My oldest daughter stayed home sick today. She’s never in her life been sickly, but recently she’s shown some signs. It started in early August, as she entered tenth grade, with a cold that morphed into bronchitis. She’s an honor student on an IB track. She’s smart, but not gifted. She works hard to get good grades. She’s also a year-round soccer player. However, unlike academics, she’s a gifted athlete. Still, thanks to her strong work ethic, she works hard at soccer too. Her club team this fall is not good. It’s a new team with no familiarity and zero chemistry in a season when college scouts come to games. At school she’s taking physics and is struggling mightily with it. Something’s just not clicking. She’s stressed. I see it. And it seems like that stress is manifesting as physical illness.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like she’s bedridden. She has played all but one game (her last game) with bronchitis and has performed admirably in spite of the circumstances. Another parent even remarked last weekend how he felt bad for her because he thought she should be on a better team. At school she’s doing great in everything except physics. And not being able to master it is taking its toll.

I sense her mounting pressure to conform. When you’re on a bad team, you don’t get noticed, and you don’t get a scholarship. When you fail a class, you screw up your GPA and you don’t get into the right college to take the right major to get the right job with the right car and the right house and a perfect husband and two beautiful daughters that you raise to do the same things you did. “It’s the machine,” I told her this morning. “And you have to understand that everything you’re going through right now will A) pass, and B) not matter in a few years. Hell, I can’t even recall one teacher’s name from my high school years. And it’s not because I’m old, or that I went to five high schools, but rather that it turned out … it wasn’t that important. The best thing you can take away from high school is how you handle adversity. Because it’s all around you. You’ve just got to forget about all the big plans they shove down your throat, do the best you can, and then let things go. You’ll be amazed at the outcome.”

So of course she’s now at her grandmother’s house wrapped in a blanket, studying. It’s pervasive, man–this need to conform. Despite having a father who talks up the alternative. Despite parents who met under the most amazing circumstances, light years away from following the book of life. These pressures are real and they can kick your ass and control your life if you’re not careful.

It’s heartbreaking to have watched such a beautiful child so full of wonder and imagination morph so quickly and seamlessly into a teenager who feels the same kind of pressure as a CEO.

The machine is real. Even for tenth graders. And by God I will not sit by and watch it pull people I love away from me. Long ago I convinced her mother, which gives me hope she’ll consider the alternative path when everyone else is falling into line.



James Mitchem

Dear Cubs Fans
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Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.