by Kendra Hovey
If you didn’t see it, you might have heard about it: First standing O of the day . . . 80,290 views online . . . featured on WOSU TV’s TEDxColumbus special . . . The talk, Austin Channell’s A Culture of Obsession: Why taking choir kept me from being valedictorian, was even retweeted by preeminent chorale composer Eric Whitacre—making Channell, for one hot moment, a hero among Central Ohio choir directors.
It all made for an interesting senior year of high school for Austin Channell, who never expected to be juggling his class schedule with an appearance on All Sides with Ann Fisher or piggybacking a college visit onto a speaking engagement in Virginia.
Now a high school graduate, Channell finished third in his class, but was not a valedictorian. As he says, “that would have been awkward.” In the fall, he’ll attend Vanderbilt University, where he plans to study civil engineering.
His TEDx talk, to quickly refresh, grew out of a real life quandary: He could take choir in high school, get an A and, as a result, lower his GPA. Or he could sign up for study hall and end up with a higher GPA. As absurd as this sounds, it’s also built into the educational grading system. As Channell deftly points out, it is possible for a student to “succeed in more areas and be penalized for it.”
It’s not that he had some great ambition to be a valedictorian, as he says, “It was the principle of the thing.” And the problem is bigger than just some nonsensical grade point system. At issue, is the larger and more complicated matter of how we choose to define and measure success, and the resulting effects on college-entrance, and the self-esteem, health and well-being of our youth.
For students, it can lead to some silly scheduling maneuvers—going to art class while officially signed up for study hall. But if college is going to be in the picture, GPA is vital, and even as current business-speak extols the virtues of failure while the social sciences send out alerts about the dangers of perfectionism, students know exactly the fine line they have to walk.
If an A in a non-AP class can reduce GPA or just one B can plummet a class rank from one to one hundred and something, an example Channell shares, why take a risk? Or follow an interest? Maybe the student truly is that much less smart or less studious than before the B, either way, at many colleges, her application’s gone from the top of the pile to the slush pile. Grading—how it varies between districts, schools and teachers and what exactly it measures—is not just a complicated puzzle for administrators. Channell is telling us it’s having real effects, adverse effects, on real lives.
Yet not every high schooler with something important to say, says it on the TEDx stage. In fact, in the history of TEDxColumbus there’ve been exactly two: Austin Channell and Meagan Jones. Channell’s journey began courtesy of his public school, where a posted flyer and a nudge from a teacher led to an internship with TEDxYouth. Working with Andy Aichele for two years, he helped plan, coach and stage manage the event. “We spent a lot of time at a lot of Paneras,” he says. As can happen when working with TED, the question pops up: “What would be your talk?” When Achiele would pose it, Channell, took it as idle musing, at least until the day he began “ranting” about his situation. As he recalls, “Andy said, ‘This is your talk,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah…it is.’ ”
Once he left the TEDxColumbus stage, it didn’t take long for the tweeting and sharing to start, as well as the dialogue and invitations to speak. He’s been interviewed on various news programs, shared versions of the talk at a school board meeting, at the Ohio Department of Education (twice) and, by invitation of a PTA, as far away as Falls Church, Virginia. The small city, essentially a suburb of DC, is in the wealthiest county in the U.S. and home to supposedly the best high school in the country (though public, admission is selective). In Falls Church, says Channell, “even the middle school librarian has an ivy league degree.” It was there, during the Q&A, that Channell was asked maybe the most heart-breaking question. It came from an 8th grader. To paraphrase, she asked, “What if I don’t feel so driven to succeed, but my parents want it and I don’t want to make them unhappy?”
This child’s question helps explain the strong response to Channell’s talk. Education is not just about student and teacher, but administrators, communities, society, says Channell, and the core relationship between parent and child. “We know education is a hot button issue,” he says, “some relate to what they see as an unfair system, some question how we assess learning, some defend the system, but for parents in particular, the effects on their children are really concerning—I know how hard it was on my own parents to witness the physical toll of my class schedule and academic stress.”
Another reason for the overwhelming response may just be that Austin Channell did a really good job. And were I to add “for his age” it’s not to put a qualifier on his abilities, but to acknowledge age is a factor. Though he doesn’t attempt to offer a solution, and while people are listening and talking no changes have yet been made (though his school board just announced it will be reviewing the valedictorian system), still in Channell’s TEDx talk there is hope. Because despite everything we have left the next generation to grapple with, if they still come out smart, articulate, principled and mature, there’s definitely hope.
Whether Channell agrees with this or not, he can’t deny that people are impressed with his public speaking abilities, because the reality is he gets asked about it all the time. He actually loves this question. He knows exactly where he learned stage presence and how to engage an audience, and he’s happy to share: “It’s theater,” he says, “It’s what the arts can do for you.”
Another question catches him more off-guard. The details vary each time, but it goes something like this: “Would you mind if we drove three hours from Pittsburg to interview you?” Or, “We can pay to fly you and your mom to Virginia, put you up in a hotel, give you a rental car, pay for your food and a travel stipend…would that be okay?” Recounting these today, he still sounds bemused: “It’s one of those questions people would ask, but I’m still not sure . . . who says no to this?”
If this whole experience has been a bit disorienting for Channell, it’s also been humbling and motivating. Amazed by how far and wide the talk has spread, he also wonders if maybe he should have put more into it—more than writing it during an 11th period study hall, he confesses. This concern comes from the perfectionist in him, but also from a real sense of responsibility.
He has no obligation but to go off and be a college student and pursue his interest in civil engineering. But that’s not how he’s feeling. “I don’t know what form it will take or what point in my life it will happen,” he says, but the issue is not behind him. By sheer coincidence, Vanderbilt is home to Peabody College, the best graduate school of education in the nation. He’s already made contact, though just out of curiosity. He does say that, in his mind, from civil engineering to education is not a huge leap. “Civil engineering is about creating and maintaining systems. Though more infrastructure related, it’s borderline policy,” he says. Plus, he’s never been one for purely technical pursuits, being more macro- than micro-focused.
The system of education is one of many things he’s looking forward to potentially exploring in college. But for the moment, he’s got his graveyard shift at a truck parts warehouse. Spending his summer laboring alongside mostly fulltime union workers, ”I put parts in boxes,” he says, “I close the box and put a shipping label on it.” He’s in it for the money—“I know I’ll be poor in college, but my goal is to be less poor in college”—but as a side benefit, he’s listened to a lot of audio books.
One night that audiobook was The Ghost Map about a cholera epidemic in 1854. “If you want to get strange looks from people, just listen to a description of someone suffering from cholera,” he says. When the guys around him asked what he was listening to, it blossomed into a group discussion about medical issues and the scientific process. “Turn it up,” someone suggested, and at 10:00 on a summer night instead of a muffled din of rap, metal and various podcasts, blaring inside this truck parts warehouse was a story about disease and sanitation in mid-19th century London, England. Yet another unexpected and interesting experience in what has been an unexpected and interesting year for Austin Channell.