Exposure in the Darkroom

New Year’s Day is symbolic for people in various manners. But for high school seniors, it is rather singular: it’s the traditional deadline for mailing off their college applications. Around this time of year is when they hand over their fate to some admissions officers, and then collectively hold their breath for over three months until they come home from 7th period one April afternoon fearing those dreaded small envelopes.

In my case, I was gearing up for that April day six years in advance, pretty much since the day I finished elementary school. This is not at all exceptional in places like Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up. In a public school system that consistently ranks among the country’s best, the purity of learning for its own sake is snuffed by the need to look good in the eyes of those anonymous admissions officers. Going to college was not so much a privilege as a birthright, an imperative that pulls the rug out from under the joy of learning.

This phenomenon is nicely summed up in the book The Overachieversby Alexandra Robbins, who was two years above me in high school. I can relate to the following anecdote painfully well: “Sam, the Teacher’s Pet, runs out of time to find and interview a Muslim for an assignment in his Modern World class, so he makes one up and writes a fake transcript of their conversation.

Meanwhile, children in other places are learning organically and for the sake of it. One of the most fascinating education studies I’ve come across is the case of Wenchi, Ethiopia, where 20 kids aged 4 to 11 were given tablet computers and “after five days, children who had never seen letters before were using 47 apps. They were singing the ABC song after two weeks, and after five months they had circumvented the Android security settings.”

It was Good Will Hunting’s release 17 years ago that instilled me with the idea that there must be a diamond in the rough in every corner of the world. But without proper exposure to possibilities in the world far beyond their corner, today’s high school seniors might be mired in a lifetime of unfulfilled potential.

Whereas my exposure to higher education and beyond was automatic, at first blush it appears this is not the case here in Clark County. I see purity and potential in this. Not quite a blank canvass, but certainly not the jaded and neurotic educational scene described in The Overachievers. In Bethesda, the college machine propelled us to do activities, which, while enriching, were too often reduced to contrivances because they were no more than line items on a college application. While a soup kitchen values volunteers no matter their intent, I believe intent is paramount.

This past month I saw a stark and happy contrast in the 250-plus high school volunteers who helped Ramirez Group over the course of 12 hours on a Saturday at our health care enrollment fair. The same purity exists in the earnestness of the students of Leaders in Training, who actually want to stay after school and participate in monthly volunteerism. It’s a pool of potential that with a bit of exposure to just how many avenues are available in college admissions and scholarship money, and the encouragement that these are not mere unattainable abstractions, could impact the world in ways quite different from the way of students who emerge from the machine of prestigious secondary schools, served opportunity on a platter. What this different impact will be, I can’t quite define. Yet it is palpable.