In the introduction to this book, Nancy Faust Sizer illuminates the “emotional chaos” (p. xvii) that marks the senior year. She discusses how the “senioritis” that runs rampant when the spring semester arrives (and sometimes months before) is due to their coexistence in three time zones: the past, present, and future. Students are splaying their past onto college applications and are asked to measure its worth. Meanwhile, they are preparing for the “big breakup” (p. xviii) with their childhood, their friends, and all that is familiar to them. They want to embrace the present, but are watching it slip away as they wonder what they will have the opportunity to face in the future. This transition, Sizer contends, is often more difficult than we remember.
She highlights the cultural imperatives that have seeped into our collective mindset. Seniors grow up with a certain mythological understanding of 12th grade because the “magic” of senior year is often conveyed through the selective memories adults share of their own experience. She shares that the archetypal senior hero of these stories faces challenges, but “somehow” emerges with a magical maturity. “The emphasis here is on ‘somehow,’” Sizer continues. “In our memories, the transformation was magical… Hence the assumptions that surround the experience of the senior year” (p. xx). Seniors grow up with the idea that there are things they should be feeling or doing simply because they have inherited the title of “senior.” They have inherited the crown – now when does the magical transformation take place?
Sizer argues that this is a paradigm that must be considered. When the seniors feel that “almost desperate darkness” (p. xxiii) when the magic doesn’t just happen, they start to question the system that led them here. They wonder what they have really learned all these years in school… Is it enough for the next step? This is where we non-seniors must step in. High schools, colleges, and the workplace need to help students recognize “…how much that know and are able to do in order to perform well, in whatever arena, after high school” (p. xxiv). While they can identify how many courses they have passed, they carry a lot of “subliminal nervousness” about whether or not they are truly ready for the world post-breakup. Fearing the truth, they recline into the safety of proclaiming their status. We are the (magic) seniors… Just watch! Something is supposed to happen! Instead of maintaining the myth, we need to help them take pride in their work and recognize them as they are. We need to help them value learning for its sake, rather than the points. Ideally, this should begin much earlier than the 12th grade in order to empower students to own their learning and not simply to “limp” away from high school wondering whether or not they did anything worthwhile.
Sizer’s words were strong and clear – they hit me hard. My seniors are working on their college applications right now, and I can see the anxiety bubbling up under the surface. While I consider our school progressive and not deeply-routed in tradition, it can be difficult to balance true, authentic learning for its sake while students are filling out their school stats on an application that shouts, “Pick me!” It is crushing to watch a young student tear up because she just feeling like she understands this whole “college thing” or to read a student’s remarks on the week’s class:
"We've been working on our resumes in English class and writing up applications for college. The app I got was pretty confusing and I realized that I barely know any of the stuff included in it. Which makes me wonder, am I truly ready to graduate high school?"
We pledge to a college-going culture, but we also promise to engage in real-world learning. Clearly, these two need to be better integrated. I plan to pursue Sizer’s contention that the high school, college, and workplace need to be in better communication. I think we discuss college in the same mythological, intangible, unclear manner that Sizer contends we do the senior year. This is a problem. We know how to organizeinternships in order to immerse them in the work world. Some students do take a college course at USD. But, never do all three meet. How can the relationship be improved so that students don’t feel the pain of their breakup from high school as profusely? How can the experience be altered so that students don’t feel cheated and shell-shocked at graduation, but ready to take their place at the next piece of the triad? I have ordered Sizer’s book and am looking forward to reading more of her ideas!
“The institutions that ought to support the seniors – high schools, colleges, the workplace – seem isolated from one another. High schools charge ahead with the same old schedule and the same old program, seemingly uninterested in the number of new challenges that have been added to the seniors’ lives, only marginally willing to help them cope” (p.xvii).
“Being a senior year is a pervasive American cultural experience, ranking up there with being married, having children, holding a job, attending church, and going to baseball games. Between 80 and 90 percent of our teenagers finish high school [as of 2001]. They build up expectations for their senior year, live through it self-consciously, and remember it clearly for years. These are – or are meant to be – their “glory days.” More young women may wear a prom dress than a wedding dress” (p.xvii).
“The spotlight shown on seniors captures the imagination of far more people than just the seniors and their parents and teachers. The experience is full of fascination and mythology for us all” (p.xvii).
“Seniors expect to be honored as leaders” (p.xxi).
“Seniors live in three time dimensions at once… Living in the present while planning for the future can test the mettle of even the oldest and wisest of us” (p. xxii).
“Without knowing what they need to learn, they carry around a lot of subliminal nervousness, but they are not sufficiently alert to the dangers of a year of ‘coasting’” (p. xxiv).
“With the seniors’ help, we need to examine the senior year for what should stay the same and what can be altered in small and even big ways. Perhaps we teachers should recognize that the academic growth that has been our worthy stock in trade for many years must be not abandoned, not cheapened, but altered to suit the seniors’ changed circumstances” (p. xxvii).
“Most of all, we need to bring about a more graceful transition between high school and what follows it. Our goal is to leave all the participants feeling that the senior year was a glory time but also one of permanent usefulness, one to feel proud of after all” (p.xxviii)