Stress vs. Fiction

This morning my twelve-year-old daughter will take New York City’s Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is the only criterion for admission to eight of the city’s top public high schools. About 30,000 eighth- and ninth-graders take this test every fall, competing for about 6,000 spots. The test is like the SAT used for college admissions but more devious; it includes logic questions that you’ll see nowhere else except the law-school admissions test, as well as an absurd exercise called “scrambled paragraphs” in which you have to put five sentences into the correct order based on tricky little clues. For many questions, two of the multiple-choice answers seem equally correct, but the arbitrariness of the exam is deliberate — if all the questions were clear-cut, then too many students would get perfect scores. So the only way to make sure your kids excel at the exam is to enroll them in test-prep courses that teach them the tricks for scoring higher.
So here we have a good example of something that was designed to be perfectly fair (because your admission to the elite high schools depends strictly on your test score) but in practice turns out to be completely unfair (because most of the good test-prep courses are wildly expensive). But let’s forget the fairness issue for the moment. I’d like to talk about the stress caused by this screening process. In addition to this weekend’s test, my daughter is scheduled to take two more admissions exams next week, both geared to the specific needs of two other highly regarded schools. She also has to assemble a portfolio of her best writing to prepare for an interview at yet another high school, and she’s going to play piano, participate in a dance class and submit ten of her best artworks as part of the audition process for New York’s performing-arts high school (the one made famous by the movie Fame). Doesn’t this seem like a lot of stress to put on a twelve-year-old? (She going to turn thirteen in two weeks, but still.)
And here’s the worst part: this is just the beginning of the rat race. Over the next few months we have to start looking for summer internships for my son, a high-school sophomore. To get into the best colleges now, it’s not enough to have good grades — you need to demonstrate that you have passionate intellectual interests and achievements. And if you’re admitted to a prestigious college, the race only intensifies. Last month I visited Princeton, my alma mater, for a Career Services event and was astonished to see dozens of college freshmen there, all asking me anxious questions about job prospects in the media industry. These kids had been attending college for a total of four weeks and they were already worried about what they would do after graduation.
There’s no question that the pressure on kids today is much, much worse than it was when I was a teenager in the 1970s. I never went to any Career Services events in college. I didn’t even know where Career Services was on campus. I have no idea why the stress has intensified so much, but it probably has something to do with globalization and our increasingly inequitable society. Fewer well-paying jobs are available these days, so the competition has grown fierce.
By now you’re probably wondering if there’s any connection between this rant and the business of writing fiction. There is: I believe that as economic strains and time pressures increase, the opportunity for leisure reading is decreasing. My daughter still reads good books in her English classes — The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Jungle — but she has so much homework she can’t enjoy any books she chooses on her own. She’s so exhausted by bedtime (which is usually 11 pm or later) that I can’t even read to her while she lies in bed. And if this is true for twelve-year-olds, how can older kids find any time to read? How can they indulge in fantasies and mysteries and thrillers and develop a lifelong love for fiction?

I don’t see a solution to this problem. Does anyone?