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I Have A Problem With The Nation’s #1 High School

While this post features TJ, it is by no means specific to TJ.


Almost two years ago, I graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. In another two years, my younger brother will do the same.

Me and TJ, we’ve got history. TJ is where I had my first slow dance, learned to drive a car, and once got chased down the chem hall by an eleven-year-old supergenius with a roller backpack and the blessing of Satan. TJ also happens to be Newsweek’s #1 high school in the United States of America. I know, right? You’d think an institution like that would learn to keep its child prodigies in check.

Anyway, I have something to say about this school:

Something is wrong.

Something is very, very wrong.

And it’s not getting better.


Flash back to my freshman year. I’m volunteering at Techstravaganza, an annual STEM activity fair for elementary- and middle-school folks. I straighten up, having just explained the concept of a thaumascope to a boy who’s got his left index finger jammed halfway up a nostril, and find myself under the intense scrutiny of his mother. She looks sort of like a rutabaga. And when she opens her mouth to speak, it turns out she also sounds sort of like a rutabaga.

Woman Of The Rutabagas: So how did you get into TJ?

Angela:

Woman Of The Rutabagas: Like, which prep class did you take? See, my son’s in third grade, and I’m wondering when I should get him signed up.

Angela:

Angela: Well maybe you should first get that finger out of his nose because it’s approximately 1.2 millimeters away from making contact with brain tissue which will probably cause irreversible physiological damage sometime after he graduates THE THIRD GRADE (?!?!) but idk that’s just me.

Okay, so I didn’t say that. Whatever an angry rutabaga looks like, I figured it couldn’t be pleasant.

But guys.

TJHSST was founded in 1985 to provide a safe haven of sorts for bright, intellectually curious kids who got a little slack-jawed and weak-kneed at the idea of STEM. It was a place for students with specially tailored minds to find specially tailored educations. They didn’t tack on the “for Science and Technology” so we would suffer from Scantron-induced carpal tunnel syndrome and lowbrow mockery at local sporting events. It’s there because that’s what Thomas Jefferson is. A school. For science. And technology.

Originally, kids applied because of passion. Today, kids apply because of reputation. And that, my friends, is where everything goes to shit.

Let’s return for a moment to TJ prep. Sure, it discourages kids who don’t have the means to access prep classes, but that’s an argument for a separate post. The issue in the frame of this blog post is that TJ prep defeats the purpose of the test itself. If you need a prep class to pass the TJ test, is TJ really the right fit for you? (Update 1/7/17: I didn’t take TJ prep, and only now am I hearing how the situation varies sharply from student to student, company to company. Naturally, so does the applicability of the following.)

Consider a theoretical company called Tryna AF. Tryna AF offers a prep class for first dates with, I don’t know, famous attractive investment bankers who can sing, dance, make $130K a year, and talk to cats. Tryna AF teaches you how to say hi, sneeze, and drink water in a fashion that will most certainly secure you a second date. In fact, Tryna AF even provides fake famous attractive investment bankers so you can practice your first-date skills. You block out an hour each Saturday to have a date with a fraudling, then reflect upon your experience and improve for the next time around. And then you finish Tryna AF’s course, make a Tinder account, and hunt down your target. You secure a first date with Flavius the Third. (Flavius the Third’s gender is a Schrödinger’s cat scenario.) Thanks to your training with Tryna AF, you secure a second date. And BOOM NEXT DAY YOU’RE MARRIED AND YOU’RE HAVING A BABY NAMED FLAVIUS THE FOURTH AND YOU’VE SCORED THE LIFE OF YOUR DREAMS AND IT DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER EXCEPT-

Being married to Flavius the Third means a lot more than saying hi, sneezing, and drinking water. Suddenly this is a lot more work than you expected. Suddenly it’s a lot more work than you can handle. AND. Flavius the Third snores like a goddamn hippie didgeridoo convention.

(That very last part is largely irrelevant to the metaphor. I just felt like Flavius deserved some more character development.)

Would you marry someone solely because they’re ranked the #1 Spouse in the United States of America? How would it turn out if you did? Just because something’s ranked #1 doesn’t mean it’s YOUR #1.

