Years ago, as a junior-varsity baseball coach, I was once stunned by a player who had to remind me that he and his teammates—the people I was training—were only kids. I had just finished giving a pretty typical speech to my team, telling them that, over five years, I had 16 players who went on to play in college or professionally. And I gravely explained to all these teenage boys every aspect they needed to improve if they were going to join them at "the next level." When I was done, one of them said softly, "Coach, we’re only 15." They were just four years out of elementary school, and they wanted to play the game of baseball. They wanted to improve, of course, but one step at a time. A gifted minority of them took my lessons seriously, and they worked out on their own time; a few of them are still playing professionally today. But for most of them, they just wanted to be good JV players—and all this talk of college was making practice a grind. A few of them wanted to quit.
This year, I’m re-experiencing this revelation as a high school English teacher. I spent most of my career working with Advanced-Placement seniors who generally couldn’t wait for the next level; now, I’m teaching 10th- and 11th-grade students in "college-prep" classes, courses that are much less rigorous than the AP offerings, and I find myself blushing at my naive expectations. Most of them want to read and write as well as they're expected to at their grade level, but I see many of them overwhelmed by too much talk about careers—to the point that some of them want to quit. What’s worse, they don’t have the same option to fail as the baseball players did: If they want a paycheck, they’re going to have to play at the next level. Moreover, many of them lack the superstar role models that athletes get to watch every day. In fact, it seems to me that many high school students don’t even like, much less admire, the adult world.