September 10, 2015: Students, dance while the music plays

September 10, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont is rightly proud of its public school system.  The town churns out award-winning scholars, musicians, athletes, and thespians. We send our graduates on to four-year colleges. Community members repeatedly express how proud we are of our students.  As we begin this new school year, however, it is time to consider the wisdom of English philosopher Alan Watts.  His words are worth listening to by everyone.

“In music,” Watts says, “one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. . .If that were so, there would be composers who write only finales.”

This notion, he continues, has not adequately been brought into our education system.  Instead, our schools frequently leave “a completely different impression.”  According to Watts, the educational experience is too often set up exclusively to promote “success.”  A person moves from elementary school through high school and then on to college and graduate school, he says.  The individual obtains a job and advances through the hierarchy, measured by the ultimate goal of “making it.” “One day,” Watts says, “you wake up and find you’ve arrived. But you don’t feel much different.”

The stress of today’s educational system in seeking that success –I’m not talking simply about Belmont, here, but nationwide—has been well-documented.  According to the 2014 annual Stress in America Survey published by the American Psychological Association, 30 percent of teens reported feeling sad or depressed because of stress and 31 percent felt overwhelmed. Another 36 percent said that stress makes them tired and 23 percent said they’ve skipped meals because of it.  On average, the APA survey found, teens reported their stress level was 5.8 on a 10-point scale, compared with 5.1 for adults.  The fact that teens feel as much stress as adults, one APA official said, is “alarming.”

The extent to which our kids feel stress is becoming greater.  According to the APA, twice as many teens said that their stress levels had increased in the previous year as said their stress levels had gone down.  In addition, more than one-third of teens said they expected their stress level would rise in the coming year.

According to an August 2015 study by Dr. Noelle Leonard, at the New York University School of Nursing, stress levels result from increasingly competitive college admissions, school work, extracurricular activities and parental expectations, amongst other factors.  These factors simply magnify the “ordinary struggles of adolescence”, the APA found, including “friendship, romance and fitting in.”

So, at the beginning of this new school year here in Belmont, my plea goes out not only to Belmont’s parents, but to our educators, and to Belmont’s kids themselves.  While you should certainly appreciate the high-performance so applauded by Belmont community members, don’t let that expectation define the entire student experience.  Whether you are dealing with first graders at the beginning of their education; making the jump to middle school in the fifth grade; entering BHS as a freshman starting to think about things such as AP courses and honors classes; actively starting to look for colleges as a high school junior; or starting to wonder as a senior about your role in the global economy, as philosopher Watts would say, think of your Belmont education “as a pilgrimage, by analogy to a journey.”

Fun and enjoyment along the way are an important part of a Belmont public education.  As Watts would say, you don’t want to get to the end, only then to realize that “it was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing and dance all along, while the music was being played.”

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