Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving and the PSLE

There is an interesting contrast happening today (Thursday). Back in the U.S., they are celebrating Thanksgiving. It is the busiest time of the year for airports, highways, and transportation systems. Everyone is trying to get home to their families, because this is a time to celebrate the fact that we have a family, that we are part of a family, and that “family” is an important thing. It was Robert Frost, the American poet, who said: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Home is the one last refuge from unrealistic expectations.

As all of you will know, in Singapore it is also the day when the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam) results are made known. Young Grade 6 students far and near will find out how well they did in this all-important examination. Can they now go to the high school of their choice, or will they instead go to a school with some lesser perceived value? The PSLE, from what I’ve come to understand since my arrival a short time ago, is something that is much more likely to bring anxiety than to relieve it, much more likely to cause stress than to dissipate it. It is a marker for what is expected, both now and into the future. There is no refuge from expectations when it comes to this unique and inescapable academic rite of passage.

Since I have not experienced the PSLE (I don’t want to, thank you) and since I’ve not been a parent of a student who has experienced it, I cannot fully perceive the potent power of the PSLE. What I have heard, however, are the views of older Singaporeans who say: “Oh, yes. We had that exam. But our parents just told us to study. They did not stress over it, and we did not stress very much either. We just took it.” Apparently at that time, this exam was pretty much like any other exam: probably difficult, but okay if you studied what you were told to study. And most students had a pretty good notion of how they were going to do on it anyway, because they knew themselves better than their parents.

There seems to be a lot written about today’s phenomenon of PSLE frenzy, some of it self-propagating. The government seems to be trying to tone down the volume a bit, which is a good thing. Others say that parents will now just have to find other ways of determining the best schools for their children. That is also a good thing, because perhaps they will stop for a minute and really think about what is going on. Young people are not little adults, miniature versions of themselves. They need to be good young people before they can be good adults. Expecting them to be adults (“Act like an adult!”) or to have adult expectations of themselves (“If you fail this, you will not be able amount to anything!”) is as unrealistic as it is sad. Expectations should be an invitation, and perhaps even a stretch goal. But they should draw out, not push in. Let kids be kids. The rest of life will be here soon enough.

Let’s stretch our expectations of ourselves. Let home be home. Let home feel like home. Let home be the place where you know they will take you in, PSLE results and all. Meanwhile, pass the turkey.