Ninth grade. Age 14. What a wondrous year. I remember the thrill of moving from classroom to classroom and having free periods to hang out with my friends. We began to have parties that moved beyond just listening to the new James Taylor album with a bunch of other girls, to coed gatherings where we danced and missed curfews. I smoked my first cigarette behind the football field of a local prep school during a Halloween dance. I was secretly in love with a boy named Jimmy who had long hair and deep brown eyes. The whole transition to high school was about maturing, finding my way in a new, more adult world, and adjusting to a whole new set of academic expectations.
High school should be a chance to enjoy a waning childhood, to find oneself, and to begin to understand where one is headed in the future.
My grades were good for the most part, but there was definitely a slip here and there when my mind was more on being a teenager than the upcoming Spanish test. I know I passed Latin II by doing reams of extra-credit vocabulary work to offset my less-than-stellar test grades. I also know that this was pretty typical behavior for a high school freshman. When it came time for applying to college as a senior, I had grown exponentially. I had a solid record from sophomore year on and had managed to distinguish myself in extracurriculars. I was admitted, early-decision, to a very competitive university.
In my eyes, this is much as it should be. The 9th grade should be a transitional year during which teenagers are allowed to search for their niche, develop an identity, and begin to formulate their goals for the future, a future to be secured in college. Ninth grade should be a time to make mistakes and learn from them under the kind guidance of a faculty adviser. After all, do average 9th graders really have the maturity to see the long-term consequences of spending two hours on the telephone with a best friend, talking about their latest crushes, when they should be studying for the music-survey test?
Fast forward to the new millennium. I am a seasoned college-guidance counselor. I have a handful of seniors who have superior SAT scores, excellent grade point averages in advanced courses, and impressive extracurricular programs. In this group are two scholarship students, two accomplished actresses, one composer-performer, one class president, one national-diversity-workshop facilitator, one experienced political-campaign comptroller, and two students from highly sought-after minority groups.
It looks like a year for banner acceptances to highly competitive universities; yet, when the letters come in, there are more wait lists and denials than in the past. I am aware, because I do my homework, that demographics are such that many have predicted this would be a tough year. Yet, what I find most disturbing is the very consistent response I receive from admissions representatives when I make that usual call to get an explanation for the difficult decisions. Consistently, I am told, “She had a C,” or “She had D,” in her 9th grade year. This is true for some of my students. One had been at a large, inner-city high school, and her quiet demeanor had kept her from seeking help in a difficult class. Another is dyslexic, and despite being diagnosed as a student who should be exempt from foreign-language study, she stubbornly marched forward, earning a low grade in her first year, but becoming an honors language student in the subsequent three years of study. In none of these profiles did the student have anything but stellar grades from the 10th grade on.
The message this sends is of concern. If we are unwilling to allow a 14-year-old to make mistakes and then learn from them, are we saying that that 14-year-old is an adult? An adult who should have the foresight and discipline to know that he or she will want to enter an Ivy League university four years down the road, and who will truly understand what that means? When colleges tell students to take the most challenging course load in high school, why do they then use a lesser grade in that challenging class as the hook to explain a denial? Should high school be all work and no play? Are these the kinds of pressures that are inflating grades, leading our students to choose more destructive behavioral paths, and driving an industry of test prep?
In a recent faculty meeting at my school on choosing awards, a wise and experienced teacher said this: “High school is a time for growth, and as such, we should always be considering the end product when discussing awards. Since we are here to help the student grow, in our evaluation, let us look at the point the child has reached, not just where they came from, but to where they have arrived.” If every 9th grade student were already perfect, already disciplined, mature, and goal-oriented, why would students bother with high school at all?
As a society, we need to return to a kinder, gentler, more forgiving womb within which our children can take steps, fall, learn, and grow. We need to look at the whole child, celebrate his or her strengths and successes, and support and understand his or her trials. High school should be a chance to enjoy a waning childhood, to find oneself, and to begin to understand where one is headed in the future. The college-application process, in conjunction with this, needs to be less about numbers, lists, and reputations, and more about proper match, individuality, and delighting in the unique accomplishments of each child.
The college-application process needs to be less about numbers, lists, and reputations, and more about proper match and individuality of each child.
I will continue in college guidance, despite my frustrations with the system. But I will also become more aware of the universities that are willing to celebrate a child’s growth over four years. And I will encourage my students to seek learning environments that find joy in the individual who is a whole person, who knows failure and success, and who understands the sweet taste of that success all the more for having survived disappointment.
And when I look back, 10 years from now, I hope I will see that, ultimately, these seniors have been successful—that the actress, the politician, the budding congresswoman, the musician, the stockbroker have continued to grow and are successful members of society, having come a very long way since that 9th grade year.
Anne Macleod Weeks is the director of college guidance at Olfields School in Glencoe, Md.