What was to be a thought-provoking night out turned out to be a haunting night instead, and I've barely had a full night's sleep since.
Discussions have been plentiful, whether in the gym, at the hairdresser's or shopping for groceries. Neighbors and friends are eager to talk about the Feb. 24 screening of "Race to Nowhere" in Chatham, and the follow-up panel discussion.
Complicated and profound questions now seem to arise from casual conversations daily. For example, "If everyone in an accelerated class is receiving remedial tutoring, is it an accelerated class?" "When does a boy become a man in the American culture?" "Is it okay for a kid to take a gap year or two before college?" "How long should the odyssey years last?"
In case you've been living on the periphery of the School District, "Race to Nowhere" is a documentary, introduced to the community by the School District of the Chathams' PTO groups. The film is about the enormous pressure society puts on kids to excel with hopes of getting into a great college, with the promise of guaranteed instant success, a fabulous life, and eternal prosperity.
Sarcasm aside, the most indelible contributor to the haunted evening at the middle school was panelist Dr. Richard Federici, a child psychologist in Chatham. In the film, the mother of a 13-year-old suicide victim claimed that there were no signs of her daughter's distress. Federici inferred that the mother wasn't paying attention. He said that there are always signs of impending suicide, and listed some symptoms of a suicidal teen. Ironically, some of the signs he noted were seemingly characteristic of most, if not every, teenager.
If that's not enough to impede slumber, perhaps the topic of the "odyssey years" will keep you counting sheep. New York Times columnist David Brooks coined the term "odyssey years" in 2007. The term refers to a new phase in life, which, for many reasons, catapults young people into a decade of wandering between adolescence and adulthood. In other words, 30 is the new 20.
The goal of the "Race to Nowhere" film's producer, Vicki Abeles, was to promote dialogue within communities. It appears as if she has succeeded in Chatham.
One mother of Chatham school children stopped me in Whole Foods and lamented over the fact that there really isn't a place for parents to easily make suggestions or comments to school administrators. She wanted to suggest that the School District of the Chathams have a "no homework night." Just for the fun of it.
Another parent was irate that the film was so biased, and felt that we should invite Amy Chua, the author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," to offer an opposing view for a fair and balanced discussion.
Just as the commotion was dying down, the film was featured on Tuesday's "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," which brought the discussion again to the forefront of community attention.
The film seems to be getting a reputation like other controversial challenges to our belief system. While originating with good intent, some concepts become rife with a backlash of cynicism and social stigma.
Some parents conscientiously objected to the film's general message, and had no interest in subsequent discussions. Other parents continued the dialog at follow-up PTO sponsored breakout sessions in March.
Regardless of one's personal position on who really puts the pressure on school kids, the fact that we have a heightened awareness of these issues and can freely discuss our concerns with parents and school administrators is an important step for education in Chatham. The main beneficiaries will ultimately be our children.
Before I try to catch up on some sleep, I'll leave you with one more question that came up in a chat session: "Are there more Type-A personalities in New Jersey than any other state?"