How you can help a high schooler, right now

I meet a bunch of high schoolers on this blog, and my favorite, Thi, recently informed me that at her rich-kid, Palo Alto school all their AP tests were disqualified.

Guess why they were disqualified? Because the desks were four centimeters too close together.

Could it be possible that the College Board did not read how the kids at Stuyvesant developed a cheating network that could work even if all their desks were in different states?

It’s not enough that the idea of testing by subject is outdated. But so are the rules of what makes a test valid.

In this case I wonder why the kids taking the AP tests in the first place. Their parents live in one of the most expensive school districts in the country, so I doubt parents are telling their kids to double-down so they can save money on college. And it’s not like taking a lot of AP tests is going to get you into the college of your choice. The top schools have tons of geniuses applying. You are going to need something besides AP tests to get you into the school. AP tests just reaffirm that you’re smart and good at school. You need a better hook when you’re a rich kid (especially if you’re a white girl.)

So the only thing AP tests do is increase homework, which we know does not help them in life.

At first I felt sorry for the kids in Thi’s school. But then I thought: they are in high school. They are old enough to demand to be taken out of school. And, if they are not leaving school then at least they are old enough to see for themselves that AP tests are not going to save them, so they should do something more useful with their time.

These absurd rituals of College Board test taking that have disqualified too many exams should be a wake up call to those kids. They are too old to blame the adults for devising stupid rules and they are too old to blame other adults for not properly following the stupid rules. It’s up to high schoolers to take responsibility for how they spend their days. (These high schoolers, for instance, are suing the state of California for wasting their time.)

Teens are capable of seeing how vapid test-based high school is in a world that celebrates self-directed learners. Teens are able to get themselves out of school. So if they are still in school and they are still trying to follow rules they can tell are stupid, then they need to admit that at some point, it’s their own fault.

I know this sounds harsh, but it’s great news for the kids that they have control over their lives. There is not a lot we can do about how happy we are in this world. Seventy percent of your happiness is determined at birth—we are all born with a happiness setpoint.

The best way to control the remaining 30% is to enhance your belief that you are in control of your life. (In the psychology world the terms is locus of control.) Tell a high schooler that they control their outcome of their high school years. Not some College Board test giver. Not some teacher rearranging desks. Not parents who are scared to take risks with their kids. The person who controls what we learn and how that plays out in our lives is each of us.

At first I thought maybe it’s me overstepping bounds, but parents ask my kids all the time, How do you learn math? Do you have friends? Do you play video games all day? Parents consciously or subconsciously challenge my kids homeschooling all the time. So it seems socially acceptable for me to challenge older kids to think about what they are doing in school.

We have the locus of control. When you teach that concept to a high schooler, even if it’s not your own high schooler, then you bring more happiness to the life of that young person. Or at least you plant the seed.


46 replies
  1. Lyndap
    Lyndap says:

    Hah… I was just telling my HS freshman that I think AP classes are kind of a scam…maybe the college chosen will accept your AP credit if you pass a test on one particular day. Why not just take a class at community college if the goal is college credit. So many more options today, including homeschool/unschooling

  2. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I was just reading an article in our local paper about how early parents are starting with college advisers, like freshman year or earlier now. One parent interviewed did everything right for their kid, started around 8th grade, all the activities, all the AP classes, all the community involvement. The goal was to get into an Ivy League school. When it came time to apply to the schools this particular student was turned away, the parents best guess was that these schools no longer want well-rounded students, in her particular case she learned that these selective schools want kids who specialize, or who are really really good at one thing.

    Another student who was interviewed didn’t get enough financial aid and none of her top choice schools accepted her, and she didn’t start early enough, I believe she waited until her jr year of high school. So instead, she went to community college to play her sport, and two years later she got into her first choice school with an athletic scholarship.

    The other person interviewed said her student/child and others at the school refused to take classes on a 4.0 scale, the only classes they took were on a 5.0 scale, if they took the class on the 4.0 they asked it to be removed from the transcript. That might work for now, but this seems gimmicky and a sure way for every one else to start doing the same thing, then you are back to the drawing board.