I’m not above this mindset, because here’s the truth: when I decided to attend, I too heard that squawky gnarly voice in my head. It’s Number One! Such is the way society has raised us, and such is the way society tortures us. But I was lucky enough to see the light halfway through my freshman year, so I never felt any academic pressure during my high school years. I followed my own values and did my own thing. This post is a reaction to what I’ve seen and heard in the community. If you’ve got a firsthand point of view to add, please feel free.

So people apply to TJ for its reputation, get dragged through a prep course because of it, and get into the school only to find they can’t manage the workload or don’t enjoy the classes. And then they take more prep classes . . . for their actual classes.

Yup. My mom told me this as I was eating a piece of cake, and I dropped it on the floor in horror. I still get a little emotional when I think about it. (Especially the cake part.)

Prep for APs. Prep for summer chemistry. Prep for BC calculus. Prep class after prep class after prep class. Introducing . . . The Transcript Race. In which kids take BC calculus freshman year, or AP bio and AP chem concurrently sophomore year, or whatever. Rack up those challenging courses! HUH! Plump up that GPA! HUH! Get into a good college! HUH! HUH! HUUUUUcakeUUUUUH!

Listen, I respect you if you’re taking challenging courses because you can handle them and you enjoy them. I do not respect you if you’re taking them because you’re aiming to slap a name and a number on a transcript. If you are a slapper and you are in denial, WAKE UP. You could drop dead or get ingested by man-eating kangaroos at any second. Moreover, you’re going to drop dead by the end of the century anyway. Do what you love. Don’t waste your time bullshitting around. On your deathbed, the only person you’ll wish you had impressed was yourself.

Overall, these prep classes are not the underlying problem, but a mere symptom. They’re also an effect. You see, the problem with our nation’s #1 high school is its culture, and its culture forms a vicious cycle. Of test scores, contests, and the constant urge to do morefastermorebetter. If you made a rat poison out of it, it’d snuff out an entire colony of rabid, six-foot-tall mutant rodents. Culture’s some strong stuff. Even the sanest of kids can get swept in and digested. Then they get pooped out again, except they are no longer humans. They are just stress.

Brief Interlude

Cheat (v). act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game or examination.**

**Usually a direct effect of stress.

Okay, so these prep-classes-for-actual-classes aren’t dishonest. But they are unfair. And they definitely provide an advantage. The kids who don’t take them begin to wonder why they’re “not as smart.” So many people I’ve talked to from TJ have felt incompetent. My best friend. My little brother. Christ, it hurts me to see.

And of course, we all know about real cheating. Kids claiming admission to Ivy League colleges. Kids scanning Sparknotes and plagiarizing Google searches. Kids straight-up lying to their teachers, stealing answers from their classmates, and taking cellphones into exam rooms. IMPORTANT NOTE: Cheating is not the problem, but a symptom. The culture is the problem. It is a culture of Race To Nowhere, when it should be a culture of passion and learning.

All this talk of cheating leads me to a scandal of sorts going on right now, involving the Siemens Competition for Math, Science, and Technology. In fact, it’s been going on for quite some time, but no one’s made a fuss about it until this year. It has to do with a lowkey company run by a single woman. If you Google it, you will find a simple, skeletal site advertising a youth scientist program for high school students. Stuff about scientific research, computers, brilliant minds, Ivy Leagues, the likes. From what I’ve heard, kids are paying up to $10K for this 10-week program. They submit the resulting project to the Siemens Competition. They win and progress to the next round. Toot toot!

So is this an unethical pay-to-win situation? If you’re interested, or if you have run out of exciting things to do with your life, there’s a discussion on Reddit TJToday article with arguments from both sides. But for the sake of this post, I’m going to disregard the ethics and withhold my opinion. For the sake of this post, this is simply another symptom of exactly how sour TJ’s culture has gone.

