“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.
“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?”
“And they all have 3.99 GPAs.”
No amount of home-stuffed cannelloni is going to soften this blow.
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.)
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.
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.