It wasn’t until Emma Shibley’s senior year of high school that her mother seriously questioned her extracurricular involvement.
One afternoon that fall, Emma arrived home from school with an announcement.
“Hey, Mom, guess what?”
Susan Shibley knew how that conversation would end.
Mother and daughter had been there before, when Emma had joined the school band, the marching band, choir and ensemble, and again when she had gotten the leading role in the school musical.
Before that, there had been Girl Scouts, volleyball, cross-country and track, spelling bees, a competitive writing team and summer swimming and diving teams.
Emma didn’t even like swimming, but she knew she needed exercise and, equally as important, something to do in the summer.
There was always a reason, always a purpose for each of Emma’s many engagements. She was passionate about the music and the theatre and the writing, and she hoped to convert one or more of those pursuits into a meaningful career.
First, though, Emma had to graduate from high school. And now, as she told her mother that day, there was one more role she’d have to play along the way.
She was the newly-elected president of the Centerville High School National Honor Society.
It was in the seventh grade when Emma’s classmates and teachers first began to notice that she wasn’t like most students.
Emma was everywhere, all the time. It became her reputation – not just the band geek or the choir girl or the volleyball player, but the kid who did everything.
She thrived on the rush of it all, on her good grades and creative talent and on her teachers’ praises.
“I was just talking about you with this other teacher that you have about how great you are,” they would tell her in the hallways.
They all know me. They all think well of me, Emma often thought.
She wouldn’t, couldn’t put that approval on the line by dropping a class or skipping a club meeting. And besides, this was how her classmates knew her, how younger students looked up to her. But being busy was also how Emma withdrew from herself, from the thoughts that might otherwise paralyze her.
After all, aside from the usual horrors of adolescence, Emma had her grief to contend with.
Lee Shibley Sr., Emma’s father, had died suddenly in 2006, leaving his wife and two children behind.
Emma was eight, not old enough to fully comprehend the notion of death but not young enough to be oblivious to its impact.
Middle school, then, became her proving ground, for grieving and for growing.
Indeed, extracurricular activities for Emma were an escape hatch, granting her reprieve from her own mind.
“Not that it was a conscious thing, but I think that I was way more comfortable going to another practice or another rehearsal or another club or another something, something, something,” Emma says. “I just would rather do that than sit and feel these really bad feelings.”
Not only that, but success for Emma was an imperative. It was what she knew, what her school and social community expected of her. Success was an addiction, and it meant being as involved as possible, at all costs.
“Something I’m wrestling with is, ‘Am I striving for this stuff because I really will be happy [doing it], or do I think that these are my responsibilities or my duties?’” Emma said.
It all arose from what Emma calls “an externalized internal pressure to do as much as I can.”
Denise Clark Pope has never met Emma Shibley, but understands her all too well.
Pope, a former high school English teacher and college composition instructor, is a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.
She’s also the author of an award-winning book on the subject – “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students – and a cofounder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit that helps schools calibrate an academic balance for their students.
Pope has met hundreds of Emma Shibleys – high-achieving and highly motivated students who, simply put, do it all. And like a growing wave of educators across the nation, she’s increasingly concerned about what it all means.
“Right now, it’s cool to be busy,” Pope said. “People say, ‘How are you?’ That’s a common phrase – ‘I’m good. I’m just really busy.’ Is that a good thing? You don’t hear someone say, ‘I’m good, I have a lot of free time on my hands.’ That’s not an American value.”
For Pope, high school is ground zero for the achievement culture often perpetuated in college. As she writes in Doing School, the grades-first mentality employed by many high schoolers sets a dangerous precedent.
“The bottom line is you’ve got to get the A, you’ve got to get the scores, you’ve got to get the grades to get into college, which brings you the high-paying job and happiness,” Pope writes.
Hence the proliferation of jam-packed after-school schedules, of AP classes and honor societies, and of staggering amounts of community service.
Pope likens the abundance of activities students now can choose to a smorgasbord.
“We’ve never had such a prolific, huge, wonderful, scrumptious buffet table in front of us, and you always overeat at buffets. The nutritionist will tell you, ‘Take one plate, go through the line once and walk away from the buffet table and don’t stay and graze.’ And everybody is staying and grazing these days,” Pope said.
Add on the pressures of social media, where one-upmanship reigns, and memes and media portrayals that draw straight lines between failing a calculus test and permanent unemployment and homelessness, and it’s easy to see why students feel overwhelmed.
At the root of it all, Pope says, is the question of what it means to be a successful student.
“[This is] a very, very narrow notion of success…about performance and what you’ve done and how you do, as opposed to who you are,” Pope said. “When you measure success as grades and test scores and how many things are on your resume and how many clubs you’re in and what’s the best grad school you can get into and what’s the best job you can get and money, it’s this very narrow, extrinsic view of success as opposed to saying, ‘Success is about happiness and health and resilience, and giving back to society.’”
Pope’s rat race only compounds itself when students reach college. Faced with a preponderance of free time – college students may spend as little as 20 percent of their time each week in class – students look for ways to pass the time by getting involved.
