Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere

Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere

Robin Huntley

High school graduation, 2007.

Remember that classic scene from I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel are working in a candy factory? They’re supposed to be wrapping candies as they come towards them on a conveyor belt and have been specifically told they’ll be fired if any go unwrapped. At first, they’re calm. The pace is perfect and they’re wrapping like champs. Soon, the belt gets faster and faster and the two eventually realize that they can’t wrap them fast enough. They start grabbing them off of the belt and piling them in front of them so that nobody knows they’re not wrapping fast enough. Eventually they get frantic and stuff them in their mouths, hats, and blouses; their supervisor returns, sees no unwrapped candies on the conveyor, and thinks they’re doing fine. Meanwhile, Ethel and Lucy can’t even breathe because their mouths are full of chocolate…

As a student, this is the kind of environment — where expectations are too high and the pressure so great that people will do anything to meet them — within which I, and countless other students in my generation, have received our education.

As a college student, I have spent the last four years of my life being more lost than I ever imagined I could be. This spring, I am supposed to be graduating from Hampshire College. Instead, I’m taking a semester off, working 40 hours a week for barely more than minimum wage, and doing an internship where I frequently get more out of my work than I do from my homework. Hopefully, I’ll graduate a year from now, but given my track record it‘s possible it might not happen.

Judging by my resume and academic history, I should be the opposite of the student I have become. When I was in high school, I had a 3.8 GPA and was the editor of the school newspaper and literary magazine, was an active member in the Gay-Straight Alliance and Environmental Club, was stage manager for six or seven theater performances a year, figure skated eight or ten hours a week, had a weekend job, and volunteered at a soup kitchen.

These days, however, I don‘t even flinch anymore when I fail a class. A lot of the time I don’t do my homework, and I frequently sleep straight through anything that happens before noon. I’m not in any student groups, I no longer figure skate, and I don’t really volunteer much anymore. It’s not that I’m not interested — I love what I’m studying, and I really do love Hampshire. The problem is that until very recently, I was never given the opportunity to let learning be something that was completely my own.

I recently saw the movie Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture, a documentary about what the current educational climate has done to its students. The movie was made by a concerned mother who had watched her children suffer from school-related stress and had seen homework and tutoring take over their family time. What sparked her decision to do something about it, though, was that a student at her daughter’s school committed suicide. A thirteen year old middle school student. She killed herself out of desperation; she was depressed, stressed out, and anxious and couldn’t find any other way to change her situation.

The documentary tells the stories of many students who felt similarly. They suffer from eating disorders, depression, and crippling anxiety. They have given up things they loved in order to cope with the amount of stress they feel. They have, quite literally, won the race to nowhere. I felt sad and frustrated for the students as I watched the movie, and I remember feeling outraged that such a thing could happen to anyone. But then, somewhere towards the end of the movie, I realized that Race to Nowhere could have been made about my life. I too have struggled with depression, self harm, food issues, and anxiety. I have had a stress-related headache nearly every day for as long as I can remember. I have had panic attacks over everything from meeting new people to writing a history paper. I fight a daily battle with my imperfect body which insists upon having curves that no amount of starvation or deprivation will do anything about. I was horribly depressed in high school. And now, still, even though I’m a much happier and healthier person, I can’t seem to be able to get through college.

I am the product of a generation of parents, teachers, and policy makers who have pushed students so hard that we’ve never been able to develop a sense of self. We’ve been told that in order to succeed later on in life, we have to be good — no, excellent! — at every single thing that we do. We’re young when people tell us such things, and we really take it to heart as a result. We learn to formulate our own ideas of ourselves based on other peoples measures of us. And as we get older, it only gets worse. The stakes get higher, the pressure increases, the work gets harder, and we have increasingly more responsibilities. School and extracurricular activities (the ones that supposedly help us become more well-rounded people) take up all of our time — we never get the chance to really develop our own interests because we’re too busy doing things that someone else wants us to.

And where does that leave us afterwards? It leaves us sticking our metaphorical chocolates down our metaphorical blouses. Or, in other words, lost and incredibly frantic.

It is obvious that the test-driven, high expectations environment that we so frequently provide our students not only doesn’t really work but is incredibly unhealthy. Besides, does it really matter if your sixth grader gets an A in math every single trimester? When she’s forty, or thirty, or even twenty, it probably won’t matter at all whether or not she aced a test on fractions. So let’s lighten up. Why don’t we ease the pressure a bit and lets kids be kids; let them learn by playing and by exploring the world. Let them choose what’s important to them rather than prescribing it. Let us find our own paths. We will certainly be happier for it.


