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.


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.”



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.


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


29 thoughts on “International Baccalaureate: A Mother’s Final Notes From The Trenches

  1. You bring me back to writing again.

    A story from the other trench: Had a beautiful young human boy miss a week for dance something-or-other in Paris last month. I scribbled initials and “Check blog for HW and keep up” on his permission slip.

    He came back, and his silence in seminar on Francis Xavier’s letter from Japan and Matteo Ricci’s missionary work in the Ming made me suspicious. I probed after class, and he admitted he hadn’t kept up while in Paris.

    “That was the deal. You can’t not know this development and appreciate what’s left to unfold.” I didn’t need to shame him with “I’m disappointed in you,” because my tone did it wordlessly.

    His response: “Sorry, Mr. B.” One beat and a completely non-aggressive smile, then: “But Paris was great.” Beautiful human being style, he said “Bye, Mr. B.”

    Weeks later I saw him on stage–dancing the White Rabbit lead role in Alice. In freaking stunningly polished classical ballet mode. Baryshnikov at 16.

    “But Paris was great.” No wonder he closed with that. I was deaf to his tone because blinded by the flame of my own passion to his own, and equally bright, flame. Watching him dance let me hear, belatedly, what his tone tried to say.

    Today, weeks later, I entered final semester grades. He had a B+. The low Ming seminar score caused it. Somehow that score went up in flames, though only you and I know. He has an A now. He earned it in Paris.

    • Mr. B.: Exquisite moment and turning of the moment. These lives we count on, they are thin. Not oceanic, but rivulets –– then gone. The challenge is to maintain the vision of that rivulet while telling our kids, “We’re heading over the water, and when we hit the edge of the earth out there, there’s STILL more.” I battle with this tension every day. How do we encourage solitary passion and communal responsibility, and also honor individual gifts while requiring some degree of accountability to educational standards?

      Your student’s B+ went up the flames only because you saw and honored his “equally bright” flame. Bless teachers like you.

  2. Oh, to be in the world and not of it. My girls who are full of love and passion for their beloved horses barely start to unwind before they rush home to hours of homework…or they cancel all together. They come to the barn to find some measure of peace and connection to the natural world. So much stress, pressure, comparison, competition…and with some, intense anger. They are encouraged to voice their feelings , to be heard, to feel validated. What feeds one’s soul is what gives our lives joy….

    • Marleen:
      “To be heard.” What could be more important for an adolescent? For anyone? Your barn, horses and listening ear give these girls much more than a measure of peace, I think. Twenty years from now, they’ll better appreciate what kind of power was in the honest smell of manure, the heft of a leather saddle, and a coarse handful of horse mane. They’ll also see you were a safe place for them. How lucky they are.

  3. Melissa, your experiences with IB are so precious! You should write them down in a paper or talk about this in public. I don’t know (yet?) if the I.B. programme differs here in Europe (and within Europe), but many parents need to know more about it. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Ute: My experience –– conversations with students, parents and faculty from other IB programs –– tells me that the administration and pressures vary notably from country to country, school to school, culture to culture. This should be no surprise. What is consistent, however, are the websites and help centers set up for kids spanning the globe, just to vent about the pressures and to offer emotional support as well as “tricks” for surviving. That should not be ignored. Thanks for coming by!

      • Yes, I know that even here in The Hague, in one city (!) it differs very much. I’ve seen the websites and know about the help centers for the kids, but I’m very glad to know about the experience others are making with it. We still have about 3-4 years to decide, but I prefer being well informed before and ponder all the options we have.

  4. Oh, Melissa! This lesson you have written about above is SO RELEVANT. I was just talking about this with my 14-year-old, who puts so much pressure on herself to be perfect, when she is so perfect already. Happiness itself is, indeed, an achievement. I will have her read your post, as I have already spoken to her about you and Parker. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and that we’ll be in touch very soon. Hugs! Kristin

    • Kristin, thank you for these words!I’m so glad you found this relevant.

      Give your 14-year-old a hug of support from me. My life fell a bit apart for a while when I was her age (blogposts coming …) and so I’m highly sensitive to the needs of her stage. To be well in one’s own skin and at peace with being imperfect is strangely so hard for some of us, and especially in the teens.

