UBA or USA: Coming to terms with the competition

I have a confession to make: We have not put money away for college savings for our kids. We have squandered it on international travel. When we should have been staying home and saving thousands to finance two university educations, we spent it instead on plane tickets to London, Lima and Rio. Now that high school graduation is nearly upon us, how do I feel about this? Pretty fine, really. Like they’ve gotten the most for the money. Like we have not allowed their childhoods and our family life to be shaped by the insane cost of college in the US.

How do I feel about them not even applying to US schools? That’s a different matter. Confession No. 2: I am envious of all my friends’ kids after the barrage of acceptance announcements I’ve received in the last few months. Georgetown, Barnard, UVA… All these kids I’ve known for the past 18 years have made the grades, high test scores, done their volunteer work, been awarded scholarships to top institutions of higher learning and will soon be leaving home for their respective dorms. Their parents glow with pride. I can’t help it, there’s nothing to be done about my competitive streak. I feel cheated. I have no announcement to make. L&F took the SAT, they got high scores. But in the end, the decision to apply for scholarships to US schools has been tabled. They will be starting at the University of Buenos Aires next year; they didn’t have to ‘get in’, take entrance exams, apply for scholarships or write fantastic essays, nor did we have to save money. It’s a free system, open to all. And they’ll be living at home.

27944I am a rubber-band ball of contradictions, I admit, but bear with me while I work this out. One wonders, if I really wanted them to follow the standard path of US college applications, why did we not prioritize the money for starters, knowing that it would be essential? I could play the Argentine husband card here, but in all honesty, I personally have an issue with the cost/quality equation when it comes to US higher education, so being married to someone who grew up in a country where it’s free and who, by all counts is a perfectly well-educated and successful adult—well, that just adds to my conviction. So this pretty much leaves me with my own competitive tendency, which, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is at least partly a product of my own glory years of imbibing US education culture. Despite my keen awareness of this, it has nevertheless reared its head and roared in the present circumstances and left me feeling cowed and small. Therefore, in an effort to put things right and relative, I submit the following questions to myself and anyone else in a position to choose:

  1. Do you believe a US undergraduate education to be the best in the world? In general, no. Most of the people I admire and respect were educated elsewhere in the world. Many have US graduate degrees, though.
  2. Do you think paid education is inherently superior to free, public education? No, I have seen the output of both, and know just as many successful people who attended free universities.
  3. Do you think leaving home to go to university is essential to one’s independence? No, not right away. I think 17/18-year-olds are often still in need of some guidance and may well achieve adult-like independence more organically with a couple more years at home.
  4. Do you think the social aspect of university life is as important as the academic, or should school only be about an academic education? I agree that the social aspect of university is an essential part of a broader education, however I don’t think the all-inclusive ‘campus’ is the only way to get that. School can easily be just about academics, especially in an urban setting, making the fees people often pay for the campus experience a bit crazy.
  5. Do you think not attending a US university is in any way an obstacle to getting a job in that country later in life if one has comparable qualifications from elsewhere? The statistics say not at all.

So this is where I’m supposed to finally embrace UBA, break out my swagger and tell you how it’s one of the top universities in Latin America, that students from other countries in the region flock here, and that it’s free, free, free. And that we happen to live in the city that is the destination of loads of US students, who come to do their studies abroad here. But it’s not gonna come to that, because I just don’t feel it. And the reason I don’t feel it is the same reason L&F don’t feel the urge to compete to get into US schools. Because it’s just not in the atmosphere around us. Transitioning from high school to public university in Argentina is really just a matter of registration, so there’s no hype attached to it, no bragging rights. It is much the same with the kids I know in different countries in Europe. The world is wide and there is never just one way. I am happy about all the amazing teenagers I know in the US who are going to off to fine universities, and I share their parents’ pride. But I am also finally coming around to the fact that the choice we have here feels like the right choice for us, at least for starters, and an equally enviable one at that.

Big Fat F

imagesI remember the first one c. 1977. It was a 5th-grade social studies test. There was a bonus question: Who was Gary Gilmore? I shared my superior knowledge of current affairs and the dark return of capital punishment in the US with my classmate, Kelly Chaney, by a subtle shift of my test in her direction. From her angle, my answer of ‘He got executed’ must have looked more like ‘Head of the executive,’ because that’s what she wrote. Whether the teacher actually saw us cheating or just guessed from that preposterous answer, we were both rewarded with a big zero of a grade. These details stand out in my memory as a turning point on my previously flawless academic record, not to mention criminal history. But it was mainly the trauma of the failing grade and subsequent shock and awe treatment from my parents. None of us were prepared for failure.

