Ed. Note: As any parent can tell you, there's no single blueprint for guaranteeing a child's academic success. Indeed, an entire industry has formed around providing parents with strategies for everything from how to make sure their child gets ahead in pre-school to getting into the college of their choice. But for recent high school grads Stephen Fong and Yuri Guan, the recipe for school success starts with some fairly basic ingredients.
The Not-so 'Tiger Mom' Approach to School Success
Through most of elementary school I believed myself to be truly stupid. Unaware then that I have dyslexia, all I knew, and all my parents could see, was that I hated anything and everything to do with reading or writing. But instead of trying to force better grades out of me, whether by hiring a tutor or by piling on extra homework, they took a more accommodating approach, which proved even more effective.
When I was in third grade my dad brought me to a live marital arts performance. He knew I was struggling in class and hoped to find other ways to instill confidence in me. I fell in love almost instantly and joined a nearby martial arts school soon after. The daily routine of kicks and punches, I began to think, weren't that unlike what I did in the classroom, only the mechanics of martial arts seemed to come a lot easier. Around the same time I also began to learn Chinese, which tipped my parents off to my dyslexia. Unlike English, where letters and words often became jumbled on the page, I always got the strokes right when I wrote in Chinese.
These were minor victories, but for me they helped reverse growing insecurities about my own ability to succeed in school.
My parents helped in other ways, too. I remember one night coming home late after working on a group project with classmates. I was starving; all I could think of was filling the nagging hole in my belly. As soon as I came through the door I was greeted by the crackling sound of food on the stove and the aroma of steaming rice in the cooker. Within minutes my mom had a table full of hot food laid out in front of me. In fact, our house maintained a regimented mealtime (with the exception of an occasional late night), which helped me structure the rest of my day. I always knew there'd be food waiting for me at home, and a ride to school in the morning.
Until high school, I assumed most students were ferried to and from school by their parents. Most of my friends were driven to school, so I never conceived of it as a luxury but simply part of the daily routine. Then came the day for my SAT. I saw a fellow student getting off the bus as I was being dropped off, and began to wonder about how much earlier than me she had to wake up to get to the test site on time. Not only that. While I sat in the relative comfort of my parents' car, she jostled with crowds of mostly unruly kids before sitting for the four-hour long test.
Both of my parents are college teachers, and so their schedules allowed for at least one of them to be there for me most days. I know not all parents have the same luxury. Still, more than anything else, my parents' attention to providing me with the basic comforts helped me stay focused and took the edge off of school, which in turn led to improved performance and better grades. Without that sense of security and comfort, I'm not sure I'd be where I am now, getting ready to leave for college.
My parents arrived in San Francisco from China when they were both in their mid-20s. Back there, my dad was an engineer and my mom a general doctor. However, when they moved here, it was hard to transfer the credentials they held in China, so they worked their way into the dry cleaning business instead, eventually opening up their own shop in the Outer Sunset neighborhood.
It was there that I spent every day after school and throughout the summer, scribbling away in the gray sheets of my workbooks. After a ten-hour workday, my mom would check my reading comprehension booklet using the answers in the back and make me recite old Chinese poems while my dad would go over my math problems.
There were times when frustrations boiled over. My parents' limited English meant things sometimes got lost in translation. I remember my mom would often grow exasperated trying repeatedly to get me to understand some passage of classical Chinese poetry, while my dad would throw his hands up when I didn't get some algebra problem. But as I grew older, my parents became less familiar with the material I was studying. As a result, I became increasingly independent and learned to check and re-check my own assignments. Still, they weren't done with me quite yet.
By my sophomore year in high school, my parents began attending free seminars on the college application process that were advertised in the local Chinese papers. They would fret about my SAT scores and lecture me about my grades. It seemed like college was all that mattered to them, and I began to feel stifled by their growing obsession. I wanted time to explore other parts of my life not tied to academics (which I did get, sometimes without their knowledge).
Other friends with immigrant parents tell me this is how they show their love. But my parents sole focus on school also made it hard for me to see them as people I could confide in. When I was in middle-school, I was diagnosed with scoliosis and had to wear a back brace twenty-three hours a day – which I wore hidden under a large t-shirt for about a year. While I became more and more insecure about my appearance, I kept my anxieties to myself. It wasn't that I didn't trust my parents; I had just grown used to associating them solely with my academic wellbeing. I never felt the need to talk with them about my personal life.
Today, even after graduating high school, the bookshelves in my room are still filled with the relics of my childhood education: K-8 level reading comprehension review booklets, workbooks on just about every math subject expected to be covered in elementary school, and Chinese textbooks with stories and vocabulary checks at the end. Whenever I see these, I'm reminded of all the things my parents taught me -- both directly and indirectly.
NAM intern Stephen Fong is a graduate of Galileo High School in San Francisco. He begins college this fall at the University of Arizona, where he plans to major in East Asian Studies. NAM intern Yuri Guan graduated from Lowell High School this past year and will enroll in UC San Diego in the fall.