There will be a screening of Race to Nowhere on Thursday, April 14th at 6:30pm at the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton at the Williston Theater. Tickets are available online through the movie’s website. The screening is sponsored by The Williston Northampton School’s Parents’ Association and a portion of the proceeds from the screening will fund programs at The Williston Northampton School. The film will be followed by a panel discussion led by faculty members. See the movie and become part of the conversation!


Robin Morgan Huntley, Hilltown Families Intern

A native to Maine, Robin is a student at Hampshire College in Amherst. She is studying education and is slated to graduate in the spring of ’12. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her senior project at Hampshire College, Robin will be researching and writing about the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. She plans to look to schools and communities within Western MA and Maine as models of the type of symbiotic school-community relationship that she believes to be critical to the success of rural education.

10 Comments on “Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere

  1. Your post brought me to tears for a variety of reasons. Let me share some of them with you.

    I am a former teacher, mother and very proud grandmother of two boys. Only yesterday did I have lengthy conversation with my daughter about my, oh so bright, grandson who attends school in a “high-achieving” community outside of Boston. He is only 8 and full of questions and curiosities and ideas about inventions he would love to build. As a second grader he got to explore very little of what he loves and had to take on some not-so-pleasant tasks like printing and other mandated second grade curriculum. Don’t get me wrong, reading and math are important skills, but will I watch him slowly lose his curiosity and desire to explore other things as he is bogged down by mandated areas of study. Luckily he is in a project-based school, but it too has mandated areas of study and curriculum.

    As a former teacher, I remember that rigidity. I remember spending practically all night filling out standard- based report cards that drained nearly every ounce of my energy and time with “exceeds,” “meets, “does not meet” expectations. Scripting comments would have been more my style.

    My daughter went into education as well and also feels the need to look at things and shake things up a bit. She would also love to study policy and look at what changes could be made at the top. Our children deserve it.

    I could write on and on, but it has been the end of a long day. But I do need to reveal something else. Today I wondered about some of my former students….some of the “favorites” whom I had lost touch with. I googled a few names…..like David Ambroz, Sherri Shu, Robin Huntley etc, and many others. Here I sit reading some wonderful postings from an amazing writer who if finding her way, as all of us are,

    Hello, Robin. You and so many others have been in my thoughts. Follow your heart. Life is a journey, and I KNOW you will find your way and make our world a better place. Every experience will help you build a path to your future. I would love to hear from you. My best to the Huntley family.

    Fondly, Dianne Reynolds

  2. My keyboard has a case of the sticky keys, so I apologize in advance for any typos.

    I am a fairly recent graduate of a women’s college very close to Hampshire College and a member of the Five-College system. I graduated with honors, and a bachelor’s in economics. I attended a “pressure-cooker” public high school in an affluent suburb in the Midwest. I now attend a postbac premed program in Maryland.

    There was, during my academic career, a lot of hand-wringing over us as well, because we were very “stressed” students. I had an English teacher who was always telling us to stop and smell the roses, etc., and, being a very impressionable teenager, that was really appealing to me because I was deeply anxious about my future. I was afraid that I wasn’t smart, when being gifted and intelligent was so so important, and impressing people was crucial. I shouldn’t have been anxious at all, because, as I understand it, my college, at the time, accepted 50% of their applicants.

    I had quite a lot of homework in high school. I remember a group of friends and I would study Algebra II in the student lounge, and we were able to finish our homework when we gave it 50 minutes of our time. I never once started a paper the night before it was due, even though my peers always claimed that they did and stayed up all night. I never even had to pull an all-nighter. In college, I studied economics and once took 24 credits (mainly math and upper level econ (the really interesting stuff)though my surplus courses outside of the regular 16 credits were very interesting discussions in education and art that required a number of papers). I got straight A’s that semester. I remember I had a schedule tacked up to my bulletin board of what was due when, and I had a happy semester and intellectually engaging semester. The Dean of Students who warned me (in firm tones) that 24 credits would kill me, before signing off on it worriedly, whooped with joy when I came in the next semester and told her I’d gotten straight A’s.

    Students need to figure out time management and strong study skills earlier if they want to figure out their sense of self and potential. These two things aren’t separate. I didn’t have as many distractions ( we knew how hard our mom worked to pay the mortgage on the house she bought so we could go to that particular public high school, and we would have been too ashamed to ask for cell phones and shopping trips, or our own laptops with wireless connections—our new desktop and our dial-up was expensive enough, though the hard drive groaned awkwardly after a couple of years).

