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Haunted By 'Race to Nowhere'

Talk therapy raises the bar of community awareness.

What was to be a thought-provoking night out turned out to be a haunting night instead, and I've barely had a full night's sleep since.

Discussions have been plentiful, whether in the gym, at the hairdresser's or shopping for groceries. Neighbors and friends are eager to talk about the Feb. 24 screening of "Race to Nowhere" in Chatham, and the follow-up panel discussion.

Complicated and profound questions now seem to arise from casual conversations daily. For example, "If everyone in an accelerated class is receiving remedial tutoring, is it an accelerated class?" "When does a boy become a man in the American culture?" "Is it okay for a kid to take a gap year or two before college?"  "How long should the odyssey years last?"

In case you've been living on the periphery of the School District, "Race to Nowhere" is a documentary, introduced to the community by the School District of the Chathams' PTO groups. The film is about the enormous pressure society puts on kids to excel with hopes of getting into a great college, with the promise of guaranteed instant success, a fabulous life, and eternal prosperity. 

Sarcasm aside, the most indelible contributor to the haunted evening at the middle school was panelist Dr. Richard Federici, a child psychologist in Chatham. In the film, the mother of a 13-year-old suicide victim claimed that there were no signs of her daughter's distress. Federici inferred that the mother wasn't paying attention. He said that there are always signs of impending suicide, and listed some symptoms of a suicidal teen. Ironically, some of the signs he noted were seemingly characteristic of most, if not every, teenager.

If that's not enough to impede slumber, perhaps the topic of the "odyssey years" will keep you counting sheep. New York Times columnist David Brooks coined the term "odyssey years" in 2007. The term refers to a new phase in life, which, for many reasons, catapults young people into a decade of wandering between adolescence and adulthood. In other words, 30 is the new 20.

The goal of the "Race to Nowhere" film's producer, Vicki Abeles, was to promote dialogue within communities. It appears as if she has succeeded in Chatham. 

One mother of Chatham school children stopped me in Whole Foods and lamented over the fact that there really isn't a place for parents to easily make suggestions or comments to school administrators.  She wanted to suggest that the School District of the Chathams have a "no homework night."  Just for the fun of it.

Another parent was irate that the film was so biased, and felt that we should invite Amy Chua, the author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," to offer an opposing view for a fair and balanced discussion.

Just as the commotion was dying down, the film was featured on Tuesday's "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," which brought the discussion again to the forefront of community attention.

The film seems to be getting a reputation like other controversial challenges to our belief system. While originating with good intent, some concepts become rife with a backlash of cynicism and social stigma. 

Some parents conscientiously objected to the film's general message, and had no interest in subsequent discussions. Other parents continued the dialog at follow-up PTO sponsored breakout sessions in March. 

Regardless of one's personal position on who really puts the pressure on school kids, the fact that we have a heightened awareness of these issues and can freely discuss our concerns with parents and school administrators is an important step for education in Chatham.  The main beneficiaries will ultimately be our children.

Before I try to catch up on some sleep, I'll leave you with one more question that came up in a chat session: "Are there more Type-A personalities in New Jersey than any other state?"

Chatham Resident Too March 11, 2011 at 11:25 PM
Nice to know that there are other people out there that realize that continuing to lecture our children and have them memorize useless facts that will soon be forgotten, on subjects that have no bearing on their future lives, is just wrong. Laura E. Wilder would have been proud over a hundred years ago, but we shouldn't be today. What a waste of our children's minds. All for the race to the next work cubicle, which doesn't look as available as it used to be, huh ?
Michele Vernile Renaud March 12, 2011 at 03:19 AM
The documentary is a very good depiction of everyday reality for our children. Just as teachers hands are tied by the academic structures of which they must drill into the students according to each states "requirements" it all boils down to the grades of these test scores, being the top of the top, in order to push for the top colleges for ultimate "performance" and the "status quo" of what society believes is the standard norm of what our kids must and have no choice to do. Parents are feeding into this "race" and pushing kids to have the top grades, extensive AP courses, extreme involvement in school clubs, and of course numerous "after school activities" that will enhance the high school resume for "college". Can we not see that these kids are under the everyday pressures of simply being kids? Not fitting in or trying to fit in, eternal hormonal adolescent growth and development being invalidated by extreme "performance" pressure? Good for this mom film maker who brings the "real" American existence of school to the forefront of society, communities, and sheds light to something that has been pushed under the rug for far too long.... BRAVO...and for those who cannot tolerate the Truth, just ask any kid of any age anywhere anytime today with an open mind, open heart and with open eyes...you might be surprised by what comes out of the "mouths of babes".........

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