I bet you remember your fourth grade class play. I remember mine. I was a string bean, and I got to say a few lines about the importance of Sun, Wind and Water (all played by classmates of mine) in keeping me green and growing. Each class got up on stage and performed its little vignette. Then, all of the classes gathered together for a rousing song, sung badly. It was fun, the parents got to watch us, and it didn’t impinge too much on our lives. Oh! How times have changed!
My daughter’s upcoming class play at our local public school is quite a different story. It’s not run by the teachers, who would tend to use classroom time to integrate performance and education. Instead, it’s run by the PTA and, in my affluent, driven community, that’s your danger signal right there. Not only are we doing an abbreviated version of a Broadway show, we’re clearly not the only school in this market. The show’s copyright holder markets a junior version specifically for these small fry, suburban productions.
There’s a fee to participate in the show. I anticipated something like this, but assumed it would be a $25 or $50 fee to cover prop and costume expenses. In fact, the fee is $100, and part of it goes to pay the young, at-the-beginning-of-his-career producer the PTA hired for the production. Yes, our 8 and 9 year olds are going to get a professional producer to guide them through the intricacies of their junior version of a (somewhat inappropriate, albeit charming) Broadway production.
The rehearsal schedule is stringent: up to three afternoons a week for the leading roles, beginning in December and going through until Spring, when the show is ready for public consumption. I’m grateful that my daughter is too young for a starring role.
In my neighborhood, the parents are dismayed about the demands of this production, but we’re gamely going through with it because it is the school play and because it is an important part of the school social dynamics for our children. I wonder if that’s the attitude in all the neighborhoods. Are all parents distressed but just hopping on board because there doesn’t seem to be an alternative? Or are we a low functioning neighborhood, totally at odds with other parents in the school community? Are these others disappointed that the play is a junior version, and not the full length Broadway musical? It would be ironic if this were a Gift of the Magi situation, where everyone is assuming its what the other wants, and all of us are making ridiculous sacrifices based on these assumptions. (And yes, I know the Gift of the Magi analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s close.)
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of soccer. Our community, like so many suburban communities across America, has a recreational soccer league. My kids are in the rec league. They’re fairly good players and have a lot of fun. It used to be that the league bifurcated into two divisions — serious and recreational — when the kids were about ten or eleven. A few years ago this division dropped down to nine years old. This year, the league instituted the serious/non-serious player bifurcation at age 8. Thus, some of the eight year olds are being channeled into a group that practices four hours a week, six months a year, with a professional coach. Then, these eight year olds compete against nine year olds who practice three hours a week, for six weeks, with a parent volunteer. It’s no contest. The one year age differential is irrelevant against all that training, and the nine year olds are soundly trounced.
Aside from the fact that this didn’t seem like a very equitable division of talent, parents are extremely worried about the downward trend of pressure on these kids. We like the idea of recreational soccer where the kids get wonderful exercise, learn skills, get teamwork and have competitive fun. We’re much less thrilled about the new level of physical and mental stress being put on little girls and boys. It’s beginning to seem like gymnastics all over again: grim faced children going through drills that would make hardened pro football players cry. We’re also worried about increased injury risks. It’s bad enough when a grown man or woman breaks a bone on the field executing a difficult play. What about that same injury to a growing 8 year old, especially when the injury implicates a growth plate?
Most of us moved to these suburbs to get what’s “best for our children.” Now, though, the “best” is beginning to seem like a problem in itself. The relentless pressure to maximize these children’s capabilities is bad enough when it comes from driven parents who victimize only their own children. It becomes downright scary when it comes from driven school or recreational districts that force on families the choice either to participate in activities that seem physically or mentally inappropriate, or to be left out of the community altogether.