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Posted at 6:38 PM ET, 12/ 8/2009

Superachievers on board

By editors

By Patricia Haviland

Like many Northern Virginia moms, I spend a lot of my day behind the wheel as the family chauffeur. Consequently, I do a lot of staring at the rear-ends of everyone else’s cars. I used to pass the time deciphering vanity license plates and assessing the bumper-sticker politics of Volvo drivers. But lately I’ve set my sights a bit higher, and what I’ve discovered about Northern Virginia among the rows of rear-window defogger wires isn’t pretty.

You know those résumés our children have been building since preschool soccer? Well, they’re spilling onto our roads, where it seems every other rear window now comes plastered with the grade-point average and extracurricular activities of another high school superachiever. What are these families thinking? That a college admissions officer might pull up behind them at a traffic light? That future success is correlated with dangerously reduced rear visibility?

Do morning motorists on Interstate 66 really care that Johnny attends Thomas Jefferson High and was a Kilmer Middle School honor student, or that he competed in district band auditions as a freshman, placing first in harp? Last week I saw a car weighed down with so many high school activities it made me feel as though I was raising pikers. The parents were obviously proud, as the list was centrally positioned for periodic dusting off by the back wiper blade.

While I was pondering how these kids found time to sleep, the driver suddenly jumped to the head of the left-turn lane, cutting me off. At which point another thought occurred to me: Do superachievers and their parents feel some sense of entitlement? As I scanned the list again, I started to detect a hint of résumé-padding — concert band, marching band, jazz band. What’s next? Church band? Hospital band?

You can’t blame the kids, though. Northern Virginia children are introduced to the fine art of résumé-building before they’re potty-trained. After all, they need a perfect Apgar score to get into Little Da Vinci Montessori. More important, Virginia universities are notoriously competitive and disproportionately small, turning the in-state application process into blood sport.

This is especially true in the northern blue zone for those ranking below the top 10th of their graduating class. Even 4.0ers from cream-skimming TJ get sweaty palms when applying to the University of Virginia, William and Mary and Virginia Tech. For an applicant to stand out, every waking moment of his or her life has to be accounted for with after-school activities and community involvement.

More alarming, the competition no longer ends at undergraduate acceptance. My daughter, a biology major at U-Va., recently attended a meeting for hundreds of pre-med students. To drive home a point about competition and how medical schools seek geographical diversity, the professor asked the Northern Virginia students to raise their hands. Some 95 percent of those in the auditorium grew up in Virginia’s northern suburbs. In such a climate, is it any wonder that some of our cars have become rolling endorsements of our children?

It’s sad how much life has changed since my husband and I were happy-go-loafer high school seniors, finishing up our final semester with courses in cooking, sewing and shop. The amazing thing is how useful those skills turned out to be. It seems a shame that such practical lessons as rewiring lamps have given way to the competitiveness of our times. Not so long ago it was considered exceptional for a student to complete two or three college-level Advanced Placement courses in high school. Now, they often start in as sophomores and, by senior year, are carrying full AP loads, burning the candle at both ends.

High school has become a test of endurance. Our youth lack sleep, forgo fun and live in fear that they will get sick and fall behind. Yes, they should be congratulated, especially when they excel beyond their peers. For that reason alone, I’m willing to overlook a few prideful lines of back-window bragging.

But, parents, a little restraint, please. We can start by parking some of our parental pride back home where it belongs — on a cluttered refrigerator right next to Johnny’s aging kindergarten artwork. But let’s make sure our kids know they are more to us than just the sum of their grades and activities.

By editors  | December 8, 2009; 6:38 PM ET
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Great point overall. It's hard to keep things in a good perspective...if teenagers want to go to particular colleges, they have to do all that's "required," which is seemingly endless. If they do less, they might not end up at the school they want...though who knows, that may be healthier in the long run. At some point the rat race has to stop in favor of having healthy and happy kids.

Posted by: anon82 | December 9, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

and what's up with folks putting stick figure representations of their family on the back of the car, to include pets? Really, what the heck is that all about?

Posted by: permagrin | December 10, 2009 6:55 AM | Report abuse

NoVa, and the DC area in general, are very "status" oriented, i.e. people are very concerned about their social-economical status and how they are perceived here. I read not that long ago that we have the most educated workforce in the country here, not to mention great schools and a high median income. Achievement is a very big deal. This is passed on to the kids.

It's funny. We are supposed to be a bunch of lazy, looking for handout liberals. But our kids are high achievers and you can't throw a rock without hitting someone with a Masters degree. Go figure.

Posted by: janeway1 | December 10, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

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