IB vs. AP, of American vs. International schools, of supposed “fun” versus supposed “seriousness.”

Those comparisons are abstract. Concrete and even trickier will be applying to US universities, a process we are undergoing right now with Dalton.  Not surprisingly, besides GPAs, test scores, letters of recommendation and application essays, most US universities are highly interested in an applicant’s extra curricular involvement. Swim team. Concert master. Soccer goalie. Model UN. Thespian. Equestrian. Rodeo queen. Mascot. Back flips. You get the picture.

If you have followed a traditional US high school education, you will  have had not only a broad choice of extra curricular offerings embedded in your educational culture, but you will have had time and encouragement to do these things. The system, a reflection of the culture’s values, makes concessions for “fun.”

(Here I won’t bother delving into the millions upon millions of tax and private dollars that go each year to supporting US high school sports programs alone. But if that interests you, you might check here or here.)

highschoolsports.nj.com

highschoolsports.nj.com

So what happens if you are pursuing a program as rigorous as the full IB diploma in a bilingual international school, which academic demands don’t allow you to engage in many (if any) extra-curricular activities?  As crass as it sounds, you won’t have those strengths to pack your college application. Your “profile” as they say, will be weak.

Much more pernicious, in my opinion, is the threat on young minds, bodies and spirits when there is a blatant lack of bandwidth. They need to scream, cheer, run, make music, sing at the top of their lungs, run the court, do back flips or flip out, all in healthy ways. If not, they flip out in unhealthy ways.

And they need, oh do they need, adequate sleep.

Additionally and even more importantly, it is in these crucially developmental teen years that one learns about the value and satisfaction in service, about the profoundly binding language of music and theater and the building blocks of character, which begin with cooperation and camaraderie over competition.  All of these things can serve to develop compassion.

In response to a perceived imbalance of academics over non-academics, the IB developed what is called CAS (Creative Activity and Service) hours. CAS hours, which the IB website calls “a refreshing counterbalance to academic studies”, are a required element of the full IB.  What counts for CAS? You can tutor younger students, organize regional sports activities, direct a student production of Romeo & Juliet or play the accordion every weekend at a soup kitchen.  Or, as we’re learning, you’ll probably have to do all four to fulfill the CAS requirement.

high scool musical

The weakness I note here is that such activities are not built into the extant educational IB program as are extracurricular activities in a conventional US system. Perhaps CAS hours are more easily completed in US schools offering the IB because there is already in the US a cultural infrastructure that not only provides for but insists on sport, music, charitable engagement, entrepreneurial projects, student leadership.  My sense –– and it’s no more than a sense –– is that extracurricular involvement is more readily accessible, more robustly supported, more culturally self-evident within the American value system and therefore as part of the US educational approach than elsewhere in the world.

But it is all hard for me to judge how this plays itself out in today’s US schools. Hard to judge, at least, from where I sit. Fiddling with my now-brittle cannelloni.  Forcing some spurts of laughter with my boys. Making deliberate fun of my “fun” high school years.  Here, in the shadow of the wintery Swiss alps.

alpinist

alpinist