Jewish World Review Aug 12, 2005/ 7 Av 5765


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Don't Know Much About Yoga: More Homework, Please | Perhaps this is a Pepsi Generation-infused point of view, but who can take seriously the media bleat in recent years that today's teenagers are on the verge of meltdown due to academic and social "stress" at their high schools. There are plenty of exceptions certainly—kids who live with medical infirmities, abusive parents or extreme poverty—but if a 17-year-old who's consumed by studies, sporting and cultural activities and romantic ups and downs is "stressed," I'd say that's normal. Or at least it used to be.

The Boston Globe published an article on this subject on July 31—"Suburban high schools try to ease up on teen stress"—that epitomizes this bizarre concern of (mostly) affluent educators and parents. Globe reporter Anand Vaishnav focuses on the metal state of suburban Wellesley High School students and finds that administrators there have met stress and say No! In the upcoming 2005-06 session the school will eliminate mid-year exams, homework during the April break, and introduce new intramural sports teams for those who don't make the varsity cut.

Vaishnav's opening paragraph is enough to make you puzzled, if not exactly fearful, about the country's future. "Students often huddle in classrooms and auditoriums at Wellesley High School well past the dinner hour, organizing tsunami relief efforts or rehearsing for the fall musical. Sophomores have to write a 5,000-word research paper; juniors visit as many as 12 prospective colleges. The tension builds through the school year, whether students or their teachers cause it." The school's principal, Rena P. Mirkin, adds, "Society as a whole is creating a stressful environment. It's not 'Are you achieving?' It's 'Are you achieving with five honors courses, eight clubs, two sports, and three community service activities?'"

I'm pro-choice on this vital issue.

No one is forcing these kids, or their parents, to interview at 12 colleges (an absurd waste of time and money) or pad their resumes with drop-in participation at self-awareness classes or the Science Club. Most students at Wellesley, according to Vaishnav, are saddled with two-three hours of homework each night, hardly an inordinate amount for a school that in 2004 sent 80 percent of its seniors to private colleges, compared to the 32 percent average in the rest of Massachusetts. (My son, 12, had two hours of homework each night as a sixth-grader, and I thanked the stern headmaster.)

I suppose it's true that teenagers today face more competition for admission at coveted colleges, but if a motivated person can't handle this sort of pressure at that age, when will he or she be able to?

And doesn't your heart break at the injustice of sophomores forced to write a 5000-word research paper? That's a positive requirement, especially in an era that's seen the continual degeneration of basic grammar skills, no doubt caused in part by rampant Instant Messaging. "R u 2 lazy to rite w/ a dictionary by yr. side?" is the question I'd ask as a teacher.

Teenagers can't be blamed for unfamiliarity with the nearly-extinct typewriter, but it wasn't so long ago that completing a term paper meant many trips to the library to find information (instead of using the Internet), and a diligent student would tap out a rough draft and re-type it three times, including the use of white-out, to hand in a clean copy. Computers—a benefit for everyone, save those authors who proudly make a fetish of keeping their Royal on a roll-top desk—eliminate that extra work. Homework's become a lot easier in the last generation, so there ought to be more of it.

It's not as if a generation ago it was a matter of just choosing the college of your choice. As the youngest of five boys, I was indoctrinated by my parents from kindergarten on that in order to accepted by a prestigious university, and also receive a scholarship, it was essential to study hard, rack up straight A's each semester (gym and shop classes were exceptions), and post an impressive list of extracurricular activities.

I didn't have much difficulty with the grades at Huntington High School (where three hours of homework was an average load) but couldn't stomach my parents' insistence at joining the Key Club or sitting on the bench for the lacrosse team just to impress an admissions officer. I was in the doghouse for a month after breaking family tradition and quitting the Boy Scouts before attaining the rank of an Eagle or Life scout. The final straw came when I was admonished at a meeting for wearing a Gene McCarthy campaign button on my uniform.

As with Dick Cheney, I had different priorities back then, like scoring nickel bags, trying (in vain) to attract Sara Joline's attention, finding Bob Dylan bootlegs in the East Village, hanging out at Kropotkin Records, growing long hair, saving up for Central Park concerts, working a part-time job and "cruising" the neighborhood with friends in a beat-up Dodge station wagon. It was an active lifestyle, filled with a lot of reading and studying for exams, and also a ton of fun. And no yoga was required, probably because the notion of an adolescent being "stressed" was as odd as a New York Times editorial that doesn't grouse about President Bush.

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I don't mean to pile on the Globe for running this stupid story; it's an evergreen common in the industry. The August 8 issue of Time, for example, was a pip, with a "special report" on the cover about "Being 13." As a parent of a son about to enter his teenage years—and, mercifully, he hasn't once brought up the idea of a "faux mitzvah" scam—I actually read the extremely useless package of stories, with the exception of one headlined "The rise of cyberbullies." There are limits.

But this caught my eye: According to a Time online poll of 501 13-year-olds, 67 percent replied that "compared to [their] parents" it's "harder" being a teenager today. Oh, please. Just as I knew in 1968 that my middle-class lifestyle was cushier than my parents' Depression-era adolescence, one would hope that reasonably intelligent youths in 2005 understand that they live in a more exciting world. Further calling the poll into doubt was that 60 percent of respondents—perhaps teasing the inquisitors—believe that people should "wait until they're married" to have sex.

Time's Nancy Gibbs, admirably resisting the phrase "The kids are all right," nonetheless is bullish about Generation Grand Theft Auto. She writes: "What does it mean to be 13, backstage adults, watching on tiptoe, waiting to go onstage? Today's 13-year-olds, growing up in a world more competitive, more complex than the one their parents had to navigate as kids, so far show every sign of rising to the challenge."

At least 501 of them.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- was the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2005, Russ Smith