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They said no to box checking

High school students who question success

Michelle Johnson at work: “I was a wild child probably until the eleventh grade.”
  • Michelle Johnson at work: “I was a wild child probably until the eleventh grade.”
  • Image by Matthew Suárez

The month of May for high school seniors can be a disorienting time. They are feted through Senior Breakfasts, Grad Nights, Senior Nights, sporting events. They begin to wear the colors of their universities-to-be: the blue-and-gold, the crimson. In drug stores, “Congrats, Grad!” balloons and copies of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! come out of the stockroom, anticipating the eventual pageant of optimism known as graduation.

The belief goes you will graduate from said good college and achieve greater success. Whatever that means.

The belief goes you will graduate from said good college and achieve greater success. Whatever that means.

Some seniors get sentimental and make visits to their old teachers’ rooms to thank them, or to reminisce on old lessons and classroom moments. Some make a last-ditch effort to create and store up as many high school experiences as possible before they leave. Others, already in their university gear, walk through their schoolmates like they’re made of phantom smoke, eyes fixed on the fall semester to come. Many struggle to focus on current schoolwork, having already joined group chats and Facebook groups of various “Class of 2022s” around the country. Getting into college, especially a good one, means you have achieved success. Then, the belief goes, you will graduate from said good college and achieve greater success. Whatever that means.

A couple decades ago, Johnson’s blue-collar ambition would be unremarkable.

A couple decades ago, Johnson’s blue-collar ambition would be unremarkable.

When, in 1906, the philosopher William James deplored the “exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success,” he was expressing a frustration with the moral compromises people made in its pursuit. The phrase also rightly captured what it meant to give your life to success: the obsessive devotion, the ensuing resentment of that devotion, the fickleness of Fortuna in spite of our devotion.

But “success” a century ago meant something specific. It meant making money and being rich. “Success” today is not just about making money. It’s also about being fulfilled in what you do to make money, all the while receiving positive affirmation from your peers while you show it off in digital form or otherwise. You need an Instagrammably successful life on top of a materially successful one.

Miriam Tullgren runs Palm Academy off-site from Coronado High.

Miriam Tullgren runs Palm Academy off-site from Coronado High.

For Michelle Johnson, a senior at Palm Academy for Learning in Coronado, none of the senior year festivities or the pre-college boosterism mean much. She’s busy paying the rent on the apartment she shares with her boyfriend Adrian, building up an emergency fund with checks and tips from working at the golf course, and scrambling to finish her schoolwork so she can enter an apprenticeship program in the fall.

Joe Molenaar. Every month since sixth grade he has released a new music album on bandcamp.com.

Joe Molenaar. Every month since sixth grade he has released a new music album on bandcamp.com.

Mel Martin Band Photography

“I just want to work hard for my money,” Johnson said. “I just don’t want to spend money on school and lose all my money and have to go into debt. A trade school, that’s what I want to do. Get paid to learn hands-on.”

Johnson’s definition of success, though it gets at the older form of the word, is unconventional in Coronado, where for most students, going to four-year colleges is a matter of fact. Gospel, even. Johnson wants to learn how to weld, how to do electrical work. She wants to have the expertise to flip a house and dress it to sell it quickly. She is currently choosing between an apprenticeship through Solar Turbines and a series of certification courses that would allow her to work in construction. At five-foot-two, Johnson may not always stand out in a high school crowd; as a woman, she may, however, stand out on an oil derrick or demolition site.

Will Boone, Joe Molenaar. On the stage of high school, like that of the ballet, you don’t broadcast to the audience if something goes wrong.

Will Boone, Joe Molenaar. On the stage of high school, like that of the ballet, you don’t broadcast to the audience if something goes wrong.

Many seniors view going to college as a rite of passage into adulthood. But for Johnson, it’s really more like an extended adolescence; adulthood for her means making your own money, paying your own keep. Johnson grew up in Mt. Helix, where she lived with her parents Sandy and Richard before they divorced when she was six. Both her parents worked at the Spring Valley swap meet, where she would help them set up shop at five in the morning every weekend.

“I grew up basically at the swap meet with my family,” Johnson said. Her mother grew up in Tijuana in a family of nine children and never got past high school. As a single mom, Sandy raised her kids to value money and hard work. When they gave her lip, she gave them what she got when she grew up: the wooden spoon, the soap, the hot sauce, the chancla.