    It all seems absurd. But also, it makes me feel insecure.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Can you post the link to the article where the mom says the schools want kids who specialize? Based on the story, that mom seems like a very reliable source.


        • jessica
          jessica says:

          I interviewed with Harvard.

          They didn’t outright say ‘specialize’, but they were adamant that the ‘normal’ path of figuring it out your first two years was NOT what they were looking for. They wanted a vision, an explanation of time spent on what and why, they wanted passion and how it relates to furthering yourself through their specific programs.

          My husband finds our selection process time consuming. He is british. They take their pre-req undergrad courses 16-18. They test and select from their top three major prospects based on their work and strengths. Then they finish uni school in 3 years not 4,5, (our average of 6!), or 8.

          So, in the context of this post, why do we delay our high schoolers from growing up?

          • MBL
            MBL says:

            May I ask what in what year you interviewed? Wondering if it is a recent or a decade ago thing.

            How set in stone are the british options once the tests are taken? If they don’t totally close off paths, like the Korean tracking tests, then I think it sound like a great idea.

            I think we do stifle self-knowledge and growth here. But I don’t necessarily think growing up faster is a good thing. I feel certain that taking college classes in middle or high school would have been right for me, but don’t think that it is right for everyone, no matter how intellectually capable.

            As I said below, there is still a great deal of brain development going on in the pre-frontal cortex. (Not that anyone cares, but the higher the I.Q.–for what that’s worth–the longer the development takes, even into mid to late twenties.)

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Another inquiring mind wants to know more. I assume this interview was at least 15 years ago?

          • marta
            marta says:

            I’ve been reading this blog for quite a while and occasionally commenting on how different the US school/education system seems from the average European system.

            Reading this article about the struggle of high schoolers to get into top universities just gives me the creeps… It basically states that you have to start micro-engineering your life once you’re 14 or 13 or else you don’t succeed EVER. Holy sh*t!

            The problem is not the US education system. The problem seems to be a cultural and mental framework too focused on individuality, competition and success.

            Of course I’m fascinated by it, or else I woudn’t always be coming back here… It also works as a sort of reality check, when I’m ruminating against my own country’s serious shortcomings education-wise ;)

            However, and this seems to be the heart of the matter, I wonder whether there’s a significant difference in longterm satisfaction and meaning with life in Europe and America…
            I cannot cite any data, but my guess is that life satisfaction among middle-class Americans is not higher than among middle-class Europeans – specializing, Ivy League, homeschooling, AP classes, what-have-you notwithstanding…

          • David
            David says:

            The comment above about top schools wanting kids who specialize conforms to a similar opinion i heard. Colleges want well-rounded student bodies, not well rounded students. I went to a top ten private college 20+ years ago and they wanted well rounded students – top scores, student athlete, class president, and a checked box beside a million other high school activities. Today, top schools are moving away from the quantitative approach of racking up high school activities, and prefer kids who have done something unique. A kid who goes to live in the woods as a nomad for 2 yrs in high school is more interesting than a kid from suburbia with top scores.

    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      That is frightening. Those kids have already achieved so much.

      I get nervous when community colleges are touted too….I am afraid my neice will see it as a viable option if the media keeps pushing them. I do think they are a great option…..if you are going to push through and get that 4 year done. But I sooo much want her to go away to school, get away from family, and all the downer messaging they emit. I find myself rehearsing my reasons why community college is not a good fit for her.

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        And this is why context is important.

        I know many people that moved states to attend community colleges.

        • MBL
          MBL says:

          So sorry for the interrogation Jessica.

          I am intrigued by this. Are there many states that are really restrictive regarding age for enrollment? We these people from the same state, or various ones? Were they total upheavals just for the sake of CC or just a “camel’s back/straw thing?” Was this a while back pre teleschooling type options?

          Inquiring minds and all…feel free to disregard.

          • jessica
            jessica says:

            Many moved and attended CC for one or two years to qualify for in state tuition. Some moved out of state to attend CC near their ‘dream school.’ Some moved out of state to get away from family and CC is cheaper, figure themselves out a bit while pursuing school without putting on heavy debt…I know a lot of people that attended nearby where they grew up CC’s during HS the moved to another CC out of state or onto university. Going CC doesn’t mean you have to stay in the same area, it opens a lot of options for those that need it or want it.

