"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
March 5, 2009
Consider taking a year off
by Orson Scott Card

It's the time of year when parents of high school seniors are frantically trying to influence -- or simply enable -- their soon-to-be graduate's choice of college.

Do you apply to three schools? Five? A dozen? That's a cost of hundreds of dollars right there! Are the child's grades good enough? Does he need to re-take the SAT to try for a higher score? Can she get a job to help meet expenses? Does the family qualify for financial aid? Is there some scholarship, somewhere, that can defray expenses?

But for Mormon parents, the search can be even more complicated. What about getting their child into BYU? The Church's flagship school turns away a substantial number of applicants every year -- and there are probably hundreds or thousands more who don't bother to apply to BYU because they know that on various grounds they will not qualify.

There's always BYU-Idaho or, for some, BYU-Hawaii. There are clear advantages to these smaller schools, making them the first choice for some students.

And there's the school where I teach -- Southern Virginia University, which is not affiliated with the Church, but is run by Mormons, with LDS values embedded in the honor code. It costs more than the tithing-supported institutions, but offers its own set of advantages.

I will no doubt write more about SVU on other occasions; let's just say that I have voted with my time, commuting three hours each way during the semesters that I teach in order to work with writing, literature, and drama students.

There are families, too, that do not apply to Mormon schools. There might be a local school that they prefer; they might be aiming at a more prestigious university; there might be a specific program that none of the Church schools offer; or they might believe that their children prosper better in the gospel where the lines between Church and World are most clearly drawn.

Whatever school your son or daughter is headed for, let me suggest that you at least consider another option: no school at all.

Not forever! But there is much to be gained by getting your child off the relentless academic track for a year or so, which should be weighed against the costs.

Negatives first: Those scholarships are all aimed at high school seniors, and if you have a child who is a prime prospect, being courted by various schools, you might come to think that if your child doesn't go straight on to college, all that lovely assistance will evaporate.

Some of it might. But the high school transcript and the SAT scores will still be the same, and the year off can easily be explained in terms that will actually enhance your child's prospects at many schools.

Other parents might be eager for their child to "get on with life" -- to move as quickly as possible into college so he or she can come out the other end and start earning all that lovely college-graduate money right away.

But there are many students who would profit greatly from that year off -- it might transform their educational experience. And here's why.

Between getting my bachelor's degree and entering graduate school, I spent several years earning a living.

When I returned to school after those years of depending on my own work to support my family, I found there was a profound difference between me and most of the other students.

Too many of them were still in high school. Oh, they had a bachelor's or master's degree hanging on a wall, but their attitude was still that of dependent students.

I remember several of them trying to steer me away from Norman Council's class on Elizabethan Literature because he was a "hard grader."

Here was one of the finest scholars they were likely to meet, and they cared more about grades than about learning from the best? I had a great time in that class: I was not afraid of this good professor, I was grateful for him.

It's hard to break free of that childish dependency, that sense of being a pawn in a system. After all, we spend a dozen years teaching kids to get along, obey, fit in, work the system, comply, earn the right grades.

There's little about college to convince them that prisoner-warden relationship they practiced in high school should not still apply.

When you've been out in the working world, laboring one way or another to meet the expectations of a boss (or customers or clients), everything changes. You realize that school was not a horrible burden, it was a sanctuary.

You return to school with a completely different set of expectations. Instead of letting teachers set the agenda and meeting the minimum requirements -- as you learned to do in high school -- you take charge of the experience. You study because you want to learn.

You value your professors, not by how they grade or how entertaining they are, but by how they help you advance your knowledge.

Mormons, more than most people, should be keenly aware of this process, because we do it all the time.

Young men in the Church usually have a year or so between high school and their two-year missionary service. Most of those who are college bound try to squeeze in their freshman year (or more) before that mission begins.

But you can fill in this story for yourselves, can't you? The young men head off to college and act like many other college freshman. They can cut classes and nobody calls their parents. They can stay up all night and sleep in the next day. They can do assignments or not, on their own schedule. Freedom! Fun!

The result is that many a Mormon missionary returns home much more mature, ready to get to work on his education -- but is now burdened with a hideous transcript from that wasted freshman year.

Often they have to go to a community college for a while to prove they're ready for college work. Even those who squeak back into their original college often find that they no longer have a scholarship.

Did they gain anything from that "thirteenth year of high school"? Unless you think of "sadder but wiser" as part of your child's education, the blown freshman year is usually a complete waste of time.

Of course there are freshmen who do not blow that pre-mission year -- I didn't, and I know many young men from our ward who have done very well. But even for them -- even for me, if I could do it over -- I recommend at least considering what is being learned at school, and what might be learned through a year of real-world work.

After all, Brigham Young recommended that everyone acquire both a profession and a trade -- I certainly did. My Mother was a secretary, and my parents saw to it that I learned touch typing while I was still in junior high.

When I graduated from high school I was a proficient typist, and could easily have found work -- at low wages, but steady enough! -- as a typist or secretary, full-time, part-time, or temp.

Instead, I went on to school and continued to game the system as I had in high school. If only I had known going into college what I knew when I entered graduate school!

What it means to work for someone else. How many hours a full day's work consists of. The relentlessness of five days a week. The humility you must acquire in order to keep your job even when you are supervised by unsympathetic managers.

A healthy dose of the real world is more than just a means of making kids grateful to go back to school, however. Imagine the doctor who knows what it's like to work as his poorer patients do, because he had that year of working without prestige. The lawyer who understands the difference between his work and the jobs his clients do, so he knows what his fees really cost them.

Maybe the MBAs and CPAs, the Ph.D.s, M.D.s, and J.D.s will have more compassion for their underlings, as well.

But one dividend is certain: They will enter college as very different people from the high-school students they were a year before. And because they helped earn part of their college expenses through their own labor, they will value it all the more.

In the real world, there are plenty of you who did exactly this -- because you had no choice. You might have felt burdened by having to work for a year or two before you could join your peers in college. But when you got there, you surely discovered that you valued your education more -- and did better in school -- than many who went straight on through.

If your child does not go straight to college, that does not mean he's being set back a year. No, it's a wasted, miserable year of low grades and irresponsibility that would set him back!

I've spoken primarily of young men, because they serve their missions (usually) at age 19, while girls can often graduate from college before they become eligible. And girls are less likely to waste their freshman year on testosterone-powered irresponsibility.

But you know your children, and I do not. You know their abilities, their weaknesses, their attitudes.

Every student is different, and what's right for one is not necessarily right for all. I survived going straight on to college, though I had to learn the lessons of employment eventually. Even now, I wince at the memory of how naive I was, and how much opportunity was wasted on me because of my ignorance of the world of work.

So in talking with your high school senior, don't fall into the trap of thinking that immediate college entrance is the only option. Take a breath. Think about it. Talk it over.

"You've been going to school for twelve years. What about stepping off of that track for a year, getting a job, finding out what the world of work is all about, and then going to college?"

Even if you and your kid decide to go ahead with all those college applications, everything will be changed, at least a little, by his realization that he doesn't have to do this.

That you will still love him if he does something else for a while.

That he is a person first, and a student by choice.

You lift from him the burden of your expectations, and return to him the gift of responsibility for his own decision.

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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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