Now Sandy owns her own business — selling clothes out of a shop called Sandy’s Bargain Treasures in Imperial Beach — and lives in Coronado. She rents out a property in Mt. Helix, which allows her to pay for her place on the island. During a trip to Hawaii, she brought a box of merchandise to sell at a swap meet there. Mortified, her kids threatened to leave her at the gate out of sheer embarrassment. The profit she made in Hawaii ended up paying for the whole trip.

Swap meets bring together unconventional personality types. Along the rows of stuff you might find the obsessive book hunter, or the tinkerer. This unconventionality finds echoes and rhymes throughout Johnson’s extended family. Her uncle Jimmy is handicapped and has to use two canes to get around, but spends most of his time driving around the world and camping in the woods. Her brother Robert is a professional gamer who enters Call of Duty tournaments while taking programming classes. He often gets free consoles and paid flights to tournaments for cash prizes.

A couple decades ago, Johnson’s blue-collar ambition (the phrase today sounds oxymoronic) would be unremarkable. But today, the perception is that only a college degree can secure you a livable future. According to a Pew Research study, 36 percent of Millennial women between 21 and 36 have at least a bachelor’s degree; about 30 years ago, that number was 20 percent.

For Johnson, her goals partly stem from her family life and from her educational history. Students who struggle to succeed in school can often recall a specific instance when their educational futures took a different tack, whether it be through the diagnosis of a learning disability — for those whose parents have the resources to diagnose and to provide outside advocates — or some disruption in their life that led to school taking a backseat. For Johnson, that moment was finding out she was going to have to repeat the first grade.

“I was a wild child probably until the eleventh grade,” Johnson said. Her parents' divorce was something from which she never quite recovered, academically or emotionally. Pre-divorce, she recalled Christmases with ceiling-height trees and gifts that swelled the room. Afterward, she said, “I felt like my parents were getting a divorce and nothing else mattered.”

“The teacher told my mom that I needed to be held back, and that I didn’t know enough. Next thing you know, I was repeating first grade,” Johnson said. “I think I just showed up at school ready for the second grade, and my mom said, ‘No, you’re going back to first grade.’ I just remembered feeling really dumb, and I didn’t know if it was my fault.”

Narratives, once they take hold, are hard to dispel. Manufacturing jobs, the narrative goes, are going abroad and they’re never coming back; blue-collar respectability is a thing of the past and the only thing that can guarantee you success is a college degree. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing jobs have been on a steady upward tick since 2010. According to an article from NPR, “a shortage of workers is pushing wages higher in the skilled trades, [but] the financial return from a bachelor’s degree is softening, even as the price — and the average debt into which it plunges students — keeps going up.” While high schools promote the four-year university track (and at the expense of arts, shop classes, and vocational programs), “nationwide, three out of 10 high school grads who go to four-year public universities haven’t earned degrees within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.”

Last year, Johnson’s boyfriend Adrian went to North Dakota to do welding for two months for his grandfather, which made him good money. When he returned, both discussed moving out to live on their own, since they both had jobs and had saved enough. She was already 18, and after obtaining her mother’s blessing, Johnson moved into a studio apartment. Having basic things you needed to move into a new apartment was something they did not fully prepare for. “We went to Spectrum, set up the wi-fi,” Johnson said. “It was so new! We had to buy a bunch of stuff, and I didn’t expect how much people need just to live on their own. I was not expecting the responsibilities.”

Johnson now spends her days keeping tabs on her schoolwork in a color-coded notebook, checking off the coursework she still needs to complete at Palm Academy in order to graduate. I couldn’t help but think about her as a counterexample to the idea that success was something that needed to be cultivated day in, day out. For some students, having academic liabilities can sharpen their focus, push them to turn them into opportunities.

“Michelle was a really tough kid when she came to Palm, with a very hard exterior. She had a very fixed mindset about herself and her abilities and who she was as a person,” Coronado High School assistant principal Miriam Tullgren said. Tullgren runs the Palm program off-site in a building nestled between the fire station and tennis courts on D Avenue. “Little by little, pieces chipped away when she saw that every one of us was there for her best interest and support.”

Tullgren saw a significant change in Johnson after she started working and living on her own: “She moved out of her house and began paying bills, rent. She was taking care of somebody else, taking care of a dog.” And it was this increase in responsibilities that finally pushed Johnson into a state of self-sustaining adulthood.

