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By Michael J. Steele

Anytime I enter a tunnel, I inhale a deep gulp of air.

A friend told me to hold my breath in tunnels during third grade. She claimed it brought good luck, and my already fatalistic mind interpreted that as a warning about their inherent dangers. One could collapse, 10-year-old me reasoned. I might never escape the darkness. Twenty-seven years later, tunnels still put a knot of dread deep in my gut.

My seniors in Advanced Placement Calculus BC know this dread too. As winter surrenders to spring, they face potentially perilous paths of their own: deciding their futures. After submitting their collective achievements for judgment on college applications last fall — itself a daunting task — faceless admissions officers render verdicts. Some students revel in tall stacks of acceptances; others reel when a paltry few are granted golden tickets.

“I conjure images of sunlight and open skies awaiting my students. There is light ahead.”

All face an unsettling truth: Their futures are no longer certain. Those 75 BC students applied to an average of 9.6 schools, but only now must their paths diverge from the familiar faces and cramped desks they know. They must decide where their futures lead. Fate is in their hands.

These are brilliant, driven students, by the way — the young people expected to change a stubborn world. They’ve embraced the hard work-and-discipline route to reach this moment, certain they were investing in their futures with every grueling course.

That certainty wanes as they approach their prospective tunnels. Each underpass presents unique possibilities — new worlds and subjects to explore, new friends and programs to grow alongside — but each also looms dark and ominous. My students hesitate to enter, concerned their selection might crumble around them. They worry they might never reach the other side.

Four years is a long time to hold one’s breath.

Despite my own perpetual apprehensions, I work to chip away at theirs. We devote weekly intervals to emotional balloon-emptying, but my words often feel insufficient. Many students stand convinced that only elite institutions grant them entry to their desired lives. Few have access to those brightly lit passages, though, so they hesitate at the ones before them, searching shadows for falling rubble while haunted by a singular question:

What if I choose the wrong tunnel?

Incapable of discerning 75 optimal paths, I appeal instead to experience. I’ve taught Calculus BC for a decade, so my first students are fast-approaching 30 and deep into their careers. I still remember their senior dread as they fretted over potential cave-ins.

I also remember their emergence. Knowing the stable present of my once-unsettled 2013 cohort gifts me foresight for today’s students. They share parallel excellence, ambition and heart. They were and are wonderful young people who will lead meaningful lives no matter which path they pursue.

While they stress over structural integrity, I conjure images of sunlight and open skies awaiting them. I assure them many have navigated those same tunnels. There is light ahead. They need no particular institution to achieve success because they will seize it anywhere they go. Different passages promise different futures, but all can lead to fulfilling ones.

I recognize my promise’s inductive leap; I recognize too that what follows inevitably won’t be smooth for everyone. But the apprehension that threatens to crush them so often arises from self-esteem — I can’t do this on my own! — that I wield my influence certifying their agency. They are the architects of their futures, not some university. They can stop holding their breath. They will emerge from whichever tunnel they choose.

Finalizing one’s future remains terrifying, just like driving into a dark hole in a mountain. But I do know what their faces express after I assure them that they can succeed no matter where they go. It’s the same look in my eyes as the rearview mirror shows a tunnel disappearing behind me.

It’s relief.

Michael J. Steele is a member of the Elk Grove Education Association.

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