Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Senior Panic, and What to Do About It

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Just one look, and you know something’s different.

They came to school a handful of weeks ago, nicely tanned, hugely stoked, ready to rule the school.  This was the year of The Class of 2017, and nothing was going to hold them back from being the Best. Class. Ever.  Not tough classes, not college applications, and not even Genevieve, the freakishly large captain of the junior powderpuff football team, who promised to make Spirit Week memorable for the seniors, but not in a good way.

Now, the end of the first quarter is nigh, and the summer sparkle has been replaced by the autumnal pallor of lots of study time and little fresh air.  The seniors held the juniors off to win the Spirit Jug, and Genevieve’s last gridiron nemesis has just come out of traction with a college essay that is prize worthy—but everyone else who’s going to walk the stage in June is walking around like  a zombie, and that isn’t because Halloween is next week.

Welcome to the laws of physics brought to life.  Seniors started the year on a high that lasted through the first three weeks of school, where most classes were a review of what they learned last year, and everyone made the mistake of thinking twelfth grade was going to be a snap.  But what starts up has to come down, and once October came with the new ideas everyone has to master in every class, seniors had to try and find a gear they didn’t know existed—right about the time their first college application was due. 

They’re now on their third college application, and the initial college excitement has turned into tedium (“They want my date of birth?  Again?”), just as the end-of-the-quarter exams are in view. Ask a senior how they’re doing, and they’ll say “Fine”, but the tone is like they’re on auto-pilot, convinced a college will find out if they say anything else and make a note of it in their file. “We were going to admit you, but there was that Thursday in late October when you doubted your own existence…”

We’re counselors, so of course we want to jump in and administer affective triage to our students.  But even our best “You can do this” will come across as a Twinkie, and our seniors need sustenance.

So tell them to close their eyes. It isn’t October of this year; now, it’s October of next year.  Where are you?  What are you doing?  What are you wearing?  Who are you with?

It will fall out of their mouths like a smile comes from an infant.  I’m on campus.  The leaves are gorgeous, and the sun is shining.  I’m by myself, reading some really thick book, taking notes furiously, and I understand all of it.  I’m sipping some kind of foamy, beige-colored drink in a clear plastic container, and I have a sweater tied around my neck, like I’m in some kind of cheesy Eddie Bauer ad.  Three people pass by and all say hello, but I can’t tell you what their faces look like now, because I haven’t met them yet, but we’re friends. I go back to my book, and I still understand it.  I’m happy.  I’ve made it.

Great, you say.  Open your eyes now.  It’s this October, and the leaves are stunning.  You don’t know that now, because high schools don’t have any trees, which says a lot about American school systems, but take a look on your way home.  The backpack you brought in my office that will give you scoliosis by twenty-three has several thick books in it, just waiting to be understood by someone who loves to learn.  I know that’s you, and I’ve told the colleges exactly that.

If you give me a minute, I can probably hijack a lukewarm cup of something bleakly brown out of the staff room and let you drink it while you study.  If you really want to, you can take your hoodie off and tie it around your shoulders.  Better yet, Principal Freeman is a member of Eddie Bauer’s Gold Club, which means she can have that sweater here tomorrow, with free shipping.

Or, there’s this.  Suppose there’s a ball on the floor, and you push it.  It goes one foot in the first second of travel, then half a foot the next second, then a quarter of a foot, and so on.  When will it travel a total of two feet?

Right.  It never gets to two feet, but it always keeps travelling.  Would it stop if it knew it would never reach two feet, or is that just a goal someone else made that has nothing to do with its journey?

There’s the bell. It’s time for you to push on.  Thanks for coming in.

Welcome to the laws of physics brought to life.  


  1. Clicked through from the NACAC exchange. I like how you match the "laws of physics" with earthbound students. On my part, I have used the concept of gravity in trying to persuade students to read beyond the curriculum; like gravity, even if they are successful in the short term in their usage of exam-prep "tricks", their true level of facility with language will ultimately act like "gravity" and pull down their marks. I am an IEC in Vancouver, BC.