Phyllis Fagel, a Middle School Counselor at Pyle MS in Bethesda, MD, has authored a fabulous article in The Washington Post on helping our middle school children gain self-awareness and reduce stress –
I invited my mother to visit me at work at 10 p.m. one night. I remember silently thanking the wild-haired young lawyer we spotted sobbing in the break room next to a plate of leftover Chinese food. It was 1996, when students were flocking to law school in droves. I had deferred my own admission to gain some real world experience, and within months of working in a law firm, I was plotting my escape. I struggled to explain this to my parents, and the disheveled lawyer’s presence was concrete evidence that my decision to forego law school was justified, maybe even common sense.
As a recent college graduate, I was grateful to have a job (especially one with free moo shu), but I had ended up at that firm through process of elimination. I came of age in the “Free to Be You and Me” era, when we were urged to find our bliss and identify the color of our parachute. We weren’t too wedded to specifics or to planning because we were certain we could be anything we wanted. For me, that was overwhelming, akin to ordering from The Cheesecake Factory menu. I remember taking a career inventory in high school that suggested I would be a very content florist.
I lacked direction even as a college senior, leading to a fair amount of angst. (I was a creative writing major, which didn’t help.) In the absence of clarity, I applied for everything. My first interview was with an investment bank, where an analyst asked me about financial metrics. At the end, he asked me whether banking still interested me. (Had it ever?) During a consulting interview, I had to determine whether it would be a sound business decision to open an ice cream parlor in Boston. After sorting through quantitative variables, I grew bored and told the interviewer I how like rocky road ice cream best when it is partially melted.
In hindsight, I know that my career exploration was completely normal. At the time, I plodded along, trying to figure out where my strengths and interests intersected. Along the way, I spent time in corporate cubicles, newsrooms and research firms, and I value all of these experiences.
Nearly 20 years later, I work as a counselor in a middle school in Bethesda, Md. My students’ daily experiences help them better understand what motivates and inspires them. In many respects, their early exploration is similar to my job quest, and this phase of their journey is as important.
But as a community, we are not making it easy for kids to take the risks that lead to self-discovery. The stress level among my 13 and 14-year-old students approximates what I saw several years ago when I counseled high school seniors. There is a sense that they need to follow a prescribed path, to perform well in every discipline. Parents and students fear that even middle school choices might have an impact on college admissions. As a result, when students earn a low grade or don’t like their math placement or get cut from a team, they can become unmoored. Intellectually, we know that no one needs to be good at everything. In practice, it can be hard to take the long view.