Open Letter to College Admissions Departments

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” — Ken Robinson

I just returned from a week of touring colleges with my youngest daughter. Its been a few years since the last go round and while it seems the world is changing faster than ever, not much has changed about the tours and the information sessions since I first did this six years ago. The students who lead the tours are poised and charismatic, they have impressive memories and long lists of achievements to their credit. The admissions counselors give pretty much the same spiel with different sets of statistics as are relevant to the institution. They want us, the parents and prospective students sitting in front of them, to know that their student body is full of confident creative leaders who will change the world. They tell us that they choose students who by the age of 17, have demonstrated that they are this type of person. From one college admissions counselor I heard, “We’re looking for students who, when you read their application, you think, “When did he/she have time to sleep?”

My oldest daughter tried that routine. She fell asleep on a Friday afternoon while driving home from a swim meet because she was trying to live on about five hours of sleep a night. She was lucky and only hit a parked car a few blocks from home, but it was a good lesson that sleep has to trump “activities” or “bad things” happen.

When we, the adults, send the message to the next generation that the way they will succeed in life is to fill their lives with so much activity that they don’t have time to sleep, we send a very dangerous message. I’m not talking simply about falling asleep while driving, although that’s a pretty quick way to eliminate a creative mind. What I’m talking about is that if we take the brightest of our children, the ones who are already inclined to push their minds beyond the limits of what they already know, and we teach them to numb their creativity with incessant doing, their minds will not be open to the wildly creative ideas which we desperately need to solve the problems of a world at a tipping point in many arenas.

Wildly creative ideas do not happen when our brains are working overtime on multiple projects which are all directed at some goal we are working toward. Wildly creative ideas “happen”. They arrive unbidden when our minds are meandering in the garden inspecting the peony buds, or wondering when the leaves on the Japanese maple, which are indeed apricot colored as they begin to unfurl, change to the remembered bronze of their maturity.

Sometimes they descend upon us from the shower nozzle, or in a cascade of cherry blossoms blown from a nearby tree. Flashes of brilliance happen when we’re standing still. Perhaps we’re staring at the sky after watching a pair of young eagles seemingly tumble from a nearby tree, looking for sure as though they’re about to crash into the surface of the lake, cavorting like a couple of preteen boys wrestling over some random object, completely unaware of their environment. Transfixed, we marvel as they narrowly avoid disaster and somehow disentangle themselves just in time, rising above the level of the highest trees before we can catch our breath.

This is when the ideas “happen”, not when a student is blinded by all-nighters and dosed up on caffeine and/or Aderall which may or may not have been prescribed for them. This so that they can eek a little more focus out of their overly focused minds… So that they can get a little bit higher score on a standardized test, because they’ve been told that that’s what its going to take to get into the colleges they most want to attend.

While my oldest daughter was swimming in college, a former teammate of hers posted a world record at the world championships in a fancy racing suit. Shortly afterward, the powers that be of the swimming world banned that type of suit. Four years later her record still stands, as do a host of others from that time period. The style of suit literally allowed the athletes to swim faster than they could have without them.

I’ve heard reports from my college kids about the widespread use of Aderall before tests. I now hear the same from my high school junior. In general the students they’re referring to do not have Aderall prescriptions. They simply want the improved focus reportedly offered by the drug in order to rack up higher scores where they think they need them. The drugs are simply an external aid allowing them to achieve at a higher level than they could have without, like a now banned high tech swim suit, or the performance enhancing drugs that have spelled the downfall of high profile athletes.

If, dear college admissions staff, you take those SAT test scores and post them all over the internet, or tout them to prospective applicants, so that anyone who looks at your website sees that your average SAT Math scores range up to 760, there’s no way of arguing that this doesn’t promote an environment excessively focused on achievement as opposed to creativity.

We parents and prospective students need to hear the admissions counselors leading those information sessions say:

“We’re looking for well-rounded students who know how to think creatively and demonstrate that they have the maturity and resilience to handle setbacks; who get a lousy grade every once in a while and bounce back from it.”

“We’re looking for students who excel in the classes where they have a high aptitude and manage well in the classes where they may not be so gifted.”

“We’re looking for students who’ve had time in their lives for friends and family, not students who’ve received letters in several varsity sports, had part time jobs and volunteer jobs, been invited to join multiple different honors societies, are student body president and valedictorian.”

