Tuning out academic competition in high school

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Rachel Kang

STAYING FOCUSED: Seniors Megan Lui (left) and Allison Huang (right) study for a classs together.

Ellen Wang, Viewpoint Editor

High school is a lot. These are the times that try men (and women)’s souls.

You will be challenged in more ways you can imagine, for better or for worse. Take it from me, a second semester senior, if not your parents and teachers.

I’m not here to cite why it’s unhealthy to engage in the rabid comparison culture you’ll all encounter in some shape or form in high school— a number of studies have found an association between academic competition and higher risks of depression and anxiety. Perhaps you’ve already felt the pervasive effects of a destructive system that dominates the classes at Irvine Unified and beyond.

It’s almost dismissable; a sinking feeling of quiet shame when your score didn’t measure up in the asking frenzy of “What’d you get?” after a test is returned; a guilty rush of comfort when someone else performed just as badly.

However, there are a variety of ways to avoid falling down this hole of toxicity. Let us backtrack a bit. What is the point of high school? Of taking these classes, satisfying graduation requirements, getting A’s?

Ask different people from different places, and you’ll get a pretty wide spectrum of answers. From discovering potential career paths to getting into college, gaining social capital to developing work habits, high school is a melting pot of hormonal kids trying to make sense of themselves and their place in the world.

It is all very daunting. But there are some essential things to guide the journey you are about to embark on so you don’t lose sight of what you’re here to do. High school is ultimately a time for exploration, learning and immense growth.

Being vulnerable is incredibly difficult, but having the strength to do so will carry you much further than hiding behind a wall of comfort. One cannot grow when stagnating behind this wall. More on this later.

Take opportunities—or create your own—regardless of what you think others will judge. Take risks (but safety first), because you’ll never be at this precious, vivacious cusp of adulthood again. Try new things, because the worst that can happen is learning it’s not your cup of tea and moving on. Everything is a learning opportunity if you reflect and adjust your perspective accordingly.

Do not engage in an activity because it’s what you think is expected of you or because your peers are doing it. Do not do something because you like the idea of doing it, rather than actually doing it. You will never be content if you live a life that isn’t yours. High school will fly by, and it is not a time for regrets.

Education is a privilege. Having choices in class selection is a privilege, so use it. This will be one of innumerable times you’ll hear someone warn against overburdening yourself with a workload you can’t manage healthily—that is, while balancing your physical, mental and social health.

Yes, you like the idea of stacking on honors classes and extracurriculars—“my resume will be popping!”— but extreme sleep deprivation and three mental breakdowns in one day, feeling trapped in the nightmare you’ve created for yourself, will not be pretty.

Nothing should ever come at the expense of your health; grades and glittering clubs aren’t worth putting your well-being on the line. There is no shame in realizing you cannot handle everything you are signing up for and wisely dropping a few commitments.

There are people who can effectively juggle a number of these kinds of commitments, but it is not a lifestyle for everyone. That being said, a college-prep course is in no way “less than” an honors class. There are haughty honors students out there flaunting their crippling course load, attempting to soothe their own insecurities about their choices as a cry for help.

Comparing yourself to someone with completely different experiences, aspirations, values and perspectives does neither of you justice. None of us have the right to judge others, and the only comparison you need is with previous versions of yourself. Focus inward on self-improvement, but let yourself live. Growth is not a linear process, but a wacky series of dips and tumbles.

One of the most important things one must become comfortable with is seeking help. I struggled (and still do— thanks anxiety) with asking for assistance on things from a concept in class to overwhelming pressure and work crashing down on me, but gradually opening up to aid can be a literal life-saver.

Being vulnerable enough to do so takes courage and comes more easily to some than others, but the support systems will always be there for you when you are ready. Teachers are understanding and care more about your mental state than a missed assignment deadline, so reach out if you need the help they are willing to provide. Professionals are always a good choice, especially when situations become too severe for just peer support, and can help you ground yourself on what really matters.

Learn for the sake of learning, to understand the world around you and what you can do to be a responsible and contributing citizen. That’s what school is for.

Life is not a zero-sum game. School most certainly isn’t. Like Lizzo put eloquently: “If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine.” Support each other, share notes and hold study groups. Two minds are most definitely better than one, and teaching is one of the best ways to master a topic. Listen and learn from each other, and you’ll all come out stronger.

With change and growth, you’ll inevitably outgrow hobbies, commitments and people. Handle such developments with maturity, understanding there was a point in your life where something seemed suitable for you, and you’ve simply moved into a new era that will bring new interests, friends, and experiences.

As you all take on the confusing, awe-inspiring, frustrating and incredible time that is high school, be present for one another. There will be extreme highs and extreme lows and everything in between, and the people who stick out with you for both are ones you’ll want to keep around. You won’t remember a trivial exam grade ten years from now, but the meaningful connections you cultivate are long-lasting.