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14 Jul

“I didn’t get pep band conductor,” my daughter said when I came into the room.  I looked at her and my heart sank.

“I’m so sorry.  I know you really wanted to be picked.  How do you feel?”  I gently put my hand on her shoulder.

She burst into tears.  Aghast, I put my arm around her and tried to console her; my words of comfort sounded empty and ineffectual to my own ears, like worn-out platitudes and tired clichés.

“You can audition again next year.”

“You tried your best.”

“I’m proud of you for putting in the effort.”

The sound of her sobbing was tearing my insides apart.  In time she would get over this disappointment, the depth of which was only commensurate with how much she wanted the position.  For now though, it was painful to watch.

When we moved into our leafy suburban town, we had heard of the high school’s reputation for academic excellence, which translated into a premium on the town’s real estate values.  What we didn’t understand then was how fiercely competitive it would be, even for minor leadership positions like football pep band conductor.  More than a dozen students had signed up to audition and there was some jockeying for position amongst the students.  One boy told my daughter that the music teacher had specifically told him to apply.  This remark, thrown out casually, made her wonder whether he was trying to psych her out, messing with her mind.

The selection process consisted of conducting the Star Spangled Banner with the freshman band and being interviewed by the music teachers.  With only one opening, the odds of being selected were less than 10%.  Still, she went all out to prepare for the audition.  She practiced conducting every day.  Passing by in the hallway, I would see her standing in front of the mirror, moving her hands and arms in fluid and sweeping motions, keeping tempo to music only she could hear.  She went after school to ask her music teachers for help on the finer points.  And like any other upper-middle class parent programmed to do anything to help her child succeed, I even sought out a local professional conductor to help her.

The audition went well and she received positive feedback from the musicians.  So her spirits were buoyed as she went into the interview.  During the interview though, a couple of unexpected questions stumped her; she blurted out answers that caused the teachers to laugh. Unclear whether they were laughing at her or with her, she came out of the interview feeling less sure.  Still, she was hoping for the best.

I was tempted to email the teacher – to what purpose I didn’t even know, only feeling the need to do something, to “fix” it.  But I refrained because as difficult as this was, she needed to learn how to overcome disappointments on her own.  I didn’t know how to help her except to offer lots of empathy, since I was never very good at handling disappointments.  In my youth, I would ruminate moodily, feeling like an utter failure, and console myself with a pint of Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

Soon the demands of junior year left her no time to brood as she plunged into its hectic pace.  Later, she found out she had gotten into the wind ensemble after trying out twice for it and this helped ease the sting.  This year when they announced auditions for pep band conductor again, she decided not to audition, and there was no bitterness on her part.  She said,

“You know, the conductors didn’t look like they were having much fun.  Maybe it’s ok I didn’t get it.”

She had gotten over her disappointment.  Perhaps she had something to teach me about overcoming failure.  One thing is for sure, don’t eat a pint of Haagen-Dazs.


I want to thank my daughter for allowing me to write this.


A Different View: Irish Education

3 Feb

I was away in Dublin, Ireland, for several days last week, visiting friends.  As some of you know, my family and I lived in Ireland for a couple of years during the heyday of the roaring Celtic Tiger.  Our daughter attended an Irish secondary school and we obtained an inside view of the Irish education system.  Here are some of the significant differences from the American education system:

