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Joan Wickersham

The myth of the Frankenstudent

By Joan Wickersham
April 15, 2010

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‘DOES YOUR son do community service?’’ my friend asks me. Her tone is demanding, frantic. “Because I hear the colleges are looking for community service now.’’

Another friend confides that she has hired a tutor to help her son with math. The boy’s PSAT math score was over 700, but the mother hopes that tutoring might bring it up some more.

Someone else is fretting because her daughter got a C+ in chemistry and, even though her other grades are good, “the colleges aren’t going to like that.’’

Our kids are in tenth grade.

When I hear these parents — my friends, who are otherwise sane people — talking, a big part of me wants to say, “Please shut up.’’ And another part of me wants to ask for the phone number of the math tutor.

Every year when college admissions season rolls around, I read articles about how the applicant pool is bigger and stronger than ever before. But are we really seeing better kids, or just slicker packaging? We think our children should be academically brilliant; musically and athletically gifted; and dedicated to serving, if not downright saving, humanity. Are there really a lot of people like this? Or are we creating Frankenstudents — artificial monsters, impossible composites of skills and achievements that rarely co-exist in real life?

I look around at the adults I know, and I don’t see anybody who resembles this glossy hyperachiever. I see a doctor who gardens, an architect taking care of an aging mother, a sculptor who plays tennis twice a week. I know someone who does relief work in Africa, and someone who gave a great deal of time and money after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — but those same people don’t also play the tuba and win skating championships and dissect frogs. They have work, families, and friends — and even with that, no one gets enough sleep.

The pressure to have kids who are “outstanding’’ and “well rounded’’ is intense, and it starts earlier and earlier. Some friends took their kindergartener to Florida for a week last year, and not only did the school send a packet of homework along, but one evening, when the little girl sat at the table drooping over her crayons, the parents were appalled to hear themselves saying, “Hey! Wake up! Color.’’

This climate of parental anxiety is nuts. The way kids are being packaged for college is cynical and fake. (It reminds me of the old Miss America pageants, where contestants had to look good in a bathing suit, play the marimba, aspire to do brain surgery, and dream about world peace.) But opting out of it is nerve-wracking, too. If everyone else is playing the game, can your child afford not to?

The goal of education is to genuinely enrich people, not to make them merely appear enriched. By trying to manufacture Frankenstudents, we are distorting and cheapening a process that should allow people to experiment, question, take risks, stumble, and occasionally fail. We need to give people permission to spend time doing things that are not quantifiable and don’t show up on a résumé — things like daydreaming; reading for pleasure; learning how to cook a frittata; and studying a subject you’re not very good at, just because it interests you. We need to stop pretending that everyone peaks early. We need to prepare our kids for unpredictable lives and uneven careers, for bumps and jolts and ambiguities. In short, for real life.

I suspect that our kids are much more sane about the whole college admissions process than their parents are. When I asked my son if he was interested in getting some extra tutoring for the PSATs, he said, “Mom, I’m fine.’’

It’s the grownups, with our anxieties and ambitions, who are crazy.

The problem in Mary Shelley’s novel wasn’t the monster. It was the ambitious, egotistical scientist — Dr. Frankenstein — who wanted to create something that was bigger and stronger than any real person could possibly be. It didn’t work out very well. Maybe it’s time for us to abandon the myth of the Frankenstudent, and start admitting that our kids are just as real, and fallible, and human, and varied, as the rest of us.

Joan Wickersham is author of “The Suicide Index.’’ Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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