A few years ago, I attended a luncheon for California newspaper publishers at which the keynote speaker was Steve Lopez. The story about his discovery of former Juilliard cellist Nathaniel Ayers living on the streets was turned into a movie called The Soloist. Robert Downey, Jr. played Lopez and Jamie Foxx played Ayers.

Lopez spoke in self-deprecating tones about all the ways he stumbled into jobs for which he wasn’t really qualified but ended up succeeding anyway. As he turned to address the young journalists in the ballroom, it was clear this was one of those generation gap moments. It was anachronistic, because for the young to succeed today means having to cultivate one’s image from an early age.

Many students applying to college today have been trained to think of themselves as packages. Their achievements, experiences, and struggles tick off boxes that are meant to make them more attractive college candidates. Volunteer at special-needs wing of the pediatrics hospital? Check. Five Advanced Placement classes during junior year? Check. Overcome a torn ACL, which is proof of that intangible known as grit? Check.

William James was also known for his philosophy of pragmatism, which states that something is true if it works. Therefore, if checking all the right boxes to get into good schools makes you a qualified person, it is therefore true that a qualified person checks off all the right boxes. It sounds rather circular, because it is. For many young people, the logic goes, “I want to be successful because being successful is something I’m supposed to want.” Even if they don’t know what that means.

But box-checking leads to a kind of intellectual flabbiness; the more everyone plays by the same playbook, the more everyone tends to look and sound the same. For some of my students, there is a running joke about the butterfly collection. In order to get into a choice university, you need impeccable grades, impressive extracurriculars, and something curated and quirky, such as a butterfly collection. The roteness of student success for the past couple years has not escaped the attention of college admissions staff. The University of California now has students responding to four out of eight Personal Insight Questions, instead of relying on longer personal statements, which can read as overly scripted. Other schools such as Hofstra University and George Washington University have made SAT and ACT scores optional.

In August 2017, a group of 15 academics from Ivy League schools wrote an open letter to students headed to college around the country. Their message: “The danger any student — or faculty member — faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink.”

While the phenomenon these academics were describing was related to on-campus speech, the “vice of conformism” begins long before students enter college campuses. For many, it might begin with the idea that success is a neatly grooved track of AP Everything, college, career, retirement, death.

Joe Molenaar, a senior at Coronado High School, is compulsively creative. Our interviews only got rolling when he found an acoustic guitar in my classroom. He would talk, play some Chet Atkins, de-tune the guitar, play another song, re-tune the guitar, read a poem, share a video.

He’s unconventional, but not in the most obvious sense of the word. He’s not the weirdo with the rubber horse mask who stands still in the hallway during passing period, or the kid who makes prank videos on YouTube or has a spicy meme handle on Snapchat. His definition of success is much more nebulous.

Being a child means to some degree knowing how to perform for adults. Many high schoolers perform for adults by attempting to answer that eternally frustrating question, “So, what do you want to do with your life?” By junior year, many students have memorized their lines, and believe them to varying degrees. As for Molenaar? “Don’t know,” he answered with a chuckle. At least he’s honest. For many of his peers, “I don’t know” is worse than a wrong answer; it’s having no answer at all. Some would rather lie than have no answer. For now, he’s fine pursuing his love for music and ballet, the latter of which he is considering studying more seriously after high school.

Molenaar is about 6’4”, with a barrel chest and trunk-like torso. He keeps his brown hair shaggy and rolls his baggy khakis at the ankle to show off kitschy socks. He’s mostly quiet in his classes. But every month since sixth grade, he has released a new music album on BandCamp through the handle Mortal Bicycle, ranging from experimental noise, to metal, to post-rock. Mortal Bicycle, though, is not just him, but a catch-all for anyone who plays with him. Some songs feature his siblings and friends; others are snippets of noodling about with some musical kink he’s currently indulging. Right now, he’s really into tritones and chromatic progressions, and his music often takes on a dissonant profile. He’s also a ballet dancer for San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, where he played the role of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in April.

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and Balboa Park is thrumming with activity. A group of bearded hipsters (ironically?) toss bean bags into a corn hole near the Moreton Bay fig tree behind the Natural History Museum. A colorful band of mariachi performers accompanies a pretty girl on her quinceañera photo shoot in front of the Casa Del Prado theater. Upstairs, in Room 201, Molenaar is in black tights, a white paisley bandana over his brow. He is working with his ballet instructor Justin Flores on the male variation of the peasant pas de deux from Giselle.