    As a postbac premed student now, I watch my peers give into anxiety and fear and procrastination because they never learned to start grappling with it and controlling it. So they stuck to the safe things, and decided they weren’t “meant” to be doctors. A couple of folks dropped out honestly believing that. I’m sure they feel a pang of remorse (along with relief) that they hadn’t tried to figure out how to stay strong. I have a college friend who secretly wanted to be a doctor or nurse, but was scared of taking a science course. She majored in something that was vaguely interesting to her (anthro and sociology), and went to law school, graduated with a pile of debt, hated her job, quit it out of the blue, and is really struggling to figure out what went wrong in her life now. I suspect it was feeling trapped in choices and a career trajectory that was borne out of anxiety and fear of being unable to handle science. And she went to an excellent private high school in New Hampshire, so I have no doubt that she could have handled it had she not gotten the sense that putting in effort while doing something unpleasant is wasted energy. But she would have had to have successfully processed her anxiety and forged ahead. It was much easier to settle for being an honors Anthropology student and going to law school.

    Most teens don’t manage their time well, nor do they take ownership of the trade-offs they make. How can you at that age know that spending an hour not focusing enough on what you’re studying doesn’t count. Well, you can’t pseudo-study and call it studying. The Internet is a huge timesuck and distraction, though it can be used as a wonderful educational source. If we hadn’t been so frugal and had actual wireless instead of dial-up when I was a kid, I’d have been on that thing all of the time and not for educational study purposes.

    I’m just past my mid-twenties, and I understand anxiety. I still have anxious times when I’m wondering what to do if I don’t get into med school. I get worried, but I don’t let the worry paralyze me.

    Maybe part of that is just being more mature than a teenager. But I think being told to “stop and smell the roses” when I was anxious about my future wasn’t really helpful, and, in retrospect, more distracting than helpful. Kids ought to be taught how to manage and cope with anxiety, because there will be a ton of stress in their lives later. They are born in a country that doesn’t have a nationalized healthcare system, and they will also have to cope with the uncertainty that is inherent in a capitalistic economy. Sheltering them will mostly like lead to them developing poor coping skills later on and poor self-esteem. Is the answer to falsely buoy their self-esteem with grade inflation and less academic work? Of course not. The answer is to teach time management and coping skills, as well as encouraging practice of focus, hard work, and a support system.

    I was very fortunate at college. I think by attending a women’s college, I never had to hear the guys say “I didn’t study and got an A and am so naturally intelligent.” I didn’t attend a Reed-esque college where I would have to be “on” all the time so I could prove how well-read and intellectual I was just to prove that I was a scholar and therefore extremely special. I got to be around women who were open and honest, and while we all have our flaws, they were my sisters and role models. We all worked our asses off and supported each other. We went to the silly Hampshire Mall on the bus, we saw movies, we went to the gym, we chatted during dinner (nobody missed dinner), and we had study groups. These days, studying with realistic expectations (it’s never going to feel as good as watching 30 Rock on Netflix or going to Great America) reduces the stress greatly, and once that initial ennui melts away (it always does), I feel a rush of adrenaline and excitement for mastering it. My confidence grows as my focus grows, and my interest grows exponentially when the former two start to appear.

    Most importantly, we openly expressed our fears and anxieties to each other, figured out what our gremlins were, kicked them out of the way, and helped build and instill confidence in each other as we studied late into the night.

    I don’t mean to lengthen my “comment” (I apologize again for the length of this), but I want to mention something: All the teachers and professors I had were always reasonable. I’m thinking of even the so-called “meanest” honors geometry teacher at my high school, and I can’t imagine them being unprofessional. The school would have gotten rid of her because parents would have complained (as I saw with one honors English teacher my freshman year who was forced out mid-year because she gave out one A and a handful of B’s) until something was done.

  3. Robin, this is outstanding!

    As a teacher, what I find disturbing are the broad indicators that are used to measure “achievement.” It seems reminiscent of the Soviet 5-Year Plans where prosperity was measured in tons of grain and pig-iron, despite the fact that tens of millions of people starved to death. Standardized testing indicators are limited to only the lowest levels of the cognitive domain and in no way indicate what a student is able to do with what they know.

    Also, because of this drive toward superficial success, teachers throw out every best practice of learning and character development and take a quantity-over-quality approach to teaching. For the sake of efficiency, we are also finding that some students have to be “let go” because from a time/produtivity standpoint, they aren’t worth the time or effort.

    Example: Suppose Johnny is in the 10th grade and is reading at a 6th grade level. His reading level alone will keep him from passing any grade level testing, given the time frame. However, due to the urgency of teaching to the test, Johnny’s teachers will place less emphasis on helping or teaching him for the sake of using their time on those who are “easier” to teach.

