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Putting Their Heads Together

On a fall afternoon, I sat down with four Cicero-North Syracuse High School seniors to talk about strategies for school success: Anna Bruzgulis (ranked first out of our graduating class of 787), Edwina Kisanga (third), Julie Hauberg (fifth), and Brittany Paul (sixth).

Within minutes of meeting these girls, it becomes clear how a simple number does not do them justice. Anna has a black belt in karate and took ballet. Edwina plays several musical instruments and relishes writing a novel each November during National Novel Writing Month. Brittany and Julie, both keen athletes, are members of the varsity girls basketball team, which won the New York State Championship last year.

I asked: What qualities do you need to be successful in school?

Be self-motivated. All of them described going beyond what is required. They stay after school with teachers to get help, review test questions they got wrong, and read up on topics of interest. But they do it because they want to. None of them feels pressured by their parents, although their families encourage them to do their best. For Edwina, this self-motivation is particularly important: “For me, everyone sees the color of my skin. People don’t think black people are smart. Or a lot of people don’t.” Her internal drive allows her to push beyond society’s prejudice and achieve her highest potential.

Be persistent. Anna insisted that any student in the school could be No. 1 in the class. As an immigrant, she admits, she worked hard from the start, as she had to master two languages, Russian and English. But all of the girls described moments when the work was challenging. When this happens, the kids who do well are the ones who stick it out, even in the face of frustration.

Edwina warned, “You can be as naturally smart as you want, but if you have so much pride that you can’t ask for help when you don’t understand, then you’re not ever going to get very far.” Mistakes become lessons, not reasons to give up. Julie sees a bad grade as a “wake-up call.” And these girls are not the sort to make the same mistake twice. Additionally, they don’t let a mismatch with a teacher stop them. If they don’t respond to a teacher’s style, they take the initiative to seek help from others or study the information on their own.

Be independent. What if there is a conflict with a teacher? All of the girls described how their parents help them talk through their approaches to conflicts, but their parents insist that they talk to the teacher themselves. These parents taught their daughters to be their own advocates and see both sides of the story. The girls agreed that it’s easy for a parent to be biased, but forcing a child to talk to the person in question makes it less easy for the child to lay the blame at someone else’s door. And all agree this has made them more mature.

Pay attention. Anna suggests that there’s a component to doing well that’s about thinking like the test-maker, whether that’s the state or your teacher. Brittany adds that it’s really about paying attention in class. A lot of what shows up on the test is what is discussed.

Achieve balance. Julie and Brittany, both avid athletes, describe friends who forget schoolwork during basketball or softball seasons. Others choose social lives over grades. These girls have full, rich lives filled with sports, friends, music and other activities, but they don’t let their studies suffer. They even watch TV. (Edwina squealed, “Barney taught me English!”) But it’s about setting priorities. Anna says she hangs out with friends a lot—except for the two weeks in May when AP tests are given. These girls know how to get the work done while still enjoying the rest of their lives.

Feel accomplished. Sometimes, even with the amount of dedication and intelligence these girls possess, a perfect 100 is out of reach. Their parents help them see that as long as they do their best, the grade doesn’t matter. Edwina argued that she would prefer to study hard and earn a 90 than breeze by and get a 100. The grade is less important than the feeling of accomplishment.

Feed curiosity. Perhaps the quality that most makes these girls more than a ranking is their unabashed love of knowledge. Anna exclaimed, “I have to learn all there is to know. If there is information out there, why not learn about it?” Julie added, “I’m all about the why.” Their biggest advice to parents? Nurture your children’s curiosity. Ask them questions. Let them ask questions. Encourage them to jump into something, even if it seems beyond their reach. Let them experience as much as possible and don’t control their choices. Give them the freedom, trust, space and support to pursue their interests the way they want.

All of the girls credit their families with supporting this thirst for knowledge and giving them the space to pursue it. Brittany remembers how her father, a gym teacher and football coach, had her try out just about every sport to see which she liked best. Each young woman described being read to as a young kid every day. Parents often bought them materials and books about the topics they were studying in school, but at a slightly more advanced level. Educational toys were mixed in with the more popular ones at holidays. Edwina described how her family regularly shouts out the answers to Jeopardy! together. Perhaps most important, their parents are supportive, not pushy.

As I listened to the recording of our talk, I was struck by how often we laughed. And perhaps that sums it up: Learning and laughter should go together. As you honor your child’s drive, persistence, independence, balance, accomplishments and curiosity, remember to have fun.

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.


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