Reflections on High School

At my parents’ cajoling, I ate dinner with some really adorable incoming high schoolers a few weeks ago to give them advice. One of the kids just came from China two years ago; the other came four years ago. They were full of potential, yet they didn’t have anyone to guide them, to be their mentor.

I’m so grateful to have an older sister—not to mention loving parents and wise grandparents—that have helped me find my own direction. Honestly, a little bit of advice goes a long way. Just knowing what courses to take, what clubs to join, and how to study can be the difference between excelling and being mediocre.

It breaks my heart to know that there are so many people around the world who don’t have the same opportunities, who aren’t reaching their potential. I don’t know what one’s full potential is, or if it’s ever attainable, but I do think that everyone should at least have the opportunity to be the best version of themselves.

In these four years of high school, I am most proud that most of my decisions were not enforced upon me—I took the classes I wanted to take, not because I felt like I needed to, or because my parents wanted me to. I did the things I wanted to do. When I failed a test, it was because of my own bad habits. When I aced an exam, it was because I pushed myself to do so. My faults, my own. In this way, I take ownership of my life.

Yet, leaving high school gives me a tremendous sense of relief. Though I tried to take control of my life, I also spent a large part of high school jumping through hoops that were created by others. Taking the ACT. Taking SAT Subject Tests. AP exams. Maintaining good grades. As I enter the next phase in my life, I want to jump through fewer hoops made by others, and instead, do things on my own volition.

My advice to high schoolers are the following:

  • Get enough sleep. (I have yet to follow this advice, but I’m working on it…) But seriously, sleep is not for the weak. We are weak without sleep.
  • It’s better to have a few friends who care about you—who you would do anything for, and who would do anything for you—than to have a multitude of friends who don’t really care. Find friends who are authentic, who bring out the best in you, and who you deeply respect. In many ways, this helped me escape from the competitive Gunn environment that I find toxic and overwhelming.
  • Figure out the why in every class you take, every action you make. Find out what you value. Find out who you are. Find out what your pitfalls are. Self-knowledge may be the most important trait in success and will help determine your priorities. Be deliberate.
  • Aim for a solid A in every class. That way, you have some buffer if you feel like slacking off at the end of the semester. It’s so much easier to start well than to catch up.
  • Take initiative, show up, and do good work. This is surprisingly rare and can get you far in life.
  • Don’t (or at least try not to) give a crap about what other people think/do/say. You are your own person.
  • Romantic relationships are overrated, and honestly quite distracting. Instead, foster close relationships with your family and friends. Focus on being the best version of yourself—the rest will come later. And if it does come, don’t force it.
  • To get into an “elite” college, my best advice is to differentiate yourself. Do something really unique and/or do something really well. Develop your story and find your theme. Be someone you admire and respect.
  • Prioritize. These priorities may change over time and may be circumstantial, but whatever they are, put your heart into them.
  • You’ll never feel ready for research, a leadership position, taking a risk, etc., so just do it. It’s okay to doubt yourself, but don’t let that stop you (especially if you’re female: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/).
  • Develop self-confidence. It took me a long time to realize what self-confidence is: it’s knowing that you are different. Not better or worse. Just special. Hold yourself to high standards.
  • Make stress your friend (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcGyVTAoXEU). Learn how to deal and respond to it.
  • Question authority—rules aren’t always meant to be kept. Also, know that adults can be pretty nonsensical and even immature at times.
  • Zoom out. Think about philosophy, of why we’re here. Remember our insignificance. Think about community and the world at large. Think about what you mean to your parents, and what your parents mean to you.
  • Develop a growth mindset. You have more power than you think and, at a young age, more freedom than you know.

Reflection on School

* This will be part of a series of posts on education (since I have a ton of thoughts about this topic, having spent a lot of time in school). This post will mainly focus on my own experiences in the education system while a future post will be a more general critique of the educational system in the US. There will probably be some overlap and a lot of ranting.