    School districts are also making students take district-wide formative assessments (aka Pre-MCAS tests). School and district-wide progress is not actually determined by the percent of students who pass, but the percent of students who “bump-up” in each category (IE from “failure” to “needs improvement”, “needs improvement” to “proficient,” and “proficient’ to “advanced.”) Because of this measure, students only on the very edge of “bumping up” from one category to another are targeted for any extra help or intervention. The rest are on their own or simply placed on the proverbial ice-floe and pushed adrift.

  4. As a former secondary art and English teacher, I agree with much of what the article says. I tried to approach my students with warmth and understanding. I, too, believed that stacks of homework were only stress making. I taught writing so there was much practice needed in order to raise the quality of the work. I invented aasignments and class activities that were fun and stimulating, but at my last school, the pressure was greater on me and my students to do more. I knew when and how my students were progressing, most worked at an appropriate level, but we all felt so much pressure to perform higher and higher. It got so stressful that I retired earlier than I wanted. As a student I felt so much stress that I had panic attacks that kept me from school. I suffered greatly and swore that I would never impose such pressure on my students.

  5. Robin–Thank you for your post. I was deeply moved by your story and applaud you for speaking out.

    I saw a screening of “Race To Nowhere” last night and it affirmed my already cast frustrations with our nation’s education system. Now, this documentary has driven me to action, starting with letters to every member of our local school boards all the way up President Obama. It’s a start.

    When our first child was born my wife and I made a commitment to NEVER send our children to the colossal failure we all know as “public school”. Through much sacrifice and effort, we have been able to send our two children to a Waldorf school.

    Most of the “test” cases illustrated in the movie that have been successes (e.g. less homework, more unscheduled time, emphasis on educating the whole child, the arts, building social and problem-solving skills, etc.) could have been taken right from the Waldorf education playbook.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every child had the opportunity to go to a public school where the education methods are built upon the same basic fundamentals as employed by the Waldorf system? This would be of the greatest benefit to our culture, society, nation and, most importantly, our children.

    For me, I am allowing my two children to define what success is for them on THEIR OWN terms, and I will stand behind and support their dreams, goals and desires; not some ill conceived notion of corporate-fueled rampant materialism and fruitless keeping up with the Jones’.

  6. Robin…thank you so much for sharing. I am a teacher and I agree with you FULLY that we are over stressing our students. I am constantly telling my students that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and that is what is so great about our world…but the powers that be have it in their mind that everyone needs to excel at everything. If a student is not excelling, the teachers are supposed to give them special support until they do. In addition, parents are putting too much pressure on their kids. I tried to cut back on the amount of homework I give only to get called down to the principals office to be told that parents were complaining that I did not give enough homework. These poor kids have chorus, band, soccer, piano, ballet, etc., lessons every day of the week…the last thing they need is more homework! Homework is usually just crammed in before they go to bed!

    I hate to hear that things are so hard for you right now but at least you are learning a valuable lesson and helping the rest of the world by sharing your story. We need to stop spoon-feeding our children and rewarding them for mediocre work. We need to teach them to be reliable and responsible and independent.

    I wish you the best of luck in your future. I think you will go a long way!

  7. thanks for sharing– be sure and check out The New School in Kennebunk Maine. I think you will be pleasantly surprised!

  8. Love your article. We live in a very “high achieving” school district in California. I will keep this posted on my refrigerator until my kids graduate high school (they are in elementary school now) as a reminder not to be so axious when my kids come home with less than a A in anything. I do tell them that Star Testing a measure of how the the teachers are doing, not them. So don’t stress. We limit extra curricular activities. If my son wants to paint all day instead of Baseball so be it. My daughter was signed up for ice skating lessons but recently had a head injury so we had to cancel those. Kay Sera Sera!!!!! Enjoy your journey!

  9. Robin…I absolutely love your education focus…the connection between schools and community.While Rhea and Duncan and Bloomberg hail the closing of schools, it is the surrounding communities that are destroyed as a result. I hope your generation can turn around the damaging practices that the business community is heaping on education! And thank you for your words here, they are powerful.

  10. Bravo, Robin! I loved that episode of I Love Lucy. While it was painful to read this post, I appreciate your great writing and clear voice. You helped me remember why we made the choice to homeschool our two boys and you took me right back to my own college days. I remember a sunny day when I was busy studying (as I always was) when I paused just long enough to experience a dreadful, horrible, hollow feeling. As I watched a mother wiping a baby’s mouth I realized I was doing nothing that felt real. I had no idea who I was, where I was going, or why I was doing what I was doing. I had done everything right and was a “perfect” student. But along the way I had lost myself.
    With your interests you might want to check out the book Unschooling Rules, particularly the sections on Learning to Be. All the best. I look forward to more of your posts.

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