I also remember the first and only year my own children went to a US public school in 2002. Things had changed. There were regular school awards ceremonies throughout the year, in which certificates the likes of Best Attendance, Best Teacher’s Helper, Most Considerate, Snappiest Dresser, Top Animal Lover, Cleanest Hands, etc. were conferred so as to leave no one out, everyone a winner at something even if they didn’t make honor roll. By the end of kindergarten, the overt praise started to feel a little like a sticky, drippy lollipop you just don’t want to hold anymore. If I had had a hard time dealing with a bad grade for cheating back in Mrs. Stanley’s class, what in the world would these kids be prepared for after 12 years of institutional ego waxing on top of the ramped-up academic expectations? Still, even though I can rattle on about how out of whack this all is with the real world, and in fact have left my country in search of a kinder, gentler –ok, messier—reality for my kids, of course I still expect them to get good grades.

Flash forward to the present: They barely manage to pass many of their school subjects and some not even. I have not so much come to terms with this as resigned myself to it kicking and screaming. Because, based on my experience, school is supposed to work as follows: You attend class, do the assignments, do your homework, study for tests in whatever way works for you (for me it was in Cyndi and Kristi Palmer’s closet atop a pile of clothes, smoking cigarettes with the door closed; for mine the pile of clothes remains, cigarettes replaced by 12 open chat windows, tweets, likes and the essential scanner for note sharing) and your grades should reasonably reflect these efforts, right? Only the very unfortunate few actually fail. There were no F’s (other than the one for cheating) in my social circle. So how can it be that my kids and any number of their friends fail subjects at the end of the year?

The fact is they are not some of those very unfortunate few; they are part of the unfortunate many who seem to almost take it in stride here. My best approach to rationalizing it is semantics. Because llevarse una materia doesn’t mean failure as much it does ‘not yet passing’ or schlepping the subject along with you until you manage to pass it. We no longer make vacation plans in Dec. because of the likelihood that they’ll have to take extra exams; and if they don’t manage to pass then, they get yet another chance in Feb. right before the next school year starts in the southern hemisphere, pretty much leaving the entire summer in limbo and impossible to plan. As if it weren’t still a major challenge for me to plan ‘summer’ in December as it is (I repeatedly refer to January as July). So I go about the business of searching for the relativity factor in all this, unraveling my previously stated view on the universal way of school, grades, etc., and try to understand it in context. After all, failure is a harsh, heavy word. Maybe it’s a hemispheric thing, maybe it’s the water. Or maybe it’s just me.

I have a problem with failure. It’s all wrapped up in competition. Although I get a sense of solidarity when talking to other local (and to wit, unfazed) parents about how many subjects their teenagers have to retake this summer, my sense of competition takes over when the subject comes up with my own parents or friends outside Argentina. Their kids are all busy overachieving, becoming honor students, taking AP classes, etc., while mine and many of their classmates can’t manage to pass math. The competitive thing gets in the way. I shut down, change the subject, can’t deal with the f-word.

But here’s the thing. There is very little coddling or micro-management of students at the school my little slackers attend. No tracking, no phone calls home from the teacher because they’ve slipped from an A to a B, no neatly quantifiable assessment of academic performance. They are expected to figure out how to study and process loads of content in 13 subjects, very few grades factor into their averages and no grade-curving. If they are lacking any single element teachers consider fundamental to their subject by the end of the year, they will likely not pass. Heavily subjective, but it is what it is. Sink or swim. Who the hell ever heard of failing art or music? Welcome to the schools of the UBA (University of Buenos Aires). Thank god they have multiple opportunities to finally pass. And who knows, maybe along the way, students learn something about falling into a pit and how to figure their way out. In my experience, this is what life serves up on a regular basis long after school is done.

I am presently in my own process of digging my way out of this confounded notion I have of what a bad grade means, and feeling like I’m getting a glimpse of light coming from above. I am pretty convinced that the time invested in academics, sports and other varieties of competition leaves scarce room for students in the US to fail but not be considered a failure. Argentina is a messy, frustrating and in some ways broken-down place, but Argentines do manage to scramble their way out of crisis after crisis. Crossing my fingers that my kid will reap copious benefits from having failed Latin and Math this year and spent a summer learning how to pass them. Tomorrow we’ll find out.