Natalie wanted to succeed.
In junior high, the Oakland native trudged through hours of homework, while juggling soccer practice, tennis lessons and Hebrew school three times a week.
By the time she got to high school, the pressure to get straight A’s pushed her to stop eating. Instead, she fueled her body with caffeine or ADD drugs just to stay awake.
“I figured out that not eating would give me more energy,” Natalie says in the documentary “Race to Nowhere.”
“I could stay up later from the insomnia and could get so much done at night. But it still wasn’t enough time.”
Natalie’s ordeal is just one example of the problems with the high-pressure, standardized-test-centric “achievement culture” infiltrating schools nationwide, according to “Race to Nowhere” filmmaker Vicki Abeles of Lafayette.
Abeles, an attorney and Jewish mother of three, was compelled to make the documentary when she saw what her own children were up against in the classroom and after the last bell rang at school.
“I didn’t think when I had kids that I would only see them for 20 minutes at dinner,” Abeles, a member of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah, says in the film. “I started to see the toll the schedule and stress was taking on them … and I wanted to understand what was going on.”
The result is “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary about the stresses faced by American students and their educators in a system and culture obsessed with the achievement, competition and pressure to perform.
It turns a spotlight on clusters of students — many in the Bay Area — who have been pushed to the academic brink; on teachers who are burned out and worried students aren’t developing the skills they need in test-focused environments; and on parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids, though often to their detriment.
“I wanted to do something that would give students a voice,” Abeles said during a phone interview. “I also wanted to capture the power of the media in a positive way. This was an investigation. I didn’t know what the story would be, but it turned into a powerful way to raise awareness to create the political will needed for change.”
“Race to Nowhere” is now being screened around the Bay Area at Jewish community centers, houses of worship, independent movie theaters and schools. Its narrative is a call to mobilize families, educators and policymakers to help disprove the notion that the educational system is “one-size-fits-all.”
The film is dedicated to Devon Marvin, a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide in 2008 after receiving a bad grade on a math test. The Bay Area teen always got straight A’s, her mother, Jane Marvin, says in the film. Devon saw B’s as failure.
“There were no signs,” a tearful Marvin says. “That’s what made it, and continues to make it, so scary. How could I let this happen? The only thing I could think of was this internal pressure.”
When Abeles, who produced and co-directed the film with editor Jessica Congdon, set out to make the film, her family was not going to be part of it. About a year into production, however, she was encouraged to add her own kids’ struggles to the mix.
Viewers are first introduced to the Abeles’ daughter Jamey, then in seventh grade, and son Zak, then in third. With every additional hour of homework tacked on to their already heavy workload, the kids’ health suffers.
They complain of headaches, stomachaches and anxiety. Jamey, who deals with bouts of depression during this time, wakes up in the middle of the night doubled over in pain. Vicki and her husband, Doug, rush her to the hospital emergency room, where doctors diagnose her ailments as stress-related.
This all occurs just after Jamey’s bat mitzvah. She sought guidance in the form of walks and trips to the frozen yogurt shop with Temple Isaiah clergy, Abeles said.
Of the hundreds of young subjects interviewed for the film, nearly all were impacted by the “achievement culture” that college-bound students are thrust into at an early age.
There’s Kelly, a senior at Monte Vista High School in Danville, who sees societal pressures to be “smart, pretty, athletic and artistic” as obstacles to finding one’s true identity. “You have to know yourself,” she says. “Because if you don’t, you will lose yourself.”
One high school student refers to high school as “preparation for the college application, not college.” A “race to nowhere” is how another describes the rush to achieve.
And then there are parents, many of whom push for better test scores and grades so their kids can compete for spots at top universities — not necessarily ones that match their child’s needs and learning abilities.
One mom in the film says she feels like a “prison guard.”
Naima Jahi-Coleman, an undergraduate admissions specialist at U.C. Berkeley, explains in the film that college is “big business” — the more applicants there are, the
more it increases a school’s reputation.
And universities are looking for the best.
“I have been a perpetrator of this madness in a sense because I’ve gone out and told kids, ‘You have to take this AP class or this honors class, and take as many as you can,’ ” Jahi-Coleman says. “We want to see if you’ve taken total advantage of the opportunities at your high school.
“I don’t think we realize the pressure and stress that are on these kids to perform. We just know the ultimate goal and what we want. We want the top students because we are a top institution. But I wonder sometimes at the expense of what?”
Renee MacDonald, 15, is a sophomore at Jewish Community High School of the Bay — but you wouldn’t know that by looking at her schedule.
In ninth grade, MacDonald took physics and loved it. She discovered that she could enroll in AP physics only if she was simultaneously signed up for AP calculus.
To solve the problem, MacDonald took an online version of Algebra II — the designated math course for sophomores — last summer and is currently taking honors pre-calculus. Next year’s schedule will include AP physics and AP calculus, courses normally reserved for seniors.
“I got super stressed out over the summer because I was taking a whole year’s worth of math online without a teacher,” MacDonald said. “I also got my [learner’s] permit and took a road trip. Everybody in my family told me to slow down, but once I start things, I don’t like to stop.”
Instead, MacDonald sought creative therapy in an eight-week comedic monologue writing class. It was there that she created a one-woman show, “Who Wants to be a Cal Student?” satirizing the rigorous requirements to get into her dream school, U.C. Berkeley.
“Those rants and exaggerations were based on personal struggles,” said MacDonald, who loves to act. “What am I doing? Is this really worth it? Why is the college admissions system the way it is? You have to be a super person to get in.”
In the Abeles household, conversations about school no longer focus on performance. They encourage the kids to have balance, and not take on too much academically or over-schedule extracurricular activities.
They urge their kids to go to bed, even if their homework isn’t finished.
“We should all feel empowered to say we need more balance,” Abeles said. “My kids have become advocates for themselves, but it’s unfortunate that so many young people can’t see past the end of the day or realize things are going to get better. These should be the best years of their lives.”
A screening of “Race to Nowhere” will be held 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14 at Bluelight Cinemas, 21275 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino. For additional times and locations, or to host a screening, visit www.racetonowhere.com.