What message would it send if you said:

“We want to read essays about babysitting and mowing the lawn and family dinners. We want to read about the favorite book you’ve read 12 times or growing a vegetable garden or fighting with your brothers. We want to read about how much you hated folding the laundry and the creative ways you got out of it. We want to know what you haven’t done yet that gets you out of bed in the morning. We want to know what you’ve always dreamed of, or are deathly afraid of, or afraid to hope for, because then we know who you really are.”

Or if you said:

“If you have too many activities, we will throw your application in the trash because that means you didn’t take the time to lay in the grass and dream, to imagine a different kind of world and how you might play a part in creating that dream.”

Because we need a different kind of world right now and we need it fast…

The students who will graduate high school in 2015 can have a different kind of experience if you decide to do it differently.

The institutions of higher learning hold enormous power. By changing your expectations, you can ask our children to show you who they are, not what they have done.

You must start asking your applicants to share with you their dreams rather than list their achievements. Ask them to finish the question, “what if…?” and then answer it with whatever they can dream up. Challenge them to ask a question you haven’t been asked and don’t know the answer to…

Asking students to demonstrate their literacy is expected before they attend college, what about asking them to share their creative ideas?

Thank you for listening.

P.S. My children (young adults) have been involved with some wildly creative shenanigans in college. I’m not making the point that colleges are inhabited by robotic automatons, simply that the message I hear from admissions staff is by and large one that promotes over achievement and over doing, that the application process itself further emphasizes those values, and that in general, the process that faces a 17 year old asks them to present a resume that provides little room for creative exploration, and that its past time for this to change.

Take Three or Four

Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to have a very adventurous life. She went to college, got a degree in French and moved to Paris. She got a job, found a place to live, had a glamorous international career and lived happily ever after. The End.

This is not my story.

Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to have a very adventurous life. She went to college, got a degree in French and moved to Paris. That plan didn’t work out so well. So she came home broke, got a job that paid well, got married, quit the job, went to grad school and became a french professor who traveled extensively, with an adventurous life of the mind, breathing the rarified air of academia, writing and teaching about esoteric ideas. The End.

This is not my story.

Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to have a very adventurous life. She went to college, got a degree in French and moved to Paris. That plan didn’t work out so well. So she came home broke and got a job that paid well, got married, and went to grad school to be a professor, life intervened and that plan didn’t work out either, so she quit after the masters degree, had some kids, moved into a nice house in a nice neighborhood and lived happily ever after, never looking back. The End.

This is not my story.

I’m pretty sure my kids and husband would have liked it if it had been, if I’d been more content to “smile and pour tea”, happy that I had three healthy children, a nice house and enough food on the table, but it wasn’t that easy.

I could have gone back, I could still go back … to Paris, to the well-paying job, to finish the PhD program, to teaching french as I did during graduate school. But the moment passed. The fire was gone. The energy moved on from those places. My life grew roots underneath me and I had to find a new way to find myself.

Carl Jung said “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”

Finding this quote years ago, I pinned it to the wall, vowing to make peace with the choices I’d made in my life, with the past and with the future. I didn’t want my kids carrying around the weight of my unlived dreams.

I’m not finished with that yet, which is to say, that I’m not finished living the adventurous life. It hasn’t taken any of the directions I’d charted.  Its been a different kind of adventure. Raising three kids was all the adventure I could handle for many years. Sometimes simply getting three kids out the door and to school in the morning was all the adventure I needed in one day. Any full time mom will attest to that, and those that had professional careers, having children later in life, will largely agree that the work is harder, the emotional investment bigger, the hours longer, the payoff greater. So why is it still so hard for us to answer the question, “What do you do?” Why not just say, “I’m a mom.”

I write these words knowing that they don’t apply to all of my peers, that there are those who don’t flinch when asked “What do you do?”.

I have some theories about this. Largely, they’re chicken and egg theories, like, is it because we, as a culture, still don’t value the job of raising children because it doesn’t generate an income?  Or, is it because those of us who can’t answer the question without squirming still haven’t come to value themselves enough to stand there and not care what anyone thinks of their answer? I’m sure the answer is a combination of the two and that one reinforces the other. But why is it still so much harder for women of my demographic to value themselves for who they are, and for the contribution they make to the world regardless of what it looks like?