“They are filling their schedules without realizing, ‘Wait a minute, it’s not like high school anymore. I have to build in time to read and time to study and also time to have a life and maybe hold down a job,’” Pope said.
Such involvement can easily lead to immense stress, as noted in the spring 2017 National College Health Assessment, conducted by the American College Health Association. Eighty-eight percent of undergraduate respondents had in the past year felt overwhelmed by all they had to do. Nearly 85 percent said they felt exhausted, 62 percent reported anxiety, and over half said they’d experienced more than average levels of stress.
Emma Shibley was certainly among those ranks. During her freshman year at Miami, she lived Denise Pope’s cautionary tale. She registered for 20 credit hours and, at one point, found herself a member of 12 extracurricular organizations. Many of those clubs met on the same day, so that Emma had meetings scheduled one day every week at 4 p.m., 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Afterward, of course, there would be dinner to eat, readings to do and tests to study for – and, if Emma was lucky, a modicum of sleep to be gotten.
But for Emma, a crowded calendar was a source of comfort. Every minute she was occupied, whether in class or a meeting or rehearsal or study session, was a minute spent being purposeful and productive.
“There’s a sense of control that I feel when my calendar is filled to the minute of a whole day, and I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m doing,” Emma explained. “When my calendar is full of stuff to do, I know I’m achieving something at the end of the day.”
That achievement wasn’t an insignificant one, in a lifestyle Emma compared to surfing.
“I feel like I’m constantly paddling really hard, like on a surfboard, and I sometimes ride the wave and it’s awesome. But that’s only because this huge wave came and the timing is right and I had the perfect surfing technique.”
Except when she didn’t have the perfect technique.
“I kind of delude myself, thinking that I have like a system that works, because of those moments where it all lines up,” Emma said. “I do get everything done, or I show up to everything I’m supposed to, or things just work out and I don’t drop any balls, I don’t let anybody down.
“But I feel like that is like the glorious exception and not the rule. That really makes me like dislike who I am, because I let people down a lot.”
Those people, too often, have wound up being Emma’s closest friends, whom she found herself too burnt out to support.
“I was really caught up in my own life, very self-absorbed,” Emma said. “I was looking for support from [my] friends, as opposed to being aware that one of my best friends needs support.”
Was it all worth it?
Halfway through her collegiate career, Emma still wasn’t sure.
“You can’t really get the full 100% experience of anything, because you’re doing a solid 80% of everything. And that top 20%, I think, matters. I feel like that is the difference between being a part of something and belonging, you know?”
In the summer before her sophomore year, Emma took six credit hours. That fall, she added 21 more, plus six more over J-term, 15 during her sophomore spring and another seven the following summer.
All the while, she served as assistant editor of Inklings literary magazine and was on the executive boards of two other student organizations, sang in two campus choirs, was part of the Sketched Out improv comedy troupe and the Scholar Leader Living-Learning Community, obtained a leadership certification through the Wilks Leadership Institute, wrote for The Miami Student and directed vocal music performance for a Stage Left musical.
She also studied abroad twice.
By the time Emma returned from six weeks in the Literary London program this past summer, she was exhausted.
She’d done it all, proving to herself that it was possible.
But she was waking up with nightmares about the fall schedule she’d planned for herself. When her mom pleaded with her to stop kidding herself about how busy she was, her usual denials began to sound less convincing.
Thus, Emma dropped a few classes before returning to campus for her junior year. She switched from a Bachelor of Music degree to a Bachelor of Arts in Music program, cutting the credit hours required for the curriculum in half. She took a semester’s leave from Sketched Out and resigned from another student organization’s executive board.
The constant motion that propelled Emma in semesters past, the extreme anxiety that forced her out of bed in the morning, was gone. In its place came complacency, a lack of motivation to go to class and what Emma described as a sense of being “emptied out.”
“You’ve been running on adrenaline for so long, years of your life, and all of a sudden you’re rewiring some of those things in your body and your brain, the physical and biological stuff,” Emma said.
It was an addiction, and this was withdrawal.
“The crazy lifestyle of, ‘Emma’s always busy,’ that was how I felt defined by people who knew me,” Emma said. “It was really hard to [say], ‘I don’t want to be that anymore.’”
Emma says that now, she’s approaching an equilibrium.
“I’ve always been effusive and kind of a flitty person, but now I feel like I’m a more grounded presence. I have a different energy, I think, and a different internal metronome,” Emma says. “Anxiety was so much a part of my moment-to-moment life, literally all day, every day.
“Learning to exist without that is just … quieter.”
Emma’s schedule is still not a breezy one – she has double-majors in creative writing and music with a theatre minor. She’s editor-in-chief of Inklings and vice president of Collegiate Chorale, and she picked up a part-time job at Kofenya Coffee House this fall. But her extracurricular obligations end there, and she finds herself with an open calendar most nights of the week.
And ultimately, that makes many things, including conversations with her mother, a whole lot easier.
“Hey, Mom, guess what?” Emma might say now.
“I’m figuring it out.”