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.

Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

*This is the first of many book reviews I hope to write. I want to write book reviews to become a more critical reader and to better connect what I’m reading to my personal experiences and the world at large. These reviews will contain spoilers and are all my personal opinions.*

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I’ll admit, the first time I “read” this book, I listened to it with x1.5 speed for the first ~100 pages and Sparknoted the rest. I didn’t really get into the plot, seeing that I dismissed Raskolnikov as being strange, depraved, narcissistic, and exceedingly arrogant. His theory that some people were just born extraordinary and were thus exempt from all moral justice didn’t appeal to me—I had gone through the nihilistic and egotistic phase in life, and came out realizing that no one person is above another. He was so delusional, and though I understood his motives on a rational level, I never saw his plight in an emotional way.

Despite this terrible initial impression, I chose to do Crime and Punishment as one of my rereads in my English class (mostly because of my guilt for never actually reading the book and partly because I read some raving reviews on Goodreads and was intrigued by how people found value in it).

Senioritis hit me pretty hard, and I finally sat down with a resolve to read the book after coming to terms that I only had three days left to write an essay on it. It was hard to get through the first hundred pages—I know it’s supposed to be a page-turner, but honestly, I was quite bored. Several times, I questioned why I didn’t just choose a shorter, less tedious book to write about (and one that I had already read and had pages of notes on). Raskolnikov got on my nerves and was remarkably two-dimensional for someone who commits murder. The book seemed to try to be deep without really being too philosophical.

It was only in the later half of the book when I started getting really into the novel. As I started reading slower—finally absorbing the book—I began to feel real sympathy for all of the characters: Raskolnikov, Dounia, Sonia, Katerina, Marmeladov, and even Svidrigailov. Raskolnikov’s murders, though the central focus of the novel, weren’t what I found the most interesting—it was the complexity of the side characters and what drove them to do such strange and unexpected things.

I saw Katerina’s dignity as she spent her last rouples on an excessive dinner that was well beyond her means—how she danced on the street and proclaimed her ties to aristocracy. Instead of dismissing her as overly proud and shallow, I pitied and respected her. I saw Marmeladov as a good-for-nothing drunk of a father who let his daughter sell herself to prostitution while he sucked her money away, but I also saw his deep love for his family and respected him for that. I saw the parallels between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov, and between Sonia, Dounia, and even Lizaveta. I loved and admired Dounia—her strength, her unwavering love and devotion for Raskolnikov, and simple practicality. Though he was a vile man, I even sympathized with the despicable Svidrigailov, and the motivation behind his suicide fascinated me. As I continued reading, I saw the layers of the book and realized that these subplots and characters, interwoven together, were what made this book a powerful masterpiece.

There were so many things I could have written about for my essay, and had I more time, I may have thought more deeply about how poverty affected Katerina or about the role of women in the novel. (Instead, I wrote about similarities and significance of Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov’s dreams—which were interesting in their own right, but not what gripped me when reading the novel.)

In all, though this book was extremely tedious (and had way too many long names), it was worth the effort. It was only when I let my guard down—when I turned off my rationalizing, judgmental brain and started to feel sympathy for the characters—when I actually started to comprehend the greatness of the novel. (Ironically, I suppose that is how Raskolnikov also became redeemed—through abandoning his over-rationalized theory.) This book challenged me in unexpected ways and made me think more deeply about poverty, justice, and morality. I’m thinking of reading this book again—this time letting it wash over me and without an impending deadline for an essay—and I’ll have no doubt that I will grow to appreciate it even more.

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.

History Class Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

I find it surprising that AP US History is quickly becoming my favorite class this year. And that’s saying a lot, since all of my other classes are great and history class was always by far my most dreaded class.

I always knew that history was an interesting subject, but up until this year, it was taught in a way that was incredibly boring and disparaging of the subject. We would mostly do pure busywork, and only occasionally would I be truly interested in what we were learning. Now, after almost every class period, I walk out of the classroom thinking, Wow, who knew history could be this fascinating? I think school should be a place where I spend my time getting my mind blown rather than counting down the minutes until class is over, and I’m glad that this course is allowing me to do the latter. (Actually, I feel like APUSH would be more interesting if it covered some areas in more depth and increased class discussions, but I still think it’s significantly more interesting than any other history course I’ve taken.)

The main difference this year is that we’re looking beneath the surface to ask the Why and How. In all of my past history courses, we focused more and the Who, What, When, and Where. But since we learn the facts outside of class for homework, we get to spend class actually synthesizing and analyzing the information we learn at home. Taking this course made me realize how heavily history is based on cause-and-effect and why it’s so important to learn. It taught me that history is a truly beautiful map and a complex, interwoven, and fascinating story.

Knowledge is a tree, and in the past, my knowledge of history and politics was largely based off of the media and articles I read. These “little leaves” of information never gave me a complete understanding of how the world actually worked. Rather, this information, when taken alone, contorts our views on reality, giving us a false understanding of the world around us. To truly “know” any piece of information (in any subject), we must comprehend the whole tree, down to its roots, and understand how every part of the tree contributes to its overall structure. This is why we study history: in order to maneuver in the world we live in, we must also understand the roots of where we come from.

Another reason I am starting to love history is because it simultaneously emphasizes the importance of the little details and the big picture. I know people complain when we have to memorize “trivial details,” but it is these little details that makes history so interesting. And really, how detailed must details be to be considered “details”? Because for us, we consider things to be details when they make smaller impact on the outcome, but for people back then, those details were everything. Just like poetry, photography, science, politics, and pretty much any subject you can think of, it is these nuances that create substance. It’s not just the momentous decisions in our lives that define us, but the day-to-day details that build us up and determines our destiny.

I also find it fascinating how you can see that each culture had a prevalent mindset, or way of thinking, and how this mindset affected people’s actions. And I realized that it’s easy to see other cultures’ mindsets and how different they are between cultures, but it’s hard to see our own culture, simply because we’re so blinded by it. So I guess history teaches us how brainwashed we all are by society and allows us to judge the mindset of our culture against those in the past. It also teaches us about the fluidness of mindsets and how the basic beliefs we accept without question are not what have always been or will be.

I feel that at my school (or at least around the people I interact with on a daily basis), there is a definite devaluation of humanities classes. And I find it sad, because although I want to become an engineer and/or scientist when I grow up, I find that the humanities and the “soft skills” we learn are incredibly important in building character and teaching us how to think with different perspectives. These are skills that are vital not only for society but also for internal happiness, which is arguably all that really matters.

On a larger scale, I think it’s important for students to take a step back and understand the relevancy of what we’re learning, and how the subject ties into other seemingly unrelated disciplines. It’s our obligation as students to try to see the value in the topics we learn because the more we comprehend the importance of what we learn, the more we realize how miraculous our world is.