I have some theories about that also… about being part of an age group who grew up on the outgoing tide of the original women’s movement, too young to benefit from the first wave, and too old to be the daughters of feminist mothers. My experience with feminism in the early to mid 70’s was through the eyes of fairly traditional parents and Catholic school teachers.  During my own young adulthood and those of my peers, it was hard to connect “feminism” as it appeared in the women’s studies department and in athletics with being female. It seemed more of a terrifying than liberating force.

Perhaps I’m way off base, but I sense that I am not alone, that the larger cultural conversation is generally missing the voices of a whole group of women because we have silenced ourselves, because we have believed that our voices didn’t matter. Who decided that for us? Who decided that for me? And why did I acquiesce?

Last October, I screwed up my courage and went to the Emerging Women conference in Boulder, Colorado. It was four days full of inspirational talks and workshops by incredible women in business, thought leadership, music, art, and spirituality. Most had left or transformed careers to better live the truth of who they are. I loved every minute of my time there, and was truly inspired by those days. I also kept waiting to hear a story that was mine, or even mine but a chapter later, someone whose primary “career” had been 20 years raising children followed by some other creative undertaking, but there was no one whose distinguishing credential was “mother”. It is often my impression that in order to be taken seriously, a woman needs to have a resume that includes something other than “mother”… or does it? Because it is also my impression that we simply have to believe in ourselves and our words enough and be brave enough to keep saying the things that we need to say until they are heard.

Put into those words, isn’t it the same struggle anyone goes through who wants to have their voice count, whether its in music, art, literature or business? I think so. But I also think that the slope is steeper, the terrain more rugged, and the obstacles higher for stay at home moms of my demographic. I think that our struggles, (my struggles) with identity, confidence, and the duo of self worth and self love are particularly challenging after years of putting the needs of children and families above our own, as we believed was best for all. Somewhere among the diapers, the circular conversations with three year olds, the soccer carpools, the last minute late night editing with teenagers, and the preparation of thousands of meals, I (we) lost track of what it was that I knew was mine to share with the world, that I’m afraid is no longer relevant, or afraid that it never was to start with.

This, then, is my task, for my own sake, as well as for the sake of my daughters, my son and the generations to follow.

Lyon

As a 17 year old, I spent part of a school year homesick and lonely in Lyon, largely missing the city’s charms. Living with a French family who spoke no english and attending a local “lycée”, I was so far out of my comfort zone that I truly couldn’t appreciate it. I arrived just after Christmas to snow on the ground, which, in Seattle, is a rather rare treat. In Lyon however, the snow sat on the pavement of the sidewalks and streets getting filthy and smelly (think lots of dogs, few parks and lots of poop mixed with melting snow on the sidewalks). It was cold and gross and I had no one to talk to as I walked to and from school trying not to slip in the brown slush. With only two years of high school french under my belt, I sat through eight hours of philosophy a week, falling asleep in class nearly every day from the sheer exhaustion of trying to understand what was being said.

Returning to Lyon as an adult, I’m always surprised at how much it offers. For the last 20 years one of my Irish cousins and her husband have lived just outside the city, giving me reason to come back on several occasions. Usually, its been a stopover to meet her and her family to head off on some crazy adventure with our combined lot of six children. But this time, with the kids all well on their way to grown, I arrived to spend some time with her, her husband and sister. It had been over 10 years since I’d seen any of them, so we had a lot to catch up on. No grand adventures were planned, just being together.

Mornings usually found us long at the kitchen table munching croissants and drinking coffee regardless of the schemes concocted the night before. Whatever it was seemed to take on less urgency on the heels of yet another 2am bedtime. Some time after noon, we’d all of a sudden realize that the day was escaping and come up with an improvised plan based on how many hours remained until dinner. On one outing into town we checked out an area called “the docks” – previously warehouses along the river – which is being completely redone to house clubs, cutting edge furniture and interior design stores that cater to a hip, young, multi-cultural, international set.

An orange cube building initially caught my attention, but at further inspection, the buildings on either side matched the orange cube with their own innovative but less outrageously colorful elements.

We wandered through the medieval warren, “Vieux Lyon”, with its narrow alleys, covered walkways, and secret passages built to protect bolts of silk, (an industry for which Lyon was known up until some time in the 19th century). Theoretically, we were trying to decide where to eat dinner but got sidetracked by ice cream in a central plaza near the river, which gave us the opportunity to spend more time teasing each other, laughing and telling stories. But this is Lyon, and meals are serious business here, so after wandering and window shopping a little more, we retrieved warmer clothing to ward off the evening chill and launched ourselves into the evening’s next culinary adventure.

