By Kelly Meyerhofer of the Journal Sentinel Oct. 24, 2014
Nicolet High School senior Sammi Castle juggles three Advanced Placement courses, an internship, two honors classes, four extracurricular clubs and two sports.
Winter is Castle’s off-season, but a soccer boot camp is starting next week. This “strongly encouraged” program runs twice a week until as late as 10 p.m. even though the season does not start until March.
She’s also in the midst of completing seven college applications.
“Everyone’s driven,” Castle said. “But everyone’s also sick of it.”
Welcome to the life of a Nicolet High School student — and a jam-packed schedule that has become, for many high-achieving high school students, all too typical.
Kenneth Ginsburg spoke this week to Nicolet, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay High School students about how to handle the stress and expectations attached to their diplomas. And although his message was geared to the trio of high-performing North Shore high schools, it would have resonated across the metro area in suburban schools that cater to families that are comparatively affluent.
Ginsburg’s overarching concern: How do students deal with issues like drinking, drugs, depression and eating disorders — all of which show up at a higher rate than in urban and middle class districts, according to studies.
Ginsburg has studied youth resiliency as a pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for the past two decades. He teaches what he calls the “seven crucial C’s” — competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control — which emphasize building strong relationships and developing healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety. He stresses that the goal is not to create successful high school students, but to create successful adults for whom high school was part of the journey.
Ginsburg’s appearance was the latest activity by RedGen, a group of North Shore parents, administrators and mental health professionals that promotes balance and wellness in area youth. The group was created in the wake of three back-to-back suicides on the North Shore in 2013.
Ginsburg reminded students: “You have control over how your parents view you. Let them know who you are beyond your grades and awards.” And he told parents to show love that is unconditional.
Ginsburg also encouraged students to pursue fields that interest them, not ones they are expected to pursue.
“You don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer,” Ginsburg said. “The world needs plumbers and poets.”
Students seemed unconvinced, given that Ginsburg himself is a doctor. But then he shared his own story.
Ginsburg struggled with attention deficit disorder and experimented with drugs. He spent a year of high school planning to kill himself. He did not get into his first-choice medical school. Even with these setbacks, Ginsburg is now renowned in his field and teaches at an Ivy League medical school.
“Everything works out,” he said. “You have to believe it.”
When Ginsburg asked students at his appearance how many feared a B+, he was greeted by uncomfortable laughter.
“This is the time to fail,” he reassured them.
For many students, that’s a hard sell.
“The time to fail was earlier,” said Martin Plunkett, a junior at Nicolet. “High school determines the level of success you will have in the future.”
Plunkett, who balances seven clubs, four AP classes and two sports, said he feels the need to live up to his sister, a freshman at Stanford.
He’s not alone.
In an anonymous survey, Whitefish Bay High School students selected “feeling over-pressured” as their No. 1 concern among 42 options for the past two years. The school switched to a different survey this year, in which students are identified by name.
Exactly what administrators will do with these results is undecided, but Principal Bill Henkel said there will be some form of intervention with students in the danger zone.
RedGen volunteer David Songco said no one expects easy answers.
“The goal (of Ginsburg’s speech) wasn’t to change the culture,” Songco said. “That’s impossible. But let’s pull back the curtain and talk about what’s behind it.”