“Ballet dancers are probably the top athletes of the world,” Molenaar says. “More so than Olympic athletes, because they’re training six, seven days a week for 12-hour days. You have to be physically there, or else you can’t do it. And you’re always thinking about where you are in space.”

It’s a physical routine, requiring jump after jump. As Flores walks Molenaar through the piece, he talks him through the fatigue.

“Watch the looking down. Looking up helps your line look clean.”

“At the end of the double tour, stand plié.”

“Bada-DAH-da-da...DAH-dada-dada--coupé.

“It’s 59 seconds of your life.”

Halfway through, a tourist bearing a giant camera peeks his head in. He asks if he can snap a photo. Flores politely rebuffs him. At the end of the rehearsal, Molenaar is wiped. He’s stretched out on the floor breathing heavily.

“Make sure that if something goes wrong,” Flores says, “you don’t broadcast it.”

In a 1998 profile by Joan Acoccela in the New Yorker, the Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov said, “You ask me what’s happened in my life, why and how I did this and that. And I think and tell, but it’s never true story, because everything is so much more complicated, and also I can’t even remember how things happened. Whole process is boring. Also false, but mostly boring.”

Telling someone else about your own life for someone who values authenticity is ultimately inauthentic because you have to make the boring unboring and the banal dramatic.

“I don’t remember my childhood very much,” Molenaar said. In elementary school, he was mean to the other kids. “I started ballet in the third grade, so I was taught discipline there. I respected the authority of the teachers, but the kids, I didn’t really care about them.”

The youngest of seven children, Molenaar was born in Camptown, Maryland, which didn’t appear on a map. His official birthplace was listed as Annapolis. His father retired as a Chief Warrant Officer in the Navy and soon after he was born the family moved to Coronado. His mother makes costumes for his ballet studio. His siblings Chris, Eric, and Danica all play music together in an ensemble that included the Irish fiddle, piano, guitar, and drums. He picked up the guitar after he became obsessed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the sixth grade, listening and memorizing all their songs, down to the B-sides no one knew.

Middle schools are often regimented spaces, simply because there is such a wide developmental spectrum from sixth to eighth grade. Like many preteen boys, Molenaar chafed at the structured environment set up to groom him for academic success. He blew off his homework, went to crappy punk shows in Lemon Grove with his friend Grant, and soon after he began to record Mortal Bicycle. To date, he has 90 albums up on his BandCamp site, with cheeky titles like I Have Hearts for Hands/The Moon is My Penis and Raw Borneo.

“I never wanted to be like anybody else, because why would you want to be like anybody else?” Molenaar said. “They already exist; you don’t have to be a second one.”

Mortal Bicycle’s tracks are loops of Molenaar’s experiences. In ninth grade, he wrote an album called Dolphins, with the track “It’s All I Got.” The intro, which has a steely guitar track played by his brother, was an homage to Beck’s “Loser.” There’s a jaunty horns section in the middle. The lyrics came from scribbles he jotted down during an in-school suspension for trying to cut school in the seventh grade. It samples and references former Microsoft executive and LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer.

Any performer knows that there are no excuses for on-stage errors. And on the stage of high school, like that of the ballet, you don’t broadcast to the audience if something goes wrong. There’s a concept in professional wrestling called “kayfabe.” It’s an old carny term without a definite meaning, but it essentially means doing all you can to keep the belief in the show going. The audience knows the wrestlers are faking it. The wrestlers know they’re faking it. But both suspend their belief for two hours to enjoy the drama and spectacle of the show. To break the performance by asking your opponent if he’s all right during a botched piledriver is to break kayfabe. In the 1980s, wrestlers who were considered mortal enemies like Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik went out of their way not to be seen together in public. The kayfabe was broken when both were pulled over by cops during a routine traffic stop. They didn’t know which was worse: that they had cannabis and coke on them, or that their fans read about their riding together in a car.

For high school students, junior year is when the wheels come off the wagon, when the kayfabe breaks. Perfect students get their first “B” since fifth grade as they face the crushing all-nighters preparing for battery of AP, SAT, and ACT tests. Less-than-perfect students are forced to confront their lack of preparedness for the future. For Molenaar, the wheels came off in junior year after he met with his counselor about his future plans.

