Take five: Filmmaker Vicki Abeles focuses on school-created stress | St. Louis Public Radio

Take five: Filmmaker Vicki Abeles focuses on school-created stress

Feb 24, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2011 - Like most parents, Vicki Abeles wanted her children to have things she never had.

And they did -- headaches, stomach aches, sleepless nights and a seemingly endless round of responsibilities and activities, all tied to a high-pressure school atmosphere that said if you aren't the best, you're not trying hard enough.

But when a 13-year-old girl in her California community committed suicide after getting a bad grade on a math test, Abeles wanted to help stop the madness. Her own daughter had wound up in the emergency room, a victim of stress-related illness; the two incidents made Abeles determined to make the problem better known, better understood and less intense.

Even though she was a lawyer, not a filmmaker, she decided to shoot a movie to try to convince parents, educators and most of all students that their treadmill existence was a "Race to Nowhere."

The resulting film is filled with nuggets that make a lot of sense but often get swept aside in the relentless competition among top students to get the best grades and take part in the best activities so they can get into the best colleges so they can get the best jobs and have the best life.

One of the most poignant parts of the film is the song "Nobody Knows Me at All" -- a sad but accurate description of parents whose children may be putting up a brave front while stress is prompting them to cut themselves or suffer from other stress-related symptoms.

For these strivers, the drug problem often isn't with recreational narcotics -- it's with the stimulants they take to make sure they can stay up late enough to finish their homework. Once their brains are stuffed full enough to pass their tests, they just let them empty out again and began cramming for the next exam, in between sports practice, choir, debate and other extra-curricular activities designed to burnish their resume.

As one relieved student said, after finishing the AP exam in French, "I never have to speak French again."

Listen to these parents, students and educators who have a front-row perspective on the race to nowhere and tell the story the best:

  • "I didn't think when I had kids, the only time I would see them was 20 minutes at dinner."
  • "It ends up turning kids into little professionals."
  • "Everyone expects us to be superheroes."
  • "How are you expected to do well when you can't even make mistakes? It just motivates you to cheat more."
  • "I think the fear is there that if they don't take that path, they may stray, but then sometimes straying may be what they need to do."
  • "For those who don't get into their dream school, that rejection letter is like death."
  • "I stopped trying. If you don't try, you can't fail."

"Race to Nowhere," which has won praise all over the country, will be shown at the Missouri History Museum at 4 and 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 2, followed by discussions.

If your kids don't have too much homework, bring them along.

You must have had a rigorous time in school yourself; how are things different for your children than they were for you?

Abeles: I may have had more real-life pressures, but the pressures of school were much more normal and appropriate than what kids have today.

A lot of different forces have come together, from politics to how colleges have become big businesses and marketing machines. There's a fear that our kids are not going to be able to compete in a global economy. There's a great deal of fear from parents that their children won't get into the right colleges.

Are students who are high-achieving served well by the way schools are now?

Abeles: I wouldn't say the students in "Race to Nowhere" are high-achieving. I think we have a very narrow definition of those kinds of students. Different students have different kinds of coping mechanisms. I don't think the policies and the paradigms of education are serving any young people very well right now.

At the end of the day, students who look like they are high-achieving too often are unprepared to do the work at college. We have it backward. College is a place with so many incredible opportunities for learning. We don't want our young people arriving burned out and not having the critical thinking skills that they need to get the job done.

There's a great deal of research to support the story we have in "Race to Nowhere." We have to transform education, not just reform, and the film has a very different dialogue about how to get that done. The tricky thing is that we are in a society that wants a quick fix, and these are not cars on an assembly line, these are human beings. A one-size-fits-all solution isn't going to work here.

At one point, "Race to Nowhere" shows photos of people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, big successes in business who either never graduated from college or weren't exactly at the top of their class. What kind of message is the film sending by highlighting academic underachievers like that?

Abeles: We are not advocating lowering the bar. This is not about suggesting that we want our kids to be striving to get Cs. We're trying to improve educational outcomes.

In the world, we work collaboratively with others and get the support we need. But so much of what is happening in school doesn't translate to the real world in that way. Maybe the student who gets a C in math is fabulous in language. I think we have a long way to go to change our focus on learning.

How have things changed for your children Jamey and Zak who are in the film?

Abeles: We now have very different conversations with them. Rather than our first question when they get home being how much homework do you have tonight, we ask them what are you really excited about in school. Our kids need to go to school and be engaged in learning. They can't do that if they are sleep-deprived. They do much better when they can get enough sleep.

Family time has become a priority. And deferring any discussion of college until their junior year in high school is important. We want them to be present in their education today, to make it more about the journey and not worry so much about the end.

It's been an empowering experience for both of them. As a parent, I had to think long and hard about whether they should be in the film. In the beginning, we were never going to be in it, but in the spirit of collaboration, we turned the camera on our family. It's been really encouraging for Zak to be an advocate for himself. He's a character. He'd like to be in a real movie.

Speaking of learning, how was it for you to become a filmmaker without any previous experience?

Abeles: I had a great deal of passion for the topic, and I think that would be my takeaway. We are capable of all sorts of things if we follow our passion. And it also helps to remember that you don't have to think of yourself as complete when you get out of high school. Learning is a lifelong process.