[Piece available at https://issuu.com/localwolves/docs/septwentynine ; page 34]
“A younger version of my mother got an early start on preparing a younger version of me for all that was to come if I stuck with the grandiose goals I had created. It was our little ritual — every week on the long drive home from my violin lesson, I would speak fluently with my bright-eyed mother on topics that came to include such words and phrases as “ivy league,” “standardized test scores,” and “extracurriculars”. This began at age seven. I lived for these conversations.
My mother, well-read, told me in advance about the harsh reality: academia is not relaxing, and would not be for me, despite my enthusiasm for learning and my ambition as a student. Entering high school, I later learned, is like being thrown to the beasts. Academia is competition.
It’s been said time and time again, shoved in our faces and yelled in our ears as the self-love movement picks up speed within our generation: “comparison is the thief of joy”. And, yes, it’s true; I’m sure we’ve all experienced feeling a little worse after sizing ourselves up against someone we see as “superior”. But academia is competition, and competition is an open invitation for comparison. We line ourselves up in track lanes and on judging stages to be placed in order relative to our fellow competitors — first to last, best to worst, most deserving to least deserving.
Our generation is hardworking. We are reachers, doers, getters. It may seem natural to resent those who could potentially be honored instead of you, making your hard work for naught. We resent those in our immediate academic environment that pose any type of threat. Maybe this is why a friend’s better homework grade (which, in my mind, could potentially lead to a better test score, a better letter grade, a better GPA, a better chance of his or her being accepted and my being rejected) used to have the power to make my stomach churn with dramatic force. I had never been very competitive before high school, yet I found myself becoming reluctant to help even my close friends in academic matters. Selfish, isn’t it?
This isn’t just me, though — this applies to the better part of our generation. After we notice the initial feeling of unease, we start to push. Staying after school, staying in from social activities, staying up late and raising our caffeine intake accordingly. The independent endeavors that we previously took pride in, whether creative work or otherwise, begin to fade as we lose time for them. After a while, we become completely self-driven in our academic performance. And driving yourself to work hard is great, until you accidentally start simultaneously driving your own well-being into the ground.
Children yearn for knowledge. At some point I realized that my own love for learning, though temporarily hidden by academia, couldn’t have been completely erased. I have found a way to work within the system. I now mind myself and only myself, because I know that all I need to do is work hard and success will find me. I read more of what I want, and I study consciously and healthily for intellectual gain as well as a letter grade. I have aligned my extracurricular activities and service projects with what I’m passionate about, what makes my heart pound, what I love — and they love me back. And I love myself, now, for what I’ve done for my world, my community, and myself.
I understand now that this was the original intention. I don’t think academia ever wanted to kill anyone. I was supposed to be learning and “getting involved” with vivacious passion this whole time, beginning as a seven-year-old in my mother’s Prius to now, as a senior at my high school gates. The darker side of academic pressures distracted me and my generation for a little while. But, after stepping back and taking a few deep breaths and a long look at things, we couldn’t be distracted from what really matters.