Some time since 1979, Lyon became home to a collective of artists who paint giant murals on the walls of the very ordinary urban residential buildings that line the banks of the Rhone and Saône rivers. Now, every other block sports a building or two painted with elaborate trompe l’oeil designs and enormous pictures of life in Lyon. I’d seen a few small, decrepit versions of these in the old part of town, but crossing the river, I looked up, stunned to see the playful, colorful paintings ornamenting the same buildings I had trudged by daily lamenting to myself the dreariness of this town where I’d landed.

After four days of hanging out with cousins, exploring the country lanes near their home as well as the contrasting newer and older parts of Lyon, I headed off on an early morning train to Italy, the second leg of my pilgrimage to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in too long.

Saying goodbye, we vowed to do this again sooner. It was a new way of being together for all of us. No major plans, no destinations, no need to entertain young children, just hanging out, talking, eating and being. As I’ve said, I’m still learning how to do this thing, and I can’t say that there weren’t moments when I looked at the clock and thought, “Are we going to do anything today?” without an accompanying feeling of anxiety that indeed, we might not! In retrospect, I look back and think how silly that thought was. The idea behind it is that “if I’m all the way over here in France, shouldn’t I be doing something?” And being all the way over here in Seattle, I look at that and think, “how ridiculous.” Those memories of watching the royal wedding at 1am after finishing dinner somewhere close to midnight, sitting at breakfast until after noon and grilling steaks in the back yard are the ones that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the images from the cool trompe l’oeil paintings.

Family 4th of July

Returning to Seattle from a long weekend with family and fireworks, a quick summertime post seems a relevant detour from the travel narrative…

For years, I”ve loaded my tripod into the car next to coolers and shopping bags full of more chips, marshmallows, hot dogs and soda than anyone (or maybe just me) can possibly imagine eating. Alongside sleeping bags, dog beds, dogs and kids, I squeeze my camera and personal belongings into the remaining corners and head off to our family’s rustic shelter on an undeveloped piece of land bordering a pristine bay. Continue reading

What’s a birthday?

It wasn’t until I woke up yesterday that I realized what a head game I’d been playing with myself about turning 50. On Sunday it happened. I kept saying that I didn’t have any issue with turning 50, just the idea of it. But that idea was giving me all kinds of trouble. I kept telling myself that it was ridiculous to think that on a certain day, marked by only a date, something about me or inside of me would be radically altered overnight. Why is 50 such a big deal? I don’t know. How did it come to have that much weight? And how did I come to buy into it? Apparently, I let that happen, because in the last few weeks I’ve been testing my body’s edge getting back in shape after three weeks of travel, hell-bent on proving to myself that 50 wasn’t going to get me… Get me? How could that even happen, and where do we get these crazy ideas? In the meantime, my body is now kindly requesting that I knock off the excess if I want it to continue to cooperate. Continue reading

The Blog-versation

Some parents would never consider blogging about their kids

If you didn’t catch the beginning of our blog-versation, and you’re just “tuning in” now. Here’s what’s up:  Alle (link to her blog) and I are having a “healthy, respectful debate” about the virtue or vice of writing/blogging about one’s children. It started a month ago or so when I saw a post she wrote on this topic.

I have to admit that its kind of weird to see something written about me, my blogging and my parenting! And, I want to immediately express my gratitude to Alle for her kind comments about the latter. Continue reading

I’m Really Not Going?

Making a Statement - the rooster at Clean Greens farm showing off his plumage

Bear with me for a moment… As I sit here typing this instead of cleaning up the mess in the other room and downstairs, it is approximately 4:30pm in Lodi, Italy. A week ago, I had my daughter’s bedroom floor covered with my packing mess. Its still there.

This morning I couldn’t help saying, “a week ago, I thought I’d be on my way to my friend’s home in the countryside outside Milan to have dinner and spend the night tonight, and instead I get to clean my house. That’s a lousy trade.” My daughter informed me that if I spend my time thinking about what I thought I’d be doing every day instead of what I am doing, its just going to bum me out. She’s right, and, to a certain extent, I can’t help it. I spent six months gearing up and planning for this adventure. Continue reading