      See you in the New Year!–Melissa

  5. Melissa: Thank you for all you do and are! I have a connection with you that I love! I just happen to be practicing the piano and organ one day in the LDS 14th Ward Chapel on Main Street in Springville, Utah, when your father, David Dalton, and you walked in and he was giving you a tour of the building. I remember that I was taken aback because I play the viola a little, and knew that your father was the conductor of a BYU Orchestra and a professional violist! I was amazed that he was so congenial, down-to-earth, humble, and kind! And, you his bright-eyed, beautiful, blond, full-of-life and love daughter (who radiated such pure goodness and love it was tangible!!!), stuck in my mind all these years! So when I saw your picture on the cover of “A Global Mom”, which was advertised in “The Mormon Times” recently, and the name Dalton, I connected it! You look and remind me so much of your grandmother, Jesse Dalton! I grew up in her ward, and we held her such high esteem and awe! She reminded me so much of Princess Grace of Monaco!–regal, queenly, poised, refined, beautiful, gracious, intelligent, talented, and yet humble, God-fearing, righteous, loving, charitable, Christ like and good!!! You look to me like the daughter she never had! Every Christmas for as long as I can remember she went up to the pulpit and recited Luke 2 from memory!!! Word for word!–never any flaws, and so dramatically done, and just awe-inspiring!!! We knew we were blessed to be in her congregation!!! She always had a smile on her face!–a beautiful smile and continuous! Our MIA Maid teacher told us to always watch Sister Dalton–she always smiled and she was someone to try to emulate! She did so much for the city of Springville inn promoting the arts and drama, and had a lot to do with the original Springville Playhouse, which thrives quite well to this day! Her father, Wayne Johnson, taught my parents (now in their nineties) art at s Springville High School, and they loved him! That building you and your good father were admiring on Main Street that day, sadly had a fire and had to be torn down. But they saved the stained glass windows, the organ, and the picture that John Hafen painted of “The Garden of Eden”. It was hanging behind the place where the organ was, and held such sentimental value for so many of us, and was truly inspiring! Before President Gordon B. Hinckley rededicated the building after renovations (Heber J. Grant dedicated it originally), they were going to replace the famous painting, but your outstanding grandmother, Sister Dalton, wouldn’t have it! We all loved that painting, and especially her! It stayed. It goes to show you what kind of woman she was! I noticed now that it has a very prominent place in the Springville Museum of Art! It reminds me of her! Who reminds me of you! I heard you interviewed on “The Cultural Connection” on KSL Radio, and KBYU-FM’s “Speaking Aloud” program while you were in Utah recently, and have since seen you on your video telling about you new book,–and let me tell you, I am totally enthralled, captivated, inspired, and totally enjoy listening, reading, and watching you!!! I have recently gotten a copy of your new book, “A Global Mom”, and can’t wait to read it more than once! I am excited to also read your next book “Grief and Grace” coming Memorial Day 2014! I first learned of your son’s passing in “The Church News”, and since then noticed that Henry J. Eyring, in the dedication of his book about his grandfather, Henry Eyring, the scientist, wrote: TO: Parker Fairbourne Bradford, Hero. And then he quoted some Scriptures and quotes from his grandfather about the theme of …”Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends…” I think you have handled the situation superbly!!!! Kudos! I would think your grandmother and Parker spend a lot of time together! –Thank you for all you do, write, speak about, perform, and the purely good and extraordinarily great example of love you show!!! Your admirer and fan, Gena Bird, Springville, Utah– Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!

    P. S. I was fortunate enough to play the organ at your grandmother, Jesse Dalton’s, funeral. I just happened to be the organist in her ward at the time. I felt so lucky because I would have paid them to let me play for it!!!!! In conjunction with it, I got to call and talk to your parents, David and Donna Dalton, on the phone, and was pleasantly surprised, like before, to find (knowing your mother was a beautiful, refined, artistic, and articulate opera star, and your father a well-known professor, an orchestra conductor, and famous musician) that they were so congenial, friendly, kind, humble, and nice-as-could-be!!! After the funeral, where I should have been thanking them, they went out of their way to thank me! I deemed it such a privilege! I hold them in such high regard!

