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.

Language and Identity

The title of this post sounds like some kind of philosophical treatise, and indeed, having typed “language and identity” into a google search field just to see if anything came up, I discovered an extensive list of scholarly papers and books on the topic.

I scanned the list and clicked on one link – a book of sociolinguistic theory published by Cambridge University Press. That’s as far as I went in my search. I could either write this post or dive into sociolinguistic theory…

In my writing this morning, I suddenly became fascinated by the hold the term “stay at home mom” has had on me. I thought, what if I just stopped thinking of myself in those words? In truth, I only have one child left at home and she’s 17. I don’t spend a lot of time at home being a mom anymore. Its almost not true. Its actually kind of a cop-out. I spend as much or more time writing, working with photographs, making art, and engaging in all sorts of outdoor physical pursuits as I do in my responsibilities at home.

I could call myself any one of these things. I often do call myself a photographer. Sometimes people pay me to make photographs. When answering the question, “What do you do?” with the words “I’m a photographer”, the next question is usually, “Do you make a living doing that?”, and then I have to say “no”, and mumble my bit about wearing many hats and not really making a living doing any of them. That sucks… but I’ve already written a lot about the conflict between being and doing and how we have a long ways to go culturally before we value “being” over “doing”.

I want to return to this other idea that I’m tracking about language though because it seems relevant to the larger question. What if I simply refuse to allow the word “photographer”, or “writer” or “stay at home mom” to define me in any way. Sure, there is concrete evidence to the fact that I am a mother. There are three human beings on this planet who confirm that fact.

I never decided to be a “stay at home mom”, it just happened, so how did I come to let those words make such a prison for me. How does the word “doctor” or “banker” become a prison for the free human being trapped inside that identity?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and blame it on my beloved words, and on the possibility that we humans have come to let words define us and our experience in life rather than demanding that words actually serve our purposes.

There’s a campaign I’ve seen on social media lately to ban the word “bossy”, which, when I first saw it, I thought, “Yeah really!” because I was one of those little girls called “bossy”. But then I thought more about it in the context of this topic and I thought, no… the real problem simply lies in the power we give those damn words. (Its not lost on me that I’m sitting here writing this using words. Actually, I’m pounding words into submission with every [hard] tap of my fingers on the keyboard!)

The bits of backlash I’ve read to the “ban bossy” campaign definitely make this argument, that as a feminist agenda it generally fails because actually, a lot of empowered women (feminists?) don’t seem to mind being called bossy. In thinking about it, though it was a word used to shut me up when I was young, it doesn’t have that effect anymore and I take a secret pride when my daughters are called “bossy”. I think “good for you!”.

In my last post, I said that I had some theories about why its so hard for women of my demographic to value themselves and share their gifts with the world. I’ll add to my original thoughts that there are sociolinguistic challenges as well. I smile as I write those words because I didn’t actually know sociolinguistics was a field until today.

Though I write from the perspective of a 52 year old woman who has spent most of the last 24 years out of the workforce raising children, I know that each person, no matter how they identify themselves, faces challenges when they decide they want to break down the invisible structures that contain them within an identity they no longer want to live within. Interestingly enough, I can’t say what it feels like to stop identifying with the term “housewife” for example, because its one I refused to adopt, or “soccer mom”, because I didn’t take that one on either. Likewise, but for different reasons, I’ll never know what it feels like to try to shed the identity label “attorney” or “banker”, if one longs to be a poet.

There’s no getting around the fact that we humans seem to like to label things. It would be a problem if we stopped labeling doors, “restroom” in restaurants and had people wandering around opening doors to closets offices and storage rooms when they simply needed to use a toilet. But we don’t have a problem with a closet being remodeled to become a bathroom, so why do we have such a hard time when we want to change our own label, or wear a different one every other week?

“What do you do?”

This weekend, I’m clearly a writer. This is my second post on this blog in two days after almost three years.

I’ll also be a cook, a dog walker and a laundress. I have a half finished art project that I’ve walked by too many times to count. Now that winter is trying to turn into spring, my garden is begging for attention. I might get called in to wear my editor’s hat on Sunday night, or provide college counseling. I have photos that need editing for my farm blog and an empty refrigerator.

What do you do?

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.

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

“Sinking into it”

Mt. Rainier

Maybe I should only post photos here taken with my Blackberry! I grabbed this one at noon today while hiking “the King” at the top of Crystal Mountain. I couldn’t resist. Often, while hiking with skis weighing down my right shoulder, I’m inclined to get to the destination as quickly as possible. Today, I had to stop, drop the skis, fish the Blackberry out of my pocket and capture the view. It was so bright, I couldn’t see what I was shooting, but I could see blue at the top of the screen and a swatch of something white-ish across the middle of the frame, so I figured Rainier was “in”. Continue reading

Construction Projects

A Fairy House?

I had my camera with me this afternoon walking around Greenlake but it wasn’t the primary reason I was there. I was meeting a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long. As it turned out, the weather cooperated with our plan, and we circled the lake twice without making a dent in the backlog of topics we still haven’t talked about. Continue reading

Why do People Think I’m Idealistic?

My Imagination

“Our greatest failure is not one of politics but of imagination. We need to imagine a world at peace and work backwards from there.” ~ Marianne Williamson in The Age of Miracles

You know how it is when someone says something that you “get” intellectually; you’ve heard it before, and its not a new concept, but suddenly, you hear it and get it viscerally. It has meaning at a cellular level. I was driving home from Robby’s soccer game this afternoon, having been gone with Charlotte most of the day, and I was stuck in traffic.

Listening, again, to the audio version of Marianne Williamson’s book, which I have found uplifting and inspiring (not bad when one is stuck in a traffic jam), I heard the above sentence and the light went on. Not in my head, but deep inside I felt and saw what she was talking about. Continue reading