The purpose of the Siemens competition, I assume, is for students to explore and develop their passions in math, science, and technology. Paying cash to be handed a research topic seems to contradict the notion of passion, disregarding any ethical ramifications. And you know what’s really interesting about this whole scenario? A guy in the program said he didn’t even want to participate. His mom made him. And she paid for it.

That’s right. Who’s shelling out that $10K? Not the kids, that’s for sure.

Which brings me to my concluding point. Parents.

Dear Parents: I understand it’s important that your kid has a strong, financially stable future. Whether you truly care about their well-being or you’re greedy for something to brag about—that’s your business. Just know that if you harass your children about grades, force them into prep classes, and build their lives around reputation and riches, I’m sickened. That vision of success is hideously narrow. This is life. Not a ladder. Not a game. Fine, make it a race if you’d like. Caveat: it’s a race to nowhere.

I urge these parents to reconsider what makes a life one that is well-lived. I know it’s hard to see past your own childhood and lifelong values (I’m looking at you, Asian community). But consider the observation I’m about to share.

Some parents, mine included, were very lax during our high school years. They let us explore our interests. They told us grades don’t matter; effort does. They encouraged us to choose a college where we’d be happy. And what happened to us? We’re enjoying our homework, befriending professors, starting and leading organizations, pursuing unique opportunities. We are not afraid to do what we love, and do it to the max. We attend good schools. We know what it feels like to fly.

The parents who molded their kids into robots who graduated with a 4.9 GPA, 15 AP classes, 6 competition grand prizes, and 11 Ivy League acceptances? (I am making numbers up at this point.) These students, I’ve noticed, are killing it academically. But they’re stressed out. They view college as work. Their primary focus, still, is homework and a couple side activities. They have not developed the independence that comes from being motivated by passion. They may go on to become CEOs or multimillionaires or cardiovascular surgeons. But maybe they will never become someone bigger. And believe me: in the scheme of things, a lower middle class schoolteacher in some hick town in Iowa can most definitely be someone bigger than the world’s richest corporate leader.

Which version of success is real success?

That’s not up to me to tell you. Also, I’m some 20-year-old dingo who binge-eats carrot muffins and shudders at the idea of popping out a fetus. So, like, parenting. Not my thing.

Anyway, I lied earlier. Here is my actual concluding point.

An Open Letter To All Current TJ Students, Past TJ Students, Non TJ Students, Rutabagas, Wasted Cake Slices, Investment Bankers, And Any Remaining Humans (But With An Emphasis On Current TJ Students):

(I) School is for curiosity, growth, and learning. I hand-picked these three words very carefully, so read them again like I have made them out of clay and am lobbing them one by one into your eyeballs. CURIOSITY. GROWTH. LEARNING. This is our one and only chance to devote ourselves to the simple, pure act of gaining knowledge unfettered by the burdens of adulthood. Chances are taken to be relished.

(II) Stress should not come from doing things that you do not love. Stress should not be so extreme and consuming in high school that students cheat, take Adderall, feel depressed, or contemplate self-harm. For that stress to result from academics at such a young age is unacceptable. I spent all of high school writing and climbing trees and hanging out with my family, and I still got into college. You’ll be okay too.

(III) Self-worth is based only on one thing: self. It’s based on how good you are at being you. Self-worth is NOT based on how you compare to others. Please, believe in yourselves. Believe that you are more than numbers and letters and resumes. I promise you that, even if you’re not the smartest or more accomplished of the lot, you can still become someone wonderful. We are ALL born with greatness. This greatness is the ability to be passionate about something. Passion is passion. There is no ranking.

(IV) Be who you want to be. People can tell you otherwise, but it’s up to you to fight for yourself. No excuses.

A Final, Final Concluding Statement: My Problem With The Nation’s #1 High School

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was not founded to be the #1 school in the nation. It was founded to fuel the passions of kids who love science and technology. We have replaced a beautiful, pure goal with one that is shallow and stressful.

Yes, there is a problem.

Stop avoiding it.

Start addressing it.


If you agree with this post, please share it with family, friends, teachers, pets, your 7th-grade crush, and the Internet. I’d appreciate it to the stars and back.

This is not just TJ’s problem. This is everyone’s problem.


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