Students crying in my office: Our future elite

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Yesterday, Ariel Hsing, a sixteen-year-old American high school junior, was tied two games to two in the best of seven format against the number two ranked table tennis player in the world, Li Xiaoxia.

Heading into the competition, Ariel was ranked in the mid-100’s in the world, not even expected to make the main draw of 32, but before her match against Li, she’d already defeated former world champion Ni Xia Lian.

Ariel Hsing is a table tennis player on the rise, but according to a report in the New York Times, it is looking like her athletic potential is about to be derailed by going to college.

That same morning I read Judith Warner’s (no relation) review of Madeline Levine’s new book Teach Your Children Well. This is a follow up to Levine’s previous work, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids and, as related by Warner, describes a culture where pressure (societal, parental, self-imposed) is crushing our young people.

When one young woman learns she was not accepted at the elite college of her choice, “She will not get up, and when I visit her at home, all she can say through her streaming tears is: ‘It was all for nothing. I’m a complete failure.’ ”

As quoted by Warner, Levine writes, “The cost of this relentless drive to perform at unrealistically high levels is a generation of kids who resemble nothing so much as trauma victims.”

Ariel Hsing’s lowest grade ever was a 91 on a grammar test. She needs to maintain A’s because anything less will result in table tennis restrictions. This is impressive, but not nearly so impressive as Ariel when she plays table tennis. As the announcers make clear, this is not Ping Pong, but a sport meant for people with elite reflexes, concentration and coordination. Points rarely last more than four or five exchanges, and on television, you can’t really see the ball as it flies back and forth.

When Ariel Hsing wins a point, she let’s loose a little squeak of joy and a small fist pump. When she loses a point, she looks upset at herself, and often mimes the swing she should have taken. Just as quickly, her face returns to a mask of concentration.

She went down 8-0 in the first game of the best of seven format against the number two ranked Li and could easily have folded, but after losing 11-4, she came back and took the next one 11-9.

Hsing and Li traded the next two games making it 2-2. Ariel Hsing was on the cusp of a “Miracle on Ice” level upset.

Raise your hand if you have had a student crying in front of you after receiving a failing grade. Keep your hand raised if a student has cried over a “D.” A “C?” “B?”

“A?”

I feel like I know these kids described in Madeline Levine’s work. They arrive in my classes either jumpy as rabbits or burnt to a crisp, both types with résumés larded with organizations and activities they never enjoyed and barely remember. I’ve even had students burst into tears over draft essays that I’ve said need work, or even in response to me asking, “how it’s going,” like they’ve been waiting decades for someone to ask.

The irony is that all the data suggest that college students are progressively studying less and less, somewhere around 15 hours per week on average.

Somehow, they’re working less, but worrying more, and for certain are far more stressed out about college.

A “C” can apparently feel like the end of the world.

In addition to Ariel Hsing’s straight A’s, she practices table tennis at least three hours a day. She brings her homework to international tournaments. Hsing’s mother says that Ariel “has had almost no childhood. She is never on the phone, never texting, no family vacation in four or five years.”

My students sometimes cannot go an entire class period without checking their phones. When I bust them, I ask them what’s so interesting, and they say they don’t know.

They just want to make sure that they’re not missing something.

It strikes me that Ariel Hsing is what we’re hoping all our kids become. She is sixteen and in the Olympics. She has straight A’s. She will have her pick of colleges. She was profiled on 60 Minutes and has been befriended by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

She also apparently thrives under pressure, playing her best table tennis from behind.

But that resolve wasn’t enough yesterday as Ariel Hsing ultimately lost to Li. The last two games were close, and the final game was 9-9 before Li won the final two points.

This time, Li was just better.

Madeline Levine’s research indicates that too many young people, particularly young people of privilege, are pursuing “success” at the expense of happiness.

“Success” is a scoreboard of external accomplishments, grades, test scores, elite school acceptance. These successes are supposed to lead to more successes: a college degree, a good job, finishing ultimately, and most importantly in material wealth.

Nowhere along the line do we stop to ask if these are things we want, if they will make us happy. This is important and worrisome because it is these people of privilege who will assume future positions of power, and they are be deprived of the things that will make them whole and happy human beings.

At 29 years old, Natalie Coughlin is swimming in her third Olympics. She has, as of this writing, 12 medals, though after winning six medals in Beijing in 2008, she qualified only as part of the free relay this time around, competing in just the preliminaries at that. The official NBC storyline is that she’s giving way to the younger generation, like Missy Franklin, who is 17, just about to start her senior year of high school, and who will be competing in the event (100 backstroke) in which Coughlin won gold both four and eight years ago.

Except this morning, as I watched Coughlin answer questions about her future on the Today Show, she made it clear that while she may not necessarily compete at the world level again, she wasn’t ruling it out because she was not retiring from swimming. “I absolutely love swimming,” she told Matt Lauer, “so I’m going to continue to train and be fit. If I’m healthy enough to still compete, why not? Because I love it.”

Ariel Hsing is worthy of all of our admiration, but I’m not sure that her straight-A, no-vacationing dedication is something all young people should seek to emulate. She is an apparently special breed of person, an amazing and driven competitor. The training and practice that the rest of us mortals would find boring/grueling/burdensome, instead brings her purpose and joy.

I’m sure we would love to have our children succeed like Ariel Hsing, but we should most admire her for recognizing her passion and pursuing that passion as part of her life.

The other thing Ariel Hsing and Natalie Coughlin and all Olympic athletes know, is the importance of failure. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ariel Hsing shed some private tears following her close loss to the world’s no. 2 player. But if she did, I don’t think she came away thinking, it was all for nothing. I imagine even now she’s working out how next time it will be different.

So many of my students have been protected from adversity for so long that they quite literally do not know how to deal with it, which is why they may melt down over an 87. Often, they have little sense of why they’re even in college, what it’s for in general, and what they want out of it in specific, so the only thing they know to value is the most recent number on the grade scoreboard.

Universities are uniquely suited as places for young people to pursue their passions, but a distressing number of my students don’t really recognize that such a thing is possible, let alone desirable.

They are there to be “successful” and happiness will hopefully find its way in there somewhere. It makes me both concerned and sad for them. Even something like sorority rush has such high stakes that multi-thousand dollar consultants are apparently necessary.

Ariel Hsing would likely thrive in college, but I hope she chooses to take a year or two or more to pursue table tennis exclusively, to see how far that passion can take her when she doesn’t first have to ace calculus. She doesn’t need to hurry towards the business career she’s apparently considering.

And maybe Ariel Hsing will decide that college and business is not necessarily for her, that the same way swimming nourishes Natalie Coughlin, table tennis can provide (in all ways) for her. Ni Xian Lian, the former world champion Ariel Hsing defeated is forty-nine years old and still competing at the highest levels of the sport.

Ariel Hsing should keep looking at that internal scoreboard. It’s working for her so far.

For my students, that I’ll be meeting in less than a month, I hope they look at Ariel Hsing, and admire what she does, not what she’s done.

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