    P.P.S. I think you are a fulfillment of prophecy! President Spencer W. Kimball said in an address to women entitled: “My Beloved Sisters”, …’that the good women of the world would be drawn into the Church in great numbers, to the degree that the women of the LDS Church were righteous, articulate’,…and in your case, a light to the world, verbal, intelligent, beautiful, talented, and loving!!! You have the personality that draws people to you wherever you go!!! You are such a superbly great mother, true missionary, teacher, mentor, friend, and outstanding example to all who are connected to you in any way! Thanks again for all you do and are!!!!!

    • Gena––Your comment here truly overwhelms me, so much so that I don’t know how I can respond, only with incoherent fragments. I know I am fortunate –– blessed –– to have always been surrounded by good family and friends, seen and unseen. And aren’t we all products of grace, both human and divine? As products of that which is human and that which is divine, we naturally yearn for connection to this and “the other” side. My Grandma, Jessie, has been with me my entire life, including (or especially) after her death. She continues to inspire me. Widowed too early, she lived gracefully, faithfully, creatively, productively and with self-taught erudition. I will live for decades as a bereaved mother, and can only hope to follow something of her example. Thank you for taking time to write so effusively. Bless you heart.

      • Melissa: You always pleasantly surprise me! You are such a high-class lady!–I was so grateful to YOU for taking the time to respond! You made my day! I’m sure your Grandma Dalton and son Parker are extremely proud of you,–taking note of the great things you do to help others struggling with grief, and how you carry on in your everyday living! I’m sure they are near you, and cheering for you, and anxious for day when you will truly meet again!!! What a grand reunion you have in store for you!!!! Best wishes for a great and Happy New Year! My utmost respect and admiration and appreciation continues to grow for you! Thanks for love and great example! Good luck with the new book! Love, Gena

  6. Oh, my, Melissa! My tears are just pouring right now. How special Parker is! I really can’t express how I feel. I would love to hug all of you! Thank you.

  7. the comments so far (you can delete mine!) are a comprehensive many-tentacled post unto themselves. ne’er-the-less( is more) i was gonna say: you are the consumate quilter, stitching interweaver of threads — the branches into the ONE STREAM. and down-to-earth i ring my conchordance with the value of intellectual pursuit alongside music and sport. wish my kids were ‘more muscial’ (they certainly are sports)
    c ya —

  8. Dear, dear Melissa,
    Finished “Global Mom” yesterday. I started it well before Thanksgiving (FYI, Amazon kept canceling my order of it for some reason when it first came out) but I had to stop reading when I got to Paris because I knew what was coming. So exquisitely, beautifully written. I was comforted to know that you have “smiling” memories of Parker’s funeral. I know I never hear the phrase “Come Together” without picturing both of you in my mind. I loved the post about you on the Mormon Women Project I was so very grateful for the reminder to love over teaching and measuring. We are down to our last semester with our “baby” Scott in our nest. My inclination to break out the ruler or my seminary teacher voice always comes before the prompting to squeeze him close to me. Just want you to know I am thinking of you and yours, all six of you, as you welcome Claire home from her sweet missionary service in Italy. What a joy-filled reunion! And so blessed that her flight is short so she might actually arrive wanting to chat. I wish I could casually run into you at the airport and help distract you as you endure those last painful moments of separation. You don’t need distraction though because you have learned to deal with separation so generously and gracefully. I love you cousin, and I admire you more than I could express in any earthly language. Thank you for shining such a bright light.

    • Dear Adriane,
      Thank you, first, for reading here and for taking time to comment. My memories of Parker’s funeral are visceral, they go trough me like a twister and rearrange my insides if I linger in them for very long. Those memories are held up by the pages and pages of journaling I wrote right afterward and by photos many people took. I didn’t think I’d been smiling (I thought I’d mostly wept or held back tears until I was dizzy), but then I was sent some photos that show both us parents beaming. They taught me (again) how we were being upheld my your communallove and by forces unseen but real. And to think: within those very 24 funeral hours, Dalton and Luc had both been throwing up in tandem on the bathroom floor, and my mother had been rushed to the hospital with kidney stones. Yet we were all able to participate in our boy’s funeral and feel the enormous spirit that was present. That closing hymn. . .who can ever forget the power? A high point of spirit to which we referred constantly as grief sunk its claws in and we moved off to a world of strangers. Those funeral moments (and others) anchored us. I thank God for them. And thank you, Adriane, remembering that Claire is coming home to us soon. I’m planning an upcoming post (or two) dedicated exclusively to her and her service in Italy. She’s very sad to be leaving her mission. I hope we can comfort her. And one last thanks: you persisted in ordering your Global Mom! (You’re not the only person whose order was delayed; I wish I had some control over behemoths like Amazon…) I’m so touched you thought the wait was worth it. Always with love, cousin–Melissa

