May 15, 2004


Why are so many high-school students waiting in agony for the postman to knock?


Because in this age of e-mail, it's still an envelope -- with a letter saying they have been accepted (or not) into university -- that determines their fate for the next four years. And if the angst I hear in my examining room means anything, for the rest of their lives as well.


Some students -- the ultra-achievers, called Ziplocs by their peers -- have a lock on early acceptance. For these students with their 95 per cent averages, the stress comes from having to choose the best among many. These remarkable young women and men are sources of pride even for their family doctors.


But for many more students, getting into a half-decent university means struggling to master statistics or to grapple with philosophy. Add to this the huge size of high-school classes today, and the realization that you may be a senior today, but in a way you're already back on the bottom, competing for one of a limited number of first-year university spots, and the stress builds.


These are all smart kids, doing very well at school, if not supremely well. But I fear that many of them have a huge level of anxiety about getting into university, yet never express it to their parents, their peers or themselves.


The mother of one of my patients was baffled by the behaviour of her son, a straight-A student. He was in line for a hockey scholarship to a Canadian university, but his behaviour changed before he got there. He stopped trying at practices, had no enthusiasm and, most frightening for his mom, became a cynic about hockey. None of this was lost on the coaches, or the university scouts.


Soon, his grades began to fall. Mom was bewildered, dad was furious. They got nowhere trying to reason with him, or even talking to him. They were at a loss about how to help him get back on track.


And that was clearly the point: His parents didn't want him to miss this opportunity at a good university, especially since he had worked so hard for it. Or had he?


For another of my young patients, trouble began long before the time came to apply to universities. She had grown up the brightest of the bright, polite, the hub of many social circles. So how could that explain her increasingly crazy nightlife -- running away from home, messing around with drug dealers, "hanging" in crack houses, pregnant and in jail by 16?


Eventually, she became a mother, lost the boyfriend, went back to school through the social-assistance network intended for the truly disadvantaged, which she isn't, and is once again flourishing. But when I asked her why it needed to be this way, why so much bitter conflict, she was at a loss to explain it.


As a parent and a physician, I'm eager to find the sources of such family pain because I also value educational success and nurture the dreams that come from realizing such goals. I don't doubt that for some of these young people, misbehaviour on this scale is a clear message about how the family is messed up. In both of these examples, there was severe marital discord -- one couple had separated, the other was living the make-believe life of the intact and wholesome family, though not behind closed doors.


Is this enough to explain the stellar burnouts of these students? I think not, since I witness the same behaviours, the same flameouts within solid family structures. Rather, it's that these young people, still with essentially immature brains, as journalists have pointed out repeatedly over the past few months, buy in to massive expectations of their performance.


Since "going to the right university" is in many ways a parental dream, it's no surprise that students may not even have begun to distinguish their own wishes or dreams from those of their parents. And the stakes surely escalate when the potential for scholarship money becomes a consideration. We're familiar with academic awards that increase by the thousands for each percentage above 90. But the newest player in this field is sports scholarships.


As I was removing the sutures from the arm of one of my 16-year-old patients, he worked on a math assignment. He has been scouted since Grade 10 by a big American college for a basketball scholarship, and he is on track to succeed.


But for many others, achievement and success are much less "in the bag." To me, this may provide the seed of dissent:

The fact is, 71 per cent of parents want their kids in university, but only 48 per cent of them actually make it into colleges or university, according to statistics cited recently by Gerard Kennedy, Ontario's Minister of Education.


With the further initiative to keep students in school an additional two years until they're 18, we can only hope that other apprenticeship or co-operative programs help to open new doors and new routes that will reassure parents while also enabling students to explore their own dreams.


I have witnessed two of TV's best camera technicians, for instance, discover their careers by hanging out in the studio as high-school dropouts.


As for the young mom, she has just been accepted, on scholarship, at the university in her hometown, and I am proud.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.