  3. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:


    This is the cure for all the issues brought up on this homeschool blog recently, i.e. how to help poor kids, whether feminists killed childhood, why should anyone homeschool. Teach everyone, this is your life, choose wisely, no excuses.

  4. welldone
    welldone says:

    My daughter just started at a ballet school where the director told her at the first meeting they had, “Ballet is 90% mental and that means YOU are in control of what happens.”

    Such a powerful message to receive and truly accept. Watching her do her stretch and strengthening work in the morning without any prompting is the clear result of her being given that knowledge. She is in charge so if she wants to dance, she is the one who needs to make it happen.

    I wish more children could hear that and know it is true. I don’t know if she would have heard that message so clearly if we didn’t homeschool. Homeschooling has made it clear to the children how their own efforts and interests shape what they learn and how they learn it.

  5. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    So I’m one of those kids (now grown-up) that refused to take AP classes and managed to get out of my fancy Menlo Park high school a year early. At the time, I was reading alternative press publications that demonstrated how exploitative the US school system is.

    My high school is across the street from SRI and I was suspicious that they were doing mind-control-through-standardized-testing research on the students. I have no idea if this is true, but it made sense at the time.

    Jumping through the necessary hoops to graduate early was a lengthy process and no one in the school administration really wanted to help me. Naturally.

    However right in the middle of it, I managed to make the cover of the Palo Alto Daily News by calling out my school’s failure to respond to an alleged sexual assault on campus. Given the daily sexual harassment my classmates and I experienced, and the school’s failure to respond to that, it seemed likely that they were also trying to sweep the reported assault under the rug.

    After the paper came out, I was ushered into a quick chat with the vice-principal, and suddenly I had all the permissions I needed to graduate 8 months ahead of schedule.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      This is the thing. Most kids don’t seem to recognize that they can finish ‘early’.

      My sister graduated in 3 years. It wasn’t particularly difficult, she just cut out all the filler in her schedule. She decided to do that during her sophomore year and then finished an engineering degree early, all due to nixing the ‘standard’ timeline.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for taking the time to describe your experience. I do wonder what it’s like for a teen to buck the system – is it easier to go against society when you are younger or is it just as difficult as when we are older?


      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I honestly think it has everything to do with the information available. If all you hear is that you have one path to do it right and one path to do it wrong… doesn’t offer much room for dissenting opinions….parents want nothing but to see you be “successful” then yeah, you think like the rest.

        It’s when teens start reading and begin to be exposed to different ways of thinking that they start taking things on their own hands.

        It’s not easier to buck the system when younger or older. When you’re a teen the basics of life are provided for you by parents but their approval and the approval of peers has immense weight.

        It’s easier to think for yourself when you’re an adult but you’re on your own if you decide to burn bridges.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        I found it easier to buck the system when I was a teen. Perhaps because I had less patience. That doesn’t mean I ever stopped, but one accumulates baggage over time.

        I finished my bachelor’s degree as a teenager. It was not hard – not hard to leave, not hard to study, not hard to travel.

        Getting a job as a college graduate teenager, now that’s hard.

        It was not hard to buck the system because I thought the system was crap and a waste of my time. I went to a college and told them in many more words that I thought the system was crap and a waste of my time and they accepted me on the spot.

        As an adult I continued to buck the system whenever convenient (and sometimes when it wasn’t). Quitting a six-figure job to take care of his kids is an unconventional choice for a fellow. So is homeschooling.

        It was harder to leave the system behind in my forties than it was in my teens. I stuck with a job for a long time after I didn’t want to be there anymore, much longer than I stayed in high school. Of course, if they paid me good money to suffer through high school, maybe I’d have finished it.

        • MBL
          MBL says:

          I find it much easier now than when younger. For me, I think I didn’t attempt to forge my own path due to a combination of general personality type, living in a relatively small town (45k) in the ’80s, being taught that appearances matter more than anything else, and depression.

