Several hours later, it would be diagnosed as a stress-induced trauma to the incisive papilla: a combination of words I’d never previously heard but apparently a fairly common ailment for overburdened teenagers, according to our family dentist, who performed minor oral surgery immediately.
While we were waiting to be seen by said dentist, who was as blasé about treating yet another stress-induced growth in a teen’s mouth as we were freaked out by its hideousness, my daughter turned to me and said, “Did you get the email about the PupilPath colors?”
“What’s People Path?” I said, having misheard her.
“Not People Path. PupilPath,” she said, laughing. “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’ve been at that school for four years, and you still have no idea what it is. You’re a freak, you know that? Even my math teacher thinks so.”
“Is that the online place where you can see your grades?”
“Yes! Oh my God,” she said. She rolled her eyes at my stupidity.
“In that case, I’m not a freak,” I said. “I just don’t give a shit.”
PupilPath, whose one-word spelling I had to Google to write this article, is the virtual world in which my daughter’s grades live, although I have no idea how to log in, and I don’t plan on learning. At any given moment, both students and parents can go on this site to find out the up-to-the-minute status of the students’ grades, down to the nearest hundredth—hundredth!—of a decimal point. I vaguely remember getting an email about this when my daughter was in ninth grade which I promptly ignored. Why on earth would I want a play-by-play of her grades when I can just get the final score on her report card? It’s not a baseball game! It’s school.
In fact, I would no more want to know the blow-by-blow of my daughter’s grades than I’d want to know my daily Amazon rank or the fluctuating amount of cash in my 401(k). Who cares? It goes up, it goes down, rinse, repeat.
But, my fellow parents argue, they need to know their kids’ grades in order to help steer them to better grades. And the kids need to know how far down they’ve slipped below 100 so that they don’t slip under 90. To this I say: Are you kidding me? I’m not the freak. You are. And we’ve all lost sight of the larger picture.
Parents, if you help steer your kids to better grades, you are not letting them succeed or fail on their own industry and merits. And kids, if my entire generation survived high school perfectly well without an hour-by-hour accounting of our grades, you can, too. I promise! In fact, I can assure you it’s a lot less stressful. And stress, as we’re learning more and more, wreaks havoc on both body and soul.
When my dad was dying of pancreatic cancer during the economic free-fall of 2008, I had to yell at him to stop checking his online stock portfolio every 10 minutes. “It’s not good for your health!” I kept saying. I’m not a doctor, but I hardly had to be one to watch Dad’s illness worsen every time he snuck a peek at his account. Left unsaid was that none of this would even matter once he was gone.
But he understood my point: Constantly checking those numbers online was not only stressing him out, it was keeping him from living what precious life he had left. I know. When my first book came out, right at the dawn of easy access to online data, the first thing I did after checking into yet another hotel room on book tour was to check my Amazon ranking. I hit 12 cities on that book tour, and I remember none of them. All I can remember is watching that number rise up then down. Up then down.
I’m ashamed of this. And I’m ashamed of us parents, too. How did we arrive at this moment in educational history where we spend more time checking our children’s grades than discussing the books they’ve read? Because of us, our children are now so focused on the trees of rank that there’s no way they can see the lush forest of learning.
To wit: the PupilPath saga. Up until a few weeks prior to my daughter’s exams, she told me, if her grade in any given subject was a 90 or above, it appeared online as blue, replete with little gold stars next to the grade (yes, I finally had to borrow my daughter’s password and log-in to check this fact, and I deeply regret it); 80–90 was green; 65–80 was yellow. Are you with me so far? Good. Now, apparently, some evil motherfucker in the administrator decided to mess with this perfectly adequate reward system and changed the color-coding such that only grades of 98 and above would be blue, leaving all the grades in the 80–97.99 as green.
Green! The horror! The horror! Can you imagine?
The parents freaked out, demanding that their children bring their grades up from green to blue: the exact same grades they’d had before, only with a different color! Students took to an anonymous confessions page on Facebook, where one student wrote, “Everyone thinks that the whole ‘changing the colors of the PupilPath’ thing is useless, but hear me out. Those stars are the only things that make me feel accomplished, at the end of the day. Like at least I got something back after all my hard work. I know that sounds stupid but the smallest change can have a big effect.”
When I read that confession, I wanted to cry. We have put the cart so far in front of the horse that horse and cart may as well be in two different time zones. Over 1,700 students—nearly half the student body of my daughter’s school—took time out of their busy lives to cast their votes to reinstate the color blue for any score of 90 and above. Just think if all that energy could have been spent, say, reading Proust. Or solving a difficult math theorem. Or studying string theory. Wouldn’t that have been a better use of our students’ time?
There’s a cost to all of this constant color-coding, gold-starring, and grade-checking, this virtual arms race to college, and it’s a hell of a lot larger than the $260 I paid out of pocket to deal with the ugly growth on the roof of my daughter’s mouth. We have sold our souls, our children’s minds, and our sanity to the illusion of control that up-to-the-minute online data gives us.
But go ahead, call me the freak. I’ll be in my room reading a book or making some art, or I’ll be out in the woods taking a hike and pondering the miracle of existence, which is the reward I finally get, at my age, for knowing what’s important.