‘Race to Nowhere’ Asks ‘When Does Homework Become Too Stressful?’

by Jacob Bogage ’12

Three anxious moms sat in Magruder’s auditorium on November 4, fretfully discussing their children’s school work schedule and copious extracurricular activities. They realized that not only are their kids stressed out, but they barely spend time with friends or family.

“How do you stop when the rest of the world isn’t stopping?” wondered Tammy Mensh, mother of two at Fields Road Elementary in Gaithersburg.

Their feverish talk hushed as a projector-screen lowered and coordinator Cathy Boudrey pressed play on Vicky Abeles’ film “Race to Nowhere.” What ensued comforted many parents, assuring them that they are not alone in their worries and that their own kids are certainly not the only ones stressed out.

Abeles’ documentary was inspired by the 2008 suicide of 13-year-old Devon Marvin who took her own life due to school-related stress. Soon after, Abeles’ two children—one in elementary school, one in middle school—came home with stomach and head aches. They were tired and irritable, and faced the early symptoms of childhood depression. The film follows her kids and six others aging from middle school to college through their trying academic experiences.

The film begins by discussing the problems faced by Abeles’ children in their hometown, San Francisco. After Marvin’s death and her children’s bout with depression, Abeles takes her camera nationwide to find other stressed students.

She ventures to Carmel, Indiana where she meets Ally, a girl who was unable to receive her “academic honors diploma” after receiving a poor math grade. After that, she gave up. She stopped attending school and when she did attend, her mind was in another place. As Ally put it: “If you don’t try you can’t fail.”

Abeles also interviewed Isaiah, a straight-A student in middle school who struggled with honors and AP courses in high school. Not only did the classes get to him, but so did scholarship applications. Coming from a low-income neighborhood, the only way Isaiah could attend a good college was with a scholarship, but as the AP and honors courses got harder, he considered dropping out.

After making a nationwide swing, the film pushes the assertion that the world is run by mediocre students. Assorted teen psychology experts cite former President George W. Bush, Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs and philanthropist and former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates as C-students that made it big time.

Unfortunately, the film conveniently forgets that Bush, Jobs and Gates do not tell the whole story of who runs the world. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg were both 4.0 students at University of California and Harvard, respectively.

Then, “Race to Nowhere” turns into a gripe about homework, though the complaint may be justified. The MCPS student handbook sets no recommendation for the amount of homework assigned, but speculates that homework should “be assigned regularly (three to five times a week)” and “the nature, length and value of the assignments are determined by the teacher.” A rigorous schedule could leave students with two to four hours of homework per night, and guidance counselor Peaches Crenshaw sees students with even more work than that.

“The main thing that I’ve heard is that some students are saying they’re spending seven or eight hours on homework,” she said.

“Sometimes I feel like I have so much [work] to do, I’ll get up early the next morning to do it,” said junior Caroline McCue. “I run cross-country after school so I’m always pressed for time.”

This work load may be counter intuitive, as studies show that after two hours of high school homework, it no longer has an impact on academic success.

“Homework is my biggest issue with school,” said Mason Boudrey, a freshman at Magruder who attended the screening. “When I get home, I want to … do all the things I want to do, that a kid would want to do.”