Losing Ourselves

A documentary about how a narrow definition of success turns high school students' intrinsic motivation extrinsic.

Photo of Rachel Wolfe
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    When I sat each of my friends down in front of a video camera midway through our junior year of high school and asked them what they were passionate about, I didn’t expect the chorus of “umm”s that rang back at me. I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised — my own lack of passion is what had motivated me to interview them in the first place — I just hadn’t realized how not alone I was in feeling as if I had lost sight of who I was.    

    A few months prior, in the middle of practicing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, I had come to the undeniable conclusion that I hated the violin. First taken up during the third grade instrumental thrust, my disdain had steadily grown with each obligatory thirty minute practice, six days a week, for ten years. Once I had reached high school, it was too late to quit, so long as I continued to be reminded that colleges were looking for “continuity” in extracurricular selection.

    As I looked from my bow to the strings to the clock, I thought about how long I had been ruled by the overwhelming desire to gain admission, or, really, the overwhelming fear of not gaining admission, to a “top” college or university (as determined by none other than US News and World Report).

    I resumed playing while wondering why I cared about gaining admission to a supposedly prestigious college or university. As I flipped the sheet of music over, I asked myself whether I actually did care, or if I had been conditioned to think that I did by a community and a society that prioritizes status over fulfillment.

    I had always been a good student, but as I got further along in my education, and the expectation to attend a prestigious university intensified, the wonder of discovery that had permeated my elementary school experience disappeared. And with it, so did the joy and intrinsic motivation to learn. I spent the first half of high school in a state of blind conformity, of resume padding and unreasonable anxiety. As a result, I went into my junior year with the intention of “just getting through it”; of obtaining As in my classes; studying for the SATs; and finding another extracurricular to list on the activities section of the Common App. My only motivation to complete homework, cram for tests and write essays was the grade, which also seemed to be the only apparent purpose and outcome of learning.

    High school was only a gateway to college, after all.

    On a whim, I had decided to sign up for a creative writing independent study with a beloved English teacher from freshman year, but I was worried that the writing I wanted to be doing would take me away from the studying I should have been doing. This was the teacher who had always reminded us that, “if my job was to give out grades, I would quit,” and that school was “all about the learning,” but I still wasn’t sure how the independent study’s Pass/Fail grading system would resonate with the college admissions officers reading my transcript.

    I walked into Mr. Mounkhall’s office the day after the violin incident prepared to discuss a book written by Sandra Cisneros on the topic of growing up. Five minutes into talking about character development and descriptive imagery, however, I found myself admitting that I had spent the past nine years playing the violin not because I liked it, but because it was what I thought I was supposed to be doing. Mr. Mounkhall didn’t seem as surprised as I was by this revelation. After getting sufficiently worked up, and then talking for awhile about how my own thoughts and feelings could relate to those of the novel’s protagonist, he encouraged me to turn the experience into a story.

    I sat in a coffee shop later that night (because all real writers write in coffee shops) with a blinking cursor taunting me from a blank Word document. Leaning backwards on my chair to stretch my back, I accidentally knocked my physics binder off the table with my elbow. As I went to collect my notes from off the ground, I felt a familiar knot of anxiety intensify in my chest after noticing the words “TEST THURSDAY” underlined twice in a page corner.

    Beginning to think that maybe I should be studying rather than writing a story that wouldn’t even be graded, I looked back to the screen and realized that this mentality, this feeling that I should be studying rather than doing what I love, is what I needed to write about. I began to type, “From the time we are babies, we are prodded along a fixed path, like $5 a ride petting zoo ponies, which will ultimately enable us to achieve Scarsdale’s version of success. However, as we plod along the circular pony path, we soon start to wonder where it is taking us…”

    As I printed out a copy of my story, “Fenced In,” in the library the following week, I nervously pulled on my hair, wondering what Mr. Mounkhall would think of what I had written. As I began walking to his office, however, I realized that this time, his opinion on my writing mattered in a different way than on previous assignments. Unlike the other English assignments I had turned in over the past two years, there would be no grade on the last page written in the futile hope that we would actually read the comments and not just flip to the back to see our grade. Rounding the corner to the English wing, I couldn’t help but be excited about the possibility of getting to hear a teacher’s feedback without subconsciously beginning to do the mental math of how a B would affect my GPA.

    Around this time, I was assigned a prompt-less research paper by my AP US History teacher, Ms. Favretti. My initial thought was to research suburbanization, but I soon realized that I was more interested in my own community’s definition of success. With Ms. Favretti’s permission, I began talking to students and teachers about the purpose of high school, quickly discovering just how externally motivated my peers and I had become. A dozen interviews later, I was equal parts upset and enraged by a problem I hadn’t known extended so far beyond myself. Acknowledging that a research paper on the subject would only end up in a plastic bin in my attic, I went to Ms. Favretti’s office and asked her if I could make a documentary on the subject instead.

    This is how I, Rachel Wolfe, overzealous hand-raiser, frenetic “what’d you get asker,” overt example of the “grades above all else” mentality, ended up making a documentary about the limitations of a mindset that reduced learning to a letter grade and the pursuit of passion to a resume. Making the documentary was, in fact, what rescued my intellectual curiosity from the Common App’s grasp.

    The independent study’s Pass/Fail grading system, initially a source of hesitation, ultimately gave me a space in which to practice learning for learning’s sake, a skill I was eventually able to apply to my other classes.

    Because nobody was telling me to write short stories about communities that had an eery resemblance to the one I grew up in or, once the research paper’s due date had long since passed — Ms. Favretti having been satisfied with a process paper — to actually finish the documentary I had already amassed hundreds of hours of interview footage for, I had to motivate myself to do the work. Finding the time to write and to document was a lot easier when, a few months later, I decided to quit the violin.

    Now, I take for granted the fact that I am intrinsically motivated to learn. I am currently a sophomore in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern, where I’m studying Journalism and Social Policy in order to learn how to most effectively facilitate change in the world of education.

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Photo of Chris Good

Rachel,

Your video is absolutely amazing. I can't thank you enough for sharing. I was amazed at the continuity of the experiences of these students and their perception that the High School process is almost like some sort of game that must be played in order to attend a "Great School" as opposed to a place to truly explore and learn.  What worries me most is that these are the kinds  students who we would typically consider as having some of the most advantages. Imagine how much more difficult the path to higher ed must be for those students who lack those advantages. I wonder what recommendations you might have for how we might return the intrinsic motivation to those students looking to explore higher education? I wonder what might remind us of all those thinks we were once passionate about?

Photo of Rachel Wolfe

Chris,

So glad you liked the documentary. As far as the whole college thing, my teachers taught me that the best way to get into college would be by exploring things that interested me and doing things that I was passionate about rather than what I thought would earn me an acceptance letter to a prestigious college -- at the end of the day (and as actual conversations with admissions officers have revealed), admissions can see through the activities done for the purpose of a resume and what makes someone stand out is the love of learning/intellectual curiosity/exploration of interests that teachers have been trying to promote all along.  As far as being reminded of all the things we were once passionate about, what I've learned in college is to try anything and everything (I walked on to the varsity fencing team last year after never having fenced in my life) and just to see what sticks. 

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