My delightful sister, Annie — the Queen of Seeing Through B.S. — posted this image on Facebook the other day:

Image provided by Ben Thomas, used with permission.


Leaving aside what you may or may not like about this image itself, it made me wonder:

What do standardized tests actually tell us?

Here’s what my sister — who is now 28 —  says:

"Dear 16-year-old Annie, you suck at standardized tests. In 10 years, no one will care, and your path in life will have nothing to do with your SAT score. Get graded now, and prove them wrong later."

Go, Annie.

My sister was always the social one.

While I was in my room with books as a kid, she was in hers with clothes in front of the mirror. When I was 12, I thought she was vapid and shallow.

What I didn’t realize is that she was systematically hypothesizing, testing, and analyzing what the Italians call la bella figura — the way she would present herself to the world. Her personal brand. She was doing this when she was 8. Younger, even.

Meanwhile, I invented imaginary continents, drew imaginary maps of them, populated them with imaginary cities full of imaginary people whose clothes and weapons I also drew, with elaborate ecosystems of fictional creatures whose life cycles I documented with all the loving detail of a field biologist.

Our home was 20 miles from the nearest significant town, and we were homeschooled.

We lived in a place called Wayside, Texas — except that there was no more Wayside, Texas. People abandoned the town back in the 1970s, leaving a dried-up ruin of concrete foundations and artifacts on which our brand-new house sat.

My hometown. Image provided by Ben Thomas, used with permission.

I used to have nightmares about running across those flat plains forever, getting nowhere. Sometimes I still have those dreams.

Every morning I’d wake up, microwave something for breakfast, and look over the index card that my mom had prepared with my assignments for the day: "Do math lesson 34. Do exercises 171 to 175 in English workbook. Read pp. 471–503 of history book."

12-year-old me would brew a nice cup of green tea and get down to business. Three or four hours later I’d be done, and I’d spend the rest of the afternoon designing my own role-playing games or digging up the archaeological ruins on our property or trying to learn to code in C++. Or watching music videos.

Annie on the other hand — let’s put the cards on the table: I thought she was dumb.

All day, she’d sit there with Mom, talking about her schoolwork.

She actually, physically asked questions when it was so much easier and faster to ask a book or the internet — not to mention that with books and the internet, you had direct access to the accumulated knowledge of 5,000 years of human memory. When you talked to Mom, you had access to — well — Mom. Annie also got very stressed when she had to take an exam.

This was another reason I thought Annie was dumb:

To achieve a "100" on an exam, I knew, all one had to do was create simple mnemonics, memorize the necessary information, then select the right answers on the exam. Or if it was an essay exam, just write the author’s arguments back to him or her in a slightly altered way. Simple. Like baking cookies.

Annie would cry about her exams, and I’d go up to my room, cranking up the Weezer or Chopin . I was certain nothing of value was transpiring in that pink, bookless wasteland of her room. She had so many stuffed animals they couldn’t fit on the bed.

Image via gfpeck/Flickr.

Now, everyone knows that when a kid arrays her stuffed animals on her bed and conducts a parliament with them, this is more than just play. This is the development of an important technology: the ability to infuse inanimate objects with aspects of one’s own consciousness, then interact with them to talk out a problem, wage battle among conflicting thought processes, or just shoot the shit with oneself. This process requires physical objects to which the consciousness-aspects can be assigned — it can’t be achieved within one’s own mind.

Thus, stuffed animals, dolls, action figures, fetishes, graven images and idols — they’re  all essential tools for a person trying to work something out. Clothes can work that way too; the trying on of different personas. But I just didn’t see it that way then.

At some point in all this, Annie and I both took our standardized tests.

In America they call it the SAT, but it's basically the same everywhere: battalions of tiny ovals on white pages, questions about "If A is to B as B is to C, then what is the relationship of C to A?" and "Would you say this passage is more perspicacious or percipient?" and "If George the intern deposits $3,750 in his account, and that’s 25% of his intern salary, then how much is his monthly pay?"

Monsters is what they are.

Image via Butz.2013/Flickr.

Every kid fears them. Except for me for some reason. I asked Mom if I could take them early. She said, "Sure, why not." I took the SAT — which you take when you graduate high school — at age 12 and scored high enough to get into a university right then. I asked Mom if that meant I could skip the rest of school and go straight to a university. She said, "No, you are not going to a university at age 12." I was too angry to see the wisdom there.

Annie put her SAT off as long as she could.

She did not enjoy the exam nor was she especially proud of her scores. But she scored well enough to get into a respectable university, where she studied brand communications and marketing and social dynamics and all the stuff she always played at up in her room in front of that mirror.

She went to Manhattan to be an actress for a while, got a lot of roles but wasn’t into it, came back to Texas, bounced from one job to another, fell in love, bought a house, adopted a diverse cast of dogs, and found her way to a laid-back desk job where she feels at home.

As for me, I lost patience at age 16.

I typed up a five-page proposal in which I detailed the reasons I should be allowed to skip the rest of high school and go to a university. I presented binders containing this proposal to my parents, who caved.

Image via State Farm/Flickr.

I was the only 16-year-old freshman at Texas Tech University. The university paper did a feature about me. I studied Latin and spent most of my time in the university’s five-story library, which was my favorite place in the world. I didn’t really have any friends. Sometimes people let me hang out with them. Mostly I hung out in the library. Or in my room at my parents’ house after the 20-mile drive home.

When I was 17, I talked my parents into letting me drop out of the classics program at Texas Tech so I could go study film in Los Angeles.

A lot happened after that: I worked as a courier, and a receptionist, and a mailroom guy, and a checkout guy, and a mailroom guy again, and a government-check-collector for a few months when medical marijuana had just become legal, and holy cow, did I get good at Starcraft.

Somewhere in there, though, a realization was forming: What the people with money actually want is skills.

Image via Fredrik Rubensson/Flickr.

Like, oh my god, it’s all about the actual practical ability to do useful things for other human beings!

And as for the ability to pencil in little ovals on a sheet of cardstock that corresponds to accurately constructed metaphors and vocabulary definitions …

Well, the only guarantee for that ability is that it promises you a place using those same skills somewhere else, filling out similar little cards behind a desk in a little red building.

All it guarantees is a place where, if you’re lucky, some kid might dig those cards up from under the West Texas dirt someday and squint at the markings on them under the summer sun and wonder just what in the hell those little slips of paper were for anyway.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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