There’s something inherently flawed about the concept of “high school.” I mean, who ever thought it would be a good idea to gather a bunch of teenagers in one building, pile on boatloads of pressure, and set them adrift in a competitive and volatile sea of college applications? It’s inevitable that students should often find themselves tired, stressed, or even hopeless. I know I sure did.
There is no one issue that stands out to me as the quintessential challenge of my four years at Harriton Senior High. Rather, it was the constancy of the every-day challenges that wore me down week after week. Perhaps my greatest personal challenge was my perception of Lost Time.
As someone who has always had a variety of interests and hobbies–not to mention a tendency to leap at any opportunity to explore some new, eccentric adventure–I resented the time commitment that high school necessitated. I hated waking up early, the long winter months spent slogging to the bus stop in 20 degree weather and faint starlight overhead. I glared out the window as the Sun rose midway through second period. “Why does the Sun get to sleep in while here I’ve already spent an hour memorizing the battles of the Civil War?” I asked myself.
At 2:40pm, when class let out, I inevitably had debate practice. Or tennis practice. Or a meeting for the school newspaper. Or one of the other dozen things it seemed were crucial to my future success as a human being. I arrived home on the “late bus” at 6pm. I took a shower, ate dinner, and got started on my homework. Sometimes I got to sleep by 11. Sometimes 1.
I almost never got around to reading that novel I’d started for fun, or playing that board game I promised my brother I’d play, or watching the TV show that somehow EVERYBODY ELSE had already seen. “How do they have time?” I asked myself, trying to fall asleep at 2a.m. while the earliest birds whistled merrily outside. “How does anybody have time for anything other than school?”
Weekends were for SAT studying and getting ahead on weekly homework, not to mention tennis practice, newspaper-article writing, visiting colleges, prepping for the upcoming debate tournament, learning to drive, and on a good weekend, catching up on some much-needed sleep.
I began to feel lost amidst the incessant onslaught of To-Do’s. Though I found some of my schoolwork interesting and valuable, for the most part I resented what felt like arbitrary memorization tasks and tedious assignments with an emphasis on repetition.
My extracurriculars, which in middle school had been little more than opportunities to hang out with friends and become more engaged with my education, transformed into stress-inducing chores. All the while, I no longer had the free time to explore my personal hobbies and passions. I barely even had time to maintain my physical healthy.
A brief (but relevant) tangent: When I was little, maybe 7 or 8 years old, there was one week where the world’s population of cicadas descended on my backyard. Cicadas are locust-like insects that live underground, but come up every 17 years to mate. They were everywhere. You couldn’t get from the house to the car without creating a “floor-is-lava” type dance around their little, scuttling bodies. But the worst part was the molting. Like many bugs and reptiles, cicadas shed their outer skins periodically to make room for a new layer. Cicada skins, though, are not like snake skins. They’re not floppy and soft. Instead, they’re hard, translucent brown shells that perfectly retain the shape of their former occupants. They stand up, eyes unblinking, stuck to whatever surface the bug was once crawling on. But they’re empty. If you look closely you can see straight through them to the brown-tinted world on the opposite side.
At my lowest points in high school, I would remember the cicada shells. They looked like real bugs, but they were empty. Colorless. Indistinguishable from one another. That’s how I felt. And sometimes that feeling felt like loneliness, and sometimes it felt like fear–fear that after all of this Lost Time I’d really Lost Myself.
In retrospect, I think a lot of that was the overdramatic, teenage artist in me taking advantage of an opportunity to be sullen and dark. Because what’s a good artist without a healthy dose of cynicism and the persistent belief that “nobody understands me”? In reality, and having since shared my experience with many of my college peers, I think nearly everybody understood me.
Sure, none of our experiences were exactly the same, but when it comes down to it we were all struggling to undergo a significant process of self-discovery while simultaneously coping with complex and diverse stressors. And it all took place in an adolescent bubble of popping pimples and sprouting pubic hairs.
Though it felt tough at times, I have to admit I learned a lot from high school. Maybe not from the strings of rote memorization (unless you go on to major in history, you probably won’t remember the exact sequence of the battles of the Civil War), but from the entire experience itself.
High school is a time to grow up, and it’s a time to challenge yourself. It’s a time to learn how your mind and your body react to specific challenges, and to figure out the best way to create positive growth based on those reactions.
I can’t tell you how to survive high school–only you can do that. However, I can tell you not to shy away from challenges. They are what prepare you for life after school and, believe it or not, those very stressors that seem so self-reducing, are some of the best tools you have to learn about yourself. And when you get into one of those ruts, remember: you are not alone. You will feel better soon. You’re not a cicada shell. You’re not even a cicada. No matter how monotonous the days may get, or how much homework is piling up on all sides, you’re still you.