Are Academic Pressures Destroying Our Kids?

by Marnie Brodersen
JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty

Every once in a while (or every day if you’re as emotional as I am), you read a story online that takes your breath away. Whether it’s just an agonizing story or if it’s something you see far too much of your own life in, it collapses you into a puddle while typing on your keyboard. For me, both of those things were true of the story of Patrick Turner, the Newport Beach, California teen who recently died by suicide.

As the blog writer of writes, “Pat was a seemingly happy-go-lucky sixteen year-old teenager, playing baseball and clowning around with his friends.” Until he wasn’t. Until he decided that life was too much for him. Did he lose his mother to cancer? Was he rejected by someone he saw as the love of his life? Had he succumbed to drugs as so many of our teens are doing these days? Was he ruthlessly bullied? No. Pat Turner killed himself because of the pressures of school. It’s as simple and as tragic as that.

A few years back, I wouldn’t even have believed it. And this is coming from someone who, as a child, put so much pressure on herself to succeed in school that she would say novenas before tests for which she had studied for hours … in elementary school. The idea would have still seemed unbelievable though, except for I have a Pat-in-the-making, and he is only nine years old.

We were first told my son was behind in kindergarten. I remember my (now ex) husband and I laughing, thinking it was a joke. How can someone be behind in kindergarten? That’s pretty much where it starts, right? Nope. According to our super sweet and well-meaning teacher, we lived in “the country club district” of California. She went on to say that we have the highest per capita grad school degrees among our parents, who are known for grilling their kids on more than their ABCs well before kindergarten. “I’m sorry,” I thought. “But I seem to recall that you were doing well in kindergarten if you shared well and didn’t eat your boogers and Play-Doh.” Apparently, things have changed.

I made mention of it to our preschool teacher, who was now teaching my younger son. She shut the door to the classroom and confided in me, saying, “Please don’t tell anyone this, but we were basically using a glorified coloring book the year your son was here. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t want to get fired.”

“What kind of fuckery is this anyway?” I thought. “Has the whole world gone mad?”

“Oh well, he’ll quickly catch up,” I thought. Only he didn’t. The only thing he did do was catch on to the fact that he was behind and begin a self-loathing that would normally be reserved for someone rotting away in prison. He would either vomit or dry heave in the driveway before school every day for about three years. He would cry and kick and scream. Even worse than this, though, he began to say things like, “I’m so dumb” every day. If I’m being honest, I would get frustrated, too. The complexity and ridiculousness of his common core-driven homework was sending us all straight over the edge.

The whole testing thing was quite a trip, too. We had meeting after meeting about him behind in school, but no one would offer testing. By second grade, I was already infuriated. And his teacher at the time had the nerve to say to my ex-husband and me after one of these meetings, “Well, you guys blew it. You have to actually verbally ask for testing. They’re not just going to offer it up to you because it costs money.” If she weren’t older than most grannies, I probably would have punched her in the face.

In third grade, the shit really hit the fan. It was standardized testing time. I thought it went above and beyond the pay grade of a principal to call me in and suggest to me that it might be too much stress for my son to participate in standardized testing. “Wow, this is so thoughtful of him to think about my son’s stress level,” I thought naively.

Then I got a call from another mother whose daughter got extra help like my son did, and she said, “You know that they do that on purpose, right? They pick out the weak links because they don’t want them to bring down the test scores which affects their funding.” If I weren’t such a baby, I would have punched myself in the face at this point for being so blind.

I went to the principal this same year and, although everyone said he’d never agree, I asked for my son to be held back. I asked for him to finally have the chance to catch up and have some breathing room. He sat there silent for a second and, wouldn’t you know it, he enthusiastically agreed. Not only that, but he made some phone calls while I was in the office to set things in motion. As I had my hand on the doorknob, he said, “The only bad news is your ex-husband will have to agree with this.”

There goes the neighborhood.

My ex-husband—bless his proud heart—marched in there and said he didn’t want that. In his defense, I don’t think he wanted my son to have to suffer the embarrassment after he and I were already going through a divorce. It seemed wrong, though, that the person who knows what he is capable of academically wasn’t able to make the final call.

This year, an IEP was finally put in place for my sweet and amazing son—the son who (I know this will sound defensive) is so bright and incredibly savvy, but doesn’t understand the common core method of teaching things. And he gets frustrated and then shuts down. To hear your child cry and talk about how stupid he is is something no parent should ever have to experience.

Here’s the sweetest thing about it: he thinks the IEP is something I signed him up for, which I guess is kind of true.

“Hey, Mom,” he said. “I get to take my tests in this room now and I get a bit of help and can ask questions and stuff. And I get extra time with my homework. Did you sign me up for this?”

“Yes. Yes, I did, honey,” I said with tears in my eyes, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Things are looking up right now, but I fear for the future. I fear for his thin skin, sensitive heart, and his excessive need to be good at everything. I look at the ridiculous amount of hard homework we are given already, and he is in fourth grade. I look at him frown at what he’s reading sometimes, knowing he’s not quite getting it and seeing the frustration, and I know that he could very well be Pat. And that makes me want to lock him away from everything and everyone. Not my son.