According to an apocryphal story, Ponce de Leon trekked to Florida from Spain in the early 1500s with intentions of discovering the Fountain of Youth, a legendary spring that is said to mystically restore the youth of anyone who drinks from it. Leon was ultimately unsuccessful, but the trend toward youth restoration never lost its momentum.
For centuries people have tried to bottle the essence of youth. Women over forty continue to keep the cosmetics counter at Nieman Marcus in business with countless orders for La Mer and Retin-A, while middle aged men purchase expensive sports cars with the hope that anybody who might see them will divert any attention away from the silver hair or the large belly protuberant enough to seat six. But despite furious efforts to turn back the forever ticking hands of time, youth remains a slippery force of nature that only comes around once.
With youth, everybody gets only one shot of deliciousness before the hangman shows up and wrinkles set in, before life slithers away. Each of us has only a tiny window of opportunity to make it all worthwhile, to make good use of this coveted treat that we have been temporarily endowed with before it gradually and irrevocably fades forever.
Some of us will wake up in our middle age as the bitter remnants of a really great party, while some of us will wonder why we were never invited to the party which was always just around the corner but seemingly out of reach. However, most of us—at least those of us who wish to wake up in our forties in a nice house or Park Avenue duplex—will spend a large part of our teenage years in high school, worried about college and the future, suffering through AP courses, and doing just about anything to boost our transcripts. We will spend so many of our most precious years wondering if we will be successful, wondering if it will all work out, planning for the future while skimping on the present.
But this intense, even religious, devotion to success in high school is not without reason. Getting into college is harder and more competitive now than it was thirty years ago. And with the less-than-savory condition of our economy, we are experiencing an urgency that was not such an issue ten years ago. Even the SAT—which was originally meant to function as an aid for underprivileged kids who could not afford a tutor, an examination of a student’s present knowledge, a test you were not meant to study for—has lost its way.
“Intellectual curiosity has changed since the last few generations because education has become just a process,” said Mr. Albert, band teacher. “People have become so fact-driven that there is not enough room for creativity.”
The desire to be the absolute best candidate for colleges, and ultimately potential employers, pushes kids into adulthood too fast and too soon, before they can ever enjoy adolescence the way Generation X or the Baby Boomers were able to. As students, we tend to view life in terms of GPA points and how many days until the next test that will determine our grade, and possibly even the course of our lives. High school is just a big schlep toward the real world, a place many of us have heard a lot about since elementary school.
But there is a world beyond applying to college. It is a shame that many students rarely get the chance to consider its possibilities before the pressure of success forces them to live in it.