“For a long time, I didn’t know what I really cared about,” Molenaar said. “Then I came to the conclusion, ‘Maybe I care about nothing.’ That was really unhealthy and it took me to a dark place.” For someone who grew up in a family with a sarcastic sense of humor, the resounding earnestness of “Maybe I care about nothing” blindsided him. He told himself maybe he cared about music, but knew it would be extremely hard to break out.

“It’s the suppression of not wanting to think about college. It was way too overwhelming to me, for where I was,” Molenaar said. “Looking back, I should have thought about that while I was still there.”

He cooped himself up in his room and listened to Bon Iver and heroin-era John Frusciante just about every day. “I didn’t want anything to do with anybody, I just wanted to be alone,” he said, “which is obviously very unhealthy.”

He had vivid recurring dreams and wrote dark poetry full of smallness and oblivion. Molenaar has mostly emerged from his self-imposed headspace, but reading the poems out loud to me, it was clear he was still dealing with something still fresh.

A short story by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh called “Appetite” captures the generational sentiment of zero-sum exceptionalism. In the story, the protagonist is a line cook in a diner and recalls his graduation ceremony. He’s listening to the valedictorian make a pandering speech about how college, the armed forces, and the workforce were somehow equal when they were clearly not so. He comes to a bleak realization:

“Sitting in the audience with five hundred other students, I had the unsettling awareness that I had already been consigned to a life of mediocrity by the very fact that I had not been the one chosen to stand on the podium. There was only one chance at having that happen in one’s life, and I had missed it. Nothing could make up for that now. I would forever be indistinguishable from all the others who had not been chosen. I was just one of five hundred. One of five hundred million. I am the addressee, I kept thinking as the valedictorian droned on. I will always be the addressee.”

For most of my students, this story summed up their fears succinctly: Either you’re exceptional, or you’re a bum. There’s no middle way.

In her new book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us, professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State documents the emergence of a post-Millennial generation, iGen. Born in 1995 and later, this generation is partly defined by its “slow life strategy, common in times and places where families have fewer children and cultivate each child longer and more intensely.” This contrasts with a “fast life strategy, where families are larger and parents focus on subsistence rather than quality.” The Boomer generation, by way of contrast, had a faster life strategy, which meant they grew up faster, too.

This generation of teens also saw a sharp spike in depression in a short amount of time: “56% more teens experienced a major depressive episode in 2015 than in 2010, and 60% more experienced severe impairment.” Twenge’s book draws a correlation between these trends and a connected lifestyle: “at least some of the sudden and large increase in depression has been caused by teens spending more time with screens.”

But other factors could certainly contribute to these numbers. Teens could be more open to being honest about their emotional profiles, teachers and counselors could be better trained to look for red flags, and everyone gets a little depressed or fearful when they are on the cusp of a major life change.

Students at this point are so tired of seeing social media being connected to their downfall that they tune it out, in the same way my generation rolled our eyes at Tipper Gore’s Washington Wives as they tried to tie explicit content in music to delinquent behavior. But for Johnson, there is some truth to the deleterious effects of social media.

“I think young people today don’t realize what’s going to hit them in the future,” Johnson said. “Every new high school class, every middle school class, they’re expecting what’s on social media. They’re not prepared to do their own thing, they just want to be like everybody else.”

Her generation, she believes, isn’t scared to take risks, but scared to take the right risks. They’re not too scared be reckless, but they’re too scared to think about defining their own futures.

However we view success today, it’s important to remember to be consistent in how we view youthful indecision or inaction. After all, wasn’t it the Boomers who popularized the quote from Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost?” And didn’t we laud Kerouac for his and his friends’ rovings in On the Road? Haven’t we all seen the Dustin Hoffman movie, The Graduate? That scuba scene alone should resonate with any junior or senior in high school right now. The claustrophobia and isolation caused by the pressure to succeed should sound relatable.

Though Johnson and Molenaar embody different modes of the word, “success,” both are haunted by its prescriptive assertion that they had to check all the right boxes. Johnson seems to be interested in a different set of boxes entirely, while Molenaar isn’t, for the moment, going to commit to any set before his mind is made up.

And, in this time of school awards that can feel like a list of the haves and have-mores, they should receive some credit for being honest with themselves. In demanding that the young know their roadmap before they’re ready, we expect our youth to be wise before they are old.

Perhaps, in their own way, these two realize the truth Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes more than we: “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?”

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Nice story. It's hard to know who you are under any circumstances, but these kids seem to have real ideas about that and are going for it. I wish them well.

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