Eyes still red and swollen, sniffling and dabbing at her nose with a well-used Kleenex, my newest student entered the classroom fifteen minutes late. She had been found hiding in the bathroom, crying her eyes out and trying to avoid meeting me.
“Yes, you can. Come, tell me what music you like.”
Today, I dealt with the first tug at my heartstrings by a student who has become so terrified of speaking English that she’s developed a complete inability to do so. The stressful period of preparing for le Bac, the French version of the SAT, had rendered this girl literally speechless. In an attempt to fix the problem before she must take the intense oral exams, we’ve begun private remedial tutoring sessions.
The surprising thing, though, is that this girl isn’t all that bad at English. In fact, she’s better than some of the other students I’ve encountered already this week. The stress of le Bac has blown her difficulties way out of proportion, and it’s all in her head.
Whether you’re in France or America, freaked-out students abound. As a perfectionist myself, I’m no stranger to school stress, and I have no doubt that it can be truly harmful to these kids. Of course, I preferred the “bottle it all up and then have a total mental breakdown the night before finals” approach to stress while in high school and college, but there are other students who spend every day completely freaking out about their studies. Are we putting too much pressure on our students to perform at the highest levels? Keep in mind, these French students are perhaps seventeen, and yet are preparing for one of the most difficult and important tests of their lives. It’s the same for American kids, who take the SAT or ACT their junior year of high school and thus decide their collegiate futures with one score. Pretty young to be planning one’s entire life.
I wonder if it’s the only way, or if the educational system will ever be modified to assess students at a later, more mature age. For now, all I can do is try to help my students as much as I can, and convince them that (gasp!) no matter the language, a bad grade is not the end of the world.