I'm not talking about the political middle class. To this school teacher, "the middle class" means exactly just that - the class that performs right at the middle. This vital group of students is dwindling. What does that mean?
When I was a high school kid back in Maryland, my "everything will ultimately be OK" gene was pretty intact. I knew that I'd get into the University of Maryland, with my 3.1 GPA. I knew that going to a public university would be relatively affordable. What a difference a generation makes. With each passing year, it seems like students have a more uphill climb to getting into (and affording) college. The result is a divergence in student behaviors, away from middle. Many students push themselves harder. A kid taking four AP classes can ultimately take five. They also take on a variety of other tasks, like clubs or sports, which would be great except many times they do it primarily for the resume boosting effect it has. Another growing group of students see the high-octane college train moving further and further away from their station. Sooner or later, they stop running after it and subsequently re-frame their identity based on NOT waltzing to the same college drumbeat. Some dive into personal entrepreneurial interests, like the arts, digital media, sports, or other socially-driven endeavors. They resolve themselves to the assumption that they will succeed despite school, not because of school. On more than one occasion, I've heard students say to each other, "So many of my friends got their jobs from hookups and not school. It's only about who you know." They convince themselves that the education is not worth it. And, let's not forget about students who entirely don't see the point of school in the first place. They resentfully either can't wait to leave, or they drop out before they graduate. We are losing the students similar to what I used to be. I did not know what I wanted. I did not excel in anything major yet. I had the chance to just be a student, learn a few things, play basketball during P.E., and figure out the path as I went. I did not have the ominous pressure of overload undermining the implicit beauty of just being a teenager at school. So why is this a problem? Think of it this way: have you ever come up with your best epiphanies when jetting from task to task at full throttle? Or when you're exhausted, are those the times when you want to confront significant personal hurdles in your life? Probably not. I'm all for being busy and having a robust and challenging schedule. But at the same time, transforming positive stress to negative stress on a national/institutional level shortchanges our goals of molding self-aware, thoughtful, socially capable citizens. To our teachers, I suggest offering our students some perspective at every reasonable opportunity. Remind students that life isn't a sprint; it's a marathon. They love learning that I did not really know what I wanted to do until I was 25 or 26, for example. To our students, I ask that you fortify your "everything will be OK" outlook. Each test won't make or break you, and they certainly don't define you. Work on finding activities that inspire you and make you thirsty to learn more. Push yourself from within, because success is important to you, not to some paper description about you. Middle does not mean average. It means being able to exist comfortably, while taking it all in.