"We just want you to have a good senior year!"
I hardly heard the words leave my guidance counselor's mouth as I stumbled out of her office. I could barely walk back to my classroom without collapsing. I tried to process what just happened and to make sense of the fear inside me. No such luck. I was a mess of emotions, held together haphazardly by black coffee and teenage angst.
How did high school do this to me?
I'm an 11th-grader at a competitive high school in northern Virginia, home to several of America's richest counties. Northern Virginia is like a factory that produces intelligent and ambitious workers and bureaucrats that go to high school, attend universities, and eventually go on to work in the labyrinth of DC's political entities and law firms. I've fallen victim to this cycle myself. I have dreams of attending the College of William and Mary next year, and then working in the State Department complexes of Washington.
My attendance at a four-year college was never in question, and it was never just an option for me. It was an expectation.
Both my education goals and my career aspirations have been undoubtedly shaped by my upbringing. My community is full of highly educated, affluent people, providing a constant reminder of what I am expected to achieve and accomplish both in my career and in my personal life.
My family is no exception: My parents both have graduate degrees, and my sister is currently pursuing her doctorate in economics. My grandparents have guided me toward universities since I was a little boy, often inquiring in my elementary years which schools and colleges I preferred. (I'm still not sure how they expected a genuine, thoughtful response from a child who hadn't even passed fifth grade.) My attendance at a four-year college was never in question, and it was never just an option for me. It was an expectation, and one that I had to meet in order to remain a viable citizen in my family's eyes.
I went into guidance expecting to sign up for four Advanced Placement classes, and was excited about my potential schedule. At the end of this year, I will have already completed seven AP courses, and the amount of work, stress, and frustration to get me to that point has been immense. I've spent my junior year anxious, sad, and exhausted. I knew there had to be a change.
I had seen my sister burn out during her senior year, after taking a demanding course load. I vividly remember hearing her crying at 2 in the morning over her AP physics lab, and ranting to her friends about her failings in AP Spanish. She arrived at college feeling depleted, exhausted, and academically burnt out. I was determined to avoid the same outcome. I would get through senior year without losing my love of learning and head to college as a happy and prepared young adult.
My counselor had other plans.
"You seem like the type of student that can handle the workload. I think you can handle six APs," she told me as she typed my courses furiously into the scheduling system. "You're doing so well this year, I'm sure you'll be able to succeed in another challenging year."
I smiled hesitantly and thanked her for the nice words. Behind the smile, however, my mind raced with fear. My senior year responsibilities now included taking six college-level classes (with only one non-AP class in my schedule), applying to universities, running three after-school clubs, volunteering, and commuting two hours to school each day. My smile must have eroded fairly quickly after I started to think about the challenges ahead of me, as my counselor looked sympathetically at me and said, "But most importantly, I want you to have a good senior year. I want you to have fun. It's your last year here, after all!"
And in that moment, I finally understood the origins of my stress: The adults in my community have coerced me into stressing myself to exhaustion. Grown-ups see me as an academic machine, continually spurting out answers and assignments, rather than a human being with emotional and mental needs.
Our elders never fail to remind my friends and me about the perils of the "real world." They warn us that colleges have never been harder to get into, jobs have never been more challenging to find, and financial security is increasingly difficult to attain. Adults telling us about these hazardous conditions only makes us feel the need to work harder, since success seems further and further out of reach with each generation.
Some nights, after I've been working on homework for hours and I have a migraine from exhaustion, I turn on the blue Christmas lights strung around my room. I lie on the floor and watch them flash and dim, resting my eyes for a few moments before going back to work. It is only a brief break, but one I value tremendously. One night, my mother walked in my room and instantly recognized how upset I was.
"You need to find balance, Ethan," she told me as she sat on the floor beside me. "What you're doing isn't healthy. You need to find a middle ground between your life and your work."
My instinctive response was to brush away her suggestion and attribute her kind words as a misunderstanding of my situation. Her high school experience was radically different from mine, after all; she experienced far less academic stress and enrolled in less challenging courses. Still, I eventually realized she was right. Being taught to find the middle ground between stress and fun is a skill that many teenagers do not have, and it is one that high schools need to provide for their students.
High school is supposed to prepare adolescents for their careers and for college. It is not meant to destroy students' self-esteem.
My generation faces two conflicting lifestyles. On one hand, we're expected to be incredible students who wholly dedicate ourselves to part-time jobs, homework, and other school responsibilities. Adults warn us of the dangers of slacking off during high school, urging us to push ourselves to our limits in hopes of success later in life. Balance is seen as weakness, or as an option for students who can't handle the pressure. This belief is harmful in and of itself, but it's only part of the problem.
But with the rise of social media in my generation, the pressure to go out with friends and to fit in has remained a constant factor in the lives of high schoolers. Even amongst increased rates of stress and academic intensity, teenagers are still compelled to be social creatures. It is very challenging for teenagers to blend these two lifestyles together effectively, and a balance between them is nearly impossible to achieve.
I understand that I could have far worse problems in my life. I'm an incredibly lucky person to live in a region with such exceptional academics and ample opportunities to pursue my interests. My purpose for writing this article was not to complain about stress, or disparage the opportunities that I have been fortunate enough to receive.
Still, something is not right: The friends I used to see fulfilled and eager are now miserable. We used to be driven, ambitious individuals, but after three years of exhausting work, high school has left us pessimistic, stressed, and petrified for our future.
High school is supposed to prepare adolescents for their careers and for college. It is not meant to destroy students' self-esteem in fierce academic environments, or to obliterate their love of learning through overly intense schedules. I don't want to look back as an adult and regret wasting four years solely on busy work and sleepless nights, but I also don't want to look back on four years spent dawdling idly with my friends.
If I could design my own high school experience, I'd strive to incorporate balance between these two lifestyles. I'd be able to get more than five hours of sleep each weeknight, and I wouldn't feel compelled to sacrifice my health for good grades. I'd be able to spend time genuinely connecting with my friends, instead of engaging in short conversations where all we do is complain about our mutual misery. I'd feel challenged by my classes, but not to the extent where I feel undue anxiety and fear about my academic performance.
I recognize that it's important to have at least some stress in high school. I don't advocate students entering the workforce or their college with little stress management skills or low preparedness for obstacles ahead. But there has to be a balance between work and relaxation, or high schools run the risk of depleting their students' energy and ambition long before they are able to apply their skills in the "real world." Finding that balance is the key to success, and I urge students to find their own balance, regardless of external or internal pressures. God knows I'm searching for it too.
Ethan Brown is a 16-year-old high school junior in northern Virginia. He spends his time toiling over homework, running his school's Gay Straight Alliance and Model United Nations team, and traveling with his friends and family.