I have no doubt learned a lot from school, and I’m deeply grateful to learn from teachers who genuinely care about their students and love what they’re teaching. As a student from one of the top public high schools in America, I really should have no reason to complain. I know many people would do anything to receive the quality of education that I get, and I am incredibly lucky to have all the opportunities I have. Despite this, there are a ton of flaws I see in my own experience with the educational system.

Back in the elementary school days, I loved school. I went to an amazing elementary school with compassionate teachers and kind peers. I got to do projects on dogs, learn about the Gold Rush, make a paper maché of California, do book reports, and more. I definitely didn’t feel like I was at my intellectual potential, but I did learn a lot about being a good person. However, when middle school rolled around, I found myself being extremely bored. God, did middle school have a ton of busy work. If I learned anything from doing the busy work in middle school, it was how to spend the least amount of time and effort completing assignments. There were a few years when I felt unfulfilled in math class, when history class consisted of answering worksheets and not really learning history, when my understanding of science stagnated. Although I still loved learning, I lost sight of the larger picture and what the point of education was. In hindsight, I wish I were homeschooled in middle school or at least took advantage of online courses in math.

Last year, I took a really fun math class (taught by an amazing teacher). We learned about eigenvalues and eigenvectors, group theory, types of infinities, probability using matrices, and more cool stuff. Many days, I would walk out of the class with my mind blown. That was when I realized that high school wasn’t just something I had to complete in order to get to the fun in college. I realized that I wanted high school to be a place where I would get my mind blown every day. I wanted a place that could challenge my beliefs, to teach me that everything I knew before was false. I wanted a place that excited me. The saddest part was, I realized a lot of my time in school was not spent that way — not getting my mind blown, not being excited. And it’s not the teacher’s fault if people don’t feel challenged — after all, it’s a lot of work to teach thirty kids with different learning styles and paces at once. The information itself was interesting, no doubt — it just wasn’t individualized enough.

Doing well in school has been something I expected from myself, but I don’t necessarily see that as a good thing. I’ve learned how to follow rules, almost to a fault. I became an excellent sheep, as William Deresiewicz would say. I cared about my grades too much, to the point of stressing out whenever I got an A-minus. And to what end? Does learning how to follow rules actually help in the “real world”? Not particularly. In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, the main character, Gene, said that he did better in school than his friend because his friend cared too much about learning. This offhand remark has stuck with me ever since and has made me more conscious about the purpose of school. I realized that I wasn’t courageous enough to disregard busy work and fail in things I didn’t particularly find useful. The irony — who thought doing well in school meant compromising one’s passion for learning? Now, I’m learning to balance: following the rules enough to do well, but not enough to compromise my excitement for school.

Most of the people who attend my school care a lot about what college they attend. While I’m glad that we see the importance in college, it can also get unhealthy. We’re caught in a push and pull, with everyone saying different things. There’s the school administration (or perhaps it was just that one administrator), who tried to convince us at every assembly that “college doesn’t really matter in the end, because I went to a not-so-good college, but look at how successful I am now!”. Then there are Asian moms who think that college is the only thing that matters (not trying to perpetuate stereotypes on Asian moms, but it’s probably true). The truth is in the middle. What a lot of people don’t understand is that college is merely a means to an end, not an end to a means. College is just a stepping stone: an important one at that, and one that will change you forever, but just a stepping stone.

You know all of those people who say that high school “doesn’t matter,” that you don’t start living until you graduate? They’re dead wrong. I think the most empowering thing I learned in high school is that you don’t have to wait to do what you love and become the best version of yourself. I’m still working on internalizing that, but I feel like a lot of high schoolers get deluded into thinking that they can only be their true selves after they graduate high school — that life starts after high school. But our lives started when we were born, and won’t stop until we die (what a revelation, right?). So do what you want to do, because this is your life. (Listen to No Such Thing by John Mayer, which touches on this subject!)

No one really tells you what the point of education is. We’re expected to go through it, without ever questioning why we’re spending most of our lives sitting in desks and listening to our teachers, taking tests every week. But I think the only way to truly learn and appreciate school is to question and critique the system. In the end, grades, test scores, etc., are just motivation to build character and aren’t what truly matters. What matters most is the character you build and the wisdom you acquire.