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Why We Keep Measuring Our Children's Lives

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The story never changes. As it was in 885 BCE so it is today. So it was in 1873, when a bright, eager 16-year old Massachusetts girl set out to conquer the demands of her junior year. Her parents, both staunch advocates of higher education, expected their daughter to go to college -- an important college -- but that dream came to an abrupt end when Fannie Merrit Farmer had a severe and inexplicable stroke. Her prime young adult years were spent instead confined to a bed where she could do little more than reflect on her daily readings and prayers. Her physical healing was incomplete, but her strength and her spirit and her will to move on with her life returned in full measure and, as it did, she began to cook. Before long, the Farmer family boarding house had earned a reputation throughout New England for its delicious fare. At the age of 30, Fannie enrolled in the Boston Cooking School where she developed her gifts even further. She became the dean of the Boston Cooking School and later opened an institute of her own, Miss Farmer's School of Cookery, where she not only taught and created recipes, but wrote papers on nutrition, sanitation, diet, cooking techniques, household management, and the specific dietary and nutritional needs of convalescents, subjects she was invited to lecture about at the Harvard Medical School. Her greatest legacy, however -- one that still impacts every person who picks up a recipe today -- is in the area of measurement. It was Fannie Farmer who first recognized that the use of haphazard measuring tools -- a teacup or a soup spoon or a few fat fingers -- led to less than optimal and sometimes disastrous results. If we wanted to control the outcome of a fine fig pudding, we needed to know the difference between a heaping and level teaspoon, and what constituted a teaspoon in the first place.

For as long as we have recorded history, men and women have sought to bring order and control to the materials of their day through measurement. Ivory yardsticks have been found among the 5000-year old ruins of the Indus Valley civilization. The Ark and the Tabernacle were built to God's specifications in cubits and cords. The Ancient Greeks and Egyptians joined best practices to form a reliable method of weights and measures. Time was contained by Julius Caesar, who helped create the first solar calendar, and then by a string of Europeans who developed, 1100 years later, the hourglass and the town clock. But that's ancient history. We now live in era where we have total control of our physical realm (well, except for the occasional "Act of God"). We've moved on to measuring the realm of the mind and behavior and the technology that serve them. We have sexy, codified assessments for everything: intelligence, aptitude, risk, odds, and the ever-critical return on investment -- or, as it's more commonly referred to, ROI. Still, when it comes to understanding the measure of a life -- a life well lived, a life of value, a wonderful life, even -- statistics are about as useful as a footnote.

According to the beloved holiday movie of the same name, a wonderful life is one in which you don't get your heart's desire, your dreams are thwarted, you are repeatedly on the brink of financial ruin, and none of it adds up to the life you envisioned. But step back from that ledge my friend and you'll see that the role you've played has been a blessing to many people and that the universe is infinitely better for you being -- well, you. In the season of love and forgiveness, when even rational souls are inclined to light a candle or look longingly at the night sky, we are granted a momentary reprieve from our fact-loving selves; we put down our armor and unclench our fists. No, our lives are not perfect, but we have a warm room to watch a movie in and leftover pie in the fridge and children who probably won't make valedictorian but who nonetheless make us smile and give us hope and sometimes even rub our feet if we ask them nicely. Despite all our shortcomings, life is good and we can almost imagine, as the credits role, having the courage to believe in an angel who can point out how misguided we get with our grandiose ideas sometimes. But then vacation ends and -- faster than you can say weighted GPA -- we pack up our DVDs and our wishful thinking and get back to the business of earning and striving and pushing and forging exceptional kids out of the chaos of our overscheduled days. This is 21st century America, after all. Not even our children have time for fairy tales.

Heather Choate Davis is the author of Elijah & the SAT: Reflections on a Hairy Old Desert Prophet and the Benchmarking of Our Children's Lives.