          In retrospect, it is incomprehensible to me that, although I had zero qualms about skipping class, I didn’t consider dropping out of school because it “just wasn’t done.” When it came down to suicide seeming like a viable option (except that I couldn’t do that to my family) I left the state to stay with a friend and her family. But it was to go to high school there, not “drop out.”

          I have the ability to buck the system now because it impacts my daughter, not just me. The whole “mama bear” thing is very, very real. And because of what I learned to do for her, I am now able to apply some of that to my personal situations.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            OH, Mama Bear is a very real thing. I have seen one of my friends, the most timid, mild-mannered citizen I have ever known chuck an apple at a car for rolling through a stop sign while she and her kids were walking across the street. So many great anecdotes I could share.

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        I think this answer has a lot to do with someone’s sense of self. Here in the states people bring their own cultures, develop their own time lines, and way of life.

        If you have a stronger core, I think it’s easier to buck the system (see: derek sivers and his education, years of doing this ddifferenty) and not feel negative social effects.

        My sister struggled a lot her first year of college due to this exact thing. She didn’t have supportive parents or anyone saying the world is BS, make it your own it will pay off. She’s discovered that for herself, but it was much harder on her mentally due to ‘missing senior year norms and freshman year norms’ in her words.

        I think it was harder pre Internet to think outside of the box and realize there is another way; John Mayer didn’t write that song for nothing.

      • Melissa
        Melissa says:

        In middle and high school, we were under tremendous pressure to follow a set path that lead to a top tier university. They scared the shit out of us to keep us in line.

        But when I strayed from the proscribed, I began to see that the world kept spinning, even if I didn’t do what my guidance counselor told me to do.

        It’s much easier to buck the system as an adult. Now I know that there aren’t any rules. Everybody is just making it up as best they can.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Interesting that once there was a scandal things quickly moved in your favor.

      My brother took the CA Proficiency Exam at 16 and left school. It’s equivalent to a four year high school diploma. No negative stigma attached to it like the GED.

      I homeschooled my last semester of high school at my request; it was the best school semester of my life. Self-directed learning was definitely my style.

      It’s the whole one-size-fits-all approach once again letting us down. I definitely could have started college at 15. For me, the difference between 15 and 18 wasn’t much, maybe for others it’s a big difference. I agree that teenagers should be allowed to take ownership of their lives.

  6. MBL
    MBL says:

    Along the lines as to whether or not it is socially acceptable to challenge most parents’ decision to send their kids to school, I have a homeschooling t-shirt that I am too scared to wear. I feel that one side or the other might be okay, but the combination may seem pejorative.

    The front says “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Mark Twain
    And the back promotes a local homeschooling organization and website.
    (the shirt in question

    But at least the quote isn’t attributed to Samuel Clemens. :D

    I also don’t know how to make my child more palatable to the parents of school kids. When kids ask her what she does all day she replies “Whatever I want.” which is sort of true. The children’s eyes get big and their parent’s eyes get bigger and then suddenly they have to go. What they don’t know is that while sometimes what she wants to do is watch Phinneas and Ferb all day and other times she wants to read for 8 hours or do math apps or foreign language apps or spend 9 hours at zoo or science museum. Lately she has been into grammar (thank god!) She has finally started asking me to help with spelling and punctuation and we have the most awesome, fun book “Commas are Our Friends.” It has three novellas that are really funny. It is meant for upper middle/high school, but it as more of a The Phantom Tollbooth type thing.

    If the parents are so sure that their kids “Just Love School! They have so much fun seeing their friends!” then what on earth are they worried about? And when asked about how I like homeschooling, I feel obligated to say “Some days are great and others I search the web for schools! (ha ha, no need for you to be jealous…) I don’t hear them saying “Well, she loves seeing her friends, but is bored out of her skull most of the day and homework! don’t get me started! But I just need my me time!” (These are people who could “make it work” if they really wanted to.)

    Sorry to go off the rails, but it really gets to me. I know I could adopt more of a screw you attitude, but I just don’t think that would help things…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I am struck by how similar our experience is to yours. When my kids say “I do whatever I want” the kids and parents both have tons of questions.