  • There is no prohibition against teaching religion in public schools.  In fact, over 90% of primary schools (comparable to elementary schools for kids age 4 to 12) are affiliated with the Catholic Church while the rest are associated with the Church of Ireland and other Christian denominations.  I know of one private Jewish secondary school and there are at least two state-funded Muslim primary schools in the country.  Teaching about faith is an accepted part of the curriculum.
  • After primary school, students attend secondary school beginning from age 12 or 13 through age 18 (comparable to American middle and high school).  At the end of secondary school, Irish students take a series of college entrance examinations in six to eight subjects, collectively known as the Leaving Certificate Examinations or Leaving Cert for short.
  • Unlike in the United States where students apply to individual colleges for admission, Irish students apply to the Central Applications Office for college admission.  Admission to university is determined solely upon the number of points accumulated on Leaving Cert exams.
  • The Leaving Cert exams take place over a two and a half week period in June, and to make it especially galling to test takers, this time period usually coincides with some of the best weather in Ireland.
  • Test results are released in mid-August so Irish students have to wait until August to find out where they will be attending college.
  • The government pays tuition fees at Irish colleges for Irish and European Union citizens.  Students are charged a registration fee, which fee for the 2009-2010 year was 1,500 euros or approximately US$1,995.  No wonder my friends in Ireland who follow this blog are  aghast at the high cost of attending college in America.  The days of low tuition fees may come to an end as the Irish government grapples with ways to reduce its budget deficit.  Still, the tuition has a long way to catch up to exorbitant American tuition.


Despite differences in education systems, one thing is the same on both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to college admissions – stress, stress, stress.  The Leaving Cert exams are a source of great anxiety and pressure for Irish students and their parents.  Because everything rides on the Leaving Cert results, the last year of secondary school is a frenzy-whipped marathon of studying and test preparation.  I remember around Leaving Cert time, the newspapers would publish various articles giving advice on stress reduction and test taking strategies (e.g. getting a good night’s sleep, eating healthy foods, no cramming the night before).

During this visit, an Irish friend spoke of her anxieties about the Leaving Cert, only five months away.  She worried that her child was not applying himself to his studies.  As she talked, I could see the apprehension and frustration in her eyes and I was reminded of an American friend who lamented that her child was going to end up at a “no-name” college.

Concerns about children’s academic futures will always lay claim on parents’ hearts, regardless of culture, education systems, or national boundaries.


Chinese Mother Redux

13 Jan

It’s Day Five of the publication of Amy Chua’s essay “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” on Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and it’s still the number 1 read, emailed, and commented article on the WSJ website.

Her article continues to roil passions on all sides and now with the release of her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, reviewers have had a chance to read the book and give their opinions.  I’m a notoriously slow reader and thanks to the power of social media, I’ll just provide this link to a review written by Jeff Yang, (he’s a friend of a friend).  It’s well written and hope you enjoy his insights.   

I promise this is the last time I’ll blog about her. 

On a related topic, I had mentioned the documentary “Race to Nowhere” by mother-turned-filmmaker Vicki Abeles in a previous post.  I found out that my local public high school will be screening this documentary on March 1, 2011.  It’s about the pressures that high school kids face today in America.  I’m excited to see it and will give a “review” on this blog afterwards.  So stay tuned.

Some Links to Interesting Articles

16 Dec

Just a short post today – the holiday busyness is ratcheting up.  Recently I read a couple of articles in the New York Times that gave me much food – the no calorie type, perfect for this time of year – for thought, and I trust that readers may also find intriguing.

The first article “Parents Embrace Documentary on Pressures of School” by Trip Gabriel published on December 8 concerns a documentary about school pressures that has been making the rounds through various school districts in private screenings.  The documentary called “Race to Nowhere,” was created by Ms. Abeles, a mother and novice filmmaker, and shows how the demands of homework and sports and high expectations combine to exert enormous pressure on teens, so much so that some of them become physically ill.  The article describes the reaction of parents and school officials to the film and much of what is discussed resonated with me.  It might be a film worth bringing to your local school district.

The second article “The Case for Early Decision” by Dr. Robert Massa of Lafayette College, and published on December 13, seeks to set straight some media misperceptions about early decision.  According to him, no college will hold a student to an early decision commitment if the family determines that a financial aid package is insufficient.  He confirms that the chances of being admitted through early decision are better because colleges want the most qualified students.  He also writes that it’s easier to get financial aid during early decision because colleges have not depleted their financial aid budgets yet.  His article is worth reading if only to get a different perspective on early admission.


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