  9. I’m so happy I learned about your blog. My husband and I were visiting the English speaking ward in Geneva this past Sunday and as we were walking out a mutual friend mentioned that your book/blog may have some helpful insights for our family. Your thoughts on the IB program are just what I needed to find as I have been stressing and losing sleep over getting my kids into the “right” school. We currently live in Manila, Philippines and my 4 children attend the International School of Manila where my oldest daughter was planning to start the IB program next year (she is in 10th grade). We are moving to Dubai this summer and we are taking our kids there this coming weekend to take assessments and interview at two extremely competitive American Schools. One offers the IB diploma and one offers AP course work. I was surprised to hear that the one that offers the AP course work is the hardest to get in to. After talking to a few expat families, especially those whose kids have gone to or who are wanting to go to University in the US, it seems that the IB diploma isn’t all they hoped it would be in terms of impressing college admissions. I’m torn because I think the IB Diploma could be incredible preparation for college/life, but the stress that could accompany it scares me. We may not have a choice in the matter, but I really loved the insights you offered here. You have ‘kept it real’ and I appreciate that. Good luck to your son in slaying the IB dragon. I look forward to reading your book.

    • Carey- Ah, I was not in Geneva this last week. Sorry to have missed you while you visited. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, while I am a vocal fan of the IB concept (international, multipolar world view, rigorous training, emphasis on verbal defense and lots of writing) I have also seen over and over again how it wrings out young people, stresses them into illness and sleeplessness, will definitely limit any time to do anything beyond core requirements (that is, if one does the full diploma, not merely individual IB courses),and is not necessarily an advantage when applying to US universities. Some personalities thrive on the pressures of the full IB. They are natural test takers, have an innate ability to micromanage their time, don’t need much sleep, have few if any outside interests beyond academic achievement. But, as commenters on my blog have attested to, if you happen to not be of that peculiar type, and if you want to participate regularly in music, sports and plain adolescent fun (agh!!), it’s less likely you’ll be able to do that if you undertake the full IB. And yes, universities are still figuring out how to weigh the IB compared to the AP. In some cases, in spite of having white-knuckled one’s way through the full IB, one may still be disadvantaged when it comes to college apps. Our Claire managed the full IB well. Our Dalton has tried to slay the dragon without being slain in the battle, and is just beginning to come out of what are the most intense months. Right before the onslaught of internal assessments and finals. I’d advise you carefully investigate the infrastructure of your next IB school to see if there is a lot of support, coaching, check out the timeline the school imposes for CAS hours, TOK essays, the EE and other IB extras, and find out if there is free teachers’ tutoring as well as a good college counsellor. Then go buy some chainmail and armor.

  10. I realize I have come to this post late – but I really appreciated hearing your take on the IB program. I barely graduated from the full IB program in the states, I am a very poor test taker and was grateful that my extended essay earned enough points to get me the diploma. This was back when BYU had yet to recognize all the IB credit I painstakingly accrued through many sleepless nights – I very much agree with your last comment above – that described my experience perfectly. I am also impressed with your understanding of the program on a parental level – I came from a family where I was on my own educationally and carved my own way. Thank you for sharing.

    I have followed parts of your story through Segullah and look forward to reading your book.

    • Robin–Not getting credit for the blood and sweat of the IB? When the AP waltzes in without as much as a sideways glance? Wrong, demoralizing and demotivating, if anyone cares to hear my opinion! Grrrrrrrrrr.
      Our Dalton has, since this posting, begun to receive college acceptances, and we’re happy to report that his few spilled corpuscles and drizzles of saline have paid off. Still, I remain unconvinced that the IB system can go on without being contested or at least reshaped. With all the research pointing to the egregious results of stress and sleeplessness in one’s teens, I think the program will have to be modified/reshaped so kids aren’t driven to extremes just to keep up with the minimum requirements.
      Thank you for being aware of my writings. My next book after Global Mom, entitled Loss & Living Onward, releases in May.
      Best to you, Robin.

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