      And the parents always need to tell me their kids would hate being at home all day. They tell me their kids would be bored. But it never occurs to them that only a boring person is bored when left to their own devices.

      Not that I would ever say that to a parent. But I think they probably know I’m thinking it.


      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I do wish people would ask more questions with an open mind.

        I am very polite with what I say and how I say it. Unfortunately, I was not blessed with a poker face. And I really am prone to evangelizing in situations when I am pretty sure that the child really needs it and the parent just doesn’t want to do it.

        I have a major inner snark just waiting to get out and really wish I hadn’t read one of the comments on here where the homeschooling parent wanted to say something like “Well, we decided not to institutionalize our children.” Snap!

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Ask any kid what their favorite part of their school day is and it’s recess.

      The 30 minutes they can see their friends.

      The rest is irrelevant.

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I think you are right overall. However my daughter’s least favorite part, at age 6, was recess. She was unable to navigate the social nuances and the fact that the supervision is less direct (they are looking for safety issues) and by different adults than the rest of day. This made for prime bullying time. It just takes one socially gifted jerk to set things down a crappy path.

        Her favorite time was art and reading (when she was allowed to choose what she read.)

        Organized P.E. and less supervised lunch were the next lowest on her list.

        But yeah, you are right.

        • jessica
          jessica says:

          Yeah, my kids favorite time was recess and art.

          Until he started getting beat up by one of the gifted and talented kids with a severe anger management problem and the school cared less.

          I met his mom, and she didn’t care. And then I explained to my son that it’s bad for him because he has a situation like that at the moment, he may be hurting my son physically and that’s not ok, but he’s also hurting emotionally and that’s not ok.

          He wanted to make sure the boy was able to get help after our conversation.

          • MBL
            MBL says:

            I am so sorry you and your son had to endure that.

            Today I asked my daughter about the parts of the science camp she is attending this week and she does like recess. Even though she stung by something today. She really likes all of it, but I was glad to hear that recess was fun.

  7. karelys
    karelys says:

    I am a fan of giving the responsibility back to the people.

    But in a way, how do you hold people responsible for making decisions that they had no idea were even an option. You wouldn’t hold people responsible for not knowing any better in Communist China because the influx of knowledge and ideas is limited. They are only exposed to certain things. So it makes sense that their thinking will be limited to that which they are educated in.

    Same with schooling.

    Parents and kids many times keep making the same mainstream decision because they don’t really know what the alternative is. The idea that homeschooling is weird and anything but school is pandemonium has been ingrained fiercely for decades. It’s very obvious that most people will think that they just have to try harder if they fail rather than they just have to try something different.

    When I was pregnant the first time I had no idea that there were different choices for giving birth. I went through the regular channels and felt frustrated, disappointed, scared, shoved to the side, etc.

    Somehow, by chance, BY CHANCE(!!!) I figured out that there was more than one way to do it. So I threw myself researching my options. Went against the grain. Probably alienated more people than I was comfortable with. I wouldn’t do it differently.

    What strikes me is that it was all by chance that I found out I had choices.

    Same with homeschooling. I found Penelope’s blog by chance. She was featured in Jezebel for that infamous miscarriage tweet.

    If I hadn’t found her I would still probably think that homeschooling is just a weird option for those who are either genius, have learning disabilities, rich kids with uber religious parents, or kids of overprotective parents.

  8. MBL
    MBL says:

    I agree that teenagers have more control than is typically exercised. However, I am not sure how much can be expected of kids who have been indoctrinated their entire lives.

    Unless they formulate an ironclad guaranteed for success plan, most parents would balk at the idea of leaving school. The parent may very well threaten a “tough love for you own good” approach that may well involve financial repercussions. Even if it isn’t as drastic as kicking them out, if it required much in the way of paying rent and expenses, the child would lose many opportunities for internships and being mentored.

    I think a lot more parents would be on board for an early to college plan, but that might not be right for the child.

    PT, did you ever hear back from Alex? The girl from the “How to drop out” post you linked to. is a follow up from the California lawsuit. They “won,” pending appeal. It looks like it was through a pro student group. I had envisioned that is was a group of underachieving rebels who were fighting back. Sadly, per the mother of one of the plaintiffs, one of the issues was that a girl reached the third grade unable to read before a teacher helped. One the one hand I think that is egregious, on the other, some kids (particularly right brainers) are not developmentally ready by that age. It looks like the organization has filed suit in NY now.

    I think this is absolutely an excellent topic for discussion and that the development of the internet has been crucial in helping people research viable options. But I just hope it doesn’t turn into a pushing the kids out of the nest/grow up faster thing rather than supporting them when they are still finding out who they are, who they want to be, and still undergoing crucial brain development in the executive functioning areas.

    I am interested in seeing how this discussion plays out.

    PS, per the comments section on a linked post, I miss Daniel Baskin. Where did he go?

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Funny, I read that old post too and wondered the same thing about Alex. And then I wondered why I had never read that post before, it was such a good one…is still good.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I like that we are doing a whose who of people who have passed through this community.

      I put Alex in touch with Lisa. Lisa is really great dealing with other peoples’ kids. Especially high schoolers. I should probably start a consulting business and hire her out to help parents with their teens. So, anyway, I bet she did a lot more talking to Alex.

      And as for Daniel, I hope I am not saying to much to say that he commented a lot here when he was teaching, and he was appalled by what was going on in school. And then he quit teaching.


      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I like it too.

        I can’t remember if something was said regarding Daniel quitting or I just got an inkling, but I am not at all surprised. But why oh why did he leave here?!? :D

        I love it when Thi comments.

        I hope Alex chimes in with and update.

        And where is MH?

        I just loooove your community. Thanks!!

  9. Laura
    Laura says:

    You ask why teens would take ap classes, I did because of the limited options at my school, they were the most intwresting. Also in high school and for me in college the easier the class, the more busy work. I didn’t really do a lot of homework, but if I am doing 20% of what is assigned I’d much rather be actually thinking instead of rote exercises. And the in class stuff is really interesting. I did my own thing in high school and college but I did it in an unfocused way and now I am paying the price for neither playing the game nor strategizing a different route. My mother was a housewife with a lot of hobbies and she got where she ended by taking opportunities that she just seemed to come across. So my strategy was to do whatever seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately this hasn’t worked out for me as well, and I realize as an adult that she and I had a lot of completely different circumstances. I don’t really regret ap classes though.

  10. Thi
    Thi says:

    Thi here. We retook all the AP tests. Most of the people buckled down and did it. Why? Fear.

    It’s so much easier to do what you’re told and follow the prescribed path. But who ever succeeds by being normal?

    The next part of the homeschooling movement is appealing to the students themselves and getting them to see that it’s not only preferred, but crucial to do things differently in order to succeed.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thi, I love that you reappear in the comments section. It’s fun to have a resident high schooler to educate us about what goes on.


  11. Linda
    Linda says:

    I’ve long believed AP classes are a huge waste of time. If student is ready for college, then go to college!!

    I finished high school a year early. My parents also finished or left a year early, my father to go to WW2. The administration fought me, due to loss of one year of $, until I said I’d leave regardless because the University of California didn’t require the diploma. Then the administrators rolled out the carpet for me to complete early – did not want me in their dropout statistic. This was 1984.

    Now my 15 year old is taking all academic classes at the local community college or via online program at a private university. He takes his electives (including band, French and Spanish) and sports at the high school. He is much happier taking academics at college and I am happy to save $$$$$ on 2 years of college. My state will pay for 2 years of college if started during high school.

    He was going to take western civ online at private university this term but we dropped it because his middle school class on western civ was FAR more comprehensive. So for history I think I’ll have him homeschool and take CLEP tests. I feel like we’re going farther and farther down the rabbit hole but I refuse to have my kids do school simply and purely to jump through the hoop of some bureaucracy. There has to be some inherent value.

    My 18 yo niece graduated high school in June with an AA paid for by Utah. So great to see these early college options, in these times of 50k/year college tuition.

    Do I worry my son will be looking for a job at too young an age? No because he’ll do a masters or PhD after the